Willcox rodeo

October 04, 2009 at 9:00 PM • Filed under Arizona cattle round-up 2009

Today, Cochise County, Arizona, still looks more like it did in 1888 (or even 1588) than Tucson or St. Louis or Philadelphia or nearly anyplace. But it’s easy to get a bit worried. This dry grassland plateau – flanked on all four sides by stunning purple mountain majesties and covered with a bowl of bright blue nearly every day – still resembles the place where the Chiricahua Apache were photographed towards the end of their existence, and where fearless – some would say reckless – white settlers brought cattle and the Pony Express soon after the Civil War. Indeed, when you’re at the foot of the Dragoon Mountains and you stop in your tracks to listen to the rustle of manzanitas, the clank of a metal gate closing in the distance, or the barking of a dog, the sounds are so evocative that the Apache seem to have left just a few days ago, and a ranch wife is about to come out of her adobe cottage and greet you with a piece of pie. 

Yet today there is also an interstate highway running through this tan-colored county, and every year more and more cheaply-built ranch houses with satellite dishes seem to sprout up with the summer rains. Fewer cattle are apparent during drives down the county’s needle-straight highways, and the multiplying fast food outlets serve beef that’s come from Brazil or Nebraska, not from here. You hear about people living in Cochise County who commute to Tucson for desk jobs, you hear about an expansion of the 12,000-cow dairy which will deplete the county of even more water, and you wonder if one day the past will just pack its bags and hitch it on outta here. 

Which is why it’s a relief to attend a rodeo on the outskirts of Willcox, the largest town in the county. Not that rodeos aren’t subject to the same commercialism as most everything that happens these days. Not that a rodeo is really anything but entertainment. But when you watch men and women rope calves, subdue feisty bulls, saddle bucking horses and gallop on horseback as fast as the wind, it reminds you that the old Western ways haven’t died but are still present in a handful of people – as if they were an endangered breed of livestock and the rodeos were giving them a place to live and flourish. 

I went to the Willcox rodeo with my aunt and three English women who were staying at my aunt’s guest ranch. As we stood outside the open-air arena to get tickets, I turned to the British ladies and said, “You can’t git more ‘marekin than this!” The rodeo announcer quickly obliged by then instructing us to sing the national anthem, and then he encouraged us to give a warm welcome to Missy, the Sonoita Rodeo Queen, a young woman on horseback who was festooned in a glittery sequined shirt that was probably visible from the peaks of the Chiricahuas. We were told that her favorite phrases went something like this: “Everyone’s got a little crazy in them” and “God created horses for women as an apology for men.” 

From the bleachers we watched strong and good-looking men in ubiquitous black cowboy hats emerge from paddocks to basically confront and subdue some seriously feisty animals. Could you blame them? (The animals I mean.) How would you like to be sat on or roped or covered with a bulky leather seat?  But the bulls and steers and broncos – special “bucking stock” raised by outfits that provide animals to rodeos – all looked in good health and seemed well taken care of. As the announcer said, they only work two-and-a-half minutes a year. (“Where can I get an application for that job?”) 

As I watched all the activities from the bleachers, I was imagining the day when a local food economy would stretch from sea to shining sea – meaning that what Americans ate would come primarily from where they lived, supplementing their diet with imports of whatever couldn’t grow there – and meaning that all the cattle ranching skills I was observing would return as more than just entertainment but as skills practiced by ranchers and farmers feeding people locally. I imagined that the burgers being served at the rodeo concession stand would contain meat raised on grass and slaughtered just down the road. The kids eating the burgers might work as skilled local butchers, proud of their work. And we visitors to the Cochise County would eat whatever grew best on the grasslands, and maybe we would consume the bounty of people foraging responsibly in the mountains. 

In other words, what would go into people’s bellies would be pretty much what went into those bellies in 1888 or 1588. And the rodeo guys and gals would help make it so.