A cowboy's life is more than horses and cows. It also includes poems and ballads written around the campfire.
ELKO, NEV. — For this suburban woman who has grown prissy about her lattes - low-fat milk, no foam, please - the poetry recited at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., speaks of a life light-years from her local Starbucks. If you are going to hear about coffee at all, it will most likely be about a pot of "cowboy coffee" - grounds, eggshells, and boiling water, brewed over a campfire at dawn.
I reckon you will think I'm plum crazy to suggest that the perfect midwinter break might be found listening to cowboy poetry in Elko, 250 miles east of Reno. Sure, I watched "Gunsmoke" as a child, but the reality is I am scared to death of horses and, for cosmetic reasons, long ago pitched my last pair of Wranglers.
Nevertheless, a close friend, a rider and breeder of cutting horses, persuaded me to go to Elko for the poetry gathering last year. I have never had so much fun.
But let me be perfectly clear: Elko is not Palm Springs. The temperature is below freezing; the plains around are bleak and vast. When you enter the Stockmen's Hotel, the hot spot in town, you are assaulted by the ding-ding-ding of the one-armed bandits and the deep-fry odor from the coffee shop.
Furthermore, a lot of cowboys are still "Marlboro men," with a cigarette dangling from their lower lips. But lasso your "political correctness"; this Wild West weekend will sweep you into its thrall as ranchers and cowboys, men and women, come together to share poetry, music, and humor about their life in the mythic American West.
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is sponsored by the Western Folklife Center. Started 18 years ago, the annual event, which now lasts a week, is attended by more than 8,000 people.
The schedule features workshops, exhibitions, panel discussions, films, and performances by some of today's finest cowboy poets, musicians, and craftsmen.
Although there are now more than 150 poetry gatherings throughout the West, last year the US Senate declared the Elko gathering the "National Cowboy Poetry Gathering."
The Folklife Center was also selected by the Ford Foundation as one of 28 exemplary art and cultural organizations to receive a major challenge grant.
The origins of American cowboy poetry can be traced back to the trail drives of the 1870s and '80s. Most of the cowboys had Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, or Gaelic roots and brought a tradition of balladry with them.
The classic form of the cowboy poem is the easy-listening four-line ballad form of rhymed couplets, the same structure used by Rudyard Kipling and Robert Service.
Cowboy poetry is still an oral tradition that has survived primarily in the ranching communities where poems are created and passed around the campfire, the bunkhouse, on a ride.
The first three days of the gathering focus on workshops that offer real-world hands-on advice for ranchers and families struggling to stay on the land and preserve their lifestyle. There are programs on financial planning, rawhide braiding, Web-page development, and even gourmet food on the trail. How about paella cooked in an aboveground Dutch oven?
We arrived on the fourth day, just as things were heating up. For the next three days, programs ran from 9 in the morning into the night.
Great Basin cowboy and poet Waddie Mitchell, with his handlebar mustache and freewheeling charm, talked about cowboy pride in his keynote address: "There ain't nothing like the feeling/That you get down deep inside/ When it's early in the morning/ And you've signed on to ride."
The crowd was eclectic; lots of big boots and big hats. Most looked well-worn; others were obviously right out of the box. Some of us were in running shoes.
There were scores of programs all day. If you weren't rushing to "On the Humorous Side" or "Cowboy Classics," you were angling for a good seat at "Cowboy Songs with Don Edwards" or "Psalms in the Sage."
Some of the poetry is doggerel; some, plain silly. But much of it is sophisticated, humbling, and uplifting.
And that's what attracts visitors from all over. Private planes were at the airport; RVs filled the parking lots. Rooms in every motel and swanky guest ranch were full - not that anybody does much sleeping.
When the daily programs ended, spirits were still high. Hundreds headed back to the Stockmen's Hotel, where impromptu groups gathered in the rooms upstairs to sing along with groups such as Hot Club of Cowtown, recite poetry, and even perform rope tricks.
Along with poetry and music, Western art holds sway. William Matthews, a virtuoso watercolorist whom Forbes magazine has tagged "the true heir to the great Western painter Frederic Remington," was featured at an exhibit of his paintings, "The Cowboys of the Great Basin," at the Western Folklife Center.
"I realize how isolated folks are in these rural settings," Mr. Matthews says. "They have to be self-sufficient."
Although Matthews grew up in San Francisco and is no more of an equestrian than I am, he has spent years learning to understand what's real in a cowboy's life.
"I began to learn about their internal landscapes - the can-do attitude and personal conviction that drives them," he says. "The Great Basin is one of the last places on earth where you can still imagine you are the last person alive.
"The spaces are so vast, the landscape so wild and untouched. [Because the climate is] arid throughout the year, the plants are armored, and so are the men and women who live there. For me, watercolor is a direct line to their souls."
He is a big booster of the Cowboy Poetry Gathering: "It is a concentrated and crystallized picture and reunion of many of us who live in the West."
Sunday morning, as we circled our rental cars back to Elko's tiny outpost of an airport, we all had to laugh at the sign outside a greasy-spoon breakfast spot - "Yahoo! Buckaroo breakfast for $2.99. We have lattes, too!"
Looks like the designer coffee culture has come to the Wild West. Next year there will probably be poetry about lattes as well as lassos. But I hope not.
The 2002 gathering will run from Jan. 26 through Feb. 2.
Early Gathering, which begins Jan. 26, features educational experiences and evening entertainment. The gathering swings into full gear Jan. 30 with an evening concert at the Elko Convention Center. The next three days are filled with poetry, music, discussion, exhibits, and films.
For information and tickets, contact Cowboy Poetry Gathering Tickets, Western Folklife Center, 501 Railroad Street, Elko, NV 89801, or call, toll-free, 888-880-5885. The website is www.westernfolklife.org.
Elko is located on Interstate 80, 230 miles from Salt Lake City. It is accessible by Skywest Airlines (a Delta connection) and Amtrak. There is discount charter bus service between Elko and Salt Lake City. (Call 800-727-1606 for more details.)
For information about accommodations, call the Elko Convention and Visitors Authority at 800-248-3556 or see its website, www.elkocva.com.
Elko, Nev., isn't the only location where the twang of cowboy poetry will be heard in the next two months.
Many of America's best-known cowboy poets, including Waddie Mitchell, will bring the traditions of the American West to life on Feb. 12 at 8 p.m. in Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre. That's when "An Evening of Poetry and Music" will be performed as part of the Olympics Arts Festival.
For information, call (801) 355-2787. To buy tickets online, go to www.tickets.com/ gen_event_info.cgi?SECID=46598.