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Out West student blog

At home in the Rockies: Summer research fosters a student's deep connection to mountain poetry and storytelling in the West

Over the course of several Fridays during fall quarter, Bill Lane Center summer research assistants are gathering at our weekly American West Research Seminars to present about the projects they pursued in June, July, and August of 2023. Bethany Lorden, '26, shared her work on the poetry of the Rocky Mountains last Friday, October 27, offering an account of a "cowboy poetry gathering" she attended in southern Wyoming during the course of her research. Below are her reflections.

A student on a mountain bike with a helmet and sunglasses smiles at the camera with the mountains of Colorado in the background.
Bethany Lorden, Bill Lane Center research assistant , on a mountain bike ride in Colorado. 

Bethany Lorden(she/her)
Hometown: Highlands Ranch, CO
Area of study: Philosophy and Literature, ‘26
Research project: The Poetry of the Rockies

Bethany Lorden attends a cowboy poetry gathering in Wyoming as part of her research and writing project

In a little town in southern Wyoming, I was putting on my cowgirl hat and looking for a place to lay my picnic blanket when an old cowboy asked me, "So what will you be performing?" 

"Oh! A poem or two, I suppose." 

So I read my work from a wood stage to the hundred or so people at the gathering. They were welcoming, slow-speaking ranchers, coming from across Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, and Utah. That evening I listened for hours to their cowboy poetry and music (the line is thin between the two). Even when the open mic closed, the gathering was not over. Guitars, a banjo, a homemade washtub bass, and my harmonica gathered around a campfire that night. The whole next day, professional cowboy poets and songwriters told stories of generations barely scraping by on a ranch; of old cattle drives and good horses; of the dry autumns, cold nights, and the much prayed-for mid-summer monsoons. This poetry was earthy, funny, rhythmic, and deeply aware of its people and its place. Never had I seen a culture and lifestyle so wrapped up in storytelling, or stories so saturated with a love for the American West. 

I set out this summer to research poetry written about the Rocky Mountains, and to write my own. In Wyoming, I watched those ranchers recite how both their livelihood and love hung on the curtain of rain sweeping from the west. But I also read century-old poetry manuscripts from the Denver Central Library archives, and sat listening to the stories of a mountain woman on her front porch outside Salida, Colorado. I learned that what gives mountain poetry its substance is an idea or story tied to nature imagery by metaphor. The poems from the archives which only praised Longs Peak, for instance, were nearly indistinguishable from those which exclaimed about the mountains above Ouray. But think of a poem by Robert Frost, or a cowboy poem by Coloradan Terry Nash. These carry a sense of place because of their focus on stories, and because their metaphors root ideas to the land. 

These realizations, the stories picked up along the way, and a summer at home in the Rockies all mingled into my own poetry these past few months. I have learned to notice metaphors in the crisp streams, in the wild thunderstorms, and in the wind streaming through the prairie grass. I love hearing stories from anyone who will take the time, and this summer I took the time to listen. And, best of all, my childhood wonder returned. Not bad, for a research project.

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