Last year on my birthday I was in Iceland and I found a pair of Mexican cowboy boots at a store in Reykjavik. The boots were handmade, with exquisite embroidery. Only one pair existed in the store, and when they fit me perfectly, I felt they were destined to be my shoes except for the fact that they were $500.
I still wanted them, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to walk around for an hour and think about it. After all, what would be the chances of someone else entering the store, seeing the shoes, liking the shoes, having the shoes fit, and being willing to pay $500, all within the space of an hour?
I couldn’t get the boots out of my head even after strolling around the awesome Icelandic capital. So I returned to buy myself a birthday gift. But the boots had been sold.
At first, I thought it must be a joke. Maybe Josh returned to the store when I wasn’t looking to buy them for me as a birthday gift. No, he did not.
I have thought about those boots ever since, and have never regretted my frugality as much as now, exactly one year later, as I spend my 2014 birthday at the Calgary Stampede. Because going to the Stampede without cowboy boots is a little like going to Mardi Gras without beads.
For those of you who know the Calgary Stampede, it needs no explanation. For those of you who do not, it’s one of the world’s premier cowboy festivals. Think of it like Oktoberfest. During the day it is filled with families dressed in the traditional outfits of country life, and at night it’s filled with drunks. Only instead of dirndl and lederhosen, you wear boots and cowboy hat, bandanas and giant belt buckles.
Once the agricultural exhibits pack up and leave at 5PM, the crowd changes, just as it does at Oktoberfest. Families leave, and it becomes a piss-up. It’s Mardi Gras for cowboys by night, with carnival rides, and tons of things that pass for food.
Having been told that the Stampede was famous for its outlandish junk foods, I was curious about how I would be able to eat. It turned out the food was not that bad. Local food trucks turned out hipster mac-n-cheese, and vegan pizzas.
There was a sign saying that craft beer was available in the main tent, and we eagerly headed over, only to find that by “craft beer,” they meant Shock Top. Even Calgary’s biggest microbrewery, Big Rock, was shut out of its own city. Because of the lack of drinkable beer, we ended up being the only sober people at the Stampede.
We arrived around 3PM, and had a look at the agricultural exhibits. Fairly interesting, and certainly smelly stuff. Then we traversed the length of the Stampede grounds down across the Bow Canal, to the Indian section. Because what would a cowboy festival be without Indians?
The Indian section was located in a large corner of the Stampede grounds, well away from the rides, the rodeo, and the agricultural show. It was a little like being on a reservation! The Indian section was my favorite part of the Stampede. And the reservation had a lot of shady seating and water fountains, which the rest of the fairgrounds did not have.
The Alberta Indian tribes credit the Calgary Stampede with ironically helping to preserve and resurrect their culture. Before the Stampede started in the early 20th century, Indian cultural practices, such as music, dance, and storytelling, were banned in Canada.
The Stampede was the only place they could sing, dance, and tell stories in the open. They still sleep on the Stampede grounds in their teepees because it’s tradition. So the stuff going on in the Indian section was way realer than I expected. It was so real, they didn’t even stick to their schedule. It wasn’t about pleasing tourists, it was about their community. It was a privilege to be there.
We concluded our Stampede experience with tickets to the chuck wagon races and the evening show, both of which were awesome. And after seeing pyrotechnics from up close, I’m afraid I’ll never enjoy fireworks again. It just wouldn’t be the same.
A Birthday Celebration
The day before we went to the Stampede, it was my birthday, July 11. We ate at a restaurant called Model Milk and it was super. We also had good luck with beer, given there are several awesome beer bars in Calgary including The National (with several locations, tho we went to the one on 17th) and Beer Revolution. We also watched the World Cup final between Argentina and Germany at The National on 17th, lucky enough to have gotten a seat. The place was packed with fans from both sides, and everyone was civilized.
In the next post, I’ll write about Calgary’s coffee, beer, and food scene in more detail.