Just as the sun melted behind the cliffs, we rolled into the low, dry valley that is Riggins. Along the highway people fished, barbecued and wandered with easy grins and Keystone. The boy, his buddy and I were tucked in the Dodge, headed to the shores of the Salmon with beer and processed cheese snacks. I had been hearing stories for months about orgiastic beach parties, "generous" nudity (and I mean that in several ways), Black Velvet shooters and enough crazed livestock to satisfy the most leathery of dudes. I was high on mythology, but nothing could have prepared me for the sweet chaos of the Riggins Rodeo.
Just outside "downtown" Riggins (aka two gas stations, four motels and a liquor store), a crowd that more than doubled the town's total population covered the riverbanks like a plague. Trucks were wedged together like crayons and campsites stretched for miles like some sort of MTV Springbreak Shantytown. We spotted some familiar rigs and parked. It was then that I met my new family—17 people who would become my peanut gallery for the next three days. They included the boy and various buddies (i.e. the "drunks"), two Sarahs, one Heidi, Mama Jess, Tippetts and a guy known only as "The Chad."
Right away, I learned the ground rules. No peeing in "nature," no open containers (with the exception of Pringles) and no uncontrolled campfires. The local police were on hand and wary, but for the most part they just sat in their cars and made sure everybody behaved and had enough toilet paper. That established, our merry band commenced with making merry. Sarah No. 1 took turns with Copenhagen and Coors Light (after all, she is a lady), Mama Jess drank PBR (by choice!), Tippetts booty-danced, the boy earned the nickname "jabber n' snooze" by repeatedly passing out—er, I mean "napping," the drunks got drunker and "The Chad" sat in his chair and smiled mysteriously.
People from other camps came by every few minutes to introduce themselves. There were some real characters among them (including a guy who lost his mullet to angry attack dogs, a beer-thief who sang the "rubber ducky" song from Sesame Street and a girl wearing pink stilettos and a skirt the size of a Kleenex), but everyone got into the spirit. Hippies, hillbillies, frat boys and regular folks came together to celebrate the first rodeo of the year and the first warm weekend of the season.
The next morning, the boy and I rose early to do some fishing. The other tents were quiet, and we knew we would have a few hours before "beer:30." When we returned, we spotted our posse on the hilltop opposite the rodeo grounds. Weeding our way through clowns and sequin-studded cowgirls, we soon realized that parking was going to be a challenge. And when I say challenge, I mean that the first available spot was about the size of a Geo and about 500 feet from our tent. So we gave up, parked at camp and hitched a ride.
The entry fee was $7 a piece, and I got the skinny from rodeo official/secretary of the Salmon River Dive Team, Nikki Johnson.
"This rodeo started in 1948, and it's still the first one of the year in this state. Cowboys and cowgirls come to test their skills, and other people come to get wrecked," she laughed. A veteran barrel racer, Johnson explained that while the Riggins Rodeo is on the amateur circuit, it is still highly competitive and a great way for the town to generate revenue. "This event brings upward of 7,000 people. It used to be real rowdy, but now it's a family thing that's fun for everyone," she said.
Scaling the hill like a wounded goat, I finally reached my friends and a seat that had literally been dug into the hillside. The heat was incredible, but it didn't detract from the action. From mutton busting to team roping to milking wild cows, the horsemen demonstrated both skill and personality. Sipping my country cocktail, I watched Caldwell's Mike Sparks ride a dastardly bull named Clueless. He frothed and flailed like a freight train, but Sparks was solid. Nimbly jumping from 2,000 pounds of angry beef, he pitched his hat across the corral and nodded at the audience. I had never heard so many yee-haws in my life—that is, until Matt Funke rode his cooler.
Cooler riding down the hill is as big a tradition at the Riggins Rodeo as roping, and the funny thing is, it's much more glamorous. Most riders didn't make it more than a few feet, but the fun was in the carnage. Toward the end of the show, a cowboy made his way to the very top of the hill. He was about three times higher than any of the previous contenders and I was sure he would change his mind. He didn't. Launching off the dirt, he shot down and flew out of the cooler. He proceeded to flip, fully extended, the rest of the way down, taking blows to the head, back and shins. Dirt swirled as he came to rest. The crowd was silent. All of the sudden, he jumped up with victory fists and everyone went bananas.
A few minutes later I got in line for the honey bucket and spotted Master Funke. He was already a celebrity, and he answered my questions with the kind of candor that only comes with a severe head wound. He admitted that it hurt like a "son-of-a-bitch" and that his friends had counted five complete rotations in the air. He showed me some gnarly wounds, but the pain was apparently worth the glory.
"True cowboys do enough drinkin' and snoozin' to handle anything. Besides, I have a motto: No regrets ... oh, and everybody Wang Chung tonight," he said.
After two more days of partying, I realized that the Riggins Rodeo is kind of like college. It is about studying (or horsemanship, as the case may be), but it's more about experiencing life in new ways and cutting loose with new friends. From drinking to watching riders in the heat, the essence of the weekend seemed to be "git 'er dun," a cowboy phrase that equates to the Latin "carpe diem." And despite my somewhat modest contributions to the chaos, I came home covered in crud and full of memories that will last forever (even if Matt Funke doesn't).