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.
“Rodeo people don’t consider failure. They just do it.”
“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.
After each girl performs her horseback routine, she stands before her mentors. Some remember to stand with their right foot pointed out, queen style. They are asked a series of questions from their study guides, mostly on the rodeo’s history — what weekend the rodeo falls on, who is the stock contractor for the event, what is the name of the rodeo clown, and questions about horse anatomy.
Douglas, the current queen, asks one of the contestants, “Where is a horse’s gall bladder?”
When the girl guesses incorrectly, Douglas laughs.
“That was a trick question. Horses don’t have gall bladders.”
Another mentor drills the girls on current events: What natural disasters are happening in the world? Who is the president of the United States? Who is the governor of California? They all know the definition of “snorty” — a bull that blows air at a clown or downed cowboy.
Eighteen-year-old contestant Brittany Miller is petite and blond and has shockingly white teeth. She is poised and well mannered. She addresses folks as sir and ma’am. She possesses the ability to roll her wrist in a wave suitable for royalty. Everything she wears sparkles — her shirt, her belt, her jeans. Even her silver nails glitter. Her black felt cowboy hat rests gingerly on top of her perfectly styled hair. She looks like an extra from a Western movie.
Miller was given her first horse at the age of five and began riding lessons at seven. She attended the Lakeside Rodeo as she grew up, watching the queens make their regal ride around the arena waving to the crowd. One of her fondest childhood memories was the day she watched her riding instructor, Kelli McMurren, crowned Miss Rodeo Lakeside in 2001. “It was the most inspiring thing,” Miller remembers. Since then, she has had one dream — to be the Lakeside Rodeo queen.
Miller doesn’t want to consider the possibility of not winning the crown, although she admits that if she doesn’t get it this year, she’ll keep trying until the cutoff age of 26.
“You can’t be married, so if it takes me that long, I guess I’ll stay single,” she says with a laugh.
If she wins, she plans on going to regionals — Miss Rodeo California — and if she wins that, she wants to be crowned Miss Rodeo USA.
Last semester, Miller earned a 4.0 grade point average at Grossmont College, worked as a hostess at the community-favorite Lakeside Cafe, and conditioned her horse every day.
“I talk to my horse like she’s a person,” Miller says. “It sounds crazy.”
Miller is confident that the performance of her paint horse Brandy will help her secure the title of Miss Rodeo Lakeside. That and her speech on living her life the cowboy way — with hard work and dedication.
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Despite her husband’s affection for the Lakeside Rodeo, Maria Gracey refuses to step foot onto its grounds. She has gone to a rodeo only one time and says, “I will never go again!” She feels bad for the animals.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she says.
Bill, her husband, shrugs. “If it weren’t for the rodeo, those animals would be leather or glue.”
They politely agree to disagree.
Bill has been attending the Lakeside Rodeo for over 25 years. Mostly, he goes for the experience and the account of American life that the event offers up. He likes to watch the crowd, to walk around and see the kitschy cowboy memorabilia and hats on sale at the booths set up in the parking lot. He likes to stroll behind the animal pens and get an up-close look at the livestock.
“It’s not like you can go to Europe and Asia and see cowboys being bucked off a bull.”
“You can get pretty close to a 2000-pound bull, something you can’t do at large-venue rodeos.”
Bill’s greatest passion, when it comes to rodeo, is photography. It’s not every day he can get a photo of a cowboy in a rodeo setting or a barrel racer on top of her horse. He attends all three days of the rodeo, camera in hand, and shares his work on Flickr. His photo stream features action shots of rodeo clowns, barrel racers, steer wranglers, and bronc riders.
Bill likes the connection to the past that Lakeside’s rodeo provides.
“It’s a real slice of Americana,” he says.
Bill admits, “I’m surprised how much they feature patriotism. Parents with a conservative bent would think it’s great stuff. There’s not a lot of urban sophisticates.”
He notes that people get dressed up to fit the occasion. Even Bill, a retired tech guy and commercial diver, gets into the spirit with a cowboy hat and Western boots.
“What I like is that people bring their kids. You can afford to take a whole family there.”
Even the rodeo’s pricing is reminiscent of times past. You can take a family of five for just over 50 bucks. Everything about the Lakeside Rodeo appears to be a throwback to early days. The sign leading you out of the rodeo grounds politely reads, in faded letters, “Thank you, rodeo fans, y’all come back!” The words above the men’s and ladies’ rooms read “Cowgirls” and “Cowboys.” It’s like stepping inside an old sepia photograph.
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Dottie Pierce, cofounder of the Lakeside Rodeo’s featured act, the Rainbow Riders Drill Team, moved to Ramona in the 1980s, just before she and her mother, Deanna Miller, organized their successful professional team. According to Pierce, they moved from Poway because “Poway was starting to push the horses out and we needed more room.”
At 33 degrees north and 116 degrees west, Ramona sits in the middle of San Diego County. But for many San Diegans, Ramona is merely the town they drive through on the way back from picking up a Julian apple pie. The town’s dirt roads, clusters of colorful mailboxes, and cowboy citizens seem foreign. At Nuevo Grill, one of Ramona’s most popular restaurants, a sign in the ladies’ room reads “Don’t squat with your spurs on.” The Albertsons on Main Street sells 25-pound bags of carrots for horses.
Pierce lives on 3.5 acres of land, on which she has kept up to 13 horses at one time. Currently, she has 10 horses: 3 of her own, 3 belonging to Rainbow Riders, and 4 belonging to a friend.
The Rainbow Riders look like a ballet troupe in glittery uniforms on horseback. It’s no wonder that year after year, the horsewomen are Lakeside Rodeo’s opening act. Among rodeo fans, the Rainbow Riders are legendary. They have been affectionately called the “Blue Angels on horseback.”
Pierce has a large arena where the Rainbow Riders practice twice a week. Between September and April (pre-rodeo season) they rehearse and polish their routine. Sometimes they have seven consecutive weekends booked with shows between April and August.
On a cold, dark evening in February, women arrive at the arena in pickup trucks pulling horse trailers. A team member on horseback rides past with a cell phone tucked to one ear.
In the lighted arena, 15 of the drill team’s 17 members weave their horses in and out of formations, performing Do-si-dos, Windmills, and Death’s Dare. For an hour and 45 minutes the riders rehearse the drills. At times their galloping and trotting creates so much dust in the night air that their silhouettes are barely visible through it.
The riders joke and laugh with one another but voice concern when someone screws up. Above them shines a curtain of stars that can’t be seen closer to city lights. Pierce points out the white wings of an owl soaring through the night sky. Two horses in stalls watch the practice. A spotted dog named Dallas bounds around the outside of a corral, racing a muscular black horse around its pen.
There is a camaraderie among horse people. The Rainbow Riders go for trail rides together, they organize group camping trips, and during the 2007 Witch Creek Fire, which struck Ramona hard, they lived in each other’s homes and cared for one another’s horses. Some of the Rainbow Riders have taken an Ireland vacation on horseback together. They are a sisterhood. They are living every seven-year-old girl’s dream, complete with sparkly outfits.
Pierce tells me that this year, during the Saturday-night show at the Lakeside Rodeo, they will be performing to Cher’s “Welcome to Burlesque.” “Our horses will wear boas,” she says.
Back in 1992, the Rainbow Riders experienced their first and only fatality. Deanna Miller, Dottie Pierce’s mother, passed away as the result of an accident during a Lakeside Rodeo performance. Two horses doing a crossover move collided, and Miller was thrown from her horse. She was airlifted to a local hospital and died that night.
“Safety is my number one priority,” Pierce says. “A good performance is number two. When you have 24 minds” —12 horses and 12 riders — “in an arena, anything can happen. Thankfully, serious accidents are the exception and not the norm. Safety of horse and rider has always been and will always be our first priority.”
Despite the accident, Pierce’s team returns to the Lakeside Rodeo year after year.
“It’s kind of like driving a car past the site of an accident you had. When you pass it, you will always remember it. My mom would not have wanted me to quit drill. I do drill for her. I also don’t think I could drill again if it had been anyone else killed.”
Dottie adds, “The Lakeside Rodeo is like a second home to us. It was one of the first rodeos we ever did. I love working for them. The committee is great, and their audience appreciates what we do.”
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Kevin Higley’s voice is smooth as molasses, with a twang that you would expect from a person raised in the rodeo world. Lakeside Rodeo’s renowned clown has been working with broncs and bulls since boyhood. Higley has rodeo in his blood. His dad was a pro rider.
Growing up in Hooper, Utah, where he still lives today, Higley and his brother trained to be bull riders as teenagers. They started by riding horses bareback and riding broncs. Before long, Higley discovered he wasn’t so good at it. However, he was good at “protecting,” and so began his career as a “bullfighter,” a rodeo clown who distracts the bull after the rider falls off. Eventually he transitioned into barrelman — a clown who distracts the bull but who can work from the safety of a barrel — and comic clowning, performing skits for the audience. He’s been retired from bullfighting for about two years now.
From April to August Higley is on the road. He works rodeos in the western states from the Mexican border to Canada.
“It amazes me that such a great Western world exists among the hustle and bustle of a big city like San Diego,” Higley says.
While rodeos were once the way he made his full-time living, Higley now limits himself to 15 per year. “I pick and choose. We don’t book everything that comes along.”
One of those 15 is always the Lakeside Rodeo.
Through the years, Higley’s rodeo adventures have been a family affair. His four boys have been part of his act. They’ve dressed up as miniature versions of their father, and they’ve dressed up as lady clowns. “They didn’t like that too much,” Higley admits. “My boys haven’t turned over to cross-dressers, so that’s good.”
Now that his youngest son is 18, a grandson appears in Higley’s rodeo skits from time to time.
Out of Higley’s four boys, three are involved in the Western world. One is an amateur bull rider and does comedy acts, another is a tie-down roper, and a third does cowboy action shooting.
Higley admits that his job is risky. He’s had bumps and bruises and even some broken vertebrae in his neck. His most memorable close call was the time a bull kicked him in the chest. When he was doubled over from the injury, the bull got him under the chin with its massive head. As a result, Higley nearly bit off his tongue.
“I had a hard time eating and talking for about three months after that. I consider that one of my worst injuries because I love to talk.”
Despite appearing before bulls for nearly 29 years, Higley has missed only one rodeo as a result of injury.
“I’ve been pretty stinking lucky,” he says.
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On the walls of the El Capitan Stadium Association’s office hang framed photos of past rodeo queens. Their smiling faces peer down at Betty Washburn while she goes about her work. Their heavy makeup and bright lipstick contrast with Washburn’s cropped gray hair and jeans-and-T-shirt attire. She would like to remodel the office and even purchase a new digital marquee (among other things) to spruce up the rodeo’s image. It’s doubtful that will happen. There is a lack of funds for such things. The money received from the annual rodeo goes right back into the community. To purchase a new marquee would mean less funding for the youth programs in Lakeside.
“If I’m lucky, I’m reimbursed a tank of gas,” Washburn says.
This rodeo season Washburn is concerned with securing sponsorships for the 47th annual rodeo. With the failed economy, her prospects are dismal. Companies aren’t as willing to support the rodeo in the same fashion they once did, and the El Capitan Stadium Association has to work harder to entice sponsors.
The hours she puts into her volunteer job add up to a full-time gig, says Washburn, who owns K&C Excavating with her husband.
Washburn’s not complaining. “I do it because the values are there.”
Ironically, despite her dedication to the community, Washburn claims, “I’m not a nice person.” Which, when dealing with cowboys, puts her at an advantage. In the rodeo world there’s no room for pushovers. Washburn doesn’t take guff from anyone, a fact she makes abundantly clear. She has been a volunteer on the stadium association board for 26 years. “You become a family once you are involved in something like this,” she says.
Washburn’s graduating class at El Capitan High School in 1968 was the recipient of the football stadium that started it all. “We were supposed to have our graduation ceremony on the football field,” she remembers, “only they didn’t install the lights in time.” She laughs.
She says that the El Capitan Stadium Association is offering something unique to the Lakeside community. “Most communities don’t have a support system like this,” she says. “We try the best we can to pick up the slack.” This includes donating money to buy medications for low-income children, granting college scholarships, supporting the Lakeside Boy Scouts, sponsoring youth baseball teams, and providing land for the El Capitan agriculture program and the Eastern San Diego County Junior Fair.
“We pretty much try to donate to all youth programs in Lakeside that ask for our help.”
On a tour of the Lakeside rodeo grounds, Washburn points out the covered corrals used by the high school and the junior fair.
“We’ve been commended by animal control for our humane treatment of animals — something we’re really proud of.”
Washburn notes that most rodeos don’t offer shade to their animals.
“We do care about the animals. Some are worth $50,000 to $60,000. We don’t want to see them getting hurt.”
In recent years, the El Capitan association has been under fire for renting the facility out for the gay rodeo, a controversial move in Lakeside, often referred to as a redneck community. Washburn admits to getting a mouthful from more than one community member.
“We don’t discriminate,” she tells me. “What I tell people that complain is, ‘Do you want to write me a check for $8000 to contribute to our youth? If so, I’ll take it. If not, don’t complain!’” Besides, she adds, “They are one of our best renters.”
When word got around that the gay rodeo would be coming to town in April 2006, two San Diego churches came out to the association’s public meetings to voice their dissent.
Washburn scoffs, “They weren’t even Lakeside churches! They should worry about their own neighborhoods.”
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Don Hickle is the kind of man who stands when a woman gets up to use the powder room. He opens doors and possesses a chivalry you don’t find in most men. When I ask him if he thinks good old-fashioned manners are lacking in the men of this generation, he shakes his head.
“Not if you go to small communities or rural neighborhoods, anywhere you’ve got people taking care of animals. It’s still there.”
A farm boy from Iowa, he has been the stadium association’s president for over 5 years and has been on the board for 33. His button-down shirt is as blue as a western sky and matches his eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses.
Over a breakfast of eggs and toast, with extra bacon, he tells me that this year will be his last as the association’s president. “It’s a lot of work,” he says. “It’s a love-hate relationship.”
His wife, Lucille, seems relieved that he is moving on. “It’s like a full-time job,” she says.
As rodeo volunteers, the Hickles have witnessed some wild events. They once saw a bull jump an eight-foot rail into the competitors’ area. “It scattered cowboys everywhere.” They have even seen a 2000-pound bull make a run for it down the road. “Cowboys that are team ropers help us out,” Bill says. “They get the bulls corralled and put back into pens.”
Back in 1995, the Lakeside rodeo grounds saw one bull rider die, 18-year-old Paul Coronado.
“Nowadays, most riders wear helmets and flak jackets, which are like bulletproof vests,” Bill says. “It’s a lot safer.”
He notes that some modern cowboys choose not to take such precautions.
“It’s a macho thing,” says Lucille.