Archive for October, 2006

The Nile is not just a river in Egypt

October 30, 2006

It’s also a rodeo in Montana.  One of the largest in the country, it’s a “stock show, pro rodeo and horse extravaganza.”  We went to the final night’s show, at an indoor arena here in Billings that was packed with cowboy hat and boot-wearing cowfolk and regular folk.  Before the big Saturday night show, there were three days of stock show festivities: cattle auctions, bulls (and their semen) for sale, horses groomed for the occasion, and socials with the Senate candidates.

But Saturday night was the final event, the climax of the competition in cowboy sports.  The unashamedly elaborate opening ceremonies began with two soldiers, recently returned from Iraq, rapelling down from the rafters as a three-story American flag unfurled between them.  Then, the announcer asked us to celebrate one of those great American freedoms, the freedom of religion.  So he lead us in prayer, and sanctified us all — and the rodeo — in the name of Jesus Christ, the one true lord and savior.  I’ve never heard so much applause at the end of a prayer.

Anyway, my favorite part of the rodeo, other than the pyrotechnic-studded opening ceremonies, was the mutton busting.  In this event, little children, ages 4-6, hop on top of sheep and hang on to the fur for as long as they can.  I assume this is the training event for riding a bucking bronco or testicle-tied bull later on in life, but these kids are maniacs.  They wear helmets that resemble catchers’ masks to protect them from the inevitable fall from fleece.  As for the sheep, well…with the broncos, a couple cowboys on horses round up the wild horse and get him to calm down.  With sheep, they stick a cowboy in the middle of the arena with a sheep on a leash, and as the other sheep ditch their kids, one by one, they flock to the one in the middle of the ring.  By the end, the flock of ten can be easily led away from center stage because of the sheepish tendency to follow the herd.

Mutton-busting was certainly the highlight of the night — adorable prima donna rodeo kids in catchers’ masks falling off of sheep after three-second rides.  But we also saw bucking broncos, steer-wrestling — in which cowboys jump off horses and onto cows — calf-roping, bull-riding, and another good one, barrel racing.

Barrel racing is one of the few events that women actually ride, and, perhaps not coincidentally, it is one of the few events that actually requires skill at riding a horse at top speeds.  It’s hard to train to ride a bucking bronco; it seems to be one of those things that you just get better at by doing it over and over again and losing more and more precious brain cells.  But in barrel racing, women guide their horses around three oil barrels in tiny loops at top speeds.  This takes skill on a horse, and it doesn’t require the loss of brain cells.  Despite the mild misogyny that clung to the rodeo, these women could show the men a little something about riding a horse with speed, skill, and beauty.

We left the Nile with souvenirs of our cowboy night in hand, and tender, awkward feelings of Humane society love in our hearts as we felt alternately bad for the animals, but also for the cowboys, kids, and womend



October 17, 2006

I arrived in Montana about a week ago, after a roadtrip through the American West with a dear friend.  We stopped in Salt Lake City and visited the Mormon temple, the world’s coolest bookstore (Sam Weldon’s, I believe), and then drove an hour and a half out of our way to Promontory.  This stop was a particular kind of pilgrimage for me, after a summer in Yosemite and years of studying Western history.  It was a gray and rainy day, and the sun occasionally broke through the clouds and illuminated the rain-covered golden hillsides.  We ran inside, I bought a national parks pass, and we went to look at the railroad tie where the two lines met.

Numerous plaques line the path out from the visitor center to the tracks.  They commemorate the Chinese laborers, the Irish workers, the marvel of civil engineering, and the business sense of Stanford, Huntington, Crocker and Hopkins.  The tracks themselves don’t go anywhere anymore.  Years ago, a second-generation robber baron rerouted the transcontinental railroad and trains haven’t steamed through Promontory since.  In fact, there is no town of Promontory either.  It was just a temporary settlement of tents and shacks hastily slapped together to accommodate everyone who turned out for the placing of the golden spike.  All that’s left now is a visitor center, a defunct crossing, and some benches where during the summer, visitors can watch a reenactment of the placing of the spike.

There are no reenactments in October.  Not when it’s raining.  Ours was one of two cars in the parking lot.  When we walked through the glass doors out onto the plains of Utah, we saw the sign on the door.  The golden spike itself is at the Stanford Art Museum.  We had come almost 1200 miles just to be foiled in our moment of historical glory.  Out at the tracks, a metal tie marked the exact location of the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific.  In true park service style, the visitor center tried its darndest to present a patriotic yet politically correct version of the history.  They shied away from total glorification of the technological marvel and dedicated one display case to the Chinese and Irish workers.  I sighed at the disappointment of only seeing a replica of the spike, but we moved on through the desolate hills and pouring rain that turned the sky a blue shade of purple on into Idaho.

We stopped in Yellowstone, a park on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Golden Spike National Historic Site.  During the last weekend of the summer season, we were soaked by rainstorms and even dusted with a bit of snow.  We pushed on to Montana, where the weather in Billings greeted us with more of the same.  Today it is snowing again, probably three inches so far.  And it’s only the middle of October.

The San Francisco Chronicle

October 1, 2006

Rep. Mark Foley messed up bigtime. The Republican leadership messed up bigtime. And it’s hitting the news just in time for the midterm elections. So when the New York Times’ top front page Sunday headline is “Top G.O.P. aides knew in late ’05 of e-mail to page,” what does the San Francisco Chronicle print? “Red West shifting to Blue.” Granted, it’s an interesting election year story, and California is a Western state, but it is of dubious importance when something as big as the Foley scandal is happening, or the torture bill is still in the picture. Perhaps I ought to concede finally that the Chronicle really is out of touch with the rest of the media. Sure, it’s a quirky hometown paper, and I can always have a special place in my heart for the clapping man. But putting only a small mention to Foley on the front page, rather than a story? Maybe the Chron is only playing to the hometown constituency, knowing that most Bay Areans already think most Republicans are slimy and don’t need another reason to think so. But this is national headline-making news. And the story is on page A15. Get with it Chronicle. Make yourself relevant. Publish some news.