A woman waylaid me at Cactus Pete’s casino in Jackpot, Nevada, and almost derailed my assignment to Elko. Together, we guzzled free drinks and set down roots at a Ghostbusters slot machine that blared its catchy song—“Ghostbusters!”—and paid money every time we teetered on quitting.
Flashing lights and bells lulled me into a hypnotic trance. All around us, zombies in polyester pants and trucker caps pressed buttons, stared at screens, and exhaled smoke rings. The place smelled like the drapes in a 1969 mobile home. Ding, ding, ding, “Ghostbusters!” While drinking, pressing the button, and rooting for the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man to float across the screen and announce another bonus spin, I thought about my destination: Elko, Nevada and the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
For years I had imagined attending the event, a showcase of American ranch culture featuring poetry, music, art, and tack. A pseudo-cowboy who for periods has made my living a-horseback, I had heard all the stories. The greatest go to Elko: lovers of liquor and verse; believers in God and country; working hands; buckaroos; ranchers; writers; songstresses; dress-up cowboys; and the rabble-rouser poets, a few who’ve been known to sip whiskey before and during shows. One poet, Pat Richardson, was charged with assault and battery and put on probation for ninety days in Colorado for knocking out an audience member who disliked his poem. “If a man takes a swing at you, it’s anything goes,” Richardson said. My kind of poet. I hoped to sit around all night in hotel bars listening to crotchety cowboy poets, and raising my glass to the lot of them.
However, I felt apprehensive about going because many of the hands with whom I’ve worked hate the notion of cowboy poetry. Some ranchers won’t hire a person if he or she admits to reading it. To them, cowboy poets are wannabes, pretenders, dudes. At the university where I studied writing, my peers had often snickered or rolled their eyes at the mention of cowboy poetry. I kept my interest hidden. Sure, some cowboy poetry is cheap and cheesy, but it is unpretentious and authentic. But is it good? I hoped Elko would help me embrace cowboy poetry or give it up for good.
Adding to my apprehension was the fact that I was riding to Elko—Land of Pickup Trucks—in my friend’s Toyota Prius. I felt like a PETA activist heading to a ranch branding. God, I thought, they’re not going to let us in. I imagined Winchester-toting men guarding roadblocks on the outskirts of Elko. “You one of them environmentalists?” they’d ask. But thank heaven we buzzed into town in our little hybrid horse and tied up in the far lot of the Elko Convention Center without drawing attention.
In a year, high desert Elko, Nevada, 5,066 feet, receives only 9.89 inches of rain. Even in late winter, I could feel the air wicking the moisture from my body. The topography was mostly flat, but treeless, brush-covered hills stood nearby. To the south the majestic Ruby Mountains rose to 11,387 feet. I hurried inside the Elko Convention Center, a shrine to off-white concrete blocks, a Taj Mahal of odd angles. Inside, block walls held up a sky of drop-down ceiling tiles. Some events take place in the main auditorium, but others in divided sections like convention breakout rooms, a riser for a stage and a colorful backdrop of puffy clouds and blue sky painted on what seemed an oversized sheet. The place looked more suitable for insurance company actuaries than cowboys.
Nevertheless, I didn’t come for the ambiance, so I plopped onto a chair. Bring on the crazy-ass cowboy poets! Audience members averaged 50-something in age. The few kids in the room forced themselves to sit still as if in church. Most faces were tanned and rutted. People wore Wranglers, hats, wool vests, and silk scarves. They must’ve all been Lutherans because they sat there stoically. I didn’t know if they were having a bad day or one hell of a good time.
The first poet, looking like he had just stepped off his horse, clopped to the podium as solemn as if he were about to give the State of the Union address, and recited in monotone:
“Vast desert sands of subtle gray
And mountain ranges so far away
A-rimmed in by deep blue sky
An occasional cloud a-driftin’ by
A desert floor of blue and green
And bunchgrass clumps in between
A hot dry wind softly moans
As a cowboy enters the scene alone…”
The rest of the session went about like that.
After lunch, a dozen or so of us filed into a smaller breakout room to hear the cowboy poetry version of Anything Goes: an open microphone session. This is where anyone—cowboy, ranch wife, or plumber—can recite a cowboy poem. Audience members attend these sessions to support the performers or to discover a new, fresh voice.
Jim Cardwell, a 50-something nurse and homemade salsa maker, popped up as if he’d been waiting for this moment all year. A proud look came over his boyish face.
“…209 was our tallest cow, well over six feet tall.
With legs as long as hers you hardly had to stoop at all.
Our Guernsey girl was 93, her hide shone almost red.
She’d fuss and snort or lick your hair until you scratched her head.”
A procession of similar poets rhymed and dimed along, expressing their love for a particular horse or lamenting the hardships inherent in working the land. One man recited a humorous little ditty about a bra that got caught on a truck mirror.
After the open mic session, I was done with cowboy poetry. I climbed aboard one of several courtesy vans that shuttle people around Elko, a city known for ranching, gold mining, Basque cuisine, and brothels. Brothels? Perhaps my trip wasn’t a total loss.
Pat Waldvogel, a local woman in her early 50s, said she volunteered each year because she enjoyed meeting the gathering attendees. She dropped me off at Capriola’s Saddlery, one of the West’s most well-known tack and gear stores. Ropes and used saddles lined the second floor, but not a single new Capriola sat for sale. Inside the saddle shop, craftsmen worked to fill custom orders. Downstairs, hundreds of handmade Garcia bits hung in rows in a glass case. A dozen or more customers milled around and the owner held a felt hat into a plume of steam and shaped the brim to suit a poetry gathering attendee from New Mexico. The week of the gathering, the owner said, is a busy one.
“Mostly cowboys, or dudes?” I asked.
“A little bit of everything,” he said.
The neon star atop the Star Hotel glowed red against the blue of evening. One of the most well-known Basque restaurants in the country, the Star is one of several Basque eateries in Elko. After gorging on baked lamb and heaping portions of soup, Basque beans, French bread, vegetables, pasta, and fried potatoes, I waddled around downtown, followed the flashing lights into the Commercial Casino, and came out a hundred bucks ahead.
At dusk I ended up on brothel row, a nondescript street with three run-down houses painted with bright colors. The signs read “Asian girls” and “Dancing and Diddling.” I had no idea what diddling involved, but it sounded fun, so in the spirit of journalistic inquiry, I drew a bead on Elko’s most famous brothel, Mona’s Ranch.
A video camera whirred. A weathered sign read, “This establishment cannot guarantee against sexually-transmitted diseases.” I’m not sure why, but I looked around to make sure no one saw me. I felt like a crack dealer. I pressed the doorbell, and my palms began to sweat. Footsteps. A slat in the door slid open and then slammed shut. What the hell is this? I wondered, the gate to see the Wizard of Oz?
The door buzzed open into a dark empty hallway. Old yard sale-type art of scantily clad women hung askew in groups on the walls. A string of Christmas tree lights around the top of the walls lit the way. At the end of the hallway sat a large wooden bar, scarred as it had been in a knife fight. “No anal sex,” the sign said. No music either, just a faint musty smell. No people except the man in the mirror, who was trying to look like a whorehouse veteran.
More footsteps, heavier. A fuzzy-haired woman walked in with an irritated expression as if I’d interrupted her rerun of As The World Turns. She asked, “Can I get you something to drink?”
“May I speak to the manager?” I explained I was reporting on a story and only wanted to ask a few questions and shoot a few pictures. She tried not to laugh. Ever the persistent reporter, I thought, Maybe I should pay a girl for her time. But real journalists don’t pay for interviews. It probably didn’t matter because I am about as authentic a journalist as I am a cowboy; which is to say, just good enough to make do. Three of my compadres at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering had already given me the scoop. One of them had been so shy he couldn’t scare up the nerve to enter, but the other had sauntered in, downed a couple of $7 whiskeys, and picked from a lineup of two women who, during one of the busiest weeks of the year, were the only two not on vacation. Who knew prostitutes earned vacation time? My one friend picked the black girl, according to him the least ugly of the two, who gave him a tour and led him by the hand to her room. He kept dragging his feet and declaring he was only there for a drink, but hey, she said, it never hurts to talk. Wouldn’t he like to enjoy himself? Only $200 for 15-20 minutes. Don’t real cowboys like horses that buck? He thanked her kindly and skedaddled. Apparently he was no real cowboy either.
My new friend the bartender wrote down my phone number and assured me the manager would call me back regarding my interview request. She could barely hide her smirk. I imagined the manager, some woman with a husky voice, was sitting in the back with her feet propped on her desk watching me on camera, laughing her ass off and disseminating my number to her employees, who would prank call me for months. “Hey cowboy, I thought you knew how to ride.”
I flagged down a shuttle and spent the evening dropping $7.50 per pull into the Red Lion Casino’s Ghostbuster’s slot machine. It had no pity, however, and the Stay Puft Man never appeared. $400 down at 1 a.m. and too late for the shuttles, I caught a cab around town to the various hotels and bars, hoping to find some of these crazy poets at one of the gathering’s famous late-night jams, but all but a few miners and local cowboys had gone to bed.
The next morning, the crowd in the lobby had swelled. Without pretense, legends of the cowboy poetry world such as Baxter Black, Wally McRae, and Waddie Mitchell mingled with attendees before performing. Mitchell, an Elko-raised buckaroo who helped start the gathering, smiled and jawed with anyone who stopped. His eyes twinkled beneath his trademark hat, a telescope crease with a bunkhouse roll on the back of the brim, and his mustache swooped down and out like a set of longhorn steer horns. Age spots had begun to splotch his skin. His mustache wiggled when he talked, and his smile pooched up his cheeks. I was too self-conscious to introduce myself, so I walked back and forth a few times and leaned in to hear the conversations, which sounded less like celebrity cocktail small talk and more like conversation between long-lost relatives.
Attendees and performers, some newbies like me and some who had met at Elko for years, shook hands and hugged. People smiled and slapped each other’s backs, and eventually the lobby thinned out and the rooms filled up.
I was dreading more cheap poetry and planning another reporting visit to Mona’s when the session started and Waddie Mitchell stepped forward and took the microphone. He got this wistful look as if he were out on horseback with a 360-degree view of a vast prairie, and started in on a Bruce Kiskaddon classic, “When They’re Finished Shipping Cattle in the Fall”:
“Though you're not exactly blue,
Yet you don't feel like you do
In the winter, or the long hot summer days.
For your feelings and the weather
Seem to sort of go together,
And you're quiet in the dreamy autumn haze…”
Mitchell matched his rhythm to the meter, and he varied his speed and volume. He leaned in ever so slightly and let that wistfulness seep into his voice.
“When the last big steer is goaded
Down the chute, and safely loaded;
And the summer crew has ceased to hit the ball;
When a fellow starts to draggin'
To the home ranch with the wagon—
When they've finished shipping cattle in the fall…”
For a moment after Mitchell finished, the room fell as silent as a meadow after a new snowfall. Then the applause rolled up like a wave, and a couple of people whistled. The Lutherans had converted to Baptists.
Some poets performed their own verse. By then I had fallen back in love with cowboy poetry, and decided to perform at an open mic session.
I led with one of the best contemporary western poems I know, the High Desert Journal’s Obsidian Prize-winning “Gap-Tooth Girl,” written by Melissa Mylchreest (a Ranch & Reata contributor). I mustered as much emphasis as possible:
“The gap-tooth girl is dancing, and the man
in Wranglers holds his arms around her like
a loose hoop of rope, a snare for her tight
two-step. The band will never play better
than this town limits, and still it’s sweeter
than the sounds the country makes, gumbo mud,
trains coupling, a wild Chinook, a place laced
with ice and barb-wire singing. Her hips have
land in them, are good enough for dancing
but in those jeans look ready made to sit
a horse all day; she wears the weather in her hair…”
I might as well have spoken Swahili. Blank-faced, the audience stared. I realized these people valued practicality. They appreciated Quarter Horses, fencing pliers, and axle grease, not impressionistic paintings or esoteric poems. To salvage my performance, I pulled out a poem of my own, a cheap thing with clear meaning, and let ‘er rip:
“When the open is closed, where will we go
When there’s a house on every hill?
When the gas wells stretch as far as the gaze
And there is no more oil to drill?
When the solace found in nature is
Polluted with noise and trash
And every meadow is trampled to death
And views are sold for cash?
When men with defeated faces
Begin to boil and then resent
That elbowroom can only be felt
With elbows tightly bent…”
The people nodded in agreement, and, as they had for several others, applauded in sympathy for the terrible poet who should stick to the open mic sessions; or better yet, to slot machines.
After dark, Pat dropped me at the Western Folklife Center’s Pioneer Saloon, where the year before she had sat conversing with an Elko local, Jim Reilly, who had agreed to ride with her all night to insure her safety. Their conversations came easy, and by morning the two had fallen for each other. In the Pioneer Saloon, an old-style hardwood bar ran the length of the joint. Poets, musicians, artists, ranchers, cowboys, and wannabes drank, told stories, and laughed. Every once in a while, a poet would hold court at a particular table, and those sitting around would applaud. The evening had the feel of a family reunion.
Soon most of the crowd funneled into the G Three Bar Theater off one end of the Pioneer Bar. The evening show featured big-name cowboy poet Paul Zarzyski, a small man with a scrub brush mustache and a personality the size of Montana. Zarzyski, who as a young man moved west to rodeo, studied with the poet Richard Hugo at the University of Montana. When he began his performance, Zarzyski flailed as if atop a bareback bronc. His words bucked, snorted and moaned. He was no Professor of Poetry reciting with an inflated sense of importance. His was the poetry of whiplash, the kind that leaps from the chute, plants its front feet, lowers its head, and kicks:
“She’s a motorcycle sister
He’s a bareback bronco twister
They’re ridin’ double-wild ‘cross the West.
She’s Mescalero Indian
He’s full-blooded Paladin
Runnin’ on a buck’s worth of Texaco high-test.
She drives that bike full-throttle
There’s still a half-full bottle
Of Mescal in her studded saddlebags.
He spurs those buckers crazy
But now he’s laid-back lazy
As her batwing chaps are flappin’ just like flags.
Cowboy grit, Apache pride,
Wild hearts and minds collide
In a fiery mix of youth and speed and steel.
Hell on horses, hell on women,
The West has changed, boys, look what’s comin’
Rearin’ up and roarin’ toward you on one wheel…”
Jacked up on the show, I wandered the streets of Elko. Casino lights blinked and ran in circles around huge signs. Heavy-duty pickups rattled up and down the main drag. Live music blared from a bar. Motorcycle gang members shot pool. A two-story polar bear statue stood above the entrance to a Mexican restaurant. Back at the Pioneer Saloon, the socializing continued full-tilt.
The next evening, my last in Elko, the sun was slipping toward the horizon. I stepped into Waldvogel’s shuttle van for a ride back to the convention center. When she drove into the parking lot, the sun was streaming pink through purple clouds and hovering just above the horizon. She turned to me, grinned, and asked, “You want to hear a poem I wrote?”
"In the West
The setting sun
In early winter Has begun
To paint the canvas
With such splendor
I stop silently
And thank the sender."
The moment she finished—I swear—the sky burst into brilliant hues of pink and purple, and then the sun slipped below the horizon.
A feeling of awe and gratefulness came over me. “That’s my favorite poem of the gathering,” I said.
I got out and walked toward my hotel thinking about my trip. I had learned that in the same way a length of rusty barbed wire can shore up a broken gate hinge, or a loop of baling twine can web around a truck tire to get the vehicle out of mud hole, a good cowboy poem can be put to practical use. I had learned that cowboy poetry is not for critics, literature professors, or even for poets; it is for the people, and as such, it includes fine literary-quality work from masters, good poems from amateurs, and crap from hacks like me. It is for old-school ranchers, dude wranglers, mechanics, and nurses—anyone who loves cowboy culture. Cowboy poetry is about relating and connecting. Having experienced other literary events steeped in negativity, I marveled at how this poetry inspires people and builds community.
In the morning my friend and I untied her Prius, mounted up, and turned toward home. We intended to drive straight through, but the lights of Cactus Pete’s lured us. To thank us for our business, the nice staff gave us $50 in gambling money and a free all-you-can-eat buffet dinner. We gorged like hogs at a trough, and then headed straight for the Ghostbusters machine.