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Get your boots and head on down to the Livermore Rodeo.


Photography by Lane Hartwell

Each breath of air tastes faintly of dust. Vendors hawk cowboy hats in more colors than you’ll find in a Crayola box. Kids munch on corn dogs and cotton candy, and dive into baskets of curly fries so large that Super Size Me’s Morgan Spurlock would have a heart attack just looking at them. Men carry beverages—Budweiser, of course—exceeded in size only by the brass buckles on their belts. Women wear cutoff shirts and jeans so tight they must have been painted onto their hips. No matter where I walk, country music twangs in my ears. This is the Bay Area?

You’re darn right this is the Bay Area, pardner—home of California cuisine, the Grateful Dead, the People’s Republic of Berkeley, Nancy Pelosi, and “the world’s fastest rodeo.”

The Livermore Rodeo is actually much older than these other local cultural icons. It was started in 1918, during World War I, to raise money for the Red Cross and has been held every year since. The event posits the sort of old-fashioned values that haven’t changed much since 1918. During the Grand Entry, in which old wagons and horses bearing rodeo queens past and present circled the arena, I heard three unique renditions of “God Bless America,” including an epic spoken-word version the length of which put Ronan Tynan’s Yankee Stadium performance to shame. Flags flew everywhere the eye could see, even way up above, when a skydiver parachuted into Robertson Park with a star-spangled banner that could have blanketed the arena.

Sounds like a real redneck paradise, don’t it? Maybe so, maybe no. Looking up and down the grandstand, I see more than one African American family wearing cowboy hats. I sit between a white mom with her two sandy-haired children and a group of Latino men duded up in Western wear. I chat with the mom—it’s her first rodeo—as the men are engrossed in the action.

The action, by the way, is nonstop. After all the pomp and splendor of the Grand Entry, not a moment is wasted between the events, from bareback riding to tie-down riding, team roping to saddle-bronc riding, steer wrestling to wild-cow milking, barrel racing to bull riding. There’s a reason this is called the world’s fastest rodeo—the entire show clocks in at less than three hours. Any delay is lightened by the banter between the rodeo clown and the PA announcer.

“This is top-notch,” Clint Selvester, the rodeo clown, tells me. “The contestants they get, the facility, the fans, everything. You guys, seriously, have one of the best rodeos around.”

Selvester is especially right about the cowboys. You can’t help but admire their talent and toughness. They lasso sprinting cows as if the animals were standing still. They’re thrown from horses and bulls in terrifying fashion, and pop right up, even if they’re hurt. A bulldogger leaps from the saddle of his horse to grab a running steer around the neck—did I mention that these things have big horns?—and wrestles it to the ground. Barrel racers, female riders all, push their horses around corners at breakneck speed. Bull riders risk severe injury (falling, getting stomped on, or even being gored) to stay atop their mounts for just eight seconds.

Only one event comes close to matching bull riding in popularity. The quirky 180 Wild-Cow Milking involves two cowboys and one big wild cow. The first cowboy, atop a horse, must chase down the cow and lasso it. Once the animal is roped, a second cowboy runs up on foot and grabs the cow around the neck, wrestling it to a standstill. Then, the first cowboy jumps from his horse, reaches between the cow’s back legs, and draws a few drops of milk from the cow’s udders. The sight is a bit surreal, even more amusing than it sounds.

The whole experience is rather strange, but inside the gates, it feels totally natural. As I start the engine of my car at the end of the day, I feel a bit of regret about driving back into the 21st century. Then, I remember a lesson I learned from watching those tough-as-nails riders: Cowboys don’t cry. They just get back in the saddle.

Livermore Rodeo, June 14–15. Gates open at 10 a.m., rodeo from 2 to 5 p.m., $18, (925) 447-3008, www.livermorerodeo.org.

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