Those who regularly attend the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada—that eccentric flock of which I now consider myself a member—often lament the comedown: the melancholy of too many goodbyes, the lonely drive home, the heart waltzing to memories still warm. They sigh like newlyweds just returned from Corfu, a faraway look in the eye, a perfect couplet on loop, already longing for more. Rodeo poet Paul Zarzyski, a former bronc rider, calls this phenomenon the “post-Elko blues.”
“You have to deal with reentry after you leave Elko,” he told me several years ago, slouched in his chair after a sold-out solo performance, arms dangling like a welterweight between rounds. “You just left the otherworldly.”
Less often sermonized is the prologue: the hours between departure and arrival, between East and West, the swelling anticipation, the landmarks en route that—one by one—dismantle your defenses and prepare you for the weeklong celebration ahead: the snow-brushed Oquirrh Mountains, the emerald glow of the Great Salt Lake. I need these hours, this pilgrimage West. I need to shed, just for now, the cloister of glass and steel; the vertical for the horizontal. Out, not up. I need to swap the whine of the El train for the whistle of wind over a hundred miles of sagebrush.
I need this time because the magic of Elko, of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, only works if you let it—if you arrive with an open mind, an open heart, never mind the schmaltz. “Then, and only then,” Zarzyski writes in his poem “Face-To-Face”:
might you choose to follow
a force you’ll lovingly call your soul through huge swinging doors thrown open to the glorious commotion of it all.
When the Ruby Mountains first reveal themselves in the distance, not far from Elko, I cut the radio. It’s the end of January, pushing 50 degrees, and the desert sun is peppering the clouds like buckshot. I’m ready now.
It’s Thursday evening, at the height of the Gathering, and downtown Elko is awash in motel neon, every “No Vacancy” sign lit up, the sidewalks abuzz with bowlegged, finger-locked lovers; with ranchers and miners and outdoor enthusiasts; with journalists from The New York Times and National Geographic; with retirees from San Francisco and a film crew from Scotland and a band of young immigration lawyers from Las Vegas.
At the Western Folklife Center, housed in the old three-story brick Pioneer Building, hundreds of red-faced ticket holders spill from the theater to the saloon. They stand elbow to elbow at the polished cherrywood bar, ordering whiskey or another Buckaroo Brew Pale Ale. They’re lining up—pretending otherwise—to shake hands with the night’s still-winded performers: Zarzyski, wiping sweat from his brow; California songwriter Mike Beck, the most mellow dude in Elko; and father-daughter musical duo Rob and Halladay Quist, perpetually ready for a cover shoot. “Elko audiences feel energized throughout,” Zarzyski tells me later. He earned an MFA in creative writing, knows firsthand how mild, how “polite” a mainstream reading can be. “I’m so fortunate to have had my work embraced by mostly blue-collar audiences who, as do I, live for the wild words of our Wild West.”
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering now attracts more than 6,000 tourists from across the country every year. They come to hear those wild words, to shed a few tears and keel with laughter, to lose themselves in poetry sessions with titles like “Sagebrush & Plains” and “Seasoned by the Seasons,” to learn clay-pot cooking or rawhide braiding or a host of other Western arts while they’re at it.
But it wasn’t always so popular; in fact, it wasn’t always the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering at all. A small group of folklorists first began mulling the idea in the late 1970s, when “the cowboy image was at a low point,” wrote Hal Cannon, a cofounder of the Gathering, for the 2004 program. “Hollywood had pretty much stopped making cowboy movies. Nashville had dropped the Western out of country-and-Western.”
Time was ripe for a cowboy comeback—and, after five years of preparing and tracking down cowboy poets from all over the West, they launched the inaugural Cowboy Poetry Gathering in January 1985. They chose Elko, an old cow town, in the dead of winter, a shockingly ill-advised marketing plan unless you consider the poets themselves—most of them working cattlemen still skeptical of the whole idea, weary of cities and flashy resort towns, and most flexible between fall roundups and spring calving. Roughly 1,500 people attended the first gathering, then a weekend event with a few dozen estranged poets and a tight $50,000 budget. Once acquainted, so goes the now oft-repeated yarn, the poets discovered they’d all written the same poem about their favorite horse.
Enthusiasm grew year over year, national headlines and sponsorships, too, until finally, in October 2000, the U.S. Senate passed Resolution 326, “Designating the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, as the ‘National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.’” They recognized the event as “a bridge between urban and rural people” and “a forum for the presentation of art and for the discussion of cultural issues in a humane and non-political manner.” Today, the Gathering is a weeklong celebration of the rural West, tactfully curated by the Western Folklife Center for half a million dollars and boasting more than 70 performers. It’s also a roughly $3.5 million boon to the local economy and has spawned hundreds of smaller cowboy poetry events across the country—none of which answers the obvious questions: What is cowboy poetry, and is it any good?
You might say that cowboy poetry is rooted in the cattle drive era, that all those men punching cattle north from Texas after the Civil War yearned for a distraction, that some of them composed poetry on horseback just to while away the time, employed meter and rhyme to keep their verses straight—to remember it all the next day, or later that night around the campfire. And you would be right—at least, you wouldn’t be wrong—though of course the traditional ballad form was hardly their own, cribbed from the English and its more popular practitioners, poets like Robert W. Service and Rudyard Kipling whose earthy, venturesome work they often read. And herding societies the world over, David Stanley reminds us in Cowboy Poets & Cowboy Poetry, have been writing verse about their work and environment for hundreds of years, long before the days of the Chisholm Trail.
Nor, historically, has the genre been the exclusive domain of the working cowboy. Many of those now bandied about as the patron saints of cowboy poetry—Charles Badger Clark, Henry Herbert Knibbs, Lawrence Chittenden, and others—had little more than a secondhand knowledge of the industry. They were, instead, reporters, editors, businessmen, opportunists. “Virtually none of the most respected cowboy poets of the last century have been itinerant working cowboys scribbling heartfelt verses in lonely line camps,” writes Stanley, one of the few academics who have dared to approach the genre. “Although the geographic origins and occupations of the poets are considered significant and relevant, it is a poem’s fidelity to the cowboy experience and its ability to reflect accurately the ups and downs of the cowboy life that determine its lasting appeal.”
It’s these contradictions, in part, that lure me back year after year. It’s also the latter question: Is it any good? Not because the answer is unequivocally yes or no, but the opposite. It’s neither, and it’s both, and when it comes to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering as an event, as a celebration of the West—no matter how you define it—it’s virtually irrelevant.
After attending the Gathering in 1989, on assignment for the Times, famed essayist Edward Hoagland wrote, “There’s never a new idea in cowboy poetry.” There have been times, I admit, when this sentiment felt true: when every horse was loyal, then lame; when the range was boundless, then bounded; when the West was wild, then brought to heel, boxed in by subdivisions and urban sprawl; when every sky was littered with stars and every drunk a hoot; when every day was branding day and every top hand, go figure, grew too old to ride.
But I’ve also witnessed moments of awe: When Colorado poet Vess Quinlan, 79 years old, recited “The Cutting Post,” a free-verse poem about two old men—one white, one brown—visiting a ghost town above the Rio Grande, steering “a pickup into the past” or when Montana poet Wally McRae, in his steady, baritone timbre, recited “Things of Intrinsic Worth,” a rhyming poem about the destruction of strip mining near his homeplace.
Remember that sandrock on Emmells Crick Where Dad carved his name in ’thirteen? It’s been blasted down into rubble And interred by their dragline machine...
And too many others, truthfully, to count. Poems of the land, yes, and love and loss and the working life. Another way to describe cowboy poetry? Poetry. “We couch it in cowboy,” Cannon says, “but the best is universal.”
And yet poetry alone does not the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering make—not for me. Other ingredients include: a steak dinner and Picon Punch at The Star Hotel, a succulent reminder of the region’s Basque heritage; a drive up Lamoille Canyon, in the heart of the Rubies, where the air smells like fresh dirt and the glaciers left a clue; a stroll through the Northeastern Nevada Museum, home to the second largest collection in the world of cowboy artist Will James’s work; two eggs and toast at the diner in Stockman’s Casino, where the horseshoe countertop often pits you face-to-face with the week’s performers; and finally, just to catch my breath, a solo dinner at Chef Chang’s on Idaho Street, where the honey spicy chicken never disappoints and the head-to-hat ratio briefly returns to the status quo.
Late one afternoon, squirreled away in a room at the Elko Convention Center reserved for volunteers, I take a seat with poet John Dofflemyer, a fifth-generation rancher from Tulare County, California. Short and broad-shouldered, he carries himself with a smirk, as if perpetually awaiting a punch line. He’s long been a favorite of mine here at the Gathering, both for the depth of his verse and his willingness to humor my asinine city slicker questions. I tell him I’ve just read a travel story in the Times in which the journalist returns to a motif throughout the piece, something called “the cowboy way.”
“I’m running a test,” I say. “What is the cowboy way?”
“There used to be another one,” he says, “the cowboy code.”
“So what is the cowboy code?”
“Well it’s bullshit! Nobody knows!” he barks. “It’s tell the truth. Do your job. Show up on time. The same shit you were raised with in grammar school.”
I often attend the Gathering under the guise of “journalism,” hiding behind a camera or a blinking recorder, but it’s these people, more than everything else, that keep me coming back—the many unlikely connections, the relationships endemic to Elko, blooming despite the odds. The friendships I now rekindle in person once a year: with North Dakota cowboy poet Shadd Piehl, also a licensed private investigator; with award-winning prose writer Amy Hale Auker, who cowboys the Spider Ranch in Arizona and lends a crucial female voice to the Gathering; with songster Andy Hedges, host of the Cowboy Crossroads podcast, whom many here look to as a keeper of the tradition. It’s a weeklong hiatus from the world’s vitriol, an opportunity to befriend a stranger.
I often feel tipsy here long before the drinking starts. I find myself overeager to say hello, again, to someone I just met, someone who almost certainly disagrees with me about federal regulations or gun control or climate change or god or marijuana. Tipsy because, though I’m almost certain, I’m not that certain; because I’ve been wrong here before. Because he’s big on gun rights, but fervidly antiwar. Because she loves the land, but not the laws that protect it. Because I might not understand the ranch, and they might not understand the city, and yet that handshake meant something, didn’t it?
In his keynote address, delivered to a pulsing auditorium at the Elko Convention Center, Cannon notes these differences. “I have to admit there have been times I have arrived with a degree of trepidation,” he says. “Will our differing opinions tear us apart? And yet, year after year, I have been reassured: We can see the world in different ways and still be tied together through this shared labor, this shared expressiveness, this love of work and history, this hope for a future tied to the land.”
When I meet up with Waddie Mitchell—another cofounder of the Gathering and one of the biggest names in the genre—at his wife’s office in downtown Elko, he offers a simpler answer to how urban and rural folk integrate seamlessly in Elko. “Don’t matter where you are—Melbourne, or New York, or any place we go—there’s good, good people,” he tells me, his moustache upturned and ready for takeoff.” Just inherently good people in different habitats.
By Saturday afternoon, I’m running on empty. I’m stumbling over the smallest cracks in the sidewalk, my feet dragging, my eyes bloodshot, my hands shaking from too many refills at the Cowboy Joe coffee shop. As usual, I’ve packed the days with too many laughs, too much poetry, too much food, maybe a Picon Punch too many. I’m tempted, in truth, to steal a nap, to spend a few hours back at the hotel, but it’s the last day of the Gathering, and I know I’ll regret it. I’ll miss something big—something spontaneous.
So instead I slip into the nearest venue, the Turquoise Room in the convention center, for a session titled, “The Cowboy Canon.” The room is flat and gray: checkered gray carpet, gray carpeted walls, a few hundred gray chairs, a gray skirt around the stage. Everyone around me looks tired, too, like maybe— after a few late nights themselves—a soft chair just sounded nice. I take a seat near the back, where no one will know if I accidentally nod off, and in truth, I’m well on my way when Jake Riley, at 37 one of the younger poets here, approaches the microphone. Unlike the rest of us, he looks buoyant, rested, clean-cut in a fresh plaid shirt, heavy denim rolled once at the boot.
“This is for my friend Bill,” he says softly; leaning a bit forward from the waist, he begins to recite a ballad about his wise friend Bill, who worked the feedlots for decades. It’s titled “My Friend Bill,” and, though a little rough around the edges—in a way you’re not likely to find at an academic reading—it’s brimming with sharp descriptions. “He’s got a kindness quite uncommon, in a man with hands so hard,” he says. “He’s a profound sort of gentle, that can catch a guy off guard.” I’m leaning forward myself now, nodding along, like I’ve known a few Bills myself. “He doesn’t often lose his temper, but don’t you suppose him weak,” Riley continues. “He ain’t soft, just learned the wisdom, in being slow to speak.” And I’m thinking about how moments like this—moments of quiet insight or surprise—hit all the harder when the stakes are so beautifully low; when nobody is going to boo him off stage or deliver a book contract. In this setting, this format, a fresh turn of phrase feels like a gift, offered humbly to you.
“So go listen, ’cause you don’t want to miss the oratory,” he says, slowing down for the final punch. “But stick around, ’cause the best is found, in between his stories.”