Grabbing the Bull by the Horns

A couple weeks ago, I joined my friend Leslie on a road trip to Indiana. Not exactly an exotic destination, but our musician friend Dan and his friend Jimmy were playing a couple shows there-Leslie, who’s also Dan’s manager, had booked them and didn’t want to go down alone- and I figured it was a good opportunity for me to kick off my goal of taking more risks this year. Not that driving down to a small town in another Midwestern state is especially risky, but hey, baby steps. It would also be fun hanging out with Leslie more; she’s almost as big of a nerd as I am in some ways, so we get along really well.

Prior to Leslie picking me up on Friday morning, I knew virtually nothing about Indiana. I knew it was where Parks and Recreation’s fictional town of Pawnee was set. I was pretty sure there was some big NASCAR thing that happened there. Past that, I was clueless. Once we took off, though, Leslie shared a fun piece of Indiana trivia with me: Gary, Indiana has the most serial killers per capita in the U.S. It’s also just outside of Valparaiso, the little town where we’d be staying. Well, I wanted risks. Avoiding getting stabbed and having my body dumped in a rock quarry definitely fell under the risk category.

The eight-ish hour drive went by surprisingly quickly despite not being particularly scenic (unless you count the comically absurd amount of cheese and adult video/toy store signs we passed in Wisconsin) and having to stop at tolls every ten minutes in Illinois (that state is a greedy sonofabitch), but we were still relieved to finally see the sign proclaiming “Welcome to Indiana: Crossroads of America!” (although having a state motto that basically translates to “Indiana: you have to drive through us to get somewhere better!” doesn’t seem like good advertisement). We crashed at the hotel for a few hours before getting ready for that night’s show- or rather, Leslie got us both ready, because she’s also a hair stylist and makeup artist/miracle worker with hot rollers and eye shadow. As someone whose idea of “fancy” is putting in my contacts and not wearing my hair in a ponytail, I appreciated the magic she worked on my hair and face, as well as her patience with my dumb questions (“So what do I do with the mousse? Just rub it in?” “Do I put the eyeliner under my eyes too?”).  She was basically my fairy godmother, but instead of going to a royal ball we were going to a dive bar in Michigan City, Indiana. At least we knew the music would be good.

Before I go any further, it would probably make sense to talk a little bit about Dan and Jimmy, since they’re the main reason we drove to the middle of nowhere/potential set of a Rob Zombie movie. Dan Hamrick is an Indiana native/honorary Minnesotan/Nashville transplant with a voice simultaneously soft and intense and impressive guitar skills. His  songs contain straightforward but heartfelt lyrics; “This is my Family” is especially touching (and seeing his family dance to it in Valpo on Saturday night definitely choked me up a bit), and “Flowers Because It’s Tuesday” has given me even more unrealistic expectations for guys. His partner in crime for the Indiana shows, Jimmy Charles, is also a Nashville-based musician (originally from Maryland): an up-and-coming country artist with a slightly raspy but strong voice and admirable guitar abilities. His song “Superman,” written to raise cancer awareness, is beautiful and heartbreaking and is not something you should listen to at work because the lyrics might make you cry a little at your desk. Besides their talent and creativity, Dan and Jimmy are both genuinely sweet guys who always make a real connection with their audience, which isn’t something you get from a lot of performers. I would definitely recommend checking them out, and I’ll include links to their Facebook fan pages at the end of this post.

Once we arrived at the bar where the show was, we learned something else about Indiana: it’s legal to smoke in bars there- and a LOT of people take advantage of that freedom.  The smell of cigarette smoke usually doesn’t bother me, but when the majority of the people around you are smoking in a small, enclosed space, it gets pretty suffocating. By the time we left that night, our clothes reeked like a redneck bonfire. I was also a little worried about how flammable my hair was; with people lighting up inches away from me, and my hair saturated with three different kinds of product, the possibility of my entire head going up in flames seemed realistic.

But there was one thing in the bar that really drew my attention-a risk greater than secondhand smoke or running into some Jeffrey Dahmer impersonator: a huge mechanical bull in the back left corner of the bar. I had known before arriving that it would be there-Dan had mentioned it in a Facebook post advertising the show- and immediately decided “I SHOULD TOTALLY DO THAT. I’m not remotely athletic, and coordination isn’t one of my strong points, but how hard could it be?” Of course, being the massive nerd that I am, I thoroughly researched (well, googled) any useful tips on riding a mechanical bull without getting a concussion or breaking your neck. It all seemed pretty straightforward: Move your legs forward and squeeze with your lower body. Keep your upper body relaxed. Lean back when the bull head moves forward and lean forward when the bull moves upward. Easy enough.

Still, my confidence faltered a bit when one music set, two whiskey cokes, one water moccasin shot, and a a game of pool with a local douchebag later, Leslie and I nervously approached the girl who ran the bull. “I bruise like a peach,” Leslie informed the girl. “Will I be okay riding this?” The girl considered it for a few seconds, then told us that the last time she rode the bull, she ended up with massive bruises covering her inner thighs. “So you might have to let your man know what’s up with that,” she joked.

That made up Leslie’s mind, but I still signed the waiver with a slightly shaking hand and climbed into the bull pen (sort of like a big, uncovered moon bounce). I had been so concerned about how I would stay on the bull that I hadn’t considered how tricky it would be actually getting on it. The girl in charge suggested getting a good starting bounce on the inflatable floor, which made it a little easier, but I still didn’t look remotely cool dragging myself up. Once I was on, I shifted anxiously on the bull’s back, trying to make sure I was balanced, and gripped the short rope handle at the base of the neck. “Ready?” the girl asked. I nodded, trying to look less scared than I felt. The bull jerked to life, and I immediately forgot every tip I had read. I lasted for about three seconds of being whipped around before I panicked, let go of the rope, and slid off the bull, surprisingly landing on my feet.  I started to climb out of the bull pen, thinking I had sufficiently embarrassed myself for the weekend, but Leslie and the girl in charge encouraged me to try one more time, so I once again clambered awkwardly onto the bull. I lasted a little longer the second time-maybe five seconds-before rolling off with a yelp and landing harmlessly, though much less gracefully, on the puffy surface. My face was flushed, my perfectly curled hair was mussed, and I hadn’t even stayed on long enough to brag about, but I was still grinning ear-to-ear when I left the bull pen. I felt like a total badass.

The rest of the weekend was enjoyable-I had so much fun hanging out with Leslie and getting to know her better, and it was great seeing Dan and Jimmy- but the highlight of the trip for me was riding that bull, as brief as it might have been, because it was something I never would have thought of doing before this trip. It’s funny that it took a trip to the middle of nowhere, U.S.A. to get the opportunity, but I’m grateful for it, and it was the perfect kickoff to what I’m hoping will be a year full of even more exciting possibilities.

Dan’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dan-Hamrick/314900768647605
Jimmy’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/jimmycharlesfans

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