Running with the Bulls

Most of you are most likely familiar with the “Running of the Bulls” each summer in Pamplona, Spain, where tens of thousands of people pack the city for an eating, drinking, and dancing spectacle.  The highlight of this festival of San Fermín is when mostly men dressed in white clothes and red kerchiefs and sashes run the slippery cobblestone streets alongside and in front of a pack of ornery bulls.  It’s a tradition dating from the 14th Century and made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 novel: The Sun Also Rises.

I had the opportunity recently to experience the scene myself.  No, I didn’t make a pilgrimage to Iberia; I merely pedaled to Dewey Beach.

Let me explain…

It all started because I’ve been re-reading Hemingway lately.  Between you and me, I’ve always found his stories boring.  Yet there’s this little voice in my head that keeps telling me I should like a writer who spent a lot of his time in bars and cafes and roaming the world with artists and bon vivants.

Hemingway once wrote that we all ought to make sacrifices for literature.  He went to England.  I decided to go to Dewey Beach.  Not to ogle half naked drunk boys, mind you, but for literature.  I was going to run with the bulls.  Then maybe I’d better appreciate “Papa Hemingway.”

The Running of the Bulls in Dewey Beach began sixteen years ago as a group house joke born of too much beer one night at The Starboard bar.  That first year, thirty-five people at a paella and red wine party chased two guys in a bull costume.  Today it’s a town tradition and thousands pack the Starboard and the surrounding bars for the July event.

Some of the revelers emulate true Pamplonian style and wear white pants, white shirts, and a red kerchief (properly called a pañuelo) tied around the neck. For the rest of the crowd, anything goes: red foam bull horns, Mexican sombreros, bull-fighting gear, Chicago Bulls t-shirts, flamenco outfits, and even super hero costumes.  I felt downright dowdy in gray shorts and blue seersucker shirt.

No Spanish inspired event is complete without a couple of cabezudos (big heads). These large paper mache figures generally portray royal figures or archetypes of a particular town.   Instead of making their own Dewey bimbo and bro big heads, The Starboard brought over a couple of the Washington Nationals cabezuos.  Yes, Teddy Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln joined an Elvis impersonator and a band to help whip the crown into a frenzy.  Not that they needed help.  A lot of people had started drinking at nine in the morning.

By the time I arrived at 11:30 am, the line to get into The Starboard was over a block long and snaking down New Orleans Street.  Guys in line were guzzling champagne and shot gunning beers in broad daylight.  Girls were flashing their boobs.  I saw my first vomiting at noon.

It wasn’t just a twenty-something crowd. Across the highway, an older crowd gathered to drink Bloody Marys and beers and watch the antics.  Their eyes brimmed with nostalgia.

Yep, the running is really about drinking, and it continued nonstop until 2pm when the cops halted traffic on Route One and permit the drunks to stampede across the highway and then down the beach a few blocks before heading back across Route One and on to The Starboard.

The grand finale occurs when the runners return to The Starboard for the bullfight, a mock battle between bull and matador performed to the chants of Olé from the crowd.  It doesn’t matter who wins, because as soon as either bull or matador is slain, everyone begins drinking again, which continues throughout the afternoon.

The Washington Post calls it a Mid-Atlantic Mardi Gras.

In case you’re wondering, I did not run with the bulls.  After a couple of Orange Crush cocktails, I was a tad too inebriated and too smart to deal with the hundred-degree heat. I watched, which is what Hemingway most likely did in Pamplona.  According to his grandson, Papa never ran with the bulls.  Not because he was afraid, but because he had shrapnel in his legs from the war which made running difficult.

Pedaling home, I reflect upon the hetero-spectacle I’d just witnessed and it begins to dawn on me why I never clicked with Papa Hemingway.  Here was a man who felt action was more important than reflection and that adjectives were for sissies. His writing feels hard-boiled, whereas I prefer something poached.

Hemingway, I realize, is a tad too straight and too lacking in panache for my taste, sort of like Dewey’s Running of the Bulls.

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