First, let me state for the record that I am NOT a cowboy poet. I don’t have the mustache or the wardrobe for it. If you ever see two words rhyme in my work it’s purely an accident of vocabulary. Hallmark Cards will never try to hire me or request permission to reprint something I wrote. Anyway, I don’t think Hallmark has a line of cards for road agents.
Whenever I think of cowboy poets I wonder why other professions don’t have their own rhymesters too? Why are there no airline mechanic poets, janitor poets or farmer poets? Why does Elko have a big cowboy poetry confab but not a blackjack or croupier rhyming celebration? As far as I know, the occupation of cowboy is the only one linked to poetry. Why is that?
Could it be because of flame and fire?
When cowboys went out with the wagon their evenings were spent around a campfire where they would tell stories and sing ballads off key. Cowboys being cowboys, naturally they would try to outdo one another and one night there was no guitar present so a cowboy put his thoughts to verse and a genre was born. It spread like, well, it spread like wildfire. I’m sure Waddie, Baxter and Gwen are grateful.
I’ve sat around my share of campfires, enough to turn me into a regular Robert Frost. Every summer my grandparents would take my brother and I fishing in the High Sierras where we’d gather with other fishermen at night around a fire to tell stories and lie about the ones that got away. There’s just something about a campfire that makes campers loosen their tongues. Frederic Remington called fire “The greatest philosopher in the world.
While I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday I can still remember the campfire the first time I ever went hunting nearly 50 years ago and the wonderfully fun campfires at YMCA snow camp. That’s when I first discovered that spending your evenings gathered round a blazing fire was a far superior way to spend an evening than watching the boob tube.
To this day the most fun I ever had while writing a story was when I went out with the wagon for a branding on the famed Bell Ranch. At night the cowboys gave me a glimpse into their world, telling stories around a campfire about horses they never rode and living by the cowboy code. (Accidental rhyming alert!) Nineteenth century vaqueros called it “hombres del campo”, men of the camp, a fraternity of cowpokes who made their living with a small coil of twine and a big dose of nonchalant courage.
Speaking of cowboys… I can vividly recall the evening Larry Mahan called and invited my wife and I to spend an evening with he, Les Vogt and a singing Son of the Pioneers around a campfire at a horse camp near my home. Let me just say that had Larry ever got hurt to the point he couldn’t win World Championships or gold buckles any more, I believe he could have hit the big time making gold records singing old cowboy ballads.
As a senior in high school I had my own smudge crew and we’d gather at night around a fire and wait for it to get cold enough to light the smudge pots to keep the lemons and oranges from freezing. Later in life I’d have my own irons in the fire as a bonafide rancher. It was never a propane burner for me, but a real fire with the smell of oak and burning hair. There’s just something primal about a ring of rocks and a blazing flame that hasn’t changed since cave men and cave women first barbecued brontasaurous burgers.
I realize that campfires are not politically correct these days and some urbanites would insist they cause rising temperatures, melting ice caps, sweaty polar bears and forest fires. Perhaps this explains the dearth of bookkeeping balladeers, troubadour truck drivers and pharmacist poets. It may also explain the bad mood we Americans are in. It’s a shame campfires are so out of fashion because, as a poet must have said, “The evils of the world don’t look near as bad in the ashes of a good campfire.”