Stuck in LA

Best laid plan——

It has been a pretty mild winter in Missoula with temperatures rarely getting into the teens at night, and, in the last week, having the proverbial January thaw. There hasn’t been a lot of snow at one dumping, and the walk and back patio have only needed shoveling two or three times. In fact, my nose was even fooled into thinking of Spring a couple of days ago.

To be truthful, I’ve been feeling pretty smug about the mid-west and the “polar vortex” with subzero thermometer readings in the Dakotas and even in Illinois while melting snow was dripping down from our roof. But, recently I was hoping for some real winter weather to make me feel glad to get away to New Zealand. I’ve been keeping track of the weather in Auckland where I was confident that we’d be arriving this morning. It would be nice to have that change from an uncomfortable winter to a late summer in New Zealand.

Last Friday there was a sudden change in our local weather outlook, and it caused me just a slight bit of concern. A front was expected to slowly move into the Missoula area bringing a bit of rain by Saturday evening followed by some dropping temperatures with ice and snow by late Sunday afternoon. It brought a small worry, but our flight was to leave at 11:40 in the morning on Sunday.

Early, about six on Sunday I heard a noise outside our bedroom window, sort of a scraping sound, and I asked Sheila, as I was too lazy to put in my hearing aids, if there was someone shoveling snow. She advised me that it was the wind causing branches to rub across the neighbor’s roof. Half an hour later I looked out and saw that, not only was the wind howling down the street, it was pushing freezing rain across an icy glaze. The winter weather that I’d thought would be a nice send off arrived early.

Our plane boarded on time in Missoula, but was delayed in taking off for purposes of de-icing, but the late departure really didn’t make much difference in that we had almost a five-hour layover in Seattle before our flight to Los Angeles. We took that time to ride the light rail to downtown Seattle and leisurely tour the art museum. During that period, we looked out the window of the museum and noticed that it had started to snow, a rather unusual event in Seattle. On the train back to the airport we remarked on how pretty the city looked in a “winter wonderland” sort of way as the lawns and roofs began to turn white.

What a couple of dips.

There was no problem getting through security at the airport. TSA has changed from what that a lot was ten years ago when they were trying to emulate the Gestapo as they routinely took people behind curtains and told them to disrobe. In Missoula they chatted with us and wished us a happy journey. In Seattle the TSA folks even joked with me, and we were at our gate for our flight to Los Angeles with time to spare. But then things started to move slowly.

The gate agents were optimistic and assured the folks waiting to board that, even though the jet would need to be de-iced before take off, it would be done at the gate adding a mere fifteen minutes to departure time. That would mean that we would leave at six-thirty pm, and we would be at LAX in plenty of time to catch our flight to Fiji that would take off at ten-thirty.

Needless to say, but those happy little gate agents where lying through their fucking teeth. Our flight landed in Los Angeles about ten minutes before our gate closed that would have permitted us to fly to Fiji. In spite of the sprint of at least a mile through the bowels of LAX we arrived at the Fiji gate ten minutes after our flight left. No one was around to advise us what to do next, not at the Fiji gate, not at any of the international gates in the area.

Oddly enough, in all this emptiness, we spotted an information booth that actually had someone behind the desk. We rushed over and explained our situation to this air line expert and asked what we should do. When could we catch the next flight to Fiji and catch up with our luggage?

She was a young woman (of about sixty) with long silver hair tied back, and blinked at us through thick lenses of wire rimmed glasses. Her expression suggested that she was amazed, as if we had suddenly appeared from the air in front of her desk.

“Well,” she said as a beginning, looking around for something to prompt her answer. “Well, I think there are a couple of other people trying to get to Fiji.” As if that would be helpful to us. She appeared to be waiting for us to leave, and then, realizing that we expected more, she pointed to a couple of people in the distance standing in front of a Quantas gate. “Yes,” she said grinning. “They are over there.”

This whole scene seemed to be rapidly moving down the rabbit hole as we made our way to the “position closed” desk where a man with an Eastern Indian accent was expressing his thoughts on the situation to a man and woman who’d also missed the flight to Fiji. He repeated his ideas to us as the other two people seemed to stumble away in rejection. He said that the earliest we could expect to get to Fiji would be Tuesday (remember we are standing in front of him on late, Sunday night) as Fiji only flies out of LAX every other day. [By my reckoning, it would seem that Fiji Airlines has only one airplane.]

At this point, if Sheila and I were in a cartoon, a combined thought cloud would appear above our heads. Inside the thought cloud would be printed “FUCK!”

Sheila suggested that since we booked our trip through Alaska Airlines, it would be reasonable to try to make our way through this Wonderland and find their customer service office. After being misled by a Cheshire Cat and a mad hare we found the office, after midnight, to be, oddly enough, closed. But again, oddly enough, at lost luggage office, a clerk pointed us to a strangely placed cluster of Alaska agent desks where an amazing woman was able to sort things out for us. Sort of.

It took soooooooo long to find us a flight that would get us to New Zealand without having to go through Fiji, and it involved Fiddledum as well as Fiddledee. We eventually got our vouchers for a really decent hotel, but did not get to bed before 2:30 am.

So now, we are set to leave on the 11:20 pm American flight to Auckland. Who knows where our luggage might be: Seattle, Los Angeles, Fiji or New Zealand?

Going On Another Trip

We are leaving for New Zealand in less than two weeks, on February 3, one day after Ground Hog’s Day, which would make it February 4 in New Zealand, but we actually arrive in Auckland on the 5th. It boggles the mind, at least mine. Not only will we miss a day, but, the night sky in the Southern Hemisphere will hold a moon that will be upside down. It makes me wonder if the Aussies and Kiwis have ever seen the man in the moon.

I must admit, that I’ve never been able to make out a man, but I have seen on numerous occasions a face, a female countenance that has a sour, disapproving expression directed at me. Sort of if she caught me smoking a cigarette or drinking an off brand of wine. Or pornography.

I digress.

This will not be the first time we visit New Zealand. In 2006 we took six weeks to explore the country in a beat up old rental car that had a faulty rear strut that caused the vehicle to moan in distress with every left turn. As hearty young (60s) folk, we camped in a tent that we’d purchased in Australia and could yet sleep on a leaky air mattress. We spent most of the time in the southern island, and have fond memories of our trip. The last week was a quick trip through the northern isle, but I got sick with a high fever and don’t remember much of that part.

We were heading toward Auckland to spend some time in a big city when I had to stop at a rest area and had a slight burning sensation in my back when I peed. A few miles down the road I started feeling realty shitty, and the next thing I remember was lying in bed in a pretty decent hostel. I had no idea how I got there, but I had a pain in my lower abdomen that seared up to my right side and then into my chest. I was shaking with fever. I was alert enough to know that I had a urinary tract infection. The next morning I somehow found a doctor who grudgingly agreed with my self diagnosis and wrote a prescription for an antibiotic. But our flight to China left before I recovered some of my wits.

Over the last few years we’ve been asked why we travel. “Why are you going to New Zealand,” a friend asked. “It’s such a long flight. Can’t you go someplace closer?”

Well, revealing my shallow nature, it might be because it is warmer in New Zealand than in Montana in February.  I am ready for a landscape that doesn’t include a winter wonderland.  But the weather isn’t the only reason, and it isn’t even the main purpose, although I must admit that some balmy sunshine is a nice bonus.

It can be a little difficult to explain why we are drawn away to unfamiliar places. Many people are apt to shake their heads with a bemused smile when we admit that we are, once more on our way to a foreign destination. There are even a few folks that say we are brave to go out of the country. Well, that’s a bunch of crap. It’s not like we are going to Syria or the Golan Heights.  This time we are going to one of the safest countries in the world. The worst part of the trip will be the long flight in the economy class. They won’t probably even feed us. The rumor is that we will be given bowls to go up and beg in business class.

Actually, one of the reasons we like to travel is to get a different look at our country from a different point of view. We’ve found that we as citizens of the US can be quite egocentric, and that many folks of other countries hardly give us a thought. Of course, these days with our leadership, how can we be ignored?

Although we don’t go out of our way to ignore popular tourist destinations, it usually is not our purpose to see the sights. Frequently we don’t even move around much once we arrive at a given destination. We tend to look for stories, not even big moving tales of heroism or tragedy. Just something about how people view life and what it means to be human. Humble wisdom is what we are looking for.

That and decent beer.

We wii let you know what we find.


Crappy Little Rodeo (part iii)

To be honest, some of us might not remember Tobin’s debut in the wild cow milking event during the Round Up, Pendleton’s annual rodeo. There were other activities that sometimes can interfere with recall. One might have been in the Let ‘Er Buck room, a closely guarded, but wide open secret, bar that is below the south grand stands where only hard liquor is served.

There is always a line to get into the Let “Er Buck room, and if one looks younger than 55, an ID is required. Purses are searched and anyone carrying a beer has to chug it or pour it out into a trash can. The aura of the crowd is such that most individuals will choose to gulp down their beer rather than bear the scorn of other patrons. Cash is not accepted at the bar, only overpriced chips available near the entrance. There seems to be no limit to the number of people who are admitted (the fire marshal is on vacation.)


There are signs posted that nudity is not tolerated. In spite of the warning, one is likely to see a woman riding on the shoulders of a red faced man with veins on his forehead that look like they are ready to burst. The woman, whose eyes seem unable to focus, has no shirt on.

Anyone who walks into this place should be forewarned, groping is not only common, but expected. And it ain’t men who are doing the groping. Well, in the modern era, there are a few males who can’t resist a young cowboy’s rear.

The air in the Let ‘Er Buck room is thick with fumes of booze, the temperature is jacked up from the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, and the noise makes conversation all but impossible. Amazingly, there are few troublemakers, everyone is pretty mellow. There are bouncers patrolling around the perimeter who are ready to grab the occasional hot head or warn someone to button a shirt or to put a tee shirt back on. Still, even with the best intentions, it is hard to avoid getting a little shit faced before squeezing out the door to go back to the rodeo.

Anyone who’s been in the Let ‘Er Buck room might be forgiven for having a hazy memory of the rodeo.

So, unlike later competition, Tobin’s initial entry into wild cow milking was witnessed from different parts of the grandstands. Sheila was on the west side above the Let ‘Er Buck Room which may have contributed to the floating quality of her video. Those of us around her could not help much as we were having difficulty identifying Tobin as from that distance all the muggers looked the same. Using a borrowed pair of binoculars we were able to pick out our son just as the starting gun went off and the cows went nuts.

Even as the ropers took off after the cows, it was difficult to follow the muggers. In the pandemonium everyone in the arena who wasn’t on a horse looked like they were lost as they ran in all directions.

“There he is!”someone yelled.

“Where?”somebody else asked.



“Who is Tobin?”

There was confusion in the stands as well as in the arena, but we finally spotted Tobin being yanked around by a big black cow as the roper attended to the lower rear of the frantic, angry beast. Within seconds Tobin’s partner was loping toward the judges with what appeared to be a test tube in hand. It looked like the partners might be in for a prize and Tobin sailed his hat high in the air as we cheered. In the end, they did not place, but Tobin showed himself to be a worthy competitor. In the future he would not have to work as hard to get a roper.

Not that every roper was necessarily an expert with a lariat. Some years the cowboy missed lassoing the cow at the last moment after Tobin had run the full length of the arena trying to catch up to the roper. Those moments left him exhausted and disappointed but not as much as the time when he and the cowboy had caught the cow early, only to discover that the roper had lost the milk container.

The years went by, and Tobin gained experience. He was paired with many different ropers with different levels of skill, but if the cowboy lassoed a cow, Tobin was likely to hang on long enough for a sample of milk, if at all available from the cow. They were frequently able to win a little money at times, but a buckle eluded Tobin. Plus, the competition was hard on his body, and he eventually was forced to have knee surgery.

The procedure was done last spring, and with intensive physical therapy Tobin was back chasing cowS in small rodeos by August, just practicing for the big one in Pendleton. When the Round Up came around, he was only scheduled for two days, Thursday and Saturday. By now, his cheering squad knew where to gather after the barrel racing was finished. We weren’t spread all over the grandstands any more, but knew that the best spot to watch was next to where the bucking events had taken place. There was always plenty of room in this prime area as the rodeo crowd thinned quickly before the wild cow milking.

Thursday’s wild cow milking event came and went without Tobin and his roper placing. But, Tobin was not discouraged. Saturday would be another chance.

We spotted Tobin almost immediately as he walked out on the grass without a trace of a limp. He waved his blue, heavy duty rubber gloves at us, his fan club and the official arena photographer noticed and took our picture with Tobin standing in front. No other mugger had a cheering section like Tobin.

The cows came rumbling into the arena followed by the gunshot that let the roper know that it was time to go to work. It seemed as if several minutes passed, although it turned out to be seconds, when the cow was lassoed and Tobin grabbed her around her massive neck. More time flew by as the roper jumped down and ran to the cow. Quickly he knelt down and was able to coax a little milk into the bottle, but as he ran toward the judges, it seemed as if a dozen other cowboy were going to arrive at the same time. It was impossible for us to see who got to the judges or in what order.

Tobin walked over to us, puffing and sweaty as is usually the case after the event is finished. He was pleased as it seemed that he and his roper came in third. And his knee felt great, much better than the past few years. Actually, his knee was so bad a few years ago, he reluctantly had to pass on an event. However, the Crappy Little Campers came up with with a suitable replacement. Mignon, Tobin’s sister, agreed that her fiancée, Traver, needed an initiation into the Crappy Little Camp as this would be his first time at the Round Up. He was given an opportunity to fill in for Tobin in the wild cow milking event. No pressure though.

Traver's 1st milking

Traver had never been around many animals except for the occasional cat or dog, certainly nothing like cows or horses. He was from Canada for Christ sake. Canadians are too polite to chase wild cows around an arena. But he is also a great sport, plus, as a boyfriend who was just joining this crowd for the first time, well, no pressure.

He was not really mugger material, not big enough to really handle a half ton of writhing anger, but he trotted out with the rest of the guys. Traver actually looked like he knew what he was doing, but it would probably have been better for him if the roper never caught a cow. As luck would have it, the cowboy lassoed one only minutes after the cattle entered the arena. Traver ran up and grabbed the rope, hoping to hold the nice bossy while the roper quietly sat down to milk her.

The next few minutes saw Traver being dragged through cow shit, grass and finally dirt at the edge of the field. One must give the lad credit for perseverance as he did not give up and continued to hang on to the rope. But the thick leather gloves did not have enough friction, and the rope slowly slipped through Traver’s hands. Eventually, the heat from the sliding rope actually burned through his glove. His hand not only suffered burns but the rope tore the skin away from his palm.


No buckle, but he has a very nice scar to remind him that wild cow milking is probably not his sport. He did survive his initiation into our Crappy Little Camp

Back at our camp this year, after a little food and a fair amount of booze, beer or wine (most of the adults managed to sample all three poisons in the course of an evening in camp or out on the town) someone grabbed a guitar and started singing. The hootenanny started. Scott Niesen had been gathering songs requested by members of the Crappy Little Camp and put them into a pretty glossy song book. Pretty soon there were several guitars, a couple of fiddles and a mandolin. To add a little pizazz to our rough sound, Quinn, our grandson, joined the group with his baritone saxophone.

Tobin came back from his session at the Let ‘Er Buck room where he replenished the fluids lost as he chased down a cow and held it in place for milking. It is rumored that he also may have stopped in a beer garden or two where he discussed strategy with fellow muggers. He was ready to keep the party going at the Crappy Little Camp as he grabbed his ukulele and joined in the rowdy music.

During a break, while we were arguing over the next song to play, Tobin’s cell phone rang. Nobody paid much attention until Tobin said something like, “Who is this? Where do you want me to go?”

All of us stopped yammering and started to listen to the phone conversation.

“What? I won? A buckle?”

He stood up and laughter rolled out of his very soul. “I won a buckle. I got first place. They want me to run down to the rodeo grounds to a presentation. I won, damn it, I won!”

The Crappy Little Camp roared with excitement and joy for Tobin. Our guy was a champion! Drinks all around.

The last part wasn’t the best idea as we all were too tipsy to follow Tobin down to the arena a distance of about a mile. But Traver stepped up to the task, and we watched with admiration as the two of them headed out into the night.

Later, much later, Tobin and Traver sort of slid back to join Tobin’s fan club. We were treated to an exhibition of the BUCKLE as well as another prize, almost as impressive. Tobin was also given a huge Pendleton wool blanket complete with the impressive Round Up logo.

Tobin won first place, but we, as members of the Crappy Little Campers and Tobin Fan Club received a prize as well. We were able to witness joy. It is unlikely we will ever see the joyous satisfaction in Tobin’s eyes and face as he called his family and brothers with the news: he won a Round Up Buckle.





Crappy Little Rodeo (part ii)

Milk Cow Blues

Keep in mind that a cow weighs about half a ton.

There is an event in the Pendleton Round-Up that isn’t included in most rodeos; and, in truth, it isn’t the most popular among even the Pendleton fans. Most folks don’t take it seriously, and it is the last event of the day. Many people decide to leave, maybe to get an early start in the Let ‘Er Buck Room, the infamous bar that only serves hard liquor below the south grandstands. But our group, that has become known as the “Crappy Little Campers,” gather as close as we can to the arena to watch our local hero.

The event is called “wild cow milking,” and although it provides a lot of laughs, the competitors take the doings quite seriously. After all, there is money involved, but even more (most) important a buckle can be won.

The competition goes like this: A roper, on a horse, is paired with a “mugger,” a man on the ground. There are usually about ten teams.  A cow is lassoed and the mugger grabs the animal around the neck and holds it while the roper drops down from his horse, squeezes a little milk into a small container, and runs it off to the judges. The first guy to bring in a sample of milk to the judges wins the buckle. Simple.

The cows are range cattle, a far cry from the docile bossy bred for a dairy farm. They are not used to being around humans other than an infrequent cowboy on a horse. The cows are skittish and can be aggressive, especially after calving. And, in this event, they have been separated from their babies. So they are especially pissed off.

The event starts with the ropers and muggers at one end of the rodeo grounds. At the other end the cattle, maybe about thirty cows, are driven into the arena, and as soon as they are free of the gates, a gun shot signals the start of the competition.

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The herd of cattle disperses in every direction, confused by the separation from their calves and panicked by the shot. They are further crazed by the sight of cowboys racing toward them ropes at the ready. It’s not easy for the ropers either as they get in each other’s way trying to get to a single cow. The cattle themselves unwittingly block what might be an easy target for a roper.

The muggers, at first, are only a bit less confused than the cows as they try to run toward wherever the ropers might be heading. These are large men, not used to moving fast, and they quickly start breathing hard. Their shirts start turning dark with sweat. A few of them, looking for their ropers or trying to avoid a charging cow, run into each other. To make matters worse, the announcer laughs at the spectacle below him.

A few of the cowboys manage to get a rope over some cows and attempt to hold their animals in place while the muggers struggle toward them. A mugger might grab the rope, inadvertently pulling it out of the ropers hands. Then it becomes a rodeo version of a Nantucket sleigh ride as the cow race around the area pulling the mugger off his feet and through a lot of cow shit.

A more experienced, or lucky mugger will not touch the rope but grab the cow around its neck. This is where a heavy man has the advantage as the cow will jerk its head around trying to get free of the mugger. A small man will be lifted off his feet and be carried off, leaving the roper alone deciding whether to give chase or to get back on his horse and ride away.

A mugger is not just holding the cow in place. He is actually trying to get a choke hold on the animal, similar to what some cops do to control a violent person instead of gassing, tasing or shooting him. The mugger tries to reduce the blood supply to the cow’s brain so that it will stop thrashing around long enough for the roper to grab an udder and squeeze out a bit of milk.

Well, that’s the plan, anyway. It turns out that it’s not that easy to choke a cow. As might be obvious, cattle have thick necks, much thicker than the average wacko who is out of control on meth. The oxygen carrying arteries deep within those tree-trunk-sized necks and having a man hanging on just seems to enrage the cows more. A few of the muggers fly into the air as if they’d been rag dolls. When they finally get up off the ground, they are likely to be butted into the air by a cow that has avoided being roped.

A few of the muggers manage to hang on and actually choke a cow into submission, but even then the plan can go awry. Sometimes the cow will actually faint and fall down and cover her udder with her massive body. Then the cowboy will have to try to roll the cow over on her side, a feat that is almost impossible as the cow’s muscles are flaccid. It’s like trying to roll a giant water balloon.

Another problem that makes milking a wild cow almost impossible is the stress that the animal is under. Milk does not flow easily when the cow is pissed off. A dairy hand does not get milk from a cow that is chased around the barn yard and then assaulted. [Although there are a few farmers who seem to think that is the only way to convince a cow to give milk.] A roper can lasso a cow and a mugger can choke her until she stands still, but after all that excitement, the milk sometimes will not come.

Eventually, the spectator will notice a cowboy sprinting toward the center of the arena toward the judges. At times there will be two of the ropers running, each trying to outrace the other to get his sample to the judges first. The judges have to be on the ball, not only to correctly identify who arrives first, but to see if there is actually milk in the container. Frequently a milker will, in the excitement, might be a bit over optimistic and think that he has something in the bottle when it is  actually empty.

For the past several years, our crowd, christened the “Crappy Little Camp,” have gathered at the Pendleton high school grounds and set up camp in the school parking lot. Our site usually contains a variety of camping trailers, motor homes, fifth wheel RVs, pickup campers and several tents. At times a few urban cowboys have slept under the open sky in pickup beds.


Our favorite event of the Round Up is the wild cow milking not so much for the pandemonium that is guaranteed but because we have a star in our midst who not only competes at the Pendleton rodeo, he mugs cows all over the Pacific Northwest. Although he is serious about the events in California, Oregon and Washington, those contests are just practice for the big one: the Pendleton Round Up.

He is our guy.

Tobin is our middle son and lives in Seattle with his wife Gladys and their three kids. He never lived on a ranch, nor can he ride a horse. But he grew up going to the Pendleton Round Up every year since he was a kid. The culture of the rodeo bit him and he wanted to be part of it. However, he couldn’t ride a horse and had no interest in learning. And, if he couldn’t ride a horse, he couldn’t imagine riding a bull.

Plus, he has a real job. He couldn’t really join the rodeo circuit and work in the high tech industry at the same time. He guessed that Gladys probably wouldn’t support the idea of him joining the Professional Rodeo Association. And, of course, he couldn’t ride a horse.

One summer, while Tobin was in his early forties, he came up with a way that he could be part of the rodeo: he could be a wild cow mugger. But he had to prepare for it. First, he needed to practice a little, get the feel of handling a rope and having something like a cow at the end of it.

He bought a rope and some leather gloves along with some ugly cowboy boots that are known as “ropers.” There was no fancy tooling on this style, no elevated heel that would keep a boot from slipping through a stirrup as he would not even be on a horse. He tied one end of the rope on a pickup and had his brother (or anyone else he could talk into the stunt) drive slowly while he pulled back, as if there was a cow pulling him forward.

Tobin gloves

Just a week before the Round Up, Tobin hooked up with a cowboy and talked him into being his roper. No doubt there was beer and whiskey involved in the discussion. As news spread among family and friends, the excitement (and some concern) grew exponentially. Attending the rodeo now went beyond the usual singin,’ drinkin,’ dancin,’ and carryin’ on. Yes, this behavior would continue, but now we had purpose. We had a star in our midst.

The day of Tobin’s debut, a Thursday, the weather was typical for Round Up, hot and dry. There was a little haze in the distance that was caused by a small wild fire some fifty miles to the west of Pendleton. Our crowd wandered into the stands at different times depending on our different interests. Some of us, those without hangovers, arrived at one fifteen to see the opening ceremonies where the rodeo princesses and rodeo queen are introduced as they gallop their horses at top speed and slam to a halt just before the grand stand. [This might have been the year that the court decided to ride in a daring manner with hands free of reins, hanging on to nothing. One of the horses stopped so suddenly that a princess was launched into the stands, sustaining four broken ribs and a sprained wrist. The crowd was pleased.]

Others in our lot came in later, during the bucking competitions, and a few waited until after the Indian dance and award ceremony when people can walk in without paying. But, most of us had tickets, and were assigned to different areas around the arena.

to be continued . . .

Crappy Little Rodeo (part 1)

The weather for Pendleton’s annual rodeo, the Round Up, was much cooler than usual with temperatures reaching only the low eighties this year. Nights were cool enough to require hoodies, jackets and booze (actually, alcohol is not really weather dependent during Round Up). Pendleton Whisky (yes, that is the way it is spelled) was generally the preferred spirit with our group, but there were other whiskeys, tequila, gin, vodka as well as beer to keep our group from becoming dehydrated. The phrase, “Let ‘Er Buck,” was not to be used exclusively by the rodeo participants.

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Folks come from all over the Northwest to enjoy the Wild West celebration that occurs the second full week of September every year, (we even met a few people from the Netherlands), and the rodeo probably increases the population of Pendleton by 50% during that period. This year there were even more people to crowd into the small city as there were approximately 2,000 cyclists who came to town as part of Cycle Oregon. It was not the first time that Cycle Oregon happened to camp in Pendleton during the Round Up, but this year it was much smoother.

A few years ago the bicyclists had to fend for themselves and set up their tents in a field next to the high school. The regular rodeo fans showed some resentment as they had to compete for the use of toilets and showers, and the cyclists did not appreciate the rough manners and hard drinking of the Let ‘Er Buck crowd. One of the female fans of the rodeo, a short, pretty blond from Burns went so far as to spurn the riding attire of the Cycle Oregon folks by stating loudly, “They saunter around here looking like a bunch of goddam aliens.”

Why would Cycle Oregon want to come Pendleton again?

This year the Pendleton Round Up Association joined with Cycle Oregon to create a more pleasant experience for the rodeo people as well as the bicycle folks. There was a carefully planned area for the cyclists to camp that included booths for vendors as well as food and drink, all quite separated from the rodeo campers. The Cycle Oregon experience also provided opportunities for their people to participate in Round Up activities including tickets to the rodeo itself. Everyone was all smiles.

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Most people are aware what goes on at a rodeo, and, for good reason, a lot of folks are offended by the events. One can look at the activities as down right cruel. Sure, the contestants are pitting themselves against large animals, and the possibility of a cowboy getting hurt or even killed definitely exists. Indeed, there is a certain excitement during bull riding, a little dark hope that the animal will chase down a cowboy or clown or, even better that the bull will escape the small, weakly fenced-in area and run out into the crowd. Great stuff!

However, there is the argument that while the cowboy is brave (or foolish), he voluntarily gets on the back of the huge beast. The bull, or for that matter, any of the other animals in the other events, has no choice in the matter. They are conscripted into service. No wonder the bulls are so pissed off.

The most dangerous events for the human contestants are the bull and bronc riding events, but the scariest for the animals are the calf and steer roping contests. It is not unusual to witness animals get knocked unconscious as they are jerked to a halt by a lasso attached to the saddle horn of a horse that is trained to stop on a time as soon as the rope is tossed. It is small wonder why PETA objects to the concept of rodeo.

Still, the rodeo is part of western culture. It has been around for centuries and the events reflect the necessary skills that are still used on cattle ranches all over the two American continents. Rodeo has also grown to be big-time urban entertainment with contests in every large city west of the Mississippi. Especially professional bull riding (PBR) which is staged with the same aggressive flare as huge rock concerts or other big time professional sports. PBR events are complete with loud music and exploding flash bombs.

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My own experience with rodeo is colored with a bit of memory and falling in love. In western Iowa, where I grew up, there were farms, not ranches. There were real cowboys just across the Missouri River in Nebraska and in South Dakota, states not one hundred miles away. There were big rodeos in those areas and a little of the fever leaked back to the towns around where I grew up near Sioux City.

Being a farm boy, back then in the middle of the last century, I was comfortable being around animals, but I admit there was a certain callousness about the treatment of livestock. It wasn’t that we were deliberately cruel to animals (although there were some farmers, like my grandfather, who seemed to have the impression that his mules, horses and even dogs were deliberately plotting against him). It was more that as a matter of course of running a farm, we did not give a lot of thought about how a pig or a cow might feel.

So when a rodeo came to town, the excitement of seeing real cowboys in competition overrode whatever pain might be inflicted on the stock. And of course, any crappy little rodeo that we had, was in the most part a collection of inexperienced amateurs and burnt out cowboys at the end of whatever career they might have had in the arena. Even the rodeo grounds were a ramshackle mess of old wooden gates held together with bailing wire and twine. The stands were built from splintery boards that were pulled from collapsed barns in the area. Most of the structures had to be rebuilt every time a rodeo event managed to be put together. To many of the farmers the rodeo was mostly a comedy of watching the animal win. It also gave a few of them bragging rights for a few months about spending a few seconds on a bucking horse or bull.

After I left home, I gave little thought to rodeos or western culture. When anyone brought up the subject of rodeo, it was usually a negative comment regarding the cruelty involved, and I, without much reflection, generally agreed. The conversation would soon move on in a different direction. After all, we were urban people and really did not have a lot to say about cowboys other than to make fun of country western lyrics.

Then, almost fifty years since I had been to a little rodeo in Iowa, I became smitten with a woman who grew up with rodeo. Sheila started going to the Pendleton Round Up when she was a little girl with her dad, and she brought her kids every year. Her children brought theirs.

I fell for this freckle-faced redhead with her western drawl. My heart melted when I heard her say “cayish” for cash. Or “kaowboy” for cowboy.  How could I resist when she invited me to the Round Up? I bought my first cowboy boots since I was a teenager. I bought a cowboy hat. I went to the rodeo.

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The Pendleton Round Up is a big rodeo and compares to the Calgary Stampede, Cheyenne Frontier Days and others that offer big prizes and prestige to winners. The cash winnings are impressive and can amount to millions of dollars over a season of rodeo. But for many of the contestants, the money is secondary to the honor of winning over so many other talented competitors. There are material symbols to championship: saddles, blankets, ribbons, booze and photos with rodeo queens and her courts. But perhaps the biggest and mostly sought after trophy is the belt buckle. All the other awards are nice to have to display in a trophy case, but the buckle is something the cowboy can wear every time he puts on his jeans.

The most popular rodeo events to watch are probably the bucking competitions, but the other events demonstrate different kinds of skills. The roping events show an amazing coordination and cooperation between humans and horses that require lightning quick responses of both. In steer roping, for example, once the rope has been tossed over the horns of the steer, the cowboy completely depends on the horse to do its job without human direction as the rider jumps off to do his.

Barrel Racing is another, perhaps more poetic demonstration of coordination between a woman and her horse. The rare event that allows only women competitors is a race against time where the rider with her horse must successfully circle three barrels (one on each side of the arena, and one at the opposite end from the start), and then race back to the starting line.

There is one other event that is widely unknown, uncelebrated and frequently is not even part of many rodeos: wild cow milking. This event and the highlight of one of its winners will be subject of the next installment.


Black Horse Campground

The campground around us seemed almost empty with a few campers in tents far from our site. This morning, however, we heard the lonely sound of a horn that came from somewhere in the woods. The notes seemed to be perfect and blended in with the soul of the green forest and the song of the river. Later, after dark we heard the sound again, and we discovered that the musician was just a hundred yards away in the next campsite. He told us that he used to be a French Horn player with a Los Angeles symphony and became discouraged with his career. He later moved to the Northwest and became a wood worker where he created his own Alp Horn. 

I casually mentioned that I used to play a trumpet in my high school in an effort to impress the man as being a fellow musician. He handed me the instrument’s mouth to examine. It was made of wood and closely resembled the mouth piece of trumpets, trombones, and other brass instruments. Unfortunately, my hint didn’t have the intended result, and I was not invited to try the big, wooden horn.

After we returned from the Alpenhorn camp, as our own fire was dying, Sheila played a few Irish airs, also appropriate for this kind of wilderness. Two mule deer appeared just across the road from our camp, only a few yards away ears pitched forward as if trying to understand the music drifting toward them like a mystery. After a few minutes the deer went back to grazing on the grass and slowly sauntered away.

This was the place we were looking for.


What We Did This Summer


We cleverly decided to visit the Midwest during the warmest part of the year, August, for reasons that, at the moment, escape me. For the first two weeks we got away with exceptionally unusual nice weather. Iowa and Nebraska had always looked brown and dry, with air that baked one’s brains. This year everything was gloriously green and cool. We became complacent and paid for our naïveté’ soon after we left Wisconsin and entered Minnesota. Every day the temperature shot up higher. The eighties in Wisconsin became nineties in Minnesota, and in North Dakota the thermometer indicated temperatures over 100. 

It was mid afternoon, around three o’clock when we reached Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, and the temperature had reached 107. Just outside of town we noticed that there is a state park that has a large lake after which the town is named. We were hoping that an evening breeze off the water might cool the campsites down a bit. Before pulling our trailer out to the park, we decided that we would buy some fresh lettuce, tomatoes and sweet corn for dinner along with some hamburger to cook on a grill.

We skipped the chain supermarket on the outskirts of town, deciding that we wanted to support a local grocery store. The GPS indicated a store well away from the Interstate, but it had not counted on the massive construction project that blocked several streets on the way. We were diverted by several detours on the way and by the time we were getting close to our destination, the GPS was getting downright abusive with her “Recalculating route.” One could hear the undertone, “Get it right, dumb shit.”

It was disappointing that the grocery store was just another chain that sold everything either wrapped in plastic, frozen, or canned. Plus, considering all the cornfields that we’d passed, there was no sweet corn. But Sheila had noticed a small place on a corner that had a sign that indicated that it had local produce. 

The local market was not far from the supermarket, but there was no direct route because of the street construction. Nevertheless we did not have to put up with sarcastic remarks and insults from the GPS and were allowed to make our way in peace. 

The market was a cute little wooden structure with a flower garden on the side. We were cheerfully greeted by a young American Indian woman as we entered. However, it became immediately obvious that the main fresh products were pots of flowers, not vegetables. She had some potatoes and beets, but no tomatoes. Corn might be coming in a couple of days.

Ok. We decided to pick something up at the chain mega grocery near the freeway. Still no ears of sweet corn. The lettuce was Dole, the hamburger was plastic wrapped, and the tomatoes were fresh —— from Canada.

Devil’s Lake, the body of water, not the town, is the largest lake in North Dakota and is growing.  Got something to do with climate warming I think. There are a large number of dead trees on the periphery of lake, standing in the water. It is a great place for buzzards to hang out and makes for a spooky sight. A state park occupies a large corner of the lake and wild land around  it. The place is renowned for its fishing.


The ranger wanted to know if we wanted to camp by the water, and, if so, there were very few sites left as the place was filling up with boats and fishermen. There were a few places by some trees that looked good to us, but I asked about mosquitoes. She replied that we shouldn’t worry about mosquitoes, but flies.

She was right. It’s difficult to guess why there were so many flies, but they didn’t bite, just seemed to like us, especially our eyes and ears. 

Sheila checked her WWW resources the next morning and found that there was a coffee shop in the town and also had baked goods. Not wanting to have breakfast with the flies, we drove back into Devil’s Lake and dodged the construction to check the shop out. It was then that we noticed how poor the residents seemed to be. People seemed to be wondering around aimlessly at 7:30 in the morning or sitting on concrete curbs smoking. The place looked dismal and hopeless, but there was a bright spot. There was a bar that opened at eight a.m., and there was a man who was standing, waiting for the door to be unlocked. A sign indicated that it would open at 8:00 in the morning and it did not close until 7:00 a.m. 


Next: Endless fields of hay, soybeans and corn. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?