By Stephen Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Associate Editor
I had so much fun on my trip to Elko County, Nevada, I don’t know where to begin. I guess you’d have to say the most striking thing is the scenery.
In New England, where I’m from, you can hardly see the next farm over. Out there in the “high desert”, as that part of the country is known, you can see what the weather’s like in the next county — and the counties are bigger than all the New England states put together.
The sweeping expanses of prairie and the majestic mountain ranges are truly breathtaking in their own right, as they must have been to the first vaqueros who made their way there from California, but they are all the more soul-stirring because you feel like you’ve seen them before — and you probably have, as a kid, in the movies or on television.
These vast stretches of wide open country, and the majestic Ruby Mountains, make Elko County an ideal place for all kinds of outdoor recreation: hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, rock climbing, four-wheeling and, naturally, horseback riding.
Ghost Towns and Wildlife
You can take ranch and wildlife tours to see the ghost towns, the scenery and the wildlife — bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and, of course, the deer and the antelope.
Or you can take a full-fledged ranch vacation at a working cattle ranch. Ranching vacations got popularized by the 1991 move “City Slickers” and lots of tenderfeet like to come stay at a ranch and learn to ride and rope.
I stayed at the 71 Ranch, a 38,000-acre spread about half an hour outside of Elko, run by Greg and Maleia Titus. I got a chance to learn all about the cattle business, toured the ranch and saw a roping demonstration, but the most fun of all was riding the range with Greg, a real-life cowboy.
I also took a trip up through Lamoille Canyon into the Ruby Mountains with Tom Lester of the Elko Convention and Visitors Authority. There are endless miles of beautiful hiking trails and Tom says the fishing is great — both lakes and streams.
The Big Event
There’s lots to do in downtown Elko, too. You can visit the exhibits at the Western Folklife Center and the Northeastern Nevada Museum, see a custom saddle being made at the J.M. Capriola Company or visit the historic Sherman Station Ranch House, now a visitors’ center.
You can also gamble at the casinos and even visit the red-light district if you’ve a mind to.
There’s a big balloon festival, and a Basque festival and a rodeo and lots of events for cars and motorcycles and ATVs and snowmobiles (see this site), but the big event in Elko is the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which is celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2009.
The event is held in late January in venues around town by the Western Folklife Center with the help of 400 local volunteers and draws more than 8,000 visitors every year with more than 5,000 students participating in related programs.
The enormous success of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was a big surprise to a lot of people because it doesn’t really fit in with the Hollywood stereotype of the hard-boiled taciturn cowboy. But right from the very beginning the event struck a nerve with cowboys all over the West and people all over the world.
Everybody knows that inside every Eastern liberal arugula-chompin’, NPR-listenin’ elitist there’s a little kid who wants to ride and rope and cuss and spit like a real-life cowboy.
Turns out, inside every real-life cowboy there’s a poet — a real syllable-countin’, rhyme-scheme selectin’, share-your-true-feelings poet. Who’d ‘a thunk it.
The history of the Gathering is a remarkable story of cooperation between folklorists and cowboys.
A group of folk arts directors from the West, including Jim Griffith and Hal Cannon, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and several Western states, did years of field work searching out cowboy poets and figuring out the details of an event that would truly represent real-life cowboys.
Many cowboys didn’t want to go to a resort or a big city, so they chose Elko, then a town and a ranching center. They decided to hold it in January when ranchers can afford to take some time off.
A Spectacular Success
The first event was held in 1985 and about a thousand people attended, far more than they’d expected. The event was a spectacular success right from the get-go.
Hal Cannon, founding director of the Western Folklife Center recalls that first gathering:
“I remember a group of old cowboys sitting nervously on stage for a session called, ‘Good Horses and Bad Rides.’ Each cowboy got up in turn, his knees shaking, and fought the tears as he recited a personal poem about the loss of a favorite horse.
“The particulars of each poem were different, but they all came out of a shared loss. None of them knew each other, and each one was a tough old guy who didn’t succumb to emotion easily. Each man thought he was the only one who had been compelled to write such a poem and as the cumulative effect of this shared experience began to build, you could tell that these people had found an artistic community — something they would never have thought to imagine before that moment. It was thrilling to watch.”
The Gathering was a big hit with ranch families, but an even bigger hit with the national press. It was covered by CBS News, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, People Magazine and many other news organizations.
Then Johnny Carson invited several cowboy poets to be on the immensely popular Tonight Show, and the rest, as they say, is history. Hundreds of similar gatherings are now held throughout the West, and the Gathering, known to many simply as ‘Elko’ has become a part of life for thousands of ranching families.
Besides the poetry and the music, it provides a great chance to socialize for people who are spread pretty thin over thousands of acres. Cannon says he knows quite a few young men named Ian after Ian Tyson, who played with his band at the first Gathering 25 years ago.
The Silver Anniversary
The 2009 silver anniversary was the best yet with 53 poets and 24 musicians and musical groups, including 15 poets who appeared at the first Gathering in 1985, among them Baxter Black, former large animal veterinarian and legendary cowboy poet, whose commentaries are featured on National Public Radio.
I got a chance to meet him at the Western Folklife Center — a tall rangy feller with a bushy mustache and a twinkle in his eye that tells you he’s going to say something really funny, and he is!
He has a wry take on the cowboy mentality, which he says is like a guy who says, “I’ll bet you can’t hit my hand before I take it away,” and then holds his hand in front of his face.
He says he has two kinds of audiences, generic and ‘cowy,’ and with the cowy audiences he doesn’t have to explain the jokes about oysters, and there’s a lot more blood and snot.
I saw his sold-out show at the Elko Convention Center, and you don’t get more cowy than Elko, so we got the real show, complete with prolapsed uteri and exploding methane gas.
One story is about venting a cow that’s bloating up with gas, where the guy’s partner lights a match so he can see… You get the idea. The next line is “By the light of my hat…”
The legendary Ian Tyson also performed, as well as the grammy-winning quartet Riders in the Sky. Nine-time grammy winners Asleep at the Wheel starred in a musical about the life of Western Swing legend Bob Wills.
Retired US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has written a memoir about growing up on a ranch in Arizona, delivered the keynote address.
The event also included exhibits of Western art and gear, films, lectures, panels, and workshops on gearmaking, music, dance, family history, horsemanship, writing, cooking and a wide range of other subjects.
If you’re going to the Gathering, it’s a good idea to book your hotel well in advance. There are a lot of hotels in town, but they fill up quickly. The Mission
While the Cowboy Poetry Gathering is probably the most well-known program at the Western Folklife Center, the organization has lots of year-round programs for recording and celebrating cowboy culture, or, more precisely, the Buckaroo way of life. The word derives from the Mexican vaqueros who first brought cattle to the region.
In its headquarters in the restored Pioneer Hotel, the Center has historical exhibits as well as contemporary programs to record the joys and vicissitudes of ranch life. They have a free jukebox with Western music and poetry, and a comfortable living room set-up where you can watch the videos made by ranching families with the help of the WFC.
For me the highlight was a documentary by Hal Cannon called “Why the Cowboy Sings.” It shows people talking about how much they love the land and their way of life and one another, and I thought it really captured the spirit of the West.
The Pioneer Hotel used to be where cowboys would congregate when they were looking for work (Now they use Craig’s List like everyone else) and the WFC has restored the beautiful historic saloon area and the G Three Bar Theater, which also serves as a dining room and is now used for community events, including Lord Krishna’s birthday celebration.
The WFC also has art exhibits, performances and educational programs for thousands of students in the area, including oral history projects like Voices of Youth. They also produce programming about the West for radio and television.
Want to Go?
Elko is located on Route 80, 230 miles west of Salt Lake City, 290 miles east of Reno and 255 miles south of Boise.
You can get a connecting flight to Elko from Salt Lake City.
The area is also served by Greyhound and Amtrak, but be advised the train stops in the middle of the night and there’s no station.
If you want tickets to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, it’s a good idea to get them well ahead of time. The same goes for hotel reservations.