Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Return of the Space Cowboy

This is the return / Of the Space Cowboy / Interplanetary good-vibe zone

One of my favorite parts of my previous trip was visiting the Stockyards. There isn't much left to give you an impression of the volume of live meat that used to pass through this place. While some of the history has faded away it has become a social and commercial center for the more authentic residents of this part of Texas, and of course a tourist attraction. On this visit we perused the shops in the train station. The tea and spice store is the only good one, but I also like to step into the record store, as it is the most surreal experience to be surrounded by so much music and know none of the artists! My taste is pretty eclectic, but when it comes to true Country & Western I am completely ignorant.

For dinner we grabbed a burger at the Love Shack. Chef Tim Love has been on Top Chef as a judge a few times, and also a contestant in their 'Masters' series. A Fort Worth local, he seems like a cool guy. Love Shack is a chain of burger joints he has opened to cater to the average Joe. To be honest I wasn't too impressed. Nobody likes a dried out burger, but you have to cook some of the grease out! By the time I was nearing the end the remains of the bun were saturated with fat.

After surviving the Love Shack we had just enough time to enjoy a quick pint at the White Elephant Saloon. I'm rarely disappointed by beer, and we all got some brew with a dark hue and an unpronounceable name. Every time I've been to the White Elephant (which is now twice) the bartender has been attempting to reach a new low in friendliness. It's very refreshing. The service is swift. You get the right change. You get a beer. You don't get fake and insincere familiarity.

Then it was Rodeo time. Rodeo gets to the roots of what being a cowboy is all about. All of the events reflect skills that a cowboy would use on the job. The best thing is that you can tell some of these guys (and girls) really do work on a ranch to scratch out a living. They ain't pretending. Oh, and the talent is blinding.

As the proceedings began they had a distinctly old-school flavor, similar to the atmosphere you get at the Byrd, a traditional single screen movie theater in Richmond. As with any American sporting event, great deference is paid to the military. In this case Veterans of Foreign Wars participated in the opening flag ceremony. The national anthem was sung in two part harmony by two women and ranks among the best renditions I've heard.

The events showcased are as follows: The Bull riding entails men attempting to stay on the back of a bucking bull. Whether they succeed or fail is largely irrelevant to the entertainment value of the event, which lies in the point at which the rider dismounts, involuntarily or by choice when eight seconds has elapsed. Either way, the chances of him being stamped on, gored, or simply face-planting into the dirt are virtually certain. It is a question of if not when.

The roping events all involve lassoing a calf. For the men, the aim is to loop the calf from horseback, then jump down, turn the calf on it's back and tie a fore leg and both hindlimbs to disable the creature. What is impressive is that the most skilled ropers will be halfway off the horse before the noose has even tightened around the targets neck. But again the real amusement comes from watching a man try to throw a calf. The maneuver know as calf flanking clearly has a knack to it, like those tricks people do with zippo lighters. Get it right on the first try and it looks very impressive. But should your hand not find a firm grip under the calf's hind leg, or should you not get the flick of the knee quite right to invert the hapless beast, then the sheer weight of the stock registers in the cowboy's arms on on his face. Suddenly the task appears insurmountable. Valuable time ticks away, and all that is left to fight for is a shred of pride.

Cowgirls compete in breakaway roping, whereby once the noose has fallen around the calf's neck the rope is released and the animal does not have to be halted or flipped. Women also take part in team roping, which employs older cattle (teenagers?). One rider ropes the horns or neck, then tries to position the calf so that the second rider can aim a noose around the hind legs.

The final event was barrel racing. Girls on horseback ride around a course indicated by three barrels, in the shortest possible time. I have tried to describe their route as a triangular figure eight, and drawn confused looks. Use your imagination. The horses attain a thrilling lean angle more commonly associated with the MotoGP as they make each turn around the barrel.

Overall it was a very educational event for me. It is always heartwarming to watch competitors being strongly supported by their friends and family, which was in evidence at the rodeo. I had imagined an almost comedic show, but these men and women were true competitors and their talent gave great honor to their culture and heritage.

I would like to add that Rodeo seems blissfully untouched by health and safety regulations or disproportionate animal rights concerns. Long may it continue to be so. Clearly organizers realize that competitors or animals coming to any harm is not in the interest of the sport. If any of the events were safe to the riders there would be no challenge. Not to mention the most striking thing of the whole proceedings is that while the bovines appear to be panicked, angry, scared, struggling or demented when the clock is running, as soon as the heat is over they calmly trot out the gate at the end of the pen serene in the knowledge that a snack awaits.

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