It’s a Thursday morning in Elko, Nevada, and a gathering crowd sporting polish-slick cowboy boots and shoestring neckties are trading the chill creeping through the city for the warmth of its downtown convention centre.
Some have been in town for days. Others have just arrived from Reno, a 470-kilometre drive southwest down I-80. Or from Salt Lake City, Utah. Or Lubbock, Texas. Or Eunice, Louisiana. There’s a Canadian contingent here, too, representing the likes of Longview and Okotoks, Alta., and Swift Current, Sask. Many who have come into town have left the arduous duties at their ranches to a friend or family member — a changing of the guard reserved only for times when an exceptional occasion calls a cowboy away.
In the four days that will follow, these and the few thousand others who have descended upon Elko for the 35th Annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering will revel in a sonic celebration of cowboy culture. They’ll hear poems, songs and stories about star-strewn skies, silky horses and soil-stained hands, and between shows, workshops and open mic sessions, they’ll share their notions of the West with strangers and friends over cold beers.
“Throughout the ages, the herding cultures and horse cultures worldwide have used poetry and music to express our intermingled existence with mother nature,” says Hal Cannon after the morning crowd has settled into the convention centre’s auditorium to hear the American musician and folklorist’s keynote address. “We do so to express our love of the land, the work, the animals — the world around us.”
When the stage lights finally go up, the imposing figure of an aging tree is revealed, arching over a waiting microphone. The crowd hushes to listen. The gathering has begun.