SPOKANE, Wash. – There's a new element to the sad country song that is a rodeo cowboy's life. To the raging bulls, lonely nights and lingering bruises, add high gas prices.
Fuel costs hovering around $3 per gallon are wreaking havoc on the wallets of rodeo cowboys, who often drive hundreds of miles per day in beefy pickup trucks pulling horse trailers to get to the next go-round.
The image of the solitary cowboy traveling back roads may be an archetype of the modern West, but it is quickly going the way of the buffalo. These days, a rodeo cowboy is likely to share a gas-sipping economy car with three or four others.
"Hell yes!" said Fred Boettcher, a top professional bull rider, when asked if gasoline prices were impacting his season.
Scrambling to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Boettcher these days often parks his pickup truck and flies or drives rental economy cars to far-flung rodeos.
"I travel with lots of people," Boettcher said. "The more the better."
While gas prices have retreated to about $2.62 per gallon in much of the country, prices are higher in eight Western states. Spokane drivers are paying $3.08 per gallon.
Bull rider Bret Summers of Spokane competes mostly in the Northwest, but that doesn't help his bottom line much. One recent weekend he drove from Spokane to Monroe, Wash., up to Winthrop near the Canadian border and then down to Kamiah, Idaho, and then home.
That was 1,200 miles in a Dodge Ram pickup that gets 10 miles to the gallon. All to hang onto a bull for 8 seconds and look good enough doing it to win some prize money.
The reason: He's 13th in bull riding in the Pro West rodeo association and only the top 12 qualify for the Pro West Finals in Omak at the end of September.
In his first season on the rodeo circuit, Summers, 23, figures he's broken even on entry fees with $1,400 in winnings. Travel costs come out of his earnings in construction. He tries to shave those costs by packing up to seven people in his truck for trips to rodeos.
"You scrunch up as much as possible," he said.
In the past, gas prices didn't matter much when a cowboy was planning a weekend trip to a series of rodeos. Now they do.
"If you win first and can't cover your expenses, is it worth going?" said Jeanne Benson of Laurel, Mont., editor of Cowboy's Digest, a twice-monthly publication of rodeo results and news. "That was not a factor a couple of years ago."
Benson's husband, Bill, is a team roper. They travel to rodeos together with their daughter. Their truck pulls a trailer for two horses that also includes sleeping quarters for the family.
The rig gets maybe 11 miles per gallon, not much when you consider that over the Labor Day weekend they traveled to rodeos in the Montana towns of Hamilton, Plains, White Sulphur Springs, Helmville and Dillon.
The towns are hundreds of miles apart, although that is considered close by the standards of Big Sky Country.
Along with gas and living expenses, each rodeo costs some $100 to enter. It's no wonder that Bill Benson works for the state highway department when not at rodeos.
Family time is sometimes sacrificed to the realities of gas prices.
"We stay home if he travels with somebody," Jeanne said.
Ann Bleiker, spokeswoman for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in Colorado Springs, Colo., said it is too soon to spot the immediate impact of gas prices.
Entries are not down at the major professional rodeos this summer. But she expected that some cowboys who are too far down in the standings to make the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas may cut back on their travel.
"We see more guys carpooling and riding together," she said. "Some guys fly now instead of drive. It costs the same and it's faster to fly."
Dolly Hughes, director of facilities for the Spokane County Fair, said the number of entrants at their recent rodeo was down in team roping and barrel racing, events in which the competitors must bring their own livestock.
"We were down 15 percent on barrel racers," Hughes said.
Boettcher, of Rice Lake, Wis., has career winnings of more than $600,000 since joining the PRCA in 1995. This year he's ranked 22nd among bull riders, and is struggling to break into the top 15 to qualify for the big money at the National Finals on Nov. 30. He often travels with bull rider B.J. Schumacher of Hillsboro, Wis., currently ranked ninth.
Boettcher remembers paying 85 cents a gallon to fill a diesel pickup truck in 1995. Now it's $3.30 a gallon in California.
Boettcher has been skipping some rodeos where the pay isn't high enough to cover expenses. But he can't skip too many because he needs points to qualify for the finals.
"I had a great winter and a lousy summer," Boettcher said. "I have no choice but to chuck it up and go."
"I might spend $20,000 in the next month and a half to make $20,000, but that's the way it is," Boettcher, a full-time bull rider, said.
He's single and 30 years old and has no plans to quit.
"It's either suck it up and do it or quit and get a 9-to-5," Boettcher said.