Eastern Oregon welcomes 800 of rodeo's top rough riders, bull riders, and ropers.
The cowboy hat feels wrong the moment I plant it on my head. The crown lumps too high, and the brim juts out flat and stiff. I look more like a rookie park ranger than a guy on his way to the rodeo.
“You’ve got it on backwards—here, let me see that,” says Rick Bishop, swiping the hat from my hand with the authority of a man who has spent the last 35 years shaping headgear for cowpokes and wannabes like me. He studies my face for an uncomfortable minute, then runs the hat over a high-powered steamer, curling the edges with his fingers like an expert pizzaiolo. “Try that,” he says, handing it back. The hat is now a classic cattleman’s fit: sleek and snug with curves in all the right places. In the mirror I find myself reaching for an imaginary six-gun, actually my cell phone. I pull it out and check the time. Round-Up is about to begin.
To visit Pendleton, Ore., an unassuming ranch town 200 miles east of Portland, during Round-Up is to lodge oneself in the tobacco-juiced jaw of the Old West’s most celebrated tradition. For one week each September, close to 800 of the sport’s top roughriders, bull riders, and ropers head to eastern Oregon for one of the last highlights of the rodeo season and a crack at nearly half a million dollars in prize money. Schools close, fiddle music fills the air, and a sea of Stetsons washes over Main Street to the resounding cheer of “Let ’er buck,” the same ripsnorting slogan used since the first pony galloped through the arena gates 100 years ago this fall.
The event lassos in attendees from as far away as Venezuela and Japan, yet Round-Up remains a down-home affair. The Friday morning Westward Ho Parade—a high-toned display of Western pomp replete with headdresswearing Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla Indians—proceeds much the way it did a century ago, amid the hoof clatter of horses and oxen. (Motorized vehicles are not allowed.) At the nightly Happy Canyon Indian Pageant, locals reenact the story of the frontier West, from the early American Indians to the Pony Express. They’ve been performing the show since 1913, often with the same roles handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, going back three generations. “We do everything we can to keep our little rodeo looking and feeling like it did when it started,” says Ann Terry Hill, coauthor of Pendleton Round-Up at 100: Oregon’s Legendary Rodeo. “Let’s just say we don’t do gloss.”
You might think differently after touring the Pendleton Woolen Mills, producers of the town’s brightest export, the Pendleton blanket. Since 1909, the mill—one of only a handful of its kind left in the country—has dyed, steamed, spun, twisted, and woven raw wool into enough colorful Nez Perce–style blankets, vests, and sports apparel to maintain 46 retail stores. Roy Bishop, one of the mill’s founders, was responsible for inviting local tribes to take part in Round-Up, and today the rodeo is attended by more American Indians than any other on the circuit.
To bone up on Round-Up’s past, I head to the Round-Up Hall of Fame. For years it resided on the rodeo grounds, not too far from the livestock pens, before moving to a roomier, spiffier location across the street. “You ask me, it’s missing the smell of horse dung,” grouses Tim Largent, a volunteer dressed almost entirely in denim. He paces me through 10 decades of Round-Up history with artifacts that include the winning saddle from the 1910 competition; a display on War Paint, the legendary bronco who tossed 90 percent of his riders; and a memorial to rodeo champ Yakima Canutt, who also served as Clark Gable’s stunt double in Gone with the Wind.
Then Largent directs me to a hall of fame of a different stripe: the famed Let ’Er Buck Room, tucked away beneath the grandstand. I sense I’m entering hallowed ground when the doorman confiscates my camera and eyes my cell phone suspiciously: “That thing take pictures?” Had I managed to snap a few, here’s what you’d see: one swirling mass of Western shirts and cowboy hats in various degrees of tilt. The bar pours hard drink only, and mostly whiskey.
I pry myself free from the Let ’Er Buck and take advantage of one of Pendleton’s greatest virtues—its walkability. Even with saddle sores you can easily amble the 10 blocks up SW Court Avenue as it skirts the Umatilla River to a downtown that was once called the “entertainment hub of eastern Oregon.” Near the end of the 19th century, the four-block area around South Main Street contained 32 bars and 18 brothels, making it a manifest destination for lonely miners and cowpokes. Today, you’ll find a hodgepodge of old-school diners (the Rainbow Cafe), folk art dens (the Pendleton Center for the Arts), and shops such as Hamley & Co., which has been outfitting chaps with chaps since 1883. The store’s hand-rendered saddles, long considered the gold standard, frequently appear in the rodeo arena.
And really, that’s where you want to be. Close to the snorting and grunting and shu√ing of the show. Peering down into the chute as a fresh-faced cowboy from Pawhuska, Okla., or Spanish Fork, Utah, lowers himself onto an angry-eyed animal whose every rippling muscle clenches in defiance. The chute will open. The beast will kick. And the rider will hang on for as long as he can. This is the magic of rodeo, and it’s busting loose in Pendleton.
Photography by Andréa Johnson
This article was first published in July 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.