Next month, about 1.4 million rodeo lovers are expected to pass through the gates of Stampede Park, keen on chuckwagon races, smoked grub and a raucous carnival, all experienced from under the brim of a cowboy hat. I'm here early, a city slicker (read: Torontonian) come to sample what's on offer to a "cowgirl" before the mammoth party rolls into town, for the 100th time, this July 6.
As I heave my luggage off the carousel at YYC, I spot my first Calgary white hat. "It's well worn in," says the owner, Lyla, an airport greeter nicely bronzed by Alberta's gleaming afternoon rays.
I start my journey by leaving the city, speeding past the taupe burbs that have mushroomed all over Calgary's foothills, to where the jagged Rockies pierce the horizon. I'm headed for Boundary Ranch, which offers horse rides through the Kananaskis Valley two hours outside Calgary. The vista's all sunshine, moss-green pines and limestone mountains creased with lines of coal as the Kananaskis River rolls beside the highway. Deer and big horn sheep graze by the side of the road; the valley's also loaded with grizzlies, coyotes and wolves whose howls you can hear at night – as well as elks' cries as the wolves set upon them, one local tells me.
Pulling in to Boundary Ranch, I'm greeted by third-generation cowgirl Haylie Guinn. Her grandfather corralled wild horses in the valley and the original coral still sits on the property. He was also a Stampeder, competing in saddle bronc in the 1930s; Guinn's father did the same in the 1970s. Put on a horse at an unfathomable one week old, Guinn was riding by the age of 4.
"It's our heritage, so I think it's neat for people to be able to experience that again," Guinn, 30, says of the family ranch, which stables about 90 horses from May to October.
In her black cowboy hat, western shirt, jeans and boots, Guinn's a bona fide cowgirl, but with a modern twist: When she's not turning back to gab during my two-hour ride, she takes business calls on her BlackBerry.
The ride weaves up and down through the valley along wide trails cut by prisoners of war during the Second World War. The pines that surround us are more than 70 years old and hung with black and green lichen – "witches' hair" Guinn calls it.
The perfume of thawing pines blends with the scent of the warm leather saddle, and it's intoxicating.
Two hours later, I'm bowlegged and thirsty for a beer. I head into nearby Canmore, which exploded in 1988 after that winter's Olympics. An affluent community of buff retirees, professional athletes in training and golden-skinned Australians working seasonal jobs, everyone appears to be in perfect shape. I watch them on a packed patio at the Woods, which also boasts a ridiculous view of the Three Sisters mountain range, still capped with snow. To complete the portrait, magpies swoop about, all azure markings and majestic pleated wings. Locals complain they're the "seagull of Alberta," but to an outsider, they're magic.
Heading into Calgary the following day, I decide on a cowgirl self-dare for lunch: prairie oysters at Buzzards and Bottlescrew Bill's, which hosts the "Testicle Festival" throughout the Stampede, luring people to line up around the block for the balls of castrated male calves.
"In Southern Alberta in calving season in the spring, part of the tradition is you fry up the testicles over the same fire that you use to heat up the branding irons," explains Stewart Allan, owner of the restaurant, which uses an oven.
"When you're blanching them, it smells like a wet dog trapped in grandma's house. It's brutal," gripes chef Aaron Scherr, who goes through about 60 kilograms of the stuff every Stampede, which he likens to Bill Murray's Groundhog Day. This year, Scherr will do a "bacon-wrapped tender-groin" with whipped Yukon Gold potatoes and sweet corn succotash. Served up, the prairie oysters are sliced up into coins and taste like liver, only blander.
Having surmounted blanched testicles, the cowgirl treats herself to some shopping. Alberta Boot Company is the go-to for Stampeders, as well as cowboys like Robert Duvall, Brokeback Mountain-eer Jake Gyllenhaal and Brad Pitt, circa Legends of the Fall. The warehouse smells of leather and the walls are plastered with Stampede posters, some of which look like Harlequin romance novel covers. Behind rows of cowhide, kangaroo and alligator boots sits the factory, where women sew patterns and men hammer in soles. Some have worked for Alberta Boot for decades, and some of their machines, like the "leg and heel nailer," are industrial beauties nearing 100 years old.
Ben Gerwing, grandson of founder Clement Gerwing, explains the perfect fit: They should be snug in the toe, lift in the heel and, most crucially, be comfortable in the width (some boots are available in seven widths). Today, Stampeders want a boot that looks beat up, "like you've had a Stampede or two already in it," Gerwing explains. My eyes are drawn to a sandy, mid-calf suede pair, price tag $260.
I tuck my grey jeans into my new boots, a serious cowboy faux pas until last year, when the Stampede princesses successfully lobbied officials to let them wear their skinny jeans slid in. "That's what girls are doing now," says Gerwing, satisfied since the look showcases more of his boots.
Next up is Smithbilt Hats, where a cowbell on the door announces my arrival with a jangle. This is where the white hat, now a symbol of Calgary, earned its fame in 1948, when Smithbilt's founder, a Belarussian named Morris Schumiatcher, outfitted a caravan of locals travelling to Ottawa for a Grey Cup in the signature felt cowboy hats. For the centennial, Smithbilt is offering a limited edition taupe hat made of pristine beaver felt; it sells for $1,500.
While the hat bodies arrive from countries like Portugal, the hats are crafted on-site in Calgary. Coarse hairs are sanded off with a Black and Decker sander (this is dramatic and involves sparks and fire), brims are pressed with machines dating back to 1889, linings are sewn in, and hat buckles are trimmed with felt discarded from the brims. Larry Glasgow then shapes the hats with steam, as he has done for 24 years.
"You come here, you can smell the steam. The whole romance of the hat business is kind of fun," co-owner Bryce Nimmo says. He takes a tape measure to my head and tells me, "That's on the small side. I've seen smaller." I get a white wool felt hat rounded by a red buckle for $80.
Properly outfitted for Stampede, I head to the Palomino, a live music and barbecue hot spot that draws a deluge of tourists from the States, Britain, Germany and Australia. "We're, you know, the token cowboy bar downtown so busloads of tourists come in to lose their minds. It's what they want to see," the Palomino's Spencer Brown says.
The cavernous, exposed-brick building housed a furniture store for 90 years and is now filled with vintage salvage, including JD barrels and a tin-lined bar. The centrepiece is a one-tonne smoker: Shipped from Missouri, it was lowered through the roof with a crane. About 750 pounds of meat gets smoked in here nightly, including the Alberta beef brisket and pulled pork that fill the invitingly named "fat ass platter." It delivers, piled high with meat, smoked grits, baked beans, coleslaw, Yukon Gold potato mash, Jack Daniels-doused apples and bacon-wrapped deep-fried corn.
High above our table, a pink thong dangles off the head of a carved wooden mallard, a testament to the booze-soaked bedlam approaching this July. "You do get the odd guy who asks you to hold onto his wedding ring behind the bar, things of that nature," Brown allows.
Calgarians will wearily assure you that birth rates shoot up nine months post-Stampede. (Divorce numbers are healthy too.) Which brings me to Ranchman's, "the place to be for dining, dancing and glancing."
Opened in 1972, it looks about right, a dank hall lined with neon signs advertising Captain Morgan and Bud. Past the bar sits an unnamed mechanical bull, built to buck 230 pounds of human flesh off his fuzzy back for $10 a ride. "He's got these really brown eyes that are going to stare at you," says Steve D'Arnot, a dance instructor who, along with Debbie MacKnight, a blond, 6-foot-1 stunner, have taught lessons at Ranchman's for a decade, after they learned the steps here as patrons.
Tonight, the bull is stationary, and all eyes are turned toward a two-step lesson that is about to start. In a dance hall bathed in orange light and hung with disco balls and trophy saddles donated by rodeo winners, about 50 couples fill the floor. They're all ages, and while a handful don cowboy hats, boots and western shirts, the rest look like they could have just ducked in from the office.
Two-step seems simple enough, but it's a lot of timed shuffling and spins; D'Arnot moves my stiff frame around the room as I count out the steps, surveying my feet in my new boots. "Ladies, you should not feel like you've been in a washing machine," he suggests helpfully. His advice for the gents? "It's your job to make her look even more beautiful than she already does."
The younger lovebirds stroke each other's backs and joke about their missteps while the older couples focus on getting it right. As the lesson progresses, D'Arnot and MacKnight start sounding more like relationship therapists than line-dancing experts. "He may not have a sense of rhythm. Don't listen to him," D'Arnot cautions. "If you don't feel it, don't fake it," MacKnight chimes in, as Clint Black's Nothing But The Taillights pumps through the speakers.
Come Stampede time, there'll be too many folks wedged in here to fit in any dance lessons – the bar is usually full by noon. For now, a herd of young, tanned and possibly grass-fed waitresses mill about in their Ranchman's-issued black cowgirl hats: They're training for July 6. Women will come in from all over Canada for the 10-day party, with waitresses and "tub tarts" – short shorts-donning bartenders slinging cold beer from tubs – known to make a grand in tips a night, easy.
"This gains momentum by the day – people get ramped up," says MacKnight, herself a cowgirl transplanted from New Brunswick. "You go to Wal-Mart, there's not a country western shirt left on the rack. It's like cowboy Christmas."
With Calgary's blowout a month away, I leave the city a little more rotund (thanks, Palomino!), faintly bowlegged and ready to break in my new boots.
WHERE TO STAY
Hôtel Le Germaine Calgary: It's Austin Powers-goes-Zen in the lobby with R&B, a spiral staircase, purple moulded couch and spacy chairs (Lemay Michaud design). The Superior Room offers Egyptian silk sheets under pure laine d'agneau blankets from France, big body pillows, Tivoli audio and a bathroom stocked with Molton Brown London bath products, a massive rain shower head and glasses printed with your room number, should you forget. Opened in April, the hotel's Santé Spa is another draw: Canisters of jelly beans and almonds sit alongside orange-infused water outside a pane of black-out glass, which opens to a candle-lit corridor to the treatment rooms. Each of these is appointed with heat-adjusted, extra-long (and cowboy approved) massage beds shipped from Germany. One-hour relaxation massages ($125 for 60 minutes) do the trick; ask for the tangerine rose oil. A couples room is available, but the spa is also popular with achey business men, who want facials, foot and scalp massages. (899 Centre St. SW; 877-362-8990; germaincalgary.com. Rooms from $279.)