Rope, Ride and Rally: Cowboys of Tucson Never Give Up

Today's rodeo stars are far removed from the ranch life that gave rise to their sport – but that doesn't mean they're getting soft.

NOW PLAYING
Rope, Ride and Rally: Cowboys of Tucson Never Give Up

From the hard earth to the cowboys that work it, Tucson is one hell of a tough city. Even the plants are ready to fight; everything you bump into in the desert is some kind of cactus that wants to leave you wincing with pain. It's the sort of land that makes its inhabitants comfortable with discomfort, and thus, is a natural stomping ground for rodeo riders.

By the turn of the 20th Century, hardscrabble ranch hands had already begun wrestling steer and riding bucking horses for kicks, and soon they were making bets on who could pin an animal the quickest or go the longest without being launched into the dirt. To this day, Tucson still boasts one of the most exciting rodeos in North America, La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, where ropers and riders from across the country converge every February to prove their valiance in front of an audience that can swell to over 10,000 strong.

Chuck Henson recalls the old rodeo well. The 86-year-old spent most of his life battling intimidating beasts – first as a competitor, then as a clown. And the latter position helped him secure a place in the Rodeo Hall of Fame. For most men, one losing battle against a raging hunk of horned muscle would be one too many, but Henson and the cowboys he came up with had already begun accepting pain as part of the job. As Henson explains, a bull once left his leg shredded so badly that bone stuck out through his clown pants. A few years later, his leg was crushed again when a barrel came down on him from behind after being bucked into the air by a bull. "And that's how I ruined another pair of socks," he says. "I never did consider it dangerous. It's a sport and you just try to get better it. You took a lot of knocks and thumps and hit the ground awful hard sometimes."

The rodeo has evolved since Henson's first bareback ride, but the brass-balls mentality is still strong. Rio Lee, 20, is a first-year pro rider from Tucson who's currently in the running for rookie of the year. A few weeks back, a bucking horse pumped its piston-legs so violently that the force ripped a tendon in Lee's arm. The young cowboy's bicep muscle was liberated from bone, and the meat curled up into Lee's shoulder. So what'd he do? He spent a few days massaging it downward beneath his skin until his arm started to look recognizable again. "It hurt like hell," he says. "But I don't want to sit out with an injury. I want to get back on the road."

Lee's pain tolerance could be a product of nature or nurture, but it's likely both. His grandpa, uncle and dad – the famous Cody Lee, a friend of Henson's – all competed in rodeos, and together they established a model of stony resilience that Rio strives to live up to. "If you let fear and all that get in the way, you're going to get hurt more and you're not going to win as much," he says. "So it's best just to keep your head down and do your job the best you can."

As for the ranches that spawned the rodeo community in the first place, they still operate in the vast stretches of desert around Tucson. They're just not as involved in rodeo life as they once were, explains Russell True, who hosts a small weekly rodeo for his guests who stay at the White Stallion Ranch. Ranchers today have more land to themselves, and that generally keeps them busy. And competing in rodeos is challenging: Rather than being a hobby for ranchers, it's generally the purvey of trained athletes with arena-size ambitions. "To be serious in rodeo, you're going to be on the road the majority of your time," True says. He recalls watching a rodeo where the winning bronco rider came out for a victory trot on a horse. "The rider nearly fell off, and of course the whole stands laughed," he says. "He just wasn't a cowboy in the sense of riding and roping on the ranch." In other words, the guy could only ride if the horse was bucking.

Joe King and his wife Sarah run King's Anvil Ranch, 55,000 acres handed down through generations. Joe's grandfather competed in the very first Tucson rodeo 92 years ago, but today Joe's more concerned with his 450 cows. If he's involved in the rodeo at all, it's only symbolically.

Of course, the separation between ranching and rodeoing isn't lost on today's young riders. "[My grandpa] grew up working on a ranch, so [rodeo skills] were more a part of his daily life," says Lee. "I'm stepping into it as a sport, to make money as a professional athlete." And that difference only raises the stakes. Right now, Lee's doing 50-plus pro rodeos a year, not to mention a handful of amateur and college rodeos. He doesn't have a backup plan, and there's no ranch to come home to when he's out with an injury. "My dad always said that there's only a few things in life that make you try 110 percent, but rodeo is definitely one of them." But Lee's hoping that Tucson can give him a leg up. "You go to other parts of the world and they have a little bit easier way of life going then we do," he says. "So we're already starting out a little tougher."