View From Lodi, CA: Western Heritage, Cowboy Style

For Americans who care about

Western heritage,
open spaces,

animals
and

cowboy lore,
the place to be from January 22nd
to January 26th is Elko, Nevada, the home of
the 21st Annual National Cowboy Poetry
Gathering.

The

mission
of the Western Folklife Center, the Poetry
Gathering`s host, is to "enhance the vitality of
American life through the experience, understanding and
appreciation"
of the American West.

Revered cowboy poet

Waddie Mitchell
—who once managed a 36,000 acre ranch
in Jiggs, Nevada— recalled that when the first poetry
gathering was held, a few locals set up some folding
chairs in the Elko Junior High School auditorium.

"I didn`t think anyone would
show up. But I figured for the few who did, we would
probably have a pretty good party,"
said Mitchell.

But to Mitchell`s surprise, more
than 2,000 fans trekked to Elko. And attendance at the
gathering has increased every year to nearly 10,000
people from all over the world.

More than 150 poetry gatherings
are held throughout the west. But in 2001 the U.S.
Senate declared Elko, because of its success, the home
of the

"Official National Cowboy Poetry Gathering."

The first thing to understand
about going to the Poetry Gathering is that regardless
of where you might live, getting to Elko in Nevada`s
Great Basin during the dead of winter is no small feat.

From Lodi, in good weather, the
trip takes about eight hours.

If you should be unlucky and hit
snow over the Sierras—highly probable—then there is no
telling how long your journey may be.

But once in Elko, a wonderful
week lies ahead. Everyone is caught up in the expansive
spirit of true westerners who have traveled from far and
wide to share their stories.

Even reporters from "New York
City"
are enthralled. Writing for the New York
Times Magazine,
Sara Davidson, in her article

"Get Along Little Doggerel"
commented: "I
don`t believe, for example, that I would have traveled
five hours to attend a festival of

stockbroker poetry."
But, "From the first day
in Elko, I was charmed."

At the beginning of
the week, the Western Folklife Center offers workshops
on western arts and crafts. This year, seminars on
horsehair hitching, making a pulled wool saddle blanket
and creating a family encyclopedia are open to the
public.

Of special
interest—to

me
, at least— is the Italian Ranch

Cooking workshop
. According to the brochure:


"Many
people traveled far from their homelands to live and
work in the West as cowboys, sheepherders, and ranchers.
Among the immigrants to Elko were

the Italians
. Join local Italian women as they
prepare a traditional Italian-American meal that would
be representative of what they would have fed to a
haying or branding crew."

The
workshops lead up to the gathering`s main event: the
cowboys reading their poems and singing their songs.

While
critics are quick to label cowboy poetry and song as
doggerel, I disagree. Much of it is sophisticated and
almost all of it is inspirational. When you hear the
cowboys tell their stories of life on the land, it is
impossible not to be moved.

Mitchell, who as a young boy
worked with his father on ranches in remote corners of
Nevada, spins yards—as he likes to say— about moments
grand and commonplace, humorous and tragic that he
describes as timeless. All Mitchell`s tales revolve
around life and death struggles recognizable to all.

Explaining why cowboy poetry has
such universal appeal, Mitchell said:

"All
the time I was growing up we had these old cowboys
around. When you live in close proximity like that with
the same folks month after month, one of your duties is
to entertain each other, and I suppose that`s where the

whole tradition of cowboy poetry
started. You find
that if you have a

rhyme and a meter
to start that story, people will
listen to it over and over again."

The

University of Wyoming
recently appointed Mitchell an
Adjunct Professor based on his "real world
credentials that Waddie possesses in wealth."

Mitchell said that accumulating
those credentials is part of the cowboy life.

Recalled Mitchell:

"We
didn`t have electricity and that meant we didn`t have
T.V. We had darn poor radio too. So that meant we did
the strangest things at night … we talked to each
other!"

If you cannot get to Elko, you
still have several excellent options. Most of the Cowboy
Poetry Gathering events in the main auditorium will be
broadcast live over the Internet through links found at
the gathering`s web page:

www.westernfolklife.org

Four outstanding recordings
produced by the

Western Jubilee Recording Company
offer a fine
introduction to the best of the cowboy poets:

And to complete your collection, add "Buckaroo:
Visions and Voices of the American Cowboy
"—
a
coffee table book which includes one CD. 

Joe Guzzardi [ email
him], an instructor in English
at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly
column since 1988. It currently appears in the


Lodi News-Sentinel
.