734 people live in Efland.
Aside from farms, Efland is a stop light, a church, a carwash, and a mini-mart.
And the Ruritan Club, across from the mini-mart.
Every October, in the arena at the Ruritan, is the rodeo. The THD Construction & Warren Hay Mechanical Contractors, Inc. Legendary Annual Pro-Rodeo.
Somewhere around 1,400 people come.
“Put your hands together and make some noise! We’re going to make them hear it in downtown Efland!” the announcer says.
Leaning against the rusty rails at the 10th and top row of rickety bleachers, Aaron and Jacob laugh.
“This is downtown Efland.”
“Also, that’s irrelevant, because everyone from in Efland is here right now.”
“Everyone from Efland, Mebane, Haw River, Burlington, and Hillsborough.”
Which is probably true. People don’t play when it comes to the once-a-year opportunity to turn the whole family out for a celebration of smoking tobacco, camouflage, and $2.00 pinto beans with cornbread.
Tickets are cash-only and they give you a green wristband. Weaving your way through the crowd on your way to the far side of the football-lights illuminated concourse, you nod at folks you know, “hey man, how’s it going?” and duck through a stream of T-shirts that say stuff like:
Brown Family Dairy.
Dixie Outfitters, since 1861.
Central Carolina Gun Club.
Yes, I Was Raised In A Barn.
“When I come to something like this, I realize how not-redneck I am,” Jacob says. “But this ought to count for something,” he pulls up his shirt sleeve to reveal an impressive farmer’s tan.
“That definitely counts for something.”
Everyone removes cover for the opening prayer, a hearty petition for the safety of the competitors, the animal athletes, and the men and women of our armed services. A resounding “AMEN,” turns seamlessly into a roar of excitement.
A golden-haired cowgirl enters through the main gate, holding up Old Glory, the end of the pole stuck down in her boot to keep it steady. The silver detail on her Western glitters under the snapping stars and stripes, and the horse’s mane whips up and down as she gallops around the perimeter of the arena and into the middle for the National Anthem. You look down at the dead grass on the ground eight feet below, your green wrist band over the old dollar store camouflage ball cap clutched to your heart.
Showtime. “We sold you the whole seat, but you’re only going to need the edge of it!” the announcer says. Two cowhands grab the gate rope on the first bucking chute and run it open. A blur of arched horse neck, chaps, and arms lurches into the arena, and the rider comes down in three seconds with a no-score, his brown rough stock still shooting, shaking, and kicking.
They run the second gate open. Another bareback bronc tosses his burden wildly, but the man holds on and pulls back, six seconds, seven seconds, eight seconds, past eight seconds, digging his heels over the horse’s shoulders, gripping the rigging with his left hand and jerking his free arm up against the whip-lash of his body, torso forward, arm back. Arm forward, torso back. Around the first corner. Around the second corner–you all clamber to your feet, try not to jostle Jacob on one side and Jessica on the other while you’re yelling–all the way back to the gate and then some before the pick-up man rides in and helps him off. Over the whooping crowd, the announcer gave the score: 71. Dang.
A deep shudder shakes the bleachers, and people turn to look over their shoulders at the woods not ten yards away. A Norfolk Southern freight engine, black with a white horse, bursts into sight through the trees. Head beams flash by, wheels grind on the metal tracks, and the whistle bellows inside your chest—scares you every time, even when you know it’s coming. First train of the night. There are always several.
The third competitor gets thrown before eight seconds, and lands on his neck and shoulder. Can’t be good. He doesn’t move. Paramedics and cowhands run out onto the loamy dirt, kneel over him. Several flick their hats off onto the ground behind them. Somebody picks one up and fans it over the injured. “Our industry is a dangerous industry,” the announcer is saying slowly, gravely. “And if you are a believer, we know where your heart is right now. Because our cowboy could use a little extra support in this moment.” The sheriff jerks up on the gate pin at the corner, and a volunteer waves his hands in a breaststroke movement over the heads of the bystanders twenty deep, saying “Clear the way, clear the way.” They part like the Red Sea. An ambulance backs up to the gate.
“We will give you an update on our cowboy as soon as it comes available,” the announcer promises. Sirens rise to a wail as they pull away. The blinking lights lurch as the ambulance hits a dip in the road. Your brother raises his eyebrows. You shake your head.
Moving right along.
“Jitterbug, the name of the horse, on his way out of the buckin’ chute . . .”
Calf roping happens at the other end.
At the Efland Trash Service Ropin’ Chute.
Efland Trash Service: major sponsor.
The handwritten Do Not Sit, Stand, or Lean on Rails sign has fallen down beneath the bleachers. People are climbing up and down the back rail frame. It’s easier than stepping through nine rows of people they went to Orange High with in “FFA” and “Eddie’s Plumbing and Well Service” t-shirts packed in too tight to even put a Pepsi can down between them.
Cigarette smoke hangs in the air. A giant moth dips and flutters under the glow of the too-bright generator lights. Lydia is talking to Emma about the last time she got her eyebrows done.
“Aaaaaand, don’t forget next week! Fundraiser, 2410 Church Street in Burlington, at the David Wescott Buick/GMC. There will be hot dogs and cheerleading demonstrations,” the announcer reminds us in a string of promotional statements just before the break. “And remember, vote Andy Cagle for Orange County Sheriff!”
Andy Cagle has a full-page campaign advertisement in the score-tracker booklet. He looks like he stepped out of the 1860’s with his hair parted down the middle and his thick mustache. He looks like the law.
People stand up and stretch. On comes Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. “Aw Lord, here we go,” Jessica says. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys. A crew-cut teenager runs down the gravel path behind the bleachers. Aaron turns at the sound of his voice and looks over the railing, which people are climbing over again.
“Did you see that guy? That’s Greg Jones, he went to Cedar Ridge. He’s the one I showed you in the yearbook who got “Most Likely to Cause Global Warming” because of that ginormous diesel truck he drove to school every day.”
Intermission is the time to wait in line for porta-potties, weasel your way through the tight crowd to watch kids bounce off the hydraulic bull onto an inflatable floor, or get a $1 Styrofoam cup of hot black joe. A long green-roofed tent advertises the rest of the night’s featured menu on a hand-written and illustrated poster board sign:
The alligator comes on a shish kebab skewer. Just like that. Alligator on a stick. Five dollars and delicious.
You climb back onto the bleachers, boot heels clomping on the tin, stepping between people, trying not to envision yourself slipping through the gap if you miss a foothold, pausing in front of an impassible group of five people jammed thigh-to-thigh. “’Scuse me,” “Sorry.”
A cowgirl from Indian Trail, NC wins the barrel racing. Cowboy with the nick-name “CACTUS” printed across the back of his shirt is on the winning duo for team roping. “Yeah! Go Cactus!” your brother yells.
Suddenly all the lights go out. Glow sticks materialize. “Hey, where’d they get those?” Jacob asks. The announcer gushes ceremoniously about American liberties, about our freedom to worship the God of our choice. The crowd cheers and whistles. A spotlight cuts on across the way, from the back of the announcer’s truck bed, and follows a lap of first the “Flag of the Christian cowboy,” and then the American flag. People try to capture the moments with iPhone cameras and flashes.
The spotlight begins to move in a wild figure-8 around the dark arena. The announcer’s speech climaxes, and the crowd’s roar grows. This is it. The music drops to a steady, low beat. It throbs through your feet on the bleachers. The beam suddenly lands on the middle of the arena. There is a split second of stillness, and then . . .
A gasp goes up.
Out of the darkness appears the silhouette of a bull. He moves slowly in a circle, throwing up his head in agitation, pawing the ground, outlined in light. The single ray moves over his massive chest and shoulders and he throws his neck to the side. A chill goes down your spine.
There is a scuffle in the ring, dim shapes of cowhands waving their arms. When the lights come on, the bull is gone. But men in umpire helmets, sleeveless vests, and black leather chaps sit lined up on the top edges of the bucking chutes with the other cowboys still in their jeans.
In bull riding, you don’t have to spur the “ton of trouble.” But if you do, you might get extra points. They open the first chute. You crane your neck. It’s a white bull, with a bulging hump over his shoulders. The rider, Casey Avett, has one hand gripped under a single braided rope tied around the girth.
This event, they say, pits courage against brutality.
The bull undulates in a rapid series of bucks, and Casey in his black helmet jerks, jerks again, spurs, slips, and hurls off, rolling out of the way as he hits the ground. Still kicking, the bull twists his back hooves to one side. He turns and charges; Casey springs to his feet, bolts to the fence, jumps, and pulls himself onto the second-to-last rung all in one motion, balancing just out of reach. The bull turns on a dime at the fence below Casey, and runs toward the spotters. They wave both arms up and down in semi-jumping jacks, and bend down on one knee to toss dirt up at the animal, startle him back towards the gate.
Every time a cowboy in his black helmet with its wire jaw guard flies off and rolls down under the heels, you wince. So do they, when the get up, holding their hands on their knees, head down, straightening up, slapping the palm of their free hand with a fist, walking off in a wide-legged gate.
This is what they live for.
The crowd starts to stream out of the bleachers as the second-to-last gate opens. Two fields full of double-parked trucks, and cars in the ditches up and down all the in-between roads is a ready-made traffic disaster that the families with crying four year olds long overdue for bedtime want to get ahead of. But you’ve got time. Tomorrow is Sunday.
And after all, 1,400 people parked in 734-person Efland is just part of the show.
Aside from the lumberjack show, or the car shows, this is the biggest thing that goes down for the stoplight-church-carwash-minimart wedged between Mebane and Hillsborough.
Jacob with his farmer tan catches the fever as you follow the streams of folks out to the field in the dark.
“Dude. That was kind of awesome. Let’s come back next year.”