New Orleans has its Mardi Gras. Pendleton has the Round-Up.
By Mary Harvill (September 23, 2008)
Rodeo with cowboys and cowgirls, the crowds cheering a great ride or booing the judge’s scores, the spirit of community, the daring-do of the bullriders for one full week in September in a small town in eastern Oregon, four hours from a major airport is as good as it gets.
Every year for the past 97 years, the entire community of Pendleton,
Oregon (population 16,000) plays host to the crème de la crème of rodeo athletes –the humans who are either Professional Bull Riders (PBR) or Professional Rodeo Cowboys (PRCA) and their animal contestant counterparts, the bulls and the “broncs” -the bucking horses. PETA sympathizers need not worry about mistreatment of rodeo animal athletes. That would be akin to intentionally injuring Kobe Bryant. A top performing cowboy can only achieve a peak performance when the rodeo animal athlete performs at its peak. Half of the total score in rodeo events is for the cowboy, the other half is for the bull or the bronc.
Pendleton is a signature contest in the rodeo world. It is the last major stop of the rodeo season and the place where cowboys and cowgirls, by their results, can qualify (or lose their qualification) for the National Finals Rodeo (NFR).
The NFR, held during the first two weeks of December in Las Vegas is often referred to as “Cowboy Christmas”. The PRCA selects the top 15 cowboys and cowgirls based on total money winnings and participation in a minimum of 40 rodeos during the season to attend the Finals. The prize winnings at the NFR rival a casino’s “take” for cowboys and cowgirls. Elk, Washington cowboy Zack Oakes, number seven in the bull riding standings in 2008 before Pendleton, learned shortly before the Pendleton Round-Up that he was NOT eligible to go to the NFR in 2008. Oakes was injured during the spring months and will not be able to attend enough rodeos between now and the end of the rodeo season to meet the magic number of 40. Needless to say, Oakes is mad as a hornet at the PRCA after being turned down by the PRCA after three appeals. He is mad for good reason, the payouts at the NFR are so bountiful that some cowboys earn more in those two weeks in December than they earn all season long.
The payout in Pendleton is nothing to sneeze at. The total prize money for all events at the 2008 Round-Up was $400,000. The top finisher in each event wins a drop dead gorgeous handmade saddle from Hamley’s (located, you guessed it, in Pendleton) emblazoned with the words “CHAMPION” on it, a Pendleton blanket and a hubcap-sized silver belt buckle.
A very lucky young lady won a Pendleton blanket at the Tuesday night PBR event. The blanket was hand delivered by rodeo clown Flint Rasmussen who sprinted up the Happy Canyon grandstand to present the blanket to her. Flint is rodeo’s “triple threat” combination: entertainer, comedian, and dancer all in one body. Virtually unknown outside of the world of rodeo, Flint is currently the crown jewel of the PBR show (believe me, he is sorely missed by the PRCA crowds). Everybody knows him, everybody loves him whether it is an 82 year-old grandmother, a teenaged rodeo princess, a middle-aged man or a rowdy eight-year-old boy. I love Flint too!
Pendleton is an energy circle for me. I am drawn there like a moth to a flame. “Let ‘Er Buck,” is the motto and everyone who ever goes to Pendleton for rodeo week is a changed person, whether it’s because of a hedonistic experience in the Let ‘Er Buck room beneath the grandstand at the rodeo grounds, dancing at Crabby’s, or chatting up the owner of the local antique store. The hospitality and spirit of Pendleton is second to none. New Orleans has its Mardi Gras. Pendleton has the Round-Up. It is a place where the Native American tribes are involved as equal partners in all the events at Pendleton and where the tribes showcase their tribal heritage at their tribal encampment, at the rodeo and during the Happy Canyon performances.
So, what do I do when I go to Pendleton? There are mandatory stops in Pendleton. One of them is the Wild Horse Casino (to appease the Indian spirits and my husband). A second stop occurs at the Pendleton Woolen Mills store. The third stop is at Hamley’s so I can touch each and every saddle on display there. One year I bought a cowboy hat at Hamley’s, custom fitted by their hat guy. That is not necessarily de rigeur in Western stores anymore. There are a number of really cute shops with homespun goods and antiques. I chatted up the lady who owns one of the antique stores to find out how the newest incarnation of Hamley’s came into being. She fully informed me as to who currently owns it, what their restoration plan is, where they live and how she knows them. I’ll have to wait for a different week of the month to actually have dinner at Hamley’s. They don’t take reservations during Round-Up week (though they probably do take American Express).
What I don’t do when I go to Pendleton is go to the Let ‘Er Buck room. Been there, done that. All I can say about my experience there is WOW. To borrow the phrase “what happened in Vegas stays in Vegas,” let’s just say, what happened in the Let ‘Er Buck room when I went in there will forever stay in the Let ‘Er Buck room.
Lives are changed after attending the Round-Up, babies are conceived, romances bloom, marriages disintegrate and Grandma gets her bottom pinched. There isn’t anyplace or anything like it and it will never change-nor should it. The community of Pendleton has gotten it right for the past 97 years and will keep on getting it right for another 97 years. If you forget what being a person is like, if you lose touch with your humanity, go to Pendleton and you’ll get it right back.