The wind whipped across the surface of the rodeo arena at the fairgrounds in Rock Springs, Wyo., forcing Danny Jendral to seek shelter from an approaching storm.
Wind, rain and mud are as much a part of professional rodeo as fast food and Wranglers, hotels and highways. But that doesn't mean the 25-year-old skier-turned-
cowboy from Steamboat Springs has to like it.
Jendral's jeans and western shirt with Soda Creek the store where Jendral sometimes works stitched on the sleeves are going to get dirty tonight, but that's the least of his concerns. Considering fewer than 50 percent of the cowboys last the required eight seconds in bull riding, there's a good chance the 1,500-pound bull will toss Jendral from his back and plant him in the mud. There's also a chance, as there is every time he gets on a bull, Jendral will get hurt.
Only one thing is certain not long after his ride, Jendral will have to get behind the wheel of his 2000 GMC conversion van to drive the barren, 258-mile stretch of interstate between Rock Springs and Cheyenne for what he hopes will be another eight seconds of work.
It's a grueling, demanding job, unlike anything else in professional sports. Rodeo cowboys have homes, but they are rarely there. And there are no guaranteed contracts, no signing bonuses. Cowboys get paid only when they win, so the more rodeos they make, the better chance they have of getting paid.
That means up to 100 rodeos per year for those who enjoy the health and financial support to go at it full time. Even then, the very best bull riders in the world will win $100,000 in a full season, about enough to cover their travel costs and earn them a trip to the lucrative National Finals, where they can finally make a profit.
For cowboys like Jendral, who is in his fourth year and has earned less than $1,000 in 2002, rodeoing often costs more than it pays. But hiding from the rain in a room in Rock Springs on the start of a four-day, four-rodeo, 1,160-mile swing through Colorado and Wyoming, Jendral knows of nothing he'd rather be doing.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world," he said. "I can't explain it, but I love it."
Date with Banana Joe
Jendral's first assignment of this trip is a bull named Banana Joe at the Red Desert Roundup, the name of the rodeo in this town of 18,000 in southwestern Wyoming.
Banana Joe's name comes from horns that curl under in a banana shape. He is known for a slow-moving style and for bucking hard, the kind of bull a cowboy can win money on if he can ride him.
Jendral knows that more than anything else, what he needs to do is get in the right frame of mind.
Bull riding "is about 98 percent mental," he said. "Sure you have to be strong, but if you make one mental mistake, it's all over."
On this night, Jendral started well enough. He survived the bull's initial explosion out of the chute and held on for a hard right turn that followed. Things were starting to look good a couple more seconds and Jendral might be in line for a check of $1,000 or more, the payout for first place in Rock Springs.
But things went south quickly. Banana Joe gave a hard kick, twisted his belly and went into a turn to the left, sending Jendral flying in the opposite direction. Alabama cowboy Tyler Fowler, in the midst of a red-hot streak that saw him win more than $14,000 in July, would win the bull riding and $1,292 with an 88.
Jendral spent 2 1/2 hours driving from Steamboat to Rock Springs. He waited several more hours for his turn to ride. But his work for the night lasted just six seconds, the amount of time that elapsed from when the chute opened until he hit the muddy arena floor.
The disappointed cowboy retrieved his white beaver-blend hat from the ground and made a quick exit to begin the task of loading his gear into an oversized bag so he could hit the road.
Jendral said nothing about his unsuccessful ride until he arrived at a truck stop for a late-night dinner with his friend and sometime traveling partner, Jason McClain. Jendral tried to find the words that explained what had happened on the ride. McClain, who made the National Finals Rodeo last year and finished 12th in the world standings, listened and offered his advice.
By the time the fish and chips arrived, the ride was history. Instead, McClain and Jendral traded barbs with a good-natured waitress who obviously had handled a few rodeo cowboys in her time with the same ease Banana Joe did.
Shortly after finishing his last sip of coffee, Jendral flipped a few dollars on the table to cover his share of the bill and headed for the van. He said goodbye to McClain, who was traveling with a relative on this trip.
Jendral had missed out in Rock Springs, but already he was looking forward to his next ride on the other side of Wyoming at one of the biggest rodeos of the year.
"Wait until we get to Cheyenne," he said. "If you're one of the top guys in the world, it's just like being a rock star.
"You will see."
Young and fearless
It was around 11:30 p.m. when Jendral pulled out of the truck stop with a full tank of gas and a full stomach. The plan was to drive as far as he could that night and find a hotel room within shouting distance of Cheyenne so he wouldn't have a long drive before jumping on the back of another bull.
This is a way of life for the 1,676 bull riders in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, most of whom are risking their necks for dreams they will never realize. Only a few make it to the upper levels of the sport and even fewer see significant financial rewards.
Jendral understands this. That's why he spends his winters at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. But there is something attractive about rodeoing, even for those guys who haven't made the big time and probably never will.
More than cowboys in any other event, bull riders are known for living the lifestyle to its fullest. They dress the part, spending big bucks on the best hats and even more on things like Ostrich boots that can cost five to 10 times what a pair of Air Jordans bring.
They compete in one of the most dangerous events in rodeo, an event in which the best cowboys like Lane Frost and Jerome Davis have been killed and paralyzed. The danger means this is an event for the young, fearless and, some would say, foolish.
The current group of professional bull riders permitted by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association range in age from 18 to 37, but the vast majority are younger than 30, said Ann Bleiker of the PRCA.
Most bull riding careers are shorter than eight years in length. It's a sport for cocky, self-assured cowboys who are years or a bad ride away from giving any consideration to their own mortality.
"I love the challenge of bull riding," Jendral said. "The odds are stacked against you. There are no stopwatches and no referees. It's you against the bull and the odds definitely favor the bull. Jason (McClain) and I are some of the older guys out there who are still running hard."
Jendral respects the bulls. He understands how dangerous they can be. He even has his own bull. Diamond Joe used to buck in Steamboat, but when the bull got past its prime, Jendral bought him and turned him out on his ranch near Steamboat.
On the road again
Jendral is no stranger to the road. When he was younger, he made his way across the country as a rising star on the national ski-racing scene. But after spending a couple of years on the bubble, he called it quits.
He was 19 and a little unsure of what was next. Then he discovered rodeo.
He spent two years as an amateur before getting his permit and moving into the professional ranks four years ago. Since then, he has been going hard every summer and attempting to complete college in Texas at the same time. Jendral expects to ride in 50 to 80 rodeos this year.
It is hard on the body. Between skiing and rodeo, Jendral has amassed a list of injuries long enough to fill a half-ton pickup. He rode most of last year with a broken back and assorted other ailments.
It's also hard on the heart. It's difficult to have much of a relationship when one person is speeding from town to town, from rodeo to rodeo.
What cowboys can count on is each other. The past few years, Jendral has traveled with McClain and John Pinnt, formerly of Hayden and now of Craig.
"I love John like a brother," Jendral said. "We've logged a lot of miles together."
Sometimes, like this weekend, Jendral will hook up with calf roper Jason Watts. Watts and Jendral can't travel that much together because it's difficult to coordinate schedules for cowboys in different events. Calf ropers often make two runs at rodeos when bull riders often have only one go.
But Watts didn't have anything better to do this particular weekend because his horse was recovering from an injury. The time on the road was a chance to get away and also spend a night on the town in Cheyenne.
"It seems like all my friends are either named John or Jason," Jendral said. "If you can remember those two names, you are pretty safe."
Jendral met Pinnt on the rodeo road and the two became fast friends. Both of the cowboys enjoy giving each other a hard time.
Jendral and Watts have also formed a fast friendship despite their different events. A couple months back, Watts took a headfirst dive off his horse in Elizabeth. Jendral jumped in the car with Watts' girlfriend and made the drive to Denver, where his buddy was hospitalized. Because of the stop, Jendral nearly missed a rodeo in Garden City, Kan.
"That's where you learn who your friends are," Watts said. "The good ones will come see you when you are in the hospital. They will drive a hundred miles out of the way and basically do anything for you."
For his first few years on the rodeo circuit, Jendral often traveled with his dog, Bailey, who died earlier this summer.
"He was the best traveling partner I ever had," Jendral said. "The dog didn't talk back like John and Jason."
After spending a few hours in a hotel room in Laramie on the second day of his trip, Jendral hooked up with Watts a few miles outside of Cheyenne. The two arrived at the rodeo grounds with high hopes. At Cheyenne, a first-place check can be worth more than $6,000.
But once again, Jendral didn't make the eight-second whistle. In fact, he didn't even make it six seconds on the back of a bull named Knot Head. This time the bull ripped out of the chute and made one turn before Jendral lost his grip on the rope and fell to the ground. Jendral didn't have much to say about the ride as he threw his gear back into his travel bag looking up occasionally to shake his head in frustration.
For rodeo cowboys, bars can be as important as the rodeo arenas. In every rodeo town, cowboys know where to go to celebrate their winnings or, as was Jendral's case this night, to drown their sorrows.
Jendral and Watts joined several other cowboys at the Cowboy South Bar in Cheyenne. For Jendral, the bull ride a couple hours before became a distant memory replaced by beer, girls and dancing.
By last call, Jendral and Watts had convinced three young ladies to have breakfast with them at a local Village Inn. The cowboys ran into a long line at the restaurant, but that didn't matter to the road-savvy Watts, who jumped up when the hostess called for the Tuck party of four. It didn't seem to matter to Watts that nobody in his group was named Tuck or that his party had two additional people.
Within a few minutes, Watts and Jendral were looking over the Big Breakfasts and sharing laughs with the women they met.
The next day, Watts and Jendral hung out at the Lincoln Court Motel in Cheyenne for as long as possible before loading up and heading to the rodeo grounds to meet up with Pinnt, who was scheduled to ride that afternoon and then hook up with Jendral and Watts for the 223-mile run to Eagle for a bull riding-only event that night.
Cheyenne ran long, so Watts had to make good time if Jendral and Pinnt were going to ride in the 10th annual Eagle County Bull Riding Classic known as the Mr. T Classic on the rodeo circuit. The event, named for one of the most famous bulls of all time, has a reputation among cowboys for drawing some of the most unforgiving bulls in the business the kind of bulls cowboys fear because they will hook a guy when he is down or his back is turned.
"A lot of the bulls in Eagle are just plain mean," Jendral said. "A rank bull is one that bucks hard, but some of these bulls are out to hurt you."
The group rolled into the Eagle County Fairgrounds a few minutes after the rodeo began but in plenty of time for the bull riders to get ready.
Jendral didn't know anything about Banana Split, the Burns Rodeo Co. bull he drew, but after getting bucked off for the third straight night, he probably wished he had turned him out.
Making his way out of the arena, Jendral felt a pain in his back that would turn out to be much worse than he initially thought.
"Bull riders never want to turn out and they never want to get taken out by an ambulance," Jendral said. "Bull riders would rather walk out of the arena with a serious injury and drive themselves to the hospital rather than get taken out by an ambulance."
A shower and a prayer
Jendral and Watts didn't hang around Eagle long after his ride ended. The pair hit a local Subway, where they traded a few autographs for a bag of ice to nurse Jendral's back, and with Watts at the wheel, they started on the four-hour, 168-mile journey to Monte Vista.
The plan was to stop in Buena Vista, but there were no hotel vacancies.
Watts pushed the speed limit along the twisting roads between Buena Vista and Salida. Somewhere along the way, the red and blue lights of a Colorado State Patrol officer greeted him.
But just as he handled breakfast at the Village Inn in Cheyenne, Watts was prepared to handle this situation as well. After a brief conversation, the officer, a former rodeo cowboy himself, issued Watts a warning and asked him to slow down en route to Salida.
It was just past 3 a.m. when Watts and Jendral got into Salida. Desperate for a room, they flagged down the same patrolman and asked if he knew of a place they could stay. The officer laughed off Jendral's offer to spend the night in the city jail but did give the cowboys permission to park the van which is equipped with a TV, VCR and a full bed in the lot at the city park.
The cowboys were awakened Sunday morning by the sound of smashing soda cans. The park was next to a recycling center, which got cranked up at 8 a.m. With five hours of sleep under their belts, the cowboys decided it was time to head down the road to Monte Vista in search of a shower and a church.
The pair had hoped to find a KOA campground or showers at the rodeo grounds in Monte Vista. They struck out on both.
Dirty and tired, they made it to Monte Vista's Calvary Baptist Church, which in addition to an 11 a.m. service offered the cowboys a couple of shower stalls.
Clean and fed, the bull rider and the calf roper took their seats near the back of the church, seeking guidance from the words of preacher Milford Misener and God's protection for the coming week.
Sidelined by pain
Jendral could have used a little divine intervention.
That afternoon at the rodeo grounds, chiropractor Terry Wiley warned Jendral not to ride. Wiley feared Jendral's back injury would be aggravated if he was bucked off and landed the wrong way. He was also afraid a bad ride might leave the 25-year-old paralyzed.
It wasn't in Jendral's competitive nature to heed the doctor's advice, but after making several phone calls, he decided to listen. The news made for a quiet beginning to the five-hour trip back home it's hard to turn out when the only way you make money is by riding.
"It's the worst thing you can do," Jendral said. "I can ride in pain. I rode all last year with a broken back. But I didn't want to end up wearing a diaper for the rest of my life either."
A four-day rodeo trip was ending, and Jendral had failed to ride a single bull. He spent hundreds of dollars and drove more than 1,000 miles and got nothing but a back injury in return.
But by the time Jendral had reached the turn off to Salida, the disappointment and anger of not getting to ride was gone. He joked with Watts and talked about the road.
The rides that matter are at the next rodeo, not the last one.
Jendral returned home for a day, but by the middle of the following week, he was back on a bull at the Eagle-Vail rodeo.
Unfortunately, his luck did not change. He got hung up during the ride and took a shot to his ailing back.
He is currently on a 10-day medical exemption but plans on riding again soon.
"I'm missing some pretty big rodeos," Jendral said. "But I should be back on the road before this summer is over."