The most enduring theme that Hollywood has produced throughout its history, and one of its most loved, is the myth of the American cowboy. Countless films, heroes and some heroines have penetrated virtually every country and culture on earth. Even countries that have their own cowboys, such as Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, still avidly watch American “Westerns”. Growing up in England, the family always watched the film “Stagecoach” with John Wayne, which was broadcast by the BBC immediately after the Queen’s message, on Christmas afternoon every year.
Stories of Matt Dillon, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the Man from Laramie, Gene Autry and Trigger, and many, many, more have become so entrenched in American culture that those representations of American cowboys have replaced any sort of reality. Idolizing Billy the Kid, who was a psychopath who mostly shot people in the back, has become the norm despite the actual reality.
However, there is a real cowboy culture that is true to history, and it’s celebrated each year in, among other places, the small town of Pendleton in Eastern Oregon: This is a celebration of the working cowboy, not Hollywood’s glamorization of the cowboy myth.
Pendleton is a sleepy place of 17,000 people which, for most of the year, is only known for wool and whiskey. However, since 1910, for one week in September, its population grows to over 60,000 with the influx of visitors to the Pendleton Round-Up. It is one of the last holdouts of the real cowboy’s West. Pendleton Round-Up prides itself on its exhibition of working cowboys in a show of the best steer-wrestling, roping, barrel-racing and riding that the country has to offer.
Founded in the 1850s as a trading post, Pendleton remains an important railhead. The area is home to the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla Indian tribes and they have, historically, worked closely with the ranchers to stage the Pendleton Round-Up. In some ways, the Pendleton Round-Up has saved the town. The surrounding area is littered with ghost towns that didn’t make it as viable communities. Pendleton lives on as a relic of the past, because it has chosen to emphasize “the real West” rather being gobbled up by the progress and civilization of the modern world. Old-time cowboys, who used to roam this area, would immediately recognize Pendleton, whereas they would shun the surrounding modern towns.
The modern cowboys drawn to Pendleton for the Round-Up are the real deal. They come to show off their skills more than their showmanship. They are hardcore working cowboys; this is a professional exhibition rather than theater, or today’s equivalent of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show”.
One cowboy from Oklahoma, a regular at the rodeo, says the Pendleton Round-Up is his favorite in the country. Another claims that “the road to being a champion goes through Pendleton, Oregon.”
If you’re ever close to the area, or even if you’re not, for one week in September each year, Pendleton is worth a visit. Schools close, and everyone is involved in the Round-Up. It’s a part of the old real West that has almost disappeared. Mainly because of the Hollywood myth, the profession of real cowboys is widely misunderstood, and regarded as somewhat tacky, in modern America.
Bring your camper because, with an addition of 50,000 to a 17,000 population, a bed may be hard to find. However, you can always join in the fun by bringing your bedroll and sleeping under a tree with your Stetson pulled down over your eyes. As a word of caution, you might want to forego the campfire. The West is suffering enough with wildfires, you don’t want to be responsible for starting another one.