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[Vegas On My Mind]

At the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, city folk are the butt of the joke

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Cowboy poet: Waddie Mitchell and his mustache recite a poem during the 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko.
Photo: Ross Anderson, AP/Elko Daily Free Press

“Oh my God, I love the hat and those boots!” Mary Roberts, a blackjack dealer from Las Vegas, told her newly arrived friend. “You look just like a real cowgirl!”

Mary’s friend looked nothing at all like a real cowgirl. She was quite obese, for one thing. Her hair seemed rubber-cemented into place with such determination that it was unlikely she’d put up well with riding a horse for even a minute. The boots were some hideous version of fuchsia that would probably send barnyard animals into conniptions.

And yet, I told myself, this, too, was a fundamental part of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko. Much of my audience for Al-Jazeera America, I knew, would only read this feature because of just how foreign and counterintuitive it sounded that men and women who live on the range are also deep thinkers.

I was holed up at Cowboy Joe Downtown along Elko’s main drag, observing meet-ups like these between friends from The City arriving for a weekend of Western play-acting. There were, I realized, two National Cowboy Poetry Gatherings: One in which people concerned about the vanishing of small-scale American agriculture and its cultural traditions rally for a moment, and one in which outsiders come to gawk at these vanishing American cowboys and indulge their Dirty Harry fantasies.

“I’ll have a lah-tay,” said Brian Doyle of San Francisco to the barista in a spectacularly off-putting faux drawl. “No fow-uhm.”

For folks who live up here, the safari aspect of the cowboy festival is a price paid for the opportunity to host the event, which includes some amazing old-time music, extraordinary ranch-related handicrafts and events featuring grizzled range rovers otherwise dismissed as uneducated hicks reciting searingly beautiful verse about the solitude and backbreaking work they both love and hate.

About $350,000 of the $750,000 cost for the festival comes from the likes of NV Energy, AT&T and the Nevada Arts Council. A healthy chunk of the rest—and a large portion of the tourism-related spending for the event—comes from city folk who buy tickets.

“Hey, everybody’s gotta live out their dreams, right?” asked Ryan Carpenter, 36, leaning over his Duck Dynasty beard as he conducted a leather-carving tutorial. “In order for this lifestyle and the things we do to be seen and understood, people need to have that opportunity to do this. They watch and ask questions, and maybe they learn something.”

Even so, I was embarrassed for my urban brethren. I had spent a couple of days crossing painfully arid Northern Nevada for a separate piece on the drought and its devastation of the state’s agriculture. It struck me that there’s nothing cute about the ranching life, that it is as insulting to cowboys to show up in a ridiculous get-up and fake accent as it is to American Indians when Washington Redskins fans don war paint and headdresses.

Alas, my discomfort is probably for naught. This is, after all, the hardscrabble, salt-of-the-earth side of the country that is always telling everyone not to be so offended all the time. And far from being offended by the clumsy homages, the ranchers in Elko for the poetry gathering are, to paraphrase Willie Nelson, secretly amused by you and the fortune you blew at Sheplers.

“I remember when the cowboy poetry gathering started,” said Elko native Jennifer Whiteley, who appeared on a panel about the challenges convincing young people to stay on family farms. “It doesn’t bother us. We enjoy the people-watching. It’s pretty funny.”

Yes, urbanites, they’re laughing at you as surely as you laugh at the Strip crawlers sipping Eiffel Tower margaritas in Affliction gear. That cowboy hat you’re wearing? Nobody wears those. Nor do actual cattle wranglers walk around raining fringe or rocking Navajo prints, at least not up north.

I admitted to Whiteley that I can’t tell the difference in the hats. “We shape ours a little differently,” she said. “And women don’t wear a cowboy hat if they’re going to town. When I see women in downtown Elko in a cowboy hat, I know they’re from out of town.”

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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