American sports culture is as diverse as it is divergent. NBA hopefuls, competitive cheerleaders, freestyle BMXicans can prosper and fail in states of mutual obliviousness. Even still, it's odd that a seemingly home-brewed sport like rodeo should be considered marginal. But facts must be faced: Does any rodeo icon enjoy half the recognition of a Paris Hilton hanger-on? Exactly.
W.K. Stratton's Chasing the Rodeo -- subtitled On Wild Rides and Big Dreams, Broken Hearts and Broken Bones, and One Man's Search for the West -- makes the sport seem familiar even if it does defy easy categorization. It's both a memoir, a string of profiles and a travel narrative with lengthy digressions into rodeo culture and folklore. Chasing is full of fascinating historical nuggets. Take African-American cowboy Bill Pickett, who invented bulldogging, steer wrestling, and went on to become one of the sports first superstars. He also starred in the first films comprised of all-black casts that attempted to avoid the crude stereotypes. Of course this didn't protect him from the dehuman-ization of Jim Crow, which consigned him to the livestock car while traveling by rail.
Ultimately what Stratton seems to be chasing is an authentic American ritual that takes the stuff of hard work and transforms it into a celebration of hard play. As such, he attempts to settles the thorny debate on rodeo's origins. While rodeo is often described as "the only spectator sport originating entirely in the United States," Stratton contends that like many American products, rodeo is a Mexican creation, one that predates the cowboy era by several centuries.
For all his reporting, it's actually Stratton's personal reflections that make the book exceptionally readable. The legacy of "Cowboy Don," his biological father, we learn, is part of the rodeo's appeal for him, as it's one of the few traces he has to who his dad was. While he doesn't advance this argument, it's hard to ignore the connection between sports and a larger quest for paternal communion. Whether it's baseball or bulldogging, sports represent one of a few avenues though which manhood is conveyed. Perhaps this explains why sports highlight films are as schmaltzy as anything Nora Ephron might produce.
While there's an undue amount of banal narratives involving Stratton's rental cars and motel experiences, there's enough substance in Chasing the Rodeo to make it worth the trouble of saddling up and following along.