Feb. 23, 2005 - Ride easy, the trail is long.
It's an old cowboy proverb, as ancient as the hills that stand guard over the lazy Marana countryside. Its wisdom is simple and as true today as it was a century ago when man and horse were a mere compliment to this dusty cactus landscape.
Today, the cowboy is rare, slowly perishing with the oozing urban sprawl, destined to follow the same path toward extinction as the pygmy owl or Mexican wolf.
As little as 10 years ago Marana laid claim to a bustling cowboy community, with more than 500 families sharing the parched desert terrain. Now, those numbers have flickered to about 130 families actively living out the cowboy way of life.
"We take pride in being from Marana," says Mike Allison Sr. gazing over the vast countryside that stretches out from the backyard of his quiet, modest Marana home. "Everyone has such camaraderie."
Allison, with his barrel cactus mustache bursting out from under his black cowboy hat, is the patriarch of one of the Marana families that continues to live life with the same passion of generations past.
Nothing appeals more to a cowboy than the apex of all rugged outdoor sports, the rodeo. With the number of rodeo families dwindling in Marana, the Allisons are a rare breed in which, from eldest to youngest, the rodeo courses through the veins under their sun-scorched skin.
While daughters Stephanie, 25, and Rose, 22, have left their mark on the rodeo circuit at both the high school and collegiate levels, it is Mike Jr. who is now turning 10-gallon hats in his direction.
At age 15, Mike Allison Jr. has already amassed a drawerful of belt buckles, too numerous to count, won at various rodeos throughout the state. An unwritten measuring stick of rodeo, success is not necessarily gauged by money or championships, but rather by the buckle.
Conquering a 2,000 pound beast is why they ride, being able to proudly display that buckle is what makes it all worth it.
Specializing in events such as team roping, saddleback, bareback and bull riding, Allison Jr. is a prodigy on both horse and bull.
"We knew when he first got on a sheep that this is what he was going to do," said Allison Sr. of his son's ability to ride.
The younger Allison got his first taste of the rodeo at the age of four when he began mutton bustin,' an event for children similar to bull riding only with sheep. This was about the same time he began riding calves with his father. A little more than a decade later, Allison Jr. is now a competitor in the Arizona High School Rodeo Association.
Through the year's first four events, Allison is ranked second in the state in bull riding, 12 points behind Craig Begay of Many Farms High School on the Navajo Indian Reservation. It's worth noting, however, that Begay is an 18-year-old senior, while Allison is just a freshman at Marana High School.
The high school rodeo season begins in September and continues through the national championships held in July in Gillette, Wyo. The top four finalists from each state will advance to compete in Gillette. The National High School Rodeo Association, of which the AHSRA is a part, follows the same rules and guidelines as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the big league of rodeo.
Talk low, talk slow and don't say too much.
All good cowboys worth their spurs knows their place, bragging is an unwelcome trait, whether it's out on the range or behind the chutes.
"You can't dwell on what happened," says Allison Sr. "You've got to focus on what's ahead of you."
It's one of the first things he tells you and the lasting image you take away from meeting his unassuming family. Awards and accolades are nice, but it shouldn't be the reason why you compete.
Still, it's hard not to recognize pure talent when you see it.
"He's a natural," said John Schmid, proprietor of the Western Skies Rodeo in Marana, of the young Allison. "He's going to be a good one." Allison is a regular at the Lazy K Bar Ranch, often competing in the bull riding buckle series held every Friday night. The series are six weeks long, with riders getting one ride per week to accumulate points toward winning the coveted silver buckle. In 2004, Allison took home one of those buckles, despite the fact he only competed in four of the six weeks.
The workouts at the Lazy K give Allison the opportunity to add another buckle to his collection and hone his skill for future meets and a shot at one day becoming a world champion in the PRCA.
After all, there is no higher honor a cowboy involved in the rodeo can achieve.
The younger Allison, a svelte version of his father without the sun-stained weathered skin, may be a young man of few words, but he knows his goals.
"My goal is to be world champ," says Allison Jr., finding a way to sound modest and sincere.
While the Tucson Rodeo is celebrating its 80-year anniversary this week, Allison Jr. finds himself in a rodeo limbo - too old to compete in the Tucson Rodeo portion of the Junior Rodeo, too young to get his PRCA card. Riders aren't eligible to join the PRCA until they turn 18, while the Junior Rodeo cutoff is 14.
Although he won't be competing at the Tucson Rodeo, the Allison family will be well represented at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds at 4823 S. Sixth St. Senior and Junior will supply three bulls for the Junior Rodeo portion of the week-long event.
The junior rodeo portion will take place, with the Allisons' bulls being run in the junior rodeo portion Feb. 25 through 27 at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds. The bulls are donated free by the Allisons and other rodeo families.
Not all who wander are lost.
The younger Allison is in charge of "bucking out" the bulls in preparation for the Tucson Rodeo. It's just one of the many responsibilities that come along with juggling school and the rodeo way of life. Allison's father has put him in charge of tending to the rough stock and making sure they buck.
"These bulls are bred for one job," said Allison Sr., "to buck people off."
At school, Allison's grades must be up to par or, as Allison Sr. puts it, "No grades, no ride." After school it's often straight to the weight room where he will lift weights and run as many as four miles. Every Friday he will ride. His athleticism hasn't gone unnoticed, eliciting offers from both Marana's football and wrestling coaches to join their teams.
Training for the rodeo is a full time job, says the elder Allison, who likens the conditioning, time consumption and dedication required for the PRCA to training for the Olympics.
The workouts must be working. Allison is currently ranked No. 1 in the junior rodeo and No. 2 in the AHSRA in bull riding.
The inspiration to ride for Allison comes in many forms and includes both current and former world rodeo champions. One of his biggest heroes is former rodeo world champ Lane Frost. Frost, whose painted portrait proudly hangs in the living room of the Allisons' house, was a goliath on the PRCA circuit, winning over the hearts of many a rodeo fan. Tragically his life was cut short in the ring by a bull in Cheyenne. Frost was 21 when he died; that was the year Allison Jr. was born.
His death also is one reason why the Allison family prays together before every ride.
The ultimate motivation to conquer the rodeo for the young Allison, however, comes from his father.
"He's the one who got me where I am," said the younger Allison of his father.
Allison Sr. can trace his roots back 10 generations, back to the time when Arizona was still a part of Mexico. Although those generations span hundreds of years, they revolved around the lifestyle of the cowboy. Growing up in a cabana trailer on an 8,000-acre parcel of land on the Pinal County border in the Tortolita Mountains, Allison was surrounded by horses and cattle.
It wasn't until his oldest daughter, Stephanie, turned nine that Allison got back into the rodeo. Back when Stephanie was first starting out, rodeo families in Marana were flourishing. This made finishing in the top three in any event extra hard to do. It also was something Stephanie seemed to be able to do on a regular basis. Today, after a successful high school career that carried her through college on the University of Arizona rodeo team, Stephanie still rides on the Women's Professional Bull Riding circuit competing in team roping events.
This is the time for his children, says Allison, who is contemplating getting back into competing once his kids are all old enough.
The quickest way to double your money is to fold it over and put it back in your pocket.
The biggest factor driving families away from the rodeo lifestyle is economic. Allison Sr. does his part by working for the Tucson Unified School District as a heavy equipment operator.
Costs continue to skyrocket though. To be able to feed his bulls and horses through the winter months, Allison had to stock up by purchasing between 200 and 300 bales of hay. The horses alone need about two bales of hay a day. A bale of hay usually goes for about $9 per bale.
Jacking up the price of living the cowboy lifestyle is the cost of equipment. When Stephanie was first starting out in the rodeo, Allison built the family's arena with his own hands. Now supplying the finest equipment for that arena has proved to be costly, but worthwhile.
"We make sure they have the best equipment," said Allison. "They (his children) don't get what they want, but they do get what they need."
There is money to be made in the rodeo, however, despite the decline in families. Breeding bulls with the best possible bloodlines has seen a resurgence in the past couple of years. One of their bulls being sent to the Tucson Rodeo is Full Metal Jacket, an offspring of three-time Pro Bull Riding Bull of the Year, Little Yellow Jacket.
To help ease the burden of financing a year on tour, many riders will look for assistance from sponsors. Currently Allison Jr. is sponsored by the Western Warehouse and the Lazy K Bar Ranch.
Allison Sr. is holding out hopes that a knight on a horse can save the day.
"There's got to be a Bill Gates out there who likes the rodeo."
For now, the Allisons will continue to ride. The next high school rodeo will take them to the Parker Rodeo Grounds before which they will say a little prayer and thank the Lord for every opportunity, said Allison Sr.
"You don't know when it will be your last."