An Afternoon of Cowboys

My friend Fred Crane told me the Dubois, Idaho rodeo would be like “nothing [I’d] ever seen before.”

Driving the hour-and-a-half it takes to get to the 670-person town from the Idaho/Wyoming border, I understand the “nothing” part.

Between the Grand Teton mountain range and Dubois, there’s a whole lot of nothing. Clark County, for which Dubois serves as the county seat, is home to only 860 souls, amounting to one person for every two square miles. It’s the rare, good kind of nothing, though, that clears your mind to think without boring you to tears.

For someone who doesn’t know it, Dubois itself seems like a sleepy, nothing town. Unless, of course, it’s rodeo day. Then Dubois is shut down, more deserted than ever, and a spark is lit on the edge of town at the Thomas-Harn Arena.

Fred had told me the rodeo is “about as western as it gets.” Fred would know. He was announcing this rodeo, and he’s been a staple performing what he calls with a grin “the three e’s” – educating, entertaining, and informing –  at heaps of other rodeos in big cities and small ones throughout the west for decades.

The Dubois Ranch Rodeo has been a bi-annual affair for some 60 years. I make it to the September edition, the Eric Hoggan Memorial Rodeo, honoring “all our loved ones, past and present,” that was also dedicated to Fred Crane, who is suffering from terminal cancer.

You’d never guess the veteran rodeo announcer was sick if all you heard from far-up in the crow’s nest was his cheeky commentary and one-liners – fired off quick as a whip – to his son and partner in co-announcing crime, Cache Crane (How’s that for a rodeo name?!). The tributary posters, shirts, and koozies plastered with “Living the Dream,” Fred’s catch phrase, are all over the arena and in the stands.

“I guess we’re here,” Fred says bluntly as the mule-drawn wagon stops abruptly in the middle of the arena where he’s to be honored. An emcee credits Fred with the rodeo’s motto, “This is where the real cowboys come to play.” I can attest that from where I sit, there’s not a non-cowboy or girl in sight.

A friend who accompanied me and I are the only people I can see not wearing a hat and boots. A handful even sport spurs (though I saw them get closer to the beer stand that day oftener than to any horse). That doesn’t stop us from partaking in two-dollar Coors Lights and absorbing the local culture, some of which lands in my “barley pop” when a bucking bronc makes a ruckus right on the fence. I wouldn’t normally finish a beer that had a fly in it, but at the DuBois Rodeo, it seems the natural thing to do.

This rodeo is the hot, dusty real-deal. It’s hard to get to and hard to forget. Distant mountains, hazy this time of year from wildfire smoke, set a quixotic background scene. It feels like we’ve stumbled into a family reunion, where all your relatives are ranch hands and some double as recurring characters on “Hee Haw.” There are big belt buckles, faded, Skoal-ringed Wranglers, pearl snaps, country music you’d never hear on the radio, and some of the most impressive mustaches I’ve ever seen.

At one point a tumbleweed appears feet from my foot. The little kids do their mutton bustin’, clinging to the “wooly mammoths” for dear life, only to fall off instantly and pop back up on their feet, rising to not much higher than the sheep themselves.  A few cowboys are launched from their livestock and land outside of the fence, mixing with the crowd. They’re heckled playfully to climb back on over, and one walks the whole, long, sad way back around to the shoots.

Fred and Cache muse during lulls in the action about how come there’s so many Mormon kids? “A long six months of winter with nothin’ to do, Freddy,” Cache declares knowingly. “You get pretty good at a couple things,” Fred agrees with a wink in his voice.

Meandering to the booth for one last beer, stepping over manure piles that have, curiously, somehow managed to migrate outside the arena and settle in the path of spectators, I strike up a conversation with a man who turns out to be the county sheriff. We talk about guns and people we both know and decide to be friends.

I want to get back before dark, so we head out, skipping the steak fry and dancing that concludes the rodeo. As nothingness again takes over, scenes from the western spectacle replay in my mind, and as Dubois gets farther behind, I wonder if it was all imagined. Did we escape to some kind of Cowboy Narnia? Time travel to a chapter of “Smoky the Cowhorse”? Get bucked into a scene from “Bonanza”?

Then it dawns on me that the whole affair was a dream. We had lived Fred’s dream – the one he’d been seeking and living since he first moseyed west some 40 years ago.

This article was originally published by The Teton Valley News.