All the heads are bowed. Roger recites a prayer.
It’s a prayer of gratitude and of hopefulness. He thanks God for the friends he has made, for the family they have all built together, for the meal they will soon share. He asks for safety and success. He says “amen.”
The collective around him echoes it back.
When the food has been blessed, Craig takes the backporch-turned-pulpit for a ritual of his own.
He thumbs a purple fabric bag gilded with the Crown Royal insignia. When he speaks, his voice cracks with emotion.
“We’ve been doing this a while,” he says.
He pulls from the bag a steel meat fork and knife that he made in his metal shop. Bud steps forward to collect them. It’s Bud’s third year as grill master — a new tradition, born of an old one.
Next, Craig pulls out two pairs of spurs, which he also made by hand and embellished with something like inside jokes shared between friends. He passes the two sets of spurs around the group. It’s a game: When the spurs get to the right person, it’ll be obvious. And indeed, it is.
Jim Dewey is the first to identify the spurs as made for him. He turns them over in his hands and smiles. He cracks a joke and the pair hug. JD is next. He slaps Craig firmly on the back.
“Thank you,” he says.
And then they all sit down to eat.
Driving past the house, you might wonder about the row of trucks in the driveway from out of state. But if you had been there as this group, or permutations of it, ate and drank and watched each other’s kids grow up in Craig’s backyard over the last 10 years, you’d start to get it.
If Roger Walters grabbed your hand and forearm in a two-handed handshake and greeted you in his deep, Texas drawl; if you heard JD VanHooser make an off-color joke at his own expense; if Craig Skogen made a pair of spurs special for you — you might understand.
Many of the people who come to Craig’s every year live in Casper, but mostly, they’re from somewhere else: Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, New Mexico. They are all Facebook friends; they keep in touch online and over the phone. Craig and JD call each other a couple of times a week. So do many of the others. Still, it’s not the same as drinking a beer shoulder to shoulder.
The Skogen barbecue is just one tradition of many, embedded in the longest-running of all, the actual event that assembles this group every year.
The College National Finals Rodeo found a home in Casper in 1999. After a long run in Montana and a much shorter one in South Dakota, the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association was looking for a change. Some local politicking and a convincing sales pitch were pretty much all it took to get the association to make the move.
Jim Dewey Brown was a junior in college and a competitor at that first Casper rodeo. He rode saddle broncs. Walters was a coach. Skogen hung all the signs and banners.
Now, Walters is the commissioner of the association. Brown is the arena director. Skogen is still hanging all the signs. All three get to converge on the Casper Events Center once a year, and every year, they pick up right where they left off.
Brown has been on the setup crew since 2001, the year after he graduated from college. He hasn’t missed it in more than a decade.
When Brown isn’t setting up CNFR, he’s building rodeo arenas somewhere else. He’s done it in New Mexico, Arizona, all over. Rodeo isn’t three weeks out of the year for him; it is his year.
CNFR is more of the same, except it’s not. He competed here. He’s overseen the events center transformation for 11 years and before that volunteered on the crew. And he’s watched the process regenerate itself.
After Brown graduated from a Texas college with his master’s degree in agricultural science, he became head rodeo coach at New Mexico State University. (A lot of the volunteers who help with CNFR are coaches who come to Casper a week early to build the arena.)
When Brown left his job at NMSU, Logan Corbett took over. Corbett grew up in Tennessee and started riding bulls when he was 15 years old. By the time he got to college, he was riding bareback broncs and winning rodeos across the country.
Corbett also competed at CNFR, in his junior and senior years of college while competing for VanHooser at Murray State in Kentucky.
VanHooser is the one who encouraged Corbett to start volunteering on the setup crew, which he himself has been doing for 16 years.
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There’s a comfort in being in this place with this group of kindred spirits. Most of these guys were brought up to love rodeo. It’s been ingrained in their identities.
“I think it’s a lot like beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Corbett said. “When you see it all the time and you’re around it all the time, it’s not really that strange to want to get on a bull and ride it — it’s kinda like, that’s what my dad did, or uncle did, or whatever, so it’s just normal.”
This is how the tradition stays alive.
Keyton Brunette just finished his junior year at Natrona County High School. He’s part of the local crew that’s come to help get the arena ready for showtime. He did it last year and he’ll do it next year too, if everything works the way he’s planned.
When asked why he wants to keep coming back, he laughs.
“I’m here for the cowgirls,” he says, then whistles. Then he shakes his head, smiling.
“Nah,” he says, being earnest now. “Being around all these cowboys ... I don’t know, I mean I grew up around guys like this.”
But it’s not just the love for the lifestyle that keeps this crew coming back year after year. For most of them, it’s the only time they can see each other. They have jobs and families and obligations hundreds and thousands of miles apart.
“The camaraderie you have built with the people you see up here,” Corbett said. “That’s half the reason I like coming up.”
He and VanHooser got to Wyoming two days early this year and drove up to Yellowstone National Park together. Corbett had never been. VanHooser hadn’t been in years. It was a rare trip between two people who have grown crucial to each other’s lives, and it wouldn’t have happened without CNFR.
The tourism money CNFR generates — more than $2 million in direct impact, according to data from the Natrona County Travel and Tourism Council — is integral to the local economy and can’t be overstated.
Creating an environment where the height of college rodeo is synonymous with Casper is a true point of pride for the community. Hosting some of the best college athletes in the country and giving them a platform to shine — most of the event’s organizers say that’s what’s most important.
But these aren’t the only things worth celebrating.
Earlier this year, Skogen spent 10 days in Walters’ Texas home. When Walters comes to Casper, his first stop is the Skogens’.
“They’re some of the best friends I have,” Skogen said. “Matter of fact, three of them I have listed as my pallbearers.”
VanHooser recalls one late summer afternoon more than a few years ago. The setup crew had done their work for the day. It was late but not late enough to turn in. Jerry Anderson — who lives in Casper and who, as VanHooser recites this story, is sitting in a foldout lawn chair nearby — took VanHooser up to the mountain. They sat together there and watched the sun set over the city below.
“It’s the little things like that,” VanHooser said.
Logan Corbett is standing at Craig Skogen’s workbench, admiring a pair of spurs Craig just finished. Logan received his own pair of custom Skogen spurs a few years ago. Right now, Craig is working on a pair for Logan’s daughter.
She’s 2 years old and already knows how to ride. Logan isn’t going to force her into it.
“I only want her to do it if she wants to,” he says.
If she’s going to do it, it will be because she loves it.
That’s the point of this community that has emerged here. There is a tradition ready to go for Logan’s daughter, and for all the kids playing in the grass and running through the forest of legs in Craig’s garage.
That’s the foundation this group of friends has laid. Subtle and earnest. It’s there for the taking, if the next generation wants it. But they have to want it. Because as much as tradition is an inextricable part of CNFR and the relationships that have been built up around it, this makeshift family is about what happens next.