Trail rides and wagon trains converge in Houston to kick off world’s largest rodeo

trail rides HoustonIn a salute to the Old West, 13 trail rides and wagon trains–some coming from 336 miles away–have converged to mark the start of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which runs through March 20th. The world’s largest exhibition and rodeo entertainment show was developed to “encourage and promote the breeding, raising, and marketing of better livestock and farm products at public fairs and to promote and maintain research and educational functions within the livestock industry.” I recently posted about a similar agricultural and livestock fair in Paris, so happily, these events are global.

Three thousand participants rode from five days to three weeks to reach Houston, carrying on a tradition that began in 1952, when a small group of men started a trail ride to help promote the rodeo. The riders and wagons pay tribute to the heritage of the frontier, and the animals and individuals who made the settlement of the West possible. But the ride is also a form of education. In addition to the settlers, some trail rides are dedicated to honoring the history of black and Hispanic cowboys, which many are unaware of.

Macon.com’s blog interviews a number of participants, some of whom have annually made the ride since childhood, or are second- or third-generation riders. One 15-year-old girl was actually born on the ride. Eighty-year old Mac Goldsby of Houston has been doing the Valley Lodge Trail Ride since its founding in 1959. “To me, it’s walking history,” he says. “There’s so many people that don’t know about horses, mules. If anything, it might inspire them to read history.”

The Houston event has inspired others to host trail rides to promote their shows and educate the public, such as the Dixie National Livestock Show and Rodeo in Mississippi, and the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. Hats off to preserving America’s Western heritage, and keeping tradition alive.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Bill Gracey]

Touring Dallas Cowboys Stadium during Super Bowl XLV Media Day

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Super Bowl XLV. It was most certainly one for the record books. Well over 100,000 people flowed into Cowboys Stadium in the heart of North Texas to watch two of the NFL’s most storied teams do battle. The Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers put on an amazing spectacle, and I was able to take part in one small way. I made my way into Arlington for Super Bowl Media Day — a frenzied event that saw over 1,000 credentialed media crowd the field for their chance to interview their favorite players and coaches. Two of the league’s most historic teams, both on the field of the newest, most awe-inspiring stadium in the NFL. It was a spectacular scene, and a journey I won’t ever forget. The good news for you is that even though the Super Bowl is over, Cowboys Stadium remains open for business.

How so, you ask? The team has set up a program for tourists, locals and curious fans alike to actually take a tour of the new Cowboys Stadium. Tours are given seven days a week, with two primary options for entry. Of course, a general tour won’t involve speaking to players of the Packers or Steelers, but it will involve a thorough walkthrough of the NFL’s most astounding and technologically advanced venue. Read on to catch a glimpse of what you’ll see should you make the trip down (or up!).

%Gallery-116470%Aside from the fact that players were on the field and more willing than ever to sign an autograph rather than answer yet another question directly related to sports, a normal Cowboys Stadium tour isn’t too different than a Super Bowl Media Day tour. I was granted access to a special side entrance as well as a rear conference room, a look at the technology that powers the stadium (more on that angle here and here) and field-level access to the players, but other than that, my experience would pretty much mimic yours.

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My first suggestion would be to splurge on the VIP Tour. If you make the trip over to Arlington, it’s worth the $10 per person upcharge to get a legitimate VIP experience. This runs $27.50 for adults (or $20 per person with a group of 20+ people), or $22.50 for children and seniors. The cheaper self-guided tour lacks the insider knowledge that the VIP Tour provides, giving you full access to the Pro Shop, field, locker rooms, Miller Lite Club and the post-game interview room. There are Tour Guides stations in each area to answer your questions, but the VIP Tour goes above and beyond. With that, you’ll begin at the Main club and then tour a private suite, the radio / print media press boxes, the Cotton Bowl offices, the Dr. Pepper Star Bar and the Ford Motor Company Fountain.

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Following those stops, a guide will take you down to the event level where you’ll see all of the stops on the Self-Guided Tours. Afterwards, you’ll end the tour in the Pro Shop where you’ll get a complimentary 6- x 8-inch photo to remember the experience. Like I said, the $10 upcharge seems justified.

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As for my experience? It was outstanding. The 72- x 160-foot Mitsubishi Electric HD display hanging from the roof is truly a sight that has to be seen to be believed. It’s an expansive place — the roof can be opened up if the weather is nice, and it’s very obvious just how new this place is. Being able to get on the field holds even more meaning now that the Packers and Steelers have christened it with a Super Bowl, and for fans of the NFL (or sports in general), it’s a breathtaking experience. You really can’t judge just how huge the place is until you’re there. I kept wishing that I could actually return for a game after being on the field with legendary players, and there’s no doubt that this tour will get you hooked and hoping to come back for more. There looks to be hardly a bad seat in the house, and from a tech perspective, there’s plenty to appreciate. Over 800 wireless routers are there to provide reliable internet access through games (for those who like to tweet or upload images / videos of the action), and there have been improvements made in wireless cellphone coverage for similar reasons.

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During my tour, I also learned of things to come from Cowboys CIO Pete Walsh and systems architects from CDW. The organization is hoping to tie a good deal of technology into future events. Things like iPhone apps for ordering food (and potentially having it delivered to your seat based on GPS), real-time statistics and on-demand replays on your phone or tablet. These guys are gunning for “the ultimate fan experience,” and it shows. They’ve got the perfect venue to provide that, and if you’re halfway through a cross-country road trip, why not make a day to tour the NFL’s most technologically advanced stadium? Have a look at my tour in the images throughout to get a feel for what you’d get to see, and then head here to book a time and day that fits your schedule.

In the Heart of Central America: Cowboys and coffee in Copan, Honduras

Located in the northwest of Honduras, just a few miles from the Guatemalan border, the area known as Copan has a landscape of lush green rolling hills, coffee plantations and cattle ranches. This is pure cowboy country. In Copan Ruins, horses clip-clop softy over the stone streets and the jangle of spurs can be heard as men in boots, jeans and cowboy hats wander through town. A few miles away, cowboy Carlos Castejon warmly welcomes guests to his family’s coffee, cardamom, and cattle ranch to learn about the farm’s production.

Finca el Cisne has been owned Carlos’ family since 1885. What started as a simple farm growing Arabica coffee, corn, and beans, has grown to encompass 800 hectares (40% of which is primary forest). Visitors to the Finca will drive for nearly twenty minutes from the start of the family’s land to the main house, passing by the dwellings of Carlos’ employees who live on the land. In 2002 Carlos decided to expand the farm’s operations to include agritourism. With a subtle, quick wit, a penchant for teasing his guests (in a good-natured way) while providing an interesting and informative experience, and a clear passion for his home country, Carlos is the perfect host.

While in Honduras, I was able to spend a day at the Finca, which starts with a stop at Carlos’ rustic guesthouse. Equipped with five rooms, running water and electricity, the guesthouse is very basic but inviting. Guests who chose to come just for the day will arrive at 8am and depart at 6pm. With transportation from town the outing costs $64 per person. Once you arrive at the Finca, you’ll get to sample some of Carlos’ coffee and a light breakfast prepared from ingredients grown on the farm, such as mashed banana stuffed with beans and served with cheese, an unusual combination that was actually delicious.

From there Carlos took my group on a tour, stopping to point out the many fruits grown on the property, including passion-fruit, mango, mandarin, avocado, banana, plantain, breadfruit, starfruit, lime and grapefruit. Along the way, he’d reach for a fruit, sliver off a piece with his knife, and pass out samples.

Then we were off to the coffee mill to learn about how coffee is produced from start to finish. First Carlos showed us the fruit, which blooms in stages from January to April and begins ripening in December. When the fruit turns red, it is handpicked and the beans are extracted from the fruit (which is used for compost) by machine. The beans are fermented, washed, and then cycled through a series of troughs that allow the low-quality beans to run off and the higher quality (heavier) beans to remain until they are pushed through.

The beans are then spread on the ground to sun dry (and then often moved to a drum to machine dry) and the finished green beans are extracted from their shells. The majority of the beans will be exported while they are still green and then roasted to the taste of their destination country.

While all of this was fascinating for me (and the smell of the coffee was making me rethink my aversion to caffeine), I was anxious to get to the next part….the horseback riding. So Carlos led us over to a small pasture where several horses were saddled and waiting. As the most experienced in the group, I was given the horse Carlos normally rides, while he rode a younger horse that he was training.

With Carlos and another guide we set out to explore the property. Again Carlos would stop, point out the many fruits and edible flowers growing around us, and offer up tasty samples. We walked and trotted our way along a dirt road and then entered a field where Carlos gave us the go-ahead to pick up a little speed. I leaned forward, gave my horse some free rein, and we were off, galloping through the brush and up a hill. After an exhilarating ride to the top, my horse simply stopped and waited for the rest of the group to catch up.

For another hour we explored the property, taking in the views of the rolling green valley below, passing cows and horses grazing in the fields, and again and again taking off at a breathtaking but controlled gallop through the countryside. I can honestly say it was the single best horseback riding experience I have ever had while traveling. All too soon it was time to head back to the house for lunch.

We wandered around the main house gawking at photos of Carlo’s ancestors with jaguars they shot on the property to keep them from eating the cattle. We sat down to a lunch of traditional Honduran food (the menu for which changes based on seasonal availability). We started with coffee (of course), fresh orange juice, and a bean soup with fresh-made corn tortillas and cheese. Then heaping plates of food were served family-style, including potatoes, watercress salad, braised beef, and more beans, tortillas, and fresh cheese. A sweet plantain in a syrup of cardamom from the farm was served for dessert. To complete the day, and to help soothe any sore muscles from the ride, Carlos takes guests to the local hot springs for a relaxing soak.

There are other coffee tours in Copan, and I had the opportunity to do another one during my time in the region. But this one was the best. The tour was informative and, thanks to Carlos’ humor and passion, very entertaining. Lunch was delicious, the property was beautiful, and I think there is no better way to see this area of cowboys and coffee plantations than on the back of a horse.

This trip was paid for by the Honduras Institute of Tourism, but the views express are entirely my own.

You can read other posts from my series on Honduras here.

Midwest turns Wild West : Bull riding for the whole family

In northwestern Ohio where the land is flat, flat, flat and family farms dot the landscape in a scene of bucolic sedateness, the Midwest turns wild west on Saturday nights from October through May. Off State Rte 29, between the Indiana border and Celina, a town with a population of 10,000, is Mack Arena, a non-descriptive rectangular building that one might blow right pass without noticing. Only the white corral-style fencing around one end of the building says animals. Looks can be deceiving. Inside, excitement and a dose of danger crackles. Who knew?

The clues to the wildness inside the industrial corrugate structure start at the dirt parking lot where a pungent odor of animals and leather waft over the assortment of pickup trucks, trailers and cars that gather here every Saturday evening. The announcer’s voice can be heard over the crowd’s din of shouts of encouragement and awe.

The yellow sign near the door touting, “Beware of Bull” is more of a welcome mat than a warning, however.

That’s what Gadling found out a few weeks ago when we came upon the bull riding as an unexpected pleasure of Saturday night’s entertainment–just two hours from Columbus. The allure of the wild west in the Midwest pulled our station wagon into the mix of vehicles.

Although the bull-riding is rough and tumble, the crowd is not. This is family fun where kids are free to hang off fences close to the bull pen for a better look, and any one who wants to give riding a bull a try can plop down money for a go at it.

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Cowboy hats and jeans, of course, are part of the scenery.

First, though, comes the professionals who know how to ride these massively muscled beasts. Riding a bull is not a matter of just getting on and letting the gates fly open.

There’s a slew of fussing and positioning in the narrow chute where handlers keep the bull still, the gate closed, and help the rider settle onto the bull’s back.

Then when the rider signals ready with a raise of his hand, the gate is pulled open and whoosh!–out of the chute the bull and rider come for a rollicking, very fast ride.

For a few seconds, dust flies in a whirlwind accompanied by whooping and hollering in a rush of excitement. Once the bull rids itself of the rider, there’s a rush to get the rider out of the way while the announcer calls out the time.

Then the next bull and rider are made ready for their turn in the arena.

The crowd, a mix of people of all ages from grandparents to babies in carriers, visit with each other in between rounds. And, at the end, about 10 p.m., they file out of the building and into their vehicles to pull out of the parking lot into the calm night until next Saturday when the excitement calls them back.

The nuts and bolts of bull riding if you want to give it a go:

  • Jackpot riders (experts) $45
  • Novice riders–$25
  • Practice rides–$15
  • Riders must be 18 or over, although parents can sign a release for younger kids.

Our son rode a sheep as part of the evening’s entertainment. Alas, no photo. He was a hit though since his riding style was to lay along the back of the sheep with his legs hanging over the rump.

By the way, the arena is heated and you can bring in your own coolers. Admission is reasonable.

[all photos by Jamie Rhein]

Gadlinks for Monday 11.16.09

It’s “Wild West” day here at Gadling, so I dug into the travel blog archives to find some of the best “Wild West” reads. Hope y’all enjoy today’s pickin’s!

‘Til tomorrow, have a great evening!

More Gadlinks HERE.