Listen close and you’ll hear odes to the diamond hitch, balanced pannier loads, and mule strings traversing the mountains. Here are three packer-poets who will perform this month at the 26th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, discussing how the backcountry has influenced their art.
Ross Knox is Elko’s unofficial packer emeritus. He’s been on scene representing the backcountry since the Gathering’s inception in 1985.
“The backcountry is where I’ve spent most of my life,” Knox says. “Practically every job I’ve ever had was out there, whether it was working as a cow puncher in a remote camp, or as a packer on some trail.”
Of the two professions – packer and cow puncher – Knox has been most poetically productive in cow camp. “It’s hard to write a poem holding the lead rope to a string of mules,” he points out. “And consider this: you spend 3-4 months working in cow camp, but only twelve days on a pack trip. It takes time to write a good poem.”
Despite his many experiences at Elko over the years, last year’s 2009 Gathering marked a rare “first” for Ross Knox. He became the subject of someone else’s poem. The release of western singer Ian Tyson’s latest album, Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Stories, included the song “Ross Knox”. It tells the story of Knox’s protest against the National Park Service, over a rule that mandated Grand Canyon packers wear riding helmets.
“I had safely packed between forty- and sixty-thousand miles, while wearing a cowboy hat. It’s a record nobody will ever touch. But after sixteen years, I quit over that helmet rule.”
Ironically, Ross Knox is packing for the Grand Canyon again, this time as an independent contractor.
“It’s funny how if they need supplies packed in bad enough, they look the other way about my cowboy hat.”
Sandy Seaton Sallee describes outfitting as “living with horses and mules, in the quiet and solitude of the mountains. The backcountry is my cathedral.” Anyone who speaks that eloquently about their profession is sure to write a poem or two. Sallee, owner and operator of Black Mountain Outfitters, has written dozens of poems while leading pack trips into Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
“Once camp is set up and the chores are finished, I sneak away to sit by a creek and write poetry,” Sallee says. She’s also known to perform poetry for her pack string as she goes down the trail. “Mules are an appreciative and polite audience.”
Beginning in 1990, Sandy took her show on the road to perform at the 6th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
“In Elko, it doesn’t matter if you’re a packer or a cowpuncher. Cowboy poetry creates a bond between all people who work with livestock. Whether you pack mules in the Absarokas where a grizzly could run across the trail, or ride cattle in Texas where a longhorn steer could hook into ya’, the spirit of the work is the same.”
Dave Stamey is not a cowboy poet, per se. He’s a cowboy singer. But they don’t split hairs in Elko, where musical performers the likes of Dave Stamey, Ian Tyson, and Don Edwards take the stage.
“The backcountry has been a tremendous influence on my music,” Stamey says. “I worked for many years as a packer in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, where I found musical inspiration.”
Once, Stamey even wrote a song onboard a horse: “McGee Creek (The Packer’s Song)”. He penned it while leading a four-mule pack string to an alpine drop camp. Since then, Stamey’s musical career has taken off and he doesn’t live off of packer wages. But he maintains his street-cred by taking to the hills in the summer as guest trip leader for Mammoth Lake Pack Outfit in the eastern Sierra Nevada’s. When he sings around a campfire, somewhere in the John Muir Wilderness, Stamey returns his songs to the mountains that bore them.
See Ross Knox, Sandy Seaton Sallee and Dave Stamey perform at the 26th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 23-30.
Western Horseman, January 2010