Urban cowboys long for life on the range

Denver's annual stock show - serious business for ranchers - is drawing

It wasn't so long ago that the National Western Stock Show here was, well, a stock show - a place where ranchers could buy, sell, and trade their cattle, as well as show them in competitions for prizes.

These days, however, it has also become one of the last places where legions of newcomers can see the West as it once was.

As the most dynamic, fastest-growing region of the United States, the West is irrevocably changing. Cow towns have become telecommuting capitals, and rail hubs have sprawled into edgeless metropolises. Pottery Barn has come to the high plains.

Yet images of the cowboy and the cattle drive remain etched in the consciousness of the American West. Indeed, the more the region changes, the more it clings to its past, observers say, meaning that, for many, events like the stock show are an affirmation of identity.

"It's like a window into the West," says Lisa Penaloza, a business professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, referring to the show, running from Jan. 8 to 23 and now in its 94th year. "With urbanization, there's a loss of the freedom and open spaces of the West, and the more we get removed from Western tradition, the more we are drawn to it."

There is no longer a frontier to conquer, yet Americans still identify with the values cultivated by generations of ranchers, she says: independence, endurance, freedom, family, and kindness.

So thousands of city slickers, donning jeans and pointy-toed boots, come to the Denver Coliseum each year to play cowboy for a day, milling around the livestock competition, and watching real-life cowboys rope cattle and ride bucking broncos. The show attracts some 600,000 visitors - some from as far away as Mongolia and Argentina.

Jesse Hass, visiting the stock show from Conroe, Texas, says if he had his way, modern implements like cell phones, computers, and even automobiles, would be eliminated. "I'd rather we traveled by horse-and-buggy still. I like the Old West. I wish we could go back to those days."

Others here aren't prepared to go that far, but they do share a romantic view of life on the range. "When you go to work and sit at a desk all day, the lifestyle of a cowboy looks pretty appealing," says Mark Sargent, an engineer from Evergreen, Colo. "It's easy to idolize that."

He and his wife, Rosemary, are attending the stock show mainly because their 16-month-old son, Eric, adores animals (like the llamas he couldn't stop staring at). But the show's Old West character was an attraction.

"It's kinda fun," says Mr. Sargent.

Jesse Mullins Jr., editor of American Cowboy magazine, based in Sheridan, Wyo., sees the cultural fascination with the West growing. The magazine, which pays homage to Western life, has tripled circulation since its launch in 1994, and half of its subscribers are urban dwellers.

"For the people in the East and in the big cities, it means something to them to know that the open spaces are still out there," he says. "As the world gets more urbanized and populated, it seems that the culture has to absorb the rural experience through other channels ... such as magazines, art, and entertainment."

Some people, however, go beyond that in their attempt to connect with the West. Just last month, folks paid $2,000 each to ride in a 65-mile cattle drive in New Mexico, which retraced the route of the historic Chisum Trail.

Yet for the stock-show participants, who come from nearly every state and five Canadian provinces, the event isn't about yearning for cowboy life. It's about real life.

"This is our lifestyle," says 12-year-old Sasha Yackley of Onida, S.D., who is here with her parents and two brothers showing Limousin heifers raised on the family ranch. Lined up in the show barn are long rows of meticulously groomed cattle, being readied for competition: They are bathed, blow-dried, clipped, and curried until their coats gleam. Sasha is in her element.

"It's fun to meet all the people [competing] here, and talk about what your life is like," she says, grinning.

So what's a rancher's life like? "The people are dedicated and hard-working, and they enjoy their life. It's a fun life," says Tanya Yackley, Sasha's mother. "You're kind of your own boss, but you have to work hard to achieve your goals."

Exhibitors here are usually too busy with their cattle to interact with spectators. But seeing city folks dressed in high-voltage Western duds can be a source of amusement, says one cowboy. "We get a good laugh out of the way some of the people dress up. But we're sure glad they do it. It's good to see people take that much interest in what we do everyday."

Although city types appreciate the notion of ranch life, they often overlook the challenges. "There is a big mythology about the cowboy," says Professor Penaloza. "People don't necessarily understand what that life is really like, that it's very hard to make ends meet, and how hard the work is."

But while the attraction to the West is romanticized, there's an element that's "almost spiritual," muses Mr. Mullins. "The image of the cowboy is uplifting," he says. "He's a good guy."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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