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Why Elko?

My friend Julian is a commercially-rated pilot and recently got his own plane. He was looking to go on an adventure with me and asked if I could plan a weekend trip. When deciding where to go, I had 3 criteria:

  1. It had to be somewhere I could not visit for the weekend on my own by car/commercial air.
  2. It could not be a National Park Service site due to the possible government shutdown.
  3. It had to be an airport where we could refuel the plane.

After scouting out a few options, we decided to visit Elko, Nevada for its famed National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. As a country music fan and lover of the West, I have heard of this event before. For Julian, it was random enough to pique his interest.

Friday February 1, 2019: A Basque Cowboy-fest

Julian and I met up at the Hawthorne Airport. This general aviation airport is the home of his plane, a Cessna 414 Chancellor. The Chancellor is not your average small plane. With twin engines and a pressurized cabin, it can fly over 20,000 feet in the air and at speeds over 200 mph!

The man and the plane!

Something I did not consider was weather. Unlike commercial aircraft, smaller planes are more susceptible to the effects of adverse weather conditions. Things like wind and lightning have a greater effect on planes such as a Chancellor than they do on 787s. Therefore, small-plane pilots have to be much more careful and observant of the weather. Julian was very aware of the weather conditions. While there was a strong rainstorm in Northern California, the route over Las Vegas looked clear.

After Julian completed the safety checks, we took off! Very quickly we climbed up to 18,000 feet.

Soaring over my office in El Segundo

Unlike most small planes, Julian’s Chancellor has an advanced autopilot system. To steer the plane, he plugs in waypoints with funny names such as Mike Mike Mike (MMM) or DARTS onto an iPad loaded with aviation maps. He will then verbally send a request to the regional air traffic control center for approval. Once approved, he will plug the waypoints into the plane’s electronic system and the plane will fly itself along the route. He can even land the plane using this software. While Julian has the knowledge to fly the plane manually, the software makes life a lot easier and safer.

A sampling of the Chancellor’s equipment

The flight to Elko took about 3 hours. After flying over the familiar California desert, we flew directly over the Las Vegas Strip. Then, the lights disappeared and it was nearly completely dark as we cruised north along the Utah/Nevada state line. Eventually, we reached Elko Regional Airport. It was completely empty, so we left the plane there next to the private air services building.

With no rideshare services, we had to call a taxi. In 5 short minutes, we were picked up and taken into downtown which was about 2 miles away. The cab driver said that almost everyone in the town works in the gold mining industry. Apparently the two largest gold mines on earth are here in Elko. Who knew?!

Our first stop was dinner at the famed Star Hotel. We walked in and there were 100 cowboys drinking and chatting at the bar. Wow!!

Yeehaw Elko!

While no longer a hotel, the Star serves up some of the nation’s best Basque food. What is Basque food? The main item is steak lathered in garlic butter and topped with chopped garlic. In addition, everything comes with soup, salad, bread, beans, pasta, vegetables, and fries. It was a feast!

Basque steak and some of the sides.

Outside the restaurant, we caught a glimpse of the neon Elko’s legal brothels. According to Nevada law, any county with a population of less than 400,000 can have them. Unlike the TV portrayals of “ranches”, these were average looking commercial buildings right in the middle of downtown. The Star Hotel bartender told us that the brothels are extremely regulated, safe, and too expensive for locals.  As a result, the STD rates among locals who are not prostitutes are actually very high.

A block in the other direction was the Stockman’s Casino. Like everywhere in Nevada, gambling is legal. The casinos in Elko were considerably more dingy than those downstate in Las Vegas.

Another casino nearby had a 100-year old stuffed polar bear.

Not something you see everyday.

With brothels, gambling, open container laws, cowboys and miners, Elko definitely has got the Wild West vibe nailed down. It felt like a very appropriate town to host a cowboy poetry convention.

Saturday February 2, 2019: The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Today was the day of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering! Well, technically it was the final day of the 6 day convention, but it was our only day.

After snagging breakfast in town, we walked about a mile over to the Elko Convention Center. There, we purchased tickets for the day’s events. The people at the ticket window said that attendance was high this year and is on pace to top 7,000 total attendees.

Everyone was dressed in Western attire. Cowboy hats were almost mandatory for men. Unlike at the SoCal country bars and concerts, which are essentially costume parties, the attendees at this convention were all very real ranchers and cowboys. Winter is a quiet time in the cow’s breeding/life cycle so ranchers can actually travel for pleasure. Julian and I met ranchers from all over the country including Oregon, Wyoming, Quebec, and Alabama.

A sampling of the attendees of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

The Gathering functioned just like any other convention. Shows were held throughout the day in four different venues. The largest venue held about 800 people. Some shows were poetry, some were song, and some were a combination of poetry and song. Select shows cost extra

The first show of the day was Ryan Fritz. He is a real-life working cowboy. Last year in Elko, he won an open-mic contest and since then has been selling his CD’s to other cowboys working on Wyoming ranches. His songs were all about the difficult life of a cowboy and his belief that Cowboy/Western culture is worth preserving in the modern era. The show was acoustic and had him on the guitar and his brother on the stand-up bass.

Ryan Fritz

The next show was entitled The Western Trail. This performance showcased songs and poetry about a very specific trail that was used during the late 1800’s to take cattle from Texas to the railways of the north and ultimately to the cattle markets in Chicago and the Upper Midwest. The Western Trail emerged after the more famous Chisolm Trail was closed due to quarantine laws in Kansas. The trail went far to the west of the Chisolm Trail through territory controlled by Indians who did not like having cattle and cowboys on their land. While some of the performances described encounters with Indians, the most common theme from this show was the boredom of moving cattle for weeks on end without seeing another soul. At the end, the entire audience stood up and sang “Home on the Range”.

After that, we watched Ned LeDoux, who came highly recommended by the people sitting next to us at the Western Trail show. Ned is the son of Chris LeDoux, perhaps the most famous cowboy singer to ever live. Ned just so happened to sound just like his father and his songs had similar themes: cattle, the beauty of Wyoming, and rodeos. Besides his own songs, he performed a few of his father’s songs including the crowd favorite Photo Finish which describes a frantic attempt to drive from Billings to Cheyenne in time to compete in the rodeo.

Ned LeDoux performs at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Around 2pm, we had a break in the action. Julian and I headed across the street to get some Basque food (garlic-lathered steak sandwiches this time).

We then checked out the surprisingly nice Northeastern Nevada Museum. This all-encompassing museum had art, historical exhibits and a gigantic taxidermy collection of animals from around the world.

A mountain of taxidermy at the Northeastern Nevada Museum

Back at the convention, we attempted to see a show about fiddling, but it was full so instead we saw the show next door: a Utah cowboy named Brenn Hill. Brenn had a deep voice and the best guitar playing of any of the performers of the day. The crowd favorite –and my top performance of the entire day- was a song called Highway to Nogales.

My friend Scott claims that country songs about Mexico are always the best and Highway to Nogales was no exception.  In this fictitious journey, a cowboy witnesses the natural death of a cartel smuggler. Another smuggler sees his fallen comrade and blames the innocent cowboy. In order to save the lives of him and his family, he takes the dead smuggler’s cocaine back to the cartel leader’s compound in Sonora alone. He begs for mercy from the leader and is granted it on the condition that he never speaks of these events ever again. The cowboy agrees and is dropped out in the desert where he wanders for three days before returning back home to Arizona with a handle of tequila.  What a song!

After seeing all these performances, I was inspired by the future of Western music and the cowboy lifestyle. At the same time, I lamented that the songwriting in mainstream country music is so bad despite the plethora of talent. The stories told in Elko were vivid, unique and about the rural lifestyle. Mainstream “country” music today does none of that. I am more and more convinced that the “country” songs of today are simply pop songs with sprinkled in buzz words: dog, whiskey, and truck. But the songs and poetry in Elko? That’s real country. I would definitely go back to Elko in a heartbeat to see this again.

The cowboy spirit is alive in Elko

Having seen nearly everything there is to see in Elko, we headed back to the AirBNB. Julian decided to stay in, but I went out for dinner to a nice Mediterranean spot with a brief stop in a Western supply store. During dinner, it started to rain heavily. Eventually that rain turned to heavy snow. The snow was a huge surprise as the weather forecast didn’t have a storm coming in until tomorrow evening. I wandered back through the winter wonderland to the AirBNB where I blissfully went to sleep.


Sunday February 3, 2019: Home With Effort

When we awoke, I told Julian about all the snow. He was quite concerned about our ability to take off. We headed to the airport.

We walked over to the plane to discover that the wings and body were completely covered in snow….and underneath that, ice.

Not what you want to see!

Julian and I attempted to brush off the ice, but it was stuck to the plane. I feared we would be stuck in Elko. Luckily, there was another solution: de-icing fluid. Unluckily, de-icing fluid costs $38/gallon. De-icing fluid is sprayed on the plane hot –usually between 150-180 degrees. This melts all the ice almost immediately. In addition, de-icing fluid has a very low freezing point, so it definitely will not freeze and cause problems to the engine when the plan is mid-air.

Julian scrapes snow off the Chancellor

With no other option, the airport staff brought the tower over and sprayed the hot liquid onto the plane. The process took about 15 minutes, but eventually the plane looked as good as new.

De-icing the plane

Now that the plane was ready to fly, we were able to take off and enjoy the winter wonderland that is northeastern Nevada!

Adios Elko!


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