Ropin' & Rhymin' with Utah's Cowboy Poets | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

December 15, 2010 News » Cover Story

Ropin' & Rhymin' with Utah's Cowboy Poets 

Utah's cowboy poets rage against the dying of the light.

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Utah's Homegrown Gathering
One need look no farther than the Heber City Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair held each November to see how strong rural Utah’s connections are to the poets, musicians and other artists who specialize in traditional Western themes. And while fans from Utah’s far-flung ranching communities are the backbone of its success, Heber’s proximity to a major metro area like Salt Lake City helps it draw some curious city folk.

. Want to see for yourself?
The 2011 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Elko, Nevada
Jan. 24-29.
For a full schedule of events and to buy tickets, visit

How to get there

Elko is straight west from Salt Lake City, 230 miles on I-80. Other than driving, travel options include flying on Skywest Airlines, riding the rails on Amtrak or taking a Greyhound bus.

Where to stay
Stockman’s Hotal Casino (, 340 Commercial St.) and the Red Lion Hotel and Casino (, 2065 Idaho St.) are two of the larger Elko hotels. The Elko Convention and Visitors Authority also has a complete list of lodging options available (

What else to do
Besides the casinos, there’s a small downtown bar scene well worth hopping, in close proximity to the Western Folklife Center building. Be sure to eat at the Star Hotel, the best of Elko’s many Basque restaurants, and hit J.M. Capriola Co. (, one of the best Western stores in the West, with a dizzying array of shirts, hats, boots, saddles and spurs.
The Heber gathering just completed its 16th year, and it now draws roughly twice the number of people to its festivities as the national gathering in Elko; organizers estimate anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 now participate in Heber’s three days, versus about 7,000 people who make the trip to remote Elko, 270 or so miles west of Heber on Interstate 80.

Tom Whitaker, the Heber gathering founder and “trail boss,” never imagined the show would evolve into its current blend of poetry, concerts and Wild West shows when he sold his small chain of Pacific Northwest hair salons and moved his family to Midway, not far from where he grew up at The Homestead wrangling horses with his dad.

Trading a Seattle subdivision for 100 acres where he raises horses, cattle and alfalfa hay, Whitaker easily settled back into Utah life with his wife and five kids. One day, driving his pickup along a small road to Heber, Whitaker stopped at the side of the road to strike up a conversation with a couple of friends—a conversation that would lead to the first Heber gathering.

“They were both making a living off the back of a horse, starting colts, and they were just there yakking on a hot summer day,” Whitaker recalls. “I stopped to talk, and somehow it came up that we all had a few poems up our sleeves. I’d been memorizing a few of Waddie Mitchell’s poems.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we have our own cowboy poetry gathering?’ I had no idea what one was, but I’d heard of Elko, the name Elko Gathering. I really didn’t know what it was, but it sounded fun.”

Whitaker (pictured at left) immediately drove over to the Midway Town Hall, found an empty date on the calendar for early November, and the Heber Cowboy Poetry Gathering was born. Whitaker found himself throwing a gathering without ever having attended one.

The first year, Whitaker’s audience came mostly from around Heber, to listen to some local poets and musicians and eat chili at the town hall. “We charged five bucks for the chili and cornbread, and the music and poetry was free,” he jokes. “We printed up some flyers, and on it, we put ‘first annual.’ Somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have thought this was going to be more than a one-time deal. We had about 250 people show up that first year, and we ran out of chili.”

By the third year, the Heber gathering was drawing 600 people, and it moved to Wasatch High School. Since then, it’s grown into a multi-day event that includes Wild West shows and horse exhibitions, cowboy poetry train rides on the Heber Creeper rail line and a slate of nationally known poetry and music talent.

That “No Quit” Attitude
By Waddie Mitchell
Written by Mitchell at the request of the organizers of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 to capture the spirit of the West, its people and its connection to the dedicated athletes coming to visit.

In the shadows of the mountains, questions swarmed around my mind
Of the people who had claimed there, most forgotten now and long dead.
Still, I wondered what had prompted them to leave their world behind
Searching for a life uncertain in a vast and rugged region,
Up and leave their home and kin for opportunity to find,
Taking little more to start with than an idea and a reason
And the dream of their succeeding in a future yet defined.
Soon these queries led to more, like why it is that some folks always
Need to push their borders out beyond the furthest milestone
On some never ending quest to find new ways and trails to blaze
And, in the process, stretch the realm of what is built and done and known.
From the little draw above me in my pard rides with his findin’s,
Throwing his bunch in with mine now shaded up and settled down.
I could see he’d gone through battle for his pony’s sportin’ lather
But his smile claimed he’d made it in with everything he’d found.
The sweat and dust and brush streaks on that pair done heaps o’ speaking
As he pulled up near, dismounted, loosened latigo a bit.
Said “We jumped ‘em in the roughs and would’ve lost ‘em had we weakened
But, I swear, this here caballo ain’t got one half ounce of quit.”
And that “no quit” phrase speaks volumes on one’s character and makin’s
To the cowboy drawin’ wages ridin’ ranges of the West.
Those who have it, you’ll find, usually conquer most their undertakin’s
For the best in them is drawin out when their spirits’ put to test.
Then I spot my cowdogs brushed up stayin’ well hid from the cattle
Knowin’, with a cue, they’d give all to do anything need done
And I thought, then, how the most of us will opt to shun that battle,
Never knowing fully what we could accomplish or become.
Still I believe, like dogs and horses, we’re all born with resolution,
And, like muscles and good habits, it needs use and exercise.
If left dormant it’s in jeopardy of loss to evolution
For eventually it shrivels up in atrophy and dies.
But, when flexed, it blossoms heroes and a source of inspiration
For we recognize the virtues in that “no quit” attitude.
And it proves its attributes in competition and vocation
Which evokes appreciation and a show of gratitude.
And since mankind started walking it’s been swifter, higher, stronger
As if pushed by some deep need to keep their limits unconfined.
Almost thriving, always striving for things bigger, better, longer
In an unrelenting pursuit of perfection redefined.
And, in this world of soft complacence, there’s still a few among the masses
Who will readily give all to see a job or dream fulfilled.
It’s a trait that’s void of prejudice towards races, sex or classes
Just demanding its possessor be of valor and strong willed.
Then, as we point our cattle homeward, letting dogs bring up the rear,
And we leave what’s left of, once, somebody’s hopes and dreams behind,
I’m convinced that “no quit” attitude will always persevere
And that’s the essence and the promise and the crown of humankind.

This year, the Western Writers of America were on hand doing lectures on Western literature. There was a Western art show presented in the school library, adding fine art to the folk-art objects filling the Mountain Man Rendezvous tents covering the school grounds outside. Part of the Heber gathering even made its way to Salt Lake City, in the form of a Riders in the Sky concert with the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall early in the week, for urban dwellers and the out-of-state visitors coming early for the gathering.

“This whole thing has just sort of taken on a life of its own,” Whitaker says. “Now you actually have to choose if you want to be at the high school, do you want to be at the events center, do you want to take the train? It’s really the way we want it. If you go to Disneyland, you kind of have to decide: Where are we gonna go? You can’t do it all. Let’s just pick and choose what we want to do.”

Whitaker’s original idea for some poetry and chili and a few folks from town enjoying tales of the ranching life has turned into essentially a full-time job for the 64-year-old. The entire structure of the Heber gathering is based on volunteer labor, and Whitaker has to coordinate those volunteers as well as the booking, promotion and execution of the event. And by the time one gathering is done in early November, he’s busy booking the next one so he can advertise it at the Elko gathering two months later. In conversation, Whitaker constantly credits the dozens of volunteers in and around Heber who help pull off the gathering.

“Most of these gatherings have full-time paid staffs, and we do this just with people who want to do something for their community. A love for the music and genre [is why]. Our mission statement is to preserve the cowboy way of life by holding this event and giving back to the community.”

Whitaker acknowledges that in 2009, the gathering had more people than ever, but revenues were down a bit, something he attributes to the economy forcing people to attend just one or two concerts instead of three or four. And while he thinks being close to an urban area like Salt Lake City ultimately helps his attendance, he remains perturbed more Salt Lake Valley folks don’t make the trip to the Heber gathering.

“We must have an easier time of having people come and check it out [than more rural gatherings],” Whitaker says. “But am I surprised that we’re not turning people away because we’re just swamped? Yeah.”

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