The brim of my black, straw-woven cowboy hat tilted down across my face, hiding my eyes, as I slipped my arms through the cold cattle-fencing that surrounded the ring before me and leaned in to get comfortable. A cigarette hung from my mouth and a bucket of 8 0z Coors Lights in ice sat in the mud by my boots as I waited for the leveling of man and beast to begin. There was a Zen stillness in the air and the muddy bull-riding arena seemed, curiously, to be waiting in thoughtful meditation. In the chute (where bull and rider first meet), restlessly stood “Hit Man”, as a rider climbed on his back and wrapped the leather rope around his gloved hand, settling in to his balance and posture. He sat there for a moment centering himself, or perhaps questioning his sanity or pondering his mortality, before giving the steady nod that said, open the gate. The gate was pulled open and Hit Man charged into the arena. Bucking and kicking, spinning in circles, he was enraged in his inherent pursuit to throw the human off of his back and trample him to death. The rider squeezed his legs tight to the body of the bull, holding on desperately and reaching back into all of his experience and training for a few more seconds, before the bull threw his body into the air. He landed three feet from me, face and shoulder first, splashing me with mud. Now this is a REAL splash zone, I thought to myself, watching as he quickly rolled away from the stomping hooves of Hit Man. Rodeo clowns ran around the arena like mad men, waving their arms and shouting at the bull, trying to distract it from its mission of killing the rider and I couldn’t help but wonder, what if the bulls had clowns also to distract the humans from saving themselves…? Now that would a be a good show!
The crowd cheered as the mud-covered rider finally made his way out of the arena, shaking off some lingering pain, and the bull was herded back into its pen. The announcer called out his time and the rider pulled off his helmet and with an enormous smile, gave a victorious fist pump to sky. As the next bull and rider were being readied, the announcer came back on the loudspeakers, this time with a challenge to the crowd, “Anyone out there in the stands ever wanted to ride a bull?”, he said, his thick southern draw saturating the speakers. “Tonight’s your lucky night! Anyone who’s brave and or crazy enough, is welcome to come sign a disclaimer and register for an amateur ride this evening!” What. I thought. They’d just let anyone do this…?” I shook my head at the insanity and watched as the gate opened back up and “Thor” rumbled out into the arena sending, once again, a rider flying through the air and into the mud. I tried to focus on the clowns and their clown work, but I felt the fresh mud of the arena on me sinking into my body and filling my veins with this strange new manic fire that made me crave the taste of blood and mud in my mouth. I shook my head, trying to snap myself out of it. Absolutely insane, I reiterated to myself, pushing it forcibly from my mind.
I watched as rider after rider, was thrown into the air from the bulls, some after one second, some after eight. Some landed on their feet and some landed on their face. There were those that succeeded in their desperate scramble off the arena and those that took a few nice, heavy stomps to various parts of their body. It was such a dynamic ring of dirt and it all boiled down to one theme: the battle between man and beast. This is an ancient fray that goes back to the birth of human kind itself. Never has it been a war of resentment, but always a leveling of power in the world around us, where the two dominant forces of earth, man and animal, square off in an ever-longing contest of superiority. Sometimes man wins and sometimes beast wins. It’s a truth in the world we live in and by mutual respect, we live in harmony… but only barely does the human race, if even, deservedly claim the top of the food chain.
In my head, the announcer’s voice relentlessly whispered… ride the bull, ride the bull, ride the bull… the medic in me desperately trying to reminded me of broken femurs, pericardial tamponade, basilar skull fractures and hemo-pneumo-thorax. I thought of myself leaving that place in an ambulance that night, back in the office, but on the other side of the desk. I studied the riders… they had helmets and Kevlar on… I mean… I guessed that was a little protection. Whatever, I thought, and quickly pushed the images of my broken bleeding body from my mind. No one ever got anywhere on earth being afraid to bleed. The announcer’s voice persisted… rrriiidde the buuulllll. I looked down at the bucket of beers that were now swimming in water; I had subconsciously not been drinking them, my inner-self preparing me for this decision with sobriety. I looked at the muddy pit, seeing a thousand bodies contact the earth with a thud. Damnit, I thought to myself, and, taking a deep breath, decided to ride the bull.
I walked around the arena to where the announcer’s booth was and looked up at it feeling like a crazy person. The announcer was in the middle of introducing the next rider and bull, so I waited patiently for him to finish, hearing every pounding heart beat from inside my chest. He put down the microphone and with all the strength and courage in my body, I stammered to him relinquishment of control over my fate… “I’d like to ride a bull.” He looked at me shocked, as if they’d never had a volunteer before. “I’m sorry, that was the last ride… you should have come up sooner.” A cold wave a disappointment washed over me, my mind drifting on his words. I had made the hard-battled decision to ride a bull, and now I would not be riding the bull. I felt like a kid whose ice cream had fallen out of its cone and onto the sidewalk. The sound of the last rider hitting the mud behind me brought me back to reality and I turned to see him get up with mud in his smile, the crowd cheering. That was it. The announcer thanked the crowd and said goodnight and the arena emptied of people, becoming a silent temple to man and beast. Oh well, I thought, I guess it’s having the gut to make the decision in the first place to ride the bull. That’s the only control we really ever have.
I walked around the arena to the pen where Hit Man was standing and looked into his eyes. He snorted kindly at me, rubbing his nose on the steel gate. “You did well tonight.” I told him with a smile. He stamped his back leg softly and snorted at me again, as if agreeing. He knew who was king of this ring. Hit Man and I stood together in the silence, feeling the wild energy in the air dissipate, until the thick clouds of dust had all fallen quietly back to the earthen floor of the arena. I said goodnight to Hit Man and as I was walking off, I stopped and turned back to my new bovine friend with a smile on my face and wink in my eye, “I didn’t get to ride you tonight.” I said, “But maybe someday we’ll have our moment… and if we do, I’ll make sure you have your own clowns too.”