’Tis the season when pro rodeo riders punish their bodies and endure endless miles of bad road and worse food for just eight seconds on the back of an angry horse, with no guaranteed pay—and consider it a gift
Photographs by Darren Carroll for Sports Illustrated
“Where y’all going now?” a passerby called. The cowboys all were fresh off riding bucking horses, a violent paroxysm that typically warrants a beer and a sit.
“St. Paul,” one of them said. Hard to tell who it was, exactly, in the blitz of chaps and boots, and of saddles getting stuffed into a homemade cabinet that rides on the van’s trailer hitch.
“Can you make it?” came the reply.
Molalla and St. Paul, two Oregon burgs in Portland’s orbit, are a solid 35 minutes apart, barring traffic. The towns’ rodeos run concurrently but with individual events staggered for just this scenario. The wages of a pro cowboy depend on his entering many, many rodeos. The previous night, three of these men rode in northwest Arizona and one rode in central Alberta. Getting to Molalla required veritable Cannonball Runs. With a second rodeo around the corner, how could they not attempt the twin bill?
So at 8:45 p.m. this 1997 Dodge Ram full of Texans and their jangly, dirt-crusted gear trundled out of the gravel lot and onto the street. Jacobs Crawley, the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association’s fifth-ranked saddle bronc rider, a boyish-looking 26, was at the wheel. To his right Dean Wadsworth, distinguished by his rust-colored beard, navigated from a smartphone. In the way back puppy-piled, boots and all, into a fold-down bed were their friends Jeremy Ray Melancon and Sterling Crawley, Jacobs’s little brother. All four are top 40 riders.
The speed limit was 35 mph. Jacobs, an efficiency engineer by training, knew he could nudge that up without tempting the law. For a sound track he chose Hugo’s beer-battered cover of Jay Z’s “99 Problems.” The speed limit on the two-lane highway jumped to 55, and the van surged toward the dregs of a pink sunset glinting against dark mountains. Sterling scooched to a window and lit a smoke. He wouldn’t know it until the rodeo finished, days later, but his ride on a horse named Rough Going the animal leaped so high that the announcer declared, “You could run a 300-pound hog underneath his butt” had just made him more than $3,000.
Up ahead, with agonizing patience, a truck dragged a trailer. Beyond it, an SUV sauntered. Jacobs pounced on a gap in oncoming traffic and surged past both. The broken highway lines merged solid at a curve; a beat later a line of cars whizzed around the bend.
“Best not to look,” Melancon said.
Downtown Molalla was jammed with stoplights and pedestrians. Past town again, on a winding stretch, the speed limit cratered to 30. A big sign groused: slow. “More of a suggestion than anything else,” Wadsworth said. The van double-passed another pair of pokey civilian vehicles, then rows of growing hops, then a farm of young Christmas trees, then cars packing every cranny of St. Paul’s main drag. home of the 4th of july rodeo, a banner announced, in a flagrant abuse of the definite article.
As tenderly as possible, Jacobs nudged through a crowd at the rodeo grounds and into a . . . sure, why not, that could be a parking spot. Sterling cracked the side door before the van stopped. The men de-Tetrised their saddles and rigging bags and scrambled into the concourse, to the earthen circle of the arena, toward the rough-stock chutes. It was 9:25 p.m. The saddle bronc rides were under way. The P.A. announcer, unfazed, told the crowd that the rest of their saddle bronc riders had just arrived.
Two days and more than 2,000 miles earlier, in central Colorado, Jacobs, Melancon and Wadsworth briefly enjoyed a moment of blissful stillness in a quiet dirt lot. The van was parked in the shade of a cottonwood tree, under which they’d camped out the previous night, a few stray Keystone Light empties marking their spot. Wadsworth strung his mandolin; Jacobs tuned his guitar. The Greeley Stampede, two hours off, was a short walk away.
A cellphone rang. Melancon picked up. It was the repair shop where they had dropped Sterling’s van that afternoon. Twice the thing had overheated on the way up from Texas, and twice the men had run a garden hose into the radiator to avoid a meltdown.
Melancon relayed the bad news: Guy said, first thing, there’s water coming out of everywhere. “The radio’s fine,” Wadsworth retorted, “so I know he’s full of s---.” The radiator, the pressure lines, the timing cap, the water pump all begged to differ. Repairs would run $1,800. The shop guy did present one other option: Drive it and keep putting water in it until it blows up.
“That was my Plan A,” Wadsworth said. Jacobs echoed, “Drive it till it falls down.”
The life of a bucking-horse rider teeters on motion and stillness. The former is Plan A. Whether bareback or in a saddle, the cowboy needs eight solid seconds of ride before he can even receive a score. To be tossed, to be rendered motionless, nullifies their reason for being. A cowboy at rest is a cowboy beaten, a cowboy broke. Likewise, a vehicle to get you there is everything, and yet, when pushing a vehicle 20,000 miles in a month, you can’t get too attached.
“Luckily he’s winning money,” Jacobs said of his brother. They got Sterling on the phone from Ponoka, Alberta, where he was riding in the final round of a rodeo, and planning to meet up with Jacobs in Mollala. Sterling kept it short: The checkbook is in the glove box. Patch up the van. “It’s Monopoly,” Jacobs told him in approval. “It’s all fake money till the end of the season anyway.”
The end of the season was still eons away. The Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit sprawls like no other in American sports, with some 600 independent rodeos across 39 states and four provinces, in such places as Plains, Montana, and San Juan Capistrano, California, and Freedom, Oklahoma, and Attica, New York. Cowboys and cowgirls who enter those rodeos pay entry fees that build the kitty from which the rodeos pay out. Rodeos also add money to sweeten the deal; an elite one might add $10,000 to $15,000 for its top few finishers in each event. The overall winner could pocket half or a third that much, but as rodeos are multiday events, most riders will be hundreds of miles down the road before they learn whether they’ve earned a check.
Another factor, at least in the rough-stock events bareback and saddle bronc riding, plus bullriding is the quality of the animals assigned. A rider’s score in those events comprises the animal’s points, as determined by two judges, plus his own points, determined by two other judges. Animals and men are paired randomly, and a good horse, a horse that springs and thrashes and contorts, preferably without running all over the damn place, scores a cowboy a proper purse. When it’s over, that money means two things. One, it’s money. Two, it builds a rider’s total in the season standings. Top money winners of the season compete in the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, a 10‑day affair in December worth possibly six figures to the winners.
Cowboys chase quality and quantity during the first 10 months of every year. A rider may count 100 rodeos toward his final standing. (Many ride more, to stay sharp and to keep earning.) Traditionally the most rodeos offer the most money during the week of July 4, a season within a season known affectionately as Cowboy Christmas.
This past Cowboy Christmas, a photographer and a writer joined this particular pack of cowboys and wedged in the Ram van for every mile of their travels. For years these saddle bronc riders have crisscrossed the country together, lending rides, begging rides, piling into tiny spaces and driving vast distances. It’s the only way anyone survives the sport. “Guys do go alone,” Wadsworth said at one point. “You don’t see them the next year.”
Mentally, physically, financially, it only makes sense to roll with a crew. Unlike tie-down ropers and steer wrestlers, who have to coordinate their horses’ travels as well as their own, bareback and saddle bronc riders are provided rough stock at the arenas. They may choose to fly, but so long as airlines lose saddles, these cowboys will prefer the road. The distances they cover from January through November put theirs among the world’s most extreme commutes. There are laws in place to keep long-haul truckers from attempting these sorts of drives. What compels men to slog 20 hours one way for just eight seconds on the clock a driving-to-working ratio of 9,000 to 1 without any guarantee of getting paid?
Greeley to Prescott
“Jacobs, you want to tag in?” Melancon called from the wheel.
“Of course,” said Jacobs, shirtless, from the bed nest in the back. It was almost 6 a.m. at a gas station in Colorado City, Colo. Low gray clouds bled mist onto the dim desert countryside.
“I’ve started worse trips,” Melancon muttered. “But Greeley at 2 a.m., I’ve started better.”
This rodeo had been unspectacular for the three riders. Then, their night went straight sideways. The wife of the rodeo’s announcer had noticed Jacobs and Wadsworth lugging their gear back to their van and invited them to come jam at the family motor home of one Hadley Barrett, 84, a Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame announcer who, from the 1960s into the ’90s, had his own country band, Hadley Barrett and the Westerners.
In the RV, the cowboys pulled out their instruments and a slew of old standards. The Band led to John Denver led to Willie Nelson (“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” natch) led to Roger Miller (“King of the Road,” of course) led to Springsteen led to Merle Haggard. Wadsworth, on mandolin, and Jacobs, on guitar, kept their lamps lit with Pepsi and Forty Creek whiskey. Jeremy, drumming on a cajón he built himself, stuck to soda. Hugo’s aforementioned Jay Z cover led to Zeppelin led to Janis Joplin. Eventually a couple of rodeo officials got word and stopped by, then the damn clown came, and during the final hour 10 grown men, all in hats, stomped and sang the RV into a low sway.
After 2 a.m., with his friends conked out in the back of the van, Melancon had taken the graveyard shift. At 26 he’s a gentle, sleepy-eyed, unassuming sort who nonetheless enjoys looking his best when he rodeos. He keeps his Rolex on as he rides, though he’s careful to remove his Sam Houston State class ring, because of the nonzero chance it could catch on the rigging and pop his finger off. Back in Huntsville, Texas, he has a fiancée and a couple of rental houses. In that dark first leg, with a stack of veritable corpses behind him, he kept alert by listening to a real estate podcast.
Now, the next morning, Jacobs grabbed the T‑shirt nearest at hand, which Melancon had been wearing the day before. Melancon crawled into Jacobs’s spot beside the conked-out Wadsworth. Jacobs pulled out of the lot and started south. “I’ve slept at that gas station before,” he said.
“Jeremy,” he said, “the more I think about it, the more impressed I am 2 to 6 a.m.? Fluff the feathers, boy.” Melancon was already asleep. On the stereo was the Turnpike Troubadours’ song “Diamonds and Gasoline,” asking, “Will I sit still or will I feel the wheels a-spinnin’ round?”
Jacobs Crawley, of Stephenville, Texas, is a very good saddle bronc rider. He’s compact, ripped and, at 26, resembles a young Ron Howard if Opie had grown up to be a fireman. He started riding rough stock as a little boy, but he got serious in college. His and Sterling’s parents split up, and somewhere in there Jacobs decided that rodeo was his path to self-reliance. At Texas A&M he was flying to rodeos every weekend, putting himself through school. In his senior year he rode in Vegas one weekend, ran into a pair of bachelor parties one English, one Irish tore up the town with them and still made it back to College Station for his Monday engineering lab. At his first National Finals Rodeo, back in 2011, he rode the seventh day, then Skyped into class to give a final presentation, sitting in a suit coat and shorts at his ironing board. After the 10th round he flew home on Sunday, took two finals on Monday and graduated on Thursday.
These days Jacobs puts his earnings into a budding trailer park he owns back in Stephenville, an hour and a half southwest of Fort Worth. Erath County does not hold his attention so well as driving with his buddies and getting on bucking horses. “I really love rodeo, and I really don’t like working that much,” he said in New Mexico.
The ride he has now, this van, was filling in nicely for the modified ambulance that they prefer to use, for its abundant space and its shower. They call it the dragonfly (it drags up hills but flies down them) and love it, though it stays in the shop more than it sits in the driveway. Jacobs and Sterling once threw a wheel off the thing as they made the desolate Vegas-to-Reno push on a 20‑hour dash from Pecos, Texas. They felt a wobbling and pulled over just in time to see the tire bounding hundreds of yards down the highway, straight into traffic. Another time, Wadsworth and Jacobs pushed the ambulance over state lines on brakes so bad that the men couldn’t take any highway exit that wasn’t uphill. “Minnesota to Greeley,” Wadsworth said, “we ran I don’t know how many stop signs. It was dangerous to the point that it wasn’t funny.”
Halfway to Prescott everyone piled into a booth in the rear of an Applebee’s in Albuquerque. It was the only stop unrelated to rodeo, gas, coffee or an international border they enjoyed during nearly four straight days. Back in the van, as Jacobs did the math, he determined that burning all that time back at Hadley’s cut into any sort of cushion.
“We’re going to be out of the car about three hours today,” he said.
“I suggest we stop and buy a deck of cards,” Wadsworth replied. “Maybe a Twister mat.”
As if there were room in the van. The interior bathed in Eeyore-colored carpet, its AC permanently set to frostbite, a curling three-foot crack across the windshield, the vehicle was a rolling yard sale. At the dashboard: stacked cowboys hats, three; piece of pie under cellophane that Melancon bought and never did eat, one; T‑shirts, one or two hard to tell; DVD player affixed with Velcro, one; parking pass for casinos in Reno, one; insects Pollocked against the outside of the glass, gobs.
The console was all coffee cups, wires, pens, stray dollar bills, bottles of water, sunglasses, a half-eaten Snickers, air fresheners clipped to the AC vents. Between the front seats sat a little propane stove that Jeremy had built into a wooden box, then gear and suitcases between the seats, then the bed, folded down, with shirts and jeans on hangers blocking the view out of the back. There were pockets everywhere, equipped with Glad bags and paper plates, maps, a checkbook, a coffee mug, playing cards, rodeo bumper stickers, loose change. The odor, curiously, was no more intense than your standard laundry hamper, even as the cowboys openly pined for showers.
The van was no monkey cage. It was a place where friends addressed one another as “Sir?” when they missed what was said, and where nary a negative word was breathed about a bad ride or about anything, really. Stuck in a capsule for approximately infinite hours together, the cowboys knew how to manage one another’s moods, crack a joke and brandish irony without tipping into sarcasm.
They arrived at the World’s Oldest Rodeo in Prescott, Ariz., about a half hour before the performance, at sunset, with just enough time to change clothes and grab a quick bite before the prayer and the national anthem. There the 16‑hour marathon drive turned out to be a bust. A horse named Ring Binder slung Melancon eyes bulging, arm swinging around for a mere 73 points out of 100. Melancon sucked at his teeth, nodded at the total and sidled up beside Wadsworth to help him prepare for what turned into a mess of a ride. The rodeo hands opened his chute a beat early, causing him to curl forward to catch his balance. When his horse, Fantasy Girl, started bucking, the out-of-position cowboy torqued his groin trying to hold on to the animal’s shoulder. Jacobs turned in a decent showing on his horse, Happy Valley, with a 79 but on a horse he’d been looking forward to for days, he was impressed neither with her performance nor with his.
It was 9:01 p.m. when the men grabbed their saddles. “Another day, another dollar spent, is what that was,” Wadsworth said. Melancon rammed his gear into a canvas rigging bag so worn that its zipper pulls are long gone. “Back across the f------ country,” he said. They picked up another saddle bronc rider, Bradley Harter, a chipper 32-year-old who has qualified for eight National Finals Rodeos. Northwest Oregon was a 21‑hour drive away under optimal conditions, and the Molalla Buckeroo Rodeo would start with or without them in 23 hours.
Prescott to St. Paul
Somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the morning, the brakes stopped taking hold. Melancon, concerned, pulled over to take a look. The tires weren’t spraying cables, a relief. Maybe the noise was just wind? Jacobs shrugged off his concerns. “The brakes aren’t shot,” he said.
“I think the brakes may be shooting,” Wadsworth said.
That diagnosis turned out to be spot-on. The brakes whined, then groaned like an anchor dragging on I-5. Fortunately there was no time to worry, for there was no time to stop.
In the late morning Wadsworth, riding shotgun, cranked up a device that might not have been strictly road-legal: that propane rig, with a burner fit for a full-sized pan. Wadsworth lit the flame, browned a pound of breakfast sausage and cracked 10 eggs. Jacobs, at the wheel, watched Wadsworth stir the mess with a fork. “Is that nonstick?” Jacobs said. “Use the spatula. That pan’s still got a lot of living left.” Wadsworth slung hot sauce, Cajun spice and a hillock of shredded cheese onto the mixture, rolled tortillas into breakfast burritos and passed them back on paper plates.
Time moved as if slowed by grinding, squealing, arthritic brakes. Jacobs watched most of season six of The Office on the DVD player Velcroed to his dash. Then Rush, the movie about Formula One racers. At stops Wadsworth would smear a menthol cream called Biofreeze on his janky inner leg. “It’s impossible to put this stuff on your groin without getting some on your nuts,” he said. For almost two years Wadsworth, 26, traded a quiet married existence for this life of short-order cooking and home medicine. Now divorced and still getting his rodeo legs back underneath him, he works part-time at the family business out in West Texas oil fields during the off-season. Rodeo is the only thing he feels he’s ever been good at, and without much calling him back to Ozona, Texas, where the nearest Walmart is 90 minutes away, he drives himself as hard as he would any disposable van.
The men generally took three-hour shifts of windshield time and catnapped or doodled on their phones when they weren’t driving. It would’ve been impossible solo or, seemingly, without GPS and Siri droning the occasional order. “Before smartphones, there was Rand McNally,” Bradley said at the wheel. “You get the big map and put your thumb up to it.” That was how you estimated how far you could go in a night.
They made it to Molalla with 20 spare minutes to get situated before their rides and then, of course, made it to St. Paul, where the rides were less scintillating. Just outside town, as the van headed west, it caught up with a pair of little boys riding on a four-wheeler. The boys had to have been about seven and nine years old, both shirtless, with the littler of the two hugging tight to the bigger boy’s back. And they were flying, warp-driving, along a turn row, a ditch away from the highway. The van was doing 50 and hardly gaining on these kids. The cowboys marveled at the sight. A semi came rushing on, from the west, and in perfect synch the boys held their fists up and pumped their arms. When they heard the van’s horn, a surprise from behind them, they looked over their left shoulders. Still doing close to 50 miles an hour on a four-wheeler, they absolutely beamed.
St. Paul to cody
Oregon was where Bradley hopped out and Sterling hopped in. Sleep came on fast after leaving the St. Paul rodeo. Then, somewhere in Washington, Jacobs, at the wheel, got a pointed critique of his bathroom habits. Turns out that sometime in the fast-driving night the older brother had peed into a not-quite-empty bottle of water. Not wanting this radioactive canister to roll around in the bed, Jacobs stuck it in a cup holder. There Sterling saw it, thought it was an energy drink and damn near did the unthinkable.
“You have to be careful!” Sterling said. “Animal.” The younger brother climbed over the luggage pile into the passenger seat and picked up a half-full bottle of water from the floor. “Is this piss too?” he said, brandishing it at Jacobs. “What is safe?”
This is Sterling Crawley to a T, the feckless answer to his brother’s relentless organization. Sterling, 23, taller and stringier than his compatriots, who sleeps in so hard that people have to wake him by slinging a bucket of water in his face. Sterling, who once lost track of the date of a rodeo, and rather than flying from Texas to South Florida, drove the whole way solo on nothing but Red Bull, 5-Hour Energy and cigarettes, threw up something that looked like tar right before the event, and went on to take third place. Sterling, the ball of raw talent who when a bucking horse stomped his back at the National Finals Rodeo ripping his skin from spine to kidney staggered back to the locker room to self-medicate with a cigarette while Jacobs kept the sports-medicine crew out. Sterling, who three days before almost marrying last fall, at 22, realized the gravity of his decision and hid out for a week with Jacobs at a family friend’s ranch, riding horses and camping, cellphones off, as the hurricane blew over. Sterling, who might still be clearing fence lines with a machete for $8 an hour, just taking life as it comes, if his older brother hadn’t grabbed him at 16, taught him the best he knew about rodeo and begun paying Sterling’s entry fees.
Sterling, who at some point while clambering around the van, declared how much he’d love to stop, take a shower, put on some clean clothes. “You know how many days it’s been since I took this underwear off?” he said.
Outside the van, no one knew what the world was up to. There went the exit for the Petrified Forest. There went the exit for the big meteor crater in Arizona. There went Flagstaff. There went 800 miles of California. There went Mount Hood, off in the distance. There went Idaho rivers, Montana forests, the exit for Yellowstone. This road trip was all road.
An hour after dropping Sterling at a rodeo in Livingston, Mont., and a couple of hours outside of Cody, Wadsworth and Jacobs started preparing for their rides. For Jacobs, this always means a Red Bull. On the DVD player, at the wheel, Dean cued up Lone Survivor, the adaptation of an Afghanistan war memoir he had read.
“This might be my new favorite prerodeo movie,” Wadsworth told Jacobs.
“For a long time, mine was The Fighter,” Jacobs said.
“Something about Mark Wahlberg,” Wadsworth said.
Wadsworth was hurting. On his go, Wadsworth was pitched clean over the head of his mount, Foofy Foofy. Wadsworth had just enough time to go facedown fetal and clutch his hat to his head when the horse stormed over him. He got to watch the replay on the big screen, averting his eyes just at the moment when Foofy Foofy’s hoof whiffed past his skull by a margin small enough for him to hear it.
Jacobs’s ride on Lights Out was, for the first time all week, a sublime marriage of man and beast. The horse leaped, thrashed, spun. Jacobs stayed straight and sure. The crowd was frenzied. After the ride Jacobs took off his hat, put his head down and wandered over to the fence, obviously less than pleased. He knew what most in the stands hadn’t noticed: The judges determined he had failed in a technicality “marking out” the horse, or positioning his boots above the animal’s front legs as it burst out of the gate. He had driven just shy of 1,000 miles that day for no score and no money.
Afterward, at the van, for the first time all week, Jacobs stewed over the disqualification. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “It might have cost us $7,000.”
“F--- it,” Wadsworth told him. “You’ve got a lot of money coming up in the next few days.”
“I’m about to call this a snakebit Fourth of July run,” Jacobs said. But gradually his frustration ebbed. So long as you break even on rodeo, you’re still on an expenses-paid vacation with your friends, he said, and it beats working, and it damn sure beats sitting around Stephenville. “I’m just gonna watch Marky Mark,” he said, “and drive the pain away.”
cody to Calgary
Wadsworth and Melancon took their leave in Cody. They headed to Utah and then to Springdale, Ark., where Melancon wound up taking third in the Rodeo of the Ozarks and Wadsworth tied for fifth. After an unlucky week, their winnings $2,157 for Melancon, $761 for Wadsworth could scarcely have been more welcome.
The Crawleys drove north, through another night, to the single most desirable Cowboy Christmas destination: the Calgary Stampede. Winnings there don’t count toward PRCA season standings, but it’s a rich rodeo, and big and best yet, cowboys ride in four-day shifts. That means a hotel room. A hot shower. A bed with no axles. Jacobs qualified for an invitation because of his outstanding 2013. Sterling, just below that cut, got a nod for one of the wild-card spots.
When they pulled into Calgary at noon on Friday, July 4, Jacobs had driven 4,000 miles since leaving the campsite in Greeley, Colo., over a span of 82 hours. For every hour, over 31⁄2 days, that van traveled an average of nearly 50 miles. Excluding that DQ in Cody, he spent the week earning scores on bucking horses for a grand total of 48 seconds.
He made $883 for tying for fourth place in Greeley, $1,574 for the same in Prescott and $2,519 for a second-place tie in Mollala. Sterling, it turned out, won Molalla good for a $3,779 payday. The Stampede made Christmas merrier. Their first day, Friday, both brothers placed: $3,500 for Jacobs, $1,500 for Sterling. Three more days of rodeoing, plus a turn apiece on the event’s final weekend, and Sterling added $4,500 to that, while his older brother scooped up $20,000 in Calgary before all was done.
On July 7 they began planning their next leg, down to Casper, Wyo. A Louisiana saddle bronc rider named Heith DeMoss was going along for the ride, pending some direct questions about the state of the brakes on the van. It’s one thing to joke that the brakes sounded like the stone-on-stone sound effects of vault doors closing in the Indiana Jones movies, but if you actually have to get into that capsule and scoot 13 hours down the interstate. . . .
Over beers and hot dogs after the Sunday rodeo, Jacobs waved away his colleague’s concerns. He’d look into repairs, sure. “If they can’t give it to us by tomorrow,” Jacobs said, “we’ll fix it in Casper. We’re only gonna stop three times between here and there anyway, and that’s where it matters.
“Going down the highway at 70, 80 miles an hour? Those brakes sound great.”