As a sellout crowd jostled its way into the first big show of the 34th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering on a late-January night in Elko, Nev., old friends backslapped each other and laughed about past gatherings. It was a rowdy, good-natured opening of what has become the premier celebration of The Cowboy Way.
The atmosphere was not surprising — Elko, population about 18,000, sits in the northeastern corner of Nevada, an oasis in the Great Basin’s high-desert terrain and the center of the area’s ranching lifestyle. And the gathering commemorates the end-of-the-cattle-drive festivities that defined the Old West, with camaraderie and all that the term encompasses: tall tales, poetry and songs, dancing, gambling, thick steaks and strong drinks.
Beaded buckskin and swirling skirts dominated the dress of the women, string ties and cowboy hats the men. But when the cowboys took their seats, the hats came off: The Cowboy Way dictates respect for other audience members — no one wanted to block views of Riders in the Sky and Wylie and the Wild West, the gathering’s kickoff musical entertainers.
Most of the participants and many of the attendees make their living as ranch hands, whether riding the range on horseback, herding sheep with quick-moving dogs or trying to manage acreage that is measured in square miles. Others come because of the event’s welcoming atmosphere.
Excerpt from “Old Eagle Eyes” by Yvonne Hollenbeck:
He’s got eyes like an eagle for finding new calves
that their mamas have hidden all snug;
so why can’t he see the mud on his boots
that he’s tracking all over my rug?
Elko, as the event’s name is short-handed, yearly draws an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 revelers from across the American West and beyond. Past participants have included drovers from Australia and gauchos from South America. And there are Basques from their homeland in the Pyrenees Mountain areas of France and Spain, visiting relatives whose ancestors immigrated to the Great Basin. That diaspora began in the mid-1800s, many seeking gold, others to work as sheepherders.
The 2019 gathering — Jan. 28 to Feb. 2 — will be the 35th. The theme is described in the official program as “about preserving tradition and about the quest to find truth and beauty in the creative voices of everyday people.”
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