Rodeo as Twilight Zone
By Daniel Rigney
As an urbanite with a curious streak, I'm venturing once again into what is, for me, a cultural twilight zone. I'm boarding the southbound light rail at Dryden Station this evening with a tinge of trepidation. My daunting destination: RodeoHouston.
I step off the train and walk past security (no gun check) onto the vast rodeo grounds, surrounded by what I imagine to be a mix of small town folk, suburbanites, and perhaps even a few real cowboys and cowgirls. Many in the crowd, though, are probably urban tenderfeet like me.
I overhear one guy say that he hasn’t worn his cowboy boots in three years. Another says he bought his rodeo outfit earlier this week just for this occasion.
The event in question seems to be mainly about mastering the beast -- roping, corraling, riding, wrestling, and ultimately eating farm animals in the multitude of food booths at the heart of the rodeo grounds.
RodeoHouston, once known as the Houston Fat Stock Show and Rodeo, is a friendly and high-spirited celebration of the human domination of domesticated animals. I’m strangely intrigued by this festival of divinely-ordained bestial dominion (Genesis 1: 26-7).
If the God of Genesis is here with us tonight, I gather He’ll be looking out for the cowboys, and maybe for the cowgirls too if He’s gender neutral these days. It looks like the poor beasts are going to have to fend for themselves without benefit of divine favor.
To me, there’s something disingenuous about the very concept of a Houston rodeo. The truth is that historically, Houston and cowboys have never had much to do with each other.
Houston was from its beginnings a Southern lumber and cotton town, shipping goods by barge and later by rail. All of this changed in 1901, when the Spindletop oil gusher blew in near my hometown of Beaumont.
After that, Houston was all about refining and shipping oil. It was never really about cattle. One would have had to travel westward to Ft. Worth or San Antonio to find an honest cowtown.
Historical truth has not prevented Houston’s elite from putting on one of the biggest and best rodeos in the country every late winter, when the weather is mild and the beasts are wild.
While Houston has one of the biggest rodeos in the country, it has to ship most of its cowboys in from the west, much as it ships its ballet and opera in from the east. It costs a lot of money to buy authenticity, and luckily, Houston’s elite has plenty of money with which to import both cowboys and ballerinas.
But I’m not here to criticize Houston’s ruling class. I’m here to witness a celebration of our dominion over farm animals.
Today is the opening day of the rodeo. I'm here at the concourse of Reliant Stadium, the rodeo’s venue, normally a football colosseum where the Houston Texans’ gladiators play passable NFL corporate football in the fall.
Reliant is the same stadium in which Governor Rick Perry hosted me and 30,000 others in a (non)political prayer rally last August. (You may know Perry as the father of the Perry Probe, the state-mandated but medically unnecessary sonogram dildo that will forcibly invade -- some would say rape -- the nether regions of countless thousands of abortion-contemplating Texas women. Perry is also known as a profoundly inarticulate politician and a failed presidential hopeful.)
I’m struck by the fact that this cavernous stadium, devoted just months ago to a (non)political prayer rally, has since been reborn as a gridiron, and is now born again as an animal domination festival. What will it be next? An antique car show? A rock concert? A traveling circus?
I’m intrigued that public spaces such as stadiums and convention centers can be utterly transformed as if by magic to accommodate a multitude of alternate cultural worlds. Like twilight zones, these spaces can morph from one cultural milieu into another virtually overnight. Today’s rodeo venue has been completely reconfigured since its incarnation as a fundamentalist tent revival last August. A sacred space has been turned mystically and literally into a gigantic bullshit receptacle.
I've witnessed similar transfigurations at Houston’s main convention center downtown, where a gun and knife show magically becomes a bridal extravaganza. An India-fest becomes a quilting show. A hurricane preparedness exposition becomes a giant art gallery. A cat show becomes a trade exhibition promoting the lucrative fracking of carbon-based fuels.
Arenas and convention centers, like ladies of the night, seem to ask “Who do you want me to be?” – and then radically transform their ephemeral identities for clients who can pay the right price for their versatile services.
Tonight Houston wants Reliant Stadium to be a rodeo. I arrive by Metro for just $1.25 and pay another $10 for the least expensive seat in the house, which turns out to be a vertiginous perch in the nosebleed section of the stadium, up where the eagles fly. I’m in no hurry to get to the arena itself. There’s much carnival food and livestock to enjoy on the way to my sky chair.
First to the food. The rodeo is a folk food heaven. TexMex. Cajun. Buffalo burgers and Texas BarBQ, footlong turkey legs and venison sausage. ( I weep for you if you have not known the earthy pleasures of boudain, crawfish etouffee or funnel cakes.) At the food booths, the charred flesh of sacrificial animals is served up for the carnal and spiritual pleasure of their human masters.
I settle on the fried alligator on a stick -- probably raised on a reptile ranch by gatorboys -- for $6. Tastes a little like crocodile.
Then I meander over to the livestock exposition hall to admire the big animals that someone has managed to tame and tether. The Brahma Bulls are big this year as always. Big, white and branded. They lie reposed – and possibly sedated – in their pens, seeming to embrace a resigned acceptance of their place in the ordained order of living things. I hope not to see them again at McDonald's.
The Brangus bulls also make a good showing this year, as do the goats. The children’s ponies (Tex, Trixie, Gem, Cherokee, and Dr. Pepper) walk calmly around an endless wheel of life as their three-year-old doms take their turns atop miniature cowhide saddles. I'm surprised to see no rooster-rides for the toddlers.
At last I retire to the main event, the spectacle of manly men riding beastly beasts. The event of the moment is bareback riding, one of my personal favorites. A cowperson sits astride an angry, cantankerous horse who wants nothing more than the freedom and liberty not to be ridden hard in this land of Freedom and Liberty.
The painful political irony of all this tempts me to visit the beer booth for a Silver Bullet.
Later, several cowboys master their ornery horses as the wild beasts buck mightily to throw their riders across the arena. Hanging on to these angry animals takes a lot of skill and courage (if not prudent judgment), and these cowboys are the real deal when it comes to anger management.
Just a word about the demographics of this public spectacle. This crowd must be one of the whitest I’ve ever seen outside of a Republican fundraiser, though there's a sprinkling of darker Americans in the mix, many of them servers at the food booths.
The cowboy-to-cowgirl ratio is about one-to-one, and the number of young romantic couples walking hand in hand speaks of the prospect of plenty of private bareback riding later in the evening.
Fashions tonight are pleasing to the traditional male eye. Young women are favoring daisy-duke bluejean cutoffs or short denim skirts with tall boots. It’s thigh night in Houston. New York, you can have your Paris couture.
As for cowboy hats, not five heads in a hundred are wearing them here. These aren’t Hollywood Texans; they’re Texas Texans, and most of them work in suburban businesses or hardhat industries of one kind or another. Farms and ranches are something they see from the freeway once they get beyond Houston's seemingly endless and metastasizing sprawl.
Male fashions this evening tend toward plaid shirts, T-shirts, baseball caps and jeans. Athletic shoes seem to outnumber cowboy boots by a wide margin.
My favorite moment of the night? I'll have to go with the Helicopter Hog Hunting booth in the exposition hall, associated with something called the “aerial hog depredation program.” Nothing tames a wild boar like a high-powered rifle from a high vantage. I’m not sure, but this program may resemble Alaska’s helicopter wolf hunting expeditions. I’ll have to check with half-Governor Sarah Palin on that one.
All in all, it’s been a remarkable evening – a visit to a little piece of transient rural culture in the midst of one of the biggest urban agglomerations in the country, attended by tens of thousands of Texans and furriners in celebration of our conquest of the wild beast. Now if we can just tame the wild beast within ourselves.
To the confirmed urbanite like me, the rodeo is a twilight zone. To the native it’s a reassuring annual rite of rural nostalgia in what has become, in fact, an overwhelmingly urban and suburban state. To natives, however, the rodeo is not a twilight zone. It’s the old normal, or what they imagine the old normal must have been like.
I have to admit, though, even as a confirmed urbanite -- happier at a film festival than at a faux-rural rodeo -- that I enjoyed the strangeness of this event, and that the Cajun fried alligator was mighty tasty. I’m fixin’ to have me another serving.