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'Let ‘Er Buck!''Let ‘Er Buck!'

Check out an authentic rodeo at Pendleton, OregonCheck out an authentic rodeo at Pendleton, Oregon

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.

  • The term “Let ‘Er Buck!” originated with the first Pendleton Round-Up in 1910. When things didn’t go right cowboys would say, “Just grit your teeth, get another hold, be a man, and Let ‘Er Buck.” Photo by Susan Seubert, courtesy Travel Oregon.
  • The Round-Up arena straddles the Oregon Trail, so the Westward Ho! Parade retraces that route through Pendleton’s streets and into the arena. One of the largest non-motorized parades in the country, participants include covered wagons, stage-coaches, buggies, and prairie-freighters powered by perfectly matched teams of horses, mules, and oxen. And don’t forget the ladies of the evening. Photo by Kirsten Comandich via Flickr.
  • Other participants in the Westward Ho! Parade include Native Americans and their horses in full regalia, Christian mounted groups sporting the Stars and Stripes, and even a large band—all on horseback. Photo by Mary Harrsch.
  • Part of what makes the Pendleton Round-Up special is the participation of so many Native Americans, here shown during the Grand Entry. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
  • Rodeo began as a way to prove whose hired hands were the best cowboys, and because eastern Oregon is still ranching country, this rodeo is as authentic as they come. The brightly painted chutes look like they’ve been here forever; advertising signs are strictly prohibited. Photo by Donna Lasater via Flickr.
  • This dapper fellow epitomizes the Pendleton spirit—Pendleton shirt, cowboy hat with American flag, and a great big smile. Photo by Sarah Mirk via Flickr.
  • Indian relay races are a thrill: Riders begin on the ground and must jump aboard their first horse with no stirrups, tear bareback around the track at full speed, jump off and mount a second horse for another lap, and then a third. With a track full of excited horses and ultra-competitive riders, it’s controlled mayhem that keeps spectators on their feet from the start to the sensational finish. Photo courtesy Pendleton Round-Up.
  • Pendleton has been rated #1 on the list of Top Ten Western Towns by True West magazine, rated #1 Top Cowboy Vacation Destination by Western Horseman magazine, and the Round-Up has been voted the “must attend” rodeo by PRCA athletes themselves. The grounds seat over 16,000, and it’s the only professional rodeo still held on grass. Photo by Donna Lasater via Flickr.
  • The arena is a simple grass infield inside a horse-racing track that belies its truly challenging nature: timed-event cowboys must complete a unique 50-foot downhill pursuit to the barrier. Photo courtesy Oregon Dept. of Agriculture.
  • Tools of the trade. Photo by Jana Tritto.
  • Now that’s cutting it close. At Pendleton Round-Up, barrel racing cowgirls are faced with a pattern nearly twice regulation size. Photo by
  • At Round-Up, you’ll see about 300 tipis in the Indian Village, set up behind the grandstands. To learn more about the cultures of the local Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes, visit the TamÁstslikt Cultural Institute. The museum, store, and café are open daily. Photo courtesy TamÁstslikt Cultural Institute.
  • Visit the Pendleton Mill Store for a free tour of the Pendleton Mill. You’ll see how the famous Pendleton wool blankets and fabrics are woven and have the opportunity to purchase clothing and blankets. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
  • You’ll find high-quality, modern accommodations at the Wildhorse Resort & Casino, just outside of town on the reservation. Other options include Pendleton House Bed & Breakfast or private housing, generously supplied by local citizens. Photo courtesy Wildhorse Resort & Casino.
  • Golf Digest magazine rates the John Steidel-designed 18-hole course at Wildhorse Resort & Casino as “one of America’s top casino golf courses.” There’s also a clubhouse, practice green, and pro shop. Photo courtesy Wildhorse Resort & Casino.

The weeklong Pendleton Round-Up/Happy Canyon Indian Pageant is comprised of parades, shows, the rodeo, and one of North America’s largest Native American gatherings. Always held the second week of September, festivities begin with the Dress-Up Parade through downtown at 10 a.m. Saturday. Billed as “The Greatest Free Show in the West,” it gets the mood going with floats from around the Northwest. That evening brings a Kick-Off concert and dinner. Free or $2 daytime “slack” events like steer roping and barrel racing begin Monday. More free shows scattered throughout the week include Main Street Cowboy shows, American Indian beauty pageants, and Friday’s Westward Ho! Parade. Monday and Tuesday evenings are reserved for Professional Bull Riding, where a cowboy “simply” tries to remain aboard a raging 2,000-pound bull for a seemingly eternal 8 seconds.

The rodeo begins with the Grand Entry, where flag bearers on horseback run and jump into the arena. This is followed by the Rodeo Queen and her court, who blast into the arena on horseback at breakneck speed, make death-defying jumps over the track fences, and then stop with dirt flying. This tradition dates to 1933 when a Queen’s horse ran off and jumped the track fence with the Queen in the saddle. The crowd roared such approval that it’s been repeated ever since. Photo by Bob Click, courtesy Pendleton Round-Up.

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. Many stores close by 1:15 p.m. on Round-Up days; nobody wants to miss out. Just make sure you don’t miss Hamley & Co. Since 1883 Hamley’s has crafted the finest in custom saddles, tack, western boots, hats, and apparel for men and women. The second floor houses a gallery of fine art. Photo courtesy Hamley & Co.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.

You can’t live on Pendleton Whisky alone, so dine at the Hamley Steakhouse, in a building that dates to 1869. Inside, there’s a bank wall from the Dakota Territory town of Belle Fourche. Butch Cassidy and Kid Curry robbed this bank on June 28, 1897. A nationally recognized bronze cowboy sculpture stands nearby. Quarter-sawn oak woodwork is showcased throughout the facility. A huge Tiffany lamp chandelier called The Dragonfly hangs overhead. Tin ceilings are encased in custom-designed coffered woodwork. Antique belt-driven fans rotate silently overhead; the restaurant chandeliers are from the old Las Vegas Stardust Casino. The 8-oz J.J. Hamley Filet eats like prime and is served with port demi-glace, mashers, and vegetable. And don’t miss the risqué paintings in the bathrooms! Photo courtesy Hamley & Co.
Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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