Thursday, September 22, 2005

Pendleton Round-Up offers glimpse at history

ECHO, Ore. – It was a return to the old stompin’ grounds. Familiar territory. The land of my youth and the place where I came of age.

The assignment: Cover the 2005
Pendleton Round-Up. They call it the Pendleton Round-Up, but it is the hometown rodeo for cowboys and rodeo fans throughout Northeast Oregon and Southeast Washington. I grew up here, a mere 35 miles west of the Round-Up Grounds and, like most families in the area, we attended some aspect of the Round-Up virtually every year. So going back this year was familiar, yet surreal and foreign. I don’t know if it was the event that had changed or me.

I covered my first Round-Up exactly 20 years ago, the 75th anniversary edition in 1985. I was a freshman in college, and working for my hometown newspaper the
East Oregonian. All summer long had been a build up to that one big week.

I spent the summer of 1985 learning about being a journalist and a newspaper photographer. I don’t remember the first picture I got published in the East Oregonian. But I do remember the first picture that I took that got sent out on the Associated Press wire.

It was, perhaps appropriately, from the Pendleton Round-Up. It was a photo of a guy riding in one of the rough stock events, saddle bronc I believe. He got bucked off and was falling backward onto the distinctive grass infield of the Round-Up Grounds, his mount still bucking and him hovering just off the ground, a fraction of a second before his posterior hit the turf.

I don’t know where else the photo may have been published, but it appeared on one of the Oregonian’s section fronts, which was pretty heady stuff at the time. I was on Cloud 9.

That was the summer I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I went back to Oregon State a week or so after Round-Up and soon changed my major from business to technical journalism. Newspaper ink got into my blood. And I didn’t know it at the time, but rodeo dust got in there as well.

I spend the next several Septembers covering the Pendleton Round-Up as an intern for the East Oregonian, now a sister paper of the
Capital Press.

In the years between then and now, I’ve worked all over the Oregon and California, with the bulk of my professional career spent at newspapers in California. And during that time I’ve covered rodeos in Barstow, Calif. and Springville, Calif., and attended the National Finals Rodeo almost every year since 1991 in Las Vegas with a group of rodeo fans, farmers and ranchers mostly, from Umatilla County.

But coming back to Pendleton for the 95th running of the Round-Up was odd, full of nostalgia and uncertainty, a homecoming equal parts bitter and sweet. Pendleton’s Round-Up is steeped in tradition. The event and the grounds have not changed too much. For hard-core rodeo fans, few seats offer a good view of the action. No matter where you sit, in one event or another, you are far removed from the action. Perhaps it will always be difficult to have an intimate spectator experience at a venue that seats 17,000-plus and which during most of the year doubles as a the Pendleton High School football stadium.

The grass infield at the arena makes it a challenge for calf ropers and steer wrestlers to turn out the sort of fast times they are accustomed too in the sport, but not impossible as Tommy Cook proved Saturday en route to his steer wrestling title with a 3.9-second run.

And for barrel racers, and their horses, they have to run much longer distances and a larger pattern than any other rodeo anywhere. I heard one contestant this week refer to Pendleton as an “old-timey rodeo.” That’s probably true and something of which Round-Up officials and fans are proud. But there are many better venues in which to watch a rodeo, including the arena for the
Farm-City Pro Rodeo just down the road in Hermiston.

But the Round-Up is not just a rodeo. It is a city’s identity wrapped around a series of events including the rodeo, Happy Canyon Pageant, Westward Ho! Parade, Main Street show and carnival, Indian pow-wow, a concert and Western exposition. But for many, if not most, non competitors it’s mostly a four-plus-day party for people from around the Northwest and the world. This year, a crew from Germany were among those covering the event.

It’s tempting to say Pendleton is stuck in a time warp, with all the positive and negative connotations that may imply. But there have been changes. Team roping wasn’t always part of the event. It wasn’t added until 1991. The barrel racing event, now a staple, didn’t become a part of the Round-Up until 2000. The stage coach race, a longtime tradition, is no more. Gone also are the wild horse and squaw races.

The city and the event now have a brand of
Canadian Whisky named for them, and the chewing tobacco company and frequent rodeo sponsor, U.S. Tobacco Co., was noticeably absent from the grounds, banned from giving away free samples by the city.

The Pendleton Round-Up will forever be the community event and rodeo against which I measure all other community events and rodeos. Not many stack up to that prestige and tradition. Sometimes, not even the Pendleton Round-Up itself compares.

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