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The 25th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering goes off without a hitch.
Photo: Matthew B. Brown (Baxter Black performs)
Each year, thousands saddle up the SUV, slip on the Stetson, and head to Elko for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Like swallows returning to Capistrano, ranchers, cowboys, and city-dwellers flock faithfully to northeastern Nevada in the dead of winter for soul-satisfying storytelling and music.
The Gathering is a weeklong celebration of cowboy life with stories told in song, rhyme, and just plain talk. Some are hilarious, some poignant, but all reach into the heart of Western American folklore. Cowboy crooners, backed by guitars, banjos, and fiddles, delight crowds with familiar songs and high-energy acts.
Many of the poets and musicians work on ranches, but in Elko they’re celebrities, signing autographs for adoring fans who snatch up their CDs to enjoy all year. Waddie Mitchell of Nevada, one of the best-known poets, once described how people who love the Gathering feel when for some reason they’re unable to go. “They’re grumpy for a month,” Mitchell says.
This year, the Western Folklife Center, which produces the event, rounded up about 100 performers for the seven-day festival, January 24-31, the Gathering’s 25th anniversary. Besides the poets and musicians, Gathering-goers heard a riveting keynote address by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who grew up on a large cattle ranch in Arizona.
Most performances take place the final four days–Wednesday through Saturday–staged at the Elko Convention Center and Western Folklife Center in the city’s quaint downtown. But other events take place around town, too, such as American Indian and cowboy arts and crafts exhibits, parties, and retail sales of riding gear, silver jewelry, and Western wear.
Visitors get a signature pin each year, and many wear their entire collection on their hats to signify the years they have attended. When the cowboy poetry crowd is in town, the city’s authentic Basque restaurants are jammed with out-of-towners enjoying hearty family-style dinners traditionally served at hotels for hardworking sheepherders. Historically, Basques emigrated to Elko from the Pyrenees mountain region of France and Spain to ply their trade.
Cowboys aren’t exclusive to the American West, and the Gathering often presents cowboy poets from different U.S. regions and other countries that raise beef, such as Mexico, Argentina, and Mongolia. The 2010 gathering, January 23-30, will feature “cracker cowboys” from Florida and “swamp cowboys” from Louisiana.
If you go, Western dress is de rigueur: jeans, cowboy hats, boots, shirts, colorful cowboy scarves called “wild rags,” fringed leather jackets and coats, and Western jewelry. Elko’s Western-wear stores, including the well-known J.M Capriola Company, do brisk business as visitors take the opportunity to “cowboy up.” January is cold and sometimes snowy in Elko, so it’s wise to come prepared.
Elko, where the Wild West spirit flourishes, is known as “The last real cowboy town in America.” It’s situated on Interstate 80, 288 miles east of Reno, 430 miles north of Las Vegas, and 230 miles west of Salt Lake City. Air service to Elko Regional Airport is available on Delta Connection/Sky West. Hotel rooms in this nearly mile-high city of 18,000 people are plentiful, but tickets to the gathering should be purchased as soon after they go on sale because many shows sell out fast. Western Folklife Center members can buy tickets in early September and non-members a month later.
Western Folklife Center
501 Railroad St., Elko