‘The Literary Tourist’ is constantly alert to new discoveries which might be considered for inclusion in the ‘Goes To….’ series of blogs. The Tourist happened upon this entry quite unexpectedly on an unscheduled stop in the city of Prescott, Arizona. Prescott is on the stunning 89a route which leads south from Flagstaff; the road passes first through Oak Creek Canyon, before hitting Sedona (famous for its red rocks and alternative therapy gurus), Jerome in the Black Hills (an artists’ colony clinging to the side of a mountain, with panoramic views across the Verde Valley), and finally continuing through Yavapai County, where it brings you to Prescott, the one-time capital of Arizona Territory.
This city (population 40,000) retains the look of a frontier kind of town.
It has a court house which sits proudly in its centre, surrounded on all sides by low-rise buildings.
Some of these are still bars and saloons, but in times past a great many more were home to drinking establishments, frequented presumably by frontier-types, prospectors and cowboys. The row of buildings along Montezuma Street has the moniker ‘Whisky Row’, and is probably the town’s most famous feature.
Placards placed nearby allude to its colourful past, when it was a notorious strip of cowboy saloons, visited by the likes of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.
In 1883 most of “The Row” was destroyed in a fire; the rebuilt Palace Saloon, said at the time to be fireproof, was reduced to ashes again in 1900, its destruction observed from across the street by its erstwhile patrons who, it was said, toasted the flames with drinks purloined from the burning bar.
Another placard I found offers a quote from a poem written by Gail. I. Gardner (1892-1988). This citizen of Prescott was a cowboy poet. I’ve never come across this term before, but of course, it is only logical that some cowboys (and cowgirls) must also have been (still are) poets; you may know of a contemporary cowboy who even now is composing lines of verse whilst planning their next roundup.
The quotation comes from ‘The Sierry Petes’ (or Tying the Knots in the Devil’s Tail), which Gardner wrote in 1917. It concerns the antics of two cowboys, Buster Jig (said to be the poet himself) and Sandy Bob, who decide to take a break from the arduous toil of cattle herding, and head down to Whisky Row for the evening:
“Oh, they starts her in at the Kaintucky Bar,
At the head of Whisky Row,
And they winds up down by the Depot House,
Some forty drinks below.”
There were indeed forty or so bars and saloons along Whisky Row at one time, and, according to the poem, these cowboys, having taken libations in each, were accosted by the devil on their way back to camp. They soon have the horned mischief-maker tied to a tree with their ropes:
“If you’re ever up high in the Sierry Petes,
An’ you hear one Hell of a wail,
You’ll know it’s that Devil a-bellerin’ around,
About them knots in his tail.”
I rather like the sound of Gail. I. Gardner. He was a highly educated young man – he attended an Ivy League University – who decided that he wanted, above all things, to become a cowboy. There is a romance to this, which, coupled with his dashing looks and flair with words, has the makings of a great movie.
To my mind, it’s as romantic a story as that of those other dashing young cowboys from ‘Brokeback Mountain’; they made poetry of a different sort, as I recall.
Having read several of Gardner’s poems, two things strike me: firstly, they offer an intriguing glimpse into the daily life of a cowboy in mid twentieth century Arizona: the hard, physical grind out in all weathers; the solitary nature of their existence; the inevitable dealings with the money men. Mostly, though, I’m taken with the ironic tone he employs in his work. In ‘Real Cowboy Life’ he begins by highlighting the effort involved in being a cowboy:
“When the roundup starts in April,
The first job you undertake
Is to shoe up all your horses
Till you think your back will break.”
But the job gets worse:
“When you have a real hard winter,
And your cows all try to die,
You ride out every morning,
And to lift ‘em up you try.”
Gardner finishes this poem with a warning, tongue (I hope) firmly in a tobacco-filled cheek:
“If you ever have a youngster,
And he wants to foller stock,
The best thing you can do for him,
Is to brain him with a rock.
Or if rocks ain’t very handy,
You kin shove him down the well;
Do not let him be a cowboy,
For he’s better off in Hell.”
Another poem, ‘The Dude Wrangler’, depicts the sorry end a cowboy will come to if he allows his head to be turned by ‘a woman from Chicago’: he winds up becoming a cowboy tourist guide, asking his former cowboy ‘pardner’ to shoot him dead and put him out of his misery. Despite Gardner’s assertion that the cowboy life is hard, one suspects his opinion is really, ‘once a cowboy, always a cowboy.’
‘The Cowman’s Troubles’ concerns the woefully short returns a cowboy can expect for his troubles in a world where everyone wants a piece of the profits:
“With the bankers and lawyers and the forest officials,
The land office men and inspectors as well,
A-ridin’ the cowman all over the county,
No wonder his business has all gone to Hell.”
A forest ranger comes to inspect the cowboy’s business, asking:
““ How many cattle have you on your ranges?
And how many head did you say you had sold?
Let’s have your calf-tally with the steers and the heifers?
How many have you eaten and how many have you stole?””
The cowboy muses on whether he will finally find his reward in heaven:
“But I’ll bet you my saddle that here’s what would happen,
There would be forty things that Saint Peter must know.
“Oh, how many angles have you in your chorus?
And how many tunes on your harp can you play?
How many white robes have you got in your war bag?
How many gold streets have you dug up today?””
He ends by suggesting that only in the fires of Hell will an old cowman get some rest.
What shines through these poems is that despite Gardner’s protestations that the life of a cowboy is a hard one, it is clearly one of which he was terribly fond; that playful irony only highlights the poet’s love for it. I wonder if he found life somewhat dull when it was all over.
It’s perhaps not so easy to picture Buster Jig and Sandy Bob walking into a saloon in present-day Prescott; you’re as likely to see a suited real estate agent clutching a Starbucks coffee these days. His poems do however offer the contemporary reader a glimpse into an existence which was real; one which formed part of the fabric of everyday life of an Arizona frontier town.
I wonder what that cowboy or girl, snatching a moment in the saddle to scribble a verse or two on their smart phone, has to say about the life of a modern rancher. If you know of any twenty-first century cowboy poets, let me know.
© flyingscribbler 2013
(All excerpts of Gardner’s poems are from his book Orejana Bull. I found them at cowboypoetry.com, where as well as reading them in full, you can see more photos of the poet himself).