Searching for the West at the 34th Annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Every year, my friend Christina Barr disappears for four days in Elko. She has one of those jobs that makes you wonder if she is actually employed—something called a folklorist. When we first met, I imagined she spent her time reciting Aesop’s Fables to small crowds in public libraries. I was wrong. Being a folklorist, as well as the executive director of Nevada Humanities, requires a lot of listening to other people’s stories.
Enter Elko. Enter a population influx of 6,500 travelers, over a hundred poets, and a seemingly endless supply of cowboy stories. It’s the 34th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and this year, I’ve disappeared too. Also missing from regular life: Christina’s husband, Alan, their daughter, Sophie, and my daughter, Coco. Both daughters are five years old.
Right now we’re sitting in the Mercantile Hall, grudgingly admiring the way the staff of the Western Folklife Center—the ones running the show—have put extra seating near the booth that sells stuff for kids. In a moment of weakness, we have given in to our girls’ requests for clip-on animal ears and are now watching a baby fox and a baby wolf take turns pawing at each others’ “wild rag” capes.
“Wild rags are bandanas,” Christina laughs. (She is often laughing.) “There was a whole lesson on tying them before you got here.”
I love the term “wild rag,” and I think I love whatever cowboy poetry is, too. Although I haven’t heard any yet, I’ve seen a dozen other notable things on my way in—full rodeo dress, full mustaches, the fiddler Brigid Reedy, a rose-embroidered Western shirt made of thousands of sparkling seed beads, scuffed boots, shiny boots, bolo ties, accents so thick you can see them, plaid, more animal ears, the one person of color from Cowboy Poetry promotional materials, and soooo many hats.
It is not a platonic love that I have for this Gathering, but it’s not true love either. It probably falls somewhere along the lines of full-blown infatuation. This may seem premature, but for someone who spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about the West—what it is, what it means, whether it’s real—this place is Shangri-la.
Christina, on the other hand, is in a deep and committed relationship with cowboy poetry and has been for some time now.
As a part of a collective effort to develop an oral history of the West back in the early 2000s—pre-silver hair and post-signature glasses—Christina spent three weeks on a National Endowment for the Arts grant visiting the “northern central west and midwest” region of the country, interviewing cowboy poets in five states.
During a particularly memorable interview with Wally McRae and self-proclaimed Polish-hobo-rodeo-poet, Paul Zarzyski (both of whom are in attendance at the Gathering), Christina recalls the moment that she questioned them about “where the West begins.”
She laughs, “The answer I got was, ’You have to discover that on your trip. You are going to have to find out where the West begins. That is your charge.’ So it became the whole backdrop for the entire trip.”
At this point in the day, Christina rushes off to host a presentation by Vince Juaristi on Basque immigration. As for me, I’m ready to hear some actual cowboy poems, so I gather my things and head to the Lamoille Room for “Tracing Our Roots and Our Routes”—a lineup of all-female poets.
The poets are Yvonne Hollenbeck, Betty Lynn McCarthy and scholarship recipient Annie Mackenzie. Hollenbeck has been on the cowboy poetry circuit for three decades now. She is 72 and elicits the kind of crowd reaction that a headliner comic might receive in her hometown—lots of eager laughter, applause and nodding recognition for her familiar and often cheeky poems. McCarthy reads from a big leather-bound book with a brand on the front—ostensibly her ranch’s own—as she recounts poems about particular horses and specific landforms on her property. But it is newcomer Mackenzie who really holds the room with her understated rhymer, “Love—I Learned it From This Land.”
“Love—I Learned it From This Land.”
It’d been a dry summer, and it was dry all spring through.
Waiting on the rain, I learned a thing or two.
Given enough time things will get better,
Love is patient; I learned it from the weather.
I’ve got this old mare, just as sweet as she can be,
She takes good care, of the kids in the family.
Puts up with them, even when they’re raising hell,
Climbing on her neck and pulling on her tail.
I’m sure there’s no better than her of course,
Love is kind; I learned it from a horse.
My friend down the way has got a nicer rig than me,
Brand new pickup and trailer that’s still shiny.
But I look around at what’s mine, and what I’m thankful for,
Love does not envy; I learned it from a neighbor.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as pretty,
As the sun sinking down over the valley.
But if it sings its own praise, I ain’t heard it yet,
Love does not boast; I learned it from a sunset.
Through all my toil and strife,
Love has been a guiding hand
On how to live a good life;
I learned it from this land.
But on how to be a strong woman,
How to hold my head up high,
To always have a smile on my face,
And never tell a lie.
How to work from dawn till dusk,
And in God we trust.
To give life all I’ve got,
I learned from my Aunt Dot.
It isn’t just Mackenzie’s words that are lovely here, it’s also her delivery. I’m starting to learn that with cowboy poetry, performance is an integral part of the experience. While Hollenbeck delivers her lines with a wink and a smile, Mackenzie is all sincerity. Even when her hands shake to the point where she’s unable read her own paper, her voice is so unwavering that you know it must be the truth that she’s telling up on that stage. Her simple, first-person account of good horses and love for family members is bolstered by her smooth, eastern Oregon accent and confidence in her subject matter.
I leave the room after shaking Mackenzie’s hand—which is no longer shaking—and am suddenly stricken with a pang of “place envy”—the condition of suspecting that this 20-something knows every acre of her land better than I’ve known any inch of any place I’ve ever lived.
Next stop on the cowboy poetry lovefest is “Jousting in Verse”—a musical call-and-response performance by men and women known as bertsolari, Basque poet-singers who improvise songs on the spot. Alan has brought Coco and Sophie to dance in the back of the hall while we watch the singers take their places on stage.
“That’s Maialen Lujabio,” says Alan as he points to the woman on the far left. “She’s the first female Basque national champion.”
Although bertsolari have been competing nationally for almost a century, Lujabio became the first woman to win the title in 2009 and then again last December after a 74-year male-dominated run.
To the right of Lujabio, two more women sit next to their male counterparts as Basque historian Joxe Mallea walks up to the mic and sets the scene that the first two singers—Oihana Iguaran and Martin Goicoechea—must complete.
Here’s how the story begins: The two singers were once engaged to be married in Basque country. They broke it off, and Goicoechea migrated to the United States. Fifty years later, they met again, here, today, at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The following two stanzas are from their six verse poem (special thanks to Inaki Arrieta Baro for translating):
Berrogeita hamar urtez urruti
hor sorpresan arrazoia
ondua dezun sasoia
lehen mutiko ta orain gizon bat
nibeletan joa goia
lehen baserritar bat soilik zinen
ta orain berriz cowboy
Far away for fifty years
that is the reason for my surprise
I can see that since then
you look much better
then you were a boy,
now you are a man
then you were a farmer,
now you are a cowboy
Nik ere oso ederki dakit
ez daukat sasoi berdina
berrogeita hamar urteko ametsa
beti nun lortu ezina
honera etorri nintzan eta ni
hainbeste maite mina
gaur hemen ikusten zaitut
dut sentimendu berdina
I know that I am not
so strong as I was
my fifty years dream
was always unattainable
I came to this place
with so much pain of love
I see you here today
and still feel the same way
My guess is that there are maybe eight people in the audience who understand these words as they are being sung. For the rest of us, it may or may not sound like lilting Spanish sung by glottal Italians using too many vowels, k’s, and z’s. But we understand enough. Two people have angelic voices, are in love, and are creating poetry in real time. A pair of 5-year-olds in the back of the auditorium are throwing their small bodies wildly into leaps and twirls in an effort to interpret the beauty of the song.
It’s a one-dimensional appreciation that grows when I learn a little more about the place behind the tradition.
“So, the Basque country is on either side of the border of France and Spain in the Pyrenees mountains along the ocean,” explains Alan, who is currently taking a Basque course at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he also works. “That this very small region in the mountains developed and maintained its own unique language separate from all the great linguistic cultural currents of Europe, that’s kind of amazing. And it survived despite decades of oppression under the Franco regime, which was really hostile towards Basque language and culture.”
In addition to weathering political persecution, Basque language and the bertsolari tradition have also survived the continuing exodus of younger generations out of the countryside—a phenomenon that is also familiar in Western, rural America.
For a culture without a country, speaking the language is also a form of patriotism for a place that—while it’s not officially recognized as a nation—still exists. Like Alan said, it’s there. It’s on either side of the border of France and Spain … but it’s also an archetypal place, just like the American West. Somewhere that has deep, spiritual truths embedded in big sky, curved earth, and deep waters that people need to grapple with or grab onto. Maybe that’s why all the poets here—Basque or otherwise—keep repeating themselves. Everyone has a horse story, a land story and a love story to tell.
Two days later, Christina, myself and our girls—still a fox and a wolf, respectively—are walking in the desert 30 miles outside of Elko looking for signs of coyotes, finding rocks and bones. We are hugged by sagebrush on three sides and backed by the Ruby Mountains to the east. Everything is a muted shade of Middle Earth—not exactly dazzling, but breathtaking. Christina is breathless.
“God, I just love this place so much,” I hear her say softly.
This is her archetypal place, known by locals as The Old Forbes Place. This is where she lived for the seven years following the cowboy poetry roadtrip and her divorce from her first husband. Her former home, a small ranch house with two out-buildings, is a blip on the otherwise untouched landscape, the one sign of human activity—even now.
For her, the big sky is not an abstraction, it’s a light shade of cerulean blue; the curved earth is obscured by the Ruby Mountains; and the deep waters are really just creeks that run seasonally. Old Forbes Place is an entrypoint for both struggle and healing—where Christina’s West begins.
“When I lived [here], all I did was explore,” she says, “That’s all I did. I just walked around and looked at the ground and the sky and the horizon and the sunset. I got to know it so well. … And then it becomes not about you anymore, right? And you really know that you are completely incidental. And that can be humbling and that can also be kind of a relief.”
As we head back to the car, I do the thing where you squint and sort of blur your eyes so the colors all run together. I could be anywhere. I could be incidental, too. I blink and the Rubies come back into focus. My daughter is carrying a cow shoulder blade.
What happens if we forget the real places that draw us inward?
Back in Reno, during our weekly dinner at Christina and Alan’s house, I stare at a print on the wall, a woodcut of a Western landscape with Paul Zarzyski’s poem “Grace” printed down the middle:
In the soft low light up high
where love has always thrived and will
forever yearn for the colorful hover—a brush stroke
of words out of the West—we still want
free life, we still want fresh air.
And as millenniums meander by
like birthdays to the earth, what thrill
a saffron blade of grass, blue sage, scrub oak
still brings us on our daily jaunt
across the land, our daily poem, our prayer.