Below is the first chapter of the year I spent bull riding in America. This was a silly idea on many fronts, none more so than at the time I couldn’t ride a horse. The book will be called Saltwater Cowboy. It should be finished by this year. If anyone is interested in my other book called Tunnel Vision (about a year spent on a professional surfing tour), you can buy it in paper form from www.allenandunwin.com. or ebook/kindle version from Amazon.
I’m sitting on the back of a bull at a rodeo three hours north of Los Angeles. To my right, a muscle toned maniac called Tom is asking me how tight I want my rope pulled. Gary Leffew, bull riding guru, is beside him. Behind them, a group of dwarfs dressed in cowboy outfits are doing stretches. A few metres past them, a Mexican band in pin striped suits and capes are blasting out deafening Spanish music. To my left is the arena. Behind that, 1000 happy drunk Mexicans are chatting and laughing and dancing to the band. Below me, between my legs, an 800 kilo black bull called Jawbreaker gives a slight quiver.
Seriously, what the hell am I doing? I did a bull riding school on a ranch in California to learn how to ride bulls. I worked on that ranch for another six weeks to continue that progression in a rational way. I do not want to die. There is a feeling that bull riders get in the pit of their guts when their luck is about to change and I have that feeling. It’s not superstition – more like math. I’ve been on the back of 27 bulls and only suffered a mild concussion, sprained wrist and a few bruises. The dark shadow has swooped above me. Something serious is about to happen.
My fear is of the known. I know the temperament of Jawbreaker. I know it well. Jawbreaker is an angry, powerful, irrational and incisive beast. The bull has come from Gary Leffew’s ranch and is the rankest of a wild bunch.
“He’ll hook ya, that angry son of a bitch.” Tom would say when we’d feed him on the ranch. We would hurl a bunch of hay at his hooves and quickly close the gate behind us, often hearing the a loud bang as the bull would ram its body against the gate. We were both deeply afraid of the bull. Tom Banner, complete maniac and rider of over 300 bulls, had less reason it be afraid than me and he is petrified of Jawbreaker. And now I am on his back, feeling the heat of his warm hide radiate through my thighs. How has it come to this? Seriously, how?
“Wanna ride this one for me?” I ask Tom.
He turns and raises his shirt, revealing a fleshy bruise that is starting to swell on the base of his spine. “That’s why not. Why don’t you ask Louis?”
Louis, a Mexican with cowboy getup and a breath smelling of whisky, had magically appeared after the first two bulls had been loaded into the chutes at the start of the day. As far as we knew, we were getting 25 dollars for each ride and were happy to give him a go. No doubt believing he’d get a safe journey, Louis chose a small bull without horns called Little Bit, but the bull had more spirit than he’d expected and, after impressively riding out a few bucks, had thrown him quite savagely into the dirt. I’d watched Louis crawl behind the chutes, drop to one knee and pant eagerly for the air to fill back into his lungs. I didn’t feel sorry for Louis at that moment. He’d landed hard but clear of the bull’s hind legs. I had a feeling it wouldn’t take him long to recover and sure enough he emerged from the chutes moments later, proudly bowing to the crowd, then collecting a whisky bottle that someone had thrown from the stands.
I’d asked Louis if he wanted to ride Jawbreaker but he’d declined with shinning eyes and a smile. He was three quarters of the way through the whisky bottle by then and having too good a time to risk jumping on that thing.
Jawbreaker is my second ride for the day. The first was on a large bluish coloured Brahma called Idaho. Idaho had dislodged me swiftly on its second buck and stomped on my leg as I lay on the dirt. For fear of a broken bone, I had been too nervous to check the damage but now, with my right leg dangling around the girth of the black bull, I can see a rip in my jeans and blood seeping through the fabric.
Jawbreaker shakes again. My legs wobble. This is ridiculous. There aren’t even rodeo clowns at this event. Rodeo clowns have the task of getting between rider and bull if anything goes wrong to try to distract the bull, giving the rider enough time to escape. I’d assumed the dwarfs might be rodeo clowns but discovered their role was not to protect but entertain. They’d already given an interesting performance to an enthralled crowd, bravely laying on the dirt as the bulls charged over them. No doubt they’ll be back at some point for a finale.
“I’m not doing it.” I shout to Gary over the Spanish music.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not going to ride this bull.”
“You’re going to puss out?” he asks, incredulously.
“Yep. I don’t trust the bull and there’s no rodeo clowns.”
My head is a blur. The Mexican band appears to be getting more feverish. The smell of sausage, onion and dirt clings to the air. I can taste fear.
“Don’t worry about Jawbreaker,” Garry comments airily. “I’m going to throw my jacket at him when you come off.”
I briefly contemplate the odds of an 800 kilo wild animal being deterred by a flying red jacket. I start loosening my rope off the bull.
“Tom, get your rope,” shouts Gary, and I make the mistake of looking at him at that moment and catching the disappointed in your eyes.
“Don’t worry. I’ll ride him,” I find myself saying. “Tighten the rope.”
I’m going to die from pride. What a wasted emotion.
Tom pulls the rope hard and it jams down around my hand. I do not frantically rub resign on my rope for extra grip – as other riders do. I can feel my heart. I can feel the strength of the hide of the bull below me. I’m staring straight ahead at a set of horns. This is it.
Suddenly, a piece of paper is thrust before me.
Leaning across me, with groomed moustache, crisp white shirt and black pants, is a Mexican official. The piece of paper is some sort of waiver – that absolves the organisers of any responsibility should I get hurt. They had not produced the waiver before Tom’s ride. They had not produced the waver during Louis’ ride. They can see what is about to unfold, and have produced the waiver now.
The official quickly hands over a pen. Jawbreaker gives a sudden jerk below me as I scribble on the dotted line. It’s the first time in my life I’ve signed for something left handed. It’s the first time in my life I’ve signed for something while sitting on the back of a bull. A flash realisation hits: what if I’m never able to laugh about this? What if I really do die?
I nod my head. Gary pulls the gate. As the bull gives a slight turn towards the opening, I wonder why I ever wanted to be a bull rider.