Experience the Calgary Stampede
The tent, two stories with at least four bars, a stage and dance floor in full swing, was hot. Hot with the heat of a full day of scorching sun beating down on it and with the hundreds of dancing bodies draped in plaid and denim, feet clad in cowboy boots.
After spending as much time as we could in the tent, our faces flushed and the drinks not refreshing enough to cool them, we wandered out into the open air. People milled around in the night, Calgary’s atmosphere chilling enough to run a shiver down the spine after the sun set, even after the day burned so bright.
But let’s take a moment here.
Once upon a time, I’ve been told, when Canmore Alberta was a newly formed mining town an hour and a half from Calgary, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police showed up and described the general atmosphere as ‘explosive rowdiness.’ This seems likely, in a town of mining men and no proper law enforcement, I would guess.
Now I’m not saying that the Calgary Stampede’s atmosphere could be described as ‘explosive rowdiness,’ but the city does shut down for ten days in July to throw, as we like to call it, ‘The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.’ And like the miners in beautiful Canmore, there’s an essence of the old west in the air, and probably – this is just conjecture – a lot of plaid. In the spirit of ‘explosive rowdiness,’ Calgarians let loose from their fairly respectable selves and unleash western alter egos who stand by songs like ‘One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,’ and ‘Save a Horse Ride a Cowboy’, songs that often play out in the tents that the major clubs put up around the city.
The Calgary Stampede, which started in 1912, is first and foremost a rodeo, and one of the biggest events in Canada. It’s the world’s richest rodeo, drawing all the best competitors, so you can sit and watch cowboys and cowgirls from around the globe compete in barrel racing, steer wrestling, bull riding, bareback, tie-down roping, and saddle bronc.
Then, of course, there are the chuckwagon races, a pastime unique to and loved in the Canadian Prairies. There’s something exhilarating about sitting in the grand stand and watching the best thoroughbred teams race around the track as their drivers balance precariously on wagons, flying at breakneck speeds. It’s something like going to the horse races, though with a lot more cowboy hats and risk.
And after watching the chucks, with all its reckless, thrilling ruggedness, there’s the Grandstand Show. A series of performances play out (which once included a man who created lightning) and always includes The Young Canadians, weirdly non-cringe inducing singing children. Every night of Stampede, the show ends in fireworks that dance across the sky, flashes of man-made brilliance that celebrate living.
If singing children don’t make you clap or laugh at their adorableness, there’s a sea of music elsewhere. Yes, there’s a lot of country music, which may for some still be cringe inducing, but that’s not all that’s on offer. Great Canadian bands, like Mother Mother, The Dudes, Tokyo Police Club, and The Sheepdogs show up. They often station themselves at the Coke Stage, with people sitting along the edges of the space, others packed together so tightly, trying to immerse themselves so deeply into the music that it fills half their lungs.
On the opposite end of the grounds, in the Indian Village, there’s pow-wow music. Just head for the tipis. Calgary sits on Treaty 7 territory, which is one of eleven land agreements that the First Nations signed with the British Crown, and so all the tribes in the area show up. And they bring with them all the best dancers and regalia, splashed with vibrant colours, decorated with elegant feathers and a million precious beads. You can watch as the dancers compete, the drumming ode to the heartbeat of Mother Earth, the dances meant to heal or to train warriors, to celebrate the pride of the nations, and always to bring people together.
But back to the country music. Nashville North, a venue on the grounds, plays country music all day long. Headliners play at the Saddledome, which this year includes Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band. I’ve only ever heard of how all that goes down, but I can imagine that unlike the club’s tents, it’s a steady stream of country crooning rather than every fifth song. Regardless, country music is everywhere, like a web weaving the city together. It makes it way onto radio stations that usually ignore it, and suddenly people who usually grind to electronica are two stepping.
I’m not usually the biggest fan of country music. I prefer a different assortment of notes. There are upsides to everything though, and two stepping is it. After all year, dancing in the tight masses grinding together in clubs, there’s something refreshing about being spun around the dance floor, flying away and back to your partner, being guided through the steps, or guiding another through them. The better the partner, the better it gets. I’ve promised one dance before, only to get lost in the arms of a great dancer, finding my way back to my friends when the country changed out to top 40. All for a relatively simple dance.
Besides the rodeo and the dancing, you can find free breakfasts every morning if you try, play festival games and ride festival rides, eat festival food like the scorpion pizza and almost everything imaginable deep fried. You can watch cowboys and firefighters compete against each other, climbing poles for charity and, of course, for our collective benefit because I don’t know a woman who wouldn’t want to see that. You can watch crazy schemes come into play, like last year when a man strapped himself into a lawn chair and tied himself to enough balloons so he could float over the grounds. And who knows, if you take a chance, you may fall in love.
Or maybe not.
In the chill night air outside the tent, music pulsing behind us, we wandered among all the shiny cowboys, their clothes too clean to be the real thing, drinks still in hand. A man approached my friend, not quite dressed in the uniform western wear, and took her face in his hands. “I have nothing to lose!” he exclaimed, before going in for a kiss.
My friend pushed the man back. “What are you doing?” she asked, one hand still grasping her drink tightly.
“It’s just you’re so beautiful,” was his sheepish response. His friends sniggered in the background, pulling him away as he stumbled on his words.
We laughed as they left, a little stunned and fully amused, our voices rising and crashing into the music and sounds of the crowd.