If you have even the slightest cowboy in you, fly to Pendleton, Oregon, this September for the Pendleton Round-Up. You can find hundreds of rodeos around the West every summer; some claim to be the oldest, or the grandest, or the longest-running, but Pendleton’s Round-Up is closer to rodeo’s real ranching roots than any other ProRodeo. The concept of the Rodeo Queen was invented here; her spectacular Grand Entry will take your breath away. Round-Up is also Oregon’s Mardi Gras, with plenty of booze, religion, and American flags. Pendleton’s population swells from 17,000 to over 40,000 for Round-Up, and locals open up their homes to visitors, many of whom buy a rodeo ticket just to get in to the Let ‘Er Buck Room for some serious bacchanalia. While in Pendleton you also can visit the famous Pendleton Woolen Mills, Native American-related exhibits at the TamÁstslikt Cultural Institute, and one of the most amazing Western shops anywhere. So dust off those cowboy boots, pack a pair of Wranglers, and point your airplane to Pendleton.
Round-Up performances begin at 1:15 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Events include bareback Indian relay races, roping, bronc riding, barrel racing, wild cow milking, steer wrestling, Native American dancing, and more bull riding. A Native American Artisan Village fills the Roy Raley Park Wednesday through Saturday. Artisans sell jewelry, baskets, and other handmade items; drumming and dance competitions are also held here. Fighter jets usually fly over just prior to the final rodeo event 1:15 p.m. Saturday.
Happy Canyon shows depict the American West and are held Wednesday through Saturday night; many actors are locals. The pageant begins with early Native American culture, continues with Lewis and Clark, is followed by Oregon Trail pioneers, and concludes with a frontier town’s rollicking mishaps. Our show included square-dancing horses, an exploding outhouse, can-can girls, and a drag queen. After the pageant, attendees over 21 may enter Goldie’s Bar in the Canyon. Tickets at the door, participants dance to DJ-mixed tunes inside or live band outside, gamble (a special state law legalizes gambling at Happy Canyon during Round-Up, but chips can only be used for alcohol), watch “Rockin’ Divas” dance on the bar, and enjoy bartender-mixed drinks.
You won’t find the Let ‘Er Buck Room on the official Round-Up website, but this well-known “secret” spot is under the South Grandstand and open until 2 a.m. to anyone over 21 with a rodeo ticket. People come here to drink—specifically, the smooth Pendleton Whisky, a favorite of rodeo fans. The rowdy crowd in the Let ‘Er Buck Room is a mix of real and wanna-be cowboys, scantily-clad (or less) women, and people who look like they just flew in from Mardi Gras, complete with beads. Lest you get the wrong idea when you spy men staring at each other’s crotches, they’re checking out belt buckles to see who won which rodeo championship (buckles are awarded to winners, and unlike boxing belts, winners actually wear their buckles). You might see a group of cowboys lined up for an impromptu butt contest, judged by cowboy groupies known as “buckle babes” or “buckle bunnies.” You might also see a lot of other things I won’t mention. Don’t bring your camera; what happens in the Let ‘Er Buck Room stays in the Let ‘Er Buck Room. As they say in the Cowboy Code, “What you see here, what we say here—be a friend and let it stay here.” Amen.