Barrel Racing & the Infinite Kansas Sky

“Happiness lies beyond the clouds,
Happiness lies up above the sky…”
Kyu Sakamoto, English translation of song Sukiyaki.

The announcer’s voice boomed over the gentle hum of cicadas in a nearby grass flat.

“Alright folks, let´s get started…”

I perked up my ears, licking barbecue-sticky fingers.

Dozens of horses—pebble grey, cappuccino, cloudy white—whinnied and rustled in the holding pen on the opposite site of the stadium, startled at the sudden interruption.

“Welcome to the Newtown Jackpot Series barrel racing competition!”

Sleepy-eyed townsfolk and die-hard cowpokes alike clapped mildly, in no apparent rush to get started.

A soft breeze blew across the shifting colors of the infinite Kansas sky—blue, purple, pink—a lazy summer evening to savor.

I spent most of adolescence planning my escape.

The boring flatness and social square-ness of the plains seemed a horrific void, driving me to constant global wandering in cosmopolitan Tokyos and great steaming Indies ever since.

Yet on my recent visits home, I started to notice little things:

  • Perpetual prairie winds rustling fields of wheat,
  • Strange farmers with their subtle, finger-lifting salutations on pick-up truck steering wheels,
  • Vast fields of sunflowers staring up at the boundless cobalt Kansas sky.

Each little detail—unpacked and re-framed—stirred inner child memories and made me want to learn more about my great native state.

So when my dad invited me to watch his wife Maggie and her horse Peanut compete at the barrel races on my next visit, I said yes without thinking.

Barrel racing is a rodeo event in which horse and rider rush to complete a cloverleaf figure around three metal or plastic drums in the fastest possible time. The sport first emerged around the mid-1940s as a way for women to participate in male-dominated rodeos. While youth categories are mixed and men sometimes compete at local events, barrel racing today remains a mostly female affair.

Barrel racing practice

Barrel racing ladies and horses warm up before the competition.

Before I would have laughed at the idea of attending a rodeo or barrel race, a seemingly unsophisticated world of silent, straw-sucking cowboys and spunky Levi’d cowgirls—people with whom I obviously had nothing in common. Never mind we breathed the same prairie air.

The announcer continued his introductions.

“And now, let’s extend a very warm welcome to our visitors—Hee-day-no-boo—is that right?—and Yoo-ree-ko!—all the way from Japan!”

The crowd clapped warmly as my sister Yuriko and our uncle Hidenobu stood up on the bleachers, grinning and waving bashfully.

Okay, this might require some explanation.

Sensing I wouldn’t survive until high school graduation without getting out of Kansas, I resolved to study abroad in the farthest, most exotic place I could think of—Japan.

My recruiter convinced my Kansas family to host a Japanese exchange student—Yuriko—whose family then became my Osaka family, uncle Hidenobu and all.

Now, 17 years later, Yuriko came back with uncle Hidenobu to help him fulfill a dream.

Hidenobu was just the latest Japanese relative to visit our humble prairie home. His son, wife and sister, along with Yuriko’s mother and brother, had all come to taste barbecue, pick wildflowers, and ride horses over the years.

Yet Hidenobu, a professional firefighter with a family of five, had never been able to join them. He whiled away off-duty hours poring over Kansas fact books and watching John Wayne movies. Now retired, he finally had the chance to live out his cowboy fantasy.

As a restless vagabond who couldn’t leave Kansas fast enough, Hidenobu’s attraction to the place puzzled me, but I was determined to understand it.

What’s the Japanese word for “flyover state”?

The air horn blared again and the barrel races kicked off with the pee-wee and junior divisions. Pint sized cowboys and cowgirls rolled into the arena, one by one, galloping and weaving at breakneck speed—the audience clapped and cheered—some flying off their saddles into a cloud of dust—we clapped even harder to assuage their tears.

I glanced at uncle Hidenobu laughing and clapping between races, spellbound by the show. He’d never seen anything like it, and frankly, neither had I, but the raw excitement of barrel racing was obvious to us all—no translation needed.

I was chatting with Hidenobu and Yuriko about the bravery of the tiny cow kids when a familiar tune stopped us in our tracks.

“Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto, a Japanese classic since 1963.

Hidenobu’s eyes lit up brighter than the floodlights blazing over the arena beneath the slowly dusking sky.

We looked up at the announcer’s stand, where the cowboy-hatted announcer smiled and waved down at our Japanese guests.

Hidenobu waved back, delighted. “What a kind gesture! I never expected to hear that song here.”

Maybe Kansas was a little more cosmopolitan than I thought.

As I pondered this I noticed two silent figures marching toward us, determined, from across the arena. A young blonde woman in tight Levis and boots, followed by a slouching, black-haired girl.

What do they want? I froze with trepidation. Over the years I’d encountered many well-meaning Kansans who confuse Asian nationalities, and I wasn’t in the mood for awkward introductions or stilted conversations today.

The plucky blonde woman stormed up the bleachers to Yuriko and Hidenobu, smiling.

“Hi there, I’m Mona. You’re from Japan, right?”

“Yes, from Osaka.” Yuriko answered cheerfully.

“Great! Mari here is from Japan, too!” the woman said, nudging the sullen Japanese teenager in front of us.

Mona explained that 13-year-old Mari was here on a summer exchange program, but they were having some trouble communicating. We marveled at Mari’s courage for having left home at such a young age, chatted about Mona’s life on the barrel racing scene. Mona and her husband lived far out in the country and there were few kids to socialize with. Mari seemed distant and bored.

“If you don’t mind I’ll let y’all chat a while.” Mona shuffled off to the holding pen with a wink and a nervous smile.

It was such a strange coincidence; we had to find out more.

“So how do you like Kansas?” I asked her.

She began with the usual niceties—it was fine, people were nice, wide-open spaces, curious flora and fauna. A typical teenager, Mari was shy at first, speaking softly and sparingly. She had the startled expression of a deer in headlights, a common sight on Kansas roads.

Meanwhile the adult races started, and we continued our conversation at fits and stops, pausing to watch horses and riders sprint and spin in the dirt-caked arena, shouting over announcements, nattering quickly between races.

With each round, I felt the tension grow, stakes rising higher and higher.

Maggie had come to boost her season points, with hopes of competing at the Kansas State Fair next month. She stopped by the bleachers between races to chat.

“Peanut’s nervous, I can tell. The shape and sounds of this arena are freaking her out,” she said with a mix of frustration and concern. “Well, let’s see how it goes. Almost show time,” she said, and rushed back to the holding pen as quickly as she’d appeared.

As we resumed our conversation, Mari slowly let her guard down. “Mona’s been so kind to me, but I don’t have the words to thank her.” She said she felt guilty for her silence, ashamed of her poor English. Not knowing what to do, she had retreated to her sketchpad, spending evenings drawing quietly.

I knew what she was feeling.

I remembered lonely hours spent in my Osaka high school library, flipping through the yellowed pages of Japanese haiku and ghost stories. I retreated there when feeling awkward and depleted, unable to feign interest in lunchtime soccer talk with my Japanese classmates. Books were a much-needed refuge—a respite from my fear of rejection and anxious pursuit to fit in. Yet the comfort of books came at the high price of guilt. I felt guilty for running from my solemn exchange student duty to talk run smile play listen befriend understand—all in the name of world peace. I found myself crumbling under the weight of the immense pressure I placed upon myself. 

While I searched for some words of encouragement, Hidenobu spoke up.

“Don’t worry! Life will be what it will be. Whenever you have a dream or a wish, life works itself out somehow.”

Our suddenly sage-like uncle smiled broadly at Mari while this simple truism seeped into her brain.

“That’s true!” Yuriko said, enthusiastic.

Mari pondered this, then smiled faintly, “I guess you’re right.”

“Listen, Uncle Hidenobu here is 64 years old. I’ve always dreamed of visiting Kansas, but I was nervous at first. When I got here, I realized I couldn’t understand a word anybody was saying! I wish I’d studied more English before my trip. It’s too late now, but I don’t let that stop me. Who cares? I just smile. Life is too short to hold back. Have fun! Nothing but good people here.

The words might have sounded clichéd from anyone else. Yet from the mouth of a retired firefighter, they acquired new wisdom and significance. Compared to rushing into burning buildings night after night, taking on the easygoing—albeit incomprehensible—kindness of Kansans was a cinch.

I’d never fought a fire, but I knew he was right.

Seventeen years and 32 countries had taught me that in life as in travel, things always work out eventually. You just have to trust your destiny and go for it, enjoying yourself along the way.

Sure, the usual anxieties inevitably pop up on every trip—My recent struggles in Mexico were a case in point—but each new challenge was a chance to grow. Moreover I’ve learned that there’s no shame in hiding in a book of poems—or a sketchpad—when things get a little overwhelming.

As the wisdom soaked in, the tension on Mari’s face lifted. We smiled all around, basking in a sweet and simple silence, when the announcer’s thundering voice rocked us back to the race.

“Next up, folks, is Maggie and her horse, Peanut!”

The air horn bellowed as Maggie and Peanut burst into the dusty arena. We cheered them on, hooting and crowing, yet Peanut seemed to be holding back, running much slower than the previous horses. As Maggie had suspected, the booming noise of speakers and gaping jaws of starting gates at the far end of the pitch had Peanut spooked, torn between fear and the gentle squeeze of her rider’s legs firm against her flank.

Exciting #barrel racing in #kansas #home #greatplains #horse #west

A video posted by Theo (@thevagabondbeat) on

Within seconds the race was over and we knew—Peanut did not qualify.

After the race Mona came back to the bleachers to check on Mari.

At Mari’s request, we explained to Mona what she’d told us, all the things she felt but couldn’t explain in English.

Mona thanked us, misty-eyed, gently squeezing Mari’s shoulder as they walked back to the holding pens.

Mari still had a few more weeks left in her Kansas summer.

As I watched her walk away, I knew she would make the most of her time.

With a few weeks left until the State Fair, so would Peanut.

And with a few days left on his trip, so would Uncle Hidenobu.

And with several months left in Mexico, so would I.

Japanese or American, cowgirl or firefighter, human or horse!—in spite of our differences, we had a lot more in common than meets the eye.

All of us ended up in Kansas—some by birth, some by choice—to fulfill our deep-rooted wishes and face our nagging fears. Maybe we even made some mistakes, misjudged someone or even ourselves along the way.

It didn’t matter.

Happiness lies beyond the clouds, up above the sky of vast Kansas plains—reminding us that life is full of possibilities, and everybody gets a second chance.

August 11, 2015.

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