Rodeo Fever

March 13, 2012 — Leave a comment

March is one of my favourite times in Houston. Weather-wise it is unpredictable but for three weeks every year the fourth largest city in the US thrums to a western tune. Cowboy boots peek from under city suits; coral and turquoise dangle from normally conservative earlobes more used to diamond studs, and ‘howdy’ is heard on the light rail from beneath Stetsons.

I felt well able to guide our guests from England, here especially for the event, around the vast area, 345 acres, that is Reliant Park. I did after all wear with pride the turquoise blue vest that attested to my volunteer status on the Directions & Assistance Committee for three years. I know where to find the fried Twinkies amongst the plethora of food stalls. Turkey legs too. The men and women in turquoise also perform a rather more serious, and sadly often used, duty. They find and reunite lost children to frantic parents, and occasionally the lost elderly to frantic children. Run almost entirely by volunteers, the Rodeo since it’s inception in 1932 has raised over $283 million for scholarships, endowments, research and art projects.

In my now unofficial role as tour guide I helped cheer on the mutton busters. Children of between five and six and weighing under 60lbs don hoof-proof vests and helmets, straddle a greasy-fleeced sheep and attempt to hang on as the animal jumps and skitters to the other end of the small arena, eager to join his or her woolly companions flocked there. I am proud to announce that this year the girls seem to have had the edge on the boys.

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is three weeks of fun. But it is also serious livestock business with ranchers from around the world studying the beasts on display. There is, I am told, a lively sale of semen. Judges with clipboards walk the sawdust-strewn paddocks eyeing primped and blow-dried goats, cattle, llamas and horses. Others patrol the aisles peering at rabbits and chickens. Auctions are held that raise phenomenal amounts for the livestock and also for wine. Artworks from schools, and quilts from all, are judged with each year the quality being astounding.

The wonder of birth is not shied away from with farmers trying to time the delivery of lambs, calves and piglets to coincide with the Rodeo. I watched children, and some adults, watch the on-duty vet reach in, catch a hoof and ease a calf down the birth canal after presenting as a breech. The cow grunted in gratitude and a collective sigh rippled through the crowd as fringed arms pumped for joy.

One mother tried to steer her son away from the hatching table as the first imperceptible cracks appeared in the shell of one of the eggs nestling under sun lamps.

“Let’s git goin’ Kyle,” she said. “We gotta go see the pigs.”

“Nah, I wanna watch the egg.”

“The chick won’t hatch for hours. We ken swing by before the pig races,” Kyle’s mother promised.

“Nah, I wanna stay,” Kyle said, eyes never leaving the almost translucent shell, chocolate-smeared fingers gripping the top of the display case as he stood on tiptoes.

The Rodeo itself starts in true patriotic fashion with a young woman riding bareback around the arena to the strains of the national anthem. Fireworks explode from the domed roof as the words ‘and the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air’ resound around the concourses and the horse gallops from the applauding attendees.

Roping, bronco riding, steer wrestling and bull riding bring cheers, often for the steer, bull or horse, which has managed to outwit the rider or roper. The “world’s greatest calf scramble” reduces grown Stetsoned men to tears of laughter as teenage girls and boys chase calves around the arena in an attempt to rope them and haul them into the inner circle.

Then, just in case the days were not full enough, the entertainment starts. Stars of Country and Western, pop and Latino music entertain hundreds of thousands of screaming fans throughout the three weeks each year. On our tickets one night were the C&W-pop-crossover trio, Lady Antebellum, whose easy music could lull one into a soporific state were the lady of the trio not wearing a sequinned top that glinted with every foot tap.

Another night we saw Harry Church, son of Joe, though better known as Enrique Iglesias, son of Julio. I admit to being a tad dubious but having been an ardent fan of the father, I have now switched allegiance to the son. That boy can strut but he can also sing. He spurned security who scurried to stop girls, women and matrons from hurdling the railings as he invited them to ‘come closer’. He drank tequila shots with three hoisted up onto the revolving stage. While circling the sawdust he stopped to serenade a swooning wife, whose husband looked on, I think, understandingly. Men and women stood in awe as he worked the Reliant Stadium, which that night held over 56,000 people, like it was a cabaret club.

Our guests have now returned to Europe but have taken with them an understanding of what Houston is all about – the oil town, the port, the shopping and the freeways but also the heart of the city and a small part of her culture. Isn’t that why we all travel?

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