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Keeping the cowboy legend alive in verse, action

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Posted: Thursday, July 27, 2000 10:00 pm

Every year, I try to get to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., in late January.

Then, in mid-summer, I drive over to Salinas for the California Rodeo.

Those are two "can't miss" events for anyone who loves American lore, wide-open spaces, horses and other livestock.

In Elko, the cowboy poets have been gathering for 16 years.

They come from the Australian outback, the Canadian plains and from just down the road in Texas.Joe Guzzardi

The 1998 and 1999 Cowboy Poetry Gatherings celebrated the results of two years of fieldwork and research into the British Isles' roots of cowboy music.

Most of the nation's first cowboys from the trail drives of the 1870s and 1880s hailed from Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Gaelic origins in the British Isles.

Their distinctive lingo was basis on what became part of the early songs and poems of the American cowboy.

The Cowboy Poetry Gathering has grown into a major media event.

During its first years, a few fold-up chairs in Elko Junior High School gym accommodated the handful of people willing to brave the winter in the northeastern corner of Nevada.

Today, the Poetry Gathering is covered by National Public Radio, CNN and other major television stations across the country.

The ride to Elko in January is long and tough, but well worth the effort.

Getting to Salinas in the summer, on the other hand, isn't hard at all.

In Salinas, the folks insist that you pronounce their event a "ro-day-o."

The word rodeo is derived from the Spanish verb "rodear" meaning to roundup.

The Central California roundup, which began 150 years ago and became the origin of the modern rodeo, originally served as a social gathering for families who lived on ranchos as large as 45,000 acres.

Since a rancher's closest neighbors were miles away, the celebrations lasted a week or longer to take advantage of the infrequent get together. Barbecues, fandangos and riding competitions among the vaqueros were the highlights.

In 1911, the first official rodeo was held at the local race track grounds in Salinas and was advertised as a Wild West Show.

Since it lasted for an entire week, one promoter wanted to call the gathering "Big Week."

But others preferred "The California Rodeo" and the name stuck.

Several traditions were born in 1911: The horse parade down Main Street, the horses ridden into town by local ranchers and the 16-piece marching band.

Over the years, the crowds grew and slowly local cowboys began to be outnumbered by professional cowboys.

In 1929, the Rodeo Cowboys Association was formed. Eventually, the Professional Cowboys Rodeo Association evolved and by 1994 all contestants in the California Rodeo had to be members in the PCRA.

In this day and age of the spoiled and pampered professional athlete, you've got to give the cowboy all the credit.

He pays his entry fee and maybe he wins some money and maybe he doesn't, but whatever the outcome - he doesn't whine.

And what the cowboy endures to make a dollar is as tough and punishing as anything in professional sport.

Bareback riding is the most physically demanding event. Using only one hand, the rider has to stay on bucking bronco for eight seconds and look good while he's doing it.

Bull riding is no picnic either. Some bulls, like the infamous Bodacious, weigh over 1,700 pounds.

While using that same one hand and trying to hold on for the same eight seconds, the cowboy has to anticipate if the bull will dart left, kick to the right, rear back, spin or buck continuously in a circle.

For those who make it safely off the bull, it has to be the longest eight seconds in the world.

Steer wrestling requires speed and strength.

The cowboy, on horseback, has to catch the steer and, although the animal weighs twice as much, wrestle it to the ground.

The roper's work is done when all four of the steer's feet are upward.

The amazing world record for this event is 2.4 seconds.

The classic rodeo event is saddle bronc riding.

The winning ride combines strength, grace and precision timing. Every move the bronc rider makes must be synchronized with the movements of the horse.

And if your horse is a dud, you'll go home broke.

At the California Rodeo, for a few days every July, the traditions of early California and the American West come alive again. I'm always happy that I have a chance to see some of these great traditions in person.

Joe Guzzardi, an instructor at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly opinion column since 1988. He can be reached via e-mail.

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