Vaya Con Dios, Van
Cowboys talk about the highs and lows that come with competitive rodeo life all the time. No one is immune to the peaks and valleys of hot streaks and slumps, and all agree the lows help you appreciate the highs even more. He who can’t take losing might as well go home, because everybody loses. Deal with it or do something different.
It’s also true that having so many truly great friends has its ups and downs. I guess I’m going to have to go with the "it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all" theory here, because anyone with a thousand friends is going to have heartache to endure every now and again. You have to pay to play.
A couple of spring weeks in my small corner of our rodeo community were all over the map, complete with total heartbreak and pure pride and joy. I will say up front that the older I get, the less I believe in coincidence and the more I bank on fate. What I know without question is how very blessed we all are to have each other. This is an amazing Western world we live in, and I couldn’t be prouder to be a tiny part of it. Thank you all for being my friends.
I was driving over to slack at the Oakdale (Calif.) Saddle Club ProRodeo with my boys, Lane and Taylor, when Lane got a text from one of his high school rodeo friends. Lane looked at it, then read it out loud. "Van Snow just died in a plane crash."
We had just started tearing into some fast food, slamming it down on the fly. We simultaneously put our food on the floor of the truck and sat silent for a few minutes. Then I took a deep breath, and dialed my friend Connie Pearce for confirmation. "Is it true?" I asked, not getting through a single syllable without starting to blubber. She couldn’t talk either. She didn’t have to. We were all completely stunned.
Dr. Van Snow was a world-renowned equine veterinarian who’d recently operated on Lane’s good head horse, Hammer. So much more important than that, he was our very dear friend and the dad of Lane and Taylor’s honorary little brother, Cody, who has his own bed in our motorhome. It’s staked out with his back number from last year’s Wrangler Junior High Finals Rodeo in Gallup, N.M., and has been his home away from home at many a roping and junior rodeo the last few years.
Cody is a character. I tease him about being the second coming of Dennis the Menace, and we arm wrestle for curfew. It works for now, because I still outweigh him. Not sure what I’ll do when he slams me in a couple years, but we’ll deal with that later. I harass Cody mercilessly when I’m flagging the goat tying, he sticks a wrap and a half on one and the goat gets up to win it by three seconds. I think I actually spanked him with the flag at the last rodeo, when the year-end all-around saddle was on the line. (Thankfully, he squeaked that one out anyway.
I give Cody "the look" when he flips on the lights at 6 a.m. when we don’t need to get up until 6:45 and says, "Good Morning Sunshine!" while blasting Kid Rock (though within seconds, he has me singing along) or when I catch him drinking his fourth soda of the day with a handful of red licorice. He gives me a similar look when I lecture him about the importance of a good education. But I’m not going to lie: The kid melts me the moment he throws his arms around me in harmony with a hearty "I love you." He definitely knows how to work the system.
When I was washing pink birthday cake frosting out of his hair in the motorhome sink at midnight the other night up in King City, because he’d been trash-canned by some older kids, my first question was what the heck he did to deserve it. By the time we were towel-drying his precious little red mop, I just had to hug him because those bigger kids had truly scared him. The trash bag in the barrel had come tight around his face and spooked him, which in turn scared the tar out of me. After a little lecture about not straying from his posse after dark, Lane, Taylor and I were ready to set out into the night vigilante-style. If you mess with Cody, you mess with us.
We had dinner with Van a few days before he died at Connie’s family’s Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. We’d all been at a junior rodeo all day, and it was such a fun visit. Van was so excited about the previous weekend’s dog trials, at which his dog had his tail ripped off. Van ran him back to the clinic, sewed it back on, and returned to the event. He was wanting to get a dog named Shadow for Cody, because he wanted his son to experience just how great life can be with a good dog by your side. "He’ll never have to bring up the steers again," Van grinned.
When I recomposed myself after the initial shock of Van’s sudden departure, my first call was to Jake Barnes. They were friends a long time, and I know how hard Van worked to help Jake get every last run out of his beloved gray horse, Barney. Before hello, I blurted out, "Did you hear about Van?" "No," Jake said. "He died today," I said. "Plane crash," Jake said. "Then you did know," I said.
He hadn’t heard. But just the week before, when last they visited on the phone, Van had gone on to Jake in great enthusiastic detail about proving to people that the impossible was possible with that plane of his. The mere thought of the stunts he was contemplating made Jake nervous, but Van was totally pumped.
There was nothing common or average about Van. The way he went would have been perfect 30 years from now. But at 58—in the prime of his career and life, with five grown kids, Cody just 13 and the love of his life, Lindsey Creed, by his side both personally and professionally—the timing was impossibly tough to take. If the true measure of a man is his friends, the crowd that gathered at Van and Lindsey’s Santa Lucia Farm in Santa Ynez to celebrate his life said it all. His pilot friends flew over in the missing-man formation in one last, dramatic goodbye.
With flags at half staff, friends feasted on fabulous food and shared Van stories. Lane had just been on a roping jaunt to Arizona with Van and Cody, and shared with us Van’s real Wild West stories from his younger years growing up on a remote ranch. Pushing trespassers’ trucks over cliffs was all in a day’s work for Van and his brothers. Roy Bilkey sang the perfect song about dads in Van’s honor. Cody ran by me, skidded to a stop, gave me a hug, and off he raced with, "The neighbor’s goats are out, I’ll be right back!" Cody Snow’s Wild West Show lives.
I flew from Colorado Springs into San Luis Obispo just in time for Thursday night’s Poly Royal Rodeo banquet. Back when I was a Mustang, we lost a dear friend, Alex Wilson, when a bull stepped on his head at the 1984 Red Bluff Round-Up (PRCA rodeo). Alex lived with JoAnn Switzer and one of her four sons, Thomas, who has been one of my all-time favorites since our college days. JoAnn’s had Thomas and I help present Alex’s scholarship the last couple years, which is such a sentimental honor.
Lane skipped school (which is against my religion) the next day so he could announce the first round at Poly Royal, which is the Cal Poly Rodeo Team’s spring spectacular college rodeo. When I was in college, Bob Feist was the first person to pay me to write a rodeo story. Last June, he did the same for my oldest son when he turned him loose on the mike to announce a round of the BFI with his announcing hero and a friend to now three generations of my family, Bob Tallman. That BFI break was just the boost Lane needed, and the mom will not forget it, Bob and Bob.
Saturday night’s short round was special to me in so many ways. Thirty years ago, Cal Poly President Warren Baker was a rookie in that position and I was a Poly Dolly freshman (the last time bell-bottom jeans were in). Dr. Baker presented the 1980 bulldogging buckle to Thomas Switzer, the all-around saddle to
John W. Jones Jr. (he’ll always be Johnny to us) and the breakaway roping buckle to me. This year, in honor of his retirement and 30 years of support of the Cal Poly Rodeo Program, the Cal Poly Boosters—led by President Lee Rosser and past presidents JoAnn Switzer and Manfred Sander—had us present him a buckle in return.
In another fun and fateful twist, Thomas’s nephew, Miles Switzer, won the Poly Royal bulldogging buckle 30 years after Thomas did, and under the mentoring guidance of Thomas’s old practice and traveling partner Johnny, no less. If that wasn’t a big enough thrill, the goat tying buckle went to Shannon Jones—who’s Johnny and Sherrie’s daughter, and goddaughter to Thomas and me. Her big sister, Katie, who graduated from Poly in December, sang the national anthem, just like she did at such events as the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo when she was just a little squirt. And so the circle of life keeps spinning.
Because of his love for roping, actor James Pickens Jr. decided to premiere an open roping when the big dogs were in California for the spring run. And thanks in part to Lane’s big-stage announcing debut at last June’s BFI—at 16—he got the gig of announcing it.
Pickens, who stars in his day job as Dr. Richard Webber on the ABC hit drama Grey’s Anatomy, loves to rope every chance he gets. He held the first annual James Pickens Jr. Foundation Charity Roping this spring at California’s 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch. “Pick” didn’t take out any cattle charge and put up $5,000 out of his own pocket to get this labor of love rolling.
“I got the team roping bug about 15 years ago,” he said. “I moved here from New York and started team penning, but wanted a little more of an adrenaline rush. My work schedule makes it tough, but if I can get on a couple times a week, I’m happy. I’m as serious as I can be about my roping under the circumstances. I like having fun and being outside. Roping is a great stress release for me. It’s like my therapy, and that’s been cool.”
Pickens and his fellow Broadway performer wife, Gina, started the James Pickens Jr. Foundation a year ago, “because we’ve always had a love for kids and teenagers.” The foundation’s mission statement: To bring increased value to the lives of people of this generation and the generations that will follow. The organization seeks, selects, supports and/or partners with individuals and community groups that work tirelessly to revitalize local communities. Key areas of interest for the foundation are faith-based programming, arts, cultural, humanities, education, health and human services.
Pickens, who heads in the roping arena, combined his passions for helping others and team roping at this inaugural event, which he vows will grow annually and hopes will eventually raise some money for the foundation in addition to giving the best open ropers in the world a great financial opportunity.
“I’m an actor, and I didn’t think there was a tougher gig than mine until I met these team ropers,” he smiled. “This is putting the pedal to the metal right here, and what I do is a piece of cake by comparison. I thought acting was tough, but it’s nothing next to what these guys do. They step up to help others all the time, and this is a way to say thank you and also draw attention to what we’re trying to do with the foundation. The goal is to keep growing this roping, to try to make it the best roping West of the Mississippi.”
Reigning World Champion Header Nick Sartain and 2009 NFR heeler Russell Cardoza topped the 37-team field with 28.91 seconds on five steers for $3,460 a man, Coats Saddles and Cactus Ropebags.
“This is a great cause, which makes us feel good, and it was a great roping,” said Sartain, who lives in Alva, Okla. “I hadn’t won anything lately, so this sure picked me back up. A big thanks to Jim for going out of his way for us. The more good open ropings, the more incentive to work your way up to the top of the roping food chain. And anytime you raise money for kids, well, everybody needs to get behind that. Helping children and open ropers is double good.”
Sartain and World Champion Heeler Kollin VonAhn split second with Britt Williams and Ryan Motes, each team with 30.12 seconds on five steers for $1,730 a man. For being the day’s high money-winner at $5,190, Sartain was awarded a George-Strait-signed George Strait Team Roping Classic jacket. Brady Tryan and Jake Long won the opening round in 5.86 seconds for $865 apiece, and Clay Tryan and Travis Graves topped round two in 5.10 seconds for another $865 a man. Round winners also were awarded Montana Silversmiths spurs.
“He (Pickens) definitely worked hard on this first one,” added Cardoza of Farmington, Calif. “We’re looking forward to coming back. There aren’t many big open ropings in California where you can win good money and a saddle. We hardly ever get to rope for saddles anymore.”
Thanks for the Memories, Walt
After I said good morning to Travis Tryan’s bay wonder, Walt, at the Pickens roping, I just had to harass Travis about riding him at a go-twice five-steer average. Surely, there was something else in his trailer. He laughed, and said the only other “horse” in his trailer was daughter Riley’s pony, Miss Diggys.
Travis’s palomino horse, Gold Digger, is still recovering from colic surgery last December. Duke, which is the bay horse he bought from Speed Williams last year, died three weeks earlier of liver failure.
I was just teasing, of course. The conditions suited Walt great, and when the money’s up Walt’s been Travis’s go-to mount for many moons.
Walt’s been the king of all conditions. Travis was on Walt when he and Cory Petska tied the then-3.5-second record in round eight of the 2008 NFR. Walt could do it all—and did.
I was at a junior rodeo up in the hills of La Grange (Calif.) with Lane and Taylor two days later on April 24. There was no cell service down in the arena valley, so I hiked up a hill to get my messages that evening. My first text was from the Tryans. “Walt died today at the Clovis Rodeo of an aneurysm.” Heartsick, I sat right down in the three-foot-tall oats and teared up. I guess I’d somehow figured Walt was immortal. Heck, his saddle pad was a Superman cape.
We all remember the days when Walt, whose registered name was Precious Speck, packed both Tryan brothers, Travis and Clay, to 100 rodeos a year without complaint, then carried them through 10 rounds at the NFR. We should all love our jobs like Walt loved his.
Walt went down while Travis was warming him up for 7 a.m. slack. His last selfless act was to take care of Travis, even as he went down for the last time. Like Travis’s wife, Hillary, said, “Even when he was going down, he wouldn’t let Travis hit the ground. He really was family.”
Hillary was the hero who caught Walt’s colic in the middle of the night in Nampa (Idaho) last summer, and got him into surgery just in time. Walt defied the odds time after time. He overcame a T-post in his flank when he was a colt, ringbone, wire cuts and colic. Any one of those things stops most, but not Walt.
It’s hard to imagine not seeing Travis on the bay horse with the fluffy forelock, who greeted him and Hillary with a high-pitched whinny every morning at feeding time. The Tryans did have a heavy dose of perspective on which to lean. Three weeks before the Pickens roping, a horse pulled back at home and ran over Riley, who’s 3.
Right in front of their eyes, he stepped on her stomach, back and leg, leaving her lifeless—unconscious and not breathing when Travis scooped her up in his arms. She was life-flighted to Fort Worth, and recovered miraculously. If driving away from Clovis without Walt in the trailer was tough, that drive to Fort Worth was worse. Inexplicably and remarkably, doctors couldn’t find a scratch on her by the time that chopper reached the hospital.
“It was a gift from God,” Hillary said. Talk about your highs and lows. Duke died the day they brought Riley home from the hospital.
After the wreck, they worried Riley might not want a whole lot to do with horses for a while. So when she requested the company of her pony Miss Diggys on the spring run to California, Travis was happy to load her up with Walt.
“We weren’t sure she’d want anything to do with horses for a while,” Hillary smiled (Hillary is always smiling, as are their girls, which also include baby Payton, who just turned a year old last month). “So when she wanted to bring her pony, Travis was happy to bring her.”
Walt was voted the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association/American Quarter Horse Association Head Horse of the Year the last three years running, and also in 2003. Travis cleared the $1 million career earnings hurdle last season, and most of the money was won on Walt’s back. He rode Walt all nine of the NFRs he qualified for (2001-09; Clay rode him at the 2001 NFR, too, which was also his first). When Jake Barnes cut his thumb off doing world championship battle at the 2005 NFR, Trevor Brazile subbed in and headed for Kory Koontz on Walt.
“We were so thankful for all the prayers for Riley when she got hurt,” Travis said. “We heard a couple of ropings, a barrel race and a convention were stopped to pray for her, and those prayers worked. The outpouring of support we got from everyone when Walt died was amazing too. We are humbled by how compassionate and generous people are. Rodeo people are awesome that way.”
There will be other horses for Travis Tryan. But there will never be another Walt—for him or anyone else. Thanks, Walt.
I can’t imagine a more generous way to remember someone than by helping others. I can also say I’ve never before heard of a scholarship aimed at helping a professional team roper. So I really like the unselfish sound of the Shawn Washburn ProRodeo Scholarship.
Get this: Any PRCA team roper (you can also work other events) who’s been a PRCA member at least two years prior to 2010, is in good standing with the PRCA and could use a financial leg up is eligible to apply for this generous scholarship, which in its first year last year awarded Ramzi Hughes of Newcastle, Utah, $4,000.
To donate to the Shawn Washburn ProRodeo Scholarship, apply for the scholarship or if you have any questions at all, call family friend Chris Freed at (208) 251-3170 or Shawn’s ropey little sister, Kera Washburn, at (775) 761-2626. The application deadline is July 1. The scholarship will be awarded August 1, and the funds will be transferred to the recipient’s PRCA account (to be used toward entry fees) on October 1, which is the first day of the 2011 ProRodeo season.
On behalf of the entire rodeo family, thank you to Shawn’s parents, Dave and Robin, for raising a fine young man and roper. By all accounts, Shawn was a hard worker, whether he was in the practice pen working on his handles or out on a remote ranch building fence. It’s not a wonder his lifetime home states of Wyoming, Nevada and Utah all want to claim him. Shawn was 26 when he died in a ranching accident, working hard, as usual. Gone but never forgotten.
Vaya Con Dios, Alex, Van, Walt and Shawn. Your rodeo family will never forget you.