I grew up firmly believing America looks just like the movies. To me, The South-East looked like the life in Dallas, Los Angeles looked like Beverly Hills 90210 and the West looked just like any John Wayne movies, full of pistols, runaway rogues, horses and dirty bandanas. There was not much in between but open lands and people who hated all three of them.
I was firmly convinced Americans invented the peanut butter sandwich, the cookies and milk deal (who does that outside America?!) and the oven roasted turkey. And they, of course, invented … the rodeo.
Also growing up, I never took a social or political, or even a moral stance towards the rodeo. I just thought: well, Spanish people have the bull fights, Middle Easterners play soccer with the head of a dead sheep, and Americans have the rodeo. There you go! Better than Russians poisoning people with radioactive energy, I guess. And definitely tamer than the first two!
It was not till I came to America when I realized that although they invented it (or so I thought), you’re not supposed to really admit you went to the rodeo, or worse yet: that you would have any desire to go to the rodeo. In America, now, people will wonder what a horrible person you must be to condone such a bestial, brutal, coarse and backwards custom that is simply not necessary in this day and age. An in-house tradition denied – this was news to me.
During most of my life in America, the rodeo was not an attraction, because it was not very popular, I guess, in the places I have lived. But living in South West America will draw you to what the South West still does. And let me tell you: life here, on the ranch, is very much like Dallas. More brutal. More coarse. And less glamorous, but just as American country as it gets. And the rodeo is not verboten! On the contrary.
Here, it’s still a family tradition: every summer, people take their whole families, for a whole week, sometimes, to see ranchers riding bucking horses and bulls, little kids riding sheep and big guys lasso-ing calves. Teen girls curl up their blonde locks and wear Daisy Duke shorts and cowboy boots to meet their paramours over the announcer’s screaming the names of the next contestant. Little kids lick icy cones and watch the show with noses dipped in ice-cream and eyes as big as onions. Some eat peanuts, but corn dogs, funnel cake and cotton candy is what’s for dinner. And some people even bring bologna sandwiches from home. And people do say “yee-haw”, just like the movies.
And yes, my friends, I am here to tell you I partook in this tradition this year. I just wanted to be able to say that I have lived here and I have seen the customs that this country and this area call familiar to them. It is the old fashioned adage that “when in Rome …” that got me to do it. Is it low of me and superficial? Fine. I am willing to live with that. Do I know America better now? Somewhat. Am I happy I did it? Not sure if “happy” is the word, but yes, I like being able to “judge” this even having seen it myself, and not with outsider’s eyes.
Like anything human, it has good parts and bad. The animals are absolutely amazing. Cowboys really do take care of their horses! They are beautiful, and they are smart! Well groomed and well trained. I fell in love with the horses, for sure. They twist and turn and run in such ways that is graceful and amazing at the same time. Their dance of muscles and strength is beautiful.
The kids riding the sheep were simply adorable. They could not have weighed more than 40 lbs and they flew on those sheep backs! You also learn what the proper position of the rider should be on the horses and bulls and what disqualifies a rider. In the fight, if there is one, between the man and the animal, the animal almost always wins. Almost. Except for the tying of the bulls. That was brutal, and I could not watch it. We left right in the middle of that. I guess, so much for me trying the running of the bulls in Pamplona next year!
I know now that Americans didn’t really invent the rodeo – but the Mexicans did. They are surely responsible for promoting it, though, and keeping it alive. I also know that Canadians compete as well. I think all the various competitions in a rodeo have stemmed from the daily chores of the cowboys on their farms. Not sure if they still behave like this on the farms, but the craftsmanship lives on.
Moral quandary aside, I am glad I have first hand witnessed it. It’s history, and tradition, in a way, and for that value I am glad I watched it. The energy as well as the patience and mathematical exactness of the handlers were an amazing tour de force of human stamina and even bravery. At any given point, the human skull could be crushed, but they pressed on. And the dance of the animals will haunt me forever. I am grateful I live this close to this (now) very American tradition and that I had the chance to try understand it and make my own choice. Knowingly.
"It ain't never gonna be my first time at the rodeo anymore", but will this be my last?! Time only will tell ...
Click on the picture for all the shots from that night. Made me really want a new camera ...