In Denver, They Have 50 Words for Snow: It Happened at AHA17
Allison Miller | Photographs by Marc Monaghan, February 2017
As snow accumulated on the streets of downtown Denver on the first Wednesday of 2017, the hard-nosed social media beat reporters at Channel 9 news noticed #AHA17 trending on Twitter. Clicking the hashtag revealed (in their words and their all caps) TWITTER HILARITY! “What happens when super smart history buffs land in a new city and it snows?” ran the web version of the story. Historians set to attend the AHA annual meeting got called out for not knowing what to pack, for wanting to preserve the sheen of their dress shoes while getting to interviews, and for being torn between using hair goo and wearing a sensible hat. (For the record, the last was me. I opted for the sensible hat option, although it later occurred to me that bringing hair goo to the Colorado Convention Center and applying it there might have kept our photographer from asking, “Do you want your hair sticking up like that?” as we were taking staff headshots.)
Yes, it snowed. Local intelligence had assured the AHA’s annual meeting planners that January in Denver is not snowy but clear and, because of the dry air, not particularly frigid. We even published an upbeat article about the weather in the months leading to Wednesday, January 4. As dawn broke on Thursday the 5th, historians who were unable to detect any actual sidewalk underfoot assured themselves that the rock salt was on its way. But as darkness fell, the snowpack on the roads downtown and branching outward was such that a taxi driver told two historians and an editor heading to dinner, “Oh, we’re used to driving in this,” then immediately fishtailed.
For two days, the snow obscured the purple mountain majesties above the convention center, though there was much else to recommend the place, notably the outlet situation. Taking stock on Wednesday morning, I observed outlet upon outlet and thought, Gee, what hospitality! No one will complain that they couldn’t find a place to recharge their devices. Later, however, I ran into Pat Manning, then serving his last hours as AHA president, who was also doing a self-guided tour. “This place is big, and I think it will be confusing for people,” he said, to which I almost replied, but this is all made up for by he fact that we could schedule more sessions than usual, which our affiliates liked, and also, the outlet situation is legit! Pat was prescient, though. I might not have been the only historian who was directionally challenged. Despite advising attendees to bring comfortable shoes, the AHA fielded objections about the convention center’s size and defiance of the norms of organization laid down by major-city hotels. Consequently, the Hyatt Regency lobby bar across 14th Street would become choked with telltale AHA17 name badges at most hours.
On Thursday the 5th, the streets of downtown Denver were to host the annual National Western Stock Show Parade. Sadly, it was canceled on Tuesday, due to the incipient snow. This was an event about which some members of the AHA publications department were absurdly excited. Perhaps because street closures near AHA headquarters in Washington, DC, often involve motorcades or protesters, the idea that spangled and sueded cowboys, cowgirls, farm and ranch implements, and all manner of cattle would take over a wide city street fired our imaginations. Disappointed though we were, better to protect animals, nonhuman and human.
Undeterred, I called the historian/archivist of the National Western Stock Show, Keith Fessenden, who patiently answered my history-nerd questions about the parade, the organization, and his job. Stock shows took shape in the late 19th century. “They would have conventions of stockmen, foresters, sheepmen, who would get together in January, which is the slowest time of year for stock,” Fessenden said. The railroads and packinghouses nurtured these conventions, and the first National Western Stock Show finally coalesced in 1906.
“The first year, we had four breeds of cattle,” said Fessenden. “Some years we’ve had as many as 23”: not just the beautiful Longhorn of western legend, but sturdy Angus and Hereford, chic Japanese Wagyu, and many more. There are also llamas, alpacas, sheep, hogs, yak, and bison. Stock are sold by “carload,” representing a single railroad car, and within the carload all stock fit the same standard. There are also horse shows and rodeos over the two weeks, including the Colorado Versus the World Rodeo, the Mexican Rodeo Extravaganza, and the Martin Luther King Jr. African American Heritage Rodeo. I asked about bull riding. Yes, said Fessenden, the PBR (Professional Bull Riders) had an event. Did you ever do that? I asked, maybe a little too breathlessly. “I did it once,” he began. “You have to be built right, short and wiry, and that’s not me.”
Fessenden and I said goodbye inviting each other to our respective events, since we were both historians. I wished very much that he could come, so I spun tales of stalls upon stalls of books, trying to make it sound as lively as the cattle dog competition he’d described to me, probably failing. As far as I know, he didn’t make it.
Cattle or no cattle, Thursday was time for business. I’d been asked by the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History (CLGBTH, an AHA affiliate) to speak on a panel about “the job market” (which mostly dealt specifically with the academic job market). The panelists advised job seekers to be themselves, no matter how queer they seemed. And no one urged them to take an academic job wherever they found one. With nonacademic careers becoming less taboo among new PhDs, “go anywhere” isn’t necessarily viable advice, especially for queer and/or minority historians. You have more agency than you think, I tried to say, but found my mouth dry because of Denver’s altitude. Next to the podium, panelist Amy Sueyoshi, in from San Francisco State, slyly poured some water into a plastic cup and pushed it over to me, a gesture worthy of the type called Head Dyke in Charge. (For the uninitiated, this is a term of immense prestige.)
Outside, the big blue bear sculpture kept up its window-pawing vigil. The clouds parted Friday to reveal the Rocky Mountains in lush actuality beneath clear skies in a wispy shade of blue. If you took the escalator to the Exhibit Hall and kept walking, then looked upward and to the left just before you hit the back of the RV show and the boat show, you would have been shocked by the light, growing warm on your face, framing topography that in fact takes at least an hour to drive to, despite looming in plain view.
A great deal of annual meeting personal energy is expended just keeping your bearings. Getting to at least one session in every time slot is pretty much a newbie ambition. Many meetings ago, I overheard two pros in the Exhibit Hall: “I’ve got to run. I’m going to a panel.” “A panel? Why?” That lesson in tenured coolness got silently filed away for future use. But you don’t hear that kind of comment as much today. If it’s now hip to go to sessions, it could be because reading from prepared papers has slipped from absolute normativity, with newer session formats encouraging discussion.
Nonetheless, I doubt I’m the only one who adds every research session that looks exciting to my calendar, thinking I might duck in and out of two or three but end up planted in one, geeking out on things I know nothing about, things that are wildly outside of modern US history. During the second time slot on Friday, I slipped into a hushed room to hear scholars talk about the Russian Revolution, definitely a historical thing I know nothing about (except I think I saw Reds once). The papers I heard focused on revolutionary peregrinations, tracing individual characters before and after 1917 as they spread revolution, or at least tried. There was only so much official diplomacy you could do with Soviet credentials in 1918, as one presenter noted.
By Saturday, historians had grown perkier and were determinedly crossing 14th Street from convention center to Hyatt and back without hats. Also by Saturday, social media posts originating in states of dubious sobriety had cropped up. The AHA might bear some responsibility for this, as we run an annual cocktail-naming contest. The winners this year were the Absinthe-Minded Professor (at the Sheraton) and the Martini Luther (at the Hyatt; much love to the Reformation quincentennial).
Indeed, as the days passed in Denver, historians’ moods seemed to get lighter. I would like to report observing two people (purposely?) without name badges but whose mien (eyeglasses, cardigans) nailed them as historians, struggling to open a childproof carapace holding a marijuana cookie, right there in the Hyatt lounge area. I also heard about a historian who was presented with some chocolate by a friend right after a high-stakes interview; this historian got halfway through listening to a weighty research panel when everything started to get interesting and relaxing. If this happened to other historians, perhaps someday we can expect to name a new interpretive school of history: Post-Denver Decadentism.
The necessary powering down and resetting after an AHA annual meeting can be elusive. Many historians have to scramble straight into the semester, no time even to huff the ecstatic woodsy scent of all the new books. Unpack? If it’s not done immediately, it could sit out till spring break. Same with the follow-up e-mails to new contacts represented by business cards. Some of us will wait for interview callbacks, a slow torture that lasts a week or more. But there was something about the AHA’s first trip to Denver. The annual meeting is historians’ homecoming weekend—but only the nerds are allowed, there’s no big football game to get messy over, and there are workshops for teachers, not those who ridicule them. The more often you go, the more you belong.
Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives on History. She tweets @Cliopticon.
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