"You're from Denver," the white-hatted cowboy said as he started searching our bags. "You're used to this."
Well, not this: "You got a gun in there?" he asked hopefully. At Denver International Airport, answering yes to that kind of question would get a traveler grounded for life.
But we were in Wyoming, at the entrance to Frontier Park, and going through the first security check in the history of Cheyenne Frontier Days, whose 106th edition kicked off last Saturday. "Due to the events of 9/11," the CFD events brochure advises, people entering Frontier Park are allowed "only one bag, purse, fanny pack or soft-sided cooler, not larger than 12 x 12 x 12. No bottles, food, beverages, weapons or laser lights."
One of our bags was considerably larger than the requisite size, but that didn't bother the cowboy one bit. Nor did our plaintive requests for a thorough frisking. He wasn't even fazed by the Swiss Army knife that one Denver dude confessed to carrying. "Don't cut yourself," the cowboy advised. Hell, you could buy a knife bigger than that at any one of a number of stalls lining the park, where you could also stock up on food (an entire potato cut into just one long French fry!), beverages (beer and more beer), spurs, bullwhips, branding irons and other ferocious souvenirs.
Cheyenne Frontier Days is not just a rodeo -- although it bills its cowboyin' competition as the "Daddy of 'em All." During it, Frontier Park also features a carnival, a Western-style shopping bonanza, an Indian village, a dance hall, an Old West town and, at night, concerts.
CFD is also Americana all the way -- from the flags that the Dandies, a girls' riding group, carry as they ride around the arena to the flag ties that the volunteers on the CFD general committee wear over their crisp white Western shirts. But all of the flag paraphernalia is far from a new addition; even before 9/11, Old Glory was flying high in Cheyenne.
"It's safe, traditional, roots-type entertainment," says CFD spokeswoman Lynn Kelly. It's a free pancake breakfast on Friday; cowboy church services on Sunday; and parades Thursday and Saturday mornings that will fill downtown Cheyenne with horses, old wagons carrying people dressed as early pioneers, antique cars, baton twirlers, mobile Old West saloons, marching bands and Air Force floats complete with papier-mâché missiles.
For the first time, the parades are being announced from the "grand ballroom" of the Plains Hotel, an old railroad hotel whose renovation -- which the owners promise will make it the Brown Palace of Wyoming -- isn't quite complete. The Plains is also hosting the Southeast Wyoming Art Show and Sale, not to be confused with the decidedly more upscale Cheyenne Frontier Days Western Art Show and Sale, also at Frontier Park.
But ultimately, CFD is the rodeo, complete with hokey jokes -- "If Texas is so great, why are Texans always somewhere else?" -- and clowns, as well as steer wrestling, barrel racing, saddle-bronc riding, and that PETA favorite, calf roping. While the standard rodeo events occupy the center of the arena, a series of acts parade in front of the grandstands, including Princess Staci and Dakota Warrior, her dancing horse, who reenact the pose of the sculpture "End of the Trail."
"If you can see it all at once, I'm not doing my job," says arena director Buddy Hirsig.
It's rodeo in the MTV era.
Despite all the modern trappings, the old-time traditions are what people want to see -- not just this year, but every year.
"Deep inside, everyone really wants to be a cowpoke," Kelly concludes. "We want to be rugged individuals; we want to think we can conquer the elements, stand on our own two feet, still be triumphant. We all still want to be a cowboy."
Or be pretty darn close to one.