Monday, April 28, 2008

The 2008 Nile Invitational in Billings

Moonrise Over Montana

If PBR events ever started on time, we would have nearly been late to the Nile, because I had to go off on a wild-goose chase after a cosmetic bag at the last minute. Who'd have thought we’d have go to three stores before we found any at all, let alone one I could stand to stuff into my (overpopulated) purse! Then Barn Cat, in an uncharacteristic fit of tidiness, decided he HAD to buy new windshield wiper blades before we drove up to the Metra. Since we had awakened to the sight of a full-out blizzard through our fourteenth-floor window at the Crowne Plaza, and since five hours later it was still snowing like mad, he certainly had a point.

The night before, the view from the window was spectacular, even though the brightest sight was an oil refinery. We could see Montana Avenue right below us, with the railroad tracks and the snazzy new brick condos, and the eastern edge of the rims, and all the way down to Wyoming to the south. The room boasted two queen-size beds with 100% cotton bedding and about six pillows each, and leather wing chairs by the window, so you could contemplate the view at leisure. When we went to bed, we left the curtains open and watched the moon rise out of a few low clouds, full and bright over the radio towers on top of the rims.

None of that encouraged us to jump up at the crack of dawn, but despite our sudden shopping jaunts (clear over on the west side!), we managed to get into our seats well before the action started. Once you see a PBR event live, you'll understand why every true fan should go to the arena at least once, if only for a Challenger event. It’s an entirely different experience than watching it on television, one we’d been licking our chops over for an entire year.

For a few minutes, it looked like we might have two seats open on the left, between us and the aisle. That isn’t as big a deal at Metra as it is, say, on an airplane from New York to Bangladesh, but it still would have been nice. No dice. Five minutes before the lights went out, in strolled a pretty young woman and her beau, who was bearing a paper tray with about six cups of beer in it.

Now, Barn Cat and I were fully decked out in our cowboy duds, and looking pretty darned spiffy if I say so myself. (Barn Cat is the handsomest man on the planet—just sayin’.) The day before, we had wheeled off the interstate at Zoo Drive and motored on down to Shipton’s Big R, which is sort of a gussied-up farm supply store that also sells jeans and Western wear. Who knows, we might need a new bandana, right? It’s always possible somebody might end up crying at the PBR. We stop at Shipton’s whenever we’re in town and generally you could fire a shotgun inside the store without hitting anything more animated than a deer decoy.

This time, though, the parking lot was packed and we figured out immediately that we had stumbled, willy-nilly, upon a PBR autograph event. This is not something we would go out of our way to attend, but since we were already there, curiosity got the better of us. We finally shoehorned Xena into half a parking place and fought our way through the lot and inside. Right past the checkout counters was a line of people the likes of which I haven’t seen since I tried to shop at Costco at Pentagon City the day before Christmas several years ago. That was not a happy day (I think I circled the parking lot in Julia, my dear departed and greatly lamented red Ford F-150 4x4, at least eight times), and I didn’t like being reminded of it, but I was happy to see a bunch of young Indian men in line. Rodeo, in case you didn't know it, is a very big deal on the reservations in Montana.

While Barn Cat proceeded to pick out every single (ugly) orange plaid Western shirt in the place, I worked my way to the back of the store, staying away from the line so nobody would think I was cutting in. Finally, back by the Carhart overalls, I managed to get behind some people who were even shorter than I am (no mean feat) and peek out at the table where the riders were signing programs. My interest petered out as soon as I saw that the participants were Ross Coleman, Brendon Clark, Wiley Peterson, and Sean Willingham. Not that I have anything against any of those boys (not all of them, anyway, and generally not all of them at the same time), but none of them are (or ever have been) at the top of my hit parade. For a few minutes, I debated hollering out, “Brendon, where’s Anna?” but I figured that might get me in Dutch, so I headed back to the boot display in search of a pair of navy blue ones. Ladies, if that’s what you’re looking for, I’ll save you the trouble.

I managed to get Barn Cat out of there, clutching a nice canvas (not plaid!) shirt, which we bought. And downtown just a little later, at Lou Taubert’s, he bought a Rockmount Ranchwear shirt that might be the nicest Western creation I’ve ever seen, a cotton taffeta in a deep bluish purple, with double points on the pockets and a bazillion pearl snaps. Despite all these sartorial choices, however, he chose to go to the Nile in one of his five million orange plaid cowboy shirts, his Wranglers, and his black Luccheses. I wore a burgundy Carhart shirt with pearl snaps, my Wranglers, my new brown belt with the bucking bull buckle from Montana Silversmiths, and a pair of brown boots I bought in Albuquerque last Christmas, before I found out I was going to have to pony up a hefty deductible to get my house back in order.

But Little Girlfriend next to us was a sight to see. Not that she was wearing anything particularly striking, except her low-slung jeans, above which peeped a lavender polyester thong. I got to see it for quite a few minutes, as she got situated in her seat and accepted the first cup of beer from her boyfriend, and then the lights went out and the pyrotechnics commenced.

If you’re a regular here, you know this part of the show makes me cringe, and not just because it’s ear-splittingly loud—it’s just dumb. And of course we have upgraded since last year—instead of resting on the ground, the flame-throwing bull heads are now bolted to the chutes and they spit out bolts of fire that look to be about twelve feet long. Then a million Roman candles explode in the dirt and ignite the big “PBR” that’s been written there with something flammable, and then the smoke machines start up and the cowboys wade out through it, tipping their hats to the crowd. The top-ranked cowboys get spotlighted on planks straddling the chutes, except for the number one rider, Mr. Marchi himself, who rode smoothly up on a lift that looked suspiciously like something you might find down at the Chrome Shop Mafia’s garage. One shout-out: L.J., for God’s sake, get rid of that wad of the snoose before you go out there! Watching you moving it around between your cheek and gum is revolting. I suppose we should be grateful you didn’t spit while you were at it.

The bucking finally started and, to my chagrin, the first three riders stuck, but by the third group, enough of them were hitting the ground to cheer me right up. I had actually waited too long to buy our tickets, since I wasn’t sure that the premium seats would be that much better than the ones we had last year, but a few minutes into the action, I was convinced. Next year, I’ll get them sooner so we can be at least one tier lower. We tried taking some pictures, but we were still so far up, the riders and bulls looked like ants, so we gave that up.

Among the best buckers were Blue Boy, who I’m thinking might be a Bell’s Blue baby; Sand Trap, a white muley who gave Brian Canter a run for his money; and Salty, who pitched Clayton Williams off right smart and then, as Barn Cat observed, “Did a little hop, just for fun.”

I invite you to check out the entire photo gallery at the Billings Gazette website:

Big Red Truck and Rez Dog looked especially good.

I was keeping score in my program and I noticed that Little Girlfriend would look over once in a while to see what was what. That is, while she wasn’t daintily swigging down her beer. During the long round, I’ll bet she and her boyfriend both made half a dozen trips down the stairs. When she got up about halfway through the second flight of riders, Barn Cat looked over and spotted her lovely thong. He immediately gave me the look that said, “Please don’t say anything.” Me? I wasn’t about to say a word. I had debated popping the strap and then accusing Barn Cat of doing it, but I really hate it when little girls beat him up and I have to jump in and save him. I probably could have taken her, but her boyfriend looked like he might have been tougher, and I didn’t feel like breaking any nails.

And who am I to complain? Her adorable fanny aside, Little Girlfriend was more covered up than the Cooper Tire girls, who looked to be freezing their asses off down on the arena floor. The stock pens are outside the Metra, and the hallway to the chutes is kept open, and it was snowing like midwinterfrom time to time, the cameras would cut away from the action to show us some adorable bull completely coated in snow. I couldn't blame Flint for complaining about it. I'm sure it was a perfect river of cold air funnelling out to him.

Anyway, she wasn't wearing that thong for my benefit, and I had my hands full trying to add up the scores, although that wasn’t as hard as it might have been. The bulls were in the house, as they had been all weekend, and only a handful of cowboys had ridden three bulls. The overall buck-off rate Sunday was 60%, and I was a happy woman.

When she came back, she picked up her half empty beer cup, took a slurp, and turned to her boyfriend. “I don’t want this,” she said, holding it out to him like it was a dead mouse. “Go get me a cold one.” He hopped right up and sprinted down the stairs, so I guess she has him trained right. They both stayed put after that till the first round ended, and then they took off. She came back before he did, and she asked me who would get to pick first in the bull draft.

Now, the answer to that question was Zack Brown, and you’d have thought I’d have known it immediately, since the Zack Brown story was the talk of the town all weekend long, but for some reason, I was thinking Helton Barbosa had outscored him. We scrambled through my program and sorted it out, and then the bull draft started. Little Boyfriend showed up and asked me if anyone had picked White Water yet. “No,” I answered. “None of them are that brave.” Boyfriend looked at me approvingly. In the end, Mike Lee picked White Water, which just confirmed what I’d been thinking since last season, that he’d come back too fast after his last concussion and didn’t have his wits about him. Mike Lee probably has more guts than most bull riders, but nobody ever claimed he was a Rhodes Scholar. I am no fan of his, but I am worried about him. The sport isn’t well served when riders seem so punch-drunk that they can hardly string two sentences together, and for sure the athlete and his family aren't well served, and that's way more important.

Little Girlfriend settled back in her seat, sipped her beer, and proceeded to chat me up about her previous attendance at PBR events—four years running! “My friend is dating Shane Proctor,” she told me, “but he’s not here tonight.” I can never hear Shane Proctor’s name without thinking about the time when a certain red-headed bull threw him off and stomped on him. One of the guys hollered, “Somebody get a doctor for Proctor!” The bull was thenceforth christened “Dr. Proctor,” and he is one rank son of a buck. I could watch him all day long and never get tired of it.

Of course, Shane Proctor hails from Grand Coulee, Washington, and he went to college on a rodeo scholarship in Powell, Wyoming, so he is practically a hometown boy. Even with gas prices hovering near $4 a gallon, PBR fans out here are serious—some of them drove eight-and-a-half hours, from Boise, Idaho, and others from South Dakota, to attend the Nile. Flint Rasmussen comes from Chouteau, Montana, and he told the Billings Gazette that he works harder at the Billings event than just about any other, because he feels like he knows the people in Montana personally. There are less than a million of us out here, so it’s not that farfetched.

And what drama we had at the end! I thought for sure Soulja Boy was going to toss Zack Brown off at least a dozen times, but Zack would not be denied. There was a close call (and some controversy) when the judges scored Mike Lee’s ride on White Water lower than the crowd would have liked, but I can’t imagine anybody begrudged Zack his victory. He was literally carried out of the Metra on a stretcher in 2005 after a bull got the better of him—he ended up with more than two dozen stitches in his belly, to say nothing of the bumps and bruises that go with the territory. He retired from the PBR after that, and stayed away for a couple of years, but at the Nile, he was back, and in rare form. He was one of only five cowboys to ride all three of his bulls. I believe he will be around for a while.

At one point, I looked around at the crowd and realized that though all most of us might have in common is an interest in professional bull riding, that might be enough. Little Girlfriend and her man probably aren’t people I’d have much to say to outside the Metra, but who knows? Under other circumstances, I could have found them really irritating, but instead I was just amused. I even caught myself thinking that Flint in his gilly suit was mildly entertaining, although the pickup man’s horse (for the second year in a row) didn’t like that one bit. The whole experience gave me hope that perhaps we can all finally agree about something, even if it’s just that a Sunday afternoon at the Nile is an afternoon well spent.

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