Ranchers and seekers of the “mythic West” travel each year to a small Nevada city to practice a tradition born of labor and regional identity.
ELKO, Nev. — It’s bright in Elko. The light is raw Nevada light. It pierces the eyes: Here, wide-brimmed hats are as much practical attire as they are fashion statements. The sun is a fact.
The surrounding hills are grass beige and winter sagebrush gray-green, with pale white drifts of snow in the lee of ridges. The austere reds, pinks and grays of coyote willow line the banks of the Humboldt River. Along Idaho Street, the combination of fine Great Basin dust and winter’s road salt collects on the sidewalk. It’s a still day — the storm comes in tonight — so the dust and salt gather in pockets along the curb instead of whirling around in middle of the street. The roadside grass is tawny and damp, pocked with cottonwood leaves and little pools of snowmelt.
There’s the steady rumble of truck traffic, both commercial and private. Some trucks bear the logos of Major Percussive and American Drilling Corp. It’s one of those occasional windless days in this desert city, a hub of mining and ranching (and gambling and prostitution) in northeastern Nevada. In the moments when the traffic subsides, it’s quiet, in that all-encompassing way the Great Basin is quiet. The air moves over ravens’ wings. The grackles chirp and warble in the bare trees overhead.
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, now in its 35th year, draws thousands of ranch workers and Western enthusiasts to this small city. Their home base is the Pioneer Saloon, on the ground floor of the old Pioneer Hotel, which today stands as the Western Folklife Center. The bar is full of Wranglers, Stetsons, handlebar mustaches, wool, silver-work and leather. Some cowboys wear the weather on their faces. Everyone has silk wild rags tied around their necks. A few younger men and women wearing new boots and clean ponchos wander in with guitars and cases in hand, smiling, looking a bit tentative. Most of the people here appear to be in their 60s and 70s. Most are white. Everybody’s drinking something; a few are drinking water.
The poets have come not only to practice a tradition born of work and regional identity, but to expand the idea of this ever-changing place. As the historian Richard White once wrote, “The mythic West imagined by Americans has shaped the West of history just as the West of history has helped create the West Americans have imagined.” It’s a chance to adapt an old story.