Bronc rider Danny Aliers of Bickleton, Wash., prepares for his turn at the Nyssa Nite Rodeo Saturday night. Aliers, 42, has been riding rough stock since he was in his early 20s. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

NYSSA — In the early evening shadows behind the chutes at the Nyssa Nite Rodeo, fear perches just over the dirty arena.

So does hope and, perhaps most important, the promise of an adrenaline high.

“You have to learn to use your fear to your advantage,” said 42-year-old saddle bronc rider Danny Aliers. Saturday night, Aliers was one of a half-dozen cowboys who milled about behind the chutes and under the announcer’s booth at the local rodeo. There were bull riders and bronc busters and saddle bronc riders from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Some exuded a quiet politeness while others cast a focused eye on the outline of the chutes. From the top of the metal stairs that connects the rider prep area to the rest of the rodeo, the cowboys gather in groups or roam near the fence in pairs. They talk in low tones as the amplified rodeo announcer blares above. Occasionally the sound of the crowd – suddenly enraptured by an event in the arena – rolls over and swallows their voices.

They don’t appear to be worried about the very real prospect that a 2,000-pound bull or 1,200-pound horse will crush their skull, break their legs or smash their face.

Aliers came to the Nyssa Nite Rodeo from Washington state and acknowledged he was near the end of a career that produced numerous injuries. He stood out as the older hand, giving advice to the younger cowboys on their technique.

As the sun faded, Ismaeh Pesina and his brother Ervey prepared for the bull riding event. Ismaeh Pesina, 45, began to ride bulls just a few years ago while Ervey has been at the gig for a dozen or more years.

Both brothers know about injuries. Ervey doesn’t remember his two concussions but he knows they occurred at rodeos in Burns and Baker City. He recently took a year off because a bull riding injury smashed vertebrae in his back. As Ismaeh uses pink tape on his arms, he rattled off his list of bull-riding mishaps with a nonchalant grin.

His expression tells a story: It’s bull riding. It’s dangerous.

They are young and middle-age and tough and eager and scared all at the same time.

As the sun vanishes, pools of artificial light from the arena splash across their faces. Behind them, there are shouts as stock – bulls, horses – are herded down a long chute. The big animals slam against the metal, the sound cracking over the cowboys. The animals are then herded into the loading chutes for their time before the crowd.

Dust, pushed up by a sudden hard wind, brushes over the chutes and the animals, delivering the wet-burlap odor that promises rain and the pungent smell of manure. 

The cowboys are modern-day American nomads, refugees who push their luck every weekend at small rodeos across the region. Juntura’s Martin Joyce, for example, and his brothers reached the Nyssa Nite Rodeo from a rodeo in Idaho at the last minute. Joyce had time to get his saddle prepared and then jumped right on a bronc and then was bucking out in the arena, less than half an hour after he pulled in.

It is a separate world behind the loading chutes. A world of precise professionalism mixed with the dreams of triumph. And while fear hovers over the chutes there, the cowboys can almost taste and feel the adrenaline coming on. It is the adrenaline they say they crave, like jet test pilots. Most admit the adrenaline is what they are chasing.

The injuries, the expenses, the long drives, all of it vanishes within a few terrifying seconds that is often a one-way ticket to the earth of the rodeo arena.

But there is always that chance at glory. That moment when the adrenaline surges through the veins and against at dark sky, they hear the sudden, ocean-like sound of a crowd gasping.

There, inside the quivering yellow lights of the rodeo arena, they are suddenly virtuosos of an art hard-wired into the cortex of the American West.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: pat@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.