by Robert Brenner (J07)
When Josh Peter (J90) found deep-fried Twinkies for sale at Las Vegas’ Mermaids Casino during the finals of the 2004 Professional Bull Riders tour, he knew things had come full circle. Peter had seen a billboard advertising the food a year earlier when he began researching his book Fried Twinkies, Buckle Bunnies & Bull Riders: A Year Inside the Professional Bull Riders Tour, but hadn’t encountered it since. “In some way, the fried Twinkie was like this quirky holy grail,” he says.
Finding and savoring the elusive snack was a culminating step in a yearlong process that included coming to understand professional bull riding and the modern-day cowboys who compete. It also marked the successful leap in to book writing by the former special projects reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Growing up in Santa Monica, Calif., Peter read the Los Angeles Times sports section on the way to school in fourth grade, becoming “a bigger fan of the writers than of the athletes themselves.” He participated in Northwestern’s National High School Institute and covered sports for the Daily Northwestern as an undergraduate.
After graduation Peter spent 4 1?2 years covering high school and college sports for the 40,000-circulation Anderson Independent-Mail in Anderson, S.C. He then took a job at the Times-Picayune, where he won 2002 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 awards for investigative writing and enterprise writing: the first after using an inside source to reveal how National Football League team owners covertly give brokers many Super Bowl tickets intended for fans, the second for a story on how NFL teams promote the building and renovation of stadiums as public-private partnerships when in fact the financial burden falls almost entirely upon taxpayers.
Always on the lookout for “offbeat stuff,” Peter covered a bull-riding event in New Orleans in 2000. “To see this thing — these little guys, generally 5 foot 5, 5 foot 6, climbing on top of these 1-ton animals…I felt then there was a book there,” says Peter. Three-and-a-half years later he was contacted by a literary agency in its search for writers of sports narratives. Soon afterward, Peter began a season-long cycle of spending weekdays at the Times-Picayune, weekends and sometimes longer traveling with the PBR tour.
Once the final event at American rodeos, bull riding became its own sport in 1992 with the establishment of the PBR. The most prominent of the four bull-riding tours runs nearly every weekend from November to May and is televised on the Outdoor Life Network and NBC, attracting 104 million viewers annually. The world champion earned $1.5 million in 2005, and the top 45 riders averaged between $37,000 and $43,000.
Peter quickly discovered cowboy culture to be uncompromising. After attending an event after-party his first weekend on the tour and paying for it the next morning, he went in search of an alternative the second time around. Peter, who is Jewish, saw a flier announcing a Bible study on the second floor of the hotel-casino at 11 p.m. “Literally one floor below, guys are getting plastered and gambling away their money, and we were interpreting Scripture,” says Peter, adding that these were more or less the standard options each weekend.
While the book at times seemed a formidable challenge — for example, Peter often questioned his being on the road while his wife was pregnant — a combination of support and curious coincidences always proved reassuring. “My daughter is a Taurus, so I was convinced this was meant to be,” says Peter, who now lives with his family in Southern California, after evacuating New Orleans the day before Hurricane Katrina hit.
Peter likens bull riding to the greatest challenges people face. “[It’s] a wonderful metaphor for the idea that, whether on a bull or a metaphorical bull, you will fall. Will you have the courage to get back on?”