Thankfully, some things don't change

When I was in law school, the professors (well, the better ones anyway) used to intone that every once in a while you need to pull your head out of the stacks (books) and see what's really going on. The same can be said of politics, and particularly of Oregon politics.

My wife and I are on a three-week sojourn to visit family and friends across the Western states. We have already spent a couple of days in Santa Fe and enjoyed the spectacular food and the abundance of really good art. We spent several days in Denver with our son and daughter-in-law, who is now pregnant with our first grandchild. It is stunning to watch the maturity of these two young people who, it seems, were just children yesterday. They give you confidence that, despite all of the turmoil in the world, the future is in good hands.

But it is the return to my hometown of Miles City, Mont., that has rekindled the need to pull my head out of the stacks and see what's really going on. We are here to visit my brother and his family and to make our annual pilgrimage to the famed Miles City Bucking Horse Sale.

For over 50 years, the rodeo companies have been coming to Miles City each spring to inspect and buy their stock for the ensuing rodeo season. And what better way to inspect the stock than to have it perform immediately prior to the purchase decision?

In this instance, the second the rider hits the ground or the whistle blows for a successful ride, the auctioneer begins his chant. If the horse has proven to be big and strong with a powerful, surging effort to rid itself of the rider, or if it proves to be lithe and wily with twists and turns that can rattle your teeth right down to your socks, then the rodeo stock companies are in immediately and the bidding goes into the thousands for these prime horses. If the horses don't measure up, then the "canners" are in to purchase for the slaughterhouses and the horses sell for usually less than three hundred dollars.

But it isn't just the auction that makes the Bucking Horse Sale unique. It is that the event is a throwback to the Old West, from which the whole concept of rodeos began. You see, these riders are not professionals. They are local cowboys from the ranches of eastern Montana, the western Dakotas and northern Wyoming. The whole event is decidedly local and reminiscent of when cattlemen and cowboys gathered in the spring for branding the new calves and breaking the wild horses that had wintered on the open ranges.

It is first about the test of skill and courage. Most of these cowboys are just as lean and tough as they were portrayed by the Western writers such as Zane Grey. Five-10 and 155 pounds perched five feet above the ground on 1,500 pounds of dynamite looking to explode the moment the gate is opened.

It's eight seconds of pounding fury with a better-than-even chance that they will be launched into the wild blue yonder and stomped by the horse when they hit the ground. And yet they stand in line to do it, hoping they will draw the meanest, wildest SOB in the pack and ride it to glory in eight seconds. And their reward is — well, is nothing — other than the admiration of the other cowboys. This rodeo is about tradition, not about cash. It is honoring a way of life, unchanged for over 100 years.

And it is about family and friends and community. It is a huge celebration, with dancing and cookouts and a chance to renew friendships, exchange stories of another hard winter on the Western plains, and have a drink or 20. It is about the annual Bucking Horse Parade on Saturday. There are the same steam tractors, ancient hay rakes and balers, the same horse patrols and ranch hands, the high school band, antique cars and kids with their pets every year.

It never changes, but the crowds never cease to gather because it's their kids, their neighbors, their friends that they come to honor and enjoy. The only interlopers are the politicians who show up hoping to look like cowboys and succeeding only in looking like "tin horns."

I've been gone from Miles City for 40 years, and yet each year when Nancy and I return for the Bucking Horse Sale, we find ourselves back among friends and familiar surroundings. Miles City hasn't changed much in the 40 years that I've been gone. Thank God.

Larry Huss is a lawyer, political consultant and former telecommunications executive. E-mail him at

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