Girl in Transit:
The Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Celebrating Ranch Life of the American West
By Barbara Barton Sloane
When you hear the word Cowboy, what comes to mind? A robust, strong, no-nonsense individual, right? So, Cowboy Poetry? Yes.
The Cowboy Poetry Gathering began as a time and place where western ranchers and cowboys could gather to share poems about their lives working cattle. Three decades later, the Gathering encompasses western poets, musicians, artisans, and storytellers sharing their creativity across the country, telling their stories of hard work, heartbreak, and hilarity – what it means to make your way in the rangeland West.
The cowboy’s work is often lonely and isolated, a cycle of dirty, dangerous jobs from the spring round-up through the cattle drive, the end of the trail and the return to the ranch. Not so surprising then that the cowboy, as with the miner, the logger, the fisherman –has a poetry-seeking tradition, whether it’s reciting the classics or reading their own poetry or prose.
I attended this fascinating event in Elko, Nevada. The town is located in the northeastern corner of the state, 230 miles from Salt Lake City and 295 miles from Reno. The Western Folklife Center, host to the Poetry Gathering, is based in Elko and is best known as the headquarters for the annual Poetry Gathering – but it also shines year-round as an exemplary display of contemporary cowboy craftsmanship, ranch life, and American Indian art – all three of which tell the story of northeastern Nevada’s rich Western cultural heritage.
The Lure of Cowboy Life — While in Elko I stayed at the 71 Ranch, a guest ranch for the Working Cowboy Experience. The “71” is a real cattle ranch right in the middle of cowboy country and during my stay I had the chance to be a part of day-to-day ranch life for a truly authentic experience. I rode horseback over a small part of the ranch’s 38,000 acres, right alongside some of the 2,500 head of cattle belonging to the ranch. Being new to sitting atop a horse, I elicited a promise from my cowboy guide that my slow-poke horse would not, under any circumstances, take it into his head to run. He didn’t and I stayed astride to the end. That evening, we had a typical cowboy dinner of ribs, baked beans, potatoes and pie. A group of us then gathered around a campfire to ward off the chill which crept in at dusk. We sang along with a cowboy who entertained us with well-known Western songs, and, feeling warm and toasty, we were very happy campers!
Celebrating Life in the Rural West — The next day I visited the Western Folklife Center where it was explained that the Poetry Gathering is a week-long celebration of life in the rural west, featuring the contemporary and traditional arts of western ranching culture. Poetry, music, dance, stories, film, photography, food – all contribute to an event that has become an annual ritual and a place of personal meaning for thousands of people. And lest you think the performers are only the boys, I’m happy to tell you there are a lot of authentic cowgirls who recite their poetry as well. Among performers at the event was National Public Radio commentator Baxter Black, the renowned “wacko” poet whose verse has been heard by millions. I was lucky enough to see Baxter perform at the Elko Convention Center, filled to capacity, and everyone enjoying his raucous performance.
Among some of Elko’s fun activities that I got a chance to experience: I watched a saddle being made at the famed J.M. Capriola Company; I saw pottery done the old-fashioned way at Tuscarora Pottery School; I visited one of Elko’s many casinos; and at the Northeastern Nevada Museum I checked out the handicrafts of Native Americans and explored, in-depth, Nevada’s early years with exhibits of mining, ranching, native culture and Old West history. I ended my day with a delicious dinner at Toki Ona, one of the many Basque restaurants in this town.
Elko and the surrounding area has much to offer, from the beauty of the land, the Ruby Mountains called the “alps of Nevada,” to the endless prairies covered with sage brush, bright yellow rabbit grass, juniper forests and dotted with grazing Black Angus wherever you look. The sky is always bright blue, the clouds big and billowy, and the mountain goats, big horn sheep, and elk are never far away.
Touching Words: There’s a lovely little poem that I read at the Folklife Center, aptly called “A Cowboy’s Prayer:”
I thank you, Lord, that I am placed so well,
That you have made my freedom so complete
That I’m no slave of whistle, clock or bell,
Nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall and street.
Just let me live my life as I’ve begun
And give me work that’s open to the sky;
Make me a pardner of the wind and sun,
And I won’t ask a life that’s soft or high.
At the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, you’ll hear many poems just as heartfelt and profound as this. Come to their next event (January 30-February 4, 2023) and it’s guaranteed you’ll have yourself a howlin’ good time!
If You Go:
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Barbara Barton Sloane is a Pelham-based Travel Editor/Columnist who writes for a number of both national and international publications. She delights in sharing her global travel experiences with our readers.