I've always loved cowboys. The way they look has a great deal to do with it. The sight of the Marlboro man on a billboard can give me a jolt of longing as I drive through traffic on my way to work. I imagine that the way some men respond to the sight of a woman in seamed stockings and garter belt is the way I feel when I see a man in chaps. The rough leather directs the eye up the legs to the place where the leather stops, just below the groin. The tight-fitting jeans, the boots with spurs, even the hat with its rakish, playful shape contribute to an image that I find deeply appealing.
It's an image that suggests ruggedness and wildness, cockiness, a sense of fun, and an intimate power over animals. Until the summer of 1993, however, I did not associate this image with a fine-tuned intelligence. I did not expect a cowboy to be articulate and well-read, I expected him to possess a crude, right-wing dumbness, so that for a woman with a certain education, a romance with a cowboy would be a misalliance.
The wrangler, Earl McCoy, had puffy jowls and a stomach that pooched out over his belt, but the cowboys on the poster were lean, muscular, perched on a fence rail with their Stetsons tipped down over their foreheads.
"These men write poetry?"
"Hell, yes," Earl said. "Good poetry."
"Where is Elko, Nevada?"
"About four hours east of Reno." That was four hours east of not much.
He gave me tapes of them singing andreciting their poems, and after listening to them, I knew I had to go. I talked my friend Jeanne Davis, a colleague on the show, into coming with me, and arranged to write an article about the festival so that if it proved a disaster, I wouldn't be wasting a weekend. The other producers on the show joked that I was going to Elko "to get laid by cowboys," and, of course, there was a seed of truth in this. I had an instinct something might happen in Elko but I did not put much stock in that instinct; I didn't pack any form of birth control.
Two weeks later, I stood in my closet trying to decide what to wear. Jeans, obviously, but I had Calvin Klein jeans, I would look like a city slicker but that was unavoidable. I washed my hair and let it dry, fluffing it with my fingers. My hair was curly and when I was younger I'd spent painful ho'urs trying to tame it, blow it dry, straighten it with an iron, or wind it on giant rollers with Dippity-Do, but now I left it natural.
Everything in my grooming routine was honed for efficiency and speed. I wore no makeup. I smoothed on skin moisturizer with sunblock, pulled on the jeans and a teal-colored shirt from Banana Republic and Italian shoe-boots and I was ready to walk out the door.
"Why can't I come with you?" she said.
"You know why. It's your Weekend with Dad."
"If it's all right with him, can I come?"
Gabriel was dragging his skateboard out of the car, along with a bagful of CDs. "Can I have money instead of a present?"
"I'll take a present then." He leaned forward and kissed my cheek. "Love you, Mom."
"I love you too." I watched them walk to the door and waited for it to open. "Don't forget your reading!"
When I pulled up to Jeanne's house, she was waiting on the sidewalk with two large tote bags. She'd once been a flight attendant and I knew that in those tote bags was everything we could possibly need: a travel alarm clock, three boxes of Band-Aids in three different sizes, containers of healthy Sun Chips, regular and barbecue flavor, herbal tea bags, and an electric coil to heat water for the tea.
"Why are we doing this?" I said.
"It'll be a hoot," she said, buckling her seat belt.
"We have no idea what we're going to find."
She switched on the radio to KZLA, the country-music station, to set the mood. "Earl goes every year."
Heads turned as we walked through the airport in Nevada to pick up our rental car. Jeanne was five feet ten, with that long, dazzling, bright blonde hair you find on women in Sweden, and I was equally tall with dark hair and neither of us wore a bra. We did not look as if we came from Elko.
We drove across town, passing the Red Lion Motel, which had two giant plastic steers in front, the Commercial Hotel, which had a white king polar bear rearing up over the door, numerous feed stores, and Brenda's Wedding Chapel, where you could get married with no blood test and no waiting.
When we arrived at the Elko Fairgrounds, however, we saw that the bleachers we'd expected to be filled with cowboys werepacked instead with families-tourists wearing Bermuda shorts and carrying Big Gulp drinks. On the stage, a group of geriatric cowboys were singing "Tumbling Tumbleweed," and one broke....