By Thomas Johnson, October 10 2018 —
It’s 11 a.m. and I’ve got a can of cheap beer in hand. I’m in a queue encompassing the entire block, waiting for a breakfast along The Street. It’s one of over a hundred Stampede Breakfasts providing on-the-house carbs to sop up the liquor in the pit of your stomach and I’ve been shuffling in anticipation for 35 minutes. The feast is free and therefore a top priority. A quintet of girls in sea-green dresses twirl on a platform behind me at the end of the park. On the grass to my right are a number of booths and activities, including a pair of piglets grunting in a pen and several toddlers trying to outsmart them. Awaiting me at the finish line is a quaint gazebo shading a small band playing cheerful honky tonk and, across from it, a spread of coffee, eggs, sausage and pancakes.
A man in denim overalls ahead of me walks over to The Street to retch into a sewer drain. A mechanical bull at my three o’clock claims another victim. It’s the Calgary Stampede. There’s a rodeo — with real cattle. It’s the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, from what I hear. Behind me, a particularly floral woman — dress, headband and bouquet in hand — feverishly advises me on how to properly lock my legs around the steer’s would-be ribs. I clarify to her that I’m in line for brekkie, not the bull. She claims to know Def Leppard. She informs me she went through a decade of school to become an chiropractor, followed by another five to become an osteopath, and she now works in a dental office. When she met Def Leppard she made sure to snap some pics. We inch toward the food at a glacial pace.
All the businesses in the vicinity sport uniformly rough wooden fixtures applied to patio railings and door frames. An artificial silhouette of the same broncobuster leans against nearly each one. End of the line. At the table, the portion sizes handed out are agreeable — the impressive complimentary syrup packet could last me a week. A squad walking towards The Grounds shotguns a couple cans. In the weeks leading up, bales were strewn about the streets like premonitory corpses signalling the first waves of plague and now there’s straw everywhere. And now the straw is in my eggs. There’s ketchup in my lager, somehow.
Down and across the pavilion, patios are buzzy with the sounds of clinking glasses and Luke Bryan. Beer taps have been flowing since the wee hours of the morning, if they’ve even taken a break from the previous night. There are pints to be had before noon. Sunbaked vomit flecks the sidewalks and the air is milky with vape clouds, tobacco fumes and the reek of the previous night. A pair of untamed cowboys embrace in the junction of a frenetic intersection, unaware of the pickups and Priuses whizzing within inches of their maps. Before she has a chance to expound on her relationship with Mr. Leppard, the lady behind me marches off, intent on breaking the cybernetic ox. I later overhear her griping about her meagre portion of liquid eggs.
The degree of The Stampede’s excess borders on surreal. It’s dusk and unsettled dust kicked up by blister-inducing boots gives the dying light a grotty tint. The modern focal points of the Stampede — wild wives, unhinged husbands, corporate acedia, inscrutable liquor sales, Florida Georgia Line, infidelity, Daisy Dukes and riding boots, general debauchery, hedonism and humongous Calgary White Hats — lend themselves to a mind-altering experience. The 10 days of Stampede can be expunged from the other 355 and are agreed by the majority to not have happened at all. It’s a pocket in space-time where consequences, inhibitions and sometimes even corporeal hygiene are superfluous. Briefly, it’s a different world — there’s a reason Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters made a pit stop here on their continental trip to unleash the psychedelic movement. Though William Burroughs never came to the Stampede, he wrote Naked Lunch, which is at times a decent analogue.
The central drag within The Grounds is lit like a carnival. An epileptic array of pastel blue and emerald green, royal purple, gold and crimson LED lights bask the food trucks and their deep-fried products in a dizzying spell. I’m heading to The Tent, the true heart of the contemporary Stampede, down the winding main artery where vendors hock gastric curiosities including, but not limited to, deep-fried bacon-wrapped Reese’s Cups, giant squid on a stick, ice cream-stuffed watermelon, ice cream cookie dough sandwiches, bull testicles topped with blueberry compote and a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkled with crushed nuts, grilled cheese and crickets, caramel apples and crickets and something called a Big Pickle Tornado. An errant stroller ruptures my Achilles, leading me to question why on earth anyone would bring a child’s innocent immune system to such a potent breeding ground for bacteria.
My direct surroundings are a potpourri of clashing plaids, denim cut-offs and wide-brim hats. A concerning number of shirts are tarped at the pits. Below the waists are all sorts of denim: jeans, jorts, bellbottoms, skirts, dresses and dramatically short shorts. Soles are speckled with upturned breakfasts. There are steady eruptions of yahoos and cat-calls, whheeeuu’s and sooooo-eeys. There’s prairie dialect abound. A rural chorus of Albertan proverbs — ‘Shoot the boot!’ ‘Just hackin’ a dart!’ ‘FERDA!’ — erupt intermittently. Still, the only voice I hear when I close my eyes is Darius Rucker’s, singing “Wagon Wheel.”
I reach the Stampede’s central test of character, The Line. Three-men wide, it slithers around two-by-four dividers like a great basilisk eager to consume hours of your life. Several hundred people stand between me and The Tent, each having made the gruelling short-term sacrifice of waiting for the nebulous hellscape inside the ivory canopy. I’ve caught The Line early — it’s no more than a 45-minute wait, I reckon. A blink of an eye in this limbo where time depletes in direct correlation to the cash in your wallet. The Tent must be earned.
In a nearby throng I see a portly man in a curved brown hat waving a sausage link around. A friend told me earlier of this character, which he affectionately dubbed ‘The Boss Hog.’ I hadn’t believed him, but there he was, legs cocked and shoulder-width apart, whipping a link of wieners around his head like a lasso. A man who’s shirt reads ‘I drink better beer than you’ bullies his way through the line. He paws a pair of Budweisers en route to the Phat Dawgs stand.
An hour later The Line reaches the paddock-like infrastructure bordering The Tent. An eight-lane procession writhes and terminates at the identification scanners, with three lanes left open to allow security to monitor the herd. The lanes are roughly two-feet wide and the deluge is crammed and corralled through the pen, steering your attention to the haunches that precede you. This must be how livestock feel as they’re led to their commodification. The crowd cheers as security forcibly escorts squealing, line-jumping swine out. During ejection, the ne’er-do-wells emphatically explain the great length of the line and how there’s absolutely, like, no fucking way they should wait in that! Look at it! Our friends are right there, brah! They flip the unsympathetic watchmen a shaky bird and huff off.
Two hours later, I’m considerably sober, but I’m in.
Here I am. At the feet of an ABM cluster sits an ankle-deep carpet of receipts. I insert debit here, and in my head I calculate in vain the perfect amount to withdraw, but math and numbers no longer exist. This is it, The Tent, the culmination of all the ‘pede has to offer. The villainous machine only dispenses multiples of $50. I decide on $100. It demands a king’s ransom for the money it’s holding hostage. Better make that $50. Insufficient funds. Credit: $50. We’re live. The automated asshole relinquishes my bill and I turn to glimpse the muckery abound.
Inside, The Tent operates as its own loathsome ecosystem. It’s a microcosm of Stampede, the whole of its chaos condensed under a single tarp. It’s a land of a thousand bottlenecks, where at every opportunity the crowd will attempt to sing “Mr. Brightside” acapella. It’s a hypochondriac’s nightmare — everyone and everything is sticky. Sweat is dripping from jaws grinding the teeth within to a fine powder. The ground is painted with spat tobacco and crushed cans. An ill-matched couple furiously make-out to my left and to my right a bug-eyed hypebeast in a spread collar Hawaiian shirt unzips his fly. There’s a sick pride in the air, a haughty transcendence of vanity — nothing matters in The Tent. It’s an aberration of cultural responsibility. Basic values of decency, morality, humanity, public safety and personal hygiene are omitted from Labatt-soaked brain cells en masse. Everyone’s pupils are dilated. It’s appalling, and, in the moment, heinously appealing. The crazed lack of inhibitions would be almost admirable if it all didn’t smell like urine.
Once my eyes adjust to the barrage of oscillating spotlights, I put a mortgage down on a couple beers and, answering nature’s call, make my way to The Tent’s bowels. At the base of each trailer in the Porta-centre lies a puddle several inches deep with a flotsam of roaches and butts. In a brilliant display of guerrilla-revolt, a female contingent usurps a male-designated portable. From the toilets that remain in their control, cowboys and dude-ranchers file out hollering obscenities and pumping unwashed fists. Several disapproving significant others avert their eyes. It smells cleaner in the latrine than it does outside.
Back within The Tent, a square fellow whose handlebar frames beet-red cheeks and a puckered mouth offers me a shot. I accept. The bartender pours the supposed ounce in a thimble-sized shotglass and my endomorphic new friend and I toast to the ‘pede. I hear Neil Diamond. Drinks begin to proliferate. The mob starts singing “Sweet Caroline.” Amidst the sea of glowsticks, dimensions begin to warp. Depth becomes subjective and time is best measured the next day via transaction statements. Nine-dollar Bud Lights begin to taste like ambrosia. A wet projectile strikes my temple. Ba-ba-ba. Another can to the dome. So good, so good.
The soft neon aura of The Tent becomes a blinding white fluorescent and I’m on a train car surrounded by friendly voices. Soon the brightness cedes way to a lamp-lit twilight on a residential sidewalk removed from the ruckus. My roving detachment finds an abandoned shopping cart located in the Co-op parking lot like it’s fate. I hop in and fly. Streetlights are whizzing by, blending into the royal green lawns and slate tarmac and there’s an orange-red 7-Eleven sign and an independent dry cleaners and a curb fast approaching and I hit a crack and the back wheels come up from under me and I’m launched and I awake supine on a inconveniently sized, sticky leather sectional. I can feel my forehead’s pulse.
By way of heat or hangover, The Street is quiet the next day. It had been swept of its filth overnight and the only signs of life flocked to proprietors of caffeine. Stray scattered brittle blades of hay still fleck the walk and the dust that had yet to settle hung about. But there is nary an indication the Stampede had trampled through Calgary.