I was having lunch at a Basque restaurant with the cowboy poet Waddie
Mitchell. He grew up on a ranch near Elko, and his former home, Sherman
Station, was later moved to the city center and is now the Chamber of
Commerce. He knew plenty about the area and its people.
Our conversation eventually turned to poetry, and Waddie told me the story of how he became interested in it. When he was 17 years old and working out on the range, his sister sent him a record album for his birthday. He was working cattle in the middle of the high desert and, of course, had no electricity, much less a turntable.
But he had the record, by Kris Kristofferson, someone Waddie had
never heard of. And he read the lyrics off the back of the album jacket
every night by lamplight at the chuckwagon.
Waddie leaned over the table and recited some of the lyrics for me. There was the general ruckus of a busy restaurant at noon, but I heard him quite plainly when he said, "Poetry is like symphonic music. How can you know it until you feel it?"
The lunch with Waddie Mitchell at the Basque restaurant was quite a cultural experience, with family-style dining, regulars who eat lunch there every day, and waitresses rushing around with big tureens of steaming hot soup. I quickly gathered that the primary feature of a Basque meal is astounding quantities and varieties of meatbeef, lamb, brains, tripe, you name it. I've been a vegetarian for more than 20 years, sotrying to be politeI had the traditional cabbage soup, salad, and some French fries.
Later that day I was fortunate to attend a literary reading by the author William Kittredge at the Western Folklife Center in Elko and was thrilled to be invited to have dinner with him and a few of the people who had set up the reading. Of course, the people from the folklife center all decided it would be fun to take their guest to a Basque restaurant for dinner. So there I was again on the same day, in the awkward position of feeling I was being culturally insensitive, saying to the very polite waitress, "I'm not very hungry tonight. I think I'll just have some soup."
Elko is 280 miles (450 kilometers) from Reno to the east and about the same distance from Salt Lake City and Boise to the west and north. I was talking about this with a young woman at the Elko Convention Center. We could hear the semitrucks rolling by on I-80 in the distance. The woman smiled and said, "People say that we're right in the middle of nowhere, but really, we're right in the center of everything."