Don't go downtown; head out to Cowtown.
The following is a work of opinion submitted by the writer.
Faced with the prospect of live broncos at the Cowtown Rodeo Saturday night, my husband and I left our 3-year-old bucking back at the homestead. But we hauled our twin 6-year-olds along for the hour's journey from suburban Philadelphia to Carney's Point, N.J., with SiriusXM's The Highway cranked to get us in the mood for some bull riding.
"A little Eric Church, rodeo," my husband turned to me and said. "All your girlhood dreams coming together!"
I was actually wondering why, as Lady Antebellum was now singing, we weren't going "downtown" instead. Ambivalent about this enterprise, I was drawn in only because I was startled to learn that New Jersey, a state I stereotypically associated with big hair and mobsters, hosted a rodeo every Saturday from May through September — and apparently an historic one at that. Started in 1929, Cowtown, its website boasted, was the "oldest weekly rodeo in the United States." I was intrigued but also prepared for what I had predetermined would be a campy imitation of the West.
At first it seemed my assumptions might prove accurate. After crossing the Commodore Barry Bridge, a few clownish markers of what we were about to encounter emerged from the cornfields now blanketing the landscape — a towering cowboy statue and a plaster bovine looming over a sign that touted, "Cowtown: Often Imitated, Never Equaled."
"I'm fired up!" my husband said.
I still wasn't so sure, as we shuffled through the crowd behind a couple with matching cowboy hats and cans of Budweiser. We found seats on wooden benches, among a throng of overweight grandmothers, face-painted children, suburban couples, Amish families and tattooed men. Spectators waited expectantly, nibbling funnel cake and cotton candy, sipping Mountain Dew and beer. Young boys in cowboy hats hawked miniature lassos near the fence.
"Do you come here often?" I asked an elderly woman, from South Jersey, sitting next to me.
"Oh, about every other Saturday night," she said.
A lot of bull
I felt a little out of place. But the evening was luminescent, the setting sun filling the arena's dirt floor with gold. And as the rodeo band, Dave and the Wranglers, covered Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Suzie Q," I felt myself humming along, settling in for what I was starting to think might be quite a show.
"Crack a match! Let's have a bull match!" shouted the announcer, after bragging that bull riding was the "most dangerous event on the sporting scene today."
Indeed, the first few riders were thrown off the snorting beasts in less than the required eight seconds — and I was immediately sucked into the action.
"Get your mind right!" the MC commanded the contestants. I wondered how they avoided death by trampling until my husband pointed out the fellow with the unenviable job of distracting the bull after each contestant tumbled, letting the beast chase him back into the pen.
Next came steer wrestling, during which pairs of riders charged out with castrated bovines running between them. One cowboy would leap off and try to bring the animal to the ground. "I'm glad I don't have to do steer wrestling," our daughter, Georgia, said.
The bareback riding seemed even more perilous. The cowboys leaned way back, almost flat out, whiplashing up and down as their broncos bucked and reared.
"That horse is hotter than a 44 at a border battle!" the announcer cried.
The crowd screamed.
"He did it!" exclaimed our son, Griffin, when the buzzer signaled that a cowboy had managed to hold his mount for eight seconds.
Ready for next time
A couple of bulls kept trying to clamber out of the pens. "That's just like a bunch of women," the MC quipped. "One gets up to go to the bathroom, they all do."
I laughed along with everyone else, finding something refreshing in the man's politically incorrect patter. "How many of you are ready for some beautiful cowgirls on fast horses?" he soon asked.
After all this testosterone, I certainly was. And so, apparently, was my son, who sprang to his feet. The fact that many of the women wore sequined belts and spangled western shirts did not detract from the ferocity of their riding. As each cowgirl careened around the third barrel and zipped down the straightaway, Griffin and I roared along with the rest of the crowd.
An encore bout of bull riding was up next, but it was already after 9 p.m. We still had an hour's ride home. So we reluctantly plunged out from under the overhead lights, back through the dark fields to our car. I could hear The Wranglers strike up the chords to "Another One Bites the Dust" and wondered what we were missing.
"Buckle up, cowboys," I told the kids when we finally reached our minivan.
"Can we go to another rodeo?" Georgia asked.
"Next weekend?" Griffin implored.
"Not next weekend, but definitely next summer," I said, surprised by how genuinely I meant it.
Courtenay Harris Bond blogs about her life with three kids, a dog and a husband.