Bulls on Parade
In July 1998, rodeo promoter Phil Immordino got the bright idea of holding a “Running of the Bulls”, similar to Pamplona’s famous encierro, in Mesquite, Nevada, a casino resort town some 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Immordino chose Mesquite because the town was pretty much the only one interested. In a May 1998 interview with the Las Vegas Sun, Mayor Ken Carter said, “Any event we can hold to bring people to town, we will hold.”
For a hot minute I considered participating. I’d never really given a thought to the encierro before, but during my time working as a writer in Las Vegas I had made a habit of collecting one-of-a-kind experiences. I had walked on hot coals; I had taken a lap in a stock car at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway; I had flown in a Canadian fighter jet with real, live Canadians. I imagined myself charging down Mesquite’s main drag just a few steps ahead of a wall of hooves and horns, striding confidently past dowdy casinos and stunned onlookers, and falling into a waiting limousine at the end.
But then I learned that the Running of the Bulls would take place not in the heart of Mesquite, but at a specially-built course at country club just on the edge of town. It would be little more than a NASCAR track with bulls for pace cars, and I decided I was too cool for something like that. Also, I had a slight fear of being gored.
My friends and I went to Mesquite anyway, in spite of my hipster cowardice. We checked into the Holiday Inn on the Friday night before the event, dropped our bags, called our loved ones and set to drinking immediately. While I had promised my editors and myself that I wouldn’t use Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” as a framing device, I felt nonetheless compelled to follow the instructions it provided. I made vague plans to get “tight,” pair one of the single women in our party with one of the single men, and then beat the crap out of him to win her back.
It didn’t quite happen that way. We enjoyed an evening of bar-hopping capped by a dinner in the Si Redd Room at the Oasis Resort Hotel, for which I was provided a jacket. I’d never been provided a jacket before. The management fished around in the coat check and found a blood-red sportcoat that likely once belonged to one of the hotel’s valets. After the meal, my friend Anne helped me to steal it when I promised her that I would wave it at the bulls as they charged past.
The following morning, the temperature climbed above 100 degrees almost immediately. Anne mercifully granted me an out on wearing the sport coat, though I brought it with me just in case. We hopped a shuttle bus and followed the nearly 10,000 people headed out to Oasis Ranch for the Run, which was held on the dustiest, least shady part of the property.
The atmosphere of freaky holiday was as fascinating to observe as it was embarrassing to be a part of. A predominately-male crowd of spectators and participants was split down the middle between heat-crazed lunacy and drunken lunacy. Concession stands hawked T-shirts that read “I GOT GORED IN MESQUITE.” A busker bleated out an atonal version of “Crossroads” under a placard that identified him as “The Bullshit Blues Band.” And we were vastly amused by the sign attached to the finish-line bleachers: “VIP only –or $10 admission.”
The would-be runners, a few hundred all told, were easily identifiable by a red sash they were given at registration, and most of them now surrounded the bull pen, looking with mild contempt at the tired, hot animals contained therein. I scanned the group of runners looking for a friend of a friend — a girl for whom running with the bulls was “a lifelong dream.” She was to be filmed in the act by a TV newsmagazine because the size of her breasts strained scientific credibility. But I couldn’t find her, and before we knew it, a couple of wranglers on horseback were leading the runners to starting position.
The runners waved to the applauding crowd, relishing their moment in history. There was freak in the group here and there — a guy dressed up as Pee-Wee Herman, with an inflatable pool toy around his waist — but by and large, the runners were everyday folk, grinning with nervous excitement. A few of them were still waving and bowing to the crowd as the gate went up and the bulls … did nothing.
The runners took off at a sprint as the crowd broke into laughs. They returned sheepishly to starting position as soon as they realized what had happened – and then they took off again, this time in abject terror, as the wranglers herded the bulls into a gallop. It was the only part of the proceedings that approximated poetry. I found I could easily ignore the few hundred folk running ahead of the bulls and look at the bulls themselves, gleefully galloping toward retribution.
It was over in six seconds. Bulls and wranglers alike seemed to be moving in slow motion, packed in a grouping as tight as that of Canadian fighter jets. And before anyone had realized what had happened, the bulls galloped past the pack of runners and back into their pen, leaving the runners lamely chasing the bulls.
In the years since, I have come to regret the smug, hipper-than-thou attitude that permeated the articles I wrote in the 1990s. (That includes the Vegas.com article from which this piece is partially drawn.) But I have never once regretted sitting out that Yankee Doodle encierro, and I don’t regret stealing that red jacket, either. I’m actually sorry that I had to get rid of it soon after the trip — but like everything else I’d touched that day in Mesquite, it smelled like cow.