A cowboy riding bareback is thrown off a bucking bronco. The aim of most riders is to reach the National Finals Rodeo held every December in Las Vegas where the total prize money on offer over ten days tops $10million.
Texas – Long Read

Bone-breaking skills of rodeo

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Texas – Long Read Bone-breaking skills of rodeo

Hello Texas, the Lone Star State where bigger is better and where 26 million people live alongside some 16 million cattle. Here you can find the “manliest restaurant” in America, as well as discover the state sport of rodeo, unique in that its bone-breaking skills are still in daily use by working cowboys on the ranches that cover 80 percent of America’s second-largest state.

James Ellis
James Ellis Travel Writer

I am deciding how to order my steak when a man at the next table leans over and taps me on the shoulder. Like most other people in the buzzy restaurant, he’s wearing a Stetson, pulled low over a lined, weather-beaten face, and his shirt is done up to the neck; the silver clasp on his bolo tie is shaped like a buffalo skull, complete with horns. “If I can give you some advice,” he drawls over the chatter and chargrilled smells coming from the kitchen, “here in Texas, we eat our steaks one way: De-horn it, wipe its ass and stick it on the plate.”

I am sure rare steak has been expressed in politer terms, but this is Texas – where bigger is better and where people have a direct, no-bullshit way of getting to the point. If it sounds clichéd, maybe it is, but clichés are clichés for a good reason: because they’re true. And there are few places that suits “bigger and better” than here at Cattleman’s Steakhouse, just outside El Paso, deep in the Rio Grande and so close to Mexico you can touch it. The steakhouse – once voted the “manliest” restaurant in the US – sits on the Indian Cliffs ranch, 33,000 acres of harsh Chihuahuan Desert that you can only approach by dirt road.

It is the kind of place that plays country and western and where ‘family’ style main courses don’t feed the whole family but easily could. The signature dish is a 2lb (1kg) chargrilled Cowboy Steak that comes with baked potato, ranch beans, coleslaw, sour cream and bread. I take the advice of my new friend on the neighboring table and order it rare – but despite fighting for an hour I finally admit defeat.

Gunslingers, buffalo soldiers, Texas Rangers

El Paso is a real frontier town: the land itself feels scarred from past battles and the people have that hardened look gained from a life on the edge. Right in the heart of the city is the Concordia cemetery – a vast, open history lesson with some 60,000 crosses casting shadows over the last resting places of gunslingers, buffalo soldiers, Texas Rangers and war veterans. The sheer loss of human life here hits you like a slap as the afternoon sun blazes with no shade for respite.

Concordia is less than a kilometer from the Mexican border and El Paso’s streets would spill into the neighboring city of Ciudad Juárez if the Rio Grande, all cordoned off with high barbed wire fences, were not in the way to stop illegal immigrants from flooding over the border. Judging from the work trucks that pick up Mexicans in town for a day’s labor, the smart money would be on it being a failed policy – although as a visitor to the USA, you can cross over to Mexico for lunch if you wish. I wouldn’t recommend it, however. On a previous trip, it took me five minutes to get over the border and five hours to get back, thanks to America’s overzealous Homeland Security Officers.

Instead, I jump in a car to head to Big Bend National Park, a five-hour drive away. Named after, well, a big bend in the Rio Grande, this is what would have been the wildest of the West – a land of cowboys, native Americans, huge ranches and thought to be the original home of Texas’s state sport, Rodeo.

As the tires chew away at the asphalt, there is a Yellow Brick Road feel to the drive – everything is the same but different. Short, shrubby grass and cacti are either side of the road, while every so often, a set of dusty hills break up the monotony. Somehow, it manages to feel dreadfully boring and eerily enthralling at the same time and I am reminded of a scene from George Steven’s masterful movie Giant. Elizabeth Taylor asks Rock Hudson “Are we in Texas yet?” when she wakes on a train after travelling through the night. “Honey,” replies Hudson, “We’ve been in Texas for the last eight hours.”

Hudson, Taylor and their co-star James Dean stayed in the town of Marfa when filming here and, aside from the tiny town of Valentine, where Postmaster Maria Carrasco forwards 20,000 cards a year every February with the town’s unique postmark, it’s one of the few places worthy of a stop.

Fact and fiction are never too far removed

A quirky town of just 2,000 people, its streets feel wider than they need to and many of the low-rise historic buildings in the center have been taken over by art galleries, pioneered by famous New York minimalist Donald Judd who moved here in the early 1970s. It is the kind of place where fact and fiction are never too far removed, as seen in Prada Marfa – a full-sized sculpture of a never-to-open Prada store in the middle of the desert. It is all a stark contrast to hard-bitten borderlands I’ve been driving through.

The town’s other claim to fame are the mysterious Marfa Lights, a curious natural phenomenon that can be viewed from Mitchell Flat just off US Route 67 and, as dusk falls, I head to the viewing platform to see if I can spot the ghost lights for myself.

Sure enough, as night falls, the lights start to bob up and down on the horizon – a little like the bouncing ball that follows song lyrics on a movie screen to help viewers sing along. It’s a fascinating sight that some put down to pockets of luminous gas that have been trapped underground escaping and lighting the night sky. Others have a much more prosaic explanation.

“The Marfa Lights? Well they’re just the headlights of cars bouncing up and down and reflecting off the surrounding hills,” says Pat Gleason, one of the head honchos at Cibalo Creek Ranch – an old hacienda on a working cattle ranch that has been converted into luxury accommodation.

Nestled in the Chinati Mountains, the ranch sits on a vast 30,000 acres of rugged land, where only the hardiest cattle – Texas longhorn and American buffalo – roam, but it is only when you saddle up and head out that it becomes apparent just how vast 30,000 acres are. When we arrive at a high bluff, the scarred earth seems to go on forever – a desolate space that is home to cacti and coyotes, rattlesnakes and horned toad lizards. Turkey vultures – or buzzards – ride the thermals above the valley. “Can you see the horizon?” Pat asks. “Well the boundaries of the ranch go on past that. Way past that.”

The calf is taken for branding

It is corralling time on the ranch and one of the head cowboys, Bobby, takes me to a large paddock where a host of yearlings have been rounded up for branding. For the most part, the cattle are still rounded up on horseback and Bobby – himself a former rodeo star – is the man responsible for bringing them all in. He leads me into the middle of the paddock, each of us with a lasso in hand and one of the other workers slaps a calf hard on the ass. The slap seems to electrify the 200 or so cattle in the paddock and they begin to run around in a large circle, a mini stampede as Bobby demonstrates some of the skills used both on the ranch and in the rodeo ring.

As the cattle hurtle around, their hooves creating thunderous claps that ring through my ears, Bobby fixes his eye on one, twirls the lasso a couple of times and catches his prey. With a bound he springs over and ties its legs together to stop it from moving and the calf is taken for branding.

It is from these essential cowboy skills that rodeo springs. Ranch owners and ranch hands, struck by boredom in the wilderness would pitch up against each other in impromptu competitions where the main prize was bragging rights over a neighboring ranch.

“Despite it being more than a century old, rodeo lacks an official birth certificate,” Sherry Compton of rodeo’s governing body the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association tells me. “It originated from the great cattle drives of the 1860s to 1880s and the first riding and roping contests were held when various ranch outfits met on trails and at railheads, informally matching their top cowboys in spontaneous exhibitions of skill.”

These impromptu exhibitions soon took on a more organised form with ranches holding their own rodeos that also included food and dancing, providing some welcome relief from the hard, lonely life that cowboys led out on the planes. By the mid-1930s an official sport was born – unique in that its skills are derived exclusively from a working environment – when the riders formed an association demanding fair prize money.

Western heritage, ideals and work ethics

Today there are two main kinds of rodeo event, the Pro Rodeo series that culminates in the National Finals Rodeo every December in Las Vegas and events organised by the more grassroots Working Ranch Cowboys Association, which pledges to keep “western heritage, ideals and work ethics alive.” The WRCA keeps up that pledge by donating many of the profits from its rodeos to a foundation that helps look after working ranch cowboys and their children by offering assistance when someone hits hard times or providing scholarships for their children to go to college.

It’s a wholesome ideal and one that comes across when I move on to the town of Alpine for the Big Bend Ranch Rodeo. Held in a dusty arena at the Sul Ross State University in Alpine, there’s a small town feel at the event that is far removed from the Pro Rodeos I’ve seen in the past – the equivalent of watching Little League baseball versus the World Series.

“It’s a wonderful, family-type rodeo, that has more emphasis on the actual world of ranches and cowboy culture,” explains local businesswoman Linda Miller. “The participants make their living working on ranches – usually as part of an extended family. Thus the whole atmosphere at these events is different than the more traditional type of professional rodeos. Plus the competitors take part as teams, not as individuals.”

There are few bleachers here and many of the crowd simply hang from the arena fences, whooping and clapping as the riders enter the arena. Cowboys line their horses up, remove their hats and bow their heads as the Star Spangled Banner plays from the PA and the crowd raise to their feet in a typically American mass show of patriotism.

The announcer signals the start of competition – disciplines are either man versus beast or man against the clock – and dust is kicked up as horses race and cowboys rope in amazing skills of horsemanship that belies their supposed amateur status. Events come and go, including the ridiculously impressive ‘wild cow milking’ where teams rush after cows, get them under control and fill a small bottle with fresh milk to win the top prize.

Sheer exuberance and enthusiasm

Throughout the day, more and more events take place and the crowd grows larger and louder. As an outsider, I find it hard to quite understand what is going on and who is winning. My mouth is parched from the heat and dust but I find myself joining in with the sheer exuberance and enthusiasm of it all.

“The thrill of the crowd sure provides a buzz, whatever level you compete at,” softly spoken pro-rodeo rider Lee ‘Boogie’ Ray tells me. A tall, thickset, handsome man in his 40s, Ray has spent much of his adult life travelling around the country in a trailer with his wife and two young daughters in search of the rodeo dream.

Like most rodeo riders, Ray took up the sport as it ran in the family, working his way up from the amateur levels. “My grandparents had horses, my parents went to rodeos and I started learning to rope as a young kid,” he says. “I was probably around eight or nine when I first competed and I fell in love with it straight away.”

Ray is no fool with a rope – he once came third in the Pro World Championships in Las Vegas – but he admits that whatever level you rodeo at, making a real living from the sport is something that is the preserve of a small few. “The main reason I started to slow down from competing all the time was because finding sponsorship is tough. It becomes a real burden trying to find the money to do it. Those who can make a full-time living out of it are miniscule. We aren’t Nascar riders or football players – we don’t make anything near that kind of sponsorship.”

With a family of a wife and two young daughters, Ray has now taken a full-time job as a ranch hand on a large estate outside of Dallas and only competes occasionally – but he has no regrets from a life on the road, where his children were homeschooled to enable him to follow his dream. “What it did, was give us the chance to travel around the country as a family. We got to meet different people, see different parts of the country. We didn’t just show up for me to compete and leave, we used to really see the places we went to, from Yellowstone to the beaches of California. My girls would love to go back on the road and do more of it – they would love to do rodeo themselves – but I need to help them get through college.”

One of the stars of the show

When he does compete these days, it is at the Mesquite Arena, some 20 miles west of Dallas. A mid-level arena, somewhere between the wholesome feel of the WRCA events and the larger pro-rodeo arenas, the 3,000 or so people in the crowd make enough noise for ten times that amount when he enters on horseback. Here, in his own backyard, Ray is one of the stars of the show.

If that roar was loud, there is a deafening clamor when Mesquite’s current all-round champion Brady Wilson competes. Young and handsome, with short black hair tucked under his Stetson, he is the ultimate rider at this level, pausing for autographs with young fans and showing off his winner’s medal. Despite the adulation, he is a down-to-earth young man outside of the ring. “I know this won’t go on for ever,” he says, “so I have a parallel career helping run the rodeo from a business perspective thanks to my degree in business studies.”

Originally from Missouri, like most riders he also started out in junior rodeo and worked his way up to pro shows. “The events don’t change, the people don’t change, the feeling of roping cattle doesn’t change… it’s just that the guys get a lot more competitive.”

His love of rodeo always meant Texas was the place to chase the dream. “It all started here,” he says. “This is the ultimate – if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. And in Texas, there are not one or two guys that can beat you but 30 or 40 who think they are good enough to win. There are guys who rope everywhere in Texas – people are just born with the skill.”

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