One day a year, usually in late February, the bumper-to-bumper pickup trucks and SUVs that clog major Houston streets are joined by covered wagons and riders on horseback. They come from all over the state—Corpus Christi, Amarillo, San Angelo, El Paso. Some of their drivers have taken a full month off their jobs as dentists or lawyers to travel in bands of cardboard cowboys, grown men and women playing dress-up. They have the beat-up, patched-up clothes, the animate mode of transportation, and the nonchalant swagger down as they inch East up Memorial Dr. then South through the medical center, frustrating afternoon commuters. This is the trail ride—an event in and of itself, yes, but merely the starting gun for something much bigger: the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. This rather grandiose name suggests something of great scope and spectacle. It promises music and dancing, fireworks and dust, mud and media. The rodeo doesn’t disappoint.
Rodeo themes begin to creep into everyday life long before the trail riders reach Houston. Middle schools hold essay contests; elementary schools, art contests. Students across the city bend their pens towards themes of nineteenth-century Texas Rangers and how the rise of barbed wire fences ended the cattle drive, or their crayons towards cacti and the Comanche tribes. Children learn square dancing and the story of the Alamo. There’s even a “Go Texan Day,” on which Houstonians don their most Western apparel. During rodeo itself, the Houston Chronicle dedicates a daily two-page spread to competition standings. The whole city gets into the excitement. Eleven months out of the year, Houston claims to be cosmopolitan, but in the three weeks of rodeo, it is proudly, stubbornly, fiercely Texan.
If you attend the rodeo, once you have braved the inevitable traffic jam (the more mundane variety this time—all Volkswagens and no covered wagons), you’ll work your way inward, attraction by attraction, to the heart of the rodeo. The midway, which flanks the parking lots, seems to have sprung up overnight. It’s full of gangly contraptions of dubious integrity, which in turn are full of gangly teenagers of dubious integrity. Gaggles of preteen girls wander the carnival, their checkered shirts freshly knotted just below the bra line. Couples caress in an attitude that suggests an experiment with superglue gone horribly awry. Fathers shepherd young children who happily brandish enormous stuffed animals, prizes won (after several costly tries) from the ball-throw booth or the dart booth or the basketball booth. Women with moussed-up hair, push-up bras, and high-heeled boots dangle on the arms of men with cowboy hats and grossly large, necessarily silver belt buckles. It often takes a second glance to realize that these are the same people you see at the grocery store on Sundays.
The livestock show, though a somewhat less seedy environment, nonetheless has all the ambience of a giant hamster cage. The odor of manure and wood shavings assaults your nostrils immediately upon entrance. Kids from the 4-H club show guinea pigs and rabbits while proud owners blow-dry the disturbingly glossy coats of prize-winning steers. Exhibits celebrate meat and meat-related products. Businessmen sample Emu sausage (made from Texas-raised emus, of course). Suburban kids (whose idea of “roughing it” is having to sit in the back of the Lexus) milk cows and watch chickens hatch.
Many families set their whole day aside for the rodeo. They come a few hours early, do the midway, catch a pig race, check out the livestock, and eat dinner before the start of the show. The rodeo fare–barbeque, sausage on a stick, turkey legs–is decidedly carnivorous. Even the baked potatoes are stuffed with brisket. For the health-conscious, funnel cakes, those finger-burning confections of fried batter and powdered sugar, are among the best options.
The main events of the rodeo—tie-down roping, steer wrestling, team roping, barrel racing, bareback bronc riding, bull riding, and saddle bronc riding—take place in the Astrodome, Houston’s favorite white elephant. The first four events are classified as “timed” events. In tie-down roping, for instance, a steer is sent running from the metal corral. Then a few seconds later, the cowboy bolts out and sends his rope whistling across the arena, hoping to catch the steer by the neck. If he does, he leaps from the horse and rushes to the steer’s side to wind the rope around all four of its legs, finishing the knot by triumphantly throwing his hands in the air. Barrel racing is the tamest event and by many accounts the most boring. It is also the only event that features cowgirls. The last three are “roughstock” events. In these, the cowboy, holding on with only one hand, must flop around like a rag doll on a decidedly annoyed behemoth for eight seconds in order to receive a score. Twenty-five of the hundred points are based on the feistiness of the animal; the other seventy-five, on the cowboy’s technique. Roughstock events are favorites in the “hard luck awards” given on the last night of the rodeo. The audience watches clips of cowboys being thrown from animals, kicked, gored, chased, and so on and so forth, and applauds the best (or worst, if you’re the cowboy) thrashing. Rodeo is the Roman coliseum with cowboy hats.
Of course the crowd just loves it. The cheering starts from the moment the first blonde beauty rides out waving a Texas flag at the opening ceremonies and carries on into garbled renditions of the Texas pledge of allegiance and “Texas, our Texas.” By then, Texas pride has already manifested itself in mass consumption of locally brewed beer. Southern drawls thicken. “Y’all” is promoted from commonly condoned mistake to commonly embraced idiom. A middle-aged couple who moved three weeks ago from Minnesota screams “Yee-haw!”
There are families who buy tickets to every single show and attend the rodeo every night for three weeks. By the end, they sweat barbeque sauce. Then, there are families who come once a year, but try desperately to look the part. They trade in their khakis and polos for full western regalia—embroidered jeans, checkered shirts, big belt buckles, boots, spurs, chaps, hats, bandanas. Their smooth, un-callused hands hold lassos. They haven’t the first clue how to use lassos. Then there is the occasional out-of-place straggler, the person who doesn’t really know what he’s getting himself into when he takes one of the ten thousand seats in the arena. He struggles to conform, even slipping in the occasional “fixin’ ter” or “y’all.” Little does he know that the accent he mimics is an annual phenomenon.
The truth is, this is as Texan as Houstonians get. There isn’t all that much state loyalty in the other forty-nine weeks of the year, aside from a handful of slogans—don’t mess with, everything’s bigger in, etc. Most of the year, you could mistake Houston for St. Louis or Phoenix–any large city, really. There’s just something about the rodeo that makes people squeeze themselves into clichés, sometimes leaving behind other arenas of their lives. Green party members don’t boycott the rodeo’s animal cruelty and meat obsession; they just put on faux-leather cowboy boots and join the fun. The crowd overlooks the fact that most of the cowboys competing are not actually Texans. Some are even—gasp—Canadian. Rodeo is the only time you’ll see red dust lining the creases in your face that in Houston are usually reserved for smog. For three weeks out of the year, everything is Texan. And if it’s not Texan enough already, all you have to do is paint it red, white, and blue and slap a star on it.