DENVER (CN) – Every January, some 650,000 people – nearly the population of Denver itself – visit the city to remind it that it’s still just a cow town.
To kick off the whole celebration, the National Western Stock Show lets 30 longhorn steers loose downtown. Rounded up and prodded along by a dozen cowboys on horseback, the bulls occasionally butt their 3 to 6-foot-long horns against each other, but the powerful beasts plow on as if they can smell greener pastures beyond the horizon.
The bold bovines are followed down an asphalt mile from Denver’s Union Station by a parade of bedazzled Clydesdales and dolled up ponies.
Rhinestone-crowned county pageant queens hand out the Stars and Stripes on sticks. There are enough polo players for two simultaneous matches and mascots for all the televised sports teams giving high fours.
Strangers in Stetsons throw candy from trucks emblazoned with event sponsors’ logos and a hillbilly on a red tractor pretends – or is pretending to pretend – he’s drinking moonshine from a jug.
Over the last decade, the Mile High City went from being disregarded as a flyover spot to being one of the top 10 growing economies nationwide. Each year, tens of thousands of outsiders continue to move in and around the Platte River Valley from rural parts of the state but also from Texas and California, Florida and New York. The population has ballooned by nearly 19% since 2010, according to the latest census numbers, and development struggles to keep up.
“There’s less family-owned and more big businesses, more apartments and houses. Pretty soon it’s going to be city from here to Greeley,” said Leroy Benavidez, a retired Navy reservist originally from Cheyenne, Wyoming. Though he has lived in Aurora for 20 years and watched the growth, he said he’s less against it so much as swept up in it.
“You can’t stop it,” he said.
Though agriculture only makes up 3% of the state’s economy, many inhabitants say they can’t imagine the West without it. For many longtime residents, the Stock Show still represents all the things they want to hold on to, even if they’re as elusive as the gold flakes you could once pan out of Clear Creek.
“I love the West and the cowboy life,” said Rachel Pagliarini, a Littleton, Colorado, resident who has been coming to the show with her family since she was a kid. “I like thinking back to when there was nothing here, just the pioneers. It’s hard to put it into words, the western spirit, of making something from nothing.”
To drive the point home, a high school marching band bellowed out Toby Keith’s “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” while the crowd pressed up against the street barriers sang along.
The event is expected to generate $115 million over the next two weeks, from the $24 entrance fee to the $8 fried dough and, of course, the sale of living, breathing livestock that generally go for $2,500 to $3,000 a head.
Along with a variety of Angus breeds, ranchers from around the region have brought their healthiest Charolais and Simmental cattle, and gold trophy bison with names like the Iron Creek Maiden, Miss Sizzle and Sierra. Ranchers will select the animals they want to breed the future of the industry or to butcher into the best steaks on today’s market.
Also hard to find elsewhere: the western art exhibit sponsored by Coors, the annual catch-a-calf program, and a shed raffle.
While the Super Bowl of livestock shows bills itself as an homage to all things western, it is a tribute to a version of the West: that of beef and big buckles, of European settlers who were inspired by Manifest Destiny.
The story of the Ute and Apache tribes who were already living on the land in 1876 when Colorado joined the Union are completely absent. Instead, they hold their annual powwow in March at the coliseum across the road.
“It doesn’t seem like Native Americans have a voice here,” said Tracy Hindman, a Westminster, Colorado, resident raised in Hawaii.
Hindman’s first job after college was selling tickets for the Stock Show rodeo, an embodiment of the things that she said inspired her to first seek out the Centennial State.
“Like a lot of people, I followed the western spirit here. I moved to Colorado thinking I would marry a cowboy and live on the prairie,” Hindman said. “I think that western spirit is still intact.”
Toward the end of the parade, just before the street sweepers swept away the leavings, there came a single prospector leading a donkey by a rope.
With a white beard on his chin and a tin pan in his free hand, he looked a little lost amidst the skyscrapers and iPhones, the banners and bunting.
But as all newcomers to the city, the prospector won’t be lost for long. Give him time and he will find something that looks like the gold that led him out here.