Four Dudes Walk into a Bar

Hard-hat days and honky-tonk nights

Tonight's objective is simple: Ride El Toro, the mechanical bull.

Now, El Toro isn't just any old mechanical bull of the sort so common at fairs, festivals and cheesy honky-tonk theme bars. No, El Toro is the real deal. The first of its kind. The O.G.

El Toro, complete with combined four-horsepower dual motor, was manufactured by Joe Turner in 1972 in Corrales, New Mexico, and was the first bull to call the legendary Pasadena honky-tonk Gilley's home. Mickey Gilley, who purchased Turner's patent, retired El Toro in 1977 and replaced it with his own patented bull, which would later be featured in Urban Cowboy. But El Toro was in the film too, if not as the star -- it saw some silver-screen time as Bud's training bull, stationed out in Uncle Bob's barn next to the cows.

Now that takes balls!
Now that takes balls!

This very bull, which began operating 34 years ago in one of the most infamous honky-tonks in the country and helped spawn a sensational new technologically assisted form of crazed bar behavior, is still going strong Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at Rowdy's Roadhouse and Dance Hall (4613 Highway 6, Hitchcock, 409-938-4200). For $5, you can ride it. I've never ridden a mechanical bull before, but considering that I'm leaving Texas soon, I figure it's now or never.

"You a real cowboy?"

"That depends on what you think a real cowboy is."

Three buddies and I have determined to leave behind the metropolitan confines of the Inner Loop for the sweet promise of the rural roadhouses 45 minutes to the south. My buddies Ray, Paul and Travis II are all metro frat dudes lookin' sharp in their button-up shirts and baggy jeans, with not a scuff to be seen on their trainers. Paul is wearing a pearl-snap cowboy shirt "to fit in." I don't want to look like some goddamned outsider either, so I try my best to look the part: Wrangler slacks with a homemade Willie Nelson T with an undersize baby-blue western shirt seem to do the trick.

We make our way to the intersection of Fairwood and Highway 6, where, according to MapQuest, Rowdy's Roadhouse should be, but we drive a mile or two in each direction on Highway 6 with no luck. We eventually pull into the dirt parking lot of Curley's Full Service Bar (6141 Highway 6, 409-986-9047), which is littered with large Ford diesel pickups and an assortment of Harleys. The corrugated-steel building stands where we'd been led to believe Rowdy's would be. Maybe someone here will know.

I grab the first round of Bud Lights, and Curley, the owner, introduces himself and asks if we're from around here. "We're from Houston," I offer. "We came down to ride this mechanical bull at Rowdy's. Do you know where that is?" Curley tells me to keep going south on Highway 6 until we reach the railroad tracks and we'll see it on the right.

I bring the beers over to my buddies, who are hovering around the jukebox. Among the many classic rock, blues and country CDs, they've found 100% Dance, an anthology that looks terribly out of place. We slip in a dollar and choose the cream of the album's crop and a half-dozen more, including some safeties (Stones, Doors) designed to spring up between dance jams. In the side room, secluded from the rest of the bar, we're guzzling our beers and playing video poker when the intro to "The Macarena" comes on. The entire bar, in unison, lets out a huge "Noooooooooooo!" before the bartender clicks forward to the next song in the queue: "I'm Too Sexy." Once again, the very vocal crowd makes its disapproval known. We grow increasingly uncomfortable as we finish off our beers. One of our safety songs, Bowling for Soup's "Girl All the Bad Guys Want," is next, but since we fear someone will try to kick our asses as soon as "The Power" comes on, we slip out the side door.

We hightail it up the road, and sure enough, there's Rowdy's (thanks, Curley!). We walk in and immediately grok El Toro to our left, corralled in a pen lined with spring mattresses of every conceivable size. My anxiety and anticipation are really starting to set in.

"I'm gonna ride that bull!"

I meet up with Rowdy himself, a short, muscular, ex-professional bullrider who has owned and operated Rowdy's since April 2005. The club opened its doors 72 years ago and is said to be one of the oldest operating honky-tonks in Texas (though it has had many an owner and name change in that time). Aside from some electrical and plumbing upgrades, along with the addition of the corral where El Toro now proudly stands, everything has been kept pretty much the same.

Rowdy, true cowboy that he is, volunteers to show my buddies and me how to ride that bull, despite a recently cracked rib. As it bucks and rotates, Rowdy makes it all look so easy: One arm aimed high in the air, legs kicking back and forth, he hangs on handily for the full duration of the ride (30 long seconds). El Toro spews a thick cloud of smoke out its ass.

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