You can go homeGoing home reminds me of an experiment that gerontologists conducted in a nursing home several years ago. They placed magazines from the 1930s and 1940s in the common rooms. On the sound system they played songs from that era. After a few days they noticed the spirits of the nursing home's patients improved markedly.
The idea was to convey a subliminal reminder to those persons in their seventies and eighties of their prime years.
I'm not sure that's exactly what goes on when I visit the Pendleton Round-Up, but well beneath what I'm watching and hearing there is an exploration of memory. For someone who grew up in Pendleton, the Round-Up is a living scrapbook, because its basic outlines are relatively unchanged over the decades.
People sit in the same seats, year after year. Families have sat in the same boxes for decades. It's a bit like the scene in Our Town.
There have been additions. The music piped into the arena is distinctly contemporary country-western and much louder than it used to be. The rodeo clowns are also of a different sort: Highly acrobatic, hip and high tech. The Round-Up Association in cooperation with the Umatilla-Morrow Education Services District stages a Children's Rodeo on the first day. The Pendleton Round-Up is a living scrapbook.Disabled children are given the opportunity to get close to the cowboys and animals.
But the event's signature moment - the entry of the queen, court and flag carriers - is essentially the same thrilling moment that's been reenacted for decades. It has been spiced up considerably since the events of Sept. 11 with a fly-over by two fighter jets.
The Native American presence at the Round-Up sets it apart from all other western rodeos. It was an inspired choice in 1910 to make the Round-Up a gathering of cowboys as well as Indian tribes.
American culture is a manufactured thing, and it changes every decade. That's one reason why the Indian drumming and dancing resonates so deeply with some of our rootless souls. It speaks of a timeless realm.
The layers of memory begin welling up several miles west of Pendleton. The eastern end of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is evocative in the manner of a John Huston or Howard Hawks western. The vast space reminds us of Gertrude Stein's observation that, "In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is."
H.L. Davis captures the way that landscape works on a person in Winds of Morning, which is set in the 1920s around The Dalles. In their sentimental attachment to the landscape, Davis' characters do the kind of quirky things that writers make into art.
The gorge is also the ultimate geology lesson, even for someone who did not do well in college geology. The prevailing theory about the gorge's formation involves the breaching of an immense Ice Age dam, which unleashed a torrent of enormous power that carved that Wagnerian river valley. Gazing at the rock faces on the Oregon side especially, one may visualize that flashpoint in geological history.
It is always fun to see the Round-Up through a newcomer's eyes. We took Petri Sabell, the exchange student from Finland who is living with us. His eyes widened considerably at the bucking events.
Before the show we took in the Indian dancing in the neighboring park. We also toured the Round-Up Hall of Fame, which is like rummaging through an attic. The queen's outfits from the 1940s were the most stylish artifacts on display.
One of the great bucking horses, War Paint, is stuffed and on display. Seeing that artifact always reminds me of watching that most colorful bronc rider of the modern era, Casey Tibbs. On an afternoon when most of the rodeo cowboys commonly wore white shirts, Tibbs wore purple. Midway through his ride on a wild horse, as if to flaunt his prowess, Tibbs doffed his big black hat and waved it at the crowd.