First Time Elephant Ears

The crew of Portlanders sitting next to me in the bleachers titters at the hokeyness of their first small-town rodeo. Then the bull rages out of the gate in a cyclone of horns and hooves, throws its rider on the second buck and kicks the grounded man square in the chest. The crew grows quiet.

Down in the arena a rodeo clown distracts the beast as attendants rush the shaken competitor to safety. “Damn,” one of the Portlanders finally whispers, to herself as much as to anyone else, “that was intense.” Her companions nod in agreement.

She’s right, of course. It was more intense than I expected it would be, having never been to a rodeo before. That’s not what brought me to Tillamook, though. Not entirely. For me, the attraction was more subtle than that, and perhaps more serious. In a way, it was more about the spectators than about the spectacle.

A person can spend only so many days staring into computer screens before the whole world starts to feel like one dimly lit, claustrophobic little box. That was how I’d been living for months, and it had become downright depressing. Constant connectivity had me feeling completely disconnected. Somewhere along the line, I found myself longing for the kind of small-town community interaction that I’d grown up with, the kind that seemed to have gone extinct over the last twenty years.

So, at 5:30 on a June morning, I started the 150-mile drive south to Tillamook, Oregon. I didn’t need to leave that early for the rodeo, but the June Dairy Parade started at 10:30, and I had no intention of missing it. It was the thing that had caught my eye more than the rodeo itself. In its 59th year, the parade represented a touchstone to the past and the kind of Americana that my flabby, office-cubicle spirit sorely needed.

I got there early and found the town still sleeping, empty foldout chairs lining the sidewalks along the parade route. I parked my car on a backstreet and headed towards the center of town where I found the Coliseum movie theater’s marquis looking like a beacon shining from the shores of the 1950s, calling me back to a time I never experienced and yet often miss. All of downtown Tillamook, really, looks like a place preserved in amber.

A gentleman in good blue jeans and a Vietnam veteran’s hat talked to me for a good five minutes about where to get breakfast and about some of the town’s latest news. He made it clear he was in no hurry at all. And why should he be on a summer Saturday?

Most of the seats were filled at the Dutch Mill Café when I walked inside. People flowed in and out of the door as I sat drinking coffee. Some of them ordered food. Others just stopped for a few minutes to talk about the parade or about their farms. They all seemed to know each other’s names. My eggs over-medium were perfect.

Spectators started filling the streets about half an hour before the parade. I finished my coffee and went out to join them. The event was delayed because a car that had been left in the middle of the route had to be towed. Signs had been posted for multiple nights warning drivers about leaving their cars, one of the organizers told me with a shake of her head.

Nobody seemed to mind the delay. The weather was perfect, and people just milled around talking and laughing. When it finally did get rolling, it was even better than I could have imagined.

Fire trucks and convertible cars. Synchronized dancers and bands playing on hay bales stacked atop flatbed truck trailers. The theme was “An Udder Day in Paradise,” and the floats were decorated accordingly, often with hilarious results. Kids scrambled amongst each other to gather the candy and cheese packets thrown out to them by the handful. I managed to snatch up a couple pieces from the frenzy and still get my arm back intact.

Parade participants called out to friends and family who clapped and cheered them on in return. I turned to a woman I’d previously exchanged pleasantries with and said, “Wow, it’s hard to find stuff like this, these days.”

“Well,” she said, “Tillamook is about fifty years behind the times.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

She thinks a moment before laughing. “Well, I guess it’s a bit of both.”

She knew better than me, of course. It was her town, and I was just a visitor. Nothing is perfect. Stare too long at paradise and you will begin to see the flaws. But the experience was exactly what I’d been needing, and I left the parade feeling a warm buzz.

With a couple hours before the rodeo I went to the Blue Heron French Cheese Company because I liked the look of the building. Kids squealed nervously as they fed goats and mules by hand in the yard while, inside, two musicians entertained wine tasters with a soulful rendition of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel.”

With a stomach full of fancy cheeses I went to the Tillamook Air Museum and checked out Aero Spacelines’ Mini-Guppy which, contrary to its name, is absolutely enormous.

Standing behind the cockpit and looking out through the windows of the plane built in 1949, I absorbed that singular feeling that comes from being immersed in the past. What’s the proper name for that sensation?

It’s a kind of sublimity, nostalgia mingled with trepidation, the feeling of being planted firmly in the ground, the sensation of temporal roots growing from the bottom of our feet and anchoring deep into something vaster than we can comprehend. It’s the comfort of realizing we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, and it’s the fear of becoming lost and forgotten in the immensity of that boundless continuum, all of it exhilarating in its silent, subtle way.

I arrived at rodeo just before the start of events and found a seat in the bleachers. Before things kicked off I watched a little girl, maybe five-years-old, take her first, tentative bite of an elephant ear. Her eyes lit up like pinball machines when it hit her mouth, and her family broke up laughing.

The competitors paced around each other in the chutes, eyes focused upon their ropes, saddles, and horses, triple- and quadruple-checking everything before it was their turn to perform. They paid for a slot in the competition, money slapped down for a chance to win glory and prizes.

By the time the crew of Portlanders climbed into the stands beside me, I’d already found everything I’d gone to Tillamook to find. The world is much wider than a computer screen, and runs a whole hell of a lot deeper. The places we came from are never as far away as they seem. And those rumors of the death of the quaintness of small-town America? Well, they’ve been greatly exaggerated.

The Portlanders grow quiet as the next rider hustles up to try his luck. I hold my breath in anticipation right along with them. I might have come for something different, but dudes mounting monstrous, pissed-off bulls just to see how long they can last before being flung to the ground and possibly kicked in the chest? Yea, that’s pretty cool, too.

 

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