My siblings and I are members of the last generation to grow up immersed in America’s mythology: the cowboys in the Great American West. [That’s me, Leah, and Matt with the six-gun in 1961] Between my father’s great love for horses and 4 out of 5 TV shows being Westerns (even the test pattern had an Indian Chief on it), we were primed as cowboy wannabes. I asked for a lariat and a bullwhip for Christmas when I was a kid and Santa brought them both. I could never get the lasso to work, and my whip-cracking sessions invariably ended with the second time I hit myself in the ear. I tried knife-throwing, too, but my results were pretty haphazard. In those days before the internet and instructional videos, tutelage in these arcane skills was hard to come by. As a kid I didn’t have the coordination and persistence to figure it out for myself.
Back when he was in high school, my brother Matt became passionate about roping. He was mentored by Brett Baker (whose father, Dr. Bill Baker, founded Kennett Veterinary Clinic). Initially it was all about catching calves from horseback. He practiced constantly on the ground, too. Our youngest brother, Will, could often be heard to exclaim, "Quit roping me!". It wasn’t long before he got the bug to learn rope tricks, too. Well do I remember the day I was gassing up the truck while he was spinning a loop near the street. When some passing hooligans asked, "Who do you think you are? Roy Rogers?" He simply replied, "Yep!". [Tragic sidebar: How many of my readers will have no idea who Roy Rogers was.]
When he met the Rhinestone Ropers at a school program last year, they opened his eyes to the Wild West Arts Club Convention, which he then attended. At last, the elusive mystery of the Texas Skip was revealed. That got some other family members interest piqued as well (as I mentioned in an earlier post). This year I accompanied both my brothers, their wives, kids, & dog to Claremore Oklahoma for the 2007 convention.
I checked in to my motel on the way into town and was suprised to smell cow manure as soon as we pulled into the parking log. Western "atmosphere" already? I was somewhat less suprised when I turned around and saw the sign indicating a dairy about a block away. If you’ve never been to a dairy, let me just say that if you didn’t know for a fact that milk was the product, you’d swear they were making manure (which they are, it just ain’t the salable commodity). Of course, it takes more than cow-patties to make a Wild West.
On to the Will Rogers Memorial, where the cowboys and cowgirls were gathering to kick off the event. The whole convention was open to the public at no charge (provided you’re only watching — pick up a rope and you’ll have to pay your registration fee). Lots of folks came out to watch and there were numerous school tours. Here’s of a whip artist working with the spectator kids on the lawn of the Will Rogers Memorial. How’s that for audience participation?
There weren’t many dillettantes like myself in attendance. While some few folks really live on cattle ranches, and it’s just a great hobby for others, The Wild West Arts Club is composed mostly of professional artists who make their living performing the skills associated more with the movie cowboys than the working cowboys. While these skills all originated in the actual work of the cowboy, you’d have to say that we’re talking more along entertainment lines.
Here’s Matt in the horse-catch contest. Check out that golf-cart-powered wild horse. You have to perform at least one rope trick, then whirl the rope around behind you in the "ocean wave" and time it just right to catch the "horse" as he flies by. Matt is our most serious western artist, but the kids and ladies are pretty involved now, too.
Cousin Max will be in the Guinness Book of Records next year as the youngest registered competitor. Here are Joe and Max at the start of the youth Wedding Ring race.Over the next three days we took lessons and saw competitions in trick roping, spinning the big loop, the Texas Skip, knife-throwing, tomahawk throwing, gun-spinning, fast-draw, whip-cracking, and trick-riding.
Here is Joe with some pros who coached him.
According to Mark Allen (who runs the show) the Western craze that gripped the U.S. in the fifties is now big in Europe. I haven’t spent any time in Europe, but there were performers from Canada, England, Sweden, Germany and these six folks (pictured with Jill)from the Czech Republic (where, coincidentally, my daughter spent the summer of 2005).
Dress ranged from authentic Old West to Hollywood Western to Mountain Man to T-shirts and tennis shoes. The neatest thing for us was that everyone there was willing to share and teach whatever they knew. It’s really a fellowship of artists.
Certainly there were friendly competitions and new records were set (114 feet of rope in the big loop, for instance). I think as a real Wild West performer, this is about the only place you could come and know that everybody in the audience really appreciates how difficult it is to "make it look easy".
Here’s Kim Mink winning the Ladies’ Big Loop (she’s also the record-holder for the ladies).
The evenings featured musical entertainment by KG and the Ranger, who were terrific with the cowboy songs and yodeling, even if they are from Wisconsin (or Westconsin, as they like to say). I did slip in a little Sons of the Western Bootheel during open-mike time.
Yeah, I just went to take pictures and have fun with my family, but I did come home with a new bullwhip. You couldn’t soak up three days of this without getting a little motivated… pardner. [Here are the rest of my pictures.]