BY CAM FAGERHAUG / TRUE DAKOTAN

The first Thursday in December is considered a holiday in our household.  The Christmas tree is up, lights adorned and the National Finals Rodeo is where our TV stays for a thrilling ten days of cowboy bliss. 

We hadn’t planned on a getaway this year, for obvious reasons 2020 has literally plagued us with, but when a temporary change of location was announced for the NFR to be moved to the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Arlington, TX, our wheels started spinning and rolled us right down to Cowtown.

Hotel rooms reserved and vehicle loaded down, we headed south, masks in tow and unsure of what to expect.  Would all the restrictions be a buzz kill?  Would it feel like a minor league performance without the pro-level procedures of Las Vegas?  Why does the forecast say it will be warmer in South Dakota than Fort Worth?  

Our first step was to take in the first night of the rodeo performance.  Friendly mask-covered faces greeted us outside the stadium doors to scan the required, digital-only tickets we had pre-downloaded on my cell phone. 

“Ya’ll have fun!  Any questions just ask!  We’re so happy you’re here with us!” Seemed to echo from every Globe Life Stadium employee we crossed that night.  One gracious and gloved-up woman with a mop bucket must have noticed Tyler and I admiring the Christmas light displays once inside the stadium, “You two better get a picture by that big boot…here let me take it!”  After a quick pose we were off to our socially-distanced seats feeling confident in our wild hair decision to take in this much talked about event. “Texas nice” still seemed alive and well.  What a great place to be, with more to come.

Throughout the ten performances, South Dakota got several hat tips.  With the rodeo world forever grateful for South Dakota’s continuation of rodeo opportunities when other states were shutting down, we were crowned winners of three different “rodeo of the year” awards. Nearly every event contained at least one contestant, a pickup man, photographers and other imperative rodeo personnel throughout the week. Friday night’s American Flag carrier created a buzz, being our own much-talked about Governor Kristi Noem. South Dakota hit the mark when the biggest rodeo of the year opened its chute gates.  

The rest of our trip moved us to the Fort Worth area and we soaked in the Stockyards outdoor hustle and bustle of trade show shopping, Texas BBQ eateries, side shows, watch parties and limited seating concerts.  It was here, at one of the first booths I stopped to gawk at, a boutique owner with a southern drawl asked me, “Are y’all from the Dakotas?  I recognize your accent.”  

“Yes,” I answered... confused about who had the accent.

“We just love your governor!  Y’all are so lucky!  She really cares about small business owners like us!  She was stunning last night!  She should carry the flag every night!”  

“Yes, I guess she does doesn’t she?” I answered, surprised at a Texan having a little jealousy over a South Dakotan. I walked away a little taller and curious how many other folks on the outside looking in might feel about our cowgirl, flag-carrying, gun-toting governor after so much attention was captured by our Covid numbers.

So I made it a point to, at each small business I entered, each waitress I gave my order to,  every cab, Uber and bus driver that happily chauffeured us and any security officer I could distract with the questions, “How do you feel about the rodeo being here?  Is your city happy to have us here?”

“Ma’am it’s an answer to our prayers.  Yes, this is my first time back to work in months, we finally have something to do.  I’m just glad my kids will get a Christmas.  You’re from South Dakota?  Wow you must love your governor, does she have a sister?”

And that’s where, deep in the heart of Texas, I realized how fortunate we are to live where we do.  This rodeo didn’t give me the “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” vibe.  It offered my heart and mind a not-so-strange feeling and something I hope will spread to family and friends.

Call me contagious, but my soul was struck with awe in a venue full of American pride, prayer and the rich smell of arena dirt lingering in the air. 

Eight days post-exposure I remain optimistic in this chaotic world that the western lifestyle’s deep roots remain embedded in our country.  And they will remain strong and stable for generations to follow.  The colors red, white and blue don’t run- and neither should our passion for the South Dakota plains and the people that call it home.  

Folks, I’m afraid I was reinfected with patriotism.