Poetry starts early in this town — at least this week. Breakfast starts early too: four o’clock. Why so early? “Mining town,” says a friendly lady at reception. Gold mining, in particular. And if you’re in the mining community, you get an early jump on the day. “My son-in-law’s a miner,” says the friendly lady — “but he never brings me any gold.”
Breakfast at this hotel is from four to nine. By the time I arrive on the scene — 7:30 — they are reciting poetry. A kind of hostess invites any and all guests to recite a poem. Either their own poem or someone else’s. One woman, who has come with her mother, recites a poem by Waddie Mitchell, a native of this town. It’s called “The Whole Load,” and it’s about a preacher and his flock — which, on the Sunday morning in question, is a flock of one. Like a lot of cowboy poetry, the poem is both corny and wise. And the woman reads it well.
The hostess herself reads “Cowboy Words of Wisdom.” Sample: “Never kick a fresh turd on a hot day.” 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.
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, adding 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 — Elko, Nev. — 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.
It started in 1985, the Gathering did, and it started humble. A local explains to me, “The first year, it was just people from Elko. 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.
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.” That’s according to official literature. The Gathering is a production of the Western Folklife Center, here in Elko. The center is housed in the old Pioneer Building, which is kept in handsome shape — and includes a saloon.
In 2011, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering experienced a little notoriety. Nevada’s Harry Reid, then the Senate majority leader, said that the Gathering 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, yes.)
Something like 5,000 people attend the Gathering every year. There are more than 300 volunteers. People return to Elko, year after year. This includes the mother and daughter in the breakfast room. The Gathering is like Old Home Week, as people renew acquaintances. Incidentally, someone says to me, “See that man with the mustache and the cowboy hat?” That doesn’t exactly narrow it down. Everyone has a mustache and a cowboy 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.
“Welcome to Elko,” says a sign at the edge of town, “Gateway to the Rubies.” They are a mountain range here in northeastern Nevada. Elko has a population of a little under 20,000. The town is a long way from . . . a lot of places. Six and a half hours from Las Vegas. Four hours from Reno. And a measly three hours and 15 minutes from Salt Lake City.
Elko is the home of J. M. Capriola, maker of custom saddles since 1929. The shop smells really good, with all that leather. Speaking of good smells, there is a variety of ethnic restaurants here. (We used to say “ethnic.”) The Blue Moon gives you all-you-can-eat sushi. Sticking with the Far East, you got Chef Cheng’s Chinese, too. Then there are Cornish pasties: “The Original Portable Mining Food,” says a sign.
Also, there are Basque restaurants — yes, more than one. 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. Lots of Basque people have an “x” in their name, by the way.
In addition to this delicious Basque food, you get casinos — “Free ATM” (imagine that) — and whorehouses. The latter include Inez’s Dancing & Diddling. You have to credit Inez, if for nothing else, with straightforward advertising.
You also get the Northeastern Nevada Museum. I like the firearm display — in particular, a note that accompanies it: “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.” Direct and true, like Inez’s advertising.
Music at the Gathering is as ubiquitous as the poetry. Actually, it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins. They are fused, in song. I have a question: Which comes first, the words or the music? It’s an old, old question, never finally answered. Salieri (of Amadeus fame) wrote an opera about it. So did Richard Strauss.
At the Elko Convention Center one night, there is a concert called “Western Jukebox.” Leading off is Gary McMahan, “King of the Cowboy Singers.” “Like horse manure,” he says, “I’ve been all over the West.” His big closing number is “Yodelin’ Man from Old Montan.” It’s a pleasure to hear. Cowboy singers do a lot of yodeling. I think I hear more yodeling over a couple of days in Elko than you hear over the course of a year in the Alps.
The official literature I quoted, above, mentioned “workshops” (in addition to poetry, music, etc.). One of them takes place in a Presbyterian church — in its kitchen. This is Street Tacos, with Valentina Ortiz. She’s an appetizing lady, as my grandmother would say — lovely to look at and listen to — and she does more than cook: She is the director of the Elko Mexican Ballet Folklorico. Here in this kitchen, she is clearly adept. One thing she teaches her students is how to judge the hotness of a jalapeño, without tasting it. You go by smell. The nose knows (or at least hers does).
Back in the convention center, there is an open-mic session, called “Anything Goes.” You don’t have to be a professional, or an invited performer. You can be just anybody. One old-timer says that the doctor told him to do something to keep his mind sharp. So he started writing poetry — and got it published. An even older-timer started writing his poetry in 1965. This was when his wife left him, taking their three children with her. There is plenty of pain in poems here, as elsewhere, and in life.
Cowboy poetry, in general, honors rhyme. This gives me satisfaction. Cowboy poetry also has its clichés, or conventions, to be more polite about it. For example, there are a lot of stares: hard stares, penetrating stares, cold stares, steely stares. Cowboys do a lot of starin’.
Another concert is called “Family Ties.” There’s a brother-sister act, a husband-and-wife act, a father-daughter act. Rob Quist sings with his daughter, Halladay. Rob happened to be the Democratic nominee for Congress in Montana two elections ago. (Montana has just one House seat.) He lost to the Republican, Greg Gianforte. Halladay is a tall drink o’ water, who plays a number of instruments and sings beautifully. There’s a touch of Peggy Lee about her.
I happen to meet her in a taco line. (Not made by Valentina, but very good.) “What’s that last instrument you were playing?” I ask her. “Electric upright bass,” she answers. “You and it kind of match,” I say. “Yes,” she laughs, “tall and slender.” “That’s such an enviable build. I wish I were tall and slender,” I say. Then she says — I swear, and she says it in all innocence — “You’re tall.”
In the Western Folklife Center, high-school students recite poetry — their own and others’. A girl named Masha is originally from Moscow — not Idaho but Russia. She recites a poem attributed to Elizabeth I. A Russian girl at a cowboy festival in northeastern Nevada channeling a 16th-century British monarch — only in America.
Later, the governor of Nevada is in the house. He is Steve Sisolak. His wife, Kathy, is also introduced — described as “the first Chinese-American first lady in American history.” They and the rest of us are treated to Sourdough Slim. “I’m glad to be here,” he says. “Of course, as an accordion-playing, yodeling cowboy in the 21st century, I’m glad to be anywhere.” He is quality entertainment.
I’m back in the breakfast room, on my last morning in town. “Does anyone have a poem?” asks the hostess. A young man speaks up: “I don’t have my hat with me, but I do have a poem.” Yes, you’re allowed to recite one without wearing a cowboy hat. “I’ll read a poem by a poet you probably all know here: Wild Bill Shakespeare. This is very brief — Sonnet 51.”
As I’ve said, people come back to this festival, this Gathering, year after year. I don’t blame them. I know just how they feel.