Tall in the Saddle

March 6, 2010

Few blog posts for many months means I’ve been crushed with work. But that’s a good thing in these trying economic times. The heaviest load has come from serving as guest curator for a just-opened exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, called “Tall in the Saddle, the Pendleton Round-Up at 100.”

In May 2009, I began tracking down artifacts and other items for the 3,000-square-foot exhibit. What I thought would be the most challenging part of the project — persuading people and organizations to loan roughly 500 things — proved to be the easiest. The most gratifying part was meeting so many people who were so eager to help. The most difficult was crafting the story for a medium that was foreign to me.

Lenders were well-represented at the exhibit’s special opening event Thursday night, which attracted about 300 people, many of them decked out in western attire. Judging from many comments, they liked what they saw. The project came about because of my work on the book Pendleton Round-Up at 100: Oregon’s Legendary Rodeo, published last year. A new edition will be released later this month. The book and the exhibit have led to another project that I’m just beginning: developing and managing the editorial side of an 80-page magazine devoted to the Round-Up’s centennial in September. More about that work in the weeks to come.

Who knew that a city slicker like me, a guy mostly raised in Florida, would end up immersed in an event as Old West as they come. How did it happen? Here’s what I told the crowd:

My role in the exhibit is an unlikely one. About four years ago, I was working on my laptop at a coffee shop on Northeast Alberta Street in Portland. I was surrounded by tattooed hipsters. Unlike me, none had white hair. My cell phone rang. It was Karen Kirtley, I had taken Karen’s graduate book editing class at Portland State University. We liked each others work. She asked if I would co-author a book about the Round-Up with Ann Terry Hill, a western writer who grew up in Pendleton and was a Round-Up queen.

I had heard of the Round-Up. It was just a big rodeo way out east. I had driven past Pendleton on I-84 but never visited. Nor was I a rodeo fan. Maybe that’s because the horse I briefly owned in high school kept racing straight toward fences in its endless and often successful quest to dislodge me. So I can’t say the book topic was immediately enticing. However, I needed the work. Soon after Karen called, I saw some of the early black and white Round-Up photos like those displayed in the exhibit. A sucker for old photos, I was hooked. Not just curious about the people and the place but emotionally engaged in a way that defies words.

I didn’t show the audience this photo, taken in January 1966 near Orlando. I had just turned 15, and my neighbor and I were about to buy “Lady,” a misnomer if there ever was one. I wasn’t scared. Really. But I wasn’t about to shout the Round-Up’s enduring slogan: Let ‘er Buck!