Dispatches, October 1998
"I've watched this in Spain on television and thought, 'What a bunch of idiots,'" said Andre Escoffier, a maintenance man from Henderson, Nevada, who admitted he's always been at a bit of a loss to fathom the appeal of the 400-year-old Iberian ritual in which more than a dozen angry herbivores pursue several hundred brave men through the streets of Pamplona. This summer, however, Escoffier experienced something of an epiphany on the subject when he learned that a little town just up the road was offering a similar opportunity. "When I saw it was here, I said, 'We've gotta go,'" Escoffier explained as he donned a rainbow-colored top hat in preparation for America's debut Running of the Bulls. "I guess there are a lot of idiots in Henderson."
Indeed. Or more accurately, a lot of idiots all over the United States, judging by the 625 runners from as far afield as Florida and Connecticut who, on July 11, descended upon Mesquite, a dusty gambling boomtown whose only prior claim to greatness was its decision to host the 1996 attempt by daredevil Butch Laswell to jump his motorcycle over a three-story walkway spanning the community's main street. (Butch missed the landing ramp and died.) Now, in exchange for $50 and a pledge to show up clean and sober, Phil Immordino, a Phoenix promoter, was offering runners a T-shirt, a scarlet Pamplona-style sash, and a chance to be chased down a quarter-mile track by 24 rodeo steers that had been trained to lumber toward an alfalfa lunch awaiting them at the finish line.
Escoffier and his friend Johnnie Walker (yup, that's his real name) padded toward the starting line with an eclectic band of participants that included a man clad in a Pee-wee Herman outfit. As a Chicago-based disc jockey strapped on a microphone so that his sprint could be broadcast back to Illinois, a cadre of Vegas strippers stood craning their necks, midriffs exposed, ignoring police poised with breathalyzers to enforce the no-alcohol edict.
When clouds of dust erupted from the starting pen, the runners froze, unable to see around the fence. Then the earth began to vibrate, and the pack bolted in unison. A group of pale, overweight men in plastic Wagnerian Viking helmets ran screaming through clouds of yellow dust, mouths agape, arms flailing. Behind the runners, horns and snouts appeared, bobbing ominously. The bulls surged in tight wedges of six or seven, ignoring the saucer-eyed runners cutting and juking like inept high school halfbacks before ducking behind the safety fences. For most, it was over in 15 hot, dirty seconds.
As the dust settled, the PA system announced a second run, and another set of bulls rumbled through. In the midst of all the excitement, 15 people passed out in the triple-digit heat, and the on-site doctor treated three sprained ankles, a case of bruised ribs, and a minor cut from a horn. As the crowd dispersed, Mesquite began bracing itself for its next controversial event — Thunder From Down Under, an Australian all-male burlesque revue that promoters were describing as "a cross between Chippendales and Riverdance." Meanwhile, Escoffier and Walker were already looking forward to Bulls II, scheduled for July 4, 1999. "Did you see Pee-wee Herman?" Escoffier exclaimed. "Next year, we're coming in costumes!"
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