Friday, June 26, 2009

We Go to the Rodeo!

June 24

We started our day in Fredericksburg, a little town of 10,000 where Bavaria meets Texas. Settled by German immigrants in 1846, the town honors its heritage with a wide assortment of German restaurants and beer gardens, along with shops selling rustic Texas d├ęcor and Western resort wear. There are over 300 B&Bs throughout the Fredericksburg countryside, scattered among peach farms, half a dozen wineries, and the country's largest working wildflower farm (Wildseed Farms). We didn't have time to sample all the town's charms—we settled for lattes and strudels to go from the Java Ranch, and were on our way north.

Our drive took us past cattle ranches and exotic animal ranches, where hunters come for Texas safaris, to bag big game trophies without the hassle and worry of leaving the good old U.S. of A. The land became more hilly and rocky, and cattle ranches gave way to sheep farms. Then we jumped on I-10, the speed limit ratcheted up to 80 mph, and everything went by so quickly I hardly know what I saw. In another hour or so the land flattened out and tall mesas rose in the distance. As we got closer, we realized that the mesas must be creating wind tunnels, because there was a huge wind farm with at least 500 wind turbines that we could see on the tops of some of the mesas, and flowing down the mesa sides into the valley.

We stopped for lunch in Fort Stockton (pop. 7,846), best known for its town mascot, Paisano Pete, the world's largest roadrunner. Like Indians, explorers, stage coaches, and settlers for centuries before us, we made our way to the town's Camanche Springs, one of the few dependable sources of fresh water in this arid area. Actually, today a huge Olympic size swimming pool lies on top of the springs, but the park around the pool is a nice spot for a picnic—we sat in a shady picnic shelter and had our lunch, then did a little self-guided driving tour around Fort Stockton town (which is looking like it has seen far better days). My favorite spot on the tour was this little Episcopal Church, which was built in Pecos in 1896, then sold by the Pecos Episcopalians to the Fort Stockton Episcopalians, who moved it here, a distance of 54 miles, in 1958.

As it turned out, Pecos was our last stop of the day. Pecos claims to be the home of the first Rodeo in the world,
held in 1883. As we were stopping just to photograph the rodeo sign, we realized that there was a lot of activity around the rodeo arena. Turns out, we were lucky enough to arrive in Pecos on the first day of the 127th West of the Pecos Rodeo, and we were even luckier to find a hotel room for the night. Getting rodeo tickets was no problem—Pecos has Texas' largest outdoor rodeo arena, after all. We were in the third row behind all the reserved boxes with people's names on them.

But wait, the rodeo wasn't until 8—we had plenty of time to explore Pecos (pop. 9,501) before then. We visited the West of the Pecos Museum. Housed in an old saloon and hotel, the museum has 50 rooms of exhibits! Everyone in town has cleaned out their attics and their barns and contributed their treasures to make this one of the very best local museums we have ever seen. Really!

There are rooms dedicated to rodeo history, to the town's most respected cowboys, and even a cowgirl who was put on a horse on her first birthday and died on her horse at a ripe old age. There are barb wire collections and arrowhead collections, the reconstructed shop of a turn of the century barber/dentist, and a beauty parlor with a perm machine with about 100 clips hanging from electric wires that look like they could fry your hair but good. A beloved town doctor's office is reproduced in a couple rooms, a honeymoon suite from the heydays of the hotel in another set of rooms.

My second favorite room has the hats of cowboys hung on its walls all the way around, reaching up to the ceiling. They are stained with dirt and sweat, and some are ripped a bit. There is no curation, just little white labels affixed to some of them with the names of the men who wore them. I was talking about that room to one of the women who works at the museum--Debbie was her name, embroidered over the pocket of her Western shirt. She said to me, "Oh, yes, I found my daddy's label on the floor in the hat room. I have to go up there one of these days and smell the hats to find it and put the label back on. He passed, but I can still smell him in his hat. It's a tradition here when your daddy passes, you ask the museum to put his hat on the wall. There's a lot of spirit in that room if you knew those men." I could feel it without knowing the men.

My favorite room commemorates the winners of the town's annual Golden Girls of the Old West Pageant, where they select the Queen of the Rodeo from a group of high school girl contestants, based on talent, personality, and beauty. The pictures of the winners throughout the history of the contest are hung on the wall, all in their Golden Girl costumes, which look like home made versions of the dresses Miss Kitty used to wear on "Gunsmoke." A smaller section of the room recognizes Little Miss Cantalope, a primary school age princess. (The cantaloupe is to Pecos as the lobster is to Maine—as we learned in another room of the museum which has some petrified cantalopes on display.)

The 2009 Golden Girl of the Old West was chosen just last Saturday, in time for her first official rodeo appearance tonight. The rodeo began with her, her court, and Little Miss Cantalope being pulled around the ring on a float. The rodeo queen was not wearing her Old West dress. She was wearing a tiara, a puffy sleeve white blouse and a pair of cut off jean short shorts. I was a little bit disappointed.

But that was the only shortfall in the pageantry. A precision cowgirl drill team did amazing maneuvers to music on their horses, bearing the flags of all the rodeo sponsors; a cowboy galloped around the arena with an American flag throwing sparks off the top of its flagpole. There was a very long Christian prayer invoking the power of Jesus to save our souls and to protect the cowboys from harm, following an ode to the first amendment protecting our right to pray this prayer.

Finally, the main events—bareback bucking bronco riding, team calf roping, solo steer roping, saddle bronc riding, tie down roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing (the only cowgirl competition), and bull riding, with lots of clowning and trick riding and jokes and words from the sponsors thrown in. There was even a half time show--all the kids under 10 wearing boots were eligible for the boot scramble. The 3 winners who found their boots from the big pile in the center of the ring and ran back to the judge first each got a bicycle from Walmart. We didn't know any of the 630 cowboys riding in the rodeo, but we caught the spirit of things and were whooping and hollering and stamping and clapping with the best of them cheering those cowboys on.

The bull riding was brutal, though. The riders wore helmets with face guards, but even so, when they got thrown the bull was mad, and a couple got stamped before they could get up and run. Several limped off or were helped off the field. We had to leave before it was over (fortunately, it was the last event), because we just couldn't take the brutality, and we didn't want to see someone loaded into an ambulance. We are definitely not tough enough to be cowboys.

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