What happens when you put cowboys in a room to talk politics?
Several weeks ahead of the 35th annual National Cowboy PoetryGathering in Elko, Nevada, Gail Steiger, a rancher and singer-songwriter from Yavapai county, Arizona, emailed a proposal to a small host of close friends and fellow performers.
“None of us fit easily in any box, but we all hold each other in high regard,” he wrote.
“If we can’t talk to each other about the future course of our country, who can?
“Maybe,” he added, “we could see if old friends can at least have a conversation about these issues without demonizing each other.”
Steiger was proposing a political rendezvous amongst friends – some Republicans, some Democrats, some in the wild, open range in between – who have largely avoided the subject for their more than 30-year history together.
In other circles, Steiger’s request may have seemed commonplace. At the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a weeklong festival of western poetry and song cherished by thousands for its cultivation of community, it was a perilous suggestion. More than a few performers, they say, have shot themselves in the foot proselytizing in Elko. Of the five poets Steiger initially invited to participate in his offsite roundtable, two respectfully declined.
The rodeo poet Paul Zarzyski, a diehard liberal from Great Falls, Montana, was one of them.
“These people are so locked in. I was going to run head-on in that room,” he later told me. “I didn’t need that here. Elko might be the one place I can come to and disconnect. When I go back, I’m going to be looking on Huffington Post in the morning. I’m going to be watching MSNBC. I’m going to be thrown right back in again and this is a little sanctuary for five or six days.”
The rest of them quietly gathered in the old Hotel West, the Basque steakhouse next door boisterous with tourists and townies, the blinking lights of Elko’s tiny brothel district visible from the back door. They sat around a large dining room table, discussing climate change and immigration, passing the “talking stick” back and forth and striving unsuccessfully – like newcomers to a board game – to follow the rigid guidelines of a Socratic dialogue: more questions, fewer opinions.