This year, I hadn’t had much of a chance to watch the rodeo or the chuckwagon races throughout the week, so I decided to tune into the final broadcast of the chuckwagon races. Jim and I began to follow the Stampede Chuckwagon races when we first moved west to Calgary. Before then, I had only read about them in books and in the newspaper but I had never seen them live. Once we lived in the west, it became part of our annual tradition to attend each year that we could and to follow them on television at other times. Many a ‘big bet’ has been wagered in the Critchley living room as the heats were shown on television.
The Calgary Stampede is home to the most famous chuckwagon races in the world. I believe that they were first run in 1923. While Chuckwagon races stir up controversy in some circles, over the years I have continued to be a supporter. Both Jim and I have been lucky enough to meet some ‘real’ cowboys and outriders over the years and we have come to understand the love and passion they bring to their work with horses and to their careers.
In Chuckwagon racing, a team of horses, led by a driver, pulls a chuckwagon around a track. Ian Tyson, the songwriter, once referred to the track in Calgary as the ‘half mile of hell’. Each race usually involves four teams (one driver, four horses, one chuckwagon and four outriders). When the teams hear the blast of a horn and the famous announcement, ‘And they’re offfffff!’, the outriders ‘break camp’ by tossing tent poles and a ‘camp stove’ into the back of the wagon. They then mount their horses and race to follow their wagon. The driver drives the wagon at breakneck speed in a figure eight pattern around two barrels before heading onto the track where he tries to take the inside lane as he races toward the finish. The first team to the finish line is most often the winner, although various time penalties can also be handed out for things like overturned barrels, stoves not loaded, wagon interference or outriders not being close enough to the wagon at the finish line. Watching it live is heart stopping.
Over the years we have become very familiar with some of the big names in racing. As I tuned in to watch on Sunday night, I realized that I would be watching the very famous Kelly Sutherland make his last trip around the Calgary track as a chuckwagon driver. His is a very familiar name in racing and I often tried to be the first to shout out his name in our living room, thus locking in my ‘bet’ on him. In rodeo circles, Kelly Sutherland is known as ‘The King’. This year’s appearance in the Calgary Stampede Chuckwagon races marked his fiftieth performance in the Chuckwagon Races; four times as an outrider and forty-six times as a driver. It also marked his final performance in Calgary.
Of course, a fairy tale ending would have been perfect to see, but as it turned out, Kelly Sutherland did not qualify for the ‘big money’ heat on Sunday. He did however, manage to give the fans an incredibly exciting performance in his heat as he came from behind and won at the wire. The fans went wild and this certainly would have been a fitting ending. But watching him masterfully turn his wagon around, come back toward the finish, feather in his hat, thumbs up toward the fans, and tears in his eyes turned out to be the show stopper. As he slowed his team, a reporter hopped on board for an interview. Kelly, a tough, seasoned, cowboy, cried as he told the reporter how much he would miss this part of his life. He said that this was a very difficult goodbye for him. As he stopped his wagon, outrider after outrider, one strong man after another, approached him and hugged him. The dry dust of the track got quite a watering from all the tears that were shed.
As I sat on my couch, tears streaming down my face, I found myself thinking about why this final race had such an effect on this man, on his colleagues and on all the fans. I realized that when we are lucky enough in life to do something that we love, it is going to hurt when we stop doing it. Kelly Sutherland has said that he learned long ago that by showing his emotions to the fans, he was able to connect with them. Most fans of Chuckwagon races will never even get into a chuckwagon. But all people know what it is to find a passion and it is in this understanding that we feel connected to this man. Not all of us are as brave as Kelly Sutherland. Yes, he was a brave cowboy, but more than that, he was brave enough to fully embrace his passion, even knowing that someday he would bid it farewell.
As I have travelled through my life, when I have found myself mourning the ending of some event, some job, some holiday, some opportunity, some life, I have reminded myself how lucky I have been to have been a part of it. I am so lucky to have allowed myself to care so much about something that it hurts to say goodbye to it. The older I get, and the more I understand how quickly things pass us by, I try to approach things that I love in this way; with every bit of passion I can. I have already been lucky enough to sob when our children left home, to weep when we left our beloved acreage, to cry when I knew my competitive running days were done and to deeply mourn the end of my teaching career. I want to be lucky enough to continue to end more parts of my life with tears streaming down my face.
Thank you, Kelly Sutherland, for years of entertainment, for years of sharing your passion and mostly for showing us how to ride gracefully right through the hurt.
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