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By Ben Brewer

Under the vast, open skies of Durango, Colorado, the 2023 Durango Cowboy Gathering reignited the fiery spirit of the American West, weaving together the timeless tales, melodies, and traditions of cowboy culture. Taking place from September 28 to October 1, 2023, it was an unforgettable celebration that offered no less than 21 activities and performances, showcasing the talents of poets, musicians, and artists, all dedicated to preserving the spirit of the West.

“This year, we had about 6,800 attendees from all over the world, a record number,” said Sue McWilliams, president of Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Inc. “They came for these cowboys, who are full of fun, adventure, and great stories.”

Cowboy poetry is a tradition that has triumphed over challenges, ranging from changing social landscapes to economic uncertainties. Originating from 19th-century American West storytelling, cowboy poetry combines narrative style, rhyme, and oral history. Nearly forgotten in the 20th century, it was revived in 1985 by the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.

Kevin O’Farrell, an attendee of the cowboy gathering in Elko, returned home to Durango and proposed a cowboy poetry event to a band of local songwriters. The group suggested autumn for the gathering, post-cattle market season, to boost the local economy during the tourism off-season. Thus, Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Inc. was established as a non-profit in 1989.

In its 35th year, the Durango Cowboy Gathering surged with renewed vigor, introducing activities that breathed fresh life into the proceedings.

“We had [four] new events this year, like the Petting Corral and 100 Kids and Horses,” McWilliams said. “For the parade itself, which is the largest non-motorized parade in Colorado, we had more entries this year than since COVID-19…It’s nice to see that kind of comeback.”

This year’s Grand Marshall was former U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse-Campbell (Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe). Nighthorse-Campbell was selected for his long-standing impact on the Durango community.

“We reached out to Ben and Linda, and they were just thrilled to be our Grand Marshall,” McWilliams said. “We were very honored to have them.”

Nighthorse-Campbell is known for his jewelry-making craft, with his works prominently displayed at Sorrel Sky Gallery on Main Street, owned by his daughter, Shanan Campbell. The gallery hosted the “Cowboy Lineup Revealed” event, where the new logo for the Durango Cowboy Gathering was unveiled.

“Our traditional logo has been a photo of old cowboys for 35 years, but nobody knew who the people in the picture were or where it came from,” McWilliams said. “So we did a new cowboy lineup. We had 29 local cowboys, cowgirls, and a little two-year-old in this picture. It was really special.”

The Durango Cowboy Gathering is critical in preserving and promoting cowboy culture, ensuring that these stories and songs are not forgotten.

“You can’t separate the music, the poetry, and the clothes,” said R.W. Hampton, a celebrated performer and one of the headliners for the Cowboy Poetry and Music Event at the VFW Post 4031. “It’s America, and it’s important.”

Hampton, who grew up in Texas as a ranch hand, embodies the spirit of the Cowboy Gathering and the American West. He and his wife, Lisa, tour the country, serenading audiences nationwide with his rich baritone voice and frank lyrics. In Hampton’s mind, however, Durango stands out.

“There are two towns that come to mind that have that quintessential Western feel: Fort Worth, Texas, and Durango, Colorado,” Hampton observed. “You get out of the car and think, ‘Yeah, we’re in the West.’ There isn’t a better town in Colorado for that kind of event.”

Durango’s natural landscapes, rich historical roots, and community deeply connected to the cowboy culture make this mountain town an unparalleled host for cowboy gatherings, appealing to everyone from traditionalists to modern enthusiasts.

“When you celebrate the ranching culture, you’re celebrating more than meets the eye,” Hampton said. “You’re celebrating the Black cowboys, the Native cowboys, the vaqueros, and the cowgirls.”

This broad appeal is precisely why the Board of the Durango Cowboy Gathering dropped “Poetry” from the event’s name this past year.

“It’s more than a ‘Poetry Gathering,’” McWilliams noted. “We want to be inclusive…You don’t have to like poetry, and you don’t have to be a cowboy to come. It’s open to anyone who wants to come and join us.”

The next celebration is already in the works. McWilliams and her team are planning the 10th Annual Durango Cowboy Gathering Barn Dance, Picnic & Silent Auction Fundraiser on June 9. Hosted by the River Bend Ranch, the Barn Dance will feature live music from the Tim Sullivan Band.

Proceeds will go to the 36th Durango Cowboy Gathering, which will run from October 2 to 6, 2024. The event will be even grander, too. This year’s gathering will feature the first-ever “Horseback Social” on October 5. Six blocks of Main Avenue will be barricaded so parade participants and other horseback riders can mingle and ride in historic downtown before the parade. There will be multiple exhibits and activities along the route to showcase rural, agricultural, and western interests to residents and visitors.

At its core, however, the event will continue to honor the American cowboy’s legacy and reinforce the importance of community and cultural preservation.

“People have lost connection with the ranching lifestyle, to what they eat, what they wear, and where they came from,” Hampton said. “Events like the Durango Cowboy Gathering not only celebrate that lifestyle, they bring it back into focus for city people.”

Hampton paused, then added with his baritone voice.

“They don’t see the cowboy anymore, but he’s still there.”



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