The plan was for me to run down to San Antonio on Friday, April 24, stay at Jimmy "Stretch" Borunda's place, and then haul with him and Jeff Miller to the bronc-riding school in Johnson City for the weekend. That didn't happen.
© Lance Rosenfield
In better times: Jimmy "Stretch" Borunda, 30, a bull rider from El Paso, Texas, prepares for his event at the Del Rio Rodeo on July 7, 2007. He went on to win the bull riding competition. Amateur bull riders across Texas compete in small-town rodeos where their sport is often the highlight of the night. Bull riders risk life and limb for rewards of around $1,000 for the winner, and they often claim to have riding "in their blood." From the series: "Thirst for Grit - Rodeo Bull Riders."
It's been just shy of two years since I started photographing Stretch and his compadres for my project, "Thirst for Grit." He became the central character by luck of the draw; it could have been any one of the cowboys that I met and photographed at that point. My friendship with Stretch started in Del Rio, Texas, when I was gently looking for just the right 'in' with the cowboys and he happened to open up at the right time. That's where it's been ever since; he's been open and inviting from the beginning. Stretch loves being the central character under just about any circumstance, so he is an easy fit for my story. Sometimes he asks with excitement, "Hey Lance, why me? Why'd you pick me? I've never had anyone interested in me like this before." Timing, I suppose.
My goal as a storyteller has been to sketch a little vignette of Stretch's world and provide a glimpse into the lives of modern-day, small-town rodeo cowboys in Texas. I've traveled many hot and dusty miles crisscrossing Texas, following the itinerant ways of these men on the rodeo circuit. They share a special bond, a camaraderie with each other that seems to center on respect, loyalty and toughness. They are mostly well-mannered gentlemen, and at times are wild and rough like the beasts they ride. Sometimes they might skate the limits when it comes to the bottle and women, at least in the eyes of a tame city slicker like myself. Every time I jump in the truck with these fellas and burn asphalt to another small town somewhere on the Texas horizon, I know it's going to be an adventure. The rodeo is a time for these men to let loose from a hard week of work as contractors, construction workers, etc. – get on the highway with fellow rodeo cowboys and girlfriends; grit their teeth and ride hard; test their strength, skill and toughness, and compete for prize money and bragging rights. Some of these men are addicted to rodeo life, like Stretch and Jeff, even into their 30s and 40s. They want to uphold this old Texas institution amidst this modern world we're surrounded by. They ride nearly every weekend and put their life and limb on the line because they can live no other way. Most of them have been hurt badly and somehow keep coming back to ride again. As Stretch once told me, "Riding bulls is like drugs; both get you high, both are expensive, and both can kill you. So I don't do drugs."
© Lance Rosenfield
Picture of Stretch from a good time: Texan Jimmy "Stretch" Borunda, 30, rides a bull for eight seconds and goes on to win at the Del Rio, Texas, rodeo on July 7, 2007. Amateur bull riders across Texas compete in small-town rodeos where camraderie and risk are the way of life. From the series: "Thirst for Grit - Rodeo Bull Riders."
If I was ever going to visit Stretch in the hospital, I didn't expect it to happen like this. Something happened to him Thursday night before our trip to Johnson City, but no one seems to know exactly what. This late-night injury wasn't from getting thrown from a bull or a bronc but one could point to the rough and tumble lifestyle of this rodeo cowboy. Jeff called me on Friday to tell me Stretch was in the ICU. I packed and loaded up my car and headed down to the hospital in San Antonio. I got to there late, around 11:00 p.m., and had a devil of a time finding him. Walking the stark hospital hallways, wearing the turquoise and black boots that Stretch gave me in the summer of '07, I had time to reflect on what Stretch means to me, and how as a storyteller I should deal with this new turn in events.
© Lance Rosenfield
At a typical small-town bull riding rodeo: Spectators and participants watch under the arena lights at the Mason, Texas, rodeo on July 14, 2007.
I got to Stretch's ICU bed around 11:30 p.m. and he was out cold, the left side of his face badly bruised and swollen like a watermelon. The doctor couldn't give me any details because I wasn't family and questioned how I got in since it was so late. I explained I was a friend and the doctor was kind enough to let me stay for 20 minutes or so. I talked to Stretch and sat with him while he laid still and a little crinkled up. I hated seeing him like that. After leaving the hospital I wrote in my journal and asked, "What now?"
The next day I went with Jeff and their girlfriends for another visit to see Stretch. This time he was awake and talking and although clearly fogged and in pain, his fun-loving personality was in full swing, kissing his girlfriend and asking Jeff to unhook him and help him bust out of there because he had an appearance to make at next weekend's rodeo. Jeff calmly told him, "Jimmy, you know that I'll do just about anything for you but this is one thing that I cannot do. You need to stay here and let these doctors help you get better." The trusting brotherhood between them was thick in the air. Stretch may have a road to recovery longer than he wants, as is common with head injuries, but he'll be back. I'm confident of that.
This accident is a reminder how easily even the toughest of us can get hurt and it doesn't always happen in ways that we might expect. It's been an extra opportunity for me to reflect on the importance of friendships and that I need to continue to work hard and make this project the best it can be. Stretch deserves it.
© Lance Rosenfield
Friends visit Stretch Borunda in the ICU.
The camera is a key to many magical doors that otherwise would not be available to us. This phenomenon has been attested time and again. By the nature of who we are as photographers, as genuinely curious and caring people, the relationships and trust we build is authentic. Yes, our purpose is to tell a story but an even more powerful by-product, for me personally, is the meaningful relationships that are formed in the process. Through these friendships, like the ones I have with Stretch and Jeff, I feel truly blessed.
Clearly "Thirst for Grit" has now taken a turn. The vignette will reveal itself as I continue on.