National Geographic : 2004 Oct
ELKO, NEVADA several teenagers declare their intent to stay here after they graduate praising their town with phrases like "a good place to have kids and raise a family," "a safe place," and "I could see staying here forever." Let your imagination range out on the surrounding Great Basin, a huge spread covering most of Nevada, a good chunk of Utah, and slivers of Oregon, California, Idaho, and Wyoming-a piece of America irreverent toward the rule of the Continental Divide, where streams do not flow to the sea, and the only escape is through evaporation or to sink into the ground. Work to include the analogy in your narrative. Speak to a man with a gun tattooed into the back of his pants, who says, "I've lived here 15 years. No one ever leaves, and if they do they come right back." When he tells you he's married to a "classically trained" ballet dancer, do not act surprised. When he explains that in this part of the world, people tend to confuse "dancer" with "stripper," laugh-but only a little. With 2,000 other people, sit in the fairground bleachers for the annual demolition derby. Watch the drivers slam into one another's cars. Breathe in the blue exhaust and smoke. Cheer wildly for the winner. Pretend you live here. Absorb the contrasts. Notice contradiction exhibited by the town's layout: to the north, acres of mowed lawn surrounding a conven tion center, a public swimming pool, and the newly remodeled campus of Great Basin College; to the south, casinos, hotels, restaurants, and a little row of legal brothels held in to the community by a set of railroad tracks headed east and west toward miles of sagebrush and wide-open high desert. Land in a coffee shop called Cowboy Joe just off the main drag. While sipping iced cappuccino, reflect on the American West, cowboys, manifest destiny, and romanticized love for rugged, unyielding land. Ask a folklorist who has dropped in from down the block if she likes cowboys. Detect the flame in her eyes when she smiles and says, "Well, you've seen 'em, right?" Down the way at J.M. Capriola's Western Wear store, enjoy watching a worker stroke the folds of leather on his bench, bending down as if he had a secret with the saddle. Walk down Idaho Street, right through the center of town. Listen to some kids blow rap music from their souped-up cars. Watch a real buckaroo in worn Wranglers, chaps, and spurs walk past a yoga studio while talking on a cell phone. Catch a whiff of him. Inhale traces of sage brush and rawhide escaped to town and free floating on the air. Notice the cowboy riding off into the sunset in a truck built about the year you were born. Smile and keep walking. Hum a West ern tune you know by heart. O MYTH AND REALITY A rodeo cowboy left this well-worn riding boot (holding both his spurs) on a fence post. In Elko the American West that exists in folklore-a place of individual freedom, self-reliance, and backbreaking work-is more than legend. TINTYPE TUTORIAL Find out how to make tintypes from photographer Robb Kendrick in a multimedia feature and view more 89801 images along with field notes and resources at nationalgeographic.com/magazine/0410.