and if smokin' don't take my breath
or a fallen horse crush me to death,
or cholest'rol don't plug my heart
i'll keep on rhymin' 'til i depart
—California rancher John Dofflemyer
IN A FEW HOURS THE ELKO, NEV., CONVENTION CENTER WILL echo with poetic images of the West—of horse-thief moons, canyon rimrock, of dusty trails over Texas Panhandle breaks. Right now, though, this mile-high Nevada town (pop. 32,000) has another natural phenomenon to ponder: the snow that has fallen, off and on, for two weeks, making a drive down Idaho Street dicier than a trip to the nearby casinos. The weather, of course, is all part of the admission price to this, the Twelfth Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
From its start in 1985, this yearly convention of bunkhouse bards has taken place in the chill of winter when working ranch hands can take time for a few days in town. Elko in February is nobody's idea of Honolulu, but the town's hotels have been booked solid for almost a year, and by week's end 8,000 visitors will be here to witness this cowboy-culture Woodstock.
They will have plenty to see: crusty rancher-poets like Wally McRae, 60, who has traveled down from Forsyth, Wyo., packing a collection of his rhymes; Canadian singer Ian Tyson, 62, who has left two weeks of 30-below temperatures at his Alberta ranch to perform his cowboy ballads; and ol' boy humorist Curt Brummett, 48, who will spin tall tales of life among the herds in New Mexico.
For the gathering's 150 cowboy participants, though, this yearly get-together means more than rhymes and recitations. Bound by a kinship born of the ranching lifestyle and shared notions of self-reliance, they have come to celebrate comradeship as much as anything else. "It's like we were all born in one tribe," says Texan Buck Ramsey, 58, a poet and cowboy-song archivist who has made the 18-hour drive from Amarillo with old pal Rooster Morris, 40. Adds veteran Nevada rancher Georgie Sicking, 74: "It's kind of like a family reunion, except we don't fight as much."
A cowboy poem's a photo
Of a life spent on the range,
With a philosophy on livin',
Citin' ethics, work and change
While latecomers look for parking places in the snow, inside the jammed convention center a score of Stetsons float like fishing bobbers over the crowd. On jackets worn by fans, embroidered legends suggest their own cowboy roots: "National Rodeo Finals 1964"; "Lemmon Livestock, Lemmon, S.D."; "Wallace Ranch—lone, Calif." In a room to one side, an open-mike reading is going on. Many of the poets here are first-timers who will get six minutes to speak their verses and—with luck—earn a formal invitation back next year and maybe even a turn onstage at the center's 900-seat auditorium.
Right now, though, R.C. Collard, 48, looks like a man who'd rather eat his boots than do what he's about to do: recite his first poem in public. Collard has punched cows for 35 years, and he has the weathered face and whiskey voice of a man who knows hard traveling. When his name is called, he walks stiffly up to the mike and quietly begins, putting into verse his life of hard dues and simple pleasures. There are pretenders here, cowboy wannabes who know the lingo but not the life. Collard is the real thing, and when he finishes, the audience applauds warmly. Later, someone asks if he was nervous up there behind the microphone. "Like a whore in church," he answers.
With all his rough edges, Collard stands at the contemporary end of a folk-art tradition dating back to the late 19th-century glory days of big ranches, big roundups and 900-mile cattle drives. Isolated from society and entertainment, ranch hands often used verse to embellish a story, tell a joke or, on rare trips into town, even to woo a pretty girl. "Hollywood never made it out that way. It just didn't fit the image they were trying to make of the cowboy, that he'd sit around tellin' stories in rhyme," says Waddie Mitchell, 45, an Elko native who quit school at 17 to start herding cattle. "I knew a lot of cowboys who did it. If I had seen it, I might have called it poetry. But because it was passed on orally, we never called it anything."
Then in 1985, armed with grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts, Utah-born folklorist Hal Cannon set up headquarters for the Western Folklife Center in Elko's old Pioneer Hotel and went to work flushing out homespun poets from the bunkhouses and ranches of the West. "Until that time, everybody else was telling the cowboy's story for him—filmmakers, folklorists, historians," says Cannon, 47. "We said, 'These are people who live on ranches, and they're telling their own story' That appealed to people."
In that first year, Elko lured 120 poets and 400 fans, many of them ranchers. This year, inspired by its success, 150 similar events will take place around the West, and in Elko out-of-town visitors will spend about $5 million on lodging, meals, concert tickets and souvenirs. "Elko has kind of strung the old-time telegraph lines between all these people who were living lives pretty much in isolation," says poet Paul Zarzyski, 45, a Wisconsin miner's son who came West to attend the University of Montana and ended up spending 12 years on the rodeo circuit. "There are people I consider very close friends that I never would have crossed trails with had it not been for Elko."
For some of Elko's early poets, the gatherings have had even greater impact on their lives. Colorado's Baxter Black, who was present at Elko's first poet roundup, now versifies regularly over National Public Radio. Waddie Mitchell, who helped set up folding chairs for the first gathering, spent 26 years in the saddle, nine of them on a ranch so remote that he visited town only four times a year.
A master at putting his wry wit and tongue-in-cheek yarns into verse, Mitchell quit cowboying three years ago to pursue poetry full-time. He has performed at New York City's swanky Rainbow Room, spun his rhymes on The Tonight Show and now spends almost 300 days a year on the road. Other poets, like Mitchell's boyhood friend Rod McQueary, 51, have also ridden their muse to unexpected places. McQueary grew up in a ranching family in the Ruby Valley near Elko and, after high school, shipped off to Vietnam with the Marines. When he returned, at 21, he carried psychic battle scars that left him haunted by recurring nightmares and a crippling sense of isolation.
Struggling to cope with his personal demons, McQueary began writing and sharing his thoughts in verse. "If you wrote something new, you might send it to four or five guys, and they'd tell you what they thought of it. It was kind of a writer's circle of pals," he says. In 1986 his first published poem—"about how bad the ranching business was"—appeared in the Cowboy Poetry Gathering program. Then, three years later, he met Colorado rancher Bill Jones, another troubled Vietnam vet. In 1993 the two distilled their wartime experiences into a stunning, poignant book of poems titled Blood Trails. Eventually, "the dreams stopped," says the soft-spoken McQueary, who is quick to credit "this circle of priceless friends"—the Elko poets—for his redemption.
Three years ago, McQueary also left the ranching life. He and his old friend Mitchell teamed up to write the screenplay for Cowboy Stories, a now-completed movie that they hope will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this spring. Meanwhile, McQueary continues writing poetry, authors a humor column for four Nevada newspapers and, with wife Sue Wallis, also a poet, runs an online merchandising Web site called the Cowboy Cattle-log.
Ironically, the cowboy merchandise most in demand these days may be their writing. At a time when poetry often seems to rank somewhere below tuba bands in the popular culture, it is thriving in the ranching subculture. Throughout the week, visitors flock to Hal Cannon's Folklife Center, where cowboy-poet cassettes, videotapes and books of verse crowd the shelves. "We've come a long ways," concedes McQueary. "I think that we've come far enough to know that there's no end to how far you can go if you keep trying."
Still, we seek the way
Tune our collective instrument
To practice and play
My God...What have we done?
What have we made?
Eight days after the gathering's start, when the final call for drinks goes up at the Pioneer Hotel bar, Waddie Mitchell is still there, regaling friends with rhymes and reminiscences. Around the corner at the Elks Hall, a Nevada Shoshone-Paiute guitar band has the cowboys and their ladies two-stepping arm-in-arm around the dance floor. And upstairs at Stockmen's Hotel, the guitar pickers and fiddlers are unpacking their cases for one last small-hours jam session before leaving. Last night the temperatures dropped below zero again, and tomorrow morning new snow will close the airport. But in Elko, no one is feeling the cold.
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