As has been the tradition for more than a half-century, the Grand National Rodeo, Horse, and Stock Show begins with a little cattle drive from the railroad station to the Cow Palace arena. Here, more than 3,000 head of cattle, swine, and sheep are brought from all over the western United States and Canada to compete over a full week. This is one of the last metropolitan areas in the country to host a rodeo and agricultural event of this magnitude, and to an uninitiated city-dweller, it can be a startling experience.
"I was on my way to work," says Don Previn, who recently moved to San Francisco from Long Beach, "and heard all these cows mooing, then I saw them running down the middle of the street. I knew there was a 'Cow Palace' down here, but I thought it was kind of a joke. We don't have this kind of shit where I come from."
While the Cow Palace has played host to the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Liberace, and Ronald Reagan, this is the event for which the arena's named. More than 1,800 tons of dirt are brought in to cover the arena floor where the competitions will take place. Beforehand, folks are encouraged to check out the Tack Room, a 50,000-square-foot western shopping mall where a person can get everything from homemade beef jerky and microwavable pork rinds to lariats and saddles embossed with the Skoal or Copenhagen emblem. Because today is "Hispanic Fiesta Day," an eight-piece mariachi band roams through the sea of Garth Brooks T-shirts and Reba McEntire bolo ties. It's a room where wishful cowboys and cowgirls from Palo Alto and beyond pose for photos on a monstrous stuffed bull. In the petting zoo, toddlers in all-denim outfits shuffle through hay drifts to feed a collection of big-eyed baby animals -- sheep, goats, ostriches, zebu, an Arabian camel, llamas, and a strange little creature called a zeedonk (as the name implies, it looks like a cross between a zebra and a donkey). The animals are friendly, fluffy, fat, and well-cared for.
"Animals are our livelihood," snorts a handler. "Anyone who thinks that we would mistreat our animals has never had to live off them." According to a petition sponsored by Action for Animals in Ride! Magazine, five animals -- three horses, a wrestling steer, and a roping calf -- died during a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association-sanctioned event in Salinas in 1995. Since then, rodeo fans have been trying to put pressure on the PRCA to ensure on-site veterinarians.
"People get the wrong idea about rodeos," says Shawnelle Greene from Marysville, Calif. "It's more about skills than strength. For the most part, the cowboys get thrown around more than animals do."
Except for the Calf Roping Competition -- during which a confused baby cow is chased down by a large man on a large horse, lassoed around the neck, thrown over on its back, and dragged by the horse -- Greene is right. During the Bareback Bronc Riding Competition, the burliest of cowboys becomes as insubstantial as a rag doll. (High points are awarded if the rider is able to spur his mount throughout the thrashing, but it is clear from the horse's almost gleeful prance out the gate that the animal always comes out ahead.) The Bull Riding Competition is another opportunity for animal revolt, and fierce-eyed, barrel-chested bulls toss some of the best riders in the country. (None of the riders are gored, but more than a few find themselves on the ground looking up at a blur of hooves and potential hurt.)
The rest of the events are tests of pure skill: the Barrel Race featuring horsewomen on breakneck steeds; the West Coast Working Sheep Dog Championship, which is funnier to watch than a movie about a pig that thinks it's a sheep dog; the Team Roping Competition, which features a father-son team from Turlock, Calif.; and the Grand Prix, which is a noble equestrian event in which both horse and rider work as one, jumping over fences surrounded by little flowers and green shrubs.
Aside from the sound of chew hitting the floor and barkers calling "Peanuts! Popcorn! Ice cream!" and "Cowboy boomerangs!" the crowd of 8,000 is quiet throughout the three-hour show. Even during segments featuring a self-deprecating midget named Charlie Too Tall and an English whip-and-lariat master named Vince Bruce, the audience remains contained, clapping appreciatively when appropriate, critiquing the events when necessary.
"This is serious business for most of us," says Russell Harris, who sports the largest belt buckle ever seen on a living human. "It reminds people of the way life used to be out here -- folks working together, open sky, wild animals. For some kids, this is as close as they'll ever get."
The Grand National runs through Nov. 2; call 469-6065 for information.
By Silke Tudor