Still Unchanged after Five Decades

I was born and raised in Miles City in southeastern Montana. When I was a kid, the population was about 11,000 but with the withdrawal of the two railroads’ use of Miles City as an operation and maintenance center, the population declined and has now settled into a more or less constant level of 8,600. Miles City is the proverbial small town. Its economy is driven by farming and ranching.

With the death of my brother and the intervention of COVID, it has been a while since we have visited Miles City and the world famous Bucking Horse Sale. It was time to visit again. While the Bucking Horse Sale and its accompanying community celebration was the draw, it has always been the reflection of growing up in a small town that has welcomed us. So, with that thought in mind, I penned the following column about a decade ago:

A Way of Life Unchanged for Generations

When I was in law school, the professors (well the better ones anyway) used to intone that every once in a while you need to pull your head out of the stacks (books) and see what’s really going on. The same can be said of politics and particularly Oregon politics.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I traveled back to Southeastern Montana for our annual pilgrimage to the famed Miles City Bucking Horse Sale. We were joined by our son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters – their first time at this annual affair. It is the return to my hometown of Miles City that has rekindled my recognition that every once in awhile, I need to “pull my head out of the stacks and see what’s really going on.”

For over fifty years, the rodeo companies have been coming to Miles City each spring to buy their stock for the ensuing rodeo season. It is probably best described as a demonstration auction – each horse/rider is sent into the arena to perform prior to each sale. When the rider hits the ground or the whistle blows for a successful ride, the auctioneer begins his chant. If the horse has proven to be big and strong with a powerful surging effort to rid itself of the rider, or it proves to be lithe and wily with twists and turns that can rattle your teeth right down to your socks, then the rodeo stock companies are in immediately and the bidding goes into the thousands for these prime horses.

But it isn’t just the auction that makes the Bucking Horse Sale unique. This event is a throw back to the Old West from which the whole concept of rodeos began. You see these riders are not professionals. They are local cowboys from the ranches of Eastern Montana, the Western Dakotas and Northern Wyoming. The whole event is decidedly local and reminiscent of when cattlemen and cowboys gathered in the spring for branding the new calves and breaking the wild horses that had wintered on the open ranges.

It is first about the test of skill and courage. Most of these cowboys are just as lean and tough as they were portrayed by the Western writers like Zane Grey. Five ten and one fifty-five perched five feet above the ground on 1500 pounds of dynamite looking to explode the moment the gate is opened.

It’s eight seconds of pounding fury with a better than even chance that they will be launched into the wild blue yonder and stomped by the horse when they hit the ground. And yet they stand in line to do it, hoping they will draw the meanest, wildest SOB in the pack and ride it to glory in eight seconds. And their reward is – well is nothing other than the admiration of the other cowboys. This rodeo is about tradition, not about cash. It is honoring a way of life, unchanged for over a hundred years. (Each year I pull out a photograph made famous by L.A. Huffman of my great grandfather cooking off a chuckwagon during a spring roundup.)

And it is about family, and friends and community. It is a huge celebration with dancing and cookouts and a chance to renew friendships, exchange stories of another hard winter on the Western plains, and have a drink or twenty. It is about the annual Bucking Horse Parade on Saturday. There are the same steam tractors, ancient hay rakes and balers, the same horse patrols, and ranch hands, the high school band, antique cars and kids with their pets every year. It never changes but the crowds never cease to gather because it’s their kids, their neighbors, their friends that they come to honor and enjoy.

On the flight in we met three cowboys from Cottonwood, Arizona, who were attending for the first time. They had rented an RV to stay in right at the fairgrounds next to the rodeo and they wanted to know how far that was from some of the famed watering holes – The Montana Bar, The Stockmans, The Range Riders and The Texas Bar. These guys were the real deal – all about thirty, gentlemen each, but just as untamed as they come. (One of them told my wife that life was too short to drive slow pickups or chase ugly girls.) We ran into them each night at the street dance (where one of them grabbed my wife and waltzed her around to one of the outdoor Western bands playing on the streets) and again on Sunday just before the airplane took off. They decided to, like us, make the Bucking Horse Sale an annual pilgrimage.

I’ve been gone from Miles City for forty years and yet each year when Nancy and I return for the Bucking Horse Sale, we find ourselves back amongst friends and familiar surroundings. Miles City hasn’t changed much in the forty years that I’ve been gone. Thank God.

Now, a decade later, that column means even more to me. I was blessed to have been born and raised in a small town. My wife, who was born and raised in Havre, Montana, feels the same. Ambition drove us to larger cities, but our small towns provided our foundations for life. I don’t intend to criticize growth and opportunity, but I hope that Miles City and the Bucking Horse Sale never change.