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Online Extra
October 2004

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ZipUSA: 89801

By Kate Krautkramer
Take in the scene. Register the commanding Western mystique. Note iconoclastic characters: gold miner, prostitute, cowboy. Be dazzled by the casino lights. Close your eyes and try to locate a rhythm in the ping-ping-ping of the slot machines. Play slots in the grocery store, the gas stations, the hotels.

Explore the Pioneer Hotel—home of the Western Folklife Center and Elko's most famous event, the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which this year drew a crowd of 8,000 people. Wonder if there are 8,000 extra beds. Witness Elko's native son, cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell, demonstrate his penchant for metaphor when he says, "That buckaroo was squealing like a piglet on caffeine, madder than a constipated badger on the fight." Listen to him talk about leaving a life of working cattle and riding out on the Nevada range. Notice his voice goes low, like he's eulogizing an old friend. Invite Waddie Mitchell to lunch at the Star Hotel dining hall, where he's greeted by a waitress who knows his name and what he'll likely order, which is a plate made heavy with beef lost in the wrinkles of gravy, otherwise known as the boarders' lunch, the boarders being a few elderly Basque gentlemen who occupy the upstairs bedrooms and come down for meals when a bell is rung. Try to pronounce the boarders' vowel-laden names. Learn how Basques have stayed on here in Elko—once a railroad town, once a cattle town, once a Nevada town that, before Reno and Las Vegas caught on, was the locus of big-name entertainment and the part-time home of honorary mayor Bing Crosby, who occasionally showed up at a Catholic Mass, much to the delight of the congregation, which silenced itself in favor of his singing. Try to recall Crosby's voice, possibly just as silky and clear as the Nevada sky this afternoon as it segued into horizon just beyond I-80 to the north, past the Elko High School football field where the team was practicing, anticipating another game against the Green Wave, their closest rivals, 250 miles away in Fallon. Try to stare down the school mascot, a Native American in a war bonnet, painted on the neat red bricks of the outside gym wall. Remark on the students of many races wearing their Indian jerseys with no apparent cultural qualms. find out that the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone has not only given its sanction for the school to keep Indians as the mascot, it's also endorsed the school's marching band, "Pride of Nevada, the Band of Indians," as an organization that casts the Te-Moak people in a positive light. Observe the blank looks when you ask a group of high school kids if they ever venture onto the three Native American colonies, the urban equivalent of reservations, inside Elko city limits. Realize that they think of the colonies as a good place to purchase fireworks. Try to memorize their smooth, young faces. Lament your lost youth. Recall your unrequited desire to become a cowgirl. Believe it when several teenagers declare their intent to stay here after they graduate—praising their town with phrases like "a good place to have kids and raise a family," "a safe place," and "I could see staying here forever."

Let your imagination range out on the surrounding Great Basin, a huge spread covering most of Nevada, a good chunk of Utah, and slivers of Oregon, California, Idaho, and Wyoming—a piece of America irreverent toward the rule of the Continental Divide, where streams do not flow to the sea, and the only escape is through evaporation or to sink into the ground. Work to include the analogy in your narrative.

Speak to a man with a gun tattooed into the back of his pants, who says, "I've lived here 15 years. No one ever leaves, and if they do they come right back." When he tells you he's married to a "classically trained" ballet dancer, do not act surprised. When he explains that in this part of the world, people tend to confuse "dancer" with "stripper," laugh—but only a little.

With 2,000 other people, sit in the fairground bleachers for the annual demolition derby. Watch the drivers slam into one another's cars. Breathe in the blue exhaust and smoke. Cheer wildly for the winner. Pretend you live here. Absorb the contrasts. Notice contradiction exhibited by the town's layout: to the north, acres of mowed lawn surrounding a convention center, a public swimming pool, and the newly remodeled campus of Great Basin College; to the south, casinos, hotels, restaurants, and a little row of legal brothels held in to the community by a set of railroad tracks headed east and west toward miles of sagebrush and wide-open high desert.

Land in a coffee shop called Cowboy Joe just off the main drag. While sipping iced cappuccino, reflect on the American West, cowboys, manifest destiny, and romanticized love for rugged, unyielding land. Ask a folklorist who has dropped in from down the block if she likes cowboys. Detect the flame in her eyes when she smiles and says, "Well, you've seen 'em, right?"

Down the way at J. M. Capriola's Western Wear store, enjoy watching a worker stroke the folds of leather on his bench, bending down as if he had a secret with the saddle.

Walk down Idaho Street, right through the center of town. Listen to some kids blow rap music from their souped-up cars. Watch a real buckaroo in worn Wranglers, chaps, and spurs walk past a yoga studio while talking on a cell phone. Catch a whiff of him. Inhale traces of sagebrush and rawhide escaped to town and free-floating on the air. Notice the cowboy riding off into the sunset in a truck built about the year you were born. Smile and keep walking. Hum a Western tune you know by heart.


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