When visiting the National Western Stock Show, make sure your first stop is the booth selling replicas of Old West lawmen's badges. Wearing one commands respect...and apparently demands free items.
At this year's Stock Show -- the 96th incarnation of the annual event that fills Denver's air with reminders that we're still a cowtown and fills the Denver Coliseum and the rest of the National Western complex with every display imaginable, from animal to vegetable to mineral -- I collected gratis Nebraska and Wyoming road maps, a complimentary boot shine (both feet), a cattle-ID-tag key chain (1-800-EarTags), a few beers, a Colorado State Fair shot glass, a Wyoming tie tack and numerous pretzel samples (none hazardous) on what I thought was general Stock Show goodwill.
It wasn't until I stopped by the Denver Newspaper Agency booth to ask about a Rocky Mountain News subscription that I was reminded of my shiny new accessory. "I'm not sure we circulate in Cheyenne," the staffer said, eyeing my Cheyenne Deputy Sheriff badge ($15).
Of course. The News does circulate in Denver, though, and in exchange for buying a fresh, five-day-a-week subscription, I received a red, white and blue umbrella imprinted with stars and stripes, the slogan "United We Stand," and pictures of both the Newsand the Denver Post. For patriotic fervor, it was matched only by the pageantry we've come to expect at the opening of every Stock Show rodeo, made even more star-spangled this year as Denver police and firefighters occasionally join the lineup of flag-waving dignitaries on horseback.
After that, I removed the badge and paid full freight for rest of the tour, snagging a pooping-pig key chain ($1.95), a rodeo-clown mask ($3.95) and a visit to the Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale -- at a $1 suggested donation, it's a bargain compared to the $18,000 that Peter Coors has already laid out for William Matthews's nine watercolors. But the miniature horse show -- "the largest show of miniatures ever" -- was free to all comers.
All told, the National Western is one of the best entertainment, and shopping, deals going. This is the greatest show on earth -- packed earth, that is.