I’VE ALWAYS LOVED adventures. When I was young, my father would pack our Jimmy Mini motor home with sleeping bags, salty snacks and eight-track tapes and he’d drive until we found our destination.
Interstate 90 was our home and Wall Drug, the Corn Palace and Mount Rushmore were frequent stops. Now, as a longtime Marin County resident, I still yearn for an escapade and am grateful that worlds of beauty, entertainment and new conversations are only a short car ride away. One recent weekend, I headed two hours north and spent the day at the Gold County Pro Rodeo in Auburn, California. I not only love visiting new places but also love meeting people along the way. On this beautiful, blue Saturday, I met and chatted with three longtime rodeo lovers, Charlie “Too Tall” West, Mariah Hunt and Chance Strong.
Charlie “Too Tall” West started going to rodeos when he traveled the country showing pigs at county and state fairs. “My friends were involved in rodeo, in District 3, right here in the Auburn area and one thing led to another and I decided to get into the business too,” he explains from a bench behind his truck. “I wanted to be a bull rider, but my little legs didn’t go around larger farm animals and being a roper didn’t fulfill my need for an adrenal rush.”
So, after graduating from high school in 1981, he set off in a car full of friends and headed west. “We ended up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where there was a summer rodeo series. My friend said ‘Put up or shut up,’ so we went down to the five-and-dime, bought a mattress to roll up and put it inside a large barrel.” They put the barrel in the ring and, “after the bulls hit it around, I was on top of the world,” West says.
“I’m blessed: I’ve never had a 9-to-5 job; this is all I’ve ever done. I’m the littlest guy in the world who does this,” he says. “Once I put on my signature face, I’m a different person. I love it, love the kids and love putting a smile on someone’s face.” He adds, “You can’t put a price tag on the friends I’ve made doing this. I guess I’m too lazy to work, too scared to steal and this is the business I’m in.”
Mariah Hunt started riding horses at age 4 and soon afterward met the sister of a friend who was a rodeo queen. “I grew up wanting to be a rodeo queen. Along the way, I lost a lot of pageants, but you always win because you find something in yourself that you didn’t know before,” she says. “I learned how to be a public speaker and I’ve seen a huge change in myself. I’m not as nervous in job interviews and I’m ready for my future. For me, when I go into the arena, I feel like I’ve won the Super Bowl.”
Wearing a red western-style shirt and a rodeo-queen tiara on her cowboy hat, Hunt says, “For a lot of the cowboys and cowgirls it’s a career base; they depend on the paycheck to put food on the table for their families. Fans may see them as entertainment, but in reality, this is their lifestyle. They live and breathe it and they put more money into their animals and stock than they do into themselves. The amount of love and support that people put into the rodeo, it should be recognized.”
Chance Strong, who grew up in California, “could ride a horse as a baby” and started riding sheep as a kid. By age 12, he’d moved on to junior bulls, and when he turned 18 he purchased a “pro card” and hit the rodeo circuit with friend and fellow bull rider Justin Rowell. The two paired up to minimize travel expenses as they drive from rodeo to rodeo in a Ford truck with a camper attached.
“The camper has two beds, a shower and a barbecue,” Strong says. “We’re often gone for a month at a time and hit as many rodeos as we can — in Texas, there is often a rodeo every day. In a good month, you can make $10,000. Some of these rodeos are high stakes: when you see your name at the top of the leaderboard it’s the best thing ever. But you can’t ride everything, and it’s important to keep your mind clear and have fun.
“We are like professional athletes, like football players, but we ride bulls,” he adds. To that end he watches his diet, practices on stationary barrels and drop barrels, and does “up and down” drills. He also does cryotherapy, an alternative treatment that involves entering a walk-in tank and standing in near-freezing temperatures to help the muscles recover. “Some pros can ride until they are 40 or 50, but you have to take care of your body,” he says. “When you’re at the top of your game, nobody can stop you.”
Strong aspires to have several world champion titles under his belt by age 25. “I do want to make a career of it. I pray every day to God that I’ll be able to buy a piece of land in Texas, fill it with animals and have a handful of kids.” He and his fiancée, Drew, just had their first child, a boy named Waylnn. “My dad was a cowboy, I’m a cowboy and I’ll absolutely teach my boy to be in the rodeo. I love it.”
Left: Chance Strong, right: falling off
Left: Charlie “Too Tall” West, right: Mariah Hunt
Catch the Grand National Livestock Expo, Horse Show and Rodeo at the Cow Palace, October 12–13 and 19–20.