The romance sections in bookstores these days look a lot like a Wyoming rodeo — cowboys everywhere! Westerns are back in style, and a lot of female fantasies start under the wide brim of a Stetson.

Yesterday I got to spend some time with the real deal at Cheyenne Frontier days. This was my first time behind the chutes, and I was worried I’d be in the way. But I had a secret weapon: Ian St. Clair of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Ian writes a series called “The Whole Kit & Caboodle” for the Cheyenne paper, while I write about “The Whole Kiss & Canoodle” for my romance novels, so we make a good team.

Hanging out with Ian at the rodeo was like having a human all-access pass. He covered the sport for years and he knows everybody. Plus he can actually talk to rodeo cowboys – a skill I’ve yet to master. I’m usually pretty chatty, but I was utterly star-struck on meeting guys like four-time bareback world champion Bobby Mote and current CFD bull riding champ Wesley Silcox. Fortunately, Ian jumped in with some smooth conversation to cover up the fact that I was staring slack-jawed at the cowboys like a moonstruck cow.

I handled meeting Wesley Silcox with all the composure of a teeny-bopper meeting Justin Beiber. When he offered to pose for the picture above, I got my camera strap entangled in the laces of my cowboy hat and spent what felt like half an hour disentangeling myself while the polite, patient cowboy looked on. That’s Wesley on the left, Ian on the right. I’m the one in the sissy hat.

And here’s me with Bobby Mote. I was getting better at meeting celebrity cowboys at this point, and Bobby is a super-nice guy, very modest and self-effacing. “You can’t afford to be arrogant because [rodeo] is a humbling sport,” he says. “It’s chicken one day and feathers the next.”

Seeing rodeo cowboys at work is very different from seeing them all polished up at autograph signings or watching them unwind at the Outlaw Saloon. Their clothes are rumpled, their jeans are stuck half-in and half-out of their boots, and their minds are fixed in riding mode. I asked Silcox and Mote what they’re thinking about when they rocket out of the chute and they both had the same answer: “Nothing, hopefully.” It makes sense. Thinking about the fact that you’re riding a bronc or bull would probably make you want to get off before the buzzer.

The other thing that impresses me is how cowboys stick together. When a cowboy scores high, he almost always gives credit to other cowboys–usually his traveling companions. Bobby Mote, for example, is a member of one of the best-known traveling posses in rodeo, a foursome known as “The Pride.” Here’s a video that shows how four cowboys cover three rodeos in one day. It starts out at one of my favorite places–the town of Red Lodge, Montana. I’m not sure the guys have any idea where they are, but they sure know how to make a quick trip to the airport. And they sure know how to ride.

I stayed home from the rodeo today and worked on my book, so I missed Wesley’s 89-point ride on Puff Daddy and Bobby’s 76-point bronc ride. But I’m heading back to the arena tomorrow to get more pictures, more interviews, and most of all, more cowboy!