A funny thing happens every April in the fast lanes of Interstates 10, 40 and 80. A disjointed caravan of cowboys fixing to win big money races across the Western landscape bound for the spring rodeos of California. It is an annual odyssey that's been taking place for decades.
But the cowboy caravan is shrinking.
It's all on account of a foe that can put more fear into these men than the prospect of clinging to the backs of wild, bucking animals. The most potent threat to cowboy life even sounds a little like the name of a bad National Finals Rodeo bull: Four-dollar diesel.
"It's not just killing us, it's killing rodeos," said Wade Sumpter of Fowler, Colo. "I know a lot of guys who usually come out here to California, but they didn't make the trip this year. It's just too expensive.
"Two of us drove out from Colorado, and it cost us $1,000 just to get out here. And that's before we even got to any rodeos. But we really like it out here, so diesel prices aren't enough to keep us away. It probably would stop us if we were smarter. But this is what we do for a living, so we really don't have a choice."
Diesel prices, which have doubled in the past two years,
have meant dramatically fewer entries at springtime rodeos in Red Bluff, Clovis and San Francisco. And the Oakdale Rodeo, with performances beginning at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, certainly is not immune. The event is expected to draw about 50 fewer contestants than last year's 437, with calf roping, team roping and saddle bronc riding seeing the biggest declines.
"It's hitting pretty much everybody, even La Grange and some of the other amateur rodeos," said Norm Mendenhall, president of the Oakdale Saddle Club for the past 12 years. "Guys are really picking and choosing their routes carefully, based on how much money they have."
The timed events -- calf roping, team roping, steer wrestling and barrel racing -- are where California rodeos are seeing the most dramatic fallout. That's because many of those contestants travel with their horses. With big trucks and heavy trailers, fuel economy isn't part of the equation: Eight miles a gallon is about the best a cowboy can hope for. At $4 a gallon, many rodeo contestants find themselves shelling out 50 cents per mile in fuel costs alone. Add in $300 entry fees, food for people and livestock, and occasional motel rooms, and it's easy to see how a tough way to make a living only is getting tougher.
"That's the worst part about rodeo," said Travis Cadwell, an Oakdale steer wrestler. "Rodeo cowboys never know if the country's in a recession or a depression or whatever. They don't know any different because they never have much money anyway."
Sumpter, a steer wrestler who is leading the world standings, said he has spent about $10,000 a year on fuel in recent years despite usually traveling with three other cowboys to help trim costs. A cowboy traveling alone these days can spend more than $40,000 in fuel annually to cover a journey that can exceed 75,000 miles. Remember: There is no guaranteed paycheck in this sport, where the difference between winning and losing is measured in tenths of seconds.
"You don't have a lot of options," said Sumpter, who will compete in Oakdale. "You can't stop at a gas station and barter. You just put it in and go on your way."
Though the fuel has hit timed- event contestants harder, it's also affecting those who compete in the roughstock events: bull riding, bareback and saddle bronc. Trucks crammed with cowboys are becoming more common. Oakdale's H-Bar-B Saloon owner Mike Bacigalupi saw eight cowboys exit a Dodge truck and camper shell last week at the La Grange rodeo grounds.
"When the doors opened, these guys came pouring out from everywhere," Bacigalupi said. "It used to be you'd usually see at most four or five guys in a rig, but that's changing."
Bacigalupi's sons, Tony and Bo, are trying their luck on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit for the first time. Without financial help, the two likely would be in a position facing many a cowboy this year: broken by $4 diesel.
"The H-Bar-B's their sponsor right now," Bacigalupi said. "Without their mom and dad's gas card, they'd be home shortly. For most guys without sponsors, they have to get really hot and stay hot to make enough money to last the whole season."
Most people at this weekend's rodeo won't notice a difference from past years. The Saturday parade always is well-attended, and a warm, sunny forecast has organizers expecting crowds of nearly 7,000 people. Slack sessions for overflow in the timed events will have fewer competitors, but the main weekend performances will have as many contestants as usual.
But, in the eyes of cowboys, the fact is the Oakdale Rodeo no longer commands the attention it once did. And high fuel prices aren't the only catalyst.
Years ago, Oakdale marked the official beginning of the spring rodeo season. After spending the winter battling snow and icy roads in the Midwest, California was seen as a welcome break. Pretty much every full-time cowboy came to Oakdale and spent at least a few days here, waiting for Red Bluff's rodeo to begin the next week.
But in recent years, the rodeo in Logandale, Nev., has risen in prominence, becoming a ProRodeo Tour stop featuring $10,000 in added prize money in each event. Also, the Grand National Rodeo in San Francisco, another tour stop that adds $10,000 per event, moved from November to roughly the same time as Oakdale's. At $4,500 added per event, up this year from $4,000 last year, Oakdale has become somewhat of an afterthought, some say.
"Oakdale just isn't as big a deal anymore, certainly not what it used to be," Cadwell said. "You hear that a lot these days. A lot of guys still come through here, but I don't know that it'll ever return to the way it was."
No matter the future of the Oakdale Rodeo, Cadwell said, there's one thing a fella always can count on in the "Cowboy Capital of the World" -- a cold beer unhampered by weather.
"Oakdale's beer stand is famous because it's covered," Cadwell said. "Whether it's raining or really hot, you can always get a good beer there. They have one of the few beer stands that's actually weather-proof."
Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 874-5716.