Every morning at about six, the geologists depart from our motel in their white pickups with tiny orange streamers.
They pass the Idaho-Fifth Street intersection, possibly the most traffic-light regulated in the entire state, and drive past the slumbering small shops with adorned cowboy boots, girly portraits in rustic wooden frames, and left-over Christmas decorations covered with gold paint, along the sidewalks by the Thunderbird Motel and the casino with four broken neon letters and further out into the sage-filled bushy desert, that covers such a vast part of the country west of the Rockies.
In this part of Nevada, gold fever has risen several degrees over the past decade. Several hundred families have bought new prefab homes in the high desert, having been employed by mineral companies that painstakingly flush cyanide through the dirt in order to get to the glitter.
Gold never goes out of fashion. In the summertime, I have seen hopeful diggers with their pans in the creeks near the almost deserted ghost town of Tuscarora, some ninety miles north of here. Now, in the midst of winter, it is the season of the geologists.
But more than anything else it is time to let the poets be heard.
One week every year they and an audience of thousands from all over North America convene in little Elko to listen to what John Dofflemyer, a rancher and writer from California, describes as
”the random hum and rhythm
of certain words on your breath
that always seemed to help
get the hard work done.”
During this tribal gathering the whole county is transformed; it is put to music, electrified, becoming a buzz of stories, of conversations about drought and fences, about the old West and the new; all of it leading to a flow of sentimental or more thoughtful images of a landscape loved by everyone and of a job, that of the cowboy, that a lot of people admire, but fewer would be able to cope with.
This time it is an anniversary, the twenty-fifth cowboy poetry festival in Elko. The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The mother of all – and they have become quite a few across the U.S. – cowboy poetry meetings.
Wylie Gustafson´s great grandfather emigrated from Sweden and now this modern rancher is dividing his time between his place in Washington state and the gigs with his band Wylie & The Wild West.
”This Western life that we live is so mystical and real. It´s honest,” he says. ”Maybe it´s the connection with the land, with the old ways, a touchstone to the past. All of our ancestors at one time were tenders of lifestock, growers of wheat or whatever. I think it´s important to express what´s so cool about this lifestyle and poetry is the easiest way to do it.”
When the local Western Folklife Center organized its first poetry gathering in 1985, they went around knocking on ranch doors in the district asking if anyone in the family did any writing. Out of this research came a free two-day festival. Nowadays it is a super-professional arrangement covering eight days, from morning to late night in a number of different surroundings, from bars to seminaries, with leather-craft courses, group visits to ranches, and midnight dances to live bands. The major names in cowboy music attend: Ian Tyson, Michael Martin Murphey, Don Edwards, Riders in The Sky, newer and hipper bands like Wylie & The Wild West and Hot Club of Cowtown, younger female singers such as Connie Dover and Adrian Brannan.
One of the pioneer organizers was Hal Cannon, a musician, radio producer and folklorist with an unbound passion for Western culture.
”Even the reluctant souls will melt with the emotion,” he smiles, ”because it speaks to the heart. These are just people being able to raise their voices, to say these words that are so evocative of our feelings. It is sentimental, but it´s also just really sweet.”
Twenty-five years ago we had no idea that there might be a place for somebody like me, says Waddie Mitchell, an ex-cowboy and poet with a happy moustache:
”In my case it´s been almost like falling in a big old cowpie and still coming out smelling like a rose. This whole week is about us simple people living simple lives that are complicated as all hell. We had a very small world to grow up in. It was a vast country, but it was all I knew. We didn´t even have radio when I grew up. We had no power, no electricity. So we sat around at night and did strange things like talk to each other. That was my tv, those cowboy stories and the stories that my Mum read to us.”
When I came to Elko one winter in the mid-90´s, Buck Ramsey from Texas entered the main stage in his wheel-chair, paralyzed after having been bucked off a horse, and with his battered hat leaning into the spotlight as if it were a prairie wind he recited his most powerful lines, the ones describing the cowboy trade as a fantasy worth taking extremely seriously:
”…And as I ride out on the morning
Before the bird, before the dawn,
I’ll be this poem, I’ll be this song,
My heart will beat the world a warning
Those horsemen will ride with me,
And we’ll be good, and we’ll be free”
In less capable hands this might have sounded like a recruiting ad for an army on its way to the next war. Here, in the crowded Elko Convention Center, the words filled the air with clarity and the smell of sage; it expanded the room, made us all realize what the purpose of this gathering really was, what its essence felt like, that particular freedom that does not have a price at the stock exchange, the intoxication and liberation at sunrise, the frozen silhuettes of riders on the range the hour before the yellow light eats the shadows away and modern life sets in.
Perhaps it was the memory of Buck Ramsey, now long gone, that made me want to come back to this place.
Was it a wacky and unfashionable notion? Even so, I knew that the landscape was still here; many a time since then I have driven through the rocky deserts and endless seas of grass thinking that my God, you don´t need any myths, you just pick the right soundtrack and chase from one horizon to the next. Big Sky Country.
So it is Eko, once again, now that the cowboy poets celebrate their anniversary and the Ruby Mountains south of the small town in northeastern Nevada are covered with snow instead of the red dust of summer, and thousands of men and women with hats and boots close the stable doors around their daily routines for a drive or flight into the landscape of poetry.
”As crescent moons come, and go
With each winter of snow
May you walk in beauty”
In a lack-lustre assembly hall Henry Real Bird, the only Indian poet on stage, is rocking his words into place. Muttering and whistling, he half-sings the phrases in the Crow language that place him, inward-looking with arms swaying, in the long tradition. The mountains, the moons, the horses.
Cowgirl poet Echo Klaproth quickly becomes red-eyed from small tears when talking to me about how the children she meets as a teacher back in Wyoming do not seem to have any history to fall back upon.
”If we don´t get to hear any stories as we grow up, we become extinct,” she says. ”I feel that the students that I work with have no sense of belonging to anything and as a result they seem almost like a lost generation. You know that old saying, if you don´t believe in something and stand for something, you could fall for anything? If they don´t know any value-system or a heritage or a history of who they are, it´s no wonder that there are so many young lost people in the world.”
With the commercialization of Western history and mythology there is the obvious risk of cowboy poetry becoming just another label to sell an emotion. But Echo Klaproth also believes that many on the outside are truly envious of the cowboy life.
”These people that for a few days put on their tassels and their hats, they just plain love it, and how can we judge that harshly? In the West still, the cowboy is real. Bu there´s a lot of myths about him and it´s because for a little while we can escape our real life and go be something that´s ideal to us. Yesterday a gentleman told me he comes here to get refilled for the year. He said it´s a spiritual happening for him.”
On the latest recording from Wylie & The Wild West, lyricist Paul Zarzyski puts forward what he calls the quintessential Western question: ”Did you come to ride or did you come to hide?” And, of course, the history of the West also includes giving shelter to people looking to change their wardrobes and identities, sometimes out of necessity, at other times for reasons that have not always been honourable. Crossing the state line. Breathing freely.
As we drive the country roads out of Elko, the wintery bush landscape is a yellowish, pale canvas with white bands cutting into the hillsides and deepening when our car climbs toward the last settlements by the foot of the mountain.
Here, John Sustacha can be found walking around with his seven dogs in tow, in a relaxed low-season mood on his ranch that has modern solar panels in the midst of piles of old, rust-covered machine parts. Here, people drive in 60´s pickups with no permits to be on the road. To this place a single woman – with an academic background, one neighbour points out – moved some time ago to be left alone and to avoid questions about her line of business (she runs a brothel over in Wells). Among the snowy peaks there are deer and mountain lions and black bears. Some fifteen people have moved into the deserted golddigger town of Tuscarora, several of them artists, and the post office is now open six days a week. Most American post offices are closed, depressing boxes, but this one has a generous window facing the Independence Mountains that fill up the horizon.
”The prettiest office in America,” says the woman who runs the place and is also married to the village potter.
Several of the road bars smell of cat piss; that is the way it happens when old people take care of every kicked-out creature in the territory. Outside Jiggs Bar sits a small American tin flag with Woody Guthrie´s most immortal lines written on it.
Here, too, we find an old man who has cowboyed his entire life and always lived down the same ravine. He knows all the secrets about his mountain neighbours and is close with Jack Walther, the 90-year old rancher who is the alderman among the cowboy poets in Elko and still resides in his story-telling armchair near Lamoille. Before the road was asphalted, Jiggs used to be a hideout for outlaws. Somewhat later someone tried to fit the whole town population into a phone booth, or maybe it was a Volkswagen. Today hardly anyone remains to fit in.
Kent Stockton studied to become a doctor in Kansas City, but kept nagging at his girlfriend about how he wanted to move out west.
”Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to be a cowboy,” he confesses. ”It just looked like such a glamorous kind of life. There was no cowboying in our family, but in 1973 I brought Mary Margaret with me to Riverton, Wyoming, and became a country doctor.”
That was not the whole story, however. He bought horses and cattle, real longhorns. He placed two saddles in his waiting-room and filled the basement and the shed with many more. He learned to be a connoisseur, a man with detailed knowledge about spurs and chaps with fringes.
”At first I laughed at him, I thought his dream was funny,” says Mary Margaret Stockton. ”The first six months we lived in Riverton, he was in heaven and I was sure I wasn´t in the same place! But I did discover the uniqueness and the beauty and the romance that he was looking for. People are genuine out here. In the West the relationships are more honest, whereas in a big city they are more… complex.”
Her husband now belongs to the circle of poets with published books under their belts:
”As long as there´s rough country strays
The sun will dawn on cowboy days”
”We´re not a vanishing breed,”
Kent Stockton says while stroking his moustache. ”Someone has to gather those cows and somebody has to brand and castrate them, make sure that they´re well. I don´t think you can do that on the internet.”
If you don´t believe that a woman like me is up to the job, you´re not up to being with a woman like me.
This is the condensed message from Georgie Sicking, 87 years old, who sits chuckling next to me with peering eyes as I drive her to her next performance in Elko. Surrounded by only guys she started cowboying at the age of 17, a lone girl on the range. She then worked and struggled together with her husband to get a ranch of their own, and when he was killed in a job accident she herself bought another ranch at the age of 75. Pictures from the old days show her looking just like a movie star. She rides wild-eyed horses at high speed in a rodeo arena.
”I started writing poetry in my teens just as a form of self-entertainment, to pass the time. I was staying by myself forty miles from town with no electricity, no telephone, no car. Just horses and me and taking care of a bunch of cattle.”
I tell her that it sounds like it must have been a rough life for a young girl.
”Well, yeah. It was. But it made me tougher. I was five years old and my sister was nine, we were playing in the sandbush and she said ’When I grow up, I´m gonna have a nice home and a family’ and I said ’When I grow up, some day I´m gonna have a ranch of my own, and before that I´m gonna hold down a job on one of these big cowboy outfits in spite of being a woman’.”
This is how she ends her poem ”Housewife”:
”I´ve been a rancher´s daughter, I´ve been a rancher´s spouse
But never was I ever married to a house”
Her eyesight is bad these days, and she misses her ranch like crazy, but in the company of poets Georgie Sicking has found a warm, extended family.
According to Wallace McRae, one of the founding traditionalists in this poetry tradition, there is a risk that the authenticity gets lost when the festivals grow and the stages demand showmanship and more polished texts. It is just like ranching itself: everything seems to be moving towards mechanization and increased energy-dependence; profits are expected at every corner.
”Most other occupations have spokespersons. The cowboy really doesn´t,” says McRae. ”We have cowboy poetry because we don´t have a union or a national association that goes to the Congress. So who is going to speak for us? Also, the reason for writing is the boredom you feel sitting on a stupid horse under the moon with nobody else in sight.”
And he sincerely believes that there is a future in boredom.
”Yeah, I think there is a place for isolation and being alone, I really do. I want to avoid some of the impressions that keep bombarding us. I may not even answer the phone.”
One would be forgiven for thinking that Wylie Gustafson was coming from a different world. Born in 1961, he comes strutting down the alley in his smartest cowboy jacket and a hat that clings to a thin, clear-cut head. When he was younger and rode among the rolling hills of Montana this head was full of Rolling Stones and Johnny Cash; an influx of impulses from faraway metro places that turned him into a songwriter with swaying rock´n´roll knees.
Still he is more Western than anyone would expect.
Well, yes, somebody discovered that he was good at yodeling, too, and when he recorded three yodel notes for Yahoo he became the sound trademark of the internet company and financially independent. More cool jackets, an even more stylish hat. But he keeps his old horses waiting for him back home, even though he believes you should be forward-looking.
”A lot of Western songwriting and poetry look backwards. They have blinders. It´s very important to me to make our genre and our music contemporary, to not just be a reenactor, a copy of what was going on fifty years ago.”
And so the dancing continues way into the Elko night with Wylie & The Wild West as electric prompters; conscious of history and with an unfailing sense of style, and with a bold curling of the upper lip.
”I hope that what I do will be understood by the hardest working cowboy. I wanna impress those guys more than anything,” says Wylie Gustafson.
Lately, he has collaborated with a rodeo poet from Montana, Paul Zarzyski, who seems to ride his poems as if they were wild horses or bulls aiming for the moon. It is all about hanging on for eight seconds; then you have earned the cheering support of the crowd.
Zarzyski, whose father was a miner who immigrated from Poland and did not have a single book in his home, is cowboy poetry´s most charismatic interpreter and it is clear that he is moving further onto untraditional territory, where the 60´s music he grew up with gives him a rhythmic backbone and the wide-angled landscape of the West adds space to his fantasy. He is repeatedly thrown into new wilderness adventures, either by a crazy mustang or a motorcycle defying every curve and speed limit.
wide open, torrid on lust, hopped-up
on the 4-stroke´s solo
double-tongued through straightpipes
fired on 2 bits worth of fuel. Hell,
we made our own damn breeze,
we kamikazed the heat, our fevers
breaking into youth´s oblivion cool”
”The prairie has been fenced in, but that must never happen to cowboy poetry,” Zarzyski says. ”I am inviting people to step through the fence. My suggestion is to bust through the wire fences, bust them down metaphorically, spiritually, emotionally, philosophically – and let´s see what´s out there. It´s my mission to keep the poetry and the West wild.”
What does he think is so special about cowboy culture?
”It´s gotta do with the land, it´s gotta do with the wide open spaces. I have an experience of my own: it was 80 below one night on a ranch and I went outside to check the horses and wrap my sleeping-bag around the regulator on the propane tank, and the wind was blowing fifty miles an hour through my clothes and filling in my tracks in the snow. I don´t think I´ve ever felt a greater sense of solitude and aloneness on this planet of ours, and I don´t think, in the same breath, that I ever felt more connected to this planet.”
One morning at our breakfast place in Elko, Paul Zarzyski gets up to go pay for the coffee and Henry Real Bird leaves a self-printed booklet with his poems on our table. When I look at the back page there is a message scribbled with a ball pen: ”Lars, may you ride in beauty.”
Isn´t that what we all hope for?