previous story next story

on the range

So what if I’m broke and don’t have a red cent
Money blowed on a bronc ride is money well spent.

- The last verse of the first poem Rodney Nelson ever wrote

Got throwed off a good one
missed him out again
But the next one’s a new horse,
I’m gonna win
No money for fees
but this hot check will spend

- From Ain’t No Life After Rodeo by Shadd Piehl

In January, the 31st National Cowboy Poetry Gathering drew around 7,000 people to Elko, Nevada, to see poets and musicians, filmmakers, western dancers and saddle makers perform and engage on every stage available in this high desert town.

This is the big show for cowboy poetry, and all of the 54 performers are tied to a western tradition of some kind — they are ranchers, horse trainers, teachers, brand inspectors, barrel racers and bronc riders, working cowboys, and stock contractors. Some are historians or writers, a few are full-time performers and many of them have been some, or all, of those things. 

Rodeo, saddle broncs in particular, is what brought Rodney Nelson and Shadd Piehl to Elko and to cowboy poetry. Both men rodeoed for North Dakota State University during their time in Fargo, and rodeo is how they know each other. Shadd’s grandfather, Walter Piehl Sr., produced rodeos, and his father, Walter Piehl Jr., announced them. Nelson remembers Shadd Piehl as a little kid at those rodeos, hat tipped back, hanging on the chutes to watch guys like him ride the broncs and bulls Walt Sr. campaigned.

Long before he became a performer on stage, Nelson majored in animal science at NDSU and rode for the college rodeo team — one of the first NDSU cowboys to place in the region and go on to the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association finals. “I really, truly loved rodeoing for NDSU.” 

And Nelson loves the rodeo life. “It’s very hard to quit rodeo. So I didn’t,” he says. He still rides in old timer rodeos, and runs the Sims Ranch in Almont, N.D., a setup he calls a “starvation operation.” He also trains colts, works as a part-time brand inspector and does custom freeze branding in the winter. 

He’s performed in Elko more than 20 times and no one has more fun at the five-day event. He is tall, lean and weathered, and looks like the Marlboro man with his hat on, but talks too much to be a romantic figure. His comic timing is impeccable and he’s a terrible flirt. He claims he can’t sleep without his wife beside him, and that’s why you’ll find him regaling old and new friends until the wee hours of the morning each night of the poetry gathering. That charisma has made him a popular speaker and entertainer, each year he performs at dozens of events all over the country and Canada and writes a regular column for the Farm and Ranch Guide.

He’s also a very good saddle bronc rider. Piehl remembers watching him ride and admiring how he did it. Piehl followed Nelson down that road, riding saddle broncs for 20 years, winning the Great Plains regional title twice for NDSU. He started writing poetry to pass the time during long hours traveling to rodeos. 

Piehl began publishing his poetry while at NDSU. He sent his poems out to a few western publishers and was invited to perform at Elko in 1993. He returned in 1994 and, when they invited him back for the third time in 1995, he brought me along and we got married there.  

He was asked to perform again this year, and so we celebrated our 20th anniversary within the larger sweep of the romance of the West celebrated at the gathering in Elko.

Piehl and Nelson have shared the stage a few times over the years in Elko. The featured poets and musicians do several shows over the course of the gathering and the shows are assigned themes — Going Down the Road, Roaming Wild, Horses I Have Known. During January’s Gathering, they took the stage with Bainville, Montana, songster D.W. Groethe for a show called The Big Wide Open. 

D.W. sang, and Piehl and Nelson recited poems and swapped rodeo tales and memories. The show highlighted the pull of the road, the horses and the camaraderie of rodeo life.

The romance of Elko is more about the mythic West than love and marriage, but both guys shared stories about their respective elopements, Piehl’s in Elko and Nelson’s in Gallup, New Mexico (“I brought my girlfriend along, and came back with a wife. The justice of the peace almost waived the fee — said we were the first to come before him and look old enough to make the decision.”).

At another point during the show Piehl removed his hat to uncover his shaved, mostly bald head, and Nelson, similarly barbered by time, did a double take, noting, “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you with your hat off Shadd, but as I saw that, it came to me that it is entirely possible I am your biological father.”

On stage that day they came back to rodeo (they always come back to rodeo), telling a story about a horse they both knew well. It was during Nelson’s NDSU years, he was about 19 years old and having some success as a saddle bronc rider. He’d been rodeoing in Minnesota, and pulled into a Piehl-produced rodeo in Marion, North Dakota, on his way home to Towner. 

As he pulled up, he learned he’d drawn the bronc, Big John. This was a tough horse, and at that point no one had ridden him for the eight seconds required to receive a score. Walter Piehl Jr., met him at his car to share the good news. 

“I’d kinda put it out there that I’d like to ride that horse,” Nelson remembers. “So when Junior told me I’d drawn him … I immediately had to go the bathroom. I was just a kid and that horse flat bucked. I was nervous.

“I did get him ridden and won that rodeo, but I’m not sure how clean a ride it was.”

That story is one of hundreds shared in Elko that bring a real-life layer to the romance of a cowboy life. Elko has been called the “most honest and open-hearted festival in America,” and it’s not a bad place to celebrate love and marriage. It helps to know though that the love most revered in Elko is the love of cowboy life. For Piehl and Nelson, that life was, and is, rodeo. 

“Rodeo is the most fruitless thing I’ve done in my life and if I could do it over, it’s one thing I’d do more of,” Nelson says. 

— marnie butcher piehl
— Photos by Jessica Lifland

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.