Home of the Basque: An Elko Journal, Part II

The Watchful Shepherd in downtown Elko (Jay Nordlinger)

Editor’s Note: In the last week of January, Jay Nordlinger attended the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev. His journal began yesterday, here.

I’m walking down Main Street, which, here in Elko, is Idaho Street. A man tips his hat to me and says “Welcome.”

Well, I never.

• Earlier, I was quoting some official literature — which said the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is “six days of poetry, music, dancing, workshops, exhibits, conversations, food and fellowship, rooted in tradition but focused on today’s rural West.” One of the workshops takes place in a Presbyterian church — whose office has a sign in the window: “No Cash on Premises.”

I’m a little sad to see it. (Not that I want any cash — but that such a sign is, evidently, necessary.)

• The workshop is Street Tacos, brought to us by Valentina Ortiz. Did I say the activity is in the church’s kitchen? It is, in case that was a bit confusing. Valentina Ortiz is as attractive as her name. In addition to being a cook, she is the director of the Elko Mexican Ballet Folklorico. It seems to me she is a natural instructor.

One of the things she teaches her students in the workshop is how to judge the hotness of a jalapeño — without tasting it, that is. You go by smell. The nose knows (or at least hers does).

• As I’ve mentioned, the poetry gathering is a production of the Western Folklife Center. They are housed in Elko’s old Pioneer Building, which is kept in very handsome shape. It has a theater (two, actually), an exhibition gallery, offices, a gift shop — and a saloon. One thing about this saloon: no smoke. That makes it a little inauthentic, maybe, but pleasant, too.

Most of the men in the saloon — at any given time — are wearing a cowboy hat. Question: Are they cowboys or just hat-wearers? There is a mixture, is my impression.

Incidentally, there are many ways to say “cowboy”: I hear “cattleman,” “cowman,” “cowpoke,” and probably more, if I thought about it. Also, I hear “cowboy” as a verb: “to cowboy.” “I cowboyed for about 15 years and then went into driving truck.”

That is an American locution: “to drive truck.” I heard it way back, in Michigan, where I grew up: “What’s your dad do? Work over to Ford’s?” “No, he drives truck.” Here in Elko, I hear a phrase that’s new to me: “to fix fence.” “… whether it’s ropin’ steers, brandin’ calves, fixin’ fence, or what have you.”

• On the walls of the Pioneer Building, photos by Elko High students are displayed. I look at the names of the student photographers — and they are really an American stew: Holly Lindskog, Germaine Acacio, Radhika Bhatka, Andrea Rodriguez, Phoebe Fagaoga, Jacob Kath, Pantera Kivisto, Brooklyn Bogue, Hank Tabor …

What a country, huh? (Yes.)

• The name “Tabor” makes my ears prick. I know we’re in gold-mining country — but Nevada is the Silver State. And who was the Silver King? Horace Tabor — who is immortalized in The Ballad of Baby Doe, the opera by Douglas Moore. One of the highlights of this opera is the Silver Aria. Not far away from the Pioneer Building, and the photo exhibition, is Silver Street.

Anyway, I wonder if Hank Tabor is a descendant …

• You will want to visit the shop of J. M. Capriola, when you come here — two floors. They have been making saddles since 1929. The store smells really good, with all that leather. You can get a lot more than saddles, of course: spurs, lassos, blankets — whatever your needs may be.

• You got casinos and whorehouses and all that nasty stuff. One of the whorehouses is Inez’s Dancing & Diddling. Well, you have to credit Inez with straightforward advertising, if nothing else.

One of the casinos advertises “Free Pie” and “Free ATM.” Well, isn’t that special? When you give ’em your money, you can eat their pie, and when you’re out of money, you can use the ATM, at no extra charge, until there ain’t no mo’ …

• In Elko, you have First Street, Second Street, and so on. You also have streets named after trees. From a bit of a distance, the sign for “Fir St.” makes you think of “First” …

• Stay, if you want, in the Stampede Motel. Have you ever heard a better motel name, in the American West?

• There is a stew of ethnic restaurants in Elko. (We used to say “ethnic.”) At the Blue Moon, you can get all-you-can-eat sushi. Sticking with the Far East, you can try Chef Cheng’s Chinese. How about something Cornish? Pasties. As the sign says, they are “The Original Portable Mining Food.” (People know about them in northern Michigan.)

Also, you have Basque restaurants — yes, plural. Nevada is where Basque sheepherders came. Among them were Paul Laxalt’s parents. I think of the late governor and senator — and friend of Ronald Reagan — while I’m here.

A quick linguistic aside: Lots of Basque people have an “x” in their name.

One restaurant is Toki Ona. I’m told the name means “Great Place.” Then there is the legendary Star Hotel. A local tells me it was named the best restaurant in all of Nevada — including Las Vegas, Reno, and everything. Pretty Basque girls are still waitresses at the Star. And it’s kind of a thrill, for me, to hear Basque spoken by two old men, having lunch. I did not expect to hear that.

Speaking of lunch — mine: big salad; buttery, delicious ham sandwich, with green chilis; French fries; pistachio ice cream — $15.

The semi-acceptable salad I habitually have at lunch, in Midtown Manhattan, is about that.

I return to the Star, with a friend, for a steak dinner, more or less — which is delicious, generous, and (I realize this is a relative thing) cheap.

• The local who was praising the Star to me? I ask him, “Where’s the best chili in town?” He says, “Honestly? Wendy’s. I think they have great chili.” I believe him.

• In a park, along Idaho Street, is a statue called “Artzaina Zain,” or “The Watchful Shepherd” — a tribute to the Basque people. Here, want to see it?

• Next to the park is a museum — the Northeastern Nevada Museum. “It’s a hoot,” an Elkan has told me. Yes, and it’s a fine museum, too. Let me start with a sign out front — a sign in a flower garden (not that there are flowers this time of year). I just love this sign, for reasons I will explain:

You see and hear “Don’t Tread on Me” a lot. But the “Please” adds an interesting twist. Generally, “Please” and “Don’t Tread on Me” don’t go together. Also, the lack of a contraction: “Do Not,” rather than “Don’t.”

Anyway, the sign tickled me (as we’d say in the Midwest).

• Also out front is a cabin — a cabin that once served as the Ruby Valley Pony Express station:

• Inside the museum is a giraffe. Stuffed. Is it real? I don’t know and I ain’t touchin’ (not that touchin’ would help me know).

• Continuing on the subject of animals: There is an extensive wildlife wing, and I like how the animals are displayed. They aren’t all cuddly — they are tearing the hell out of each other. The museum is showing the ferocity of nature.

• There is a parlor — a replica of one — which amuses me. It has old-timey things in it: sofa, ottoman, piano, sheet music, etc. Why my amusement? Well, because I knew all this stuff — in my great-grandmothers’ homes, for example. And now they are in museums?

• With the firearm display, I am taken — mainly because of a note, accompanying the display: “It’s said that the gun won the West and perhaps that’s true. Guns were used for fighting, killing, hunting, protection, law enforcement, and crime. Times have not changed — firearms are still used for the same purposes.” True, true (and direct).

• Had enough? One more item, before I knock off and prepare Part III. The slogan of the state is “Battle Born” — because Nevada came out of the Civil War (admitted to the Union in 1864).

All right, we’ll have some poetry and some music tomorrow — plenty of it. Thanks and see you.

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