2019 St. Paul Rodeo: First impressions
The St. Paul Rodeo blends the old and new while leaning toward the former. When I pulled in to park among pickup trucks and convertibles on the first day of the rodeo July 2, a man on a horse guided me to an open spot in the gravel.
I'll admit, unlike the idiom dictates, this was my first rodeo. I got out of my car and breathed in the aroma of hay and horse dung, which has only ever been faint when I've been driving through or working in the Newberg-St. Paul area. It was much, much stronger on this day.
I may be a city boy from Beaverton, but I can handle the sight and smell of fly-covered landmines left behind by livestock. Just step around them and don't let it ruin your dinner.
I had complimentary build-your-own soft tacos from the hospitality tent. In line, I heard a cowboy expound to his friend about his drunken exploits from the night before, and how he was tired of his wife's criticism. A few folks back in line, an elderly man spoke to a separate pair of cowboys about how he's been coming to the rodeo for decades.
The tacos were all right and I'll avoid the sports writer's tendency to complain about free food. It was free and I was hungry.
Stepping out of the hospitality tent and through a gathering of trailers, another big tent awaited with the sound of slam poetry echoing from it – an admittedly surprising but exciting thing to hear. Stepping inside, the full breadth of the Wild West Art Show was on display and at the center of it a moustached man in a cowboy hat waxed poetic about growing up on his father's ranch.
"Thankful for my father's sacrifice," I remember him saying. "And for the harvest to come."
The horseshoe-shaped route through the art show takes one through history and into the creative minds of people who have lived an uncommon life. Everything inside is a shrine to the truths and myths of the American cowboy, and a nod to rural life and the animals that are the lifeblood of it.
Captivating paintings of wild horses were hung across from a glowing, neon sign featuring a scantily clad cowgirl – and on sale below her were a pair of snakeskin boots with flaming skulls across the front.
The slam poetry became music – played by a new batch of cowboys – as I moseyed out of the art show and back toward the masses. Not 60 seconds later, I passed a cardboard cutout of President Donald Trump in front of an aspiring congressional candidate's booth, and on his table a handful of "Make America Great Again" hats were on sale.
Winding around the rodeo arena, everything opened up into lines of vendors backed by the carnival rides on the midway. Cowboy hats and boots were on sale next to frozen yogurt and elephant ears. As expected, pretty much every fried food one can imagine was there.
I bought some fried Oreo cookies from a middle-aged, tattooed vendor and his teen daughter, both of whom had plenty of fun assembling the whipped cream and chocolate sauce-doused concoction. It was decadent and leaning up against the railing outside the arena I met some other patrons.
The first was Tiffany Hatton, a mother of three from Portland who brought along her young kids and her elderly parents. It was everyone in the family's first time at the rodeo and she said it was "awesome" so far.
"We've been saying we wanted to come out throughout the years and it's never happened," she said. "We finally got around to doing it and we're thankful we did. This is so much fun."
Hatton's mom said she rode horses growing up, but nobody else in the family watches rodeo on TV or has much interest in it. The variety of experiences at the rodeo, she said, is what drew her and her family to it in the first place.
"There's a little bit of something for everybody," she said. "There are rides for the kiddos, teenagers have stuff to do and the adults have the bar and drinks and whatnot."
Leaning against the same railing about 20 feet away was Lafayette resident Troy Thornton – a biker with a sleeveless, denim jacket, bandana and ZZ Top beard. He was there with his wife and friends and they all arrived to the rodeo on motorcycles.
Thornton, 54, was born in Newberg and has been coming to the St. Paul Rodeo since he was a kid. The prestige of the rodeo and the fun things to do around it are what keeps him coming back … so do the memories.
"The food, the rodeo, the fireworks are all fantastic," he said. "My earliest memories are coming to this rodeo with my parents. We'd go just about every year as a family."
About five years ago, Thornton and his younger brother brought their mom to the rodeo for the final time before she passed away. His brother died in February, but the memories they shared at the rodeo will always be special.
Now, Thornton shares them with his friends, wife, kids and grandkids. He said he will keep coming every year, too.
Passing through the extended line of vendors and beyond the participants' entrance into the arena, I found myself staring directly at a large, red bull in a pen. He was among other bovine athletes preparing for another day of action.
Work seems easy for these guys. They deal with an annoying human on their backs for eight seconds or less at a time, and then they get to eat and vacation around the country. Sure, it'd be easy for someone on the outside to say these animals deserve to run free, but they seemed happy enough.
Finally, after making a full loop, it was time to take in the show. Stepping into the arena for the first time, the rodeo comes to life in ways it can't when you're meandering around the outside. Cowboys tended to their equipment, horses packed into stables beneath the press box and teens rode their horses casually around the dirt in the center. Some of them were even texting and riding (texting and horsing?) while the show fast approached.
A pregame prayer and national anthem later, the rodeo began with bareback riding. It's as simple as rodeo events get: A cowboy, a horse and a score. The focus and intensity on the faces of those tending to the bucking chutes underscored the danger of the sport, and it made sense. One wrong kick or stomp and paramedics would definitely be needed.
They almost were at one point, when a cowboy's hand got caught in the ropes and he hung to the horse's side, wildly flailing about while people came to his aid. Thankfully, he didn't appear to be seriously injured and the event moved to steer wrestling.
I worried about another potential accident when the bulls entered the chutes, but it was more exciting than dangerous on this night. Bull riding is the only rodeo sport I'd actually watched on TV before, and the raw power of the animals combined with the dexterity and athleticism of the cowboys made for an even greater spectacle in person.
The bulls went 10-0 on the first night, too, which was awesome.
After tie down roping, a halftime of sorts came in the form of Jessica Blaire Fowlkes and her roman riding performance. She stood, one foot on two separate horses, and jumped over a flaming hurdle, along with clearing the arena's famous arborvitaes.
The roman riding was fun to watch, but nowhere near as absurd as wild cow milking, which saw two men chase a cow around the arena and try to retrieve as much milk from it as possible in an allotted time. Kids laughed, their parents did too, and plenty of applause was in order when it was all over.
Saddle bronc riding, team roping and barrel racing rounded out the remaining events until it was dark enough for the fireworks show, which dazzled the crowd mere days from the Fourth of July. With each passing day, the crowds grew larger than the sparse one on the first night, and ballooned to complete sellouts for the rest of the week.
When I was walking out of the arena among the chatter of fans, I wasn't looking down and stepped in horse dung. At first it felt like some kind of twisted initiation, but it dawned on me that it's not really a trip to the rodeo unless you take a little piece of it home with you.
For me, that wasn't a piece of art or a cowboy hat, but rather something that needed a hose to get off. And I was fine with that.