Although it’s been a few years now, for a stretch of nearly a decade, I’d make an annual pilgrimage to Denver’s famous National Western Stock Show. When I was a kid, the mystique of the National Western held sort of a weird spell over me. I was a devoted disciple of Dick Crow, and I religiously studied the gospel as it was presented each week in the Western Livestock Journal (WLJ). I read every word and every figure of every sale report with more fervor than I read the box scores in the sports pages, and I could tell you the averages of nearly every bull sale in the western U.S., if it was reported in WLJ.

Marchant paul hat
Freelance Writer
Paul Marchant is a rancher and freelance writer in southern Idaho. Follow Paul Marchant on X (@pm...

My favorite issues were the January issues, where the results of the breed shows from the National Western were meticulously reported. The people and the cattle behind the legendary names were larger than life to me. Yardley, Colyer, Beartooth, Scotch Cap, Westphal, Pine Drive Big Sky, among many others, were names that evoked as much excitement in my gut as did the names of Bird, Magic, Staubach, Dr. J. and Bradshaw, some of the national sports gods of my youth.

My first visit to my livestock mecca was in the '80s, as a member of my college livestock judging team. I don’t think I set the world ablaze with my scores, but it was then that I first experienced the magical mistress kiss of “The Yards.” Then, and every trip I made in the decades since, the majority of my attention and time while I was at the National Western was spent on and in The Yards. Regardless of what the momentary face of Denver’s schizophrenic weather was, it’s where I loved to be. The opportunity to walk among the fanciest cattle in the world and rub shoulders with the people behind them was fulfillment of fantasy for me. It was like a peek behind Oz’s curtain. Over the years, I’ve developed a more jaded view of the show cattle world than I once held, but my respect for the effort displayed in the whole process has never waned.

I haven’t been to the National Western since her new facelift in recent years, but one attraction I never missed was the “Wall of Fame,” located in the sale barn in the corner of The Yards. Pictures of past champions of the pen shows from every era adorned the walls. Even though, after several visits, I had nearly every champion from every year memorized, I would still spend an hour or so studying the pictures as though I were gazing at the artwork on the walls of the Louvre for the first time. The evolution of the types and styles of cattle that were deemed “the fairest of them all” always amazed me.

With the benefit of hindsight, common sense and advancements in genetics, it’s fascinating, comical and even a little tragic to look back on the trends. The obese, 3-foot-tall champions of the '40s and '50s gave way to the bizarre, long-legged, pistol-gutted creatures of the '70s and '80s. For the life of me, I can’t see the sense in the selection pressure of those days. As I look through the lens of time and experience, it seems impossible that livestock judges could seriously justify the advancement of ideas that seem almost cartoonish in today’s world. The mantra, “longer, taller, leaner, cleaner” seemed to somehow make some sort of sense to me at the time. And besides, who was I to question it?


It truly is an interesting phenomenon, this compulsion we seem to have to follow the siren song of popular opinion. The emperor’s new clothes just might not be so chic, after all. But I guess that’s why trends like powdered wigs, mullets and bell bottoms ever maintained any staying power at all. And while I suppose it’s true that just because something’s popular doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something to be shunned, by the same token, we certainly shouldn’t feel compelled to become puppets to the culture around us. There are plenty of examples throughout the annals of history to clearly show us the folly of such thought.

In that vein, although it’s prevalent in nearly every facet of our existence, it borders on lunacy to think that a person’s self-worth is dependent on anyone else at all. I’ve always liked the quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

I don’t think that thought gives license to accept mediocrity or to cease striving for some form of excellence. Rather, I think it offers the freedom to follow your own star and maybe even earn a place of honor on your own wall of fame.