For ten days each year, during the middle of July, the usually conservative city of Calgary loses its collective head (or finds a new cover for it, at least). Virtually everyone turns out in white Stetsons, bolo ties, blue jeans and hand-tooled boots.
Indeed, everything seems, well, more western – which for a city like Calgary means shifting gears into serious cowboy overdrive. It’s all a signal that the self-proclaimed “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” – the Calgary Stampede – has begun.
For Canada’s rural folk – who often live on isolated farms or in tiny communities – this is the opportunity to bring their culture into the big city and really let rip. For the half-million visitors from elsewhere, it’s a chance to witness the ultimate Wild West carnival, said to be North America’s roughest rodeo.
Many activities, both kitschy and quite serious, vie for your attention. The main event is the daily rodeo competition, featuring the likes of bronco and bull riding, wild-pony racing, calf-roping, steer-wrestling and barrel-racing. But what sets the Stampede apart from other rodeos is the presence of the ludicrously dangerous, hugely exciting, chuck-wagon races: several teams of horsemen pack a stove and tent into these covered wagons, then hurtle around the dirt track at breakneck speeds.
The non-rodeo action takes place at the festival’s focal point, Stampede Park. Top attractions include a First Nations tepee village where you can try traditional foods; the satisfyingly obscure World Blacksmith Competition; and an Agricultural Building that’s home to many a handsome cow and bull.
Finish each day with a dash of Stampede nightlife, yet another world unto itself. The drinking, gambling and partying at various bars and mega-cabarets goes on into the small hours, sustained by a seemingly endless supply of barbecued meat and baked beans.
Plan at least a year in advance for the annual Stampede: see www.calgarystampede.com.