Pendleton Oregon is a small community not without a ton of problems. But more than its problems is its sense of pride. That pride is no better displayed than during the Pendleton Round-up. Held during the second full week of September, it brings about 50,000 visitors to a town with a population of around 16,000 people.
You get an idea of how serious this rodeo is taken when you see the rodeo queen and princesses enter the arena. When you see the young girls go by doing their elbow elbow wrist wrist wave during the Westward Ho! parade you may think there is little more than beauty on horseback in play, but when these young girls on giant horses gallop into the arena leaping fences, then race their horses around the track at a pace that is frighteningly fast, you realize that the beauty is just an added bonus, these cowgirls are legit!
I got into Pendleton Thursday afternoon with the Round-up fully underway. After establishing a place to crash on the living room floor of my friends sisters house, priorities switched to having a good time. No shortage of bars in Pendleton, and no shortage of good times to be had in said bars. A little bit of watching a native dance competition at the Indian Pow Wow, a little bit of karaoke, a walk through the carnival, a beef brisket sandwich on the side of the road, some shots, and probably lots of other stuff that you may never remember and we were ready to call it a night.
Friday brought the Westward Ho! parade. Everything in this parade is non motorized. Most of the parade is on horseback or in horse drawn wagons or carriages, but one individual rode down the street on an animal that would make you yell to yourself "Holy shit it's Mongo!" As a newbie to the Round-up, I at first didn't understand the meaning of all the circles with initials in them drawn with sidewalk chalk, until a few horses had gone by. With one mighty push a horse could shit you into victory! There were a lot of horses, and therefore a lot of winners.
After the parade, it was lunch downtown at the Prodigal Son Brewery. Everywhere you went, the menus were smaller Round-up specific versions of their regular fare. People seemed to be generally overwhelmed by the volume of customers, but the vast majority of servers (especially at Prodigal Son) were amazing hosts. A burger in the belly and it was time to shop.
If you want custom cowboy gear, Pendleton is your place. Want a hand made custom saddle? They got it. Custom beaver skin cowboy hat? Anyway you want it in a perfect fit to your misshaped head. You can look like Maddy Ross or the man with no name. And let's not even get started on boots.
After a bit of chilling at the casa in the late afternoon it was back down to the festivities. Walking downtown I was unable to resist one sign on a nondescript door. "Everyone welcome. Come on in, enjoy the Round-up!" Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I soon found myself bellied up to the bar at the Pendleton Eagles lodge. They were having a steak dinner, music, dancing, and $3 drinks. Less than a $20 bill later I had made a ton of new friends including longtime members of the lodge and an old recon Marine who served in Nam. Marines always seem to find each other and immediately become old friends. The Eagles were among the best hosts I ran across in all of Pendleton. They wouldn't accept my thank you for inviting me into their lodge, instead they were thanking me for visiting.
A few more bars after that and I felt that irreversible way too drunk coming on and called it a night.. Our local host Jennifer had to work at 8am the next morning, but in keeping with the motto of the Round-up, "Let'er Buck!", came stumbling home at about 5am.
A lesson learned from Lewis and Clarrk and from every cowboy movie I ever watched, get a native guide. Marty, or Marty Gras, grew up in Pendleton on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Not only did he show me around the Pow Wow and introduce me to everybody, but he also acted as my VAL (voice actuated light stand) while I did portraits. This basically means having Marty Gras hold my flash for me while I shot. He also snuck me into the rodeo into the free section for the tribes. The tribes consist of less than 3000 people, so even at the young age of 22, Marty knows nearly everybody.
I didn't stick around to watch the whole rodeo. I did get a chance to watch what everybody had told me was a highlight of the Round-up for them, the Indian relay race. This is where different tribes put together a team and the natives race bareback around the arena, changing horses after each lap. It definitely met all expectations.
The rest of the trip was spent joining my friend as she caught up with her family. By catching up I mean getting drunk and telling stories. It was a great time and a real love fest. After hours of this and following 3 hard and hot days, it was early to bed (couch). Early to bed early to rise, and by early I mean up at 2:30am and unable to go back to sleep. I'd been sharing a house for 3 days with the cutest 1 year old little girl and her runny nose, and I caught the most epic cold I've had in years from her. After many failed attempts to go back to sleep we packed up and hit the road early.
All in all it was a great trip. I got to know a few people pretty well in Pendleton. Both the town and the tribes struggle with poverty and addiction. But above all there is a great sense of hope and pride in the cowboys, the Indians, and everybody else. So go to Pendleton, you won't regret it.