The other night, I found myself in the same spot I am most evenings, sitting around the campfire with a mess o’ fellow cowboys. There, over a dinner of instant skillet cornbread and Bush’s Grillin’ Beans, our merry band endeavored to spin tall tales of life on the range, each more fantastic than the last. After a while, however, a sobriety descended over the men, an ill-at-ease feeling for which the beans were only partly to blame. One of the cattlemen—Clem, let’s say—began to lament the decline of cowboy ways in these parts. “Houstonians have strayed from their founding myth like Campbell’s Southwest Chili from Joseph Campbell,” he mumbled, his words producing a slew of nods around the fire.
Torrents of moaning and self-flagellation followed, Clem having opened up the corral of collective soul-searching. These days, the lion’s share of Houstonians has never even ridden a horse, said one of the cowhands. Still fewer have ridden lions, added a rancher. Fewer still can say posse with a straight face, complained some guy with a lariat. Off in the distance, a singing cowboy could be heard, crooning a melancholy ditty about the days when ranching wasn’t something confined to the Hidden Valley, when round-ups weren’t just about killing weeds, when heifer scrambling wasn’t something performed on webcams for private viewing.
Normally silent at these gatherings, our faithful injun guide Rajiv sprang to life, summing up the sentiments of all present in three words. “Whither the rodeo?”
It was only then that I realized the extent of the men’s confusion and malaise. My mind reeling, my head full of dizzy thoughts for which the beans were only partly to blame, I suddenly felt moved to mount a spirited and intermittently cogent paean to rodeoing in our own time. I reproduce it here in hopes that it might persuade skeptics of all stripes.
Descendants of this duplicitous land, understand that the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is what it always was, the love child of a ruddy, prairie-loving dirt-scratcher and a drugstore cowboy who was just looking for an excuse to buy lizard-skin boots. Which is to say that the Rodeo is at once eternally authentic and happily fake, exactly like the city in which it was born. Think of it as another instance of Houston’s inclusive ethos, of its instinct for eschewing the either-or and welcoming everything—the cattle calls and shopping malls, roping steers and bioengineers, Conestoga and Bikram yoga, leather and leatherette. To embrace these antinomies is to become a true Houstonian, and to achieve a clarity of vision, degree of satisfaction, and sense of peace such that is only found in those who do not eat the beans.