In a small town about two hours from Montreal, Canada’s second-largest rodeo is in full swing. Christopher Curtis and Dario Ayala bring back stories from St-Tite’s Western Festival.
ST- TITE Most days, this is just another farming hamlet — a place hidden somewhere in the wooded hills and rivers that sweep across the Mauricie region.
It has all the quaintness one comes to expect from rural Quebec: two steeples tower above the town square, a crucifix overlooks the village from a nearby cliff. Faded neon signs advertise the local casse-croûte, where truckers can feast on poutine and greasy chicken as they pass through.
But every year in early September, the place is overrun with cowboys. Hundreds of rodeo hustlers come from across North America, intent on swilling a small river of bourbon and leaving town with a fistful of prize money.
And the hordes of tourists aren’t far behind. A total of about 600,000 descend on St-Tite over 10 days to take in its Western Festival — Canada’s second-largest rodeo, an event that generates some $48 million for the Quebec economy.
The festival, which began on Sept. 10 and runs through Sunday, has become a fixture on the rodeo circuit. It draws world-champion horse riders, steer wrestlers, American bullfighters and some of the finest men and women to don a 10-gallon hat.
During the other 355 days of the year, less than 4,000 people call StTite home. But at the festival’s peak — which is this Saturday — more than 200,000 people will gather here, briefly making it the fourthlargest city in Quebec.
“This is cowboy Christmas,” says Nick Fair, a frequently-shirtless bullfighter from Illinois. “There’s a bunch of rodeos out there and a bunch of money to be made but this is something special. The people here are crazy for their rodeo.”
Cliff Harris stands under the bleachers, looking into a foggy mirror as he applies gobs of white face paint around his eyes.
What began as a quiet evening is escalating into something of a frenzy, and Harris can barely hear himself think under the rumble of 8,000 spectators. Just a few feet from Harris, cowboys begin suiting-up in the dimly-lit bowels of
the arena — strapping plastic armour to their torsos before concealing them under western-style button shirts.
A few of them chug cans of energy drinks, and the craftier veterans line their gums with chewing tobacco to mellow their nerves. In a few minutes, they’ll be thrown from wild, bucking animals and onto the arena floor as thousands cheer them on.
On the other side of the structure, farmhands toil in the heat to
unload show horses, Mexican fighting bulls and assorted livestock for the rodeo. The air is dense with the earthy odour of horse manure.
Harris finishes applying his makeup, suspenders and comically baggy pants. His transformation from Cliff Harris to Hollywood Harris the rodeo clown is complete. Soon he’ll be dancing before the crowd, dazzling them with bullwhip tricks and slapstick humour that harkens back to an era when parents legitimately worried their children would one day run away with the circus.
But there’s an element of danger to this clown’s job. When a bull can’t be subdued by the rider or any of the other wranglers, Harris comes to the rescue. He will draw the attention of the 2,000-pound beast and goad it into charging him while the cowboy crawls to safety.
“I’ve seen a lot,” Harris says in an almost lyrical southern lilt. “I’ve held two people while they passed from this Earth, it’s a serious game.”
He sits on a beat-up leather sofa under the bleachers, beside his son and fellow rodeo clown Brinson (The Entertainer) James.
Harris is a broad-shouldered, moustachioed, swashbuckler of a man. A slight paunch hangs over his belt buckle and, in the rare moments when he removes his black cowboy hat, it reveals a thick, greying crop of hair.
James is the perfect foil with his rail-thin frame, soft facial features and easy smile. He became a rodeo clown because his father was a rodeo clown. Harris stumbled into the profession because he fell in love with the rodeo growing up in central Texas.
Harris pursued his rodeo dreams after he moved to Florida.
“I was 9, fixin’ to turn 10 and my dad said, ‘You want to move to Florida?’ And I said, ‘Can I have an alligator?’ And he said, ‘Yep, sure.’ So we went,” says Harris.
Harris went to college, started riding bucking horses and fell into clowning. He loved it and he loved life on the road so he decided to bring his son along. When James was just 2 years old, Harris incorporated him into the act.
“He was my straight man, he was the star of the show and he didn’t even know it,” says Harris.
Today, nearly 20 years later, they still tour together though James is branching out on his own, doing acts for the Professional Bull Riders tour in venues across the globe.
“St-Tite is, bar none, the most exciting rodeo in (North America),” says James. “It’s electric on a Wednesday night. In Texas and Oklahoma, people see so many rodeos it just sort of becomes normal. But here, they go crazy for them.”
Bryan Rouillier was 7 years old when he first got on a bull.
“It jumped once and I flew off, landed right on my head, as I recall,” Rouillier says, with a smile on his face.
The rodeo is in Rouillier’s blood: his dad rode bulls for 15 years. He isn’t from the Oklahoma Panhandle or anywhere in the great plains of the U.S. southwest. The 15-year-old grew up just outside St-Tite and is one of just a handful of young Quebecers competing in bull riding competitions across the province.
To look at the short, skinny young man, you’d worry about how he might fare on a hockey rink, never mind in a ring with rage-fuelled livestock.
And yet, locals say he’s as tough as any other bull rider who passes through town. Last Sunday, he got on his first full-sized bull and he says that from the first moment he felt the beast pull down, he knew things might go terribly wrong.
“When I put my legs around his body and they felt so far apart, I thought, ‘OK, this is the real thing,’” he says. “Then they opened the gate, he pulled me with all his might and it projected me right to the ground. By the second jump I was down. It didn’t even take one second. I fell under the bull, he stepped on my shoulder and it was like, ‘OK, on to the next one.’ “
“It’s the adrenalin, that’s the appeal,” he says. “You try not to think about the danger, because if you do that, you shouldn’t be out there. I mean, you respect the bull, but you can’t let the fear paralyze you. It’s a great feeling, to ride for those eight seconds, you get butterflies in your stomach. It’s liberating, it’s magical, you can feel it tingling through your body.”
But the rodeo is not a child’s game.
Nick Fair has ridden bucking horses since he was a teenager, and has the scars to prove it. By his reckoning, he’s been concussed 35 times, knocked out repeatedly, he’s had teeth cracked in half and bones shattered by 1,100-pound wild horses.
“I broke my back and neck flipping off a rodeo horse,” says Fair, a handsome, muscled 30-year-old. “The horse missed his front feet when he was bucking, did a somersault with me on him, cracked my sternum, broke two vertebrae on my back.”
Injuries and gorings notwithstanding, Rouillier says he’s going to be a world champion bull rider one day. Well, that or an electrician. Outside the raucous arena, the sun is setting behind the green hills that surround St-Tite.
The smell of barbecued pork ribs cuts through the foggy manure scent as carnival lights flicker against the pavement on St-Joseph Blvd. The carnies yell at passersby, inviting them to try their luck at target practice, darts, skee-ball and the other games scattered across the festival.
Thousands of people mill about the street on this unseasonably warm evening, smoking cigarettes and sipping cans of Coors Light. In the distance, a woman sings country music while elderly folk linedance under a large yellow tent.
Locals peer at the scene from lawn chairs they’ve laid out on their stoops. Most houses are adorned with cowboy-themed decorations — paper horses, guns and hats — and pasteboard signs advertising $10 parking in their yard. One man says he charged a group of tourists $3,000 to use his basement and camp in his yard, a spot in the middle of the action, throughout the festival.
Since there’s little in the way of hotel accommodations, signs advertising rooms for rent are visible on almost every front balcony in the tiny downtown core. Next to the vast stables and corrals that skirt the edge of town, there’s a small city of trailers and RVs. By Saturday there will be 10,000 of them — meaning that, for one day, there will be three times more trailers in town than citizens of St-Tite.
Montreal — with its métro lines, martini bars and vegan restaurants — may just be a two-hour ride southwest, but it might as well be on another planet.