At Calgary’s annual Stampede, the party rages harder than any bucking bronco in the city’s wild see-and-be-seen rodeo.
The floor at Cowboys bar has long since disappeared, having been replaced by a growing carpet of crushed cans, cups, bottles, and lakes of stale beer. No one seems to care. My brother Daniel and I, who are wearing cowboy boots, stomp happily on the mess, jumping up and down to the jock-rock standards Sweet Home Alabama and You Shook Me All Night Long, which are blaring from the speakers all around the giant tent. Those adorned in sandals also dance merrily in the filth.
Tonight is the final night for Cowboys, home to the rowdiest Stampede parties in Calgary for nearly two decades, because the building has a date with a wrecking ball — another victim of Calgary’s booming real estate market. Though there are plans to rebuild the bar just blocks away, the final blowout bash is the city’s way of saying “Give ’er” — an Albertan colloquialism used in encouraging people to go for broke.
On its last night, Cowboys distills the Stampede party formula into its purest form: Set up a big tent in the parking lot, play the music loudly, and keep the booze flowing.
Its trademark skimpily dressed waitresses pour copious amounts of liquor directly into the mouths of eager male patrons from bottles worn on hip holsters. Servers poke holes in beer cans so groups of bruised rodeo riders can “shotgun” them quickly, ladies smooch with steely-eyed strangers, and every inch of dirty concrete serves as a sweaty dance floor. At midnight, everyone belts out “O Canada” at the top of their lungs.
Officially, the Calgary Stampede is an annual nonprofit rodeo competition that takes place in early July. More than 1.2 million visitors from all over North America travel here each year for a chance to win millions of dollars in prizes at what is billed as the greatest outdoor show on earth. The whole city transforms into a huge Western theme park, with wagon wheels and hay bales decorating hotel lobbies, Italian cafés, and corporate headquarters. The Stampede is also Canada’s wildest party. For 10 days, the city is one big cowboy fiesta.
From the first light of morning until the wee hours of the prairie night, Calgary’s bars, clubs, restaurants, and public spaces turn into one large beer garden. Parties seem to pop up like Starbucks. Acts ranging from rocker Bon Jovi to rappers De La Soul to country legend Glen Campbell play at stadiums and clubs throughout the city. Thousands wait hours in line for tickets to catch the hottest country stars rock the packed tent at Nashville North. Hipsters and the culture class sip martinis at the Raw Bar. Bronco riders and other real-life cowboys line dance and listen to prairie poetry at Ranchman’s. The smoky perfume of barbecue in backyards all over the city reveals the location of thousands of house parties.
With the economy booming from the province’s robust oil-and-gas sector, the ante has been upped in recent years. Lavish corporate functions now take place all over town, and often clients are flown in on private jets just for the festivities. “It’s like Mardi Gras or Brazil’s Carnaval,” says Stuart Allan, owner of the Western-themed Buzzards Restaurant & Bar, whose rollicking patio serves up bands and beers well before noon. “This is the city’s annual cathartic release.” As one local told me, “If you can’t have a good time at Stampede, it’s your own fault.”
“It’s 11 a.m., and I’m doing tequila shots!” taunts Daniel’s e-mail message, three days before I arrive. Upon picking me up from the airport, Daniel regales me about the decadence he’s experienced thus far. Chief among these exploits are the legendary Stampede breakfasts, free cookouts held every morning at various locations around town and whose flapjacks and griddle sausages help ease hungover revelers into the day’s festivities. One dental practice puts candy in its pancakes, while another firm starts the morning with mimosas in the parking lot.
Our first stop of the evening is the Rhinestone Rodeo at the Hyatt hotel, a massive bash thrown by a local law firm. Huge buffets stretch around the banquet hall, which is awash in an armada of lights, neon lassos, and pink hats. A country band honky-tonks on stage, and thousands of people decked out in designer denim and new alligator-skin boots schmooze around the huge bar set up in the middle of the room. The party rages well into the night, and we flirt between beer and ice cream sundae bars until we are cut off from the (chocolate) sauce. On the cab ride home, the driver admits that he’s both exhilarated and exhausted: “I don’t even have time to [take a break], I’m so busy.”
The next day, I don my newly purchased trademark white Calgary Smithbilt hat and a sweet pair of Alberta Boot Company cowboy boots, squeeze into the tightest pair of blue jeans I own, and set off for the Stampede itself. It’s the last Saturday of the festival, and the final qualifying rounds of the rodeo are just hours away. During the competition, fans gather around the stadium and the track, where they soak up the sun and pound down draft beers in a less-formal version of the Kentucky Derby infield’s festivities
Although the parties shouldn’t be missed, attending the rodeo is the week’s highlight. The announcers are seasoned rodeo pros, tossing out lines like, “He could spur the fur off a grizzly bear!” with sheer gusto. Women love the cowboys, and men love watching the cowboys take their licks. During a bullriding event, Idaho rider Zeb Lanham gets thrown from his bull, only to be scooped up by the bull’s horns and tossed 20-plus feet in the air. Although Lanham survives unharmed, the collective whoa of the crowd and ensuing applause whips the grandstands into a frenzy. This all serves to warm up the audience for the Stampede event that Calgarians live for — the “chucks.”
The chuckwagon races are the Stampede’s grand finale each night, a spectacle of equine competition every bit as fierce as that of the Roman chariots. At the starter’s whistle, four teams take off, each guiding a covered wagon in a figure eight before letting loose on the mile-long track, and four outriders charge on horses right behind them in a flying fight to the finish. It’s fast, raucous, and extremely dangerous, and the crowd whoops, cheers, and bets so loudly that beer gets tossed about the grandstands like water. One woman accurately describes the energy at the races as “the thunderin’ of a thousand hooves.”
When the race is over, VIPs head back to the stables, where corporate bigwigs throw the most coveted Stampede parties. We get into the post-chucks party of a local architecture firm, expecting a stodgy gathering of Champagne-sipping socialites in luxury trailers. Instead, we are greeted by blazing barbecues, coolers full of beer cans, and horses everywhere. CEOs of oil companies mingle with muddied chuckwagon racers, while the partners of Canada’s largest law firms take turns flipping burgers and singing cowboy songs by bonfires. “Rich or poor, no matter who you are, whether the boss or the beggar, Stampede’s never about being sophisticated,” says my brother’s boss. “This is the one time when everybody in the city just kicks back, gets a little dirty, and really lets loose.”
Where to Stay
The Delta Bow Valley is downtown; it’s a 15-minute walk from the Stampede Grounds and just two blocks from Olympic Park, the headquarters for the daily Stampede breakfasts.
Hotel Arts is the city’s first boutique hotel. It boasts a sleek pool bar as well as an award-winning restaurant, and its Raw Bar tent is the place where cool locals go to do Stampede in style. It’s also one of the closest hotels to the rodeo grounds.
Where to Eat
Buzzards Restaurant & Bar is a downtown saloon that features an annual Testicle Festival, during which a cowboy delicacy called prairie oysters is prepared three ways. Just remember that oysters grow nowhere near the prairies … but steers do. Less adventurous? The barbecue is also a tasty option.
When it’s time to take a break from ribs and burgers, head to Mercato, a gourmet Italian market that doubles as a restaurant. The freshness of its ingredients is second to none; the antipasti plate can overwhelm even the biggest eater; and, for those who love Alberta beef, chefs Spencer Wheaton and Steve Smee can grill up a gut-busting 60-ounce Florentine beauty, pressed under heavy stones.
Some of the boots used in Brokeback Mountain and a host of other films were custom-made at the Alberta Boot Company. The cowboy boots come in thousands of styles, fit beautifully and can make any city slicker look like Clint Eastwood.
The white cowboy hat is the defining symbol of Alberta, and without one at Stampede, you’ll feel naked. Straw ones cost less than $20 at the Smithbilt Hats factory store, but hats made of felt and other materials last longer and actually feel cooler in the prairie sun.
For belts, Wrangler jeans, snap-top shirts, and bolo ties (plus souvenirs), hit Lammle’s Western Wear & Tack, which carries everything.
Finding a party during Stampede is easy, but finding the one you want can be overwhelming. Intelligence is key. On socialinsider.ca, you’ll find a downloadable spreadsheet of the Stampede parties each year, complete with information on the cover charge, who is playing, and the location.
Or check out where.ca, the online version of the free magazine that’s found in most hotels. It publishes a nightlife guide each year for Stampede.
Another good source of information is ffwdweekly.com, the online version of Calgary’s free weekly arts and nightlife magazine. Here you’ll find the most detailed guide, especially in regard to more obscure, artsy parties where — gasp! — people might not be wearing cowboy hats.
Check out calgarystampede.com for times, tickets, information on Nashville North concerts, and more. Also stop by tourismcalgary.com and tourismalberta.com for more info on Stampede, Calgary, and Alberta.
David Sax has written for the International Herald Tribune, Maclean’s, and the New Republic.