A cowboy's life is more than horses and cows. It also includes poems and ballads written around the campfire.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."