The cowboy vigorously runs his wire brush across the leather tail of his thickly braided bull rope—a small halo of dirt disperses into the late afternoon sun. He breaks apart a tiny chunk of amber rosin on the metal bars of the bucking chute before placing some into the palm of his leather riding glove.
He slides his glove up and down the tail of the rope convincingly—the friction heating the pine-scented rosin to tacky perfection. “There’s an art to getting the bull rope and riding glove just sticky enough,” he tells me, “but you never want to put the rosin where you don’t need it—it just attracts dirt.”
“The weather in Oklahoma is miserable,” he says, recalling how the severe drought and scorching temperatures this summer have put a damper on his riding enjoyment. “This is perfect riding weather,” he confirms with a warm grin.
It had rained earlier that day at the 53rd Annual North Washington Rodeo in West Sunbury, PA—just enough to cool things off. The riders were starting to stream into the rodeo staging area, and the families were busy choosing the best seats and stocking up on cheesy nachos and funnel cakes.
Eight seconds of pure cowboy adrenalin with a heaping side of courage as a snorting bull the size and weight of a Volkswagen Beetle does its best to rid itself of the human mosquito hanging on its back.
Make no mistake, boys and girls, these cowboys are tougher than a bin of aged beef jerky. I’m one step away from calling 911 if I so much as stub my big toe, yet these guys and gals get trampled on and jabbed by a two-ton beast with horns, and they just brush it off.
In cowboy philosophy, it’s not a matter of whether you’ll get hurt, it’s a matter of when—and the cowboys are the first to admit they would never let details like broken bones and searing pain get in their way.
These cowboys remind me of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail who famously says, “Just a flesh wound. ‘Tis but a scratch.” To which Arthur replies, “A scratch? Your arm’s off!”
All joking aside, there’s much more to these roughriders than a fancy wide-brimmed cowboy hat, a pair of designer Boulet boots, and a high threshold for pain. At their core, they’re authentic.
The rodeo runs thick through their veins like blackstrap molasses. With more character than a pair of tattered Wrangler Jeans, these dedicated athletes share a common bond and passion for wide open spaces, animals, and the cowboy way. Cowboys remain cherished American icons—not because of what they do or because of their romanticized past—but because of who they are.
Hundreds of years have passed since the Spanish cattlemen known as vaqueros helped influence what would later morph into today’s American cowboy. Yet, the nineteenth century spirit and work ethic that helped build our country is still etched deeply into their souls.
You could see it in the intensity of their gaze; you could see it in their battle-tested hands; you could see it in how they held their heads high and proud, even after getting tossed onto the ground and stepped on. It was even evident in the camaraderie, laughter, and stories they all shared with a cowboy vibe that felt like you were passing a flask of whisky around the campfire after an all-day cattle drive.
The rodeo continues to be one of the most historic and time-honored forms of North American pageantry and competition in existence today—a seemingly unchanged vestige to remind us of our humble Americana roots. In a world that has become overly complicated, impersonal, and materialistic, it’s good to know some things never change—and to know our genuine icons have not faded.
As the sun dropped down over the rodeo arena and the sky turned a stunning shade of blue, I watched in admiration as the brave bareback bronc riders, steer wrestlers, barrel racers, and bull riders did what they do best—and did it with unflinching passion and uncompromising skill.
If you ask them, they’ll tell you they don’t do it for the money or the fame—they’re in it for the life.
A seasoned champion bull rider embodied this spirit when he offered advice to an anxious 11-year-old boy who was sitting on an agitated bull as it waited to launch out of its chute. “Just go out there and have fun, Colton. If you can’t do that, then what’s the point?”