Satisfied, Lewis gives a quick nod to his friend Toya.
She pulls a gate-lever quickly and hard with both hands and the steer bursts out, heading full tilt for the exit at the far end of the arena.
Lewis and CJ are right behind, closing at a gallop, lariat twirling overhead. Lewis is going to rope this critter — something Toya has never seen before. It's also the first time she ever popped open a cattle chute. Lewis wants to show her a glimpse of what it's like at a rodeo.
Lewis releases his loop, but the rope glances off the steer's horns — a miss. The boys at the gate yell in excitement.
It was once like that for Lewis, when he pulled up on his bike two years ago to get a better look at Clif Evans, who was working one of his horses in the arena.
Lewis kept coming back. Soon Evans was showing him how to ride, at the corner of Pulgas Avenue and Weeks Street, smack in the middle of the homes and light industry that make up this neighborhood.
Lewis smiles as he turns CJ and heads back to the chute, where Toya has the next steer queued-up. The boys at the fence are ready: They want to see him try again.
If it hadn't been for Evans, none of this riding and roping would be happening.
Evans is a licensed contractor who says he is busy despite the recession. He also plays bass guitar and is a rodeo-quality roper — he learned to ride when he was young. Lean and lanky, he looks the part of a cowboy.
"My father was in the Air Force and when I was a kid, maybe 10 or 11, we moved to a base in Mesa, Ariz.," he says with an easy smile. "There were stables nearby and I just couldn't get enough of them. Every day as soon as school got out that's where I went; I loved being around horses."
In the years between learning about horses in Mesa and building Ravenswood Ranch, Evans lived in Morgan City, outside New Orleans, La., where he built huge offshore platforms and barges for the oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico.
But a collapse of petroleum prices in the late 1980s changed all that. Evans moved to California, got his contractor's license and started his own business.
But he never lost his love of horses.
Evans is a member of the American Cowboy Team Roping Association and on most Wednesday nights competes for prize "pots" with both professional rodeo cowboys and serious amateurs aged 12 to more than 70. He has competed in local and regional rodeo events, including the annual Driscoll Ranch rodeo in La Honda.
In 2003 Evans came across a patch of level ground in East Palo Alto — the site of an old nursery. It was just under 2 acres and available. He took a lease and went to work.
"I had to clear greenhouse ruins, a lot of junk, weeds and brush, and then haul-in tons of footing for the arena," Evans recalls in the soft, always-polite voice for which he's known among friends and acquaintances.
"But I was lucky because I able to get a lot of the equipment, steel railing, the chute — all kinds of things — salvaged out of places like Gilroy, where new houses were replacing many of the old agricultural operations."
Ravenswood Ranch now is almost complete. In addition to the arena, there are stalls and paddocks, a half-dozen horses and two steer, a sign over the main gate, a flagpole, even bleachers — waiting for the time it will be OK for spectators to come in, sit and enjoy the show.
In the meantime, neighborhood kids can watch through the fence and see what the rodeo is like. Evans and his friends, and those he's taught to ride and rope, practice their skills there.
Other members of the community who aren't riders see real opportunities in what he's started.
One of them is La Rue Ragan, founder and executive director of Raven Works Field Sport Ministry. Ragan also is a direct neighbor of Ravenswood Ranch, living across the street.
"When Clif built his Ranch he created an exceptional local resource we hope to take advantage of to reach at-risk youth and help them discover the joys and discipline of field-sports activities," Ragan said.
"Horses can play a big role in that — for trail rides in the baylands, as pack animals, all kinds of wholesome activities.
"And, of course, learning to ride the rodeo," he adds with a smile.
Together, Evans, Ragan and other supporters want to see Ravenswood Ranch opened up as a place for organized programs where kids can learn about, work with and take care of large animals. They'll be outside, ride, rope, and have fun.
It's a complicated process, but they're working on it: negotiating with the city, trying to figure out insurance.
They are hoping for a time when more kids can learn to ride, rope and rodeo right there in the neighborhood — just as when Lewis happened by, watched through the fence and Evans invited him in.
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