I honestly wasn’t prepared for what I would find when my girlfriend Heather first asked me to spend my final high school spring break with her at Auburn University in Alabama. She was a freshman there at the time, and I was moving down South to join her at Auburn from our hometown on the Central Coast of California as soon as I graduated. But I realized later, after I had experienced firsthand the biggest, drunkest party in Alabama, possibly in the whole South, that nothing really could have prepared me for Rodeo.
Auburn Rodeo is one part drinking festival, one part actual rodeo, and 100 percent redneck crazy. It’s put on by the Alpha Psi veterinarian fraternity as a charity to benefit local organizations. The fraternity has run the event for 51 years, and it’s only getting bigger. Rodeo’s recent performances included country singers like Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley and Blake Shelton. These stars played for an audience wearing nothing but ripped up jorts and sleeveless shirts, college students who had just finished an entire Saturday drinking beer and moonshine on top of 18-wheeler trailers.
My first Rodeo was literally my first rodeo. Wearing a pair of thrift-store jeans that I’d cut up the night before and a plaid button-up shirt with the sleeves ripped off, I piled into a truck with Heather and a group of her friends for the 15-minute ride to the farm where Rodeo is held. We staked out a spot close to the beer, but I soon came to learn that there isn’t enough beer in the world or a long-enough Blake Shelton concert that could’ve convinced me in those long hours of my first rodeo that I hadn’t made a huge mistake committing myself to a Southern school.
The air was cloudy with dirt kicked up by lifted Ford F-150s. The crowd in its entirety smelled like a mix of spilled Budweiser and sweat. It was, to put it lightly, a lot for an 18-year-old high school student from California to take in. The culture shock was too real.
But I’d already forgotten most of the horror of that first year by the time I was a freshman at Auburn. Only the good stuck in my mind as I got ready for round two, and three, and four. Throughout my time at Auburn, Rodeo became something I always looked forward to.
Every year, fraternities rent flatbed trailers and pull them up around the rodeo pit the day before, and coolers are stacked side by side at the back and underneath the trailers. People rub dusty shoulders up at the front, repping 12-ounce curls and fighting fatigue. The college students riding bulls or wrestling calves stay sober until their event is over, but for all the students who flocked to Auburn from college towns around the South, it was a daylong free for all.
Here’s the typical Rodeo schedule. Excitement gets the day off to a quick start. Rodeo starts at 8 a.m. with a morning beer before heading to the farm. If you get there after 11,, you’re already too late. The flip side is, if you’re throwing up beer bubbles before 11, you’re too far gone. No one wins when beer bubbles are involved.
You get to the farm and you sit on the edge of the trailer with a couple of beers and your cooler right below you, watching people with trashy Roll Tide “tattoos” Sharpied onto their upper arms stumble by. By 12, it’s time for a sandwich and moonshine from the friend of a friend’s sketchy uncle who only has cable TV for Fox News and Duck Dynasty. By 2 p.m. everyone’s lost a couple of buttons off their shirts and is searching for shade. The uninitiated start to disappear for a nap about this time.
A successful Rodeo is a careful balance of pacing yourself, drinking water, eating and hiding in shade wherever you can find it. Packing a bunch of ice into your cooler of Natty Daddys makes the beer slightly more drinkable, but it’s literally a heavy tradeoff that will only wear you down in the long run. The other option is a Mason jar of apple pie moonshine or white lightning, and sticking with moonshine is a great way to miss the concert after sunset.
My sophomore year of college, a friend decided to take on a bull. It was a lesson in getting involved, because as fun as drinking beers in the sun all day is, getting into the action is even better. The tops to shaken beer cans were popped as soon as the gates opened and let his bull out. Beer showered a five-foot vicinity of people as the bull kicked up once, twice, three times. His riding time is lost somewhere in a bank of memories I’ll never get back, but I can’t forget the energy of the moment and the shotgunned beers afterward.
There’s only so much more a body can take by the time the concert part of Rodeo starts. Every cooler that isn’t a Yeti is broken and mostly empty. All that’s left to do is dance and nurse the few remaining beers, lost in the music with the knowledge that another Rodeo has come and gone.