Sunday, August 31, 2008

Saturday at the Chuckwagon Races

30,000 people descend on a ranch in northwest Arkansas for Saturday's program at the National Championship Chuckwagon Races. I sit with my cousin's wife, under a bright blue awning tent set up on the bluff facing the field where the races take place. Thousands of spectators dot the bluff in between huge outcroppings of rock.

The races will be run on The Bottoms, the flat field straight ahead of us. There's a big hill to our left and blue mountains in the distance all around.

All over The Bottoms, hundreds of men, women and children ride horses and mules. It's 90 degrees, but the riders are “dressed cowboy,” which means long sleeves, jeans, boots, and hats. Some even wear leather chaps and vests. A man rides by wearing a feathered headdress that trails down his back and over his horse’s withers.

Music blares from the loudspeakers: a mournful voice sings, "I’ve pushed these cattle for the last time. . . ."

Finally, the announcer asks everyone to clear the field. When space opens, riders enter from the extreme left and right sides of the field. Four riders entering from the left wear white shirts with red ties. Four riders entering from the right wear blue shirts with white ties. Each carries a United States flag. They ride in swooping, complicated patterns, crossing back and forth over the field with their flags billowing in their wakes. Many times it looks like two or more horses will collide, but they turn at the last possible moment, in complete control of their movement and patterns.

Over the loudspeaker, Dolly Parton belts out "Red, White and Bluegrass" as the riders form two lines at the center of the field, white-shirted riders on the left, blue-shirted on the right. All the horses are bays or roans (brown or reddish brown). Their flags fall limp when they find their positions. A palomino (blonde) appears from behind, dead center between the lines. Dolly's voice is replaced by Elvis Presley singing "Dixie." The palomino prances slowly to the front, the rider's flag snapping in time with the horse's feet. There is absolute silence until Elvis's voice fades completely.

The announcer asks everyone to stand, and I swear you can feel a breeze as thousands of cowboys lift their hats. The valley fills with the voices of the Oak Ridge Boys singing the national anthem. The last few words are accompanied by a roar from the crowd.

The announcer asks for quiet and a Connestoga wagon pulled by two magnificent horses rolls onto the field. The wagon's buckboard is empty. The reins disappear behind a canvas curtain that conceals its interior. As the wagon circles the field, the announcer lists fans and participants who have died since last year's race.

Hogshead Hollingsworth. Attended the races for 15 years. 6 foot 6 and 400 pounds, a mountain of a man. Heart as big as he was. He was a good man. Raised a good family. We miss him.

My cousin's wife tells me she loves this part, says she wants them to release doves from the back of the wagon after they read her name one day.

There is an invocation, a prayer, then the announcer bellows, "Are you ready for a good time?" The crowd's response leaves no doubt about their answers.


Carrie Wilson Link said...

Love this: "The announcer asks everyone to stand, and I swear you can feel a breeze as thousands of cowboys remove their hats."

Stacy said...

I thought the same as Carrie, and I didn't think this piece was going to end up being so beautiful.There I was wrong.

Deb said...

I absolutely love how your writing takes me places I don't physically occupy. I can feel that breeze, hear the voices over the loudspeaker, feel your awe and wonder. It's interesting that you have spent the weekend observing a very large extended family at work and play. I hope you find some comfort seeing that family has so many shapes, all of them defined by the love that the people involved have for each other. Sending love and light to you.

Michelle O'Neil said...

A whole different world, no?