TravelFeature

Real cowboys write poems. Here’s where to hear them.

Every January, a festival of Western culture and lore takes over this Nevada town.

Photograph by Jessica Brandi Lifland, Polaris Images
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At the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, wranglers turned writers spend a week reading from their work and sharing tales of life in the American West.

Photograph by Jessica Brandi Lifland, Polaris Images
TravelFeature

Real cowboys write poems. Here’s where to hear them.

Every January, a festival of Western culture and lore takes over this Nevada town.

In January, the town of Elko, Nevada, lies snowdusted and mudcaked, with the Ruby Mountains and the East Humboldt Range gleaming on the horizon. But during the six days of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering—this year from January 27 to February 1—thousands of tourists roll into town to listen to poets and musicians verbally gallop across the stage, eulogize their horses, praise their cow dogs, damn the drought, and cheer for rain. It’s all part of Elko’s charm—but like cowboy poetry itself, there’s more here than meets the eye.

The Gathering—established in 1985 and produced by the Western Folklife Center—highlights a different element of Western culture every year. Sometimes the theme is broad: storytelling or the environment. Other times it’s more narrow, such as the Basque ranching traditions of the Great Basin. This year, the Gathering will showcase the contributions of Black cowboys, “whether on the ranch or in the rodeo arena, past and present,” according to the website. Among those participating are Dom Flemons, whose 2018 album Black Cowboys was nominated for a Grammy award, and Geno Delafose, a Louisiana rancher and zydeco musician. Both have performed in Elko before.

But the Gathering spills far beyond the confines of any particular refrain. More than a hundred performers, on multiple stages, fill sessions that last an hour. Some of it is expert and some of it is amateur—sometimes there’s an element of both—but if you drop your pretensions at the door, you will laugh, you will cry, and you will leave assured of humanity’s good nature. If you feel a sense of melancholy on the drive to the airport, there’s a word for it: “post-Elko blues.”

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The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering also spotlights Western music by the likes of John (left) and Brigid Reedy, shown here at the 2019 festival.

Getting here is half the fun. I fly into Salt Lake City, rent a car, and drive 230 miles west on I-80, past the unincorporated village of Delle, where tire rims painted like eyeballs stare out from two shadowy pockets in the rock. I bisect the Bonneville Salt Flats, straining as I pass to read the many love notes left in beer bottles turned upside down and planted in the crust. I speed up and over several small mountain chains and finally, an hour and a half later, I arrive in Elko, the “Gateway to the Rubies.”

To grasp the majesty of the Rubies—named by pioneers who mistook garnets for ruby stones—cross the Humboldt River and drive southeast on Lamoille Highway. Once you reach the summit, just a few miles later, the valley unfolds, the mountains rise well over 10,000 feet, and you begin to feel that flutter of possibility. Driving the extent of the 12-mile byway is often impossible during the winter months, but no trip to the Rubies is complete without a visit to Lamoille Canyon, often called “Nevada’s Yosemite.” If you’re lucky, you’ll make it at least as far as the Lamoille Glacier Overlook, a perfect U-shaped canyon, a textbook example of the power of glaciation.

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At the 2017 Gathering, musician Mike Beck prepares to take the stage.

After rambling through a snowy canyon, you’ll be ready for a hearty meal, a stiff drink, and a little companionship. Call ahead to reserve a table at the Star Hotel, established in 1910 in downtown Elko and packed wall-to-wall with big hats (and bigger personalities) during the week of the Gathering. Once a boarding house for Basque sheepherders and anyone else who needed a warm place to hunker down until spring, it’s now the most popular restaurant in town. On offer is “European-style food in an old world atmosphere,” so get ready for lamb and massive steaks buried under a mountain of fresh garlic. Order a Pican Punch: the Basque-American specialty is a stiff mix of brandy and Amer Picon, garnished with a lemon peel.

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Performances at the Gathering often invite participants to get up and two-step themselves.

Last year, Elko’s Northeastern Nevada Museum hosted a reception for the Western pop artist Billy Schenck, whose familiar Western scenes often subvert the stereotypes with comic titles or dialogue. “Even characters in real life were being mythologized while they were still doing what they were doing,” he told me. He admitted he was skeptical of the cowboy poetry spilling from the doors of the convention center across the street, though he’s hardly an outsider to the West: He once held the title of ranch-sorting world champion and currently owns the Double Standard Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “The potential for the mythology of this is just as fascinating as what the real facts are.”

I’ve been chewing on that question of place, of fact versus fiction, since the day I first came to Elko and opened myself to the stories, intent on ditching my preconceived notions of the genre.

Since then I’ve met cowboy poets and songsters of all stripes, some of them true buckaroos, others merely fans of the history. I’ve met attendees from San Francisco and Elko and Las Vegas, some who might pass for a working ranch hand, others who look more like John Travolta in Urban Cowboy.

Each year I come looking for answers, trying to pinpoint where the authenticity ends and the romance begins. Each year I leave a little less concerned. Maybe Elko is all of that. Maybe it’s the cowboys and the poets and the cowboy poets, no matter the Venn diagram. Certainly it’s the Shoshone and the Paiutes, here long before them all. Maybe it’s the Basque sheepherders and the miners. Maybe the West is what it was and will be. Maybe the West is now.

Maybe it doesn’t matter at all. And to be honest, I like that version the best.

Carson Vaughan is a writer and the author of Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream. Follow him on Twitter.