Cowboys & Aliens: My weekend at the Biggest Small Town Rodeo in the West

Windmills, aliens, sleep deprivation? At least it was a gorgeous night time drive.

Windmills, aliens, sleep deprivation? At least it was a gorgeous night time drive.

“They look like aliens” I say, probably a half dozen times during the drive before I realize I’m repeating myself. My forehead is glued to the window, put there by a mixture of curiosity and fatigue, and I’m watching as the blinking red lights send their secret messages into the night’s sky. “I didn’t realize there were so many wind farms out here. I can’t wait to see it when it’s not 3 am.” Soon the blinking red eyes of the windmills disappear and the high beams reveal that the rolling hills have swept inward and grown fiercer; we are now driving through a narrow rocky gorge. Next to us, the slow moving John Day River shines in the moonlight, tracing a silver pathway through the dark. We’re on our way to Spray, Oregon, population 144 according to Wikipedia, a town I’ve never been to, to attend a rodeo, something, I’ve never done, and l’m feeling a little like the windmills, like an alien.

It’s 6:30 in the morning when I awake in the tent, just barely snatching two hours of rest after our 4 am arrival, when I hear the voices of my friends slowly waking up. Our weekend in the teeny tiny town of Spray, home of the biggest small town Rodeo in the west, is about to begin.

Attribution: Michael @ NW Lens

John Day River, in  Spray                                

The annual Spray Rodeo is the town’s biggest event, drawing in visitors from neighboring cities and around the state. During Memorial Day weekend, when the rodeo takes place, the population of Spray explodes from just over a hundred to a few thousand. From what I’ve heard, the rodeo has long been the main event in town. It comes just after the few 12th graders in town graduate from high school each year, and its arrival marks the end of the school year.

We head into town on foot. It’s probably less than a mile from one end of town to the other, and our journey from the campground at the edge of Spray covers half that distance. In the center of town, all of the action is happening around Spray School, a small school by any standard, with a K-12 population only totaling about 40 students. The paint is peeling from a sign on the side of the school property, but you can still read the ever-present advertisement for the annual rodeo.

Walking down the main street, it feels as though the entire town has gathered on this one street, and by the numbers, it probably has. A few runners come slowly down the middle of the street, wearing paper numbers pinned to their shirts, the end of the Spray Half-Marathon, the first event of the rodeo weekend. The race route follows the course of the river from about 13 miles outside of town, to end here in front of the high school.

It’s not long after the runners pass before I hear something coming from the other direction. It’s the next event in the Spray Rodeo Weekend. Beautiful girls, donning western shirts and finely decorated hats and denim are riding down the street on horses. The rodeo princesses and queens wear sashes, each advertising the name of another city or county. They have come from all across eastern and central Oregon and one from even as far as the coast. They toss candy to children who catch it in cowboy hats. Floats, pulled by tractors begin to pass by, and we get a glimpse into what Spray is all about. One “float” appears to be an empty trailer, but it is filled with children, probably less than 8 years old, who stand up and toss candy to children waiting on the street, then duck down before they’re seen. In another, a woman is seated. Signs on the float say that she has been a teacher in Spray for 18 years; she has just retired and the town is honoring her.

Less than an hour after the last horses and floats pass by, the noises of the rodeo, cheers from the crowd and a booming voice on a microphone, can be heard throughout town and we begin our walk to the fairgrounds. It’s my first time at a rodeo and I’m wondering if there will be real cowboys. I’m wondering if real cowboys still exist. We enter the gates and steer clear of the alluring smell of fried foods that lines the back wall. In front of me a wall of people are leaning on a waist-high fence. I hear the sounds of hooves pounding on dirt just beyond the crowd.

After a little wrangling, we manage to get two seats, front and center, smashed between hundreds of rodeo fans. A man in baggy basketball shorts and a cowboy hat runs across the dusty field holding a bright orange hoop. He drops the hula hoop over his shoulders, rapping along for a moment to the Eminem song playing over the loud speakers, and hops onto what looks like a man-sized plastic barrel. The rodeo clown looks nothing like a clown to me. Before long, the clown has me cracking up and I’m digging the Eminem. Apparently I’ve underestimated how downright badass a modern day rodeo can be.

I stop watching the clown when I realize why he’s jumped to safety on top of the barrel. Barreling out of an opening in the fence at this exact moment is a massive animal bucking beneath an itty bitty man. The rider holds on for a just four seconds, before the bull throws him and he runs and hurdles the fence. The same spectacle repeats itself for a few more riders before it’s announced that an 18 year-old will be the next rider. I barely have time to reflect on how I feel about someone so young, putting his life in such danger, when the young man breaks the record for the day and dismounts from the bull safely after a full 8 seconds has passed.

Fortunately and unfortunately I didn't see any of this. Cute little cowboy, but that's a big fall.

Fortunately and unfortunately I didn’t see any of this. Cute little cowboy, but that’s a big fall!

Its part way through the bull-riding competitions that I realize we’ve been sitting in the middle of a large group of people who all seem to know one another. I can tell by the conversations, that the crowd we’ve nestled into isn’t just filled with people from Spray, but from all of the surrounding communities as well. Banter flies back and forth and hands reach over our heads as friends come and go, and all the while I find myself ducking a little lower and focusing on watching the rodeo. I think about the anonymity inherent in crowds and realized we’ve accomplished the exact opposite. Since waking up in Spray, I had begun to wonder what it would be like to spend a weekend in town that was smaller than my graduating class in high school. A town that had less students in the entire school district than I taught in my classes in two hours. I was wondering how the people of Spray felt about people like us that come from far away to watch their rodeo. I wonder if we just happen to be sitting in the middle of a group of friends, or if everyone around here just knows everyone else. Another person squeezes onto the bench that I’m sharing with 50 others and I snuggle up closer to the people of Spray.

For the next half hour, I watch as cowboys and cowgirls perform impressive feats, one after another, riding bulls, racing around barrels, and a handful of other events that I couldn’t begin to name. Although I’m not sure exactly what was going on half the time, it’s not long before I’ve stopped feeling like a stranger and I’m cheering and laughing along with the folks of Spray (Sprayites? What would you call them? Sprayers?).

The booming voice comes back on the intercom announcing the end of the rodeo but promising more fun to come at the Rodeo Dance, to be held in the school gym that night. I wonder if cozying up in the stands at the rodeo wasn’t enough to get to know this small town, I could always try my hand dosey doe-ing with a cowboy at the dance. Unfortunately, by the time 8:00 in the evening rolls around, I don’t feel like forking out any cash to go to the dance, but we hang around out front and peak in the windows a few times, just to see what it’s all about.

An hour later, we’re sitting by the campfire when someone steps out of the darkness and slides into an empty chair. We quickly learn that his name is Willy, he is from Spray, and there is a much bigger, much better campfire, in a parking lot at the other end of the campground. Willy is laughed off and sent on his way, but it’s not long before three friends and I are wandering in search of this campfire. It’s easy to find. It is big. Much bigger. It’s the size of a small truck and so hot, the crowds surrounding it are standing 30 feet away.

Before we even arrive at the fire, we already have three new friends. Willy is here, and he says hello, a man of undetermined age, I would say between 20 and 40, announces that he is the valedictorian of Spray and he becomes our friend for the night, and we’ve also made a friend from Coos Bay. We meet a young man from town, who spends a good portion of the night, insisting that in Spray, “we have internet.” The thought that they wouldn’t have internet had never occurred to me, but his insistence is also intriguing. Over the next hour my friends and I meet people from across the state and quite a few from Spray. I spend awhile chatting with someone from the small town I went to graduate school in, amazed that I’d run into someone from Forest Grove, all the way out here, before I turn in for the night.

I learn in the morning that things got heated when at least one member of our group was called a city slicker after I went to bed, and challenged to a pushup contest. I laugh, mostly at the word city slicker, but also because he lost the pushup contest.

Highway near Spray

Highway near Spray Attribution: Michael @ NW Lens

We spend the next day biking, hiking, and exploring the river and then we head home. Passing the windmills in the daylight, I can see that they really don’t look like aliens at all, and in fact, I don’t feel like much of one anymore either. I learned a few things at the Spray Rodeo. I learned there are still cowboys out there, and they might be just cowboys in spirit more than in daily practice, but I think that the cowboy spirit is what it’s all about anyway. I learned that small town life is probably really different from growing up in a big city, but where we have movie theaters and shopping malls; they have rivers to swim in and stars to watch. I also learned that to the people of Spray, I might be a city slicker, but I’m certainly not an alien, after all, we’ve all got internet right?

My trip to Spray, Oregon, population 144, turned out to be a great chance to try a different type of local travel. I could have gone to the state fair or any number of festivals, rodeos, and events that attract thousands of visitors, but instead I went to the Biggest Small Town Rodeo in the West. If you’re looking for a new way to explore your state, mix-it-up with the locals at a small town fair or festival. 

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