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Four Dudes Walk into a Bar

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.

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.

"Has anyone ever been hurt on the bull?" I ask.

"There ain't anyone who hurt themselves since I've owned it," he says, perhaps too cryptically.

"Do girls get on it?" I ask.

"We do slow it down for the girls," Rowdy admits. "Sometimes they'll be sitting on it wearing only their bra and panties. When it starts to go d-d-d-dun," he makes a deep, vibrating sound way back in his throat, "the guys go nuts."

After getting a boost of confidence from Kim, Rowdy's flirtatious, big-boobed, blond-bombshell wife who keeps winking and telling me I have nothing to worry about, I sign and initial the necessary liability papers (errrr...) to ensure I won't sue the joint off the map if I do happen to get hurt.

I grab a glove, borrow a black cowboy hat from the bull-spotter and hop up.

"You're gonna have to sit on your nuts," advises the spotter.

With my testicles nestled safely in the palm of the same hand that's gripping the strap, I feel some discomfort in my groin but ignore it.

I give the bull controller a tip of the hat to signify that I'm ready. In an instant, El Toro starts the bucking-and-rotating routine, and I'm holding on for dear life. After about 20 seconds (two-thirds of the duration!), my body gives way and I fly off the side of the bull and onto the mattress-lined floor. A boost of adrenaline rushes through body as my buddies and other onlookers let out a cheer.

Ray is up next, followed by Paul and finally Travis II. All of them ride like champs. But nothing like Rowdy. After downing a few more Lone Stars, I decide to give it another whirl. Only this time, I want a serious challenge.

"I don't care how fast you put it, I want you to guarantee my ass will get thrown off! Hard!" I holler at the bull-operator.

I grab the glove, put it on my left hand, hop on El Toro, sit on my nuts without being reminded, and raise my hand to the ceiling. With a nod, I'm off. "Holy shit!" I think as I feel myself spun and bucked waaay faster than before. I realize that I asked for it but, frankly, this is a level I'm not quite ready to master. To say the least. After a mere ten seconds, I feel my spent body hit the mattresses. I may not have won any sort of competition, let alone even provided a challenge to my three Bucking Bronco Buddies, all of whom are far better at this than me, but it doesn't matter: I still feel like a true Urban Fuckin' Cowboy.

It's not until after watching a pregnant lady (!!!) give El Toro a spin that it dawns on me: This brand of bullriding is a whole lot like sex. Totally surrounded by mattresses, you go up and down, giving it your all, holding tight, grunting and making strange sounds. And regardless of whether you get prematurely thrown off or manage to ride it all the way through, you'd better watch out for your balls.


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