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Yee Haw

July 10, 2010

It’s rodeo time again, so I pulled this old article out of my new cowboy hat. It was first published in the Chronicle a good many years ago… eight or nine at least. A co-worker asked me if the stories are true. I said “Of course.” That said, my first rodeo was probably forty years ago… this is how I remember it. Did the clown really die? I certainly thought so at the time, but the details of what was announced after the ambulance drove away are a little fuzzy. The internet is a big world, and perhaps someone will remember it differently…

I attended my first rodeo in Pendleton when I was very young. I won a delicate glass butterfly dish in one of the booths, then sat and watched a rodeo clown die in the dirt of the arena from a heart attack. I gave the dish to my mother and wondered if they buried the clown in his happy-face paint, or changed him into something more formal.

Yee haw.

Years later I attended the rodeo in Canby as a journalist, ended up out in the arena. It took a while to master the one-handed fence scramble, clutching my Pentax camera to my chest. I learned pretty fast, until I came up against a sponsor’s banner. The bull didn’t slam me against the fence, I was already squashed up as close as I could get, but he busted the flash off my camera.

Yee haw.

I’ve attended many rodeos since, although I stay out of the ring. I’ve watched from above the chutes, saw horses get their legs trapped and bloodied between the slats. I’ve watched animals shifted through the pens, fresh wounds over old wounds. I’ve watched real people work with real horses, even wild horses, far away from the rodeo grounds.

Over time I lost respect for the bronco riders, with their spurs and bucking straps. To break a horse is one thing, to break it over and over, that is something else. Yet to cheer for the bronco, forever fighting a hopeless battle, seems too sad to contemplate.

The bulls seem to have a better chance, and I find myself backpedaling regardless of which side of the fence I’m on. Yet I find it hard to respect the riders. I admire their bravery, but question their intelligence and sympathize with their families.

Yee haw.

So I watch the roping events, although I would prefer talent over time. We Americans have speed down to a science, but I would much prefer to watch the spinning dance of a Mexican vaqueros as he spins a loop out over the ground. There are many ways to throw a rope, and real cow work rarely incorporates the rodeo whirl and throw. There are throws from the side, backhand and overhand throws, throws that catch the back feet, throws that catch the front feet, throws that catch the head. Throws from the horse and more from the ground. I’ve seen ropes dance in ways that defy physics. Yet mostly, if a rope is used at all, the cowboy leans over and puts it where he wants it. If you know cows, you can do that sort of thing. At the rodeo, we see only one throw, over and over into infinity.

Rodeo at its best is a pageant of unreality, put on for the sole purpose of advertising sponsors on every available surface. At its worst it is cruel and demeaning, and not just for the animals.

Yee haw.

No one complained about this article when it was published, but reading it now, it is only part of the story. That’s fine, it was a short essay. But this is the web, where space is unlimited, and here is the retraction… I enjoy the barrel racing, as well as the bulldogging and team roping. The clowns are way cool. I have great respect for the people who have made The Dalles rodeo a going concern, it might well have died any number of times in the past 10 years. The great things that I thought I would find at the rodeo when I was a kid, they are all still there. Not in the arena perhaps, but in the background shuffling cows and horses through the shoots, working out the “rodeo throw” until they are in fact the fastest, driving miles after the show to feed the cows. The west still begins where the pavement ends.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. clytie permalink
    July 12, 2010 21:09

    Yeesh, I went to a rodeo in Tigh(?) Valley, one in Pendleton, and one in Canby. I tolerated them, and even enjoyed parts. I found them considerably less disturbing than the bull fight we went to in Spain. Now THAT was hard to watch!

    We enjoyed the rodeo in Canby mostly because my nephew was riding. He was really good, but didn’t win. We enjoyed the visit. I haven’t seen him since – last I heard he was in jail in Union County.

    Yee Haw.

  2. July 21, 2010 06:11

    Well. I remember being one of the salespeople at the St. Paul Rodeo when I was about 19. We were at one of those places where you throw a dime into a bunch of glass cups hoping one wil land just so. The reward for landing in the right glass bottle was one of those really long stretched out coke bottles.

    I had never heard this story. That would have been scary. Goodness. What a memory. But I love your stories. I love them.

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