High Culture in the Wild West

Sunday I witnessed the rowdiest rodeo in the modern West, Monday guzzled oysters in a chic private residence in Napa.


Not really.

Both raw, both exquisite, both intricately sophisticated and stimulating.

I had flown into California Tuesday to check on the family farm. By Saturday I was exhausted and needed to ?get out of Dodge.? So I told my aunt I planned to go see the wildflowers in Bear Valley.

?Oh, Matt W. is up at the Stonyford Rodeo this weekend,? she responded. Matt W. is a dear old family friend. Not that old, but dear. In the ?I gotta see him? category.

I played text tag with Matt W. but had no confirmation by Sunday morning. Stonyford is a long dusty drive. So I charged up my camera batteries and planned to go just as far as the wildflowers.

I was thrilled to hear my phone ping as I reached a high point on the road out of Lake County in my gray rental car. Matt W. had planned to head back to the city but would stay a few more hours to wait for me.

I had never been to the rodeo and several people at breakfast swore the rodeo was not this weekend but still two weeks out. I didn?t care. The last time I?d seen Matt W. he was celebrating his sister?s husband?s citizenship with a spirited Mexican party in the driveway of his childhood home, a home with garden art featuring toilets. His family was in the septic cleaning business. He was that crazy. He knew how to make a mean margarita and he thought nothing of driving five hours to see some cowboys get bounced around a dirt arena.

Bear Valley, when approached from the south broadens quickly, never quite becoming flat, providing idyllic home to bovine billionaires, rich in a wealth of flora. Or so I think of them.

Happy cows.

Every spring that I can muster it, I head up through the winding canyon that drains the basin, along the winding dirt road from Highway 29, to soak up acres of orange poppies, dark purple lupine and whatever bright wonder, whether brilliant pink wild geranium, dark purple-blue larkspur or the palettes of Indian paintbrush selected by the natural whims of rain, wind and evaporative cooling to color the otherwise drab soils. I wanted to pull over to take pictures, but I knew Matt was waiting for me.

North of Sacramento about two hours, Bear Valley lies between the hot, dry central Valley of California and the coastal range. Classic basin and range landscape, it is home to the sometimes gangly, often elegant spreading oak trees that have come to characterize California for me.

Stonyford is located at the northern reach of this valley, a place known for its rough cowboy culture. An annual social and religious event, the rodeo is choice for those stars of the cowboy culture amidst which I grew up in western Montana. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) puts on the show here, expanding the population of the tiny town from 250 to 5000+ the first weekend in May. My cousins recall riding three days north from Lake County for the event, camping the whole way.

I can?t think of much I?d rather do after spending days talking to bankers and accountants, walking up and down rows of grapevines all day.

But as I came to the third and final intersection in the expanse of Bear Valley I considered my options. I could go left into the Snow Mountain Wilderness and hide in its tall pines, or I could go right into Colusa County via roughly upturned escarpments, rangy oaks and waving grasses. I chose the direct path north and my heavy-on-features, light-on-traction rental car climbed, spinning, out of a creek bed, I noticed an uncomfortable proximity of horse trailers, tents, large pickup trucks and RVs clustered at the edge of the stream.

Maybe it really was rodeo weekend.

I figured Matt would be found in the town bar.

But when I pulled in to the only intersection in town, it was quite clear the rodeo was in full swing. A booming voice known only to rodeos and auction houses permeated everything within miles. The dust rising from the south end of town meant cattle, horses, excitement.

Confirming my suspicions, I saw a t-shirt that read ?I survived the Stonyford Rodeo Campground.?

I hesitated to pay the $14 entry fee when I learned from three large ladies dressed entirely in pink, that the rodeo was about wrapped up. ??Bout an hour left,? I was informed.

?Calf ropin?, bull ridin? and then, well, that?s about it.?

I asked if I could get a discount, seeing as it was 4 p.m. The most attentive large pink lady turned to ask a larger pink lady.

Then a tan, dusty cowboy as good-looking as anything this side of Paul Newman, strode up and slapped his money down. He had rushed to get here after work. He didn?t wait for his change.

I didn?t wait for the pink decision, just paid up and went in.

?Clayton someone. . .and Crystal something, the bull underneath ?im,? a booming voice informed me. I heard the distinctive clink of a gate and black bull bounced out across the ring, wheeling a tiny cowboy off to one side as he did so.

?Aw,? the announcer was sympathetic.

The bull reversed and went after his rider, a clown waving a bright yellow hat to distract. Gatekeepers and observers flew up the fences as the bull neared.

I was back home in Montana and about ten years old.

How had I lived two hours south of here for 20 years without making it up to this legendary Western event? The 71st annual Stonyford Rodeo was my first.

I found my friend, who was wearing Narc glasses, in my era known as ?aviators,? so shiny I saw my own sunburned nose in their reflection as I went to hug him.

Watching the 71st annual Stonyford Rodeo.
Watching the 71st annual Stonyford Rodeo.

The next cowboy had a good ride, making it through the terrible, jolting eight second ride to the buzzer. But pretty soon, as is certain to occur at every rodeo ever, someone got hurt.

We watched the bull and rider emerge sideways from the red gate for a brief whirl. Soon the cowboy was in the dirt and the bull was mad. A clown intervened quickly but not before the bull stepped on the man.

Every bull ride looks to me like someone getting hurt. The crowd studies the rider as he gets up and staggers to the nearest fence. This time, the rider didn?t stand. He was on his hands and knees, his head down low. I could tell he was in pain. We all could. The clown was protecting him, his back to the man, watching the bull.

Two other cowboys stood ready to lift the man on the ground over the gate should the bull circle back. Two others on horses herded the bull away, tossing their lassos eventually to pull him to the exit chute.

The announcer suggested that if the paramedics were around maybe they should c?mon over. Soon two men in dark blue uniforms emerged and walked across the arena. It seemed to me they should be running. Soon a vehicle equipped with a stretcher slipped into the ring from somewhere. Then the announcer was holding up the man?s boot, which had been cut off from his foot. ?This here?s a two-hundred dollar boot,? he said, ?Size nine and uh half ? we got all the information we need, whaddya say we buy this cowboy a new pair of boots??

He chose a young girl from the stands and told her to pass her hat around. People pulled twenty-dollar bills out and stuffed them in.

When I tried to stuff Matt?s twenty into the hat, it reached overflow and money started falling everywhere. Someone contributed a plastic bag, thousands of dollars fell into it.

?Good folks,? we agreed.

As we headed out from the rodeo grounds Matt told me about last night?s dancing, gesturing how old men who could hardly walk were twirling women around. ?It?s a sight to see,? he said.

We headed, for a cold swim, to the Stonyford reservoir, a muddy artificial lake filling what had doubtless been a stunningly beautiful valley. Last time I had gone swimming with Matt, maybe 15 years ago, we had gone skinny dipping in a clear Lake County spring-fed pond. This time we looked east to a fishing party with folding chairs and west to a family having a picnic out of two pickups. Then I changed reluctantly into my swimsuit on one side of the car, Matt changed into his shorts on the other.

After a cool dip that involved swimming after drifting plastic trash, we climbed back up the hill to the rental, changed into dry clothes and climbed back into my car. When we returned to the rodeo grounds people were still slowly packing up. A semi truck hooked up to a giant RV roared past us in first gear, a garbage collector wrestled an overflowing can and a woman in tight jeans folded up tables on which I?d seen hats, turquoise jewelry and rebel flags displayed. All of it was getting stuffed into a horse trailer.

Before we said good-bye, Matt heading home to Berkeley and I to Lake County, Matt advised: ?You must check out the Timberline,? indicating the squat building on the next corner, the only corner in town. The simple, comforting rhythm of country west music thumped loud.

?Alright,? I agreed, doubting I would, ?Maybe I will.?

?No, really, you gotta,? he said. ?It?s a cultural experience.?

Matt knows my key words.

But the simple rhythm and major chords assured me and I squeezed my rental car in between an old Ford truck from which two unrestrained pit bulls glared, and a beater Toyota.

I felt silly locking the car, but did so out of habit.

Somehow I went straight in the front door and stood at the bar.

A man and a woman behind the bar argued as a customer holding cash waited.

The dispute was soon resolved ? or at least ended — and I was asked what would please me.

?What do you have on draft?? I asked.

?Bud n Bud Light,? I learned, from a voice trying to retain respect.

?Can you make me a gin and tonic?? I asked, also struggling to retain respect. In my culture we call that brand of beer “Butt wiper.”

I tasted my G and T, then stirred it. I think he forgot the T. But he hadn?t forgotten the lemon.

I stood in the door frame searching the crowd for familiarity, which I soon found.

A dark-haired woman I had seen Matt greet earlier in the day stood by a slightly-less familiar man near the door. I approached, confirmed they were Kelseyville peeps and asked if I did not know them.

?You are Maile, right?? the woman asked.


?Well, I?m the secretary at the elementary school but also you used to harvest our vineyard,? she said.

I was embarrassed.

How could I forget?

I had been managing about a dozen vineyards when my husband and I had pulled up stakes and headed east four years earlier. But to forget a client was, well, kinda rude.

But the woman smiled. I suggested she dance, pointing to the man next to her who stood resolutely staring another way. She shook her head in defeat. ?He won?t,? she said.

She and her husband stood as still as posts watching the dancers.

I wondered why they were there.

“Maybe if you danced with someone else he would get in gear,” I suggested, pointing to an equally-geeky man near the bar.

?Someone?s gotta ask him,? she responded.

I was not game and told her so with a quick shake of my head.

I finished my drink and headed south, nodding a good-bye as the music had become too loud to speak.

I stopped to photograph the wildflowers, but in the fading light, they had closed.


By Maile

Maile Field is a writer living in Northern California. Born in Hawaii and raised in Montana, she earned her master of fine arts in nonfiction at George Mason University in Virginia. She encourages constructive criticism.