If that’s a YeeHAW! you hear echoing down the corridors of your Fortune 500 company, or the distinctive click of boot heels on polished granite, there’s little question what’s happening. It’s Rodeo time in Houston.
Founded in 1931 as the Houston Fat Stock Show & Exposition, the name of the event’s been changed to Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, but for most Houstonians, it’s just The Rodeo – a melange of bronc riding, parades, baby animals, wine tastings, quilt exhibits, barbeque, trailrides, livestock auctions, concerts and calf scrambles that truly has something for everyone.
When the Rodeo’s in town, as it is now, everyone’s a cowboy or cowgirl. Even the slickest, most citified sort turns up at the office in boots and overblown belt buckles. People whose closest association with beef generally is the ribeye on their plate start discussing the finer points of breeding Simmental and Simbrah. Local broadcasters trail around behind trailriders, breathlessly reporting who’s cooking chili and whose horse pulled up lame, while dance studios try to accomodate a surge of people demanding classes in Western Swing and the Texas Two-Step.
It’s called Rodeo Fever, and even the most inveterate Yankee can catch it. I’m especially vulnerable, and have been since my first days in Houston. As a child, I didn’t long to be a princess, ballerina or nurse. I wanted to be a cowgirl. I didn’t want to jump ropes, I wanted to twirl them. I didn’t want to eat my carrots, I wanted to feed them to a horse. I didn’t care about about corn futures or spot trading in the soybean market. I tuned in to the noon market reports to sing along with the Sons of the Pioneers. Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds was my favorite and the most famous member of the group, Roy Rogers, was my hero. If he liked Dale Evans, well – I’d learn to put up with her, too.
I watched them on television, and yearned after their life. I seem to remember a box filled with Roy Rogers comic books. I know I had a signed Dale Evans photo. I carried my sandwich and apple to school in a Roy Rogers lunch box and my milk in a Dale Evans thermos. Eventually, I wore down my parents with incessant whining and got the cowgirl outfit I coveted, minus the boots but with a lovely pair of six-shooters and a beautiful, faux-tooled-leather holster. What the Smothers Brothers later sang as parody in their Streets of Laredo I believed to be true:
I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy,
I see by your outfit you are a cowboy, too.
We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys,
If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.
I had my outfit, and I loved it so much I outgrew it before I stopped wearing it. Still, despite the outfit, I was no cowgirl. It took a new life in Texas to move me beyond fantasy, giving me a sense of what “being a cowgirl” might entail.
Long before I became friends with some real Texas cowgirls, I began to hear the names of the famous ones. Most folks in the Coastal Bend know of Louise O’Connor, fifth-generation member of a family that’s been ranching near Victoria since 1834. Her first book, Cryin’ for Daylight, took its title from Will King, an itinerant cowhand who famously said, “We loved to work cattle so much we’d just be sittin’ around, crying for daylight to come…”
Connie Douglas Reeves taught generations of girls to ride at Camp Waldemar in Hunt, Texas before being tossed from her horse and dying at the age of 101. She taught far more than riding. Her most famous and most insistent bit of advice – Always saddle your own horse – has become the unofficial motto of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and a touchstone for thousands of people. I once found her words painted onto a cedar board that had been tucked into a pile of rocks along a deserted stretch of the Sabinal River. I never forgot them.
And always, there is Hallie Stillwell, who kept on ranching in Texas’ unforgiving Big Bend country for years after her husband’s death. Through a combination of classic sharp-shooting, political skill, quite ordinary town jobs and the syndication of a newspaper column, she managed to become one of the largest of the larger-than-life ranch women who populate the American West. My favorite image of Hallie, produced by artist Debbie Little-Wilson and called “Hallie’s Moon” was imprinted on t-shirts for the Texas State Arts & Crafts Festival in Kerrville, and still can be spotted on Texas streets.
One of first women ranchers I knew personally also had known Hallie. It’s true that, as author Kenneth B. Ragsdale wrote in his book Big Bend Country, “People throughout Texas either knew, claimed they knew or wanted to know Hallie Stillwell.” But this woman had known her and, as she put it, Hallie really knew what it meant to “cowgirl up”.
At the time, I didn’t have a clue what the phrase meant. I’ve since learned it’s a variant of an old rodeo warning call from the chute, “cowboy up” meaning the rider was seated up on the back of the bronco or bull and was ready for the gate to open. Over time, the expression took on a broader meaning, suggesting someone was ready and able to tackle the next challenge, physically and mentally prepared for difficult or dangerous tasks. When used as a verb, “cowboy up!” means, “Get with it. Don’t shirk your responsibility. Give it your best.”
One of the most vivid examples of a woman who understood what it meant to “cowgirl up” was Helen Bonham, a rodeo cowgirl who also served as Miss Wyoming. During the year of her reign she traveled the country, delighting crowds with her considerable skills. In 1920 she arrived in New York City to invite Mayor John Francis Hylan back to Wyoming for Frontier Days During her visit, the NY Times reported she would entertain 15,000 Girl Scouts during their annual Field Day by roping and riding her way through the Sheep Meadow in Central Park.
Travel can be frustrating, lonely and tiring, of course, even when undertaken in pursuit of a dream. From all accounts, Helen Bonham helped to balance the challenges of her life by staying in touch with those she’d left behind. With no email, twitter, Facebook or messaging to help her out, she coped just as previous generations of travelers had coped. She wrote letters.
This famous postcard, showing Helen using her saddle as a desk for letter-writing, was used by Debbie Little-Wilson as the basis for her print, St. Helen Bonham, Protector of Email. I already knew Debbie’s work, having purchased She Made Her Own Groceries some time before. When I saw her Cowgirl Saints series, there was no question that St. Helen, along with Debbie’s interpretation of her importance, would have to come home with me.
While rodeo cowgirl Helen Bonham corresponded religiously back home,
she would never have imagined that one day letters would travel at the blink of an eye.
She would have ridden cyberspace with the same daring as she did her horse.
Saint Helen protects the sending and receiving of email
and the mystery of it all.
Today, that framed print of Saint Helen hangs above my computer desk. She’s been there for several years, watching over my wisdom and my foolishness alike. She never had a computer, while I never got my horse and saddle. Still, she wrote in her way and I’m riding on in mine, both of us beneficiaries of traditions still being lived out in the hidden corners and far reaches of a country that never will be fenced: traditions of self-reliance, adaptability, resourcefulness and flat hard work that mark life in a country called Tomorrow.
Perhaps, in the end, roping calves and wrangling words have more in common than we imagine. The solitude of riding the fences and the solitude of writing certainly are related, and the fact that so many cowgirls and ranch women also are accomplished writers may be no mistake.
What is certain is that the Smothers Brothers’ humorous parody was flat wrong: an “outfit” is neither necessary nor sufficient for successfully riding the range. Generations of ranch women have given the rest of us wisdom enough for a life. All that is needed for success is a good horse, a clear eye, a steady hand and a ready willingness to “cowgirl up”.