Driven by a passion for life, Kim Zupan will ride broncs again
By John Moore, Great Falls Tribune Sports Writer
Monday, January 8, 1979
It is the summer of 1978. Zupan sits quietly, brooding somewhat, while his poet-writing, bronc-riding partner, Paul Zarzyski drives. Old Stubber is an analogy, a horse that exists only in Zupan’s creative mind.
The story goes like this: a young boy’s father buys the child a horse, Old Stubber. The boy says he will go out and work with the horse, but he doesn’t. He keeps putting it off. Finally he decides to go out to give Old Stubber a try, but the horse is gone. “You weren’t using him,” his father explains, “so I traded him for a pair of calfskin boots.”
Old Stubber haunted Zupan last summer.
“It was like rodeo was Old Stubber,” he explains. “I wanted to rodeo so bad, but just never had the time to do it like I wanted to, and all along I was afraid something would happen to take it all away from me.”
Something happened. Luck ran out on Zupan. And so did his insurance.
“He’s dead serious,” says Zarzyski, “there was a lot of silence in the car last summer when he didn’t ride them right. He has a tremendous amount of desire to ride broncs and ride them well.”
Now what he wants most is the chance to ride them again.
. . . The cowboy nods and sets his spurs,
this bronc boiling from the gate—
a hocked marlin trying to spit the barbs
in midair, twisting, throwing half a ton
six different directions at once, six
thousand pounds of jerk and snatch
on hundred pound test arm . . .
From “Trying One Outside”
By Paul Zarzyski
The pages of Zupan’s life. They turned slowly but steadily as a city-born high school wrestler with a keen interest in ranchlife, then ruffled pleasantly in a traveling breeze as one of two poetic team members of the University of Montana rodeo team.
The summer of ’78 wasn’t looking too bad for Zupan. He won the bareback riding at Choteau and Stanford and was only a few hundred dollars short of winning the thousand he needed to qualify for card membership in the Professional Rodeo Cowboy’s Association.
Then he started drawing poor horses, plus, his old rigging was wearing a little thin and loose, but he thought he hadn’t the money to replace it.
The pages turned to August 3. The Montana State Fair in Great Falls and Kim was going to “crack out” in front of hometown fans. A brother and sister were in the stands. He parents—afraid they would bring him bad luck—were not.
In the chute Zupan settled down on the Reg Kesler bronc, “Staircase.” Named so because he was once a high-kicking, leaping horse, the animal had become erratic and fellow broncrider Jeff Loney advised Kim to turn the horse out.
But the 25-year-old hometown cowboy nodded for his mount and Staircase came out lunging, running straight for the fence in front of the grandstands. Spurring for points, Kim raked too hard, one leg going over the horse’s neck. Another horse might have bucked hard enough to throw the leg back. But not Staircase. Not this night. With both legs dangling on one side of the animal’s neck, Zupan was in trouble and no one knew it better than he.
What the audience could not see was the rigging. His old, loose one was “shimmed up” to tighten his hold, while he had taken the jingle from his pockets and paid for the last few credits he needed to earn his Bachelor’s Degree in creative writing.
Not able to pull his hand free, Zupan agonized through the microseconds of time, waiting for the horse to buck hard enough to “take the hand away from him.” The man’s body slid lower and lower, closer to the kicking hooves, one arm stretched upward to the leather that belted the animal just below the withers.
Finally the hand popped, but when it did, Zupan fell heavily, his spine dangerously arched. For a few tense moments he lay quietly, then with little assistance he walked groggily to the chutes. There he stood silently, one side of his body obedient to his mind, the other side paralyzed.
Kim Zupan didn’t know it, but his neck had been broken. An hour later he was in the hospital to begin two weeks of traction.
It was, as Zarzyski might say, the night the devil danced on Kim.
Had they gone to elementary school together they would have been friends for alphabetical reasons.
It was from crazy script. A Zarzyski and a Zupan. Fighting strong headwinds they had taken out of Missoula the Spring of ’75 just moments after the Spring Quarter ended. They ran out of gas once and had to walk to a farmhouse, and may have felt like turning back when they saw first an ambulance speeding their way, then a hearse. But they were on their way to Joe Alexander’s rodeo school in Dillon and neither the wind nor the devil could stop them. They would, by golly, be bronc riders!
It was the “intricate simplicity of rodeo” that attracted him, explained Zarzyski, who for one summer was Missoula’s Poet-in-Residence and now teaches a composition course through the School of Forestry.
Suddenly the intricate part of the simplicity lay in the hospital.
Some undoubtedly wondered if he would ever walk again, let alone ride broncs. “He came about a hair from being paralyzed for life,” his father, William Zupan thinks.
But there was no doubt in Kim’s one-track mind.
“Nobody acted like I would never ride again,” he says, recalling his hospital-room visitors. They probably didn’t dare. He himself admits he was less than polite to anyone who suggested such doubts.
Weeks after he left the hospital he was still was still confined to a halo brace that held him rigidly and was all but drilled into his head. He passed the idle days in his parents’ home, watching television and thinking, always thinking about riding broncs again. Zarzyski meanwhile, was organizing the cowboy troops. Kim’s insurance policy had run out a month before the wreck. Through the contributions, labor, and raffles of friends and cowboys across the state, much of the hospital expense was offset. In an ad in the Missoulian newspaper, Kim personal thanked nearly 40 people.
By mid-November the halo brace was off, and under a doctor’s guidance, he slowly began exercising and becoming more mobile.
His father, who had told this reporter in July, that his son was “as good as any of them,” was now reluctant about Kim’s enthusiasm.
“I’m afraid it might affect him psychologically,” he stressed, “might take the keen edge off his riding. I might just to go church this Sunday and get down on my knees and doesn’t he don’t ride broncs again.”
Kim will ride broncs again.
He won’t believe anything else right now. He won’t allow himself. On December 20 he visited his doctor and was told things were looking good. The doctor, if he were to be present if a vote was taken, would probably side with the father.
For Kim rodeo is a painful, consuming desire, one that has for now, obliviated (sic) his writing.
“You know what it’s like to be a writer. If you want to be the best you have to put everything into it. All your time. All your energy. It’s the same with rodeo. In two years I know I can make the National Finals.”
There is, thinks Zupan, healing in the fruit of the lips and the confessions of the mind. He will believe himself well, faith being the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Thrifty with both words and emotion, he seems tumultuous in his silent depth.
“It would take,” says his brother Danny, “a rare equestrian disease that killed all the horses in the world for Kim not to ride again.”
But then there is the grey stud horse, Old Stubber. Perhaps he has already been given away. The calfskin boots of the trade could be Kim’s life, his ability to walk.
“Shawn Davis broke his back,” he says, referring to a famous Montana bronc rider now coaching in Idaho, “and he still came back to win the World.”
But there is still Old Stubber.
Zupan never rode a bronc until ’73, and it was the summer of ’74 before Zarzyski (who had seven years of college behind him at the time) first strapped his rigging to an animal.
“I was tied down with school for four years,” Zupan laments, “and in the Air National Guard for six. There went many of my weekends that I should have been rodeoing.”
This Spring, in one reality or another, Zupan must walk to the corral and see if Old Stubber is still there.
If he isn’t, he has a pair of calfskin boots to try on for size.