Away from the Range

At the beginning of December, the National Finals Rodeo returned to Las Vegas after a year’s absence. In 2020, Covid conditions pushed it to Texas. The Lone Star State offered less stringent health conditions than Nevada.

It still does.

For 10 days and nights the annual NFR enlivens a moribund stretch here in this part of the Mojave. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas relatively little joyous occurs in Las Vegas. After all, those are family festive holidays. Barely a handful of conventions or exhibitions take place. Moreover, given the city’s nature what parents will bring their children to Sin City then? Unless of course to visit relations residing here.

And while hotel-casinos will substantially discount rack rates and promote dining and beverage deals to further attract, those weeks until hellacious merriment resumes for New Year’s Eve remain comparatively dreary no matter how brightly the sun shines, regardless of how blue and cloudless the desert sky above.

Ah, but the rodeo.

Anyone working directly in the hospitality-gaming industry or its adjuncts ought have been expectant about the NFR. That and its attendant event Cowboy Christmas. The latter is a commercial endeavor filled with merchants and purveyors whose wares encompass everything “cowboy.”

Other than livestock and implements, Cowboy Christmas stocks and sells whatever’s necessary for life on the range.

Aside from the huge financial wet kiss the presence of cowboys and the buckle bunnies who love them bestow upon Las Vegas, they are in of themselves an almost different breed who descends on the city for those 10 days. Not to disparage conventioneers and fun-seeking visitors who otherwise besiege the city, but rodeo attendees are generally way nicer. They’re patient. They’re polite.

A far lower percentage of them are out and out assholes. There’s only so much laboring people should contend with to earn a buck. There’s only so much of one’s dignity that should be yielded for a dollar. Good numbers of rodeo fans understand that. They act accordingly to the personnel serving them.

Yes. I know. Again, the above are generalizations. Apt ones.

After a year relocated in Texas, the 2021 NFR saw lower attendance. It followed the pattern of every event held in Las Vegas since amusement and diversion businesses have reopened.

Visitation having resumed, the number of tourists flooding Las Vegas has declined noticeably. Why? There are a number of factors at play. Health concerns foremost. Hard as it is for too many Las Vegans to grasp, people will not flock to establishments where they don’t feel safe. Covid has brought out Americans’ toe-dipping instincts. It’s going to be an incremental process until the fun hubs which once were perennially chockablock are thronged again. No amount of proclamations from science and medicine deniers who’ve gleaned their own research off easily manipulated web sites will urge sensible people to chuck caution and risk well-being.

Nonetheless a decent number of vaccinated cowboys and buckle bunnies surged through the Big Mayberry. The vast majority of them practiced prudence. They properly threw care to the wind at the right places – the bars, clubs, shows, gaming tables and machines.

Rather than exhibit the harried yet blasé attitudes of log-time conventioneers or behave with the entitled expectancy of weekend partiers from Southern California, the rodeo crowd displays genuine excitement by being in Las Vegas. Arriving from where the vast majority do – small communities that won’t ever be mistaken for Metropolis – Sin City’s diverse and decidedly hectic nature must seem otherworldly to them.

Different than Las Vegas, their homes are wholesome, mannered, and comforting. Eh, but on the surface so was Peyton Place.

Friendliness also extends to the rodeo competitors. Unlike almost every other sport contested, those performing in this arena are approachable. No entourages. No handlers. No airs. If one follows rodeo, admired idols aren’t remote from the fans but stand among them.

It’s nothing for the biggest prizewinner to meet and converse with attendees as it would be for the tyro on his first go-round. Of course, the former would have a great deal more practice before an adoring public than a nervous novice. But these being rodeo people they’d extend the same courtesy to the new name as they would to veteran riders with however many championship buckles.

This ease permitted a conversation that after we concluded I couldn’t have imagined being held between a spectator and, say, a major-league professional of any caliber. Unless we were the best of trusting buds beforehand. Even then, though …

Clayton had entered the NFR as a bareback rider. Bareback means the horse isn’t saddled. To remain upon a perturbed animal for the requisite time demands coordination and balance from the cowboy. Throughout the ride the horse is trying to eject what’s on his back using the most spine-rearranging maneuvers possible.

When we met, Clayton’s career had been one of fits and starts. In fact, he crashed out early from this NFR. We crossed just before dawn, a little after he’d had one of those “Vegas moments.”

He’d been rolling bones at a casino craps table trying to salve his latest setback. Somehow his pleasantry at the pass line irritated another gambler. Probably some angry drunk whose night it wasn’t upset at the cowboy’s paucity of commiseration.

A verbal confrontation quickly escalated into a physical conflict. At least Clayton won that. For his trouble security escorted the 20-something year old off the premises. They did do without insistence. And not because he was a barrel-chested cowboy with thick arms and legs. All right. Because Clayton was a cowboy. If he’d been some mook instead of having been a contestant, the casino security officers would’ve made sure his head hit a few doorknobs on the way out.

Throughout the set-to, I doubted the wide-brimmed Resistol Clayton wore even budged on his head.

[Let me attribute the above to my father. From his boyhood into manhood, he enjoyed watching Western movies. Or as he called them, “cowboy pictures.” In the “oaters” especially he noticed no matter how big the brawl or ferocious the fight between two combatants, seldom did any pugilist lose his hat.]

Just as well this part of Clayton’s early morning activity ended abruptly. Between his disheartening finish and slapping someone around, he’d booked plane reservations. Boarding loomed a few hours away. In the meantime, he decided to take this idle time and contemplate his life until that moment. Beer and tequila aided, okay, fueled the process.

Observant as I often am, I saw no luggage. Perhaps he’d already sent his bags ahead? No. Clayton’s ex-wife also got that in their divorce.

Luggage as part of a settlement? Pretty damned cutthroat in that part of the country, no?

It surprised him I knew of his hometown. Why, sure. Who doesn’t know about Muleshoe up there in the Pacific Northwest? This familiarity let him open up further.

As previously mentioned, the rodeo renown to which Clayton aspired went in a cha-cha pattern. Mostly backwards. He understood fulfilling his desire meant he dedicate his focus.

Presently he lacked maintaining rigor for either dedication or keeping eyes on the prize. That’s not me judging. That was him self-assessing … abetted by those two never-fail truth serums, barley soda and Mexican hooch.

He admitted having been easily distracted throughout the few years he when first envisioned himself a champion bareback rider. A mountain of discouraging results loomed over the few times he finished in the money.

Sometimes the disappointment was so deep, he sought to lose himself in meth or fentanyl. One or the other, or volleying between both, probably the reason his marriage ended. Oh, and the drinking, too.

When Clayton revealed his taste for speed or opiates, I was reminded of The Who’s 5:15. There was an apt verse for his confession – “Uppers and downers! Either way blood flows!” I kept that to myself. More out of not wanting to digress into explaining the Quadrophenia album to a likkered-up cowboy more than anything else.

Give Clayton this – he knew his obstacles. Which would be his stronger drive? Finding comfort in getting amped up, diving into the depths of his own self-dug pit, or two-steppin’ away from both in order to be as mentally secure as possible before the gate opened?

A young man still, it was the sort of question that would weigh on him in a fashion someone older, more experienced might declare him/herself too late to deviate and straighten out. One sees no shortage of those results in Las Vegas.

Anyway, that resolution will come on another day. Before fist-bumping farewells, Clayton asked me whether I thought it possible he could carry a pint of tequila onto the plane. Clearly someone who rarely flew.

Instead, I suggested he’d be better off by sitting in an airport lounge outside the security cordon. There, he could request some setups. Such would stretch the bottle until boarding.

Then I reconsidered. Seeing what specimens TSA agents are, if a cowboy was at least willing to remove his boots and buckle, who among them would risk life and limb and go a bridge too by confiscating his Pepe Lopez?