TURLOCK -- Rodeo's often lonely road loses some of that loneliness when your 5-year-old needs help with his jeans.
The sport's rugged individualism drips away when you're applying tape, preparing to ride an angry 1,500-pound bull, and your toddler daughters sit next to you seeking shade in the bucking chutes.
Or if you're Oakdale's Mike George, 41 and a rodeo man since he was 9, and there -- not far away, turning his horse like he's been riding since a day after birth -- is his 4-year-old son, Zane.
"Words don't describe it," George said.
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Welcome to the California Cowboys Professional Rodeo Association, the so-called part-time cowboys who kicked up some major dust Thursday night at the Stanislaus County Fair. They come in all ages, sizes, experience levels and many walks of life.
But on this circuit, they often travel with families in tow. And they like it that way.
George has made his runs in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the sport's big league. He barely missed trips to the National Finals Rodeo in 1995 and '96 and, seven years later, heeled his way to No. 1 in the team roping standings until a spring slump finished his chances.
Today, he continues his work shoeing horses but competes far less than in the past. In addition to Zane, he has a 7-year-old already active in junior rodeos and a 2-year-old girl probably on the same trail.
George no doubt enjoys the company. On this night, he scored mixed results -- a no-time in calf-roping, followed later by a snappy catch for a time of 5.0 seconds and a second-place check with header Kris Goodman of Dos Palos.
The results rate secondary to George these days. He's trying to win, of course, but in many ways he wins every day back home.
"Rodeo is hard. It's hard with a family and having a love for the sport that you have to put so much into," he said. "I just love being out here. The younger guys learn right here. You get your skills and then you step forward and think about making a living in this business."
And whether you make it big, there are always regional rodeos like the fair. No 25-hour round trips and pricey entry fees required here.
"It's a terrible disease," Mark Thomson says.
Thomson, 51, runs a feedstore among other jobs near his home in Tehachapi. His rugged weather-beaten face wears the miles of a lifetime of ranch chores and countless rodeos.
"I've been coming here since 1981," Thomson said. "Kids are like horses. If you don't do anything with 'em, they're not worth a (darn)."
Perhaps that's why three of his five sons joined him at the fair rodeo. Mark tied for fourth in steer wrestling -- yes, he's still flying off his horse and tackling steers -- and 24-year-old son Tyler captured second place in saddle bronc. Watching from a distance was Turtle, 5.
"That (his boys) is why I'm still rodeoing," the father said. "And I still can."
The checks don't go as far as the PRCA money, but no one plans to get rich here. Keith Roquemore of Cottonwood delighted a crowd of about 5,000 at FoodMaxx Arena with his winning 82-point bull ride, though he pocketed only $608.
No matter. His wife, Ileah, competed earlier in barrel racing. And, by the way, it was Roquemore in those bucking chutes two hours before his competition, enjoying the company of daughters Raci, 5, and Riata, 2.
Roquemore, who reached the Professional Bull Riding Finals in 2005, thinks he's never had it so good.
"I like to have 'em with me," he said. "When I go to those other deals (bigger rodeos), I don't see 'em. I like coming back to this. It makes it worth it."
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.