Wandering the West
Heard any good cowboy poetry lately? No? I thought not. If the notion of cowboys with handlebar mustaches reciting poems about cows supplemented by cowboy musicians singing about cows leaves you a bit cold, you need to change your perspective. Those tough-looking entertainers can get you laughing or crying with some dumb story about ranch life every time. I remember Waddie Mitchell, the king of the cowboy poets, reducing Johnny Carson to tears of laughter on the Tonight Show one night, and Johnny had heard some good ones over the years.
Anyway, you’ve got two great chances to sample this western culture in the next several months. Right under our noses is one of the best such gatherings in the world. New West Magazine last year named Heber City’s Cowboy Poetry Gathering the best in the nation, even beating out the mother of all such gatherings in Elko. The Heber Gathering runs November 4-9 and I mention it this early because the good acts sell out fast and you can buy now.
Wasatch High School is the venue for three dozen acts, headlined by Michael Martin Murphey (the "Wildfire" guy), Collin Raye and Ian Tyson, with Waddie Mitchell himself acting again as host. I went last year and had a ball at a kind of variety show with seven or eight acts including Jackson, Wyoming’s locally famous Bar J Wranglers. A few of the attempts at cowboy comedy were painful, but overall, the two hours were great fun. Before evening shows, Texas chef Eddie Deen serves up East Texas barbecue, and there’s a cowboy fair to visit also. You can also go to horse and mule driving clinics, a buckaroo fair, and a fiddle and guitar workshop.
If you want a road trip to go with your poetry, head west to Elko, Nevada, where the 25th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is set for January 24-31, 2009.
Elko now is a 20,000-population gold-rush town. Strip mines outside of town crush gold ore by the ton to recover mere ounces. The boom has turned the I-80 freeway exits into an oasis of modern hotels, casinos and franchise foods, but a trip downtown reveals a pretty interesting glimpse into an era that’s passed most everywhere else.
Elko bills itself as the "last real cow town in the West," and the Poetry Gathering celebrates that. You’ll find Australian outback poets and Dutch-oven dinners, Kyrgyzstan musicians from Central Asia and cowboy singers from Wyoming. The dancing runs to waltzes, polkas and the two-step. Elko itself has a past and present that just oozes with Old West themes. It was the trade center for the largest open-range cattle operations in the West, and several of the old pioneer ranches remain more or less intact. There, ranch hands take a real pride in keeping up buckaroo traditions. Once, at Capriola’s saddle shop downtown, I met a Dutch cowboy who’d grown up on western lore and moved to Elko to live out his fantasy. In the 1940s Bing Crosby discovered its charms, bought up several ranches and brought some attention and Hollywood glamour to the dusty place.
Old Elko remains pretty intact downtown. In between events at the Gathering, there are museums, old casinos and Basque cuisine a carryover from the days when Basque shepherds tended massive flocks of sheep out in the sagebrush. Downtown hotels like the Stockmen’s and the Commercial offer cheap drinks and rooms and casino gambling. From there you can walk to dinner at the Star Hotel or the Nevada Dinner House for Basque fare lamb and beef heavy on the garlic and onions. The side dishes are served family style and the "Picon Punch" at the Star packs a wallop (so I’m told).
The must-stop shopping spot is J.M. Capriola’s, with everything for the working cowboy or horse lover. Capriola’s predecessor started in 1896 near 6th and Commercial streets in downtown Elko when G.S. Garcia came to town bearing the skills learned from Mexican artisans to turn leather into finely stamped and crafted saddles and tack, and to create fancy silver bits and spurs.
Outside of the Gathering events themselves, you can soak up the local culture at two museums, the Northeast Nevada Museum and the Western Folklife Center. The museum has local Shoshone and Piute beadwork and baskets, buckaroo lore, local mastodon fossils and a Bing Crosby collection from his Elko ranching days. There are also some 200 full-size stuffed animals from around the world. A block away you’ll find Sherman’s Station, an 1875 homestead ranch house and outbuildings hauled in from a nearby pioneer ranch.
At the Western Folklife Center in downtown’s historic Pioneer Hotel (with its 40-foot-long Brunswick back bar), you’ll find exhibits showcasing the diverse cultures of the American West, and a gift shop loaded with all things related to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Main Street to Heber City: 17 miles
Main Street to downtown Elko: 260 miles via I-80
Web sites: http://www.westernfolklife.org (Elko)
Insider tip: Shows are selling out already. Act fast for the headliners.
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