Friday, October 02, 2009

A Prayer from the Road

I’ve never been much of a road warrior. I like to sleep too much. In a bed, as opposed to the seat of a pickup. But amongst rodeo people, the ability to travel long and hard is as much of a necessity as skill in the arena. Don’t get me wrong—my husband and I put on plenty of miles. But compared to a lot of our fellow contestants, we were wimps.

I recall one weekend when we still lived in South Dakota. We hit three rodeos in two days, which we figured was pretty good. Except there were two more we’d skipped, which a person could work if they were willing to drive fast and forgo sleep almost entirely.

Our first rodeo was on Saturday afternoon, in eastern North Dakota. The next was a quick hop down the road. We didn’t even have to break the speed limit or leave the horses saddled in between. Unlike Gabby.

Gabrielle Moon was a barrel racer from our home turf, an itty bitty blonde with a personality ten times her size, and even more determination. I was just cracking open my rope can for my first run of the weekend. She’d already competed at Rapid City on Friday evening, driven straight through to morning slack at another rodeo up north, and still had two to go before she parked her rig for the night at her boyfriend’s place in Killdeer. Compared to Gabby, I felt like a real weenie.

We dawdled along to our Saturday afternoon and evening rodeos, then cruised on down to Lemmon to have a steak dinner and a good eight hours’ shuteye. The next morning, we had some breakfast and meandered toward the next rodeo in McLaughlin. I turned on the radio and happened to find a station that was broadcasting the state high school rodeo live.

Just as the announcer said, “And now, a moment of silence in memory of former state champion barrel racer Gabby Moon, who died last night…”

Odd, how crystal clear some moments remain in the memory, etched there by shock and disbelief. I can still feel the hot August air blowing through the cab of the pickup, smell the sun-baked grass, hear the static-filled void as the rodeo world stopped to mourn. And still, to the this day, without even closing my eyes, I can see Gabby riding across the road toward the arena on that last night, waving to us as we drove away.

She fell asleep at the wheel. Less than a day after her last run, I led the traditional riderless horse around the arena at a rodeo where she should have been competing, and we were all forced to recognize, once again, that the road is a far crueler, deadlier beast than anything we face in competition.

Later that same summer, we got an even more personal reminder. We left a night rodeo near the Black Hills and headed east to Burke. Slack was at eight o’clock the next morning. At two-thirty in the morning, less than an hour from Burke, we hit fog. Greg was behind the wheel, and I was fighting to stay awake to help him stay awake by babbling about pretty much nothing. I lost the battle, my eyes drifting shut, only to pop open again when I heard him swear.

There were headlights coming straight at us.

Greg hit the brakes as hard as he dared without skidding and moved right as far as he could. The car kept coming. And Greg kept slowing and kept moving right, onto the shoulder, until the outside duel tire on our pickup started kicking up gravel. The headlights got brighter. And brighter. I braced myself for the collision.

And the car swerved. Away, to the left, missing our bumper by what seemed like only inches. Then disappeared, a pair of red taillights fading into the fog, then gone, as if it had all been nothing but a fleeting nightmare.

Greg stopped the pickup, got out, and walked around to lean on the passenger’s side of the pickup. I climbed out, too.

“Is something wrong with the pickup?” I asked.

"No. I’m just shaking too hard to drive.” He braced his hands on his knees, stared at the ground for several long, deep breaths, then looked at me. “I was going to swerve. I’d made up my mind that the only way to miss him was to swerve into his lane.”

And when the other driver swerved, too, we would have hit him head on. Call it luck. Call it fate. Greg hesitated, and we survived unscathed. So many haven’t. Each loss leaves a hole in our hearts and our lives that will never quite be filled.

At rodeos across the country, the Cowboy’s Prayer is recited, asking for patience, for perseverance and for protection. Given the number of cowboys and cowgirls we lose each and every year to the road, there should be an addendum:

May I never let the pursuit of the dream override good sense,
or push myself past the point of safety.

May I always respect the road, with its curves and mountains,
washboards and potholes, and always be prepared for the unexpected.

May I always wear my seatbelt, even when it’s not comfortable
and I don’t think I really need it.

May I never meet the guy on the road who didn’t know
when to sleep, or how to say no to that one last drink.

May the deer stay in the ditches, the black of the highway
never be ice, and the tires never blow.

And most of all, may the road never give my family
a reason to hold a Memorial Rodeo in my honor.


Anonymous said...

Oh wow. Powerful.

Susan at Stony River said...

I love the tribute of the riderless horse. When I think of the close calls we've had, and the friends and family I've lost in cars, it makes every day seem like a miracle.

Wonderful wonderful post.

Karen in Ohio said...

Kari Lynn, you are an eloquent writer.

Carol said...

Goosebumps, girl. Ahh... for the Deke and other memorial rodeos... we wish we didn't have to have 'em. Excellent job!

Julie Weathers said...

That made me cry. So many good cowboys and cowgirls have met untimely deaths traveling. God was definitely with you that night.

Alina Klein said...

Beautifully written. Horribly sad.