I wanted a change of pace, so my buddy (blog name: Rose) roped me into going home with her to Junction, Texas, home to a few thousand folks and the seat of Kimble County. It was rodeo weekend, a time of great gathering.
You could call a west Texas rodeo weekend a change of pace. For me at least; I’m a tattooed hippie from Austin, and before that I grew up outside of Houston in what was essentially one big mall. My dad, however, was from Madisonville, and he raised me with an appreciation for small-town living. Certainly there is less sprawl. And in Junction, there are wonderful, wonderful rivers.
Fueled by Diet Coke, Neko Case, and peach ice cream, we picked up in Fredricksburg, we head west with an unusual task ahead: We will judge the Miss Kimble County pageant. Yes, we will arrive in this community and immediately begin assessing the worth of its young women. I guess I got some kind of kick out of the idea at first. (Rose said it might be “a hoot.”) Also the Chamber of Commerce apparently has difficulty finding locals to volunteer. I see why: I now feel like an asshole.
Allow me to be clear about the nature of this contest: It’s not a pageanty pageant with the full glitz or whatnot. Free your mind of the reality-television associations and imagine a chicken-salad luncheon in the meeting room at the public library with upbeat and fresh-scrubbed softball players in church attire.
It’s relatively benign up until the part where we will dash the hopes of almost all of them.
We first meet the young hopefuls at the county fairgrounds, where there’s a rodeo going on.
Here’s part where you might want to stop reading if you’re vegan or otherwise committed to animal liberation. From here on out, we’ll be talking about livestock, and they will be milked, saddled and ridden, roped, doctored, chased by children, forced into trailers and literally put into bags and dragged along the ground (then released).
Ours is a “ranch rodeo,” which means that the contestants are actual working hands from actual working ranches. These people are professional cowboys, not professional rodeo cowboys. That doesn’t mean they don’t clean up and get a little fancy.
But first we meet the contestants and our fellow judge, blog name Opie, a deadpan young guy whose land improvement business is one of the event’s sponsors. He is beady with sweat and visibly concerned about alienating the town and crushing the dreams of the young women who by now have been carefully assembled on a flatbed trailer in the middle of the arena and are answering get-to-know-you questions drawn from a hat held by the outgoing Miss Kimble County. There’s no getting away from people in a town this size.
None of the questions is a real gotcha, but 16-year-old me wouldn’t have wanted to be asked her name while standing in front of the whole town in my dressy casuals. Never mind the part where I am ranked against my peers. But here we all are. I know it’s not helpful, but I answer the questions myself, in my mind, as a gesture of solidarity.
What is the strangest dream you’ve ever had? Well, I was at a swingers’ party where I got matched up with Tom Petty. I was disappointed at first, but he was delighted by my advanced state of pregnancy (I was in fact pregnant at the time).
If you could start your own business, what would it be? I’ve given some serious thought to a launching a mobile vomit cleanup service. I could work during South by Southwest and pretty much take the rest of the year off.
If you could meet anyone in the world, who would it be? U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. For lots of reasons.
Afterward, the candidates also come by individually to chat us in the judges’ booth. I decide not to share my answers. I’ll just put them on the Internet later.
The next morning, after we’ve stayed up looking for Perseid meteors at an area known as “the crossing” and are completely exhausted, we visit Junction proper. (The moon was really full and we had some clouds, but Rose saw one meteor. My big accomplishment was a massive outdoor pee.) This is because our next official duty is judging the candidates on their presence during the parade through downtown.
We take notes and pictures of everyone, not just the prospective Miss Kimbles.
For example, I’m pretty sure I want to be this lady when I grow up. It was difficult to contain all her awesome in a two-dimensional image.
Class reunions also convened during rodeo weekend. I liked these people, even though they pegged me in the sternum with a lollipop. Then again, I could have caught it if I didn’t have both my thumbs going all over my phone like some kind of dumbass city person who doesn’t know how to act at a parade. I’ll admit that part.
Downtown Junction has some vital small businesses, which cheers me to see. Things are a bit touch-and-go in Kimble County. There were terrible wildfires in April, and now they seem to be back. Also a part of me just loves to see a small town thrive.
Rose and I visit the local dress shop, Simply Generations. The local independent dress shop is a venerable institution of small-town America and it needs to live forever. Sometimes you need baling wire and goat wormer, and sometimes you need leopard peep-toe wedges like a pair I tried on and didn’t buy and now regret passing up. (I thought they were too aspirational. With this heat and drought and my single-parent lifestyle, I’m lucky to get out of my sensible beige Merrells. I’ll admit that part.) However, Rose picks up a jute tote bag with a peacock print.
The young lady at the register (by which I mean to say that she was maybe a middle-schooler) is rocking a look I’ve seen so far on the youth of Kimble County: the feather extension. When we assemble at the library for that aforemetioned chicken-salad luncheon, several of the candidates are rocking them, too.
We get to chat a bit before the one-on-one interviews, so I ask the the girls more generally about the predominant style trends in Kimble County. Here’s what’s going on:
- A “country, comfortable version of "Jerseylicious"
- Jeans by Rocky Mountain and Miss Me
- Animal prints
Blingy! We’ll get back to that in a minute. But first we had some young women to judge.
The interviews are as much like job interviews as anything. Rose, Opie, and I hammer out a standard list of questions. We ask about role models. (To a one, the girls name their moms. Yay!) We ask about time commitments. We ask about Facebook and social media usage, which is a thing to worry about these days. I regret that we can’t form a more natural acquaintance, but that’s not the name of the game. We’re looking for the best particular match for this particular role, which is cheerful teenage goodwill ambassador.
Opie’s really sweating it. “In the end, there can be only one,” he intones.
“It’s like ‘Highlander’!” I offer.
His expression doesn’t change.
“It’s a movie.”
“You watch some weird shit,” Opie says. His expression still doesn’t change.
For about five seconds, I fantasize that I’m an eccentric billionaire and I can buy the absolutely lovely Texan movie theater downtown and use it to show “weird shit” to the people. Then I snap out of it, and we agree on a top three. Actually, we can choose two: the winner and the runner-up. Miss Congeniality is chosen by the other contestants. (Full disclosure: Rose was Miss Congeniality 1993 and 1994.)
We make a sad-eyed but final choice and go back out to where the girls are waiting. I have agreed to give them The Speech before we adjourn until the coronation at 6:30. It goes a little something like this.
Each of these vibrant young women is a credit to their community. In her own way, each is already representing her town and sharing its values. There’s nothing magic about a tiara and a title. I’m not saying being a rodeo queen doesn’t matter. (I’m not going to pretend “rodeo queen” isn’t sort of badass-sounding). I guess what I mean is that lots of things matter, and there’s not just one single way to be awesome.
We’ll see this later on Saturday night, which is the big night for the rodeo and dance afterward. Out comes the bling! This here is about the minimum amount of flair for the night:
While I was aiming for the belt buckle and groovy girly kiddo boots, this guy’s wife wanted to know why I was photographing her husband’s crotch. I told her it was for the Internet, so she showed me her butt bling.
Much later, at the post-rodeo dance (which later turned into the post-rodeo-dance-dance), she and I would have an awesome warts-and-all talk about motherood.
But first there would be broken hearts, brisket tacos, and the Little Ranch Hand Rodeo.
For the Miss Kimble County pageant, it’s all over but the applause. We’ve already made our decision and now must sit in the judges’ booth 10 feet away from the contestants, who by now are as close to full glitz as we’re going to get at the county fairgrounds. Opie is suspiciously absent. There’s not a single word in English that I know of to describe the feeling of facing a line of teenage girls whom you’ve seen fit to assess. The outgoing Miss Kimble crowns the winner we have chosen, and Rose and I can breathe better. At least a little better.
That means it’s time for brisket tacos and Bud Light in a boot-shaped Southwest Airlines koozie.
One last thing before I bring it home. Earlier in the evening, I noticed a group of girls that wasn’t rocking bling or feathers but hats and jeans and long-sleeved Western shirts, the same as the men there to compete. And lo, they turned up in the Little Ranch Hand Rodeo, which is one of several kids’ events. “Team Girl Power” wrestled a goat into a bag and hauled it -- not on the side, not beforehand, but in the midst of the rodeo, winning their bracket. I almost dropped my taco to cheer for them.
*Unless you count the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which I attended as a young MC at the Astrodome; it’s worlds different.