Although it was well past dark when I got my vehicle out of the snow, I drove about 3 hours before stopping in Lakeview, Oregon, for the night. I was just trying to make up for lost time. In fact, I might have driven even farther before stopping, but I needed fuel. Like New Jersey, Oregon has a state law against pumping your own gas. All gas must be pumped by a station employee. Since Lakeview is a small town where everything closes down about 7 p.m., there was no gas available until the stations opened back up in the morning. And since I did not have enough fuel to make it to Nevada, that silly law had me effectively stranded for the night.
Fuel was an important consideration, I came to find out, since the next morning I only saw one run-down, overpriced gas station in the next 180 miles driving. In fact, I didn’t see much during that stretch, period. I was driving down Highway 140, which runs through southern Oregon and into northern Nevada. There was not much along the road from Klamath Falls to Lakeview, but heading east from Lakeview, “not much” turned into “nothing”. Except for the tiny town of Adel, which I must have blinked and missed, I saw—literally—zero houses; one paved-road intersection; and 8 vehicles, including my own. In 180 miles. And, I had to slow down once to allow donkeys to cross the road.
In a state with no speed limit, and on a fairly straight desert road with several miles visibility, how fast do you drive? The basic speed rule would state that you drive no faster than what is safe for the conditions. On this road, on this day, that meant that you might consider keeping it under 90 mph, just to be cautious. Not far out of Lakeview, I passed by an elderly couple taking photos on the side of the road, with their pickup pulling a trailer carrying matching snowmobiles. A few miles down the road, I saw them in my rearview, gaining ground, and decided I should at least keep the old folks with the trailer from passing me. I found that 80 wasn’t quite enough to keep them from catching up with me.
Once I reached Winnemucca and got on the interstate, the speed limit was 75 mph anyway. So, I made it to Elko in time to get a haircut and make it to a couple of afternoon sessions at the 23rd annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
I would guess that the majority of people do not know that cowboy poetry exists, at least not as a distinct art form.
Myself, I cannot remember a time when I did not know about cowboy poetry. As kids, we would recite memorized poems at 4-H contests, watch Baxter Black specials on PBS, and look forward to the next time we could see him live at the veterinarian’s customer appreciation night. Of course, the fact that we would go to a customer appreciation night put on by our veterinarian is one solid indicator that we might be the type of folks to listen to cowboy poetry. Cowboy poetry tends to have a greater following among, you know, cowboys.
I think it is the fact that cowboys would listen to poetry, let alone write or recite it, that strikes outsiders as odd and makes cowboy poetry seem like such an unlikely sport. Cowboys are thought of as rough, dirty, gun-toting fellows. Men’s men who occasionally, for fun, will strap themselves to a very large, ill-tempered animal that wants to kill them. Men of few words, who will sometimes go an entire movie without saying anything, even when they are the main characters.
Such thinking ignores a couple of aspects of cowboy culture. First, the fact that most of those stereotypes above do not apply in real life. And second, that cowboys still spend most of their time working outside, in nature. When they step out the door in the morning, they see not pavement, but fields and mountains and streams. When they go to work, their job is to care for animals, and they see the cycle of birth and life and death on a daily basis. When they look up at night, they still see stars.
Such things just naturally inspire poetry. I have seen very few poems about pavement, skyscrapers, and cubicles.
So, yes, cowboy poetry is alive and well and, based on the increasing size of the Elko National Poetry Gathering, growing.
I had been aware of the event through my mom’s cousin, whom I’ll call Pam*. She lives in Elko, and always encouraged us to visit. She and her family were nice enough to let me stay with them for a couple of days. This was very good news for me, since all the hotel rooms in Elko and anywhere nearby were booked for the poetry gathering. In fact, I saw hotel signs in Winnemucca welcoming cowboy poetry guests, and Winnemucca is about 120 miles from Elko.
I would guess that a majority of people do not know that Elko exists, either. Elko is actually the third-largest population center in Nevada, after Las Vegas and Reno/Sparks/Carson City. Third largest population center in Nevada equals about 30,000 – 40,000 people between Elko and its suburbs.
I learned quite a bit about Elko from Pam, who could get a side job from the convention and visitor’s bureau. For instance, Elko is where we get much of our bling, since gold mining is the main industry in the area. The town has a large Basque population, who run most of the best restaurants in town. And the nearby Ruby Mountains are where the Donner Party really got off track, because they went around the mountain range instead of going through the not-so-secret Secret Pass. The delay put them behind schedule, which caused them to later get stranded for the winter.
We went up to the base of the Ruby Mountains, to the small town of Lamoille, to check out what is referred to as the most photographed church in America. It sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy; we probably would not have gone there if it was not the most photographed church in America, and once there, of course we are going to take photos of it.
The church is the Lamoille Presbyterian Church, also known as “the Little Church of the Crossroads”. To emphasize that it really is photogenic, a group of mule deer strolled up to the front door while I stood in the church yard. I am more familiar with white-tailed deer, and had never seen mule deer up-close before. I learned a couple of new things about mule deer in Lamoille: 1) they are almost friendly enough that you can pet them, and 2) they’re Presbyterian.
The church, the deer, and the mountains did present a peaceful scene. One might even call it poetic.
*Because that’s her name. What else am I supposed to call her?