When it’s 1998, and it’s your literal job that day to tailgate in a truck down six-lane Geneva Avenue surrounded by horned cattle, horses, their riders, sheepdogs, and a real rodeo princess, you can get a little stoked on your life.
You might even feel cocky towards your two fictional counterparts of the day, Bridget Jones of Bridget Jones’ Diary and Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City. They could never; they would never. Their beats, in London and New York respectively, seemed boring compared to mine in the Bay.
The Cow Palace Grand National Rodeo needed its cows to show up for work, and the cows couldn’t make it from the trains to the rodeo grounds without walking. That’s the best time to invite the press to come take a look and promote the show.
Here we were, right where the railroads used to transport livestock, in a truck, then on asphalt, surrounded by gigantic rock-star rodeo cattle with goring horns. We felt so post-apocalyptic, or pre-industrial, or farmpunk, or just … definitely in a heavy metal comic book fantasy at least.
This Cattle Call twenty years ago this week still qualifies as one of the all-timer press-pass highlights of my surreal journalism career with the SF Bay Guardian. What’s not to love about a modern American cattle drive?
And no I forgot to ask so I don’t know who if anyone cleaned up the poop, or if commuters on Geneva Ave just had to swerve and deal with cow-bombs all day. Been wondering that one ever since.
Cattle Call: Steer wrestling, beef jerky, and 101 other uses for a cow at the Grand National Rodeo.
by Summer Burkes, 11.03.1998
We treat cows in the strangest ways. We eat them, wear them, and drink fluids siphoned from their bodies. We also run with them, wave capes at them, worship them, toss their dung in contests, display their horns as hood ornaments, and tip the sleeping ones over when we’re drunk. [Do NOT do that, it hurts them badly. -ed] And at rodeos we smugly celebrate our domination of the food chain by riding, wrestling, roping, and humiliating them. Talk about playing with your food.
The San Francisco Grand National Rodeo, Horse, and Stock Show is the last qualifying rodeo on the circuit before the championships in Vegas, where the most skilled cowboys and cowgirls win up to $4 million in prizes.
The 10-day event kicks off with a morning cattle drive from the end of Geneva Avenue to the appropriately named-once-a-year Cow Palace.
As the event begins, a small gathering of onlookers sidesteps steaming horse piles while dashing cowboys in tight Wranglers unload, prod, and drive the longhorns through the city streets to the venue. We ride in the back of a pickup truck ahead of (and perilously close to) the stampede as a confident Australian sheepdog plays mouse to the bulls’ elephant, somehow intimidating the giants to stay in a group.
These are the chosen ones, I think to myself, handpicked from the hamburger line and thrust into a long life of entertainment and travel. The cowboys swing lassos and chew gum and say things like “hyah” and “tally ho”; eager photographers dart among the trotting bulls; just about every animal pees as soon as the stampede comes to a standstill; and the sparkling, perfectly groomed Miss Grand National sits poised on her palomino in the middle of it all.
The rodeo itself is a three- to four-hour affair each day. The concourse at the Cow Palace is stuffed with souvenirs and cowboy gear for sale: hats, spurs, lassos, saddles, blankets, gun safes, ugly T-shirts, and — of all things — instant microwave pork rinds.
There are not one, but two stands devoted entirely to beef jerky. (Sad sign that I live in the city: a wall of whips and bridles brings S-M to mind, not the horses they’re meant for.) Sheep and swine have their own pavilion and a petting zoo keeps the kids happy, but the real action is in the giant, oval, dirt-covered arena.
The lineup today begins quietly: after a competition in which riders look like lawn ornaments and pristine horses hurdle over shi-shi limbo-bar arrangements surrounded by plants and lattice, the aforementioned Miss Grand National and horse tear out from backstage and lap the track at lightning speed. She waves, smiles, and sits as still as if she were on a chair.
“Isn’t she a little dolly? Isn’t she?” says the patronizing announcer, over and over again.
The live Fox Channel footage begins with the bareback bronc-riding competition. A hatch is released, a blur of movement darts from it, and a man — apparently sewn to an angry horse at the crotch — is waved about like a rag doll as the beast beneath him bucks and rears with all the force of a hydraulic engine.
A buzzer sounds after eight seconds, and one cowboy-helper rides alongside the animal and snatches the rider off as another herds the animal backstage. Bronc riding is judged partly on style and partly on the horse’s buck. In other words, if your horse can’t dance, you ain’t got no points.
One unlucky rider’s horse bucks for a minute and then stands stock-still. Another bucks so spastically that it runs into the wall. Oops. You lose.
During the next event a steer is released from a pen and a portly rider jumps off his horse, (ahem) grabs the bull by the horns, and snaps its neck to one side so that it flops over. Ding! Five seconds.
This is steer wrestling, and it seems to be the WWF of rodeo sports — not that it’s by any means easy, but hey, if you snap anything’s neck at that trajectory, it’s going to lose its balance. The team-roping event humiliates a few more steer: one guy lassos the horns of the creature, and the other aims for the back feet on the up-kick in order to subdue, stretch, and practically draw and quarter the poor thing.
Calf roping proves the hardest event to watch, although the roping doesn’t seem to actually hurt the calves. Overwhelmed by bright lights, stampeding horses, and the confusion of being hog-tied by strange men, the critters have the shit scared out of them (sometimes literally).
Again, a strange rule: if the calf doesn’t struggle to get free once it’s hog-tied, the cowboy is disqualified. Several calves lie on the ground hopelessly, fully expecting to become veal parmigiana. But one spunky calf-inator struggles, frees itself, and scurries around the ring for a full 10 minutes before finally being dragged backstage by four cowboys. (That’ll do, calf. That’ll do.)
The main event — bull riding — draws the most morbid attention of the day. Several times cowboys come within inches of severe spinal-cord injury; several times horns graze human flesh. Happily (or is it sadly?), no one is injured.
The ambulance lies dormant after four hours of ego vs. Nature, and the great Merle Haggard takes the stage to perform his regular-guy, American flag-obsessed, Bakersfield country. We head towards the exit. On the way out, chewing on a piece of beef jerky, I purchase a leather wallet. My cow says “Keep on Truckin’.”
Humans: 1, animal kingdom: 0
This is the 30th entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).
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