Andrew and I are standing in a bucket crane eighty feet above the Arizona desert. In front of us is the towering Superstition Mountain, glistening in the orange glow of a western sunset. At a dizzying distance below, the colorful electric lights burn from a small carnival as faint screams and yelps from teenagers echo in the valley. Apart from the carnival and beautiful desert setting, the AFP has found themselves in Apache Junction, Arizona, at the site of The Lost Dutchman Days Rodeo. We are just outside of Phoenix, but we feel like we’re in the true Arizona–far away enough to see sand and sagebrush instead of suburbs and Starbucks.
About 100 years ago, Apache Junction was a small but thriving gold mining town. Legend has it, a certain Dutchman moved into the area and took up residence in Superstition Mountain. People rarely saw him and nobody knew where he lived. But ever so often, the Dutchman would come into town carrying Spanish gold, live it up for a few nights, and buy everything he needed before returning mysteriously back to his home. His presence caused quite a stir among the locals whenever he appeared but it all ended one evening after a scuffle in a bar turned into gunfire and the Dutchman shot dead on the ground. It wasn’t long before people headed into the red, sandy hills of Superstition Mountain looking for the remainder of the Dutchman’s Spanish gold. The treasure, however, was never found and to this day there are people still searching for the Lost Dutchman treasure.
The AFP, however, did not go searching for this treasure. But you could still say we struck it rich. Instead of Spanish gold we found cowboys, cowgirls, rodeo clowns, and bucking broncos! America is the home of rodeos, and what would the American Festivals Project be without a true western event like the Lost Dutchman Days? Being newbies to the world of calf-roping, barrel-racing, bull-riding, and saddle broncs, we searched for an experienced rodeo man that could show us the ropes. We were fortunate enough to start up a conversation with Timber Tuckness, a rodeo of clown 25+ years, and a true expert on the ins and outs of rodeo.
It was clear from speaking with Timber that the world of rodeo is rich with tradition, heritage, and family lineage. Timber grew up in a family of rodeo clowns and now his son works as a bull fighter (not the kind of Spanish bull fighting you might be thinking of). Also throughout the day, we noticed that many of the riders and performers in the rodeo were announced as the son or daughters of famous cowboys. As we wandered the grounds of the rodeo, we continued to meet a cast of characters, including The Cowgirl Historical Foundation. Behind the stadium, and in hidden behind a row of trailers, we came across a unique scene. About ten women were running in formation through a dusty dirt parking lot. But clearly these were no ordinary women. No, they were graceful, slender, and obviously trained in the art of ‘something’. What we failed to put together, but later discovered, was that these beautiful women were missing 50% of their grandeur…their horses. Yes, this fine cast of women travel around the Southwest riding horses and exhibiting the styles and skills of a true cowgirl. Some might say there is nothing like a woman in cowboy boots, but imagine a woman in cowboy boots, mounted on a horse, and wearing hot pink. Owww!
As we left the warm-up area and headed towards the cowboy arena, the scenery turned from pink feathers and hairspray to chewin’ tobacci’ and testosterone. It was here that Andrew and I both went from feeling like men to feeling like boys. As we photographed the remainder of the day, we watched men from ages seventeen to forty jump on wild beasts and risk injury and death for fame and fortune. It was truly gripping. It bewildered us as to why anyone would do something so dangerous as mount a 2 ton angry bull, but as we started talking to a few cowboys, we learned that it was the temptation of cold, hard cash that kept these guys ‘roped in’.
Clayton Hill, 17, was one of the young cowboys that we interviewed. He’s still in high school, but competes almost every weekend out of the year at rodeos. He travels all around the state of Arizona, often times with other cowboys his age, and parties in the evenings in campers and tents. And what kind of money is he making? Well, since the 2009 season, meaning only two months ago, he’s already raked in $10,000. On Sunday, we watched him come in second place and walk away with $800. Not bad for a Junior in high school.
As the afternoon sun fell behind the grandstand, the last of the bulls and broncos tossed their brave riders onto the dirt. Timber Tuckness, the rodeo clown, performed his last jokes and wished the crowd a good evening. The cowboys, some with pockets full of cash, tucked in their stirrups, packed up their saddles, dusted off their jeans, and drove the long stretches of Arizona desert to their ranches, farms, and hometowns. We did the photographer’s equivalent: we dusted off our lenses, packed up our camera bodies, stowed away our memory cards, and went in search of a well-earned cold beer.