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Road Trip to Elko: Cowboy Poetry III

Bonnie asked, “Does cowboy poetry have any spiritual content?”

My first reaction was, “Of course!” But thinking I should do a little research, I spent some time on the Western Folklife Center’s website (, listening to a podcast of Yvonne Hollenbeck’s poem, “The Christmas Quilt,” in which a family’s lost loved ones and their sacrifices are stitched together with the Christmas story and Christ’s sacrifice for us. Yes, right there was spiritual content in this first poem, randomly picked and touchingly read by the author.

And then on to irreverently reverent Paul Zarzyski’s blog and his poem, “Face-To-Face” which pretty much puts us at the primal, pulsing center of the universe. And “Putting the Rodeo Into Cowboy Poetry,” with its cosmos/universe/seasons and this wonderful line: “fall madly in love with earth¹s fickle ways.”

Then a goldmine of poems in the book/CD “Buckaroo: Visions and Voices of the American Cowboy,” edited by Hal Cannon and Thomas West (Callaway, Simon & Shuster © 1993. “My Requiem” by quintessential Montana cowboy-poet/rancher Wallace McRae lists man’s usual earthly efforts at immortality‹art, architecture, grand works‹and then concludes,

But grant to me this final wish

When I say that last amen:

Let my mark be carried lightly

In the hearts and minds of men.

So, did I find any spiritual content on this first foray into cowboy poetry? There are plenty of the to-be-expected hard drinkin’, hard ridin’ poems, and laments about the hard, hard life (“Oh, I never knew what misery was, Till I started herding sheep.” -Jack Walther). And there are lots of humorous riffs on the cowboy life (Larry Schutte’s “Cowpen Moo-sic”, or Paul Zarzyski’s “Ain’t No Life After Rodeo”).

But I also found the kind of introspection and spirituality that comes from living life at the edge of death, from being alone under a big sky, alone with the universe, alone with your hopes and fears, alone with your self-sufficiency or not. Big highs, big lows, big hearts, big spirit.

Reminded me of the Psalms. These poems put me there. Forty days in the desert or the high plains, outside of Elko, on horseback, on a ranch. I need to read more before we hit the road!

Road Trip to Elko – Anne Garner Austin’s “prequel”

I am glad Bonnie asked about the spiritual aspect of Cowboy Poetry, because it has really gotten me to think about what was probably the ‘real’ reason I wanted to go.

Laura always delights me with her thoroughness but she did not have to prove to me that you could find spiritualness in cowboy poetry. I am not going to Elko to hear cowboy poetry in search of spirituality, because I already know it will find me. I AM going however; to reconnect with the breed of folk I grew up with. Folks that say what they mean and mean what they say; and when they offer you their hand, they are giving their word. These are the men and women that the phrase “Salt of the Earth” was coined for. I have missed them, and just in the planning of this trip, I have already begun the reconnection.

My family came to Lake County in 1883. I was born here, to parents of the Depression, and raised on a working cattle ranch. It is home and it is where I draw my strength from. Our family ties run deep and we are connected to the land, but sometimes in the day to day living we lose touch with these ties. I have always found a quality in Cowboy Poetry that rekindles the spirit and sends it soaring.

I mentioned yesterday that last year was very turbulent for me and I have found through the strength of friends and God, that the simplest joys are the most uplifting. I intend to find those joys in Elko; with people that work hard, play with abandon and laugh often, and I could not have selected a better companion to share this experience with than Laura.

Oh, did I also mention that I expect to have a wonderful week of people watching as well? The hats that will be as distinctive in their style as the person that dons them; the plethora of whimsical mustaches and facial hair grooming, that the men will employ; and the boots, ah the boots! They will come in every imaginable color, style and type. I expect everything from broke-in and well-worn, with a few barnyard particles still attached; to hand-tooled ostrich skin. There will be traditional cowboy boots to packers, high heeled to low, fancy to plain. Not to mention the numerous pairs Laura and I will be sporting! And city-folk, think they have the market cornered on fashion! Humph! “Talk” to you from the road!

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