The trip here from Black Diamond, Alberta, is long and it can be awfully hot this time of year, but Jordie Thomson has come all that way to ride a Brahma bull for eight seconds.
His name is announced and he pops out of the chute as 17,000 Frontier Days rodeo fans watch, and though he stays on the animal, it is a bad ride for the 22-year-old Canadian, not rough enough, but enough a test of his skills.
Thomson is cursing like mad ("Worst damn herd of bulls I ever saw.They don't buck") as he unwraps the tape around his midsection that was protecting some pulled muscles, knowing he won't even make back the gas money he spent to get here.
But for the professional cowboy, the old-timer and the teen-age kid alike, Frontier Days is one rodeo you just don't want to miss. It's billed as the "daddy of 'em all," and has been a part of Cheyenne summer for 84 years.
The payoff is bigger at the National Finals of Rodeo Cowboys in Oklahoma City, but Frontier Days, which ended Sunday, is the prestige rodeo in the United States and, along with the Calgary Stampede, the best rodeo in North America.
More than 1,200 riders and ropers have come from the western two-thirds of the United States and Canada for the chance to make some money, be gawked at by young women and be part of the tradition of Frontier Days, and by the end of the nine-day spectacle close to 200,000 people will have come to watch.
Willie Nelson sings a song warning mothers, "Mama, Don't Let Your Sons Grow Up To Be Cowboys." But it doesn't seem to make much of an impression. During Frontier Days, Cheyenne is alive with the sights, sounds and smells of cowboys. There are broken bones, sore ribs and blue jeans caked with dust.
The midway is a sea of cheap straw cowboy hats and "Willie Nelson for President" T-shirts. A leather vest can be had for $17.95. A can of Pepsi goes for 75 cents. Chin's Imports sells toy cars and stuffed animals. Everything from beer mugs to paintings of Jesus can be purchased here.
But back of the chutes, it's like a nervous casting session for a remake of "High Noon."
Cowboys pace, wrap and massage sore limbs, tuck another pinch of the ever-present tobacco into their cheeks, talk quietly among themselves.
It would be a challenge to poke holes in the myth of the American cowboy after watching these scenes, because Cheyenne during Frontier Days is the myth of the American cowboy sprung to life in living color and vivid aroma.
Sandwiched in the narrow, dusty strip of walkway between the arena and the horse-and-bull pens, Lyndi Forbes, 26, sits rocking her sleeping 1-year-old son, Sandy Bob. She wears no makeup, her hair is covered by a scarf and she seems nearly astounded that a newspaper reporter would want to talk to her.
She has been married to saddle bronc rider John Forbes for five years. Since the baby was born, she says, it gets a little harder for John to leave their Kaycee, Wyo., ranch to ride the rodeo circuit.
"There's good and bad," Lyndi says of the life of a cowboy's wife."I get lonely when he's gone. He's gone quite a bit. But it's exhilarating when he wins. He's home then and again. I don't have the right to stop him. It's what he likes." She says that, at 29, John is "slowing down," and maybe he will quit rodeo in five or six years and they can settle in to raise a family and ranch full time.
Slowing down isn't in the cards for Monk Dishman, Gary Smith and Lonnie Wyatt. They are in their early 20s and have become friends over the years in their travels from rodeo to rodeo. They happily extol the virtues of a simple life.
"It's not a good way to make a living," says Dishman of the rodeo circuit, "but you're your own boss. You don't punch a clock."
So far this year, Wyatt 21, from Kimball, Neb., says he has made $15,000 from bareback bronc and bull riding. Dishman, a 20-year-old Texan, has earned about $5,000, and Smith, 24, from Odessa, Tex., sheepishly admits he hasn't made "much at all."
The only two worries they have are getting hurt and going broke, and of the two, Smith jokingly says going broke is the bigger risk.
At Frontier Days this year, 233 Brahma bull riders competed for $46,991 in prize money. A few would win a large share of the money, many wouldn't win anything.
The purse is bigger -- $53,312 -- in the steer-wrestling competition, and 207 steer wrestlers, or bulldoggers, tried for the prizes by jumping off a horse going full speed and grappling with the steer, tugging at its horns and neck until, as the rules specify, the animal was "lying flat on its side, all four feet and head straight."
Other cowboys earned their keeep roping calves, or throwing a saddle on a wild horse and riding it around the Frontier Park race track, or hanging onto a rope strapped onto the back of a bronc and being bucked so hard that their bodies were parallel to the ground.
Brahma bull riding, the cowboys says, is the most dangerous, making sure the bull doesn't stomp you once you are thrown or fall off, but bareback bronc riding is the most physical, sending the human body into all sorts of bizarre contortions.
At 31, Chris LeDoux already is a legend among rodeo cowboys. He has made his name in that most physical of events, bareback riding, and in 1976 he was the event's world champion.
LeDoux looks like an elongated Paul Newman: taller, at six feet, but those same soft blue eyes, gleaming smile, rugged, confident good looks.
LeDoux started riding professionally when he was 13, ad he has been a Frontier Days regular since 1968. Like John Forbes, LeDoux is slowing down a little, going to 80 rodeos a year instead of the 100 or more the younger guys go to. He goes to the big ones in Cheyenne, Denver, Fort Worth and San Antonio but some of the smaller ones, too, like the rodeo in Casper, Wyo., that he and many of the other cowboys will be off to next.
LeDoux has made only about $15,000 this year, and he is thinking hard about going into sheep ranching full time.
"Probably 95 percent of all the guys rodeoing aren't making any money. You're making nickels and dimes and spending dollars to travel," he says.
When you ask them why they do it, the reason Chris LeDoux gives speaks for them all.
"Freedom," LeDoux whispers. "Freedom."