The bull, rank when the circuits don't blow, waits for riders out there where Beltsville meets the Maryland sky. You get on Route 1, your eye swimming in a gelatin glimmer of '50s tourist courts and liquor stores and Sidney Lust's Drive-In, which tonight is playing "Swap Meat at the Love Market." The place is called the Big Dipper Country Ballroom and where you want to be, buckaroo, is upstairs. Downstairs are two go-go bars -- one with ladies lifting off their clothes, the other with men getting down to the fishnet. Frank Gosman, who built and runs the Big Dipper has all bases covered.

"We went Top 40 there for a while," Gosman says. "Had a disco motif though we weren't really disco. I saw that thing coming to an end and got out fast."

Hard-hat days and honky-tonk night. Mama, don't let your babies pick guitars and drive them old trucks, have them be doctors of philosophy and Hill lawyers and such.

It ain't Gilley's, but it ain't bad. It's not Houston, either, though it's swamp hot in here. One reason it's swamp hot is because the bull is turned up full blast. It takes so much juice to kick him on the air-conditioning dips, the lights dim. Then the circuits blow. Two hundred and fifty-four Beltway cowboys, all the fire marshal will allow, are wilting.

They're here from Bowie and Quantico and Bristol, Va., from Sunocos and fire halls and all-night bakeries. Larry Cannon, a government printer, is here. He learned to ride in San Angelo, Tex., in the Air Force. "We used to practice on this homemade bull," he says. "Six ropes and the guys jerking on them. Just something to take our minds off all that sand."

America's newest rage, which will probably have the lifespan of a mayfly, has hit Washington. The rage is mechanical bull riding, and in case you've been sick or in New Delhi, it was spawned chiefly by a John Travolta movie earlier this summer called "Urban Cowboy." The movie takes place at a real-life Houston nightclub called Gilley's, where there are 3 1/2 acres of dance floor and 500 would-be cowboys on display nightly. "Urban Cowboy" features 119 minutes of bull riding and three minutes of plot. But that's okay. The music's terrific and there are beautiful Texas women and of course there's Travolta, agleam in pearl-snaps and Stetson.

(Travolta is probably from Hoboken. But then Eddie Rabbit, country music's latest heartthrob, is from East Orange. Honestly.)

"America's going cowboy crazy," says Gosman, saying this into arc lights and Arch Campbell's Channel 4 microphone. Campbell has just repositioned Gosman's straw cowboy hat. Campbell is tricked out in a blue suit, rep tie. He looks at sea.

"Basically I think it's a chance to beat something mechanical," says Pat Gaines, promotions director of WMZQ Radio, Big 98, talking over the phone a day and a half latter, trying to explain why 1,000 people have climed on the Big Dipper's bull since July 4. WMZQ sponsored the Urban Rodeo at the Dipper over the weekend. There were 54 qualifiers. First prize was a 1980 Honda moped. In the movie Travolta won five grand -- and his wife back.

"You can put on a hat and for 10 seconds you're a cowboy," explains Gaines.

"You know they're selling bulls like crazy? Those suckers are going for five grand." (actually, $5,995 at Gilley's.)

Whatever lightens the load. And what happened to ranch coffee swirled in a skillet under Montana skies? That picture's hanging in a museum, Tex.

Pave paradise, put up a rodeo bar.

Consider the bull himself. Monarch of all he surveys, prince of darkness, El Toro of Kilowatt. At the moment,he is not snorting nor pawing nor seeing red. He is simply humped there on his greased pole in the middle of the Big Dipper's dance floor. (The band, Heavy Country, is on break. They've come in a touring bus with Tennesee plates.) All around the bull, flowing outward, are three-foot-high piles of mattreesses. They will shortly prove useful. When the dancing stops, the mattresses come out.

This bull doesn't have a head, he doesn't have a tail, he doesn't even have feet. What he's got is a broad shiny back with a pommel on it and a D-ring around his flanks. But wait till they turn on the juice. Then Scrap Iron gets wired and inspired, driven by a two-phase, eight-horse motor, made to pitch and roll and duck and jerk your head around with a venom aproaching poetry.

He'll turn on a nickel and give you some change. At least on a real one you're just matching wits with the bull. Here you've got man to fight. Sometimes the guy who runs these things gets carried away -- a friend at the wheel of a runaway Tilt-a-Whirl.But if you've got three bucks and a cervical collar at home, climb on. First, though, you've got to sign a release.

"You going to ride that sonofabitch."

Laurie Bruce collects the three bucks and the releases. She sits behind a booth plastered with warning and disclaimer signs. She doesn't really work for the club. "I came with the bull." The bull, reportedly, came out of Pennsylvania, from a rodeo promoter's barn. Gosman has a lease on it for another month, then an option.

"People sort of edge up and say, "What speed's it on tonight?" says Bruce. "They want to try it, especially if their girl's with them. But they're afraid, too." Bruce herself has been up. "They rolled it real slow." Management figures maybe 50 females have been on so far.

Last Friday night the first guy up wore a spangled white cowboy shirt with doodads running down the back. He locked his hand in the rigging, worked his boots up the machine's flanks, stuck his left arm high in the air. Flexing there, musky with glory, he roared: "TURN 'IM LOOSE!"

Nothing happened.

Ticks of concentration -- or maybe they were the brushes inside the thing. Finally it went on. It was a balmy ride. The poke scored a 78 (out of a perfect 100). Got scattered applause.

"Gotta keep your head in the well," a local expert said.

Pretty soon came a female -- in clogs. The thing promptly threw her off. She landed past the mattresses and didn't get up right away. The Big 98 jock emceeing the evening tried to talk over the minor alarm that swept the place.When she did get up she was tearful. She had a knot on her forehead glowing like a lightbulb. They cheered her.

What does all this mean? In Chicago they've got three rodeo bars and probably more on the way. One is in Lincoln Park West, a sort of Capital Hill area, the others are in New Town. Every night of the week urban cowboys and cowgirls queue up to get in. "I don't know, says Neal Smith, who runs the Rodeo Bar. "It's just a relaxed Western image. Hell, even the girls got to have their drinks in a mug." At the Rodeo, the bull has his own stall. The Bull Pen.

Down in Houston Jerry Willrich runs the Bronco Shop, an affiliate and distribution arm of Gilley's. So far, says Willirich, they've probably shipped bulls to 100 cities. "Name one, I'll tell you if we're there." The Bronco Shop manufactured the mechanical bull used in "Urban Cowboy." "I just go over to the bank every day," says Willrich. "Oh, I guess it'll slack off after a bit -- till the European market hits."

An essential tension in Texas today, being chronicled by Texas Monthly magazine and the state's best writers, has to do with the cowboy moving to the lotus land of the suburb. There are still more cows than people in Texas, but four out of every five Texans live in cities now and ride and rope and steer in their Ford Pintos. The cowboy is our most fertile myth. Nothing can touch him -- not the slain Kennedys or Elvis or Marilyn Monroe. He's always been merchandised, indeed he has often enough merchandised himself. One hundred years ago, aware they were participants in one of history's greatest moments, scruffy little riders fresh off 1,000-mile cattle drives were slicking for pictures in St. Looey photo parlors, agrandizing themselves with fancy kerchiefs and pearl-handled revolvers. Back East dime novels were already the rage.

So Zane Grey started out as a dentist from the University of Pennsylvania. And Western noelist Max Brand was a poet and classicist. Sent by his publisher to El Paso to get a fisthand look at the Wild West, Brand holded up in his hotel room and read Sophocles.

So why complain about seeing the Big Dipper as a many-splintered thing? A man in an eye patch and a bandage over his ear was there the other night. Maybe he had been on the bull the night before. Another guy, still in his tennis togs, watched the proceedings from a corner stool. And yet the genuine article was there, too.

Dave Fowler had driven up from his home in St. Mary's County, Md. He is a heavy equipment operator -- drives a rubber-tired loader out of Rockville -- though for a year he and his brother-in-law went full time on the circuit. He didn't start riding till he was 23, "Larry Mahan started when he was 5." In all, Fowler rode in rodeos and worked as a rodeo clown seven years. He never was a champion, but he did turn 30 without getting a bone broke.

The bulls kept getting closer every year. Fowler's wife Kathy and his 2-year-old son, Justin, came up with him the other night. Kathy and Justin had to sit out in the family Ford pickup because the management doesn't allow minors inside. After a while a kindly soul spelled her, and Kathy got to see her husband ride.

He wore beat-up jeans, a weathered shirt, boots that had been hugged up along the flanks of real animals in their time, not oiled beasts. "These are dog collars," he said, as he fastened two leather straps around his pants and boots. "I took them off my coon hounds just before I came up here." He said "coon hound" the way a city dweller never could. When he got on, he mashed his hat down over his eyes. "It's bad luck to lose your hat," he said afterward. "Cowboys say you'll be right behind it."

He had never before seen a mechanical bull, much less gotten on one. (Until the other night he had never heardof, "Urban Cowboy," either.) But he rode it like a dream, scoring 84. What the patrons didn't know was that he badly cut his leg on the D-ring at the end of the 10-second ride. He went out in the parking lot, wiped it off. He came back in, paid another three bucks, rode, scored an 82.

The next night, having come back for the finals, he bucked off. Pitched sideways. Got up with a limp and brusied dignity. It all seemed faintly sad. As Willie Nelson put it: "Sadly in search of/And one step in back of/Themselves and their slow-moving dreams." "Couldn't see his head." he said. "Most bulls will roll you. This is a jerker."

A self-employed carpenter named Fred Davis won the Honda. Davis, from Upper Marlboro, rides part of the year on the American Rodeo Association's circuit. He was glad to get the Honda, he said, though he has had some second thoughts about the phenomenon raging in his own spiritual back yard:

"The reason these mechanical bulls were invented in the first place was so you could go out and practice in wintertime when bucking stock weren't available," he says. "This other thing is just a circus -- like a Ferris Wheel."

Cowboys have their own brand of misery and they're alone even when they're in a crowd.