Mustaches and Hats: An Elko Journal, Part I

Out West (Pixabay)

In mid-afternoon, I’m driving from Salt Lake City to Elko — Elko, Nev., about three and a half hours away. That’s the official distance, anyway. If you bust it, it’s faster, of course.

I’m following the sun, headed west. I think of a movie title: “Follow the Sun.” That was a bio-pic about Ben Hogan (the golfer), starring Glenn Ford. The year was 1951. I also like that I’m gaining time: When you cross from Utah into Nevada, you’re crossing from Mountain time into Pacific.

A nice way to go.

• I stop in West Wendover, which adjoins Wendover. Wendover is in Utah; West Wendover is in you-know-where. I need me a jamocha shake, of course, at Arby’s. The Arby’s here is attached to a casino, smoky. Dozens of people are pulling the slots, or whatever the term is, in zombie-like fashion.

I have two thoughts, neither one of which is popular (as though I cared): (1) International bankers who attend fancy parties are not responsible for what these people are doing, no matter what the populists say. (2) The world would be better off if every casino simply … disappeared. They are destroyers of souls, families, and lives.

End of sermon (for now).

This evening, you can’t spoil my mood for long — because I’m a guy on the open road, in the desert West, heading into the sunset with his jamocha shake (large) (very large). Have you ever heard of anything more American?

And the natural environment reminds me of a James Taylor lyric: “… the stars, they put on a show for free.”

• I’m headed for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, an annual event in Elko. Many years ago, a reader suggested I attend and write about it. In fact, I think more than one did. I’ve always borne it in mind. And I’m grateful for those readers.

The Gathering began in 1985. “The first year, it was just people from Elko,” says an old-timer. “The second year, it was Elko County. Then Baxter Black went on Johnny Carson to say a poem.” (Black is one of the better-known cowboy poets.) “Then the whole thing went international. People started coming from all over.”

I don’t know that this account is true, but I view it as lore — and lore is natural in the West.

• In 2011, the Gathering experienced a little notoriety. Nevada’s Harry Reid, then the Senate majority leader, said that the thing would be killed off if some proposed budget cuts went through. This wasn’t true, but it drew attention to the Gathering, and not necessarily kind attention: Cowboy poetry? And it receives federal funding? (Just a little — couch change — but yes.)

• Let me just say: There is so much damn space in America. Especially here in the West. You can drive hours and hours and not see any habitation. How many European countries would you go through during the same period of time? Elko, Nev., is not a hop, skip, and a jump from anywhere. You’ve got to work to get here.

Three hours, ish, from Salt Lake, as you know. Four hours from Reno. And six and a half hours from Las Vegas.

• “Welcome to Elko,” says a sign, “Gateway to the Rockies.” No, no. As I get closer, I see that it says “Gateway to the Rubies” — the Ruby Mountains, the main range, I take it, here in northeastern Nevada.

• Poems are hung all over the hotel — in the hallways, and even on trees: Christmas-like trees, on which the poems are like ornaments. Hanging from a light fixture in my hallway is a religious poem. Hey, is that legal?

It’s called “The Cowboy and the Cross”:

I was once an old cowboy ridin’ down the wrong trails
When I gazed upon a wooden cross with a crown of thorns and nails.
I asked an old cowpoke who was kneeling down to pray,
“Why are you kneeling by this old dead tree on such a pretty day?”

And so forth.

• The reciting of poetry starts early in this town. At least it does this week, at this hotel. Breakfast starts early too: 4 o’clock. What the …? “Mining town,” a friendly lady behind the reception desk explains. Elko does gold mining, in particular. And the mining community gets an early jump on the day, I understand. “My son-in-law is a miner,” the friendly lady says — “but he never brings me any gold.”

Breakfast is from 4 to 9. By the time I arrive on the scene — 7:30 — the poetry is well under way. A kind of hostess presides. “Who else would like to recite a poem?” she says. Guests can recite their own or someone else’s. One woman, who has come with her mother, recites a poem by Waddie Mitchell, a native of Elko. It’s called “The Whole Load,” and it’s about a preacher and his flock (a flock of one, on the Sunday morning in question).

Like a lot of cowboy poetry, “The Whole Load” is both corny and wise. Touching, too. And the hotel guest reads it well.

• There is singing, too. A man has been brought in to sing cowboy songs, accompanied by some electronic equipment. I’m not exactly sure how these things work, or what they are — but they work. The singer is a seasoned gent, doing what he can to entertain the breakfasters at this early hour (or early to me).

• The hostess herself does some reading — she reads “Cowboy Words of Wisdom.” Here’s a sample: “Never kick a fresh turd on a hot day.” Here’s a second, less earthy sample: “The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it back in your pocket.” This ought to be remembered, says the hostess, when you’re at the casino.

• Among us in the breakfast room are a brother and sister, maybe 15 and 16 years old. They are decked out in perfect cowboy-wear: an ensemble of denim, topped off by a hat. A pink cellphone is sticking out of the cowgirl’s back pocket, which adds a nice modern touch.

• The activity in the breakfast room is not an official part of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, but that’s the thing: The whole town gets into the spirit of the Gathering. There are events official and unofficial, planned and unplanned. All Elko has the poetry bug this week — and other weeks, to a degree: There is some poetry etched into the very sidewalks.

Way on the outskirts of town, near the airport, I look down and see the following on the sidewalk:

We have a whole lot of work to do.
There’ll be some calf-roping before we’re through.
Better than ice cream or candy kisses
I catch the calves that Grampa misses.

That’s by M. H. Porter, of Elko.

• Airport? Yes. Elko is a town of about 18,000, but they have an airport, which gets the job done, or some jobs.

• Something like 5,000 people attend the poetry gathering every year. And there are more than 300 volunteers. People return to Elko, year after year. This includes the mother and daughter in the breakfast room. There’s a “same time, next year” feeling at the Gathering. It’s like Old Home Week, as people renew acquaintances.

Incidentally, someone says to me, “See that man with the mustache and the cowboy hat?” That does not exactly narrow it down. Everyone has a mustache and a cowboy hat. (Not the women, usually — though many of them have the hat.) I have a cynical thought: “a bunch of rugged individualists who all look, talk, and act alike.”

But (a) it isn’t true and (b) Elko is no place for cynicism, but rather for happiness and enjoyment.

• The Gathering is “six days of poetry, music, dancing, workshops, exhibits, conversations, food and fellowship, rooted in tradition but focused on today’s rural West.” That’s according to official literature. Let’s do some of these things together, as this journal continues. See you tomorrow?

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