My Justins

When I opened the banged up boot box with “Justin” across the top, it was the first time I had seen those boots in at least 10 years. I was travelling to Texas to see the Goliad County Fair and PRCA Rodeo, and they were the most appropriate footwear I owned for such a trip. I noticed they were a half size smaller than what I wear now, so I tried them on just to be sure I could still wear them. They felt tight and stiff, so I wore them around the house for a few hours hoping to get used to them so I could justify using up so much space in my tiny carry on suitcase. I knew already that they were too uncomfortable to wear all day while travelling, and too much of a pain to unlace for airport security, so they would have to be packed.

My lace-up Justin ropers had first seen light duty about 20 years ago, on my dad’s property outside of Goliad, Texas. In those days, my dad and stepmother raised racing quarter horses, and my inner child thrilled at just being around these powerful and beautiful creatures. I spent weekends in the country, sometimes riding, sometimes helping to exercise and feed the horses, but mostly shoveling horse manure into a wheelbarrow. I found cleaning the stalls and pens to be relaxing, meditational work. On relatively cool, quiet mornings I would lace up my boots and put on my washable leather gloves, both purchased especially for those weekends, put the pitchfork into the wheelbarrow and head out to clean up the horses’ living spaces. Sometimes they would look up from nibbling dew covered grass and amble over to curiously inspect what I had collected. One of the boots still has a light scrape on the toe from a hoof that landed on my foot but slid off before any real damage was done. I admit I haven’t tried very hard to erase that reminder of those days.

After a few hours of walking around my house in the tight, stiff boots, they ultimately made the cut to make the trip to Texas with me (how could I deny them the rare chance to go back home?). I packed my thinnest socks to wear with them and resolved to wait until the last minute before arriving at the fairgrounds before putting them on.

The day in Goliad began with lunch at The Empresario restaurant on the historic town square (I still didn’t have the boots on). We had the chicken fried steak, which had come highly recommended and absolutely lived up to the hype.

Later we drove by the high school I attended for my junior year and was impressed to see how it had grown! I knew the next stop would be the fairgrounds so I took a moment in the parking lot there to change into my boots. They weren’t quite as stiff as I remembered when I first tried them on pre-trip, and even though they have low one inch heels, I instantly felt a few inches taller somehow.

We headed to the fairgrounds, where the 4H barns were bustling and the carnival was in full swing.

After strolling through the barns, where young people showed off the animals they had raised over the past year, and young homemakers and crafters competed for blue ribbons, we met up with my parents, an aunt and a couple of cousins and their families for bbq brisket and conversation. I remarked to my cousin James that I felt like I should recognize more people there, since I had lived there before and it’s such a small town, and he said wryly, “That’s just age, ’cause ain’t nobody ever left.”

With more than an hour left before the rodeo we headed to the carnival and bought tickets to the ferris wheel (for the aerial view photo op!) and the fun house.

Walking by the Zombie Hunt shooting gallery, where the object is to completely shoot out the target, a small red star, with a bb gun, I flashed back to a time when, as a shy, chubby 8th grader visiting for the weekend, I was thrilled to be taken to the carnival by my cool older cousin, Bill, who was the only person I ever witnessed obliterate the red star.

When it was time for the main event, we went back to the arena and staked out our seats in the grandstand.

First up was the mutton busting competition, where very small children, in helmets and body armor, try to ride a panicked sheep for a full 8 seconds. It was hilarious AND adorable. There were even some tiny young rodeo clowns on hand, perhaps practicing for a later career in the “big show”. The color guard wore glittering belts and held up gigantic American and Texas flags with one hand while managing excited, sidestepping horses with the other hand.

As the night went on, we would see events in bareback bronc riding, barrel racing, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, a few variations of calf roping, and the grand finale, bull riding. During the more dangerous horse and bull riding events, everyone had a job to do and knew how to do it.

At one point I walked around to the opposite side of the arena from where we were sitting. I passed people riding horses through the parking lot. I saw people practicing their roping skills. I overheard a calf roping team, on their horses, strategizing. My boots no longer felt stiff or tight. My stride felt longer, and I felt stronger, lighter, and younger, like I did when I lived there, back in high school. They say scent memories are the strongest, so maybe it was the smell of all the animals, but I think it was the boots on my feet, that transported me back in time, to when I belonged there, however briefly. I recognized myself then, in the way that I thought I would recognize others but didn’t. I recalled what my cousin had said earlier, “Ain’t nobody ever left…” and realized that maybe a part of me had never left either.

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