Heading west out of Salt Lake City, Interstate 80 sheds lanes as the city’s skyscrapers become indistinguishable from the mountains in the rearview mirror. Shrinking to a narrow two-lanes-in-each-direction highway, it winds through chalky white salt flats and among shallow lakes that seem to reach for the snowcapped mountains in the distance. It’s a great expanse of land, of loneliness, and of solitude. Scrubby sagebrush sprouts in the median. Over the border into Nevada, casinos crop up in every little town along this former route of westward expansion. Salt flats give way to rolling hills covered with sparse grass, sagebrush, and stunted trees; it’s easy to imagine mounted cowboys driving herds across the cracked earth. After 230 miles, as the Ruby Mountains become visible to the south, the 80 leads to Elko, Nevada.
Every January since 1985, cowboys, rodeo riders, ranchers, and poets have convened to recite poems and share songs with fans and one another at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering at the convention center here. Dozens of other events around the country celebrate cowboy poetry, but the Elko event is widely regarded as the biggest one.
Cowboy poetry emerged on the trail drives that moved cattle across the western United States at the end of the 19th century. Trail driving was grueling and monotonous: a job could last anywhere from five to nine months and offered almost no human contact apart from the people working the herd. Many cowboys were immigrants or freed slaves (one in three was Mexican, and roughly 25 percent were black), and there was little room for prejudice. They shared stories to pass the time. Around the campfires at night, traditional work songs swirled together with African American spirituals and the ditties of Mexican, Irish, and Scottish immigrants.
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