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Wild, Wheeled West

7/2/2009

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In the 10th heat, one of the outriders takes a bad spill.

Newland, the announcer, dubs the chuck wagon races "the most physical race in the world, period" and issues a call for prayer. Then, as before, once the rider displays some gesture that demonstrates he is both alive and in control of his limbs, Newland asks the spectators to cheer their support, and they oblige.

Bronc fanning. A rider climbs aboard ornery horses and gets ragdolled about until the horse shakes him loose, and everyone prays that he won't get his fool head stomped.

Sometimes, the horse kicks and gambols its way into the line of spectators on wagons and horseback at the edge of the race course, and has to be roped before a rampage breaks out.

From the top of the spectator bluff, this makes for delightful theater.

Snowy River Race. An homage to the film, "The Man From Snowy River," which features an iconic scene of a horseback chase down a mountainside.

Here, 16 riders race down one tall hill, up another, down across the field, into the narrow mouth of a shallow stream, and through it to the finish. There are more ways for this to go awry than there are color combinations on a Rubik's Cube.

Still, the winning time looks very much like that of the Kentucky Derby.

Classic wagons. The main event. The wagons must weigh a half-ton apiece, and there's no restriction on the size of the horses, of which there are four per team. The spectacle is not only in the improbability of it — four wagons and a total of 20 horses running like hell at their heels, 10 times in quick succession — but the tension of watching those outriders. To mount a horse and guide it around the barrel at the starting gun is quite a trick, it turns out, and many nullify their wagon teams' runs by finishing late. Or not at all.

In the final heat of Saturday's slate, one of the outriders mounts his horse all cockeyed, makes a game effort to stay aboard, and falls to the grass as the race is gathering momentum. The dejected cowboy dusts himself off and trudges to retrieve his hat. The horse, thus unencumbered, speeds along with the rest of the race.

As the horse rounds the big turn, he eludes a couple of hands who try to rope him, and a few yards past the finish, runs headlong into one of the other riders, T-boning him like a sedan running a red light.

The horses crumple; the rider is thrown forward onto the grass, where he writhes.

That kicking is a good sign. Movement! In the same breath in which he summons an ambulance, Newland asks the crowd to let all the riders know what a great time they've had at the races, and the applause peals down the side of the hill.

The fellers

"The name's Jeff."

Just Jeff?

"Don't mind the last name," Jeff says. "I might be wanted somewhere."

This is in the infield, where you're about as likely to hear the sound of a horse stepping on a beer can as yourself step foot in a heap of fresh fertilizer. Even the spectators here ride on horses and horse trailers, as Jeff is doing, but perhaps no one else here drives such a curious rig.

Jeff and some buddies are sitting on and around a tall wooden wagon torn from some loony Brothers Grimm tale: cobalt blue and long, with small wooden carousel horses and brass animal sculptures wandering its undersides. Inside, beside a black-and-white photo of Marilyn Monroe, hangs a hand-painted sign that reads, "Hogeye Gypsy Wagon."

"We're German-Irish," he says, "but as much as we move, Dad says we was gypsies."

The chassis dates back to 1924. One of Jeff's first memories was of his family outfitting that undercarriage to haul a load of cotton down the old Route 66 to California, 50 years ago. "We just crippled our way out there," he says.

Hooked to it now are two horses, Barney and Claude, bought at auction from a slaughterhouse pen in Columbia, Mo. Not a month earlier, these horses and this wagon led the funeral procession for a chuck wagon racer with the County Line Bunch from Perry, Ark.. The mercury in Little Rock was 106 degrees the day they put Larry Green's coffin in the wagon and someone told the horses, "Claude, Barney — take Larry home."

So many folks followed the wagon along the cemetery path that their scuffling feet sounded like water running through the loose stones. There were no pallbearers, per se. Everyone near enough and able ferried the coffin into the earth.

Larry had been a logger, a steelworker and a cowboy before he died, at the age of 59 — and the mourners saw no sense in waiting for a machine to do a man's work.

"We dug the grave and hand-buried him," Jeff says. "As many shovels as there were, we covered him up as fast as a backhoe could."

After a spell, Jeff and his friends load up the wagon and take the journey into the campgrounds, where a small city of trailers and RVs appears around this time every year. Teams homestead the same parking spots every year, and there's little need for security; to hear the men tell it, if there is a problem, you call Dan Eoff. And when he arrives, he brings the sheriff.

Troublemakers and anyone camping with them will be evicted at that point — and for as long as Eoff deems suitable. "You'd better know what you're doing before you throw the first lick," one camper says.

For his part, Eoff will say that his benevolent autocracy helps keep the peace. "I run a pretty hard ship," he says. "I'm not putting up with any drunks, not putting up with any rule-breakers." Stay out of the way of trucks and horses, too, and it stays relaxed. Out here people get around on horseback, listen to old country tunes at sing-a-long volume and knock back cans of Milwaukee's Best wrapped in car dealerships' freebie cozies.

"I guarantee most of the people here wait all year for this weekend," says Bryan Phillips, from Mt. Vernon, Ark., who has brought his wife, Jennifer, and young daughter, Dixie, in an RV. Along for the ride is also his 12-day-old son, Levi, in whose honor he's handing out "It's a Boy" cigars.

"It's about the best place a feller could go, I do believe," he says of the races.

His dad, Bruce Phillips, hails from Buzzard Roost, Ark. (Asked if that's an incorporated town, Bryan explains: "It's just a spot in the sticks, man. But it's a happenin' place.") The elder Phillips has built a wagon using an '89 model S-10 for a base, and has outfitted it with a CD player and ample speakers for occasions like this.

He cranks up the stereo. If you've never taken time to listen to Vince Gill sing "it's hard to kiss the lips at night that chew your ass out all day long" at high volume, in a field, at happy hour, with a klatch of cowboys singing along with the chorus — you might ask yourself just where you've been spending your holiday weekends.

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