I have lived in the Great Lakes region of the United States for five years now.
I traded my Colorado clay-covered cowboy boots for the paddock variety. The wind blowing down from Wyoming is now the gale off Lake Michigan.
I don’t get as homesick as I once did, but the last two weeks of January always leave me pinning for the Mile-High City—it is Stock Show Season.
Over 16 days for the last 114 years, sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, yaks, llamas, rabbits, and every other domesticated animal imaginable unload out of trailers and animal crate laden vehicles into the National Western Stock Show Complex in the heart of Denver. With participants from 42 states and over 700,000 visitors last year alone, it is among the largest livestock events in the United States.
As for me, I love to head to the back yards by the train tracks and watch the stockmen chat along the fence as they wait for their cow’s class to start. For lunch, my go-to is the stand outside where they serve a beef brisket sandwich with pico de gallo and barbecue sauce.
The so-called “Stock Show Weather” can be changeable. It can be 60 degrees or ten below these weeks in January. The whole grounds are either a skating rink, or a specially seasoned stew of cow patties, mud, and shaving. I learned the hard way to wear good socks.
It is one of the biggest horses shows too. The National Western’s website reports that there were more than 16,000 horses in 2006, and the numbers remain strong. The size is partly due to the diverse events on offer. There are not just grand prix and rodeos, there are working cow horse events, a night of dancing horses, a Mexican rodeo and a long premium book of others.
It is this smorgasbord of animal stuff that also makes the Stock Show a place to catch up. If you are in the horse or agriculture community in Colorado, you are all but guaranteed to run into someone you know. On the year, while borrowing a pen from the booth selling frozen Angus semen, I tripped over the ranching family I once rode horses for. Down at the Cowboy Bar in the cattle barn, I spotted someone I knew back in college in the Collegiate Horseman’s Association.
When I watch my friends back home load up their social media with pictures of their annual visit, I long for a trip of my own. I miss the crisp, pounding jingle of harness, as the hitches role in at the draft horse show. I daydream about the focused gleam in the eye of the Australian shepherds during the sheepdog trials. And I recall the satisfying way a Herford’s coat fluffs up like a teddy bear when they get a blow-dry.
As we live in a country that grows more and more siloed by left and right, urban and rural, the Stock Show is one of those rare mixing places where everybody collides. While the forces of gentrification are at work throughout Colorado, The Stock Show Complex is in a part of Denver that is racially and culturally diverse. The area has its rough patches.
The events are a Colorado tradition too; people from all parts of the state come to spend the day every year.
Unexpected people will have to share space. It’s not uncommon to find a Bronc rider who spends most of his time out among the barbwire and the orchard brom seated at a busy lunchroom table with a family from the city who has never seen a longhorn in the flesh before. It is hard to hate up close, and places like the National Western Stock Show make us look a bit closer, bring us a bit closer.
I love many things about the National Western Stock Show. I love that it gives us snowed in horse people something to do and reminds us all where our food comes from. I love the way it brings people together who otherwise wouldn’t be in the same space.
Happy 114th Anniversary National Western Stock Show. Here is to 114 more.
Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Brevity, the Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is also a contributing writer to Horse Network, Book Riot and the Washington Independent Review of Books. She teaches composition in Illinois, lives in Chicago and is still a Colorado native. Find her on Twitter at @GC_Lida.