But like everyone else who has been seduced by the pre-millennial media push, I have been cast in a mood of nostalgia for a century that isn't even over yet. So I decided that for my last summer of the 20th century, I would break my promise. Tossing aside all my adolescent woes, I called my brother Robert and asked him to go with me to the Pendleton Round Up, in Pendleton, Oregon -- one of the last old-fashioned American rodeos. Good friends in childhood, Robert and I had never spent any time alone together as adults. But besides the appeal of re-establishing a friendship with my brother, I needed someone to guide me through the rules, techniques, and sociology of rodeo, to serve as Virgil to my bewildered, urban Dante. And no one would be better at that than my older brother. For as much as I came to loathe anything on horseback, Robert came to love it in the exact inverse proportion. Blowing town in his early 20s to gain some distance between himself and his needle-freak friends, Robert landed in Cheyenne and did what he had always wanted: He became a cowboy. Spending much of the last 20 years working on a cattle ranch, Robert is also a rodeo rider, seasonally participating in one of the amateur events, wild horse racing. It's pretty generous for a real cowboy to tolerate dudes (even if they're kin), but Robert consented to my plan and we made plans to meet in Pendleton.
The town itself is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But if you are a rodeo cowboy and it is the second full week of September, it is the center of the universe. Rodeo, the lowest-paying and most arcane of professional sports, comprises a series of seven competitions that pit men against horses, bulls, steers, and calves. There are 729 rodeos in the United States every year, and each of them is governed by an iron-fisted organization called the Professional Rodeo Cowboy's Association. Each rodeo has rough stock events (bull and bronc riding) and timed events (calf and steer roping). However, like everything else, modernity has altered the image of the rodeo cowboy. You won't see the muleskinners and buckaroos that populate Old West lore. Today's cowboy is a vision from the New West. He's a professional athlete. But as modernized as the sport has become, the Round Up is still pretty creaky and old-fashioned in comparison to marquee rodeos like Frontier Days and the Calgary Stampede. Pendleton prides itself on its quaint ways, sticking to the modus operandi that has guided it since 1914. It's not just the ramshackle stands, the outdated chutes, and the hard-grass arena that give the Round Up its distinct old-school vibe. It's also the way the entire town is invested in it. Nearly every store closes by the 1:15 rodeo start. School is canceled during rodeo week, and Boy Scouts still, unbelievably, help spectators cross the street.
Having arrived in town just prior to the start of the rodeo, Robert and I hurry to the Round Up grounds to find our seats. I am goggle-eyed at the gigantic sea of people wearing cowboy hats and absurdly tight jeans. As we take our places in the covered bleachers prior to the singing of the national anthem, Robert gives me my first lesson in the gargantuan and complex code of "Western wear." First off, Wranglers are the only acceptable jeans. Lee jeans are scoffed at, and if you wear Levi's, you are a dude. (I am wearing Levi's and a Japanese band T-shirt. I am a dude on the outer reaches.) Next is a hat. Straw for summer, felt for winter. In the post-Garth Brooks world where black Stetsons have become de rigeur, this dictum is less strictly followed. But it's still an issue for sticklers, including my brother. "Black hats are for wannabes," he sneers. The final dress code item? The belt buckle. Rodeo is a sport in which you can ascertain a cowboy's level of achievement by his belt buckle (buckles are awarded to winners). So basically, everyone is standing around looking at each cowboy's crotch to ascertain his level of status? "Well, it's more subtle than that," my brother says. "You just steal a glance." Bob is wearing the buckle he won at Frontier Days in 1997. After 22 years of competing in the dangerous and unpredictable wild horse race, Robert and his team finally won the coveted Cheyenne prize. In terms of credibility and mystique, a Cheyenne buckle is the equivalent of an all-access backstage pass at an Aerosmith concert. I, of course, have trouble with the "subtle glance" part. As I stand among men and women with their jeans jacked up their asses and their belt buckles gleaming like stars atop genital Christmas trees, I find it hard to discreetly peek.
As the rodeo commences, Robert moves from the social arcana of cowboy togs to the actual rodeo rules. To me, it seems like all the events consist of a cowboy trying to get a rope around a calf's neck, or hanging on to a bucking horse for dear life. But the closer I look, the more I see the skill involved. The main thrill of rodeo is the equation between speed and danger. The eight seconds that a rider is required to stay on a bucking bareback or saddled bronc seem like those weird moments prior to a car crash, when you know something fucked up is about to happen, but you don't know when or how fucked. Rodeo is what basketball would be like if a rabid rottweiler were guarding the net. It takes me a while to get all the nuances down, but soon, with Robert's patient explanations, I am looking closely at the cowboy's spurring techniques, watching for the animated free hand that gives a bronc rider extra points, and getting a handle on the elaborate scoring criteria.
According to a recent story in The Wall Street Journal, rodeo is America's greatest sport, and deserves to roust baseball out of its spot as the national pastime. That may be a little extreme, but compared to nine boring innings of baseball, it is pretty amusing to see a man rocket out of a chute on a spinning, 2,000-pound Brahman bull, holding on to what amounts to a suitcase handle. Animal rights activists will tell you that the flank strap cinched behind the bull's scrotum creates unspeakable pain for the animal. Cowboys defend the practice by saying that it just makes the bull's balls itchy, and the bull spins and bucks for relief. How you view this argument will be similar to how you view the rodeo.
As engrossed as I am by the rodeo events, every now and again my attention is drawn away from the action in the arena to the fans who have filled the stands. The bulk of the section Bob and I are seated in is taken up by a group of senior citizens traveling together in a motor home caravan. They all wear matching vests with patches on the back that say "The Salt Shakers." Watching them navigate the death-defying bleacher steps is, in and of itself, pretty exciting. After all, one of the thrills of rodeo is the distinct possibility that one of the riders may die in competition. Watching these peppy, yet ultimately fragile seniors, I am easily able to compute a statistic showing that the likelihood of one of the Salt Shakers dying in the stands is greater than that of a rodeo contestant biting it in the arena.
After the last event of the day, Robert and I head for the Let 'Er Buck room, the fabled saloon that sits beneath the bleachers and serves only hard alcohol, with your choice of mixer being Pepsi or nothing. Within moments of joining the crushing throng that crowds into the bar after the rodeo, Robert and I are separated. Figuring I can get along well enough on my own, I decide to look around. Big mistake. Maybe a nun could run the gauntlet from the entrance to the back bar without her crotch being grabbed, her ass poked, or her boobs prodded. Maybe.
If there was ever a joint that should hang a sign announcing, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here," this is it. The atmosphere of the Let 'Er Buck Room is a cross between a cattle auction and a potential orgy. It is a contest to see who can get drunk the quickest, cop the most feels, and get set up with a sure lay by evening's end. A gathering place for spectators and participants alike, here you find the cowboy groupies (or "buckle babes") offering "butt judging contests," and guys coming up with such memorable bon mots as "Hey, girl! Give me a squeeze out of one of them jugs!" Any illusion I harbored that a cowboy was a true gentleman was quickly shattered as I fended off groping hands. Troy, a Pendleton local who buys a $12 rodeo ticket just to gain entrance to this buckboard bacchanalia, sighs, "Shit. This ain't nothing like it used to be. A few years ago you'da got the Wrangler patch bit off your ass."
Figuring I should commemorate my visit to the Let 'Er Buck Room with a photo or two, I take a couple of snapshots. Instantly I am set upon by a drunken cowgirl who brusquely demands to know how I got a camera inside, so I drop it in my bag and use my best "get to the front of the punk show" skills to lose her in the crowd. Apparently I broke some unspoken rule when I snapped photos of the moose head taxidermy. A guy drunkenly announces, "I hope your camera has a panoramic lens, because I'm that long."
When I finally maneuver my way back to my brother, I ask him why anyone would be bummed that I wanted a souvenir of the saloon's borderline anarchy. With solemn intonation, he declares, "What you see here, what we say here -- be a friend and let it stay here. It's part of the Cowboy Code." Even my own brother is ashamed of my dudeness. At this moment (my life and maidenhood miraculously spared), I figure it's a good time to get out of the bar and head back to our motel. As Robert and I pass toward the door, I hear a group of cowboys piling some bullshit on for a tourist. "I would never, ever, ever, in a million years, let my sister or mother or wife in this place."
We stop on the way out of the Round Up to watch the Happy Canyon Pageant, a mawkish spectacle that details the white man settling the plains, beginning with dawn in a peaceful Indian village and ending with a Wild West can-can. Maybe this stuff went over well in 1914, but it seems absurd now, at least to me (the rest of the audience applauds until their palms are sore). At the motel, Robert and I drink Budweiser, eat M&Ms, and talk about what a good (and weird) time we've had together. It occurs to me that my end-of-the-century nostalgia about the Western kitsch that adorned my youth is not the only thing that precipitated this trip. Going back to the rodeo gave me the chance to begin establishing an adult relationship with my brother, laugh at my teenage pigheadedness, and think about what I might like in 20 years that I can't stand now (talk radio? The NFL?). It might have been a weird way to go about it, but I think I got ready for the future by reconnecting with the past.