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Stateside with Rosalea: Whoopy Tai Yai Oh!

A 50 minute flight through the Sierra Nevada takes you from Oakland, California to Reno, Nevada - the self-styled "biggest little city in the world". Southwest Airlines, celebrating its 30th year in business, has $30 one-way fares. And for $3 you can take Pride, the Nevada Department of Transportation bus, the 30 miles from Reno-Tahoe airport to Carson City, capital of Nevada, past exquisite Washoe Lake.

Gunmetal grey in the late winter sun, it sits on the edge of the Great Basin surrounded by marsh and sagebrush and the rumpity-bumpity landscape of a "tectonic, active, spreading, mountain-building world", to quote John McPhee in "Basin and Range". Because none of the rivers that flow into the Great Basin ever flow out, places like Washoe are prone to flooding, which is why you see no livestock on the rocky pasture this time of year. The land adjacent to the lake is a state park.

I went to Carson City to attend the 7th Annual Cowboy Jubilee and Poetry plus BBQ put on by the Women's Auxiliary of the Carson Tahoe Hospital. An event listing in an RV magazine and the cowboy poetry website at caught my eye and ear, and the more I looked into Carson City as a destination, the more I liked the place. Mark Twain once lived there. His brother was secretary to the governor of the Nevada Territory and he went to CC in July 1861, ending up "Roughing It" at Lake Tahoe.

Carson City was a big gamble on the part of one Abe Curry who bought the land precisely for the purpose of establishing a capital city there - even before there was a territory, let alone a state, of Nevada. It's one of those places on the map that burns up in the opening credits of "Bonanza", but even in reality it's overshadowed by nearby Virginia City where Adam and Hoss and Little Joe used to go for a night on the town.

I'd hoped to stay in the St Charles Hotel, which bills itself as the oldest hotel in Nevada, but it was closed. So was the giant Ormsby House, with its rose-coming-out-of-a-pistol motif and frontier-lettering neon, so I ended up at the Carson Station, a Best Western motel. It meets their usual high standards for service and cleanliness but is a bit of a shock to casino neophytes as its lobby is jam packed with slot machines, baby craps tables, a sports betting bar and more. Keno runners even come around the dining tables at Sunday breakfast.

The barbie over at the community centre on Saturday night was great fun. Different groups belonging to the Northern Nevada Bluegrass Association played while local folks in their western gear consumed hearty amounts of beef and beans at tables set up in the gymnasium. It was just like being in the Stratford War Memorial Hall for a fundraiser. And of course there were more felt hats than at a Free Tibet rally. Oh, so they're called stetsons? Is that Texan for "friend of the weak-chinned"?

NBC - aka the Nevada Beef Council - had supplied the beef and liberally threw around pamphlets about the health benefits of beef and irradiated food. Bumper stickers exhorted us to "Buy beef - the West wasn't won on a salad", and a ghoulish kids coloring book called the "The Magic of Moooo" pointed out all the glorious things cows "give" us. Hey, I'm no vegetarian but learning that plastic chairs is one of good things cows give us doesn't make me feel any better about eating them. Cows, I mean.

Then came the concert, with Sourdough Slim for openers. He's a kind of clownboy, seen earlier in the lobby entertaining children with the many different ways he can get his 10 gallon hat on his head via many different other parts of his body. He plays the accordion and the harmonica, and he yodels. He once went to the museum in New York where they keep all the heads and arms of the statues from all the other museums in New York.

The second act was a cowboy poet called Pat Richardson, who told somewhat rancid anecdotes about rodeo riders more than he recited poetry, but his poems were very funny and he made the front page of the local rag the next day. Then a trio consisting of two guitarists and the Nevada State champion fiddler set the hall alight with everything from an achingly wistful waltz to "The Orange Blossom Special" going faster than a speeding bullet. They got a standing ovation.

So too did the final act - but they tricked us into it by playing the national anthem last, so we were already standing when we gave them their final applause. Called the Bar J Wranglers, they have a chuckwagon show back home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and they're as hammy as a rodeo rider's breakfast. But they have the Idaho State champeen fiddler, who is also the US Open Fiddle champ, in their midst - and fabulous harmonies.

Fiddles and gambling, that's what Carson City seemed to be about. Oh, and the State legislature that's used for 120 days every second year, and then for about only 4 hours a day, judging by the journals of the current session. Still they have momentous events to deal with this time around as the census results will require the redrawing of district boundaries and that little chance at political gambling and fiddles - gerrymandering - only comes around every 10 years.

But my favourite bit of business in Carson City was back on the 2nd of March when, "On request of Assemblyman Anderson, the privilege of the floor of the Assembly Chamber for this day was extended to the Cat in the Hat."

Lea Barker
Sunday, March 11, 2001

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