illustration: Pierre-Paul Pariseau
Pow! We all jump back at the report from Paul’s pistol. He has just launched a .22 bullet deep into the sand, three inches from the edge of his boot. As we catch our breath and push Paul and laugh, his uncle picks up a .22 rifle, pumps it once and begins to lean over the warm hood of his pickup, bracing his belly and arms before firing and pumping the shells in rapid cadence.
His first shot hits the base of a beer can, which jumps 10 feet into the air. He pumps and fires six more shots, standing now, as the red-and-white can goes higher, spinning against a light blue sky. Everyone goes silent, and then each man acknowledges that the old man in the yellow Western plaid shirt is still the macho vaquero of old as he hands back the rifle, signaling that the shooting competition and the events of the day are officially over.
And so this day has gone, one macho test after another in the trusted nest of family and close friends, the joyful annual ritual of riding, roping and branding — and the teaching of the rodeo skills required on a working cattle ranch.
The day begins with Paul and me heading southeast from Farmington, New Mexico. After dozing for more than an hour, I’m startled when Paul blasts his El Camino through the narrow gap in a sheer rock face dotted with deep blue junipers, still in pre-dawn shadow. We come to a clearing full of horse trailers and pickups, and Paul hauls the old-style hybrid to a sliding stop like a dirt track driver, spewing a dusty cloud as rocks pepper the sides of the trailers.
Before joining the group near the corral, we unload hay and saddles. “You know, people think we’re metzican, but we’re not,” Paul tells me. “This land has been in our family for over 200 years. We’re Spanish. We get called wetback, metzican, even Navajo, but my family came from Albuquerque and Blanco a long time ago, man.”
I’m introduced to the other cowboys, with Paul explaining, “This is the guy I told you about that I work with at the mine — college boy. Just came back from studying in Old Mexico.”
“Mucho gustos” all around.
Horses saddled, we walk them into the underbrush amid low conversations, grunts, laughter and taunting epithets in a rapid lilting jumble of a Mexican dialect I know but can’t quite sort out among the nine men and the one young girl they didn’t introduce me to. There’s time for a last smoke or dip of Skoal before mounting up, pulling on work gloves and finding the trails leading to the unmistakable, primal smell of cow manure on the breeze.
I follow Paul as he and two others go left, still at a walk, dodging pine branches, horses and riders confident of the trail. As I get a closer look at the tall bluffs, sloughing sand and gravel, I realize we’re in a box canyon, like in the movies. The sound of lowing cattle and the plaintive bleats of calves grows louder as we lope into a thick cloud of dust. I can make out the shapes of those who had gone to the right — the two groups converging into a long horseshoe-shaped formation, with 300 head of meaty Herefords in between us. Paul turns in his saddle to give me a big smile and a thumbs up.
As the formation tightens, the terrain rolls a bit, allowing some of the cows to make a break for it. A mother and calf head off to the right, and my horse is already stepping toward them before my reins signal that I’m on board for my first rodeo trick. Our first move is enough to change the cow’s course back to the herd, but as we trot beside her for another 50 yards, she sees a small gully and takes off again with her terrified calf stumbling alongside.
This is the work of a cutting horse and rider, working as a team — 45 degrees left, 45 right — me hoping my rough treatment on the reins isn’t hurting my horse. Paul watches from a small hill, apparently with the same concern, but he just smiles as our two defectors give up and return to the safety of the stinking brown mass of beef on the move.
Approaching the corral, the mooing herd grows impossibly louder. Through the dust I can see horsemen directing calves one way and cows the other. Dusty hats and coiled ropes beat thighs as cowboy shouts and cutting-horse pivots convince each mother she should give up her charge and go to the left while her bucking calf bolts to the right into a round corral with a sandy dirt floor.
illustration: Pierre-Paul Pariseau
After tying up my horse, I notice a man of about 70 chopping wood with a long-handled ax. He looks a lot like I remember my grandfather; he’s nearly bald, with his shirt off, revealing a swatch of thick gray chest hair, muscled shoulders and sinewy, veined arms. He starts the practiced arc of the ax overhead on tiptoes, moving with power and ending in a long downward pull as his hands come together just before impact.
As I return to the calves’ corral, I hear the whoompf of a match being thrown onto gasoline, and I get caught downwind of the black acrid cloud of petrol and mesquite from the fire that will soon bring branding irons to a white-hot glow.
Everyone gathers near the fencing as the grandfather figure, who I later learn is another of Paul’s uncles, walks through the far gate and uncoils a soft, worn rope, snapping a long looping throw over one of the three low posts that form a triangle in the middle of the corral. Three middle-aged guys follow, along with Paul and Paul’s brother-in-law, who owns the cattle, and a man with bigotes and an easy lope. Then there are young vaqueros, Paul’s three nephews, one tall and thin like me, another stocky and feisty like Paul, and the third with long, shiny black hair and Navajo features.
The old man gets the first throw — macho seniority? — and the division of labor becomes clear to me. Each of the older guys throws a rope over a calf’s head, pulls it taut and then loops the other end twice around a post to secure it, waiting for the wrestler, quickly followed by the jumpers. The wrestler’s job is to slide toward the calf with the rope in hand, getting a hold close to the calf’s neck. Then he reaches across the calf, grabbing its back leg, right where thigh meets torso — apparently a very ticklish spot.
As the calf jumps up, the trick is to lift and pull its torso toward the wrestler, putting the calf on its side with dangerous hoofs facing away. Two jumpers drop both knees on the stunned beef as another person ties up the rear legs and secures that second rope around another post. Often the calves have other ideas about staying down. Even the strongest men realize they are no match, pound for pound, with these solid critters, so technique, timing and teamwork are key to a smooth takedown.
With the calf strung tight and the jumpers still in place, others vaccinate and burn the brand, and cut out horn buds with a sharp cylindrical tool. Someone performs the careful, practiced work of castration, adding to a slimy mass in a Folger’s coffee can. A douse of medicated white powder splashed on the calf’s head and crotch signals, like a blessing, that this squirming bundle can be released.
Perhaps the greatest challenge the men face is learning to work together. When they do, their nearly silent rhythm is a thing of beauty.
About the time the sun finally shines directly over the box canyon, we have branded some 50 calves. Paul hands me an ice cold can of Bud, which I drink in a few gulps to wash down the dust in my mouth. My head spins, but no one seems to notice as the men seek shade from the rising heat, laughing and teasing each other, feinting to knock over the ones sitting on their haunches, drinking and smoking.
Before the break, women had arrived to watch the calf-roping. Soon, using mesquite, they start several small fires, then hang large black pots from steel hooks suspended above. Some nestle big pots directly into the fire pits, and soon the smells of chili con carne, roasted meat with potatoes and onions, and chili-based sauces reach the men.
Having seen elsewhere long chutes where cattle can be swiveled on their sides for the branding operations, I ask Paul if there is another way to brand cattle. The question seems to amuse the older men. “Well, let me ’splain it to you,” Paul says with a deliberately self-deprecating accent. “Yes, there are other ways of doing this, but, well, this is our way, and we just think this way is more fun, que no?”
The men chuckle at the exchange, and I feel accepted as part of the group.
Following the break, it’s time for the younger men to take turns lassoing the calves. After three of them throw and miss a large calf that is running wildly around the corral, Paul’s uncle, the one in the yellow Western plaid shirt, again steps up. He slowly coils a rope and quickly throws a perfect circle in front of the crazy calf’s head, leading him perfectly. When the rope ring reaches the calf’s neck, the old man pulls quickly and the calf stops on a dime, stunned.
As the men whoop their approval, I realize that this old man, the macho vaquero of old, has just wordlessly communicated something about the life he lived in a saddle in a desert land with few fences.
I begin to tire, and soon I will provide the entertainment that will forever mark this college boy’s first time at the rodeo. I have successfully “tipped” several calves, gaining an appreciation for the weight and solid strength of a calf on the hoof. Now, as my right, gloved hand approaches my next calf’s chin, and just before I reach my left across his back, he bucks to the left, spinning away from me. I manage to grab his neck in a hammerlock and hold on tight as the men nearby shout, “Don’t let go!”
They’re hooting, laughing and cheering as the calf chugs forward while I spread my legs wide and dig my boot heels into the soft floor of the pen. This is what a steer roper does, grappling each horn to twist his animal’s neck until he lies down. But this won’t work — he has no horns! Before the calf can drive me into the fence, I get him turned a bit, as someone must have grabbed his back legs to spin him the other way. As I feel my jeans rip just above my left knee, someone yells, “Okay, now let go.”
As everyone laughs and claps, I come out of the dust pile, laughing with them, beating the sandy soil from my jeans. Ever the clown, Paul gives me a deep, mocking bow, sweeping his arm out like a knight greeting his king, gesturing with his palm toward the waiting calf. I go back for another takedown, and this time the calf jumps up, allowing me to get a knee under his belly, lifting him a bit so he goes down hard.
The move is a small achievement perhaps, but I see how Paul’s brotherly love has challenged me to take another step toward manhood and allowed me to glimpse a way of life that he knows is fading slowly, as surely as the blue in an old pair of jeans.
When lunch is served, the women pat out corn tortillas, turning them with their fingers over smoking cast-iron griddles until everyone has enough. Today’s delicacy, fresh Rocky Mountain oysters, doesn’t last long. Paul reluctantly slides one from his paper plate to mine.
Paul is talking quietly with his niece, Abigail, before introducing me to her in Spanish. My “mucho gusto” flashes in her gray-green eyes, but she responds with “nice to meet you” as Paul explains that he and I have been working together at a nearby surface mine. Abby, 16, has her jet black hair tied back in a tight bun, dark sunglasses atop her head disappearing into the silky threads that frame her face. Her flawless, white, powder-fine skin shows her Spanish bloodline. She’s the pride of the family, whose members hope one day will extend its noble heritage to the next generation. She takes my hand but doesn’t let her eyes linger.
Paul’s nephews, Abby and I grab some cold beers, and we mount our horses for a last lope up the canyon, stopping at a small stream to water the beasts. Balancing beers and Marlboro red packs on saddles, we talk and laugh. The Navajo-looking guy goes to the junior college in Farmington and works in town. He’s funny and, like Paul, has no trace of a Spanish or Navajo accent, and he teases his cousin Abby about something at her high school. He seems genuinely interested in my travels, especially in the Yucatan. Someone pulls a jay from a shirt pocket, and we pass it carefully around while still on horseback, keeping the ash from the horses’ manes, their long necks down as they drink from the stream. After a time, we pull them up and walk them back to the clearing.
Abrazos for family, even an embrace for me from Paul’s brother-in-law, thanking me for helping with the branding, noting how we had all treated his cattle with care, and extending an invitation to return any time. Gracias, muy amable. Mucha suerte. Adios.
These days every rodeo reminds me of that day, when I learned that real machismo is about caring for family and witnessed men trying to preserve the old ways, to survive — no, to conquer — in a dry and enchanted desert of hope. Still, I wonder if the traditions of the Candelaria rodeo that I knew four decades ago have survived. Perhaps they live on now through the stories told by Paul’s nephews at the dinner table and attested to by the laugh lines I imagine around Abby’s gray-green eyes and the silver threads that frame her face.
Greg Ryan is an IT consultant living in Reston, Virginia. He studied in Mexico City his sophomore year at Notre Dame and worked summers at surface mines in the Rocky Mountain West.