We’re on our way to the Elko County Fair but you’d never guess it from our route. Elko is on I-80, about 100 miles from the Utah line. Heading out from Gold Hill, about 40 miles from the California line, we took US 50 instead and we left a day early, because the purpose of this trip is to break the routine, have some fun and see something new on our way to one of eastern Nevada’s great annual spectacles.
One of the pleasures of this route is watching the rich agricultural country around Fallon change into desert, and not just plain desert, but a flamboyant display featuring a broad white salt flat and a ginormous dune called Sand Mountain. Where the road runs along its northern edge, the salt flat provides an organic canvas for what has become a free-form message board. There are lots of John-loves-Marys spelled out in letters made out of rocks, but there are also advertisements, apothegms, and, most impressively, the opening lines of the Constitution. There are dozens of messages slowly vanishing as they are harvested of their rocks to spell out newer messages.
We passed by the sad spectacle of the trash-festooned Shoe Tree, historic Middlegate and Cold Springs Station without a pause, and when we were nearly to Austin turned south into Reese River Valley at a sign marked Big Creek Campground. We drove along the foothills of the mighty Toiyabes and seven or eight miles along we turned east to climb up into the mountains on a well maintained mining road.
Twenty minutes after leaving the highway we were at 8,800 feet. There are taller summits north and south of us, but we can face east or west and look out over a hundred miles of rumpled landscape. The immensity of it isn’t easy to accommodate. It’s one thing to see our big world from an airplane at 30,000 feet, and another to see it with your feet on the ground and a breeze rearranging your hair on top of a mountain.
And the best thing about that immense landscape spread out below: it’s ours. And when I say ours, I’m including you because it belongs to the American people, all of us (yes, we stole it fair and square). It’s a rare form of wealth in an increasingly crowded world; it will pay far more and for longer to keep it uncluttered and available for people to enjoy than “developing” it would do.
Now it’s one o’clock on Friday afternoon and half of Elko is lined up along Idaho Street as the parade appears at the west end of downtown and passes east in review. Having seen 13 firetrucks at the head of the Eureka parade last month I thought we’d see about 60 here in Elko, but to my amazement there wasn’t even one! What there was, though, was quite satisfactory —
After the parade we’re out on the town. First and foremost, we’re at the DLC Gallery Bar, on Commercial Street next door to Capriola’s on the corner of Fifth Street, half a block down from the Cowboy Art & Gear Museum in the other direction and across the great parking lot from the Western Folklife Center. It is both bar and gallery — but those words do not describe the mastery of Nick the Bartender, nor the splendor of the art.
I was introduced to the classic Nevada Picon Punch by Bob Laxalt and enlarged my acquaintance in Winnemucca, Elko, Reno and Gardnervile over the years. I was recently reintroduced to this hallowed elixer by Gage Smith, which prompted me to ask Nick if he could make one. Not only can Nick make one, (and please forgive me if I burst into song) he made the best Picon I ever tasted.
The first Elko County Fair was held September 16-18, 1920 to promote agriculture and the local economy by highlighting local products and industries. This is something else we can thank G.S. Garcia for (which we can do by stopping into the Cowboy Arts & Gear Museum mentioned above — it occupies the original Garcia Saddlery shop and is furnished with memorabilia of his rich life).
The first Fair was held 99 year ago at the Garcia Rodeo Grounds on the eastern edge of Elko. After that it was held once in Wells and was even cancelled one year until the City of Elko acquired part of the old China Ranch in 1927. The Fair Board invested $34,000 in 1927 and 1928 to develop the facility and has continued to expand the facility and produce the Fair every year since.
This year though the fair was diminished by the lack of a Carnival. At last year’s fair a seat on the carnival’s ferris wheel “became detached” and it had to be shut down for repairs. The seat was unoccupied at the time, no-one was injured, and the city Fire Marshal allowed it to resume operation the next day, but the Fair Board has since determined that the risk of a recurrence was too severe, and removed the carnival from the schedule.
So even though the Midway was still an eye-catching swirl of color, it was oddly quiet.
Still, the colorful midway booths were busy selling Indian Tacos and other traditional deliciosities, and there were plenty of kids on hand when we arrived Friday afternoon.
Some of them were 4H Club members showing and selling the animals they had raised for market. There were livestock barns filled with sheep, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, ducks and I think those little things in the back corner were hampsters.
The youngsters who raised and cared for them seemed capable and confident, and the grownups stepped back and let them run the show. The family traditions inherent in the Fair were quite evident.
The Home Arts building was bright and lively with everything from flower arrangements to quilts to pastries, but beyond our ability to photograph in a way that does them justice.
Horse racing, though, is a different story —
For me the exotic throwback called Horse Racing is the big draw to the fair. And it was obviously a big draw all around — there were people everywhere on the grounds and the stands were filled.
We arrived as the horses were being called to the starting gate for the third race of the day and the grandstand was full. After our keen-eyed scout had made reconnaissance, we climbed to the very last row at the top, and sidestepped halfway over to sit down.
I was reminded of my inexperience by our neighbors in the nosebleed section who were having excited discussions over the racing form included in the Program for the day, and making $100 bets.
I’ve seen horse races in the movies, but this one didn’t exactly resemble Epsom Downs or the Kentucky Derby except the horses had numbers and the jockeys all wore different colored shirts. No sombreros or cowboy hats though, genuine jockey hats.
Race #3 was a 220-yard dash, and when the horses were paraded in a paddock for upclose inspection beforehand, I was taken with #5. He(?) was beautiful. Actually, each of these horses was perfectly gorgeous as they were paraded nude for the people pressed up three deep against the fence. Number 5 had a palomino’s mane and tail, and his coat was a glowing bronze color; in the sunlight he glistened like an opal.
In the race he finished last.
While thanking the Big Whatever for my day’s remedial lesson, I enjoyed the races more without a bet riding on the outcomes. I’m delighted that so many people do support the effort with their bets and I hope they’ll do it forever.
But for me the spectacle is enough. Between races — and even as a race was underway — the roping and branding competitions were going on in the infield so there is always cowboying to watch.
Overheard in the grandstand, from a woman sitting with two children almost as high up as we were: “Where is he? I know he’s making another bet!”
We stayed for the rest of the seven races of the day, completely entertained and everybody around us was having fun too. Even the bettors were liking what they were doing despite the outcome. I never saw anyone tear up a losing ticket the way they do in movies, but I heard some complaints uttered by people getting to their feet to place their bets on the next race.
We only met one employee of the Fair Board during the event, and we wouldn’t have met him if we hadn’t parked offsite at the Convention Center where parking was free and easy compared to the crowded lots at the Fairgrounds. There was a free shuttle to the event, and he was the driver. He was friendly, answered all our questions about Elko and the fair with uncanned replies, and when we were leaving for the second time — yes, we spent two days here — he took us to our car and saw us off. Really, the perfect way to end a highly enjoyable visit to the Elko County Fair.