It's two hours before high noon and Richard Stapleman is busy at work in his boot shop in Pendleton, Oregon. He's in his usual get-up of plaid shirt, 10-gallon hat, blue jeans and brass belt buckle, feet snug in custom-made boots with an inch-wedge heel. Slight framed, but with hands the size of paddles.
"I used to be a cowboy," he tells me. "Now I just dress like one."
Across the road, Hank Moss is similarly dressed. Taller and bigger than Stapleman, but with the same warmth behind the eyes, he greets me with a "Good to know ya," and a handshake like no other — strong, firm, yet in no way intimidating. Moss, his colleague tells me, has the best moustache in town. It is rather impressive; bushy at first, then long and waxed into two perfect twirls.
"You know what," she says, conspiratorially, "God loves me, and I know that, because I get to work with that moustache every day." And there is nothing but sincerity in her voice.
It seems sleepy to this Aucklander, but to call Pendleton a one-horse town would do it a huge injustice. In some circles, this Eastern Oregon town is legendary — for its annual rodeo, for its whisky festival, for its more than 100-year-old woollen mill, and for the legions of "makers" — artisans and craftspeople — who have chosen to make it their home.
By day, people come from all over to shop at the makers' premium stores; by night, when the shop signs have flipped to closed, locals fill Main St's historic restaurants and bars to catch up over steak dinners and cold beers. There's Virgil's at Cimmiyotti's, which has the plush vibe of an old-school Hollywood hangout; and the 125-year-old Rainbow Cafe, where the jukebox is always playing and the neon signs glow bright well into the early hours.
In every shop, the background music is always country and western — songs of love and heartbreak, journeys and Jesus. On the outskirts of town you'll find chain hotels and burger joints and a giant Walmart but in the centre at least, tradition is still king.
Once upon a time, when the streets were still dirt tracks and there was nothing but mountains and valleys, thousands of men, women, children and livestock trekked through here on the Oregon Trail, an emigrant route stretching 3500km from Illinois to the Pacific Northwest.
"All the oxen, all the wagons, all the handcarts, all the people trudging along in the dirt, came on that road right there," Moss tells me, pointing to the now tar-sealed and paved road outside, where these days shiny utes the size of small buses are parked.
The Trail through these vast lands brought pioneers, some of whom settled along the way. With settlers came the need for supplies, which is how Hamley & Company — where Moss now works — came to be.
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The Western supplies store (horse saddles, bits, spurs etc) has been in the same building since 1905 and is a treasure trove of antiquities and lovingly crafted leather goods. Moss is one of the team of saddle-makers, who create each unique piece by hand. One saddle can take between 50 to 100 hours to make, depending on the craftsmanship required. The legacy of Hamleys means people come from all over the world to have their saddles custom-made by the team.
"To be part of the list of a long line of saddle-makers is very cool," Moss says, but modestly adds that the main reason he likes working at Hamleys is because it keeps him out of the cold and rain. He used to be a cowboy and huntsman, you see, living in tents in the mountains for months at a time.
"It was fun, it's romantic, but it still is what it is. So this is very nice. It doesn't rain in here. I turn the heat up, I turn the cold up, people bring cupcakes from time to time … "
You don't need to be in the market for a new saddle to spend some time in Hamleys. Just come in and ask the staff about the shop's history — you'll hear family fables of King Arthur and his knights, of shipwrecks and sweethearts, and the long legacy of the Hamley family, which the new team is proud to continue.
Back over at Stapleman Boots and Leather, Richard Stapleman has plenty of fables of his own. He's been making beautiful hand-crafted leather boots for more than 20 years but in his former life he was a rodeo bull-rider.
"Where I grew up in Rupert, Idaho, they didn't have little league baseball or school sports for kids, but they had rodeo. So that's what we all did," Stapleman tells me. When his family moved to Washington State he was keen to continue the sport, but there was no school circuit and he wasn't old enough to join the adult team. "One of the local guys, he didn't care. He was just like 's*** yeah, throw that kid in the car, I'll let him go rodeoing with me.
"I'm showing up at school with a broken arm, missing teeth, and the teachers are just like, 'What are you doing?' I'm rodeoing, man, and making more money than they were."
Rodeo is integral to life in Pendleton. Every year in September, the Pendleton Round-Up brings more than 50,000 people into town. Although the major event is the rodeo competition, Round-Up Week has a full programme of shows, parades, activities and pageants, celebrating the history of Pendleton through the ages.
And it's not just pioneer history — the nightly Happy Canyon Pageant depicts Native American life prior to the arrival of the white man, and continues to retell Pendleton's story up until present day.
Legend has it that prior to the first Round-Up in 1910, Pendleton's founding fathers went out to the local Native American reservation and asked them to join the rodeo. Days later, the whole community turned up — they'd moved the entire reservation into town for the event.
This has now become part of Round-Up tradition, and every year a Tipi Village is set up just outside the rodeo grounds, with Native Americans from around the West gathering for the week.
The town's history is retold everywhere, including beneath your feet. The Pendleton Underground Tour takes visitors underneath the town's historic and heritage buildings, once a bustling network of underground sidewalks and basalt rock tunnels. Guides tell stories of the secret bars and bowling alleys used during prohibition, as well as the Chinese immigrants who lived underground for decades, working to all intents and purposes as slaves, building the railroads.
Standing under the streets, in the middle of Eastern Oregon, in a placetown with a history so foreign to my own, I'm starting to feel as far from home as I could possibly be. But of course, New Zealanders can't go anywhere for too long without bumping into one of our own. Our guide asks where the group is from and I answer.
"Oh well, you must be the only New Zealander in Pendleton right now," she says with a laugh, but there, in the bowels of the town, another voice pipes up. "No she's not. I'm from Christchurch." And just like that, home feels close once more.
In fact, there are Kiwi connections all over town. Stapleman asks me if I know a family of rodeo cowboys from New Zealand. Moss tells me that all of the wooden bases used to make their saddles are custom-made by Tauranga master-craftsman Warren Wright. And at Montana Peaks Hat Company, owner and artisan hat maker Laura Wortman tells me she has a loyal customer from New Zealand. He has never met her, or even been to Pendleton, but buys his hats only from her.
"He has a high-country sheep station and he loves our hats," she says. "They don't blow off his head in the wind."
Wortman lovingly creates all types of handmade felt cowboy hats, from classic Stetsons, to fedoras, to whatever style takes your fancy. She uses century-old equipment in the process — head measures that look like torture devices, and pedal-operated steam presses for shaping and moulding.
"It doesn't feel like a job," Wortman says. "I think to myself, what would I do if I weren't doing this, and I really love this a lot.
"We've been in Pendelton for more than 10 years now and we just love it. It's a great small town. And the people are just super supportive. It's a community effort for so many things."
Wortman is part of Pendleton's growth — new residents are moving here from across the country, attracted by the community spirit, the makers' scene and the chance to celebrate history and tradition.
There are also a growing number of former Pendleton residents flocking back, setting up their own businesses and putting their support behind the community's regeneration.
There's the aptly-named Prodigal Son brewery, helmed by Tim Guenther, where you can choose from 10 craft beers brewed on-site to accompany your lunch. Across town in a former Cadillac dealership, there's Oregon Grain Growers Brand Distillery. Here, Rodney and Kelli Bullington are making vodka, gin and whisky, which you can sample in their tasting room and restaurant. Both Guenther and Kelli grew up in Pendleton before moving away to pursue other careers. Now they've returned and are embracing the small town's way of life.
"One of the reasons for moving home is we wanted our son to grow up as part of this community," Bullington tells me, over tasters of their mint, watermelon and coffee flavoured vodkas. "It's an older community that is transitioning as far as people coming back. Giving back to your community and coming home, that's happening. It's fun to be a part of that."
There's hope that this resurgence will help keep alive old traditions — both Wortman and Stapleman have so much work that their customers face lengthy waiting lists to get a hat or pair of boots; sometimes up to 18 months. They'd both love an apprentice to learn their craft and help them expand but it's not as easy as just hiring someone from the street.
"It's an art," Wortman says. "It's not like a nine to five, working in a store, punching a time clock and going home. You have to have a lot of commitment and you have to really want to do it."
What will help Pendleton keep its traditions alive is having tourists include the town on their holiday itineraries. It would be easy to just pass through on your way to somewhere else but, as Bullington says, "Eastern Oregon is so much more than a stop on the freeway".
Life moves too fast. Stop a while, and bask in a town full of tradition and fascinating characters with great tales to tell. Pendleton is the kind of place that will leave an indelible mark on your memory.
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