Cowboys, horses, bulls and spectators trampled through the mud and grass at the 25th anniversary of the Efland Ruritan Rodeo this first weekend of October. From the packed bleachers, I watched smoke rise from the grills and felt as if I was back at a softball game at the little country school where I grew up. The kids behind us were rowdy but called me "ma'am" and took off their cowboy hats for the national anthem. Later they would be cheering for runaway calves and screaming at the bull riders, never taking their attention away from the spectacle which they had come to see.
Though this was my first rodeo, I recognized this place and these people, whose roots I shared. There was a familiarity among the murmur of the crowd, the twang of the announcer's voice, the country music buzzing through the speakers. The cowboys were all well-dressed and polite, but when it came down to it, they could rope a calf in under five seconds and hang on to a bucking bronco for close to eight. They had young faces and big smiles, and even the cowboys pushing 60 had an unquenchable thirst for life about them.
The young and the old chewed toothpicks or cigarettes with thoughtful faces, strutting out their trusted horses moments before the show, forming a ring of horses and riders that seemed to circle without end. Behind the bucking chute, men adjusted their vests and hats, looking sharp before mounting the wild broncs that would very soon throw them into the red dirt.
The eye moves constantly over the rodeo spectacle, tracing the circles made by ropes and runaway horses hugging the fence. Only the air hangs still over this timeless scene. A quick nod of the head, an opening of the gate, and horse and rider burst forth circling a huge lasso overhead to bring down a fleeing calf. It is a powerful wordless tradition, an unspoken ceremony between the horse and rider. A deep kind of communication circles between competitors and spectators alike. Everyone is a participant of this highly physical and somehow spiritual sport.
A couple of boys from the Ruritan club walked by shouting "Popcorn! Water!" Dad flagged them down and I picked my way down the bleachers with a few dollars in hand. The popcorn was salty and the water cold on this hot October night. From the woods behind the bleachers, a sound like an approaching helicopter roared. In the midst of the bronc riding competition, a train barreled past, lights flashing between the wall of trees.
A nomadic spirit remains among rodeo families who travel the countryside with horses in tow. Generations of families follow the paths of traditional knowledge that they have absorbed. It is a unique way of life heralding back to the horseback traditions across all cultures, and remains alive today in small pockets across America.
My first rodeo left a space in my mind inhabited by swift and dusty cowboys, cowgirls in sparkling rhinestones, rippling American flags, galloping cattle, and silhouettes of horses in the spotlight. The shaky bleachers, mud and grass brought me back to a childhood in the country. These places still exist.