Travel: Poets On Horseback

In Elko, Nevada a boy's dream of the Wild West can still come true - even if he finds the cowboys who ride the range have an unexpected taste for rhyme. William McGonagall would have felt very much at home
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The Independent Culture
It's 6.30 In the morning and business is brisk in the coffee shop of a Reno hotel-casino whose name, even if I could remember it, is unimportant. It's one of dozens identical in every respect: an acre of illuminated lighting outside; a low-ceilinged interior the size of Wembley crammed with rows of vociferous slot machines punctuated by blackjack and craps tables. They never close. Never. The last time these shrines to human optimism shut down was for JFK's funeral. In wobble a blinking busload of out-of-staters, retired and blue-rinsed old-timers from casino-less California who've bussed half the night to get here early and play the slots till they drop. They're wearing badges that say, "Hi! I'm Jean!" or "Well, whaddayeknow!" And whaddayeknow, but you can get a beer here at o-six-thirty-five and there's a lady behind the blackjack table tapping her black-varnished, elongated fingernails on a shoe of cards. She cocks an eyebrow at me. I say: "I'm going to Elko."

Imagine a state twice the size of England but whose total population is about half that of greater Manchester, add 250 mountain ranges and you have Nevada. Elko is a mining and ranching settlement whose remoteness in the northeast corner of this wilderness cannot be exaggerated. I am headed up here in the dead of winter because I have been told that the world's last real cowboys are assembling in Elko for a poetry gathering.

It's not hard to leave Reno, a city which, like an imploded star, now lives on its past glories. At 7.10 the woman customer in the Army Surplus store on the outskirts of town has given up on Reno and is moving to LA. She's buying a few last-minute odds and ends including a canister of CS gas. "You don't need this in Elko," she assures me. "Why, you don't even need to lock your car in Elko."

We drive east, like the pioneers of the 1850s who carved out homesteads on these endless sagebrush plains of the Great Basin. You could still find the household detritus from their wagon trains up to the 1920s; their wheel ruts are still visible, symbols of hope and des- peration, of potato famines and pogroms. Many of them ended their lives in these vastnesses. "Born in County Cork, Ireland, 1843, Died in Battle Mountain, Nevada, 1897." Las Vegas may beat like a neon heart in the southernmost corner of this enormous state, but I suspect Nevada's spiritual centre lies somewhere out here, east of Reno.

Cotton trees stand grey and impliable, sagebrush blue with petrifaction. Nothing, as they say, prepares you for this vastness. The curve of the earth is apparent on the horizons of valleys, as at sea. Apt, since in the Ice Age great inland seas and lakes sat here; their high-water marks are still branded on the slopes of mountains. Thomas Jefferson, who sent word to the earliest settlers to be on the outlook for the woolly mammoth, believed that this part of the then undiscovered west was not only wild but unlimited.

We are now 90 miles east of Reno, in a valley of startling emptiness. I have a movie picture in my mind: a pretty mother in a paisley dress and apron stands outside her ranch house, a child clutched to her, her eyes narrowed on the immensely distant horizon. We follow her point of view and slowly discern a dust cloud. Within this cloud grows a single, black speck. Close in. It's ... Randolph Scott - and he's coming home! As we eat blackbean soup and corn bread at an outpost of Lovelock among saddle-weary, slit-eyed Clint Eastwood lookalikes, I am suffused with comfort by the realisation that things have not changed a whit out here from my days in the 1/3d seats in the Regal Cinema and that the essential American myth is still intact.

The Mustang Ranch is another story. A forlorn stockade of ramshackle huts set down in a wild of sub-zero brush with a sign outside stating the laws for owners of brothels, it's a setting as bereft of titillation as you could find in a two-week ride. A pair of possibly Spanish eyes glide across a window of this pay-as-you-lay location in the only state in the union where prostitution is not illegal. No doubt inside it's warm. If you'd been on dawn patrol for an unbroken 20 years maybe you could muster the vim to do business here this morning, but as it is the Mustang Ranch makes the arid desert a place of exotic and nubile charm.

Coyotes, a bunch of three, clear the highway with reluctance, loping into the sagebrush in upright, bounding motions. Off behind them the snow- tipped Ruby mountains are suddenly revealed in their panoramic entirety. Even for Nevada the Rubies are breathtakingly bold. One peak rises to 11,000ft. Below it is Elko.

A part of me doesn't actually believe that American cowboys still exist. I'm prepared to be told that men working the open range on quarter-horses are now just a fable - a bit like the Pony Express which my heart still believes was the essential form of mail delivery to these parts throughout all the years of the Wild West but which my head must now concede was a business venture of the most ephemeral kind, beginning in 1860 and disappearing just one year later with the opening of the Trans Continental Telegraph. Yet even on a first, cursory drive through Elko it's clear that what's in progress here is no dude convention. Along sidewalks and in and out of bars are moseying an assortment of mustachioed, gnarled-faced wranglers - or buckaroos as they call cowboys here - whose bow-legged walks and Georgia O'Keeffe faces defy contrivance.

Fifteen thousand people live in Elko. A hundred and twenty-five years ago it was a railhead for local mines, today it's a mining and ranching town as well as a focal point for Nevada's Basques, men famous the world over for their skills as sheep-herders and for their appetites. The Star Hotel is home to retired Basque shepherds. Every evening at 6.30 the hand- bell in the Star is rung and these craggy old-timers who still converse in their impenetrable native tongue troop in and sit down to supper on long, communal benches. We're just in time. The portions come in Pyrenean proportions. Mountain sheep in these parts are as big as heifers and the cutlets from their lambs are as thick and juicy as fillet steaks.

Sprayed-on blue jeans with the ends worn inside or outside calf-high, pointy-toed leather boots are usual in these parts. As are belts with ornate buckles the size of spider-crab shells, gran'-daddy shirts, bandannas and three-quarter length dustcoats or Victorian frockcoats, if you prefer. Hats vary from Spanish sombreros to Stetsons to domed ten-gallons to affairs whose brims go by like cruising albatrosses. But what about the poetry?

Well, it's less Grecian Urn, more Dan McGrew to be honest. More poetasters than poets. A recital form which values the ability to rhyme above all else, performed on stage by cowboys for likeminded people whose passion for humorous incidents involving steers and buckaroos and what happens to city slickers when they venture into real cowboy country is beyond exhausting.

But since I have come here assuming that cowboys and poetry will go together about as well as ham and, well, Faberge eggs, I am, to be honest, oddly affected by what I find. "Poetry" is really a handle for countrymen to meet and share the folklore and song of a pastoral way of life that is slowly disappearing. City folks want neither mines nor ranchers. Mines are ugly and cowboys take precious water for their cattle, according to urban environmentalists who want the federal government to preserve this tundra untouched for the nation. If Elko, a mining and ranching town in what was once a seabed, succumbs to this agenda it will cease to exist.

So once a year these men, whose walk implies recent dismounting, wax their moustaches to stand at ten-to-two, put on their best hat and shirt and creak into Elko to celebrate in ballad and song their own endurance. Sourdoughs, waddys and punchers saunter in and out of Elko's frontier shops that cater in clothing for every imaginable size and shape of buckaroo. Into town for wall-to-wall iambic pentameter roll big black cowboys and small Chinese cowboys as well as gauchos and cowpokes and vaqueros and drifters from not only Texas and Montana and Colorado, but also from Canada and the Australian outback. Cowgirls too, in bright waistcoats and wide- brimmed hats pushed back on their heads, although these for some reason seem oddly out of place. Maybe it's because I'm programmed to think exclusively in terms of paisley dresses, not to mention suspenders, when it comes to women in the Wild West. At any rate, these latter-day Buffalo Bills and Annie Oakleys are a happy, gregarious lot. They drink Buckaroo brew for relaxation and laugh at the thought of any jogging other than the perpendicular kind. When they've finished with poesy they turn to music and jam into the early hours with fiddles and guitars, improvising the haunting melodies that got here by way of famine ships and wagon trains.

The whole idea of this gathering and the spirit that sustains it is endearing. And whereas my hotel, the Stockman's Inn, is simply a gigantic gambling arcade with rooms attached, there's a homely, welcoming feel to Elko and a folksy simplicity to the non-stop versifying, even if it's best taken in small measures. Just occasionally, though, the real stuff bursts through. I hear it once, from the mouth of a Crow Indian called Hank Real Bird, a majestic, six-foot, copper-skinned chief-like man in his late forties, his hair in an ink-black ponytail. When he speaks in his nation's strange English he tells of deep waters and strong currents:

Hank Real Bird's poetry is hard to find in book form in Elko, but then he doesn't rhyme.

Although in winter the passes of the Ruby mountains are places where only people wishing the fate of characters in Stephen King novels would venture, there are wondrous drives in the country round about, across land that is among the most sparsely populated as well as the most beautiful on earth. Chimneys of warm air out on the plains mark hot springs. The high ground of the Sulphur Spring mountains is rich with juniper bushes, sage brush and pinon pine. Since it can go down to -40F here, these plants produce anti-freeze-like resins to keep themselves alive. We trudge through the snow and rub shards of pinon pine between our fingers, then crush the blue juniper berries and inhale. In Lamoille, a village 15 minutes into the foothills of the Rubies, deer wander freely along the main street beneath bare cottonwoods. The main hotel has three bedrooms. Out here, calf-roping and rodeo country, range land is cheap (as low as $150 an acre) and nobody tells you what kind of house you can or can't put up on your property when you move here and decide to live the quintessential American dream. We pause on the crest of a hill. Out on the measureless ranges twinkle evening lights from the isolated homes of folks who've put their faith in Jeffersonian self-reliance and an unforgettable view.

Dropping 100 miles south and tacking back west towards Reno on what is deservedly known as "the loneliest road in America", my cowboy impressions formed indelibly many years ago are robustly intact: the idea of a man alone, his view both moral and decent, his skills with guns and horses, his pastoral peace in his hard- won home on the range. It's a dreamscape. Or a God-given way of life worth fighting hard to save. For even if you don't believe in God, as one old wrangler remarked over beers in the Stockman's, whom do you thank on a day when all the earth and you are in tune, when your horse is content and your steers want no more than the range can give them and you're riding home to your wife and kids, whom do you thank, if not God?

Among many memories of Elko, one in particular will persist. It's 7.30 in the evening and the crowd waiting in the foyer of the Elko Convention Center are being serenaded from the staircase by one Lonnie Hammergren. The rub here is that while the great majority of the audience of several hundred are real buckaroos, Lonnie thinks he's a cowboy. He strums his guitar and sings as if he's just swallowed his plectrum. The cowpokes exchange quiet grins. For Lonnie's not just a dude neuro-surgeon from Las Vegas, he's also the Lieutenant Governor of Nevada, a wannabe of stature, in other words. If the top brass want so badly to be cowboys, maybe there's hope after all for the Elko buckaroo.

TRAVEL NOTES

The next Cowboy Poetry Gathering will take place in Elko, Nevada from 24 to 31 January 1998. For further information contact the Western Folklife Center, PO Box 1570, Elko, NV 89803-0888. Tel: 001 702 738 7508. Fax: 001 702 738 2900. Internet: http:// www.cattle-log.com

GETTING THERE

Peter Cunningham flew from London to Los Angeles as a guest of Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747) and from Los Angeles to Reno, Nevada as a guest of Reno Air (001 702 686 3835). Virgin Atlantic operates one non-stop flight a day each way between London and Los Angeles. Return fares for travel in January start at around pounds 440 plus airport tax. In Upper Class (where passengers are offered a neck and scalp massage or manicure from an inflight beauty therapist) the return fare is pounds 4,330 plus airport tax.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Nevada Commission on Tourism is at Capitol Complex, Carson City, Nevada 89710. Tel: 001 702 687 4322. Fax: 001 702 687 6779. Internet: www.travelnevada.com E-mail: ncot@ travelnevada.com

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