This summer, every town big enough to boast a high school, and more than a few that have trouble keeping a post office in business, hosted a festival.
Even though these
small-town celebrations go by different names - Wild West Days,
Gold Rush Days, Pioneer Weekend, Founders' Day, Old West Festival -
they hold much in common: They all focus on the Old
The parades offer a caravan of horse-drawn
wagons. The men sport vests, derbies and sleeve-garters. The women
wear demure hoopskirts or provocative dance-hall corselets.
Children wander about in suspendered knickers or frilly bonnets. A
few ersatz bandits, toting thumb-buster revolvers loaded with
blanks, pretend to rob the bank or a
The festival generally includes a
contest of Old West skills - riding and roping at a rodeo, for
instance, or single- and double-jack drilling to honor the
hard-rocking mining days. A few towns even have "cussin', belchin"
and spittin ' 'contests.
Not that there's
anything wrong with such festivals, but they're seldom distinctive.
And these days, with rural Western towns all competing for tourist
dollars, the town with the courage to try something different
should come out ahead.
So why not, instead of an
Old West Weekend, a New West Weekend in some gentrifying hamlet
where art galleries and coffee bars have replaced hardware stores
and feed shops?
Old West Weekends often focus on
a prominent event in the town's history - the first settlers, a big
silver strike, the arrival of the railroad, or a battle which led
to the expulsion of the people who had been there before the
pioneers claimed the spot.
A New West Weekend
might similarly commemorate an event that started the transition:
the 1971 opening of the eatery that served organic sprouts and went
broke within the year, the 1968 arrival of the first VW Microbus
with offbeat paint and a driver with a headband, the 1975 founding
of an alternative newspaper or community radio station ...
Other important historic events could be
re-enacted through the New West Weekend: the 1969 battle between
the indigenous good ol" boys, who were armed with ax handles and
hay hooks, against the hippie commune on the hill. Or the first
known bust of a marijuana cultivator, in 1974. Or the municipal
election of 1978, when the new folks took over the town government
with the promise to install mellow cops, who still haven't
There is a problem with this
approach - we don't yet have the historical perspective. We don't
know whether the arrival of hippies 30 years ago was the precursor
of the arrival of the New West in the 1990s. The two invasions
might not be related at all.
Indeed, it could be
that the events properly worth celebrating at a New West Weekend
would be more recent: "First 10,000 square-foot house occupied less
than one month a year," "First restaurant with minuscule servings
and a long wine list to go totally smoke-free," or "Last time a
two-bedroom shotgun house on a postage-stamp lot rented for less
than $1,000 a month."
No matter what seminal New
West event the organizers select, they should still hold contests -
for New West skills, rather than Old West trades, of
Why watch some ranch hand on a bronco
when horses are as obsolete as
Especially when you could watch
sport-ute drivers maneuver through an obstacle course while
maintaining constant cell-phone conversation and consulting their
GPS navigation aids?
Why celebrate the archaic
skills of working-class miners as they drill and muck before a
crowd that doesn't know a stope from a winze? The New West working
class could show off its modern skills: bed-making,
toilet-scrubbing, burger-flipping, lift-attending, drink-mixing -
with a grand finale race for the hills when immigration agents make
a surprise appearance.
Throw in a UFO sighting,
an espresso tasting, some sweat-lodge demonstrations and a few
minutes of arcane chanting as every celebrant holds hands in a
Cap it all with a parade - no
floats, bands or horses, but instead a cavalcade of conspicuous
consumption, featuring $80,000 land yachts towing $40,000
sport-utes towing $20,000 boats.
Come to think of
it, though, that's pretty much how things are now on most weekends.
That might explain why no town has announced a New West Festival
yet - why bother with the work of organizing and marketing a
festival, when one seems to be happening all on its own?
Ed Quillen is a contributor
to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in
Paonia, Colo. (www.hcn.org). He lives in Salida, Colo., where he
helps publish Colorado Central Magazine.