The Hitch was the site for the first Wyoming Bookfest on Oct. 26-27, 2001. We remember that fall for the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the anthrax attacks on Congress. Then came the invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. forces. Smoke was in the air everywhere that year.
Meanwhile, in Cheyenne, a handful of writers and booklovers were organizing what we hoped would become an annual tradition.
If I remember correctly (and I don’t always) the idea started with a meeting of local writers Chip Carlson and Larry Brown with Gene Bryan, who then was in charge of events at the Best Western Hitching Post Inn Resort and Conference Center, a.k.a. “The Hitch.” That’s pretty much what everyone called it, then and now.
We also had a guest speaker that evening in U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi. Sen. Enzi and his staff no longer had access to their offices in D.C. due to the anthrax attacks. So he brought a batch of staffers with him to Cheyenne. He spoke about the recent happenings in the capital, but then launched into one of his favorite subjects – books. He’s a big reader – I’ve watched him buy bags full of books from appreciative Wyoming writers.
Sen. Enzi also was in town for a very somber event. This was the funeral of one of the first American soldiers killed in Afghanistan. U.S. Army Spec. Jonn Edmunds of Cheyenne was on a helicopter ferrying troops to the war zone when it crashed Oct. 19 in Pakistan. All aboard were killed.
Thousands attended the Saturday funeral. We had hoped for thousands that day at the bookfest, but fell a bit short. It wasn’t for lack of trying. We had fantastic sessions on writing cookbooks, westerns, mysteries and poetry in rooms scattered throughout The Hitch. We had some of the best anthology editors in Wyoming – Nancy Curtis, Candy Moulton and Bill Hoagland -- talking about “Editing Western Anthologies.” Local writer C.J. Box, who’s now published more than a dozen mysteries and won the prestigious Edgar Award, talked about “Whodunits on the High Plains.” I was on a panel with writers Teresa Funke and Jeffe Kennedy talking about “Starting (and Maintaining) Your Writing Critique Group.” My group is still intact, as is Teresa’s. Jeffe’s group in Laramie is defunct – and she now lives in Santa Fe.
On the Children’s Stage in the now-destroyed Saddleback Lounge, my son and his pals at East High staged an open mike. It also saw performances by Aussie storyteller Paul Taylor and the Cheyenne Youth Symphony.
We were exhausted by the end of the day. In the ensuing weeks, we went over all the evaluations. Most negative comments were about lack of attendance and lack of book sales. Lots of people had lots of ideas about how to make it better. More publicity. More big-name authors. Bigger book fair. Get more people to do the work. Involve more local organizations and business.
Here’s one comment I liked: “A number of authors travel a great distance to attend — at last give them a sandwich for lunch.”
You want mayo or mustard with that?
Here’s a great comment from C.J. Box: “The bookfest shouldn’t be all things to all people… While musical performances and wood art may bring in some folks, the bookfest should be about books and authors.”
A few months after the bookfest, the committee met for a brainstorming session. We stormed our brains out. We all wanted to have another bookfest, but there wasn’t enough interest to form a solid committee to write grants, enlist sponsors and plan the myriad bookfest details. Not right away, anyway.
It was five years before there was another book festival. This one was a true statewide book event, the Equality State Book Festival in Casper. It was six years before there was another bookfest in Cheyenne, and that was the Wyoming Book Festival in locales throughout downtown Cheyenne. It continues to be a project of the Wyoming Center for the Book at the Wyoming State Library.
Planning for the first ESBF began in late 2004. It involved a very motivated and dependable planning committee. A big budget too – more than $100,000. Lots of sponsoring organizations in Casper and throughout Wyoming.
The third ESBF will be held Sept. 24-25 at Casper College and environs. I’m on the committee but the real work is done by the Casper organizers, notably co-chairs Laurie Lye and Holly Wendt of Casper College.