31 Jul 2017

Wild Wild West

When Canadians talk about what defines them, cultural diversity often comes up near the top of the list. As the story goes, in Canada arrivals from all over the world don't have to melt into one big American mass, but instead are allowed to retain their distinct heritage in a multi-colored mosaic.

Cultural diversity, though, exists even within the WASP bedrock of Canadian society, as I found on a recent jaunt to Calgary. While the western city was mostly associated with the boom and bust of the oil sands industry (Canada's dirty secret) in recent years, its original claim to fame was as a hub for farming and ranching where the endless prairies meet the Rocky Mountains.

It is to this heritage that the town dedicates 10 days each summer, when it hosts the Calgary Stampede, described with signature modesty as the greatest outdoor show on earth. The festival of everything western had been on my bucket list for many years, and what better year than that of Canada's 150th anniversary to make tick it off?

From the moment I stepped off the plane, it was clear that this wasn't Montréal (or Toronto, for that matter): Cowboy hats abounded, boots and bolo ties were everywhere. Hotels had set out mock saloon doors and horse troughs. Everybody wore checkered shirts.

Things got more intense at the vast Stampede park. Apart from the standard fairground rides, there were large sections dedicated to agricultural exhibits (the maize of Manitoba, the berries of B.C.) and stables where prize artiodactyls were groomed, shoed, paraded and judged. Not much of an expert myself, I was impressed by the wide range of bovine cosmetics available.

The real fun, of course, was to see the beasts in action. Professional riders named Cody, Curtis or Clay competed in Bareback and Saddle Bronc riding, where success is measured in seconds on the back of a ferocious bull. Others preferred the rodeo staples of steer wresting and tie-down roping, their looks and skills putting Lucky Luke to a shame. And the most daring harnessed four thoroughbreds to a chuckwagon and raced them around a dusty track, much to the crowds' delight.

More remarkable still than their skills seemed the cowboys' pedigree, if you pardon the pun. These were not Disney performers in funny costumes, but true farm boys from small prairie towns north and south of the border. After the race, they could be seen smoking cigarettes and drinking Bud Lights by their pick-up trucks.

Of course, not everybody in boots and hats had the same stallgeruch: My Calgarian colleague happily confessed that his cowboy gear comes out exactly one time a year for the Stampede, and then swiftly disappears in the basement again. "This little shin dig is our western Halloween", as he put it.

But dressing the part certainly adds to the atmosphere. As I grabbed a watery beer and joined the crowds at the Nashville North scene, where country bands were playing and people were line-dancing, I suddenly realized that at the very least, I should have worn my Edelweiss shirt and the suspenders embroidered with Appenzell cattle. After all, we Swiss are cowboys as well. Yee-haw!

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