For 10 days each year, Calgary, Alberta transforms from a sprawling oil and gas-rich city into a party of Texan proportions. As a born and bred Canadian, I’ve always wanted to mosey on over to the Calgary Stampede. It’s a Canadian bucket list contender, up there with Niagara Falls and the Canadian Rockies.
Ironically, after a lifetime of anticipation, my inaugural visit was threatened by a massive and widespread flood. Just 14 days before the big show, Calgary went under water, the Stampede’s 407-acre grounds covered swimming pool-deep. After 100 years, would the 101st year be a bye? Come hell or high water, no, thanks to serious water recession, 24-hour crews, and most importantly, the pioneering spirit that’s made the Stampede stand out as “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.” In other words, Calgary cowboyed up producing a show you’d never know was threatened.
My Stampede started at 7 a.m. on July 5th, 2013; the first day. Holding a mimosa (or two), there was a lot to celebrate, and a herd of tireless clean-up crews to offer a cheers of thanks. Despite the early hour – for eating and imbibing – the air buzzed with anticipation, and the sound of 30 fiddles strumming a tune at the famous Fairmont Palliser Parade Day breakfast.
Viewfinder Tip: During Stampede, over one million free pancakes are served by volunteers all over the city. Look out for roadside chuckwagons to find free flapjacks.
Cowboy or city slicker, there wasn’t a tennis shoe or stiletto in the house. You name the western wear, and it was there. Naturally, I snapped – photos that is! At the richest outdoor rodeo invitational on the planet, you can imagine the photo opps: studded leathers, fringed chaps, monogrammed belt buckles, stacked denim, embroidered boots. Even the parade’s 800 horses got gussied up, including some with bedazzled behinds (think equestrian body polish).
Following cowboy etiquette to a T, Stampede is all about wranglers – the athletes and the jeans! And it’s not just authentic cowboys who come decked out either, everyone from townie to tourist gets in on the action. With this, I re-purposed my everyday clothes into cowgal-worthy wear, and accessorized with feathers, turquoise, and gold accents (not at the same time) after a chat with the stylist at The CORE shopping center in downtown Calgary.
Ready to rock at the rodeo
Guy or gal, here’s the unofficial Stampede wardrobe rule: top it, belt it, and stomp it, meaning you can transform virtually any outfit from everyday to western with the addition of a cowboy hat, belt, and cowboy boots.
Now rodeo-ready, the broncos were a buckin’ – my cue the show had officially started. The most posh perch to watch the afternoon rodeo is the Lazy S, a lounge and outdoor viewing vista with this dress code: “stylish urban western attire” (thank goodness I dressed for success). Think of it like a catered box at a football or hockey game. Overlooking the infield, I sipped an 8-second Caesar (a bacon-flavored rendition of the classic Canadian cocktail) and feasted on a three-course meal coordinating my bites with bucks. I was officially in a Stampede trance.
The more I stampeded, the more I gleaned what goes on at Calgary’s inner city ranch: party in the front, business in the back. Taking a peek behind the scenes – literally, I stood three feet from the chutes where cowboys and their broncs or bulls launch into the dirt-covered arena – my backstage guide, Wayne, whispered, “this is where the business happens.” Beyond the fidgety, leather-clad contenders, each doing a different version of their pre-rodeo prep, the scream of cheering fans in the grandstand grew louder and louder. As the intensity mounted, so did each cowboy.
Outside the rodeo, Stampede is a festival by day, party by night. The fair side of the park is a grazing grounds ripe with twirly rides and delights like deep-fried oreos, chocolate-dipped bacon, and pickle juice shooters. At the opposite end of the ranch, you’ll find the Western Oasis, a wine garden and art gallery for the reserved ranahans. I found myself hovering between both worlds, downing pickle shooters in the afternoon and pinot noir in the evening.
When the sun goes down, the grandstand comes to life once again when the famous chuckwagons take to the track; an intense race where 24 horses and 16 riders speed for a slice of the $2 million purse. The conclusion of the race marks the start of Stampede’s nightlife (which also goes on all day, if that’s what you’re into). Good thing I brought my party pants, now all I have to do is learn the two-step to croon with my cowboy at Nashville North, Stampede’s it country western destination.
Stampede 101: stay at a hotel that’s close to the stomping grounds. Your feet will thank you. Hotel Arts gets top marks in my standings because the pool is cool, the vibe is right, and the breakfast is bang-on.
Have you traveled to a rodeo?