EFLAND, NC- Harold Miller, a 60-year-old African American cowboy, did jumping jacks before climbing up the bucking chute to saddle his horse. In true bareback bronc riding style, Harold and his nephew Kevon fitted the fidgety horse with a rawhide grip which would be all Harold had to hold on to when he charged out of the chute.
As the national anthem began to play, cowboys removed their hats and announcer Tyler Brown ushered in “the greatest piece of fabric ever stitched together by the hands of man,” as the American flag rippled across the Efland Ruritan Club arena in the hands of a cowgirl. Harold would be the first rider out of the gate on the 25th anniversary of the Efland Ruritan Rodeo. He and the rest of the competitors in bronc riding, barrel racing, and calf roping bowed their heads to pray before the event, while huge bulls and wild horses snorted impatiently nearby.
At this small open rodeo in Orange County, North Carolina, a true Southern tradition lives on. Families from all backgrounds enjoy snow cones and corn on the cob while cheering on bronc riders and calf ropers from the packed bleachers. For competitors and crew, the rodeo means a life on the road.
“Lot of miles every year. That’s the toughest part of it,” said Brown, the announcer.
“We’re just over-paid carnies,” said Marshall Greene, a rodeo clown from Summerville, Georgia who used to ride bareback horses. Greene, a close friend of Brown, said their relationship is crucial to a good rodeo. “Our two jobs are so different but they intermingle. A good clown can make a bad announcer better. A bad announcer can kill a good clown.”
For locals, the rodeo is a special yearly tradition that has remained authentic throughout the years. Young boys in dusty leather boots and girls with big rhinestone belt buckles know the rules and stakes of this sport. They arrived with groups of school friends or parents, not to get in trouble, but to gaze at circling cowgirls in pressed shirts and riders on horseback bearing down on young cattle, leaping off to tie their legs in one swift motion. In the spotlights and dusty haze created by the stampede, the riders seem to come out of another age.
At the far end of the arena, pickup men in crisp blue shirts and white scarves sat upon patient horses waiting for runaway bulls or broncs, swooping in when a rider hit the ground to carry him to safety. They expertly rounded up the wild horses, hissing at them and slapping their leather chaps, communicating with these powerful creatures in another language.
Each rodeo tradition has a different style. While bronc riders favor worn chaps and leather gloves, modern bull riders are fitted similar to a baseball catcher, in heavy helmets and masks. The ornamentation of riders’ attire is full of personal meaning, from cowhide crosses and praying hands to ancient padded vests with patches peeling off. These tokens of luck or nostalgia are donned with ritual seriousness as the riders ready themselves for the thrill and danger that they live for.
Despite the great personal risk taken by competitors, a small town rodeo like this one has the feel of a safe, warm environment for spectators where all are welcome and none are judged. Midway through the competition, boys and girls under the age of eleven chased a pair of calves across the arena to pluck a bow from their tails for a prize. The winner gave his bow to a younger boy who had dived for it and missed. Brown announced with great feeling that this was something seldom seen in America today.
Kevon sat on top of the bucking chute with the other cowboys to watch his uncle. Harold’s mother, too, had a front row seat as her son shot out of the bucking chute on the wild horse.
“She hasn’t missed a rodeo,” Kevon said.
Harold held onto the bucking horse for the required eight seconds before being thrown. Pickup men shooed the horse back through the gates as the crowd cheered for Harold, his arms raised victoriously.
Back behind the bucking chute, he was stoic. A toothpick hung between his lips as he crouched, alone, holding the brim of his black felt hat. Later, as the crowds thinned and the horses went trotting back to their trailers, Harold sat grinning on the back of a John Deere with his mother. He helped her into a pickup truck with camouflage covered seats and they left Efland Ruritan Club together, on to the next rodeo.