W.K. Stratton's Chasing The Rodeo makes the sport seem familiar even if it defies easy categorization. It's both a memoir and a travel narrative with lengthy digressions into rodeo culture and folklore. Chasing is full of fascinating historical nuggets. Take African American cowboy Bill Pickett who invented bulldogging, steer wrestling, and went on to become one of the sports first superstars. Of course this didn't protect him from the dehumanization of Jim Crow, which consigned him to the livestock car while traveling by rail.
Ultimately, what Stratton seems to be chasing is an authentic American ritual that takes the stuff of hard work and transforms it into a celebration of hard play. As such, he attempts to settle the thorny debate on rodeo's origins. While often described as "the only spectator sport originating entirely in the United States," Stratton contends that rodeo is a Mexican creation, one that predates the cowboy era by several centuries.
Stratton fears that the rush to position rodeo as the next NASCAR will strip the sport of its soul and the ubiquity of Toby Keith jingoism. Though he notes that today's logo cowboys can make a decent living through promotion, he clearly prefers Oregon's Pendleton Roundup, where such corporate clutter is verboten.
For all his reporting it's actually Stratton's personal reflections that make the book exceptionally readable. We learn that the legacy of "Cowboy Don," his biological father, is part of the rodeo's appeal to him as it's one of the few traces he has of who his dad was. While Stratton doesn't advance this argument, it's hard to ignore the connection between sports and a larger quest for paternal communion. Whether it's baseball or bulldogging, sports are one of a few avenues through which manhood is conveyed. Perhaps this explains why sports highlight films are as schmaltzy as anything Nora Ephron might produce.
Stratton's book contains an undue amount of banal narratives involving rental cars and motel experiences, but there's enough to make his journey worth the trouble of saddling up and following along.