First we pray, then we ride

Praise God and pass the crash helmets. Gary Peterson’s do-it-yourself rodeo serves up mortal danger and everlasting redemption to all comers.

Gary Peterson’s Bible lies open early one evening as he preaches before the bull riding starts.

Gary Peterson’s Bible lies open early one evening as he preaches before the bull riding starts.

Photo By Tristan Spinski

On a cool Thursday night, just an hour’s drive south of Sacramento in a community named Acampo, young men and women are beginning to gather inside Gary Peterson’s barn. They sit on hay bales or lean against metal shelves piled with old tires, dusty mechanical equipment and books like Vascular Plant Systematics and Western Fertilizer Handbook. Every male in the room wears a hat on his head: baseball or cowboy. Peterson, who is 55, wears a gray cowboy hat, along with blue jeans, a tan work vest and a plaid Western shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons. He stands facing his small audience, and behind him, through the opening between the barn’s tall, red metal doors, what looks like a dirt arena is visible. The arena is in fact a bullring, where bull riding happens, and it is the reason why, twice each week, young people come to sit inside his barn.

It’s around 8 p.m.: truth time. Peterson is drawing a parallel between the test that is bull riding and the test that is faith. He reads from a spiral-bound notebook, “The Holy Spirit will help you with the desire to keep on trying. You want to get up and try again. Why? Because that’s the empowering strength of the Holy Spirit. He will give you the unction to function.”

Most people would call this a sermon. Peterson calls it “straight truth out of the Bible.” Peterson has an earnest face, a pale but healthful complexion and an upright posture. When he wants to emphasize a point, like “a true winner is willing to be taught how to get going in sanctification,” he removes his glasses and lets his voice stretch out each word. A few in the crowd, apparently uninterested in the straight truth, sulk behind the hay bales or wait outside.

The rest of the audience members, many of whom are still in their teens, listen politely. But they are restless. A cell phone rings. Boots shuffle on the concrete floor. In less than an hour, most of these young men will don a mouth guard; a helmet and a face mask like hockey players wear; and a shock-absorbing vest made out of Kevlar, the same material used to stop bullets. One by one, they will climb onto the backs of bulls, the largest of which weigh 1,800 pounds. Before rider and bull burst into the ring, Peterson will lean into the chute and give the creature a few good pokes with a cattle prod.

Now seems like a good time to pray.

Set in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, Acampo is a place where flat, grid-patterned roads are bordered by endless grape fields. Though it is an easy drive to the capital on Highway 99 or Interstate 5, Acampo has yet to see the kind of residential development that has turned farms to suburbs in places like Elk Grove. The community is 34 miles south of the city of Sacramento, where, decades before, Gary Peterson lived and courted danger on streets like Howe Avenue, a lost young man.

“I was doing dangerous stuff with guns, and I would surely be dead,” Peterson says. “But here I am. Because of the grace of God, I responded to the Gospel—my life has changed.”

A rider and bull make a wild exit from the chutes.

Photo By Tristan Spinski

Here in Acampo, for the past 15 years, Peterson has run what various rodeo authorities have described as bucking chutes, a practice pen and a buck-out. The regular riders just call it “Gary’s place” or “Gary’s.” It is a place where each Thursday and Saturday night, “rain or shine,” anyone can pay $20, hop on a bull and ride.

Bull riding is rodeo’s glory event, so popular that in 1992 the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) formed to hold bull-riding-only events that skip the saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling and barrel racing of traditional rodeo. The PBR started with two employees and now has more than 100, holding nearly 150 events each year with $10 million in annual prize money at stake, according to PBR spokesman Jay Daugherty. But aside from a fixation on bull riding, the rodeo most Americans are familiar with is nothing like a night at Gary’s.

About 1 million Americans went to PBR events last year, and 100 million watched them on television, Daugherty says. The crowd at Gary’s might number a dozen riders, and a few girlfriends and parents, on any given night. Peterson offers no prize money. No platter-sized belt buckles for winners. Certainly no ESPN cameras. He does not advertise, nor does he hang a sign out front. Peterson simply owns 26 big bulls and 14 smaller ones; a dirt bullring; and six bucking chutes, each with a number painted in red on its gate.

And he also has his faith. Peterson belongs to the fundamentalist Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination founded in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1914. The church was born out of the American revival movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Assemblies of God still hold fast to Pentecostal tenets, including divine healing and speaking in tongues—believed to be gifts of the Holy Spirit. As many as 2.7 million Americans belong to the Assemblies of God, and only the Mormons are growing at a faster rate.

A cynic might say that Peterson uses bull riding as a kind of candy to further swell the ranks of his faith. That seems too simple. He found bull riding growing up on an Iowa ranch, long before he found God. A good number of the kids who ride at his place grew up in the country, too, even if their present and future may be suburban or urban. Wayne Wooden, an emeritus professor of sociology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and co-author of Rodeo in America: Wranglers, Roughstock, & Paydirt, says that casual bull-riding venues like Gary’s place can be found throughout the state. He understands them as places where beginners go to practice and where kids who have identified with a set of rural values, like individualism and the desire to test themselves, can hold onto those ideals, even while “so much of rural traditions in California are being gobbled up.”

Behind the barn, with truth time over, the riders mill about in the San Joaquin Valley night. Evenings at Gary’s begin much the same way any night of the year, whether it’s a still-cold night in April or a still-warm one in October. The riders stand beneath the floodlights, in the fenced-off area beside the chutes and the bullring, and fuss with their equipment. (A rider’s primary piece of gear is the aptly titled bull rope—a length of rope with a handle that a rider clings to while on the bull’s back.) The riders hitch their bull ropes onto the fence railings, yank on them and carefully rub them with sticky rosin to promote good grip.

They also smoke and talk and chug Rock Star energy drink. They chew and dip, tobacco-hued spit raining from the sides of their mouths. Enos Yoder, an Amish son turned roofing salesman with a cigarette dangling from his lips, kicks a denim leg onto the uppermost fence railing and stretches like a dancer on the ballet bar. Later he will take a violent fall, but at the moment he is calm. A few guys—mainly those too broke to ride—practice a kind of bull-riding air guitar: The mock riders circle in the dirt, clutching invisible bull ropes, while their free hands wave above their heads. In their midst, the teenage girls who came to watch and flirt are setting up folding lawn chairs, cradling puppies and talking on their cell phones. The best prepared huddle under blankets.

“Were you here last Saturday?” Nate Benner, 21, asks another rider. “There was a good-looking girl here Saturday. I don’t know who she was, but she wore my helmet.” He is remembering a young blonde who, invited by male friends, decided to ride her first bull. He adds hopefully, “You can probably still smell her.” Despite the high male-to-female ratio at Gary’s, talk of women is rare, and Benner soon turns to discussing the merits of the Sankey Rodeo Schools, a Missouri-based outfit that offers bull-riding classes across the nation for a fee. “They advertise this bull-riding fantasy camp,” Benner says with scorn. “That’s right: $300 to get drilled.”

Nate Benner preps for his ride. “If you’re not nervous,” he says, “something’s wrong with you.”

Photo By Tristan Spinski

And getting drilled is unavoidable. Bull riding is as dangerous as it looks. Riders get stepped on. They land on their heads. They dislocate joints, pull groins and break bones. Concussions are common. Over 15 years at Gary’s, emergency medical helicopters have landed three times in an adjacent field to rush riders to the hospital.

But the men—and occasional women—who ride at Gary’s love it. Many grew up around rodeo, like the son of a mother who broke her back saddle bronc riding and now cheers her son. Others got started mutton busting—a kiddie version of bull riding in which a sheep substitutes for the bull. In the daytime, the riders are construction workers, high-school students, bankers and salesmen, and a few are full-time cowboys. During late spring and through summer, they spend the weekends driving to places like Garberville, Turlock and Merced to compete in proper rodeos. They include riders like Ian Male, a muscled 21-year-old ranch hand from Livermore who arrived one night with his arm taped up to the elbow. His wrist was broken, but he rode. Craig Pryor, a small 19-year-old in a big cowboy hat, puts it this way: “When I’m at work, I’m dreaming about bull riding.”

Pryor started riding with Benner. The idea came to them one night as they sat on the tailgate of a pickup. During the day, Benner works in a bank in the nearby town of Galt. He took up bull riding to outdo his girlfriend’s ex, who rode saddle bronc. Benner’s previous hobby was paintball, and it did little to prepare him. He dislocated his hip on his first ride. But he was hooked. Benner pulls on a pair of yellow leather chaps, fringed on the edges and embellished with purple and red designs. They cost him $375. Though they’re less critical than, say, a helmet or Kevlar vest, Benner decided to buy them when he realized “everybody else has fancy leather pants.”

Fancy leather pants and cowboy fashion in general are central at Gary’s. Riders wear button-down shirts, cowboy hats, crisp Twenty X Wrangler blue jeans and really big belt buckles. Their clothes are clean, and their shirts are tucked into their waistbands. They look good. When it is time to ride—the actual cowboy event—most riders look less cowboy. They trade crisp blue jeans for old dirty pairs, momentarily standing in their boxers in the cold air while they change. The belt buckles come off because it is uncomfortable to whip back and forth atop an enraged bull while a hunk of metal digs into your gut and pelvis. To keep their trousers up, riders thread Nylon cords through their belt loops.

But before anyone can ride, Peterson has to herd the bulls into the chutes. It is both a tedious and dangerous chore that he performs alone. A bull once slammed Peterson’s face into the metal railings. Tonight he steps into the pen and runs at the bulls, trying to get one to break off from the group. With each step, his rubber boots sink into the stinking muck of mud and excrement beneath the animals.

“Need any help, Gary?” a giggling teenage girl asks.

“No,” he says with a grin. “Bulls get scared of blond hair.”

Peterson begins to work from above, walking along a middle fence railing as he holds onto the top one. He prods the bulls along, ushers them through a series of adjacent pens and swings the gates shut behind them. And so, by 9:30 p.m., Peterson fills the six chutes for the first time that evening. “OK, chutes are ready,” Peterson says. “Here we go.”

A young rider in the chutes awaits his turn in the ring.

Photo By Tristan Spinski

If you’re not nervous every time, something’s wrong with you,” Benner says about bull riding. From the look on Benner’s face, there is nothing wrong with him tonight. He is hoping that Peterson will assign him the bull Samurai, one he has ridden before. He knows what to expect from Samurai: jumping and kicking. Each of Peterson’s bulls bucks, dips and spins to different degrees. They have names like Inky, Toxic and Ninja. And Fluffy: “He’s notorious for his spine,” Benner says one night, gesturing toward the bullring. “He’s like riding that fence, only pointed.”

Before Benner rides, he watches a rider in shiny blue chaps get thrown across the ring. Then Peterson assigns him Toxic instead of Samurai. As he sits in the chutes, Benner fumbles as he tries to thread the flank strap—a rope looped around the bull’s hindquarters that annoys the animal into bucking. “Somebody do this,” he says in frustration.

When the gate swings open on Benner, Samurai catches his horns on the slats in the chute and twists violently to get them loose. Benner is off in moments, battered by hooves and horns as he lies on the ground. After Samurai frees himself of the annoyance that is Benner, he bucks indignantly until the flank flies free, too. (Months later, Benner’s ribs will be broken by a bull at a Gustine rodeo, and he will give up the sport for good.)

Jaime Silva fares slightly better tonight. He is handsome like a Hollywood cowboy: dark eyes and hair and an amiable smile. At 28, he is older than the others and, unlike the rest, an immigrant. Silva moved to the United States eight years ago from southern Chile, where he was raised on a cattle ranch in an isolated part of Patagonia. In California, he works at a stock market—the kind that sells cattle. At rodeos, the announcers inevitably pronounce his name as Jay-Me or say he’s from Chile, Mexico. His girlfriend says he has resorted to writing his name as “Hy-Me Silva” on his rodeo registration forms.

Silva stands on the raised platform behind the chutes, quietly talking in Spanish with his baby-faced younger brother, Carlos. Silva is Catholic, and a gold cross on a chain rests on his chest. From where Silva stands, a scrawny, bespectacled 24-year-old named John Robertson can be seen in the bullring with several other guys.

Pencil-like, Robertson is an unlikely man for his job. He is a bullfighter, sometimes called a rodeo clown, a man charged with distracting the bull to protect a fallen rider. He works what experts say is the most dangerous job in rodeo. Once Silva is bucked, Robertson will “shoot the gap” by making a pass between the bull and the prostrate rider. But if that fails, and Silva faces danger, Robertson will stand directly over him and “take the hit.”

Silva is now climbing into the chute and onto his bull. He takes an underhanded grip on the bull rope, and the small purple cross on the underside of his leather glove shows. Like all riders, Silva holds onto the bull rope’s handle and the opposite, or tail, end of the rope. The tail has been threaded through a loop in the end of the rope so that when Silva pulls on it, the rope will tighten around the bull’s body. When he lets go, the rope will fly free of the bull at the same time Silva does. Silva pulls the tail tight and roughs it up one last time as Peterson leans into the chute and tightens the flank.

“Work your feet,” says a rider from the platform. Silva says nothing. His bull is already restless, and he braces his boots and free hand against the slats of the fence. “Spot him,” Peterson says, worried that the bull might hurl Silva face-first into the railings or thrash him down into the confines of the chute, where he would be trampled. A young man reaches over and grabs Silva by his vest. Peterson pokes the bull with a plastic-coated cattle prod and gives the signal, and a bullfighter opens the chute gate.

Gary Peterson, 55, has been running bull-riding nights behind his home for the past 15 years. He’s been trying to spread the Gospel as well.

Photo By Tristan Spinski

Silva’s bull explodes into the ring. He is a huge black creature with curved horns, the kind of bull the guys call “banana horns,” and as he bucks, the muscles ripple magnificently beneath his skin. The bull is aggressive, or, as the riders say, “rank.”

The goal is to hold on for eight seconds. Riders at Gary’s say that staying on the bull is “all mental.” But physical techniques can help. A rider’s weight should be forward, his eyes focused on the bull’s shoulders. Riders talk about balance more often than strength: Many grasp the bull rope with their weak hand, tossing their dominant hand in the air because it works best as a lever. Keeping the legs in tight and the spurs on the bull can help, although in a scored rodeo, a rider earns bonus points for flinging his legs high to spur the bull.

Because balance matters, many good riders, like Silva, are compact men with low centers of gravity. But Silva’s stature fails to deliver tonight. After a wild, kicking exit from the chutes, Silva flies from the bull, hits the ground and pops up. He runs to the ring’s edge. “What happened?” someone yells. “Nothing happened,” Silva answers with a laugh and a smile. “He bucked. He bucked me off!”

“Proverbs tells you a righteous man keeps on getting up,” Peterson said a few hours earlier, during truth time. Peterson pens two new sermons each week with titles like “Guiltbusters” and “Buck Off Again.” They take hours to write. Peterson preaches about talking in tongues; demons; end times; and “social decay,” a theme that encompasses subjects like abortion and gay marriage. But he’s no fire-and-brimstone preacher. Peterson’s God is like a personal self-esteem coach. “Are you letting your thoughts and attitudes limit what God knows you can do?” Peterson asked. “He wants the best for you. He loves you. He wants to make big things happen in your life.

“Get a new attitude—you remember that song by Patti LaBelle?” he asked, invoking a pop reference several decades too old for his audience. “Tidy up your point of view! That’s what he wants you to do.”

Peterson likes comebacks and lost causes. “Most of these bulls out here are rejects,” he says one night. He gestures off into the darkness and begins talking about a bull named Ace. “People laughed at me when I bought him,” he says.

Peterson is not a farmer or a rancher; he earns his living as an electrical engineer. He has a wife, Judy; a 15-year-old son, Glen; and a 17-year-old daughter, Jennifer. Judy Peterson is a petite, dark-haired woman of 47 who smiles often, drives a school bus and ministers to prisoners in her spare time. On Sundays, the family attends the Century Assembly Church in Lodi. But, as Peterson frequently says, he “should be dead.”

Peterson was raised in an Iowa farming family that had little interest in religion but great interest in rodeo. His father competed in rodeos, and his uncle bred rodeo-quality livestock. As a young man at the University of Iowa, Peterson paid his tuition with rodeo winnings. He planned to go to medical school to study parasitology and virology. When he was 18, his father died of cancer. “He shriveled up in six months,” Peterson says one night during truth time. “He was big and strong, and he shriveled up and died in six months.” Soon afterward, a friend came back from Vietnam with a bowling bag full of opium.

The view from the bullring during a quiet moment: bucking chutes to the right and the barn’s entrance to the left.

Photo By Tristan Spinski

Opium, Peterson decided, was better than beer. His grades fell, and he dropped out of college. Peterson drifted to California and enrolled at Sacramento State University. But mostly he snorted and dealt cocaine on Sacramento’s Howe Avenue, which had a reputation for drug dealing and prostitution. When asked how a nice farm kid from Iowa gets mixed up with drugs, Peterson shrugged: “It was the ’70s.”

Then on Howe Avenue, on September 27, 1980, at age 30, Peterson was drawn by “a peace and love he couldn’t understand” into a white building that housed the Capital Christian Center. He sat down inside the church. Tears rolled down from his eyes. He had no idea what was happening to him until a woman came over and told him: He was having a born-again experience.

“That’s what God’s spirit does; it comes upon people and touches their lives just like he touched me,” Peterson says during truth time. “Like you hear me say, I’d either be dead or in prison. If it hadn’t happened, I’d either be down there pushing up daisies, or I’d be a number someplace because I knew what kind of drug thing I was doing.”

In the story Peterson tells, his life changed on a dime after he found God on Howe Avenue: He applied himself to engineering classes at American River College, met his future wife and kicked drugs. His wife, Judy, who was already a Christian, says that the process was somewhat more gradual and that they both abused drugs for a time after his conversion.

In 1985, the Petersons took out a lease-to-buy mortgage to secure their 20 acres in Acampo. The bull riding started for Peterson, not the teenagers. “I was making a comeback,” he says. Back then, Peterson did not own a single bull. Neighbors would bring a few over each week, and they all would ride. He last rode at age 45, on a bull named Speckled Snake. But the weekly ritual endured, and Peterson eventually decided to host two nights of riding each week. Peterson always prayed before the rides, but he only worked up the confidence to preach three years ago, Judy says.

“I’m involved in your destiny,” he almost always tells his audience. “It’s not a coincidence that you’re hearing this tonight.”

The reception has been mixed. Many of the riders at Gary’s enjoy truth time. Others view the evangelical part of the night like Tim Raible, a teenage bull rider from Fernley, Nev., with so much stubble he looks 30. “I just like listening to Gary talk,” Raible says. “He’s a good guy. We come out here, and he lets us get on bulls. So, we might as well listen to him.”

Beyond the floodlights, the darkness hides the fields of grapes that mark the landscape around Acampo. Years ago, the neighbors across the street raised sheep where grapevines now grow. But they still farm. A few miles away, large stucco homes are popping up. They sit on cul-de-sacs with tiny green lawns. Signs along the roads advertise “10 Acre Luxury Lots.”

Gary Peterson preaches. He calls his pre-ride witnessing “truth time.”

Photo By Tristan Spinski

“They’re splitting this land up,” Mark “Ace” McCorquodale, a 40-year-old ex-rider, says one night at Gary’s. “People want a little ranchette.” A friend and neighbor of Peterson’s, McCorquodale gave up bull riding after breaking his back in a work accident. He is still a regular at Gary’s, along with his little dog, trained to herd the Red Angus cattle that McCorquodale raises at a Lodi ranch. Grimacing, he says, “Horse people are moving in.”

People are moving in. Over the next 45 years, the population in the San Joaquin Valley, where Gary lives, may double, from 3.3 million today to more than 7 million, according to projections by the California Department of Finance. One million acres of land—much of it farmland—likely will be put to urban use by 2040, according to a February report by the Public Policy Institute of California. The report predicts that the San Joaquin Valley of the future likely will have a “low density, sprawling character.”

For Peterson, paying the mortgage on his land is a “constant struggle.” Three years ago, he suffered the first of several seizures. Medication keeps them under control. In June, he lost his job at the Sacramento steel company where he had worked for six months—a job he took after getting laid off by a manufacturing company where he had worked for six years. “It just seems like doors keep slamming all along,” Peterson says. In October, he came home one Monday to discover the electricity had been shut off. “Your faith is tested,” he says. “God tests faith.”

Peterson runs the bull-riding and truth-time operation nearly single-handedly: feeding the bulls; repairing equipment; preaching; and, at the end of the night when the kids get in their trucks and tear down the road, picking up discarded potato-chip bags and soda bottles. “I’m raising pigs, too,” he says with a grin. His actual children have no interest in bull riding. His son, Glen, likes video games. The bull-riding production is exhausting, Peterson admits, and with the high cost of feed, he loses money. But he refuses to answer when asked how long he can continue. “I’m about to die right now,” he says, a look of mischief in his blue eyes.

Tonight the falls seem worse than on other nights. A bull chases one rider through the ring until he dives under the fence at a spot where the lowermost slat is missing. Craig Pryor gets “caught up” on his bull rope, meaning that instead of getting thrown clear, his hand stays tangled, and he flops against the bull like a rag doll. But when Enos Yoder falls from his bull, the entire crowd grows silent.

Yoder is a farm kid who grew up around horses and took up bull riding three years ago. He has an earnest, sweet way of speaking that makes it hard to imagine him in his day job as a roofing salesman. Yoder likes riding at Gary’s, and he likes truth time. Peterson sounds a lot like his Amish parents back in Iowa. But Yoder has been having a run of bad luck on the bulls. It is almost midnight when he climbs on his bull. Just out of the chutes, he is sent flying and hits the ground with his head. It looks as if he snapped his neck.

Yoder lies in the dirt as the spectators whisper fears about his spine. “Don’t move him,” a few voices say. Bullfighters crowd around Yoder. He manages to push himself up by one arm. A bullfighter pulls his vest off. Yoder blinks his long lashes, and the bullfighter kneels down to look him in the eye.

“Do you know where you are?” he asks softly, urgently.

Yoder pauses. The shoulders of his shirt are streaked with dirt. He looks confused. And then he finally answers: “Gary’s.”