If you drive north on State Route 67 until it becomes a two-lane road at Mapleview Street, you'll see the Lakeside Rodeo marquee to your right. It’s just past the Rodeo Round-Up truck dealership and across the road from a run-down eatery whose sign reads World Famous Café 67. It appears out of nowhere, like a time capsule buried and uncovered after years of neglect. For the people of Lakeside, it’s their legacy. It’s a place they gather every April to sit shoulder to shoulder on tall bleachers and watch genuine cowboys wrestle steers.
The Lakeside Rodeo has been an annual event since 1964. It was first organized by a group of parents looking for a way to raise money for a lighted football field for El Capitan High School. They called themselves the El Capitan Stadium Association — a name the rodeo’s volunteers still use. After securing enough funds for the football stadium, they continued hosting their annual rodeo as a fund-raiser for the high school. Back then, they had to find a vacant lot each year to stage the event, then build chutes and bleachers, only to tear the whole thing down and rebuild the following year. That’s where Marion Carlson came in. The eight acres that the rodeo grounds now occupy were a gift from her back in 1969. The El Capitan Stadium Association has lived through bell-bottoms, feathered hair, parachute pants, and skinny jeans, remaining a constant, never-evolving Lakeside community staple.
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On a brisk Wednesday evening in late January, the Lakeside Rodeo grounds banquet hall smells like Aqua Net and floral perfume. Among the room’s occupants are six young ladies, all of whom wear flannel, leather, or denim, each possessing the same goal — to become Miss Rodeo Lakeside 2011.
Most have been accompanied to this orientation meeting by their mothers, petite women wearing ponytails and cowboy boots. The hopeful daughters sit in metal folding chairs, their backs straight, their hair freshly curled, and their pretty faces smiling despite their nerves. The contestants hold a photocopied 50-page study guide on which they will be quizzed at the pageant on March 19. The lucky one will be crowned queen.
The study guide covers material such as rodeo judging criteria: “Horsemanship accounts for 30 percent of your total score”; the seven Lakeside Rodeo sanctioned events: “Bareback Bronc Riding, Tie-down Roping, Saddle Bronc Riding, Steer Wrestling, Barrel Racing, Team Roping, and Bull Riding”; the history of the pageant: the first pageant was held in 1968 as a fundraiser for the Lakeside Rodeo and has been an annual occurrence ever since; plus, helpful ways to deal with animal extremists: “Don’t say animal rights (animals have no rights).”
All eyes are on Kayla Douglas, who is standing at the front of the room. She wears a black pantsuit embellished with blue and icy-silver rhinestone flowers that shine under the fluorescent lighting. On top of her head sits the coveted white cowgirl hat with the golden Miss Rodeo Lakeside crown perched just above its rim. Across her chest she bears a sash that reads Miss Rodeo Lakeside 2010.
She looks like the kind of girl any mother would like to see her son dating. I imagine that she must have been awarded “nicest smile” in her high school yearbook. She looks wholesome.
She addresses the girls who want her title. She reminds them that confidence is key, to stay positive, to have fun and, above all, not to spend an arm and a leg on their pageant ensembles.
“I will never wear this outfit again,” she tells the wide-eyed beauty queen wannabes as she glances down at her bedazzled blazer.
The girls laugh, and their moms shake their heads in agreement. I try to envision Douglas ordering coffee at Starbucks or shopping at Trader Joe’s in the outfit. Outside Lakeside, it would raise eyebrows.
Seated at a long folding table that faces the girls and their moms are five women, all past Miss Rodeo Lakeside queens or contestants. Their job is to act as mentors. Each woman offers a different line of advice.
Kandis Alvernaz, who won the title in 1993, tells the girls to remember this: “Your time to project your personality is on horseback.” She warns them to get a hat that fits properly and reminds them that there needs to be an inch and a half between their brims and their eyebrows.
“You do not want to lose your hat. It will interrupt the rodeo, plus you’ll never get it back. The rodeo clown will play with it.”
Emily Junk, Miss Rodeo Lakeside 2008, offers fashion advice, telling the girls that if she needs to, she will teach them how to use curlers. She makes it clear that white hats photograph the best. She also mentions that Wrangler makes a jean that is perfect for dyeing. Part of the judging will be on how well the girls look in a denim outfit.
The contestants are asked to come to the center of the room to introduce themselves. A blond girl wearing tight brown Wranglers and a gold-embroidered vest addresses the audience. Her lips are as red as a fire engine. Below an off-white cowboy hat, springy curls frame her face. She mentions that she has driven from Brawley, in Imperial County, to attend the orientation. A woman in the front row smiles knowingly.
“I hear they’ve got a Walmart there now.”
One after the other, the girls tell the mentors a little bit about themselves. Some are polished and put together while others nervously ramble.
Before the girls call it a night, a woman in a vivid multicolored flannel shirt and an enormous white cowboy hat hands out Wild Bills Western Emporium coupons. “We can shape your hats and preorder special outfits,” she promises.
Two Saturdays later, the prospective queens have horsemanship practice at the rodeo grounds. They look even more demure in the saddle. They practice figure eights, turns, lead changes, and a barrel pattern before ending with a flag run. From the grandstand, parents and neighbors offer critiques and encouragement. Behind them, two men test out the bleachers, bouncing and shaking to see if they are sturdy enough for this year’s audience. They mark the areas that need repair with bright orange spray paint.