This is an oldie, too, but also a goodie. The Hunter S. Thompson shout-out was something that I actually included at the top of the draft. How embarrassing!
I would be remiss not to mention my inspiration for this story. Hunter S. Thompson was the father of “gonzo” journalism, and I write with respect to his legacy and an essay that was originally featured in Scanlan’s Monthly. He is likely rolling in his grave.
It’s like a bad dream, or maybe it’s a fantasy, depending on who you talk to. The Calgary Stampede takes place this year from July 8th to July 18th with the type of enthusiasm that not even mass flooding could drown out. People will travel from all over the world to watch the rodeo, try out the food, or take in the nightlife. The hustle-bustle of the city collides with the stoic spirit of the country, and with the increase of exposed skin and alcohol consumption comes a decrease in relative morality. Welcome to white trash Disneyland. Welcome to the Calgary Stampede.
The cluster of rides and games and people and drunkards is certainly a spectacle. A simple distraction from the reality that in two weeks this will all be a vacant parking lot, and if stripped down the spectacle is nothing more than hot concrete with a temporary facelift.
For the people, what begins as a week of light-hearted cultural appropriation spirals into an identity crisis for anyone old enough to own a golf membership. Business types are caught somewhere between romantic fantasy and the realities of recession, staggering down the street with child-like exuberance. It’s like a tasteful Halloween party on repeat for ten days. Every night presents a new opportunity, and long lunches and lazy days at work can all be excused with the utterance of “Hey, it’s Stampede.”
But even the best parties take their emotional and physical toll, with no better evidence than down at the Stampede Grounds.
After about seven days, the carnies start to look as worn and rusted as the rides they operate. They all look a little hunched and sickly, with an air of disembodiment, and the lifeless expression of someone who has been staring at a washing machine for hours on end. Not to mention their tiny hands.
The only chance for revival might just be the food. The Stampede offers these rental cowboys and cowgirls a taste of pure Americana. Everything can be remedied in a fryer, the type of deep-south psychology that promotes heart disease and the physical apathy that festers in a lawn chair. With your eyes closed, you can almost taste the back-alley stench of street meat, which couples with the unmistakable smell of horse shit as you inch closer to the Grandstand.
The nightlife is pure excess. With bars open and thriving literally every night of the twisted festival. The marathon of drinking becomes somewhat of a sadomasochistic pursuit in itself. Night after night you’re pushing your body to new limits of tolerance, and that even includes your sense of smell.
The inside of the pop-up party tents on the Stampede grounds smell like slow-cooked vomit. It’s important to note that this might be the only place on Earth where people will wait in line to experience the deep, thick, warm type of smell that haunts the inside of these tents. Here and Latvia, I imagine.
Even the Young Canadians, the long-standing Stampede symbol of purity and young innocence has been sullied by allegations of sexual abuse. And the SuperDogs, a Stampede staple has been replaced by The Dog Bowl, an event that inspires the imagery of a Boxer digging and splashing to the bottom of a bowl of kibble.
There are some redeeming qualities to “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.” It might be the MOST fun you’ve ever had. As someone who experiences Stampede every year, and works in a country bar no less, it would be expected that I would have grown tired of the festivities in my 23 years. But I haven’t.
The atmosphere can fill even the most cynical of people with a welcome sense of childhood nostalgia. The dizzying blur of lights and sounds inspire the type of sensory overload that your brain computes as a throbbing silence. There’s cotton candy, blue tongues, and generally enough tokens from your childhood to make you forget, if only for a second, that the gigantic teddy bear around your shoulders is for someone else.
When night falls over the Grounds, and the lights of the city dance in the background, and a light breeze offsets the warmth of a prairie summer down at the small of your back, and you hear the familiar sound of that terrible old country music, and you’re surrounded by the most important people in your life, you might just remember why we need the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.”
Long live depravity. Long live the Calgary Stampede.