It’s March and that means it’s rodeo time in Houston.
Friday was the start and I must admit I had forgotten until, sitting at my desk in the afternoon, I heard horses. Hooves are not an altogether alien sound along the road past our Downtown loft. The stables for the carriage horses, loved by tourists and children alike, are just around the back of the Warehouse District of which we are on the fringe. But the cloppity clop was more insistent, less desultory than the hooves I normally hear.
A dash to the terrace and I saw the back of the first wagon rollin’ on by. I grabbed my camera and raced through the building to stand on the sidewalk watchin’ an’ hollerin’ as the wagons kept on truckin’ by. I high-fived as riders ranging from a tot of five or six firmly griping the pommel and whose pink Stetson kept slipping over her cornrows to cover eyes sparkling with excitement, to an elderly black cowboy with worn-in Stetson and a cigar stump firmly clenched between his teeth as he somehow managed to smile, wave and control his magnificent pinto, more at home on the prairie than in Houston traffic, all at the same time. C&W music blared from boomboxes and yeehaws bellowed in time to the beat as the mules, long ears twitching and tails swishing, hauled their wagons, iron tyres graunching, to the end of the trail at Memorial Park.
Thirteen different trail rides converge on the Big H after varying lengths of ride through the byways of Texas. One, the Los Vaqueros, starts on the Mexican/Texan border at Hildago and has the longest ride of about 380 miles. By comparison the Prairie View trail riders, whose claim to fame is as the oldest African American Trail Riders Association in the States, only travel 107 miles. But more amazing than that to me is that Nannie Mae Francies, who helped found the PVTRA with her husband 54 years ago, still leads the trail ride today. That is one tough cowgirl.
It is the first time, to my knowledge, one of the rides has chosen our street as the gateway to the city and I rather think it was due to the eternal road works on I10, but it gave me great pleasure and honestly I don’t think the cars creeping slowly behind the 12 or so wagons gave a damn about the hold up; much more fun than the lengthy wait for the rail train to pull 108 noisy trolley cars across the level crossing, which is what drivers on our road normally face.
The mules and horses hauling the wagons sense the end of the trail as they near Memorial Park where they all camp for the night. Their stride lengthens and the bridles jangle as they toss their manes in anticipation of oats and hay, and a great deal of pampering as they prepare for their grand parade into the city the next morning. Saturday sees all the thirteen trail rider associations’ with over a hundred wagons and thousands of riders joining dignitaries and politicians, many of them also in the saddle but all in western wear, enter Downtown Houston for the official start of three weeks of rodeo.
The streets are lined five or six deep with shouting, waving people – black, white, Hispanic and Asian. Tots jiggle, kicking their fathers in the face as they hold onto a clutchful of hair with one hand and wave at the colourful parade with the other. It is a spectacle that each year gives me pleasure and signals to the city The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is in town.
The Houston Fat Stock Show and Livestock Exposition, as it was originally called, was established in January 1931 after seven men met for lunch at the Texas State Hotel. The first parade was held in 1938, and in 1942 Gene Autry debuted as the first star entertainer. In 1957 the first educational scholarship of two thousand dollars was awarded and 1961 saw the name change to the HLSR and in ’66 a move to the newly built Astrodome (home of astroturf). With events and activities increasing each year, 1996 saw country and western star George Strait, break the all-time individual turnstile attendance record performance with 62,936 spectators.
Everybody knows everything is bigger in Texas and in 2008 the World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest, held every year at Rodeo, celebrated an attendance of 209,313. That’s a lot of rib, steak, chicken and beans consumed in one weekend, mostly washed down with beer of the American variety. That year Hannah Montana, aka Miley Cyrus, pipped George Strait with 73,459 screaming tweenies in white jeans, blonde wigs, pink cowboy boots and Stetsons at her concert, shown after the last bull had been ridden, and the final calf roped for the evening.
There is something for everyone at the rodeo – you don’t have to be an ardent bull-roping fan, or carnival junkie, or calf-cutting enthusiast or C&W afficianado. This year Kiss are performing! It draws people from across the country and internationally, with bull’s sperm being dealt from America to Argentina to Australia. It is a true agricultural trade show as well as entertainment. But the most astounding fact about rodeo is that it is organised every year by 24,000 volunteers in over 100 committees, who along with the attendees help make it possible to present over $12 million worth of educational scholarships.
I was one of those volunteers for three years. It was fun and I’ll be going to rodeo a few times this year, but now I’m happy just watchin’ and wavin’ as the wagons roll into town along my street.