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Rodeo Band-Aid: Roping, Riding Helps People Heal From Oso Landslide

Anna King
Alexis Blakey, 20, of Oso, Washington says running barrels with her horse Tax helps her hit the pause button on memories of the landslide for a few brief moments.

The Timberbowl Rodeo in the town of Darrington, Washington saw some of its largest crowds ever this past weekend. Neighbors gathered at the event to hug, shake hands and heal from the tragic Oso landslide.

Alexis Blakey knows nearly everyone in the small town that lies 74 miles northeast of Seattle. A native of nearby Oso, Washington, 20-year-old Blakey said the landslide that made her town infamous is branded on her brain. She was at these same rodeo grounds that day when she saw ambulance after ambulance headed for Oso.

“I don’t know," Blakey said. "We were all just like, 'What is going on? Is this really happening right now?'”

'The Water Was Halfway Up The Truck'

On that day, a man came to the rodeo grounds, crying with a trailer full of horses. He told her three more horses were on the east side of the slide where the river water was backing up, and he couldn’t catch them. He worried the horses would drown.

Blakey loaded up into the man’s truck to go get them. The water was backing up over the road, and it was closed.

“It was kind of scary because the water was halfway up the truck, even though they had these huge swamper tires on it,” Blakey said.

Blakey and another woman caught the horses in the dark, then rode them bareback with just halters. They crossed rushing water that came up to the horses’ bellies.

“That was kind of scary," Blakey said. "I didn’t know … the water was all murky I didn’t know if it was washing out the driveway underneath us and stuff.”

But they managed to get all to safety.

Moving Forward

Credit Anna King
Alexis Blakey, 20, of Oso, Washington rides her horse, Tax, into the arena ahead of the Timberbowl Rodeo.

The rodeo let her forget what happened the morning of March 22, 2014. Blakey said it’s good to remember at her hometown rodeo, but it’s also good to forget for a while. These two sunny days under Whitehorse Mountain gave them permission to move forward with life, and a bit of joy.

Blakey had been working on achieving her pro-rodeo status for barrel racing. The goal of barrel racing is to run a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels as fast as possible. And she wanted that win.

Blakey urged Tax, her bay-colored gelding, into the arena. The crowd hushed as Blakey loped the thoroughbred into starting position through the deep sand.

When she wheeled his head toward the first barrel and squeezed her legs into his sides, Tax burst across the start. Blakey and Tax turned so close, the barrels nearly tipped over. Tax exploded off the second barrel, rearing toward the third turn. Once they cleared the last barrel they ran for the finish line. The announcer yelled, “Darrington help her home, she’s one of yours. Help her home!"

Blakey ran a fast 18.503 seconds.

'The Greatest Community'

Credit Anna King
Alexis Blakey and her horse, Tax, ran a fast 18.503 seconds in the barrel race at the Timberbowl Rodeo in Darrington, Washington.

Running these barrels with Tax is good medicine for Blakey; there are only her breath, her horse and her quick turns ahead. 

Blakey lost her lead in the Timberbowl Rodeo on Sunday when the rein slipped out of her hand over her horse’s head. She will travel the rodeo circuit this summer and plans to attend Central Washington University in Ellensburg in the fall.

Times are still tough in Oso and Darrington. Most of the lumber mills are closed. More neighbors moved away after the slide. But Blakey said they did what they had to, to help their own.

“I always thought that we had the greatest community," she said. "And now I feel like the rest of the world knows that, too.”

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.