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On the trail

by Candy Moulton
Encampment, Wyo.

I had a real good line in mind to start this column about the recent Heber City Cowboy Poetry Gathering & Buckaroo Fair, but then Gary McMahan, a Fort Collins musician, yodeler, poetry, storyteller, etc., told me I could not use it because it would ruin his next show.

So, I promised him I wouldn’t, but I’m gonna keep it in the back of my mind for someday when I think the time is just plain right, and then, like a yodel all bound up inside you (as he is known to say), I’m just gonna let it go!

Tom Whitaker, ramrod of the Heber City Gathering, said shortly after he and a few friends organized their first cowboy poetry show 13 years ago, he asked Waddie Mitchell for some advice on holding such gatherings. Waddie told him to have more going on than people could take in, and boy howdy, has Tom taken that advice to heart.

The Heber City Gathering, held each November in the week right before Veterans Day (so it overlaps the holiday), has so many activities, so many entertainers, that it is nigh onto impossible to enjoy every bit of it … but that just keeps you wanting to return another year to see something ” or someone ” you might have missed in the current year.

True to their roots, the Heber City Gathering organizers start every gathering right where the event itself began, in the town hall in Midway. This community, settled by Swiss immigrants, has a large stone town hall, built, some longtime residents told me, by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It looks like a basketball court with a stage, and the floor was filled with tables and chairs for the first event of the 2007 Heber City Gathering: a steak or chicken dinner grilled over a fire outside followed by a show that featured a few warm-up acts: my husband Steve started the music event, followed by Adrian Brennan, a 15-year-old cowgirl singer from California; Brooke Turner, a musician from Iowa; and Root Beer Reunion, a couple of very talented brothers from Utah.

The stage show then continued with Gary McMahan singing his most well-known song, “The Old Double Diamond,” one, he said, that had left home and brought back some money; plus more music by Curly Musgrave and Belinda Gail, poetry by Waddie Mitchell, and songs by the 2006 Western Music Association Entertainer of the Year, Dave Stamey. Wow! What a way to start a great event.

Steve’s great-great grandparents and their children settled in the Heber Valley in 1860. Although some of the family members stayed in Heber ” and their descendants still live in the community ” Steve’s great-grandfather left the valley after marrying there and went on to settle in Idaho. Eventually Steve’s grandfather moved on into Jackson Hole, Wyoming. On Wednesday afternoon Steve and I decided to visit some of his relatives, so we headed over to the Heber City Cemetery, where after a bit of walking around, we found names we recognized on the tombstones. We never did find his great-grandparents’ gravesites, so we will try to get more information from family members and perhaps return one day.

That evening we joined a large crowd at the Wasatch Events Center for a Horse Extravaganza, which featured a number of equestrian acts, more music by Belinda and Curley, Root Beer Reunion, Dave Stamey, and poetry by Waddie. There was a fine wagon driving demonstration ” with Skinner Collins handling the lines ” plus some fine horsemanship by the men and women of the extravaganza.

On Thursday we boarded the Heber City Railroad ” called the Heber Creeper by locals ” for a three hour train ride that passed quickly because a steady mix of entertainers trooped into each train car and shared their stories, songs, and poetry. From the train we went to the Wasatch High School in Heber City, where most of the remaining activities took place including six concerts featuring such performers as Sons of the San Joaquin, Michael Martin Murphey and the Utah Valley State University Symphony Orchestra, the Bar J Wranglers out of Jackson Hole, and Riders in the Sky, who began their 30th Anniversary Tour with the show in Heber City. One highlight was the opportunity to meet and visit with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. He was on hand throughout the event and liked to spin stories of his days, well, ramblin’.

Cowboy Poets Baxter Black, Chris Isaacs, Yvonne Hollenbeck, Kent Rollins, and many more kept the crowd laughing, once in a while throwing in a “serious” poem that made you stop and think about life, family, or country. Out in front of the school, a half dozen mountain man traders set up camp where you could watch a blacksmith at his trade, visit with modern day buckskinners, or buy trade goods (I got a new pair of striped socks I’d been wanting for use on my next wagon train adventure),

I wrote in this column a few weeks before this gathering that I had looked forward to attending this year since the time I first went to the Heber City Gathering in 2006. Having now attended the entire week of activities, I can only say it is bigger and better than I anticipated.

For Steve and me, the finale of our time in the Heber Valley was a very delicious brunch at the Blue Boar Inn in Midway, a place I highly recommend for a stay or a meal if you find yourself in the Heber Valley. The company wasn’t bad either: Innkeeper Jay Niederhauser, his delightful 16-year-old granddaughter, Bailey; Waddie Mitchell, Jim Hicks, and Gary McMahan.


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