words LUCY OHLSEN
For the past few weeks, cowgirls have been trouncing around the electrodes of my mind, sparking a weird little fire of dust-loving ballsiness in my heart. It started with a blazing read through Tom Robbins’ “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” – a perfect transition from a Eugenian lifestyle and mindset into the back-wrenching, masculinity-embracing world of modern ranch life.
Next came a short rendezvous to my gritty old hometown, Santa Fe. Nothing about the scorching sun, beet red sunsets, and drier than rice cakes air was different, but all of a sudden, I wanted to pull on my boots, get out a lasso, and round up some cattle.
The organic, sweat-powered life of a cowgirl kept calling me upon my return to the mighty wetness of the duck-happy northwest, demanding some sort of leave from all this taxing higher education.
So I scurried over to Lynda Lanker’s cowgirl exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer. Lanker painted, drew, interviewed, photographed, and egg-tempera-ed 49 Western women who have kept the ranching life more than just a metaphorical allegory for Americans. If you haven’t seen it, the exhibit is still up.
With an embarrassing proliferation of Luke Bryan and the likes on my iPod, my cowgirl blood kept coursing, and somehow I got psyched about something I never thought I’d get psyched about: the Eugene Pro Rodeo.
Boots on, jaws ferociously chomping a big wad of gum, I felt like I entered a different world as soon as my heels hit the manure-punctuated earth. The rodeo grounds teemed with Levi hugged butts, sunburned white skin, and boots from all sorts of different walks of life.
I am hopeless at actually giving an account of the rodeo action, but you only really follow that if you’re directly connected to the circuit life. I can’t imagine how the drive of these cowboys and cowgirls is sustained through the bucking series of heroic successes and blatant and embarrassing failures that haunt any pro rodeo competitor. To enter in any event, they have to fork over a hefty cash entry fee, and the only way they ever make a profit is if they win. And that fate is at least half directed by the moods of temperamental animals.
Jody Hale, a cowgirl with a beat up black hat balanced atop a head of gleaming mahogany hair, waits with her horse to compete in the barrel-racing event. Hale admits that you’re pretty much shit outta luck if you don’t win. “Luckily, we won a couple times this year,” she says. “It’s a team effect. If he doesn’t do his job and I don’t do my job, then we have nothing.”
Though Jody’s only partner-in-crime at the rodeo is her horse, she’s also a mom. “Our circuit goes from May to September,” she says,“ so sometimes its really hard to be away. Jody has traveled as far as Texas and Cheyenne to compete, but now says its more important to stay close to home. She says her kids aren’t in to rodeo, but “motorcycles, four-wheelers and all that fun stuff.”
Jody and her horse didn’t win big on Saturday night, but neither did anyone else. The whole event got postponed due to some fault of the dirt in the ring. So there’s always that sort of frustration to cope with as well as the fleeting 8-second chance to prove your talents astride a tickle-strapped animal.
Between bareback riding, bull riding, steer wrestling and other events I found myself half cringing, half cheering for the affected animal, and somehow still staring unabated at the men in chaps, mouth agape at the astoundingly stupid-looking endeavors. On Saturday, one saddle bronc rider was thrown in to the stands, one dislocated his knee, and almost all walked out of the ring with visible limps. On the other hand, the ones who put on the more impressive shows walked with a lot of swagger in their pained steps, so perhaps, to some, it’s worth it.
I prefer my cowgirl life centered mostly around wearing boots and petting cows, since I don’t really see myself getting a big ranch to tend any time in the future. The rodeo tamed my Wild West heart’s pangs, because it revealed that in this life, in this era, being a cowgirl seems to usually mean perfecting the ability to ride with a flag sporting the Levi’s logo across some manufactured dirt. Rodeo requires talented individuals, yes, and not all rodeo competitors are in it just for competition. But, it’s hard to take events that are teensy replicas of actions that originated in order to secure a family’s dinner. Why on earth would you intentionally get an animal to buck, and then try to ride it as it laughs itself silly (the horses buck because of “tickle straps” that go around their middles)?
I’m obviously not an aspiring rodeo queen any longer, but I’m still enamored with thoughts of sitting on a hay bale and herding cattle from atop an amber-maned beauty. The rodeo was entertaining, and the characters I met had stories that earned the culture that perpetuates it my respect. But that off-growth of real country living wasn’t quite enough to quench my parched, twanging, open-skies longing spirit.