8 pm SARAH MIRK—Main Street is bursting with thousands of people wearing cowboy hats and tight jeans. A drizzle blurs the neon. Pendleton, Oregon, has been waiting 100 years for this day and now, of course, it's raining. Cowboys and cowgirls first started roping and riding in the Pendleton Round-Up in 1910. Now one of the top 10 rodeos in the world, the Round-Up is Oregon's Mardi Gras, and a celebration of Oregon culture that Portlanders tend to despise (wild patriotism, sleazy seething mechanical bull sexuality, guns). But I'm sick of being an Oregonian who never leaves the city... it's time I got east of the Cascades. When he arrives, Patrick and I will be crashing in the backyard of Pendleton locals Peter, Jake, and Rian—young dudes who decided to stick around their hometown rather than ditch the craziness for the city. Back on Main, I take refuge from the drizzle under the awning of a church.
8:15 pm PATRICK ALAN COLEMAN—I'm at the Time Based Art Festival, and I've no real desire to try and understand the meaning of the performance I've just seen (tights, Shakespeare, chicken suit). My thoughts are on getting packed to go to Round-Up. I'm incredibly excited.
8:30 pm SM—An evangelist woman named Jennifer gives me a two-question test to see if I'm going to heaven. We determine I am going to hell.
8:35 pm SM—A cowboy overtakes me and offers to carry my bag. His name is Riley. He's not certain what day it is. "The rodeo's been going on a long time," he says. During this week, the 17,000-person town swells to over 75,000. Residents who don't like the rodeo, or can't make money off it, flee for the weekend.
11 pm SM—Three beers in. "Let 'er Buck!" That's the slogan of Round-Up, the appropriate answer to any question, and the correct exclamation at all times, a blend of "Yee Haw!" "Hello!" and "I don't know what the fuck is going on!"
11:15 pm PAC—I decide to go for a Paul-Newman-as-Butch-Cassidy look while I'm in Pendleton, which hinges on my suede derby hat. I pull my cowboy boots from the closet. I wonder what Sarah is doing as I fall asleep in a comfortable bed for the last time in the next 48 hours.
1 am SM—I smoke pot with a well-known radio personality on Main Street beneath the neon. Hell for sure.
10 am PAC—On the road, the landscape flattens out past the Gorge. It smells of onions and dill, along with less pleasant animal aromas. Merle Haggard blasts through my car speakers. I'm so ready.
10:15 am SM—At this moment, Pendleton breaks the Guinness World Record for most horses in a single parade. Former Governor John Kitzhaber sits astride one of the 1,500 horses, finally blending in with his trademark cowboy jeans and giant belt buckle. Conestoga wagons, beauty queens, white horses whose saddles read, "Jesus Is Lord," 140 riders carrying American flags, all loop through downtown.
1:30 pm PAC—Driving into Pendleton I'm confused by all the bicyclists on the road. I'd expected horses. But then, passing the high school, I see a Hooverville ringed with carbon fiber bikes hanging on chain link. These are the 2,000 Cycle Oregon riders who crossed the state to attend Round-Up in Lycra rather than denim. Their slogan? "Let 'er Bike." Further into town, we see the rodeo grounds, about the size of PGE Park, but mostly wooden, painted a beautiful brick red, and filled with fans whose fervor and drunkenness rival that of the Timbers Army. Beside it, the tops of an enormous teepee encampment bristle against the blue sky. The scale is overwhelming.
1:45 pm SM—The rodeo grounds seat more than 16,000. Tickets sold out a year ago. I walk wide-eyed through the front row of the stands and someone hits me on the arm—it's East Portland State Representative Jefferson Smith and beside him Democrat US Senator Jeff Merkley. "This is truly an Oregon cultural event," says Smith. He tells me he was a cattle hand back in his distant youth. "Guys manlier than me did rodeo."
1:50 pm PAC—I've been in Pendleton just under an hour when I find myself in the Let 'er Buck Room, beneath the rodeo grandstands, one of the rowdiest bars in the world. Walking into the murky interior I'm hit with the blunt smell of hundreds of drunken, sexed-up rodeogoers. The humidity causes my shirt to dampen almost immediately. There's no way to move.
2:15 pm SM—Rodeo horses are named like sex toys. Thunder Monkey, French Wake, Muffled Cries, Nightmare Rocket.
2:30 pm PAC—We're packed ass to ass, front to front. Luckily, the current of shuffling, swaying humanity propels me to the bar where I exchange a pewter chip for more whiskey than I've ever seen poured in a single shot. Around me, men cheer as a woman lifts her top.
4:15 pm SM—I sit in the grass with a Umatilla tribe member, Skyhawk. The native tribes camp out for the week in a maze of teepees set up at the back of the arena. To me, it seems like they're part of the rodeo, but separate. The announcers refer to the tribes as "our Indian friends." They compete in a native-only event, the Indian relay race, and perform a ceremonial dance at the halftime show. Skyhawk is an artist, a peacenik, and a veteran. He likes the rodeo, mostly. He speaks slowly, every sentence a story.
4:20 pm PAC—After two whiskeys, I've started to vibrate at the same frequency as the rest of the Round-Up crowd. Wandering the bustling grounds, I catch sight of a dozen women on horseback. They file out onto the field and my photographer and I talk our way behind the gates.
4:30 pm SM—"It's a great opportunity for non-Indians to see Indian people have really great respect for themselves, showing off their culture and their heritage," says Skyhawk. His art is political, he's thinking of doing some paintings about meth and gangs.
4:35 pm PAC—We're hanging on a fence with men in white cowboy hats who move with deliberate slowness. It's a stark contrast to the spectacle of barrel racing on the field. The crowd cheers as women swing their horses tightly around large barrels. "Ridin' a horse morin' 30 miles an hour for 30 seconds takes a lot of guts, folks," says the announcer. I can only agree as I watch a rider named Molly Davis make a clean run in 29 seconds. It's a gorgeous sight.
6:45 pm SM—Patrick and I are backstage at the Happy Canyon Night Show, a pageant dramatizing the history of the area. Verneda's been in charge of costumes at Happy Canyon for over a decade. "We need shorter Chinamen!" she shouts at two strapping blond lads who played the role of Chinamen since before their growth-spurt. Mary Lou helps her stuff a live rooster into a leather bag.
7:20 pm PAC—Jennifer Currin, 27, is one of a cast of hundreds, and she's been a pioneer since she was two years old, carried into the arena by her mother. Now she has her mother's role as a pioneer. Most of the show's parts are passed down like this, through generations of volunteers. It's tradition. The script has stayed almost the same since the play debuted in 1912.
7:25 pm SM—Actual East Oregonian newspaper headline: "Happy Canyon Celebrates Tradition with Tradition."
7:30 pm PAC—"Would you like a drink?" asks Currin. She leads us to the Director's Room. We're clearly not supposed to be here, but we get whiskey anyway. Currin smiles triumphantly.
8 pm SM—Things that occur in the Happy Canyon show: a Native American wedding ceremony, the Trail of Tears, a man who gets his legs amputated and cartwheels away on the stumps, live sheep, can-can girls, a drag queen, a horse square dance, and an exploding outhouse. Also, Patrick drinks all my booze.
9 pm PAC—Hordes file beneath the massive permanent set into what can only be described as a cowboy prom. A special state law legalizes gambling at Happy Canyon during the Round-Up, but in a weird twist, the chips can only be used for booze. It's either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your luck and how well you can hold your hooch.
9:30 pm SM—Something I didn't know existed: pro-life belt buckles.
10 pm PAC—I can hold my hooch, but my luck is lousy. I go bust within an hour. This will not, however, stop me from getting hopelessly drunk.
11:45 pm SM—Despite its name, I discover the Rainbow Café is not, in fact, a gay bar.
12:12 am PAC—My new friend Peter places a small American flag in his hat at the Rainbow Café. Spurred on by a latent patriotism that wells up from deep inside me, I begin to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's the second time I've sung it tonight. Some around us in the cramped bar join in, and after the "hoooome of the braaaaave" there is applause.
12:15 am SM—Patrick can't even sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" correctly. He tries to start in the middle, shouting out "rockets' red glaaaare!"
1:15 am PAC—In a town as intoxicated as Pendleton tonight, I feel perfectly at home. I've drunk my identity into non-being. I am a poseur cowboy, bullshitting with rodeo legends and bitching about the Wyoming Highway Patrol. Round-Up has caught me like a roped calf and I feel like I'm in the field, feet pointed to the sky, wondering what the fuck is happening. LET 'ER BUCK!
8:15 am SM—Wander into the house, past an estimated 300 empty alcohol containers and a dunk tank emblazoned with the Budweiser logo. Open the bathroom door. It falls off its hinges.
9:30 am PAC—I'm not particularly concerned about my hangover. I'm concerned with getting this right. I'm acutely aware the Pendleton I'm seeing is not the Pendleton that exists here each day.
9:55 am SM—The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 922 announces their cowboy breakfast stats proudly: 900 pounds of ham, 48 gallons of syrup, and 69 dozen eggs.
10 am PAC—I can see the "real" Pendleton here and there—in the lovely, quiet neighborhoods, and in the Great Pacific where I eat breakfast, chatting with locals who don't wear cowboy boots and take the whole thing with a shrug and a smile.
1:15 pm SM—I thought I'd be scared of rodeo, but I'm quick to loosen up. I like the pride in place, and I'm jealous of these people with roots, who hang out in the same streets and bars as their parents and grandparents. And, goddamn, sometimes "The Star-Spangled Banner" just needs a fighter jet flyover.
1:15 pm PAC—A formation of jet fighters screech past. I worry that Sarah and I, writing about our drunken foolishness, will paint the town in a bad light. I grew up in towns like this in Colorado—places where livestock rivaled the number of citizens. Pendleton feels a lot like home to me. The people here are no different than anywhere else, though their daily concerns may not reflect mine. More than anything I want Portlanders to know that. Racked with too much sincerity, I seek more free whiskey.
1:25 pm SM—The food stand next to the Let 'er Buck Room sells curly fries and rhinestone handcuffs.
1:30 pm PAC—Bronc riding is the signature event of the Round-Up. It's thrilling. Every ride looks amazing to me, but I'm clueless to the nuances. All I know is that it's about style and staying on an animal that looks as if it wants nothing more than to throw you to the ground and kick the shit out of you. This happens several times while I watch.
1:45 pm SM—Eastern Oregon seems to have a rich tradition in bullshitting. Every old guy gives me shit for being from Portland, but it's actually kind of nice to trade friendly insults with senior citizens.
2 pm PAC—As a special treat for the 100th anniversary, the organizers recreate a legendary Round-Up bronc-riding competition, which featured an African American, a Native American, and a European American in the final. As happened in the original competition, the European American wins.
3 pm SM—Climbing up the arena stairs with a beer, a cop stops and asks for ID. Where is my ID? I don't have my ID. "Just give your beer to your friend," says the officer, pointing to Jake. "You can take sips every once in a while."
3:10 pm PAC—With horror, I realize I know almost all of the words to "Achy Breaky Heart."
3:15 pm SM—A woman next to me in the stands accidentally spills beer on her infant.
3:30 pm PAC—"Sushi is the force that binds the universe together," says saddle maker and Pendleton's own sushi-making cowboy Monte Beckman. He has an amazing gray mustache and a twinkle in his eye. He's also an elegant bullshitter. As we talk in his shop, I'm happy to listen about the trout that took a bullet for him, and nod stupidly as he tells me: "There is the alpha and the omega, and everything in between is sushi and good bridle horses and the occasional piece of ass."
4:15 pm SM—Something else I didn't know existed: the ability of massive cowboys to leap from horses onto 600-pound steers, both running full speed, and wrestle them to the ground by the horns. This is steer wrestling. It makes my jaw drop.
4:30 pm PAC—I'm still in Monte Beckman's saddle shop. As the "Sushi Cowboy," Beckman is also the go-to guy for local color—a title he shies away from. "Marty Wood, Allen Keller, Charles Sampson... these are my heroes," he says, laying out a list of rodeo legends and saddle craftsman. "These are the people you should be interviewing." Tonight his saddle shop will stay open until midnight, and it's likely many of Beckman's heroes will show up to shoot the shit. I bid the Sushi Cowboy farewell, now secure in the knowledge that a trout is man's best friend.
4:40 pm PAC—I've finally found a Bloody Mary. The bartender agrees to make it even though it takes time he doesn't have as the rodeo crowd starts trickling in. I tip him $2 in thanks.
4:45 pm SM—The rodeo clown makes the same joke two days in a row. "If Obama is the answer, how stupid was the question?!" Thunderous applause!
9 pm PAC—The Round-Up is kicking my ass. I'm tired, and two days of walking the town in cowboy boots has crippled me.
10:30 pm PAC—It's starting to rain again, but the street is still packed with revelers riding mechanical bulls, listening to country bands, and buying crappy knickknacks from blocks of booths. I watch our host Peter rip through a couple sets at the Great Pacific with his band, the Eastern Oregon Playboys. He's been playing all week. I feel a little guilty heading back to my tent while he still finds the energy to rock.
10:45 pm SM—The Toys N' More store on Main Street has a sign that reads, "Welcome Ball Players Betty Boop Fudge Soda Fiber Optics Dragons." They also sell pogs. I love this town.
11 pm PAC—I subject my tortured body to a final indignity: a Bacon Ripper Korn Dog. That's a hot dog wrapped in bacon, deep-fried, battered, and then fried a second time.
11:45 pm PAC—I stumble back to my tent, absently chewing on this deep-fried-meat-fat monstrosity, as the sounds of the Native Americans' sobriety dance circle rise from the park beside the rodeo grounds, carrying me back in the rain.