HOUSTON, TX – Every year, for several weeks extending from the end of February into March, Houston, the fourth largest city in America – diverse, cosmopolitan international (not least of all, home to a thriving Greek community) Houston transforms itself into the back lot of a John Wayne western. Regular people, i.e., transplants from New York, wear boots and jeans and fringes and hats that rival any ugly Christmas sweater contest. And this stuff isn’t cheap!
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is a very big deal in the city that is now more associated with oil and gas, medical advances, and space exploration than the wild West. The rodeo is, in fact, “a Section 501(c)(3) charity that benefits youth, supports education, and facilitates better agricultural practices through exhibitions and presentation. Since its beginning in 1932, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has committed nearly $375 million to scholarships, research, endowments, calf scramble participants, junior show exhibitors, School Art participants, and other educational youth programs” (http://www.rodeohouston.com/AboutUs/WhoWeAre.aspx).
Weeks before the actual rodeo, the trail rides begin. Recreating the cattle drives of the old West, riders head toward Houston from as close as Anderson, TX (69 miles) and as far as Reynosa, Mexico (386 miles). Los Vaqueros Rio Grande Trail ride leaves Reynosa on February 7th. Try to imagine Houston drivers, not the friendliest or most competent drivers in America, as they negotiate daily traffic complicated by horses and covered wagons! Try to imagine opening your front door to retrieve the morning paper, only to be greeted by a wagon train wending its way through your neighborhood on its way to the rodeo! It definitely takes some getting used to. By Friday, the 27th, 13 trail rides arrive and camp out in Memorial Park. The next morning, everyone convenes downtown for the annual Rodeo Parade: colorful floats, marching bands, horses, wagons, and more horses. But before the parade, there’s the ConocoPhilips Rodeo Run. Last year, more than 13,000 runners, walkers and wheel-chair participants contributed $400,000 in registration fees to the rodeo Educational Fund. Since 1988, ConocoPhilips has contributed more than $4 million.
While the cowboys are riding toward Houston, the cowboy wannabes are getting ready. Area “Go Texan” days begin on January 30th and seem to continue well beyond the departure of the last trail riders. Denim and diamonds, fringes and formals, spangles and spurs – choose an alliterative oxymoron to describe the myriad auctions and galas that help to fund the rodeo charities. You know how people decorate their cars with reindeer antlers and red pompoms to simulate Rudolph’s nose? That’s nothing compared to the longhorns that people attach to the grills of their cars for rodeo. Try walking past one of those suckers in a crowded parking lot without impaling yourself!
A rodeo wouldn’t be a rodeo without some bar – b – cue. For three days, more than 250 teams compete in brisket, ribs, chicken and Dutch-oven dessert categories. Teams also vie to use the most unique pit, be the most colorful, and present the most entertaining skit. I really appreciate that they are also recognized for having the cleanest cooking area and recycling the most. And, of course, they raise money for scholarships.
So now that everyone is dressed and juiced, what happens?
The rodeo begins with a Grand Entry into NRG Arena of horses, buggies, carriages, hay wagons and fire trucks carrying Show officials, dignitaries, sponsors, volunteers and special guests (the Astrodome, the 8th wonder of the world and original home of rodeo, stands pathetically nearby awaiting its fate at the hands of unsentimental Houstonians with a limited sense of architectural history). The American flag is carried around the arena by a professional trick rider as a local celebrity sings the national anthem, rousing the crowd to a patriotic frenzy. “Nowhere Else but Texas” is more than a Chamber of Commerce slogan around these parts. The competitions include tie-down roping, bareback riding, team roping, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, bull riding, chuck wagon races, calf scramble and mutton bustin’. For the most part, these events are self-explanatory: professional cowboys ride, ‘restle and rope horses and bulls.
In the calf scramble, young Texas 4-H and FFA members chase and attempt to catch 15 calves that are released into the arena. Each student who catches a calf is awarded a $1,500 certificate to purchase a registered beef heifer or market steer to show at the Livestock Show the following year. The student then shows in a special competition and receives a $250 bonus if program requirements are fulfilled. More than $10.3 million has been awarded in certificates and awards to approximately 20,240 students since 1942, underscoring the rodeo mission to support Texas youth and encourage agricultural enterprise.
Participants in the mutton bustin’ competition must be between five and six and not weigh more than 55 pounds. They spring out of a chute clinging onto a sheep or mutton. All contestants are winners in mutton bustin’, but the rider who holds on the longest receives a champion belt buckle and braggin’ rights.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch – really just another space in the NRG complex – the Livestock Show is going on. Pick an animal, even some you wouldn’t expect in Texas, like alpacas, and there’s a competition. Last year, more than 29,000 junior and adult livestock and horse show entries were recorded, and auction totals exceeded $14 million. Remember that the next time you bite into a steak!
Schoolchildren can also participate in one of five categories in the rodeo School Art Competition: colored drawing, mixed media, monochromatic drawing, painting and 3-D. Each entry receives a red, white or blue ribbon. From the blue ribbon winners, the Best of Show, Gold Medal and Special Merit awards are selected in each class: elementary, middle and high school. All work by high school participants is eligible for the Show’s School Art Auction. Last year’s Grand Champion sold her painting for $210,000, and the Reserve Grand Champion sold hers for $196,000. My younger daughter won the Best in Show purple ribbon with a colored drawing of a Native American when she was in middle school. She got dinner at her favorite restaurant and all the ice cream she could eat.
If, at any time, you’ve had enough ridin’, ropin’ and ‘restlin’, there are plenty of concerts to keep you entertained. This year’s performers, at prices far more reasonable than in traditional venues, include: Eric Church, Hunter Hayes, Miranda Lambert, John Legend, Alan Jackson, Fall Out Boys, Justin Moore, Tim McGraw, Brantley Gilbert, Zac Brown Band, Pit Bull, Billy Currington, La Arrolladora Banda El Limon, La Maquinaria Nortena, Dierks Bentley, Ariana Grande, Florida Georgia Line, Blake Shelton, The Band Perry, Brad Paisley, and Luke Bryan. Years ago, when I was seven months pregnant and before he got fat, we saw Elvis Presley. He rode around the arena floor in a huge pink Cadillac, glowing and glistening in his white satin jumpsuit. Those eyes! That voice! I jumped so much with excitement, it’s a miracle I didn’t go into labor right then!
What self-respecting Livestock Show doesn’t have enough carnival food to clog the arteries of Rhode Island? Besides the bar-b-cue, there are funnel cakes, cotton candy, hot dogs (I use the term loosely) topped with anything and everything, corn in a cup (in case eating corn on the cob in public is gauche) pulled pork, stuffed baked potatoes, younameit onastick, and, of course, fried whatever – Snickers, Twinkies, Oreos, Nutter Butters, chocolate-covered bacon. I’m making myself sick just writing this.
I’ve lived in Houston for over 40 years. I’ve watched it grow into a major metropolitan area, albeit with no public transportation to speak of. God forbid Texans should give up their cars! I hate the endless summers, but I don’t miss the blizzards. I have found New York-style pizza from two brothers from Rego Park, but I would kill for a Sabrett. And I have rodeo – bigger, better and badder than any celebration ever. Except for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.