October 9, 2012

“The first question people ask is, ‘What do the monkeys eat?’” says Tim “Wild Thang” Lepard, the ringmaster of what is likely America’s strangest travelling circus, as he reaches into a bag of Monkey Chow—large brown pellets of powdered corn, wheat, and egg—which he then passes through a cage and into the waiting hands of three white-throated capuchins. The animated primates, each about 11⁄2 feet tall, messily pick apart their unwieldy pieces of breakfast like toddlers eating birthday cake with their bare hands. (Later, for dessert, it’s Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts and leftover waffle fries.) The so-called Team Ghost Riders have certainly earned their treats, having stayed up late last night riding saddled border collies and herding rams at Dickey- stephens baseball diamond in North Little rock, Arkansas. it’s the latest stop on a seemingly endless national tour of rodeos and minor league sporting events. Now that the sun is rising over Tim’s 36-foot trailer, which he shares with the animals on most nights away from home, it’s time to hit the road again.

Tim, who has been hauling the show behind his signature “Wild Thang” Dodge truck for more than 20 years, is a perpetual entertainer. At 50, he’s a stocky 6-feet tall, with a cheeky smile, a thinning mess of short, sandy blond hair, and a wardrobe filled with bright Stetsons and home-sewn costumes in of red, white, and blue (each one is custom-made and donated by an rsp adoring fan, who also pairs them with monkey-size matches). An earlier stint as a bull rider left him with a limp and scars beyond his years, but out on the field he can still summon the energy and agility of a man half his age. Last night, in front of 5,000 amazed farm-team fans, Tim ran with the Ghost Riders as they chased four rams around the diamond and into a 10-foot pen behind third base. Then, for the grand finale, he drove his truck onto the field and had the monkeys herd the animals up onto its roof, fireworks popping overhead. “I turned this place upside down,” Tim says proudly, in a southern drawl that channels both John Wayne and 30 Rock’s Kenneth Parcell.

For all the bold theatrics of his performances, Tim reveals a softer side when he’s not mugging for the crowds. It comes out as he carefully removes the monkeys’ miniature chaps under his vaudeville-style dressing room lights, and as he cradles the animals in his arms. Theirs is a closeness forged during arduous training sessions, where Tim has the monkeys ride saddled soda crates, which he pulls around his house in a wagon for weeks at a time. Once they learn to mount, balance, and cling, Tim deems them ride-ready, although he says you can never truly train a monkey. “Sometimes I think they’re training me,” he quips. When you spend this long with animals that Tim likens to children, they become more than pets, colleagues, or even friends. “It gets deep,” he says. “They’re like family to me.”

The sad truth is that for 10 months out of every year, Tim’s furry family is all he has to keep him company. At best, they’re a mischievous distraction from the monotony of a life on the road; at worst, they’re a demanding reminder of his actual family, whom he leaves at home in Pontotoc, Mississippi, every time he pulls out for another string of shows. Tim’s Dodge clocked more than 100,000 miles last year, taking him—almost always by himself— everywhere from Louisville to Las Vegas. When I ask him how he feels about being away from his 7-year- old daughter, Lakelynn Paige, and his sweetheart of two years, Paula Ashcroft, his enthusiasm quickly disappears. “Nobody realizes how tough it is, doing what I do,” he says. “I try to be happy, but I don’t think I am. I don’t feel like a happy person. There are some missing links keeping me from being whole—shoot, you know, just being content with a family, a home, a life. It’s real hard.”

Today, however, there’s hope at the end of the 250-mile stretch of highway. For the first time in a month, and perhaps the last time in five more, Tim has his GPS set to “home.” The lonely cowboy is roaring down the I-22, past chain diners and drab truck stops, en route to the longing arms of his absent love.

Photography by Elaine Catherine Miller

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