Ropin 'n' riding, bulls 'n' broncs in Vermont's Green Mountains
CASTLETON, Vt. -- Handmade road signs for the day's big event greeted us as we turned off Route 4: ``Hubbardton Battlefield -- 7 miles," they read.
It was what you might expect to find in a small New England town: rich Colonial history in the form of a Revolutionary War re enactment. But we hadn't driven four hours to watch muskets being fired in mock anger.
Heck no -- we were going to the rodeo!
Specifically, the Pond Hill Pro Rodeo, the only weekly rodeo in New England, complete with bucking broncos, bull riding, calf roping, barrel races, and plenty of cowboys crying ``Yee-haw !"
At least that's what I imagined they would yell .
In truth, we didn't know what to expect from a Vermont rodeo. It's not as if you hear about fall foliage tours in Oklahoma, after all.
And we had our doubts. ``Does anyone go to this thing?" my companion, Laura, asked as we snaked up a long, desolate, dirt road just beyond Castleton center on our way to Pond Hill Ranch. ``I guess we'll find out," I shrugged.
But Pond Hill, a 2,000-acre working ranch surrounded by the Green Mountain National Forest in west central Vermont, did not disappoint us. Harry and Josephine O'Rourke started hosting Saturday night rodeos during the summer 35 years ago at the suggestion of a friend. Today, their five children -- Harry, Colleen, Judy, Debbie, and Dickie -- run the show, a 2-hour extravaganza with lots of cowboys, nearly 100 riders, prize money, rodeo clowns, cotton candy, and colorful calls by announcer Don Martin as bull riders get tossed with great regularity.
``The sport of bull riding -- I call it eight seconds of sheer terror!" Martin exclaimed over the loudspeaker system as a 1,500-pound bull raced out of the gate, his rider flailing atop him, briefly. ``One point eight. One point eight seconds for that cowboy! Let's give him a nice hand anyway!"
Pickup trucks start pouring into the parking lot around 6:30 each Saturday night from July through Labor Day. Lights perched on scrawny poles blink on, and by the 8 p.m. starting time, anywhere from 500 to 1,500 spectators, mostly blue-collar locals, take their seats on metal bleachers alongside the rectangular dirt ring.
The scene is reminiscent of a high school football field on a Friday night, except for the country music blaring from the speakers, the omnipresent smell of manure, and the fact that just about everyone is dressed in sequined, Western-style shirts, leather boots, and/or cowboy hats.
I looked at Laura's summer dress while she glanced at my cargo shorts and sneakers. We sure didn't look like we belonged.
But New England cowboys are an inviting crowd. Harry O'Rourke explained the seven traditional rodeo events on the program; Pond Hill's rodeo is sanctioned by both the American Professional Rodeo Association and the International Professional Rodeo Association and is one of the oldest weekly events in the country. Then he walked us over to the bull holding pen.
``Bulls are judged on their bucking ability," he said, looking over the herd. ``You may have a bull that may be the orneriest or the meanest one in the pen, but if he don't perform as a bucking bull, he don't score that well. The harder they are to ride, the more valuable they are to us."
Martin, a former rodeo rider who turned to announcing 17 years ago, asked if I knew where the first unionized professional rodeo was held. He surprised me with the answer: Boston Garden, 1936. He talked about just how hard the life of a rodeo cowboy can be. They spend months traveling a circuit, often stopping in a town for a single night before traveling hundreds of miles to their next competition. The top finishers in each event at Pond Hill share a few hundred dollars in prize money, while the rest get nothing but bumps and bruises.
It's a low-pay, physically grinding, and, sometimes glorious profession, said bull rider Robby Shriver, of Georgia, an old man in the sport at 29.
``If you've got the wrong bull, it's like flying in an airplane and someone shoving a ton of bricks out the plane, with a 40-foot cord attached to you. When it [pulls] that cord, you're out the plane, too," Shriver said. ``But when you've got the right bull and the right timing, there's no better feeling than having little babies to grandmothers just laughing. That's how I get high. And it don't cost nothing, other than my body."
It wasn't long before we got to see what Shriver was talking about. As a glowing peach moon began setting over the panoramic Adirondacks to the west -- and I wondered whether we were closer to Montpelier or Montana -- Martin took his spot in the announcer's booth and called forth the traditional ``Grand Entry."
As twangy music played, a cavalcade of nearly 90 riders on horseback emerged from an open gate. Led by Harry and Dickie O'Rourke, the finely dressed men and women (you could see the ironed creases on their shirts) circled the dirt ring in various patterns, tipping their hats to the crowd. The last to emerge was Judy O'Rourke, a Miss America on a horse, with a sparkling red, white, and blue outfit and a staff with a giant American flag in her hand.
The opening event was bull riding, with Shriver leading off. Having drawn bull No. 60 -- bulls are assigned to contestants at random, and if you get a bad one, yep, you've drawn a bum steer -- Shriver climbed into Gate 2 at the end of the ring. His goal? Stay on top of the beast for eight seconds, the length of an official qualifying ride.
The gate burst open and out leaped big No. 60, thrashing up, down, back and forth, his massive head jerking about as Shriver held on with a single hand. One second passed. Two seconds. The crowd began to roar. Three seconds. Four. The bull ricocheted left, then right, then left again, with Shriver somehow staying on. Five. Six. ``Come on , Robby! Come on!" I yelled. Seven! Eight! Buzzer!
Shriver slid off as fast as he could and scampered away as Harry O'Rourke and a pair of clowns stepped in to corral the raging bull.
``I tell you what, ladies and gentlemen. That was a double hard bull to ride," called Martin. ``That bull made more moves than I've ever seen one make. I don't know how a man can keep his composure and stay on. But Robby Shriver did that."
Over the course of the next few hours, we were hooked. We cheered with the crowd, soaked in the smell of fried dough , and joked about how much money it would take for us to climb aboard a raging bull. Shriver's ride seemed all the more impressive as a succession of other bull riders were thrown after just two or three seconds. One bull rammed his rider into the chain link fence as he bucked him off. Holding his arm as if it were broken, the cowboy jogged to the ambulance parked outside the gate as we nervously applauded his effort.
Another bull was so wild it leaped up while still in the pen, its front hooves pushing on the gate as if it were dog pushing a door. The cowboys inside appeared to get out safely.
With nearly 100 contestants to fit in, there were few breaks in the action. Calf roping came next, followed by steer wrestling, women's barrel racing, women's break away roping, team roping, and bareback bronc riding.
At half time, a synchronized riding drill team took the ring. By the end of the night, we had watched so many riders that, even from our city slicker perspective, we could tell a good ride from a bad one.
Unlike many of the fans in the stands, we didn't know the rodeo was a BYOB event. But that was just as well. The ride up and the length of the rodeo (it ended at 10:45 p.m.) made for a long, but entertaining, day.
``We get just about more bull riders here on a Saturday night than just about anywhere in the country," Martin told the crowd as another unlucky contestant was sent flying. ``This cowboy came all the way out of Mississippi, and all he's going to take back is a little bit of this Castleton sand."Contact Peter DeMarco at firstname.lastname@example.org.