Tayah Wilkes vividly remembers her very first rodeo experience. She was about five and she was sitting on a horse named Jack in an arena getting ready to compete in barrels, flags and poles. Her family was there and she felt proud.
“I remember being one of the only ones not being led,” Tayah said.
The smallest rodeo participants typically have their horses led around the obstacles by an adult.
Nine years later and the Morenci High School freshman gets just as excited to compete now as she did then.
Some of her excitement stems from the fact she is part of a family tradition. Her grandma’s dad, Gordon Wilkerson, competed in rodeos as did her great Uncle Keith Wilkerson, 62, and his wife, Leah, and their son, Latigo. All of them were ropers. Wilkes loves goat tying best, but she also competes in barrels, flags and poles.
There was no question he would compete in rodeos, Keith Wilkerson said. His family had been ranching in the Clifton area three generations before his arrival and rodeo was just a way of life.
“We just grew up doing it,” Wilkerson said. “I just thought it was a great deal. I remember watching my dad compete and hearing all of the people competing against him talk about how good he was. I wanted to be like him.”
His dad, Gordon, went to the national finals three times, Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson said he even met his wife at the rodeo. Leah Wilkerson roped cattle by herself and as a team roper and is now mentoring Tayah. They go and watch her compete all of the time, most recently at the Greenlee Junior Rodeo in Duncan, which is in its 14th year.
“It’s a dying tradition,” Wilkerson said. “You don’t see as much interest in it as when I was growing up.”
Tayah said her grandma, Daphene Wilkes, has also been a big supporter of her. During every Greenlee Junior Rodeo competition, she’s in the announcer’s booth helping keep track of the results and cheering Tayah on.
Tayah said she has every intention of competing as an adult. Even when Patches, one of her horses, kept trying to buck her off, she never considered quitting.
“Patches was always acting up and would rear up sometimes, but I always told myself that I couldn’t get off, that I couldn’t stop now,” Tayah said.
Finishing the competitions with Patches always made her feel as though she was a winner, she said.
Nowadays she competes on her Aunt Leah’s horse, Goose.
“He’s a really good horse and I’m glad I get to ride him,” she said.
There’s another family from Greenlee County that has been rodeoing just as long, if not longer, than the Wilkersons — the descendants of Dub Elrage, who began homesteading above Clifton five generations ago.
Long-time residents probably remember Gayle Sanders and his son, Richard and daughters, Gail “Norene” Sanders Mortensen and Rhonda Sanders Clouse, plus Norene’s sons, Ron, Kevin and Nate.
Nate Mortensen was a high school and college champion roper and still competes, although he often forgoes competitions to watch the next generation rodeo, Clouse said.
Nowadays, Nate’s kids, Klara, 6, and Quade, 5, compete, as do Kevin’s kids, Chancey, 15, and Corryn, 14. All four have been competing in the Greenlee Junior Rodeo in recent months.
Clouse remembers watching her dad, Gayle, team rope with Gordon Wilkerson, back in the late 60s and early 70s. Her dad was a header and Gordon Wilkerson heeled, meaning her dad looped the rope around the steer’s head and Gordon got the legs.
“They were in the Top 15 in the nation,” Clouse recalled proudly.
Clouse said she began barrel racing at the age of 4 and now, at 68, she still participates in rodeos, being a member of the Grand Canyon Professional Rodeo Association. If she’s not rodeoing herself, chances are she’s watching Nate or the next generation competing. In addition to competing in Duncan, the kids often travel to Reserve and Lordsburg, New Mexico and Pima, she said.
Growing up competing in rodeos instills patience, a love of animals and discipline, Clouse said. Rodeo kids know what it’s like having to get up early in the morning to take care of their animals and how to best manage their time, she said.
“We were never pressured, we were just born with the desire to rodeo,” Clouse said. “It’s a calling for us. We just love the adrenaline and the animals. It’s just a way of life for us. I’ll die with my boots on.”
Richard Lunt, Greenlee County District 3 Supervisor, and his wife, Colleen, are just two of the many sponsors of the Greenlee Junior Rodeo.
He’s also been serving as the event’s announcer for the past four or five years.
Rodeoing is just part of the area’s heritage, Lunt said.
To him, the families who participate exemplify a certain way of life, a life that revolves around “hard work, honesty and integrity,” he said. These families have deep roots and their word is their bond, he said.
Some families are deeply competitive and others just consider rodeos as a way to spend time together and both philosophies are just fine with him, Lunt said.
“I really enjoy the rodeo,” Lunt said. “I love to see the progress they make. I’m always impressed how much they improve from one rodeo to the next and from one year to the next.”
The next Greenlee Junior Rodeo is 5 p.m. July 31 at the Greenlee County Fairgrounds.