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Wild, Wheeled West

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CLINTON, Ark. — When Jay Lowrance summarized the past week, the trophy belt buckles already had been handed out, the dust was like virgin snowdrift on the parked trucks, and the ambulances had ceased delivering cowboys to the emergency room. Folks were packing RVs, vendors were shuttering onion blossom trailers, and kids were taking a few final turns on the bucking mechanical bull.

It was the end, but Lowrance comes here, at the beginning of the story, because he can make you understand, in short space, why tens of thousands had come to witness the National Championship Chuck Wagon Races on a patch of north Arkansas ranchland. The driver of the Stone County Tick Pickers wagon, he was standing on the paved concourse with a soggy Band-Aid trying to peel itself off a day-old dog bite on his upper lip. He and his crew were not two hours removed from one of the most dramatic moments of a weekend packed with them.

In his final heat, Lowrance had been trying to bank his two-horse team and 1,000-pound covered wagon tight around one of the reflective and orange traffic barrels demarcating the course. His inside horse thought Lowrance was steering him to run to the inside of the barrel. Seeing this, Lowrance yanked right.

Whether the horse then panicked or overestimated its athleticism, only a whisperer could know. The rub is that, galloping at about 25 mph in this modern-day Old West chariot race, the horse tried to compromise by hurdling the barrel — harness and wagon be damned.

"Next thing I know," Lowrance said, "we were tumbling." The horse crumpled the barrel; the wagon flipped.

"It was a blast," the driver said, surely because both he and his riding partner, Dan Stevens, came out just fine.

Four years ago, Lowrance wasn't so lucky. When his wagon got hung up with another, he was thrown and broke both wrists in the landing. The next day he was back to watch.

"You ain't never seen nothing like these races in your life," he said. "You pull up to that starting line, you don't know whether to sh-t or go blind. But you're going to go."

To the ranch
Every Labor Day weekend, the two-horse town of Clinton becomes one of the epicenters of equine culture on the continent. At this past running of the chuck wagon races, the 22nd annual, organizers counted 5,012 head of horses and mules — putting it in the same category, if not the same weight class, as such annual throwdowns as Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming and the Calgary Stampede in Alberta.

The people who haul these animals and make the pilgrimage to watch them run hail from all over: a quick glance at the license plates proved they drive from at least as far away as Utah, though there were wanderers in the crowd from Japan, Hawaii, Germany and Belgium.

Starting from the state capital, Little Rock, the drive is about an hour and a half: first northwest to Conway, then north along a four-lane conveyor of a highway past such census rounding errors as Pickles Gap, Greenbrier and Bee Branch.
("Hot outside — Try one of our Sundays" a church marquee reads.)

Shops and shacks hawking local honey and melons and so-called "antiques" (Southern-speak for "stuff") line the highway until the town of Clinton, home to enough souls to keep the lights on at a Wal-Mart.

Turn left at the Western Sizzlin', drive two miles, pay at the gate, and emerge from the forest lane into a realm with some true scope. This isn't far from where the Ozarks, worn low like an old molar, forego all pretense of mountainhood. But to the north rise smooth, verdant hills which are, for the region, borderline stunning.

A short walk toward the strip of vending tents and carts reveals the parking area caps a stubby, jagged bluff overlooking the ranch below. A limestone prow juts from the hillside several stories above the race course. It is a natural announcers' deck, an unimpeded vantage outfitted now with a sound system and a flag pole.

Canopies and folding chairs litter the rugged terraces that have been scratched and dozed into the side of the slope. The entire formation slants gradually to the south, allowing some flow with the competition and camping area below, before rising again into another crest. At its highest, the main hill is about 50 feet tall; speckled with colorful temporary seating, it becomes a veritable grandstand.

The proprietor of these 300-plus acres of dedicated race space is Dan Eoff, an electric impresario as imagined by Larry McMurtry. He is a busy man this week. Morning may be the only time you could expect to conjure him. A spry 58 years old, with azure eyes and a moustache like a sheep dog's tail inverted, Eoff and his wife, Peggy, spend 11 months a year raising cattle on this, the ōf Ranch (an orthographic pun on his name, pronounced "bar oaf ranch").

"You ever seen anything else like this?" he asks, hurriedly, and barely waits for an answer before continuing: "Nobody else has, either."

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