Blind rodeo fan impressed with Ponoka Stampede

For the second year in a row, I made the trip out from the large metropolis of Vancouver, B.C. to spend a few days of country-style R and R in the podunk little town of Ponoka.

Dear Editor:

Recent events compel me to record some of my thoughts. For the second year in a row, I made the trip out from the large metropolis of Vancouver, B.C. to spend a few days of country-style R and R in the podunk little town of Ponoka. And for the second year in a row, I’ve been blown away by my experience, and come home feeling re-energized, inspired, and as if I’ve left a small part of myself behind.

I first made the trip in June 2009 on the urging of my friend, Carissa Raugust. “You can come and stay on my farm,” she said, “Stampede is a blast!” Never one to shy away from a new adventure, I readily agreed to make the trip along with my friend, Adel. To make a long story short, it turned out to be the best vacation we had both taken in a long while.

There is a certain mystique surrounding Ponoka in the thick of Stampede. Perhaps it’s the pure raw energy of thundering chuckwagons as “they cast their fate to the figure eight” accompanied by the dulcet tones of Les McIntyre. Or maybe it’s the olfactory combination of cotton candy, hotdogs and horse manure that permeates the air. And there’s a certain connectedness one can feel around them, while at the same time being completely disconnected from the rest of the world. (I didn’t check e-mail for four whole days, and didn’t miss it one bit.)

Either way, coming back to Vancouver was a true culture shock and I vowed to myself that I would make this trip again the following year.

Spring 2010 came around, and I began making plans to once again visit Ponoka. To be completely honest, most of my friends thought I was nuts. “Why are you going there again,” I was asked on several occasions. “You’ve been there and done that.” Thankfully I was not dissuaded, although I must admit there were several times when the trip almost fell through.

Let me explain why by first backtracking a little. I am 25 and have been totally blind since birth. While I consider myself somewhat of a globetrotter, having travelled the world representing Canada as a Paralympic athlete, certain of my adventures require a little extra assistance. Stampede is an example of such a one. Imagine how difficult it is for a blind guy to get around a town with no transit system. Not to mention it’s somewhat of a challenge navigating around a midway or into the dirt-covered infield without the use of a sighted guide.

Luckily at the last minute, my lifelong friend, Toler Thompson, when I told him about Stampede over a few pints one night, agreed to go with me. The stage was set. Little did I know how incredible the experience would be the second time around.

Timelessness. A word that came into my mind several times over the course of the last weekend. As I walked around the town, listened to the music, and met the people, I had this strange feeling of déjà vu, as if I were stepping back many years into a simpler era. The feeling first came upon me as I chowed down on a Canada Day morning pancake breakfast, a mere 30 minutes after arriving in town. Accompanying the hungry townsfolk in attendance was a three-piece band, serenading the crowd with classics such as George Hamilton IV’s “Countrified,” and Marty Robins’ “A White Sport Coat.” Marty Robins? Do people still listen to that music in 2010? Apparently the answer is yes. And what amazed me the most was that Carissa, nearly eight years my junior, knew all the words.

My second trip in the time machine occurred later that same day. Carissa’s grandparents had invited us to a turkey dinner at the Ponoka Legion. So here we were, a small squad of young people surrounded by folks several generations older than us and once more the food was not the main attraction. For up on stage was a caller, who shouted out dance instructions in time with the music. Please excuse my ignorance, but at the time I wondered out loud, “Do they really still do that?” In Ponoka, the answer is yes.

But above all, it was the deep sense of fellowship and community which struck a chord within me. Something I never realized from last year’s Stampede was that this event is volunteer-run. This I learned while carrying tables for Marion Raugust in preparation for the parade.

If there’s one thing I can say about small-town people it is this: They know no bounds when it comes to hospitality and giving of themselves. I’ll use the Raugusts as my first example. For the second year in a row, Brad and Rayleen have allowed me to stay on their farm. They knew nothing about me, other than that I was a blind friend of Carissa’s from B.C. It is their generosity that made this trip such a positive experience. I was moved when I heard my name introduced to the chuckwagon crowd one night by Les McIntyre. It was Brad and Rayleen’s idea. I guess they were impressed that a city slicker like me enjoyed their town so much.

The Bowmans are another example. Sue (an author who is writing her second book about blindness) and her husband Lyle met me in 2009 for an interview for Sue’s upcoming book. Once again this year, they took a few hours out of their day to introduce me to some of their friends in town, one of whom arranged for Sue and I to ride on a stagecoach into the rodeo. That thrill alone made the trip.

In closing, while the rodeo attractions, midway, and chuckwagon races make this a memorable town, it is the heart and soul of the people which creates the true magic of the Ponoka stampede.

I’m already making plans for Stampede 2011.

A born-again cowboy,

Donovan Tildesley