Rodeo is an event to be taken seriously in St. Paul
I can't find directions to St. Paul on the St. Paul Rodeo Web site. I get lost and have to turn around in Salem. The sun is near the horizon as we pull into town.
The parking lot attendant has a beer in his hand. He and his buddy and two good-looking cowgirls are hanging out by a row of portable toilets, collecting $5 per car to park in a grassy field that adjoins the cemetery.
Naturally, in a town this small, everything is close together. Every Fourth of July weekend, the place becomes a midway and parking lot for the event that defines its identity year-round. Try a quick game of word association: Bucking? Bronco. Smokeless? Tobacco. St. Paul? Rodeo.
A carnival is wedged in between the trees of the park, and stretches all the way to the grain silo. The merry-go-round plays country music. One lucky family's home, an old farmhouse, is right across the street from the screams and flashing lights of the Scrambler. No noise complaints here - they've taken it well in stride, hosting a barbecue on the back lawn, and letting their kin pitch tents in the front yard.
To enter the arena, we walk underneath the bleachers, where concession stands lurk in the shadows. It's dark and muggy, and stripes of light slant down from overhead. If you look up, you can see the soles of people's shoes, but looking up isn't such a good idea, since anything dropped or spilled up there would hit you in the eye. The beer selection is somewhat limited. If you don't like Coors, there's Coors Light. And if you don't like Coors Light, well, there's always Coors.
The arena could hold St. Paul's entire population many times over. We find our seats, marked by parallel lines painted on a wooden bench. Down below us, there's a man riding a bull - but not for long. It's well-nigh impossible to remain on the back of an angry bull, even for a professional cowboy whose entire life is dedicated to the attempt.
What's really amazing is that they aren't immediately trampled to death when they fall off. They roll inches from flailing hooves and horns, and right in there with them are a couple of rodeo clowns and two men on horseback whose job it is to rope the bulls and get them back into the corrals.
The bulls are tremendous creatures - imagine an extremely agile rhinoceros. One after another, they dump their riders in the dirt. One of them, a big black monster, goes down on his haunches. The rider hangs on. The bull jumps up again, and bucks the cowboy off. But there's something wrong with the animal - he wobbles, and his rear legs buckle. He gets up and weaves across the arena, on the verge of collapse, and falls again, as he's being roped.
It's alarming to see something that big fall. Folks in the bleachers are concerned. The scene is made worse by the announcers, who instead of providing an explanation, are attempting to distract the crowd. They're making jokes: 'How early did you start drinking today?' At last they pull the bull to his feet and haul him away.
Danger - for people and animals - is a big part of the rodeo. The man sitting next to me, spitting tobacco juice into a cup, is an emergency medical technician who is frequently on the ambulance crew for this rodeo. The most dangerous events, he says, are the most chaotic ones: the wild cow milking and the wild horse roping. 'Work hard, play hard,' he says.
The potential for chaos sets a rodeo apart from other spectacles and sporting events. So does its grounding in western history. Roping calves and catching runaway horses are contests here, but they're also the job skills required of a real live cowboy.
St. Paul has been hosting a rodeo for 70 years, although in the early days, I doubt that 'Sweet Home Alabama' came blasting out of the speakers as a horse burst out of the chute. Each rider gets his own theme song, although in most cases, the ride is so short that it's more like 'Name That Tune.' We see junior bull riders (on baby bulls!) There's a harrowing chuck wagon race in which a wagon sponsored by Jim Beam loses its rear axle, and there's barrel racing, the only women's event.
Then the lights go out, and the fireworks start. We file onto the soft dirt floor of the stadium to watch. It's all as American as the Fourth of July.
There are rodeos around the state during the rest of the summer, including but not limited to the Elgin Stampede (July 7 through July 9, www.all-oregon/rodeo.htm, the Chief Joseph Days rodeo in Joseph - July 26 through July 29, www.chiefjosephdays.com - and, of course, the 96-year-old Pendleton Roundup - Sept. 13 through Sept. 16, www.pendletonroundup.com. I know, I know - since when did rodeos have Web sites, anyway?