It is Stampede time in the city. Cowboys and cowgirls strut along hay bale lined streets, ‘just out of the box’ pointy-toed boots shining, belt buckles gleaming amidst freshly pressed jeans and denim shirts. Smiles greet strangers, and visitors become your next best friend beneath the brim of white stetson’s and SmithBilts.
The wild west is alive on every street corner. Wrangler dudes stage shoot-outs. Rodeo ropin’ cowboys roam the streets eager to rope in their next conquest and square dancin’ couples jostle up against hungry patrons eager to chow down on pancakes and sausages being served up from the grill. Early each morning of this 10 day extravaganza, there’s a pancake breakfast in every quadrant, empty parking lot and back deck of the city. There are barbecues and corn roasts too. It’s a party and everyone’s invited. Yeehaw!
And amidst the flowing skirts and denim jackets, the pearly whites and firm handshakes, a homeless man shuffles through the crowd. His shirt is grimy. His jeans torn. A once white sock peeps out from a hole in the left toe of his scuffed up sneakers. “Got any spare change for a coffee?” he asks a stranger standing in line for breakfast. Before the patron can respond, a police officer walks up and takes the homeless man firmly by the shoulder. “Move along sir. Move along.”
It is the constant litany throughout the city during this time of high spirits and foot-stompin’ good times mixed with copious amounts of whisky and beer.
Move along sir. Move along.
There are watering holes in this city that will make 75% of their annual sales during the ten day drunk that Stampede brings to their giant tents and sawdust covered floors. Parties go late into the night. Revellers stumble, drunk and disorderly through the streets. For the police, it is not an easy time as civic intolerance for social disorder takes a back seat to the myth ‘it’s all in the name of having a good time’. Little business gets done during the Stampede’s wild 10 days though many unions happen outside the marriage beds when partners stumble, giving rise to divorce ‘Stampede style’ and a baby boom in April.
It is, in many ways, how I imagine the wild west once was. Lawlessness running wild on the dust-covered trails leading west into the long prairie grasses. Cattle grazing and cowboys ranging, rifles tucked into a saddle flap, tie-down ropes on the ready to bring in an errant calf. It was fight or die for subsistence in a harsh and unforgiving landscape. It was make it or break it in a city growing up in the shadow of the Rockies, where men scrambled for the next big rush and the women folk struggled to put down roots.
And everyone was after the same thing. A head of cattle or black gold gushing from the earth. Take your pick, it was hard, gruelling work and it was all there waiting to be captured for the man willing to bet his stake on a winner take all gamble to be the biggest cowboy on the range.
And at the end of the day, cowboys and cowgirls, oil men and their ‘women folk’ met under the stars, beneath the big tent, on the dusty floor of a barn and partied up like there was no tomorrow. Ever day was a no holds barred quest to survive against a harsh environment where there was no place for the down and out. ‘You make your way pardner. You pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you grab hold of that ring and hold on ’cause you’re in for a wild ride!’
In a city high on the excitement of staging “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth”, there is no room for poverty amidst the prosperity eagerly strutting the heart of wild west for the over one million visitors who will take in the festivities over the ten days. This is Big Business and Big Business has little room for little brothers strugglin’ to make ends meet on the other side of the street. Down and outs are bad for business. We gotta move ’em along.
And the man moves along, only to return when the coast is clear. “Got any spare change for a coffee?” he asks before moving along, to the next and the next and the next.