One of the amazing things in our line of work as musicians is that by the nature of this work, we have the opportunity to rub shoulders with all sorts of people. And if you embrace the concept that there are no coincidences in life, then almost all the people you meet are there because the good Lord wanted you to meet them.
That seemed to be the case for us when we were out in Arizona this week. We were staying with our friend and keeper of WayGood Southwest, Norm Weitzman. We had several St. Patrick's shows to perform and with a small window of free time, we debated on whether we should run to the Grand Canyon and get some video of us playing or stay around Scottsdale and rehearse some new songs. We decided on the latter and spent a good day working on music.
"I know a good place nearby to shoot video," said Norm. "Let's head up to Cave Creek. It's a cowboy town and I am sure we could get some great shots there."
So that evening we drove down Scottsdale Road and past some beautiful scenery to the town of Cave Creek. The town itself is an interesting tourist trap town full of curio shops, hamburger joints, biker bars and, well, cowboys. One place, Hogs and Horses, caught my eye as it had some longhorn steers in a rodeo pen behind the bar. We walked into the establishment. Inside were several folks in cowboy gear and a table of happy people who turned out to be the band for that night.
"Hey!" they called out to us. "Glad to see you here!"
We got to talking and when they found out we were musicians from Chicago, they insisted we get up on stage and play. There was no bass guitar so I made do with an acoustic guitar and pulled up the low frequency on it. There was also no guitar strap and so I had to hoist my leg over a bar stool and I realized that in my shorts I must have looked pretty stupid. Brian grabbed a guitar and Joey settled in to the drums. There were no sticks for Joey, so the band, who were feeling pretty happy with their beers, improvised and broke two pool cues into a rough approximation of sticks. And with that, we launched into several numbers, culminating with "Pour Me." The band went wild and soon we had some new friends.
We then listened to the band get up and play and one woman leaned over to me. "Just want you to know that that man on stage is Elvis Presley's son." Now, when a lady tells you that you are looking at Elvis Presley's son, you start squinting your eyes to see if there is any kind of resemblance. So I was doing that as he sang. Son or not, I thought he had a pretty good voice.
Afterward, we all talked for a while. One of the group, Jay, motioned over to the longhorns. "These are part of the bar. We have bull riding twice a week here. And here comes the owner of the place, T.C." In walked this lanky man wearing a baseball cap and in one look I could tell that this guy was the genuine article when it came to cowboying. Turned out that he was none other than T.C. Thorstenson, the famous buffalo rider.
If anyone knows anything about me, they know I have this connection with the West. My grandmother was born in a log cabin in Lothrop, Montana. All of us McCormack family kids spent our childhood summers out West. And out West there are buffalo. After moose, the buffalo is one of my favorite animals and truly embodies the spirit of the West.
T.C. started riding his first bison up in South Dakota when he was nine. He trained the famous bison, Harvey Wallbanger, who not only could beat racehorses, but was part of movies, commercials and even the latest buffalo design for the nickel. Along with Harvey, T.C. appeared in two of my favorite Westerns, "Dances with Wolves" and "Lonesome Dove," along with Harvey and several wolves he raised from pups. Remember the flying buffalo in the Buffalo Wildwings commercials? Yep, T.C. and Harvey. (Click here to see video of the great Harvey Wallbanger and T.C. Thorstenson).
T.C. told us of all the injuries that he had received from riding buffalo as well as handling wolves and longhorns. One longhorn actually gored him through the nose, tearing off part of his face; he lost an eye. A great plastic surgeon sewed him up after the trauma doc gave him one look. Brian said, "You must have a high threshold for pain." "Yeah, I guess so," said T.C. dryly.
This was turning out better than the Grand Canyon at this point. With Elvis's son and a cowboy who rides buffalo, how could it get any better?
"C'mon," said Jay, pointing to a big black tour bus out back. "Want to see one of Madonna's tour buses?" Norm went off to check it out. Brian, Joey and I turned to T.C. and asked almost in unison, "Any chance we can see the buffalo?" T.C. agreed and we set up a time to meet his new three-year-old bison-in-training, Harley, the next day.
After a tour of the tour bus, which incidentally was my first time on one, we bade our goodbyes, shaking hands, handing out Switchback stickers and promising to meet at the bar the next morning.
We pulled up at the bar the next day around 10 a.m. and there was T.C. sitting at the bar wearing a straw cowboy hat. Next to him was another cowboy, with big grin and a quick wit, named Keith. They were laughing and drinking Coors in the Switchback beer koozies we gave out the night before. Keith told a joke in honor of St. Patrick's Day:
A Mexican and an Irishman are sitting at the pub, each describing their culture to the other.
"In Mexico, we take life easy. Whenever something needs to get done, we just say 'mañana' and that way nothing happens."
He leans in to the Irishman. "Do you have such a word?"
"Eh, we might," says the Irishman. "However we would never be so urgent as ye."
We hopped in our van and followed T.C., his girlfriend Holly, and Keith and a dog in their white pickup truck. Passing two life-sized sculptures of buffalo, we drove down a saguaro-lined drive up to T.C.'s ranch house. There, waiting out in the shed next to a white buffalo and some beautiful horses (several of which belonged to T.C.'s friend Steven Seagal), was Harley.
At three years old, he was already pretty big, weighing over 1700 pounds. He looked like any other kind of buffalo that I had seen in Wyoming, but this time it was different. T.C. got into the pen with Harley. I noted the three-inch steel pipe that made up the corral and was grateful to have that between myself and Harley. T.C. grabbed Harley's halter and proceeded to snap on a lead. He tethered Harley onto a steel post and Harley did as most bison like to do when tethered to a post: untether himself by trying to pull down the corral. With some quick commands Harley was back up and a variation of a rodeo saddle was fitted around him. Into his mouth went a snaffle bit and bridle. T.C. unhooked the halter.
While T.C. was getting ready to mount Harley, Keith whispered to me, "You know, T.C. lost his dad to a bison. Gored him and he bled to death before they could make it to the hospital."
T.C. started riding around the pen, his head barely clearing the steel girders that made up the roof. Later I found out that bison don't rear up like horses can. But at the time, I was thinking that I was witnessing either the bravest man in the world or the craziest man in the world.
T.C. calmly rode Harley in some tight circles and Harley would every so often see us and charge the gate. It took all of T.C.'s strength, it seemed, to rein him in. We all found ourselves involuntarily jumping back about three feet every time this happened. T.C. got Harley to kneel and then roll down on his side, just as if he were a trained dog. We all marveled at it, as T.C. gently scratched Harley's head. But quick as a flash, all 1700 pounds of Harley was on his feet and bolting away to the end of the pen, T.C. getting yanked along on the lead reins. "Down! Down!" yelled T.C. And Harley, grunting and snorting, finally kneeled back down again.
While this was going on I thought about walking down to pet the friendly white bison down in the other pen. He looked much more docile than Harley. I was about to make my move when T.C. invited us to all head over to see him.
The white buffalo was six years old and he sort of bellowed and grunted as we all approached. "I just couldn't get him to ride," T.C. said. "Turned out that he was just too mean."
The bison's horns curved way high in evil arcs, almost as tall as his head and he shook this shaggy mass right at us as if to say, "If only that fence wasn't here."
I tried to act nonchalant, summing up all my "Aw shucks, just another day at the bison ranch" swagger and leaned in to get a picture of the white buffalo.
"He likes to reach through and try to hook you," T.C. said. "Better not lean too close."
And sure enough, the bull quickly cocked his horn right through the fence and went for my nose.
We talked about how fast bison can run and how, for all their size, they are more agile than a cat. Bison carry most of their weight in their massive skull and shoulders. T.C. explained how unlike a rodeo bull that swivels its shoulders and spins its back haunches, a buffalo can spin 360 degrees on his front hooves. They can use that speed and mass to knock a competitor from here to eternity. Humans a bit farther.
"Once I had some bison here that got out of the pen," T.C. said. "My father-in-law at the time decided to come outside the house after I told everyone to stay in. He wanted to see me round up the bison. Well, he placed himself between the bison and a dumpster, thinking he would be safe. I was trying to pen one when the other saw him and went right after him. He got between him and the dumpster and swung his back haunch on him knocking him seven feet. As my father-in-law got up the bull was right back and this time knocked him 20 feet in the air leaving his shoes behind. He met him as he hit the ground and danced on him for about six seconds before I could even reach him. We had to Medevac him out and he was in critical care for about three months and rehab for about six. He still likes me though."
The whole time T.C. told this story, Harley was grunting and looking at us three rubes from Chicago.
We decided that we wanted to be photographed with Harley and at least get some video of T.C. riding him. We scouted out a good location and figured that Harley could be posted to an ironwood tree and we would sit with our instruments in front of him. We decided to reconvene at "Hogs and Horses" and head over to do the shoot at the ranch the next day.
Norm had missed out on the exploits from the day before, but shaking his head, he agreed to accompany us to be the staff photographer. We brought along some video cameras and some tripods and set up the shot at the ranch, pulling a rustic bench out in front of the tree and situating our instruments for the shoot. Keith pulled up in his pickup and he sauntered over to where we were. We cracked some jokes as T.C. went to get Harley.
In the meantime, Harley was peering down on all of us from on top of a trailer that attached to a ramp in his cage. Norm took some video of Joey playing the washboard as Harley ate some hay and eyed us with a look of disdain. We headed down to where the pen was and T.C. led Harley out.
We stood a safe distance when Harley took one look at the set up and decided to make a run for it. He took off and now we had three musicians, one photographer and two cowboys versus one upset bison. We all started heading toward a stack of hay that was high enough to get us up on the roof. Harley, snorting wildly, bolted past us with T.C. in pursuit. The father-in-law story came to mind and we all realized that Harley had a lot more targets.
"I'm going on the roof!" said Joey, and started climbing up the stack. Norm took refuge in a golf cart. "Norm!" yelled Joey, "You can't hide on a golf cart, that bison is going to get you!" Brian and Keith were also looking for places to hide as now all the animals were racing around the pen, cheering Harley on.
Harley ran to a back pasture, T.C. patiently following him. The bison squared on him and T.C. calmly reached again for the lead. Harley bolted again and Keith, sizing up the situation wisely, said, "I think we all should lock ourselves in the corral." So all of us scurried into an open pen and locked ourselves in next to the horses and Mr.-Angry-Gore-You-When-You-Least-Expect-It white buffalo.
T.C. yelled, "Ya better move that tripod and bass guitar." I looked over at Harley, who seemed like he had the better of the fight at this point. I figured if I moved fast enough I could grab the bass at least. Visions of Harley running around with half the guitar on his head went through my mind.
T.C. had managed to now trap Harley and was not messing around. "Keith, get the pickup truck," he said and grabbed a stout rope from the shed. We were back in the pen, me having run out to get everything out of the way and then running back.
"Harley 3, Switchback 0," I joked to Joey and Brian as Keith turned the truck around and T.C. tethered Harley to it. Slowly Keith let the truck out in first gear and Harley reluctantly left his brief bid for freedom and was led to the tree.
At this point T.C. finally had Harley tied and called us over. We walked up and stared at the bull who now was only a few feet from us.
"Let's move the chairs closer," said T.C. and so we dragged them to within a foot of the bison. I took a quiet breath and exhaled, thinking to myself that this could be one of the dumbest things I had ever done in my life.
We all sat down, our backs to Harley. Joey jumped when Harley turned his head and breathed on him in big panting snorts. "Look ahead, Joey," said Norm, taking pictures as we sat rigidly for the camera. We proceeded to take a bunch more, eventually moving the chairs and getting close to Harley.
At this point he seemed to mellow a tiny bit. I reached over to touch his horn. "Don't do that," said T.C. "That is like pulling on a kid's ear. He don't like that." I left the horn alone. Harley looked at me with one eye and decided to slime me, reaching out with his purple Jabba-the-Hutt-Licks -Princess-Leia tongue. I had about the same reaction she did.
We next set up some shots of T.C. riding Harley. T.C. changed into a cowboy shirt, untethered Harley and led him to the shed. We were still setting up when out he came riding. There was something about seeing a man on a bison that is both jaw-dropping and bizarre at the same time. Comical never entered my mind as I knew what risks T.C. took.
Harley appeared in the 4th of July parade the year before with T.C. and everyone loved it. However, they did not know that earlier Harley had rolled on T.C. and had broken his foot. Riding through the pain with a great sense of caution and showmanship, I admired T.C.
"He's the modern day Buffalo Bill," said Brian.
"No," said Joey. "He's Evel Knievel on a buffalo!" They were both right.
Harley would obey most of the commands from T.C., but every so often, he would decide to go his own way. T.C. was amazing at controlling Harley and in spite of my earlier fear, I slowly gained cautious confidence around the bull. We finished our shots and T.C. rode Harley into a paddock. There, he put Harley through his paces. For such a huge animal, I could not get over how graceful both man and bison appeared. It seemed natural to me and almost as familiar as a cowboy on a paint horse.
The corral piping clanged when Harley's horn hit it. He was trying to rub T.C. out of the saddle. But the cowboy was able to get him to obey, kneel and lie down. T.C. turned and doffed his cowboy hat to us all.
We took final shots with Harley and I planted a big kiss on his nose for his hard work. And he looked like a young juvenile bison at that point, unsure of his strength and a bit played out. Perhaps he knew the shoot was over.
T.C. traded stories from the road with us and we talked about him heading to Ireland with us and our setting up some sort of show at Hogs and Horses. We gave him, Holly, Keith and some others some CDs and t-shirts. T.C. gave Joey his straw hat, which was a real honor. I decided I would keep the bison slime on my boots to get me through St. Patrick's Day.
We all have a calling in life. That calling, I believe, is our responsibility to the Creator to mirror back to Him the image of Himself. Therefore, we are all called to do different things and once we choose our role, we pursue it with passion, patience and in almost every case, pain. Ultimately it is to bring joy to people and get us in touch with the Divine. Some are musicians, some are garbage collectors, some ride jet fighters and some sail around the world.
But one and only one rides a buffalo. And I am honored to have met him.
~ Martin McCormack
American Roots & Celtic Soul