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Isn’t it time we tried a New West festival?

Essay by Ed Quillen

New West – October 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

THIS YEAR, 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 West.

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 suspended knickers or frilly bonnets. A few ersatz bandits, toting thumb-buster revolvers loaded with blanks, pretend to rob the bank or a stagecoach.

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 1974 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 axe 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 materialized.

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 course.

Why watch some ranch hand on a bronco when horses are as obsolete as typewriters? 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 INS agents make a surprise appearance to round up undocumented immigrants.

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 mystic circle Cap it all with 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 ( He lives in Salida, where he helps publish Colorado Central Magazine.