Coalinga Horned Toad Derby
For years we drove up I-5 going from Southern California to our home in Davis or Grizzly Island. One landmark on that lonely stretch of road through the San Joaquin Valley was the Harris Ranch feedlots. We’d flip the air conditioner to “recycle” in order to keep the stench out. Associated with this visual and olfactory display was the road sign that said “Coalinga.”
What I knew about Coalinga would take about five minutes to describe. I knew they had a large earthquake in 1983, and that it was situated on the north edge of the San Joaquin Valley desert. I looked it up in Wikipedia and one line stood out: “Today, the city’s main industries are agriculture, oil and incarceration.” One other thing I knew about Coalinga. They annually held a Horned Toad Derby.
So, when my friend Paul Paulson was up for a visit with his cousin, I asked about their hometown festival. Next thing I know, we are meeting in Coalinga for the 79th annual Horned Toad derby. I eagerly looked forward to the festivities. The theme this year was “Toad of the Rings.”
First up was the parade. The streets were lined with the townsfolk as the opening banner came down the street. This town loves horned toads and you can find them everywhere. The high school mascot is the horned toad.
The largest horned lizard I have ever seen meandered down the street, outfitted with a go pro camera. I suppose that was to inform the steering of the contraption, but still I’d like to see that video.
Of course there was a queen, and marching bands, caballeros, local hot rods and business trucks. The football team was on a float with the cheerleaders. The wrestling team was performing wrestling matches on a trailer. Go Toads!
Unfortunately, my friend Paul got thrown in jail.
Later it was off to the park where the horned toad races would be taking place. I wanted to learn more about where these animals came from. I asked various people in town and got lots of stories. They bring them from Texas, from Arizona, from another country. The truth came from the chamber of commerce. These lizards are collected on a local ranch in the hills west of town. Each individual is marked and its location noted. When the races are over, each animal is released to the same place they came from. Well, the first afternoon race was about to get started so we headed to the racing arena. The racers waited anxiously in their container before being displayed to the audience.
The anticipation was thick as the contestants were placed into a center ring for the start. Betting is not allowed but you can buy tickets and place them in jars corresponding to individual lizards to win prizes. However, betting is not allowed.
After a thorough explanation of where horned toads come from and their importance, the race began. A more exciting contest cannot be found anywhere. Multiple strategies were being implemented, each trying to psych out the others. Soon, a tail flick, then another animal raised its head. One brave soul made his move and……….
Soon I was off to the souvenir stand to purchase a t shirt, so as to never forget this occasion. Suddenly all was good in the world in Coalinga, California.
Horned toad images and art can be found throughout this town. No matter what you think about this event, the reality is that this animal is a source of pride for the town of Coalinga. Once a year the people of this town get together and celebrate their community. The figurehead of that celebration is the horned lizard. Anything that connects people with their environment in a positive atmosphere is a good thing.
I photographed every horned toad I could find and have compiled them into the mosaic shown at the top of this blog entry.
The next morning I headed back to Elkhorn and as I started climbing out of the saltbush desert of Coalinga, a fairly large wide lizard crawled off the side of the road in front of me. I couldn’t turn around for several hundred yards, but I did and walked the edge of the road where I had that sighting. I couldn’t be sure, but actually I’m thoroughly convinced that was a horned lizard that crossed the road in front of me as I left the beautiful community of Coalinga.