ELKO, Nev. • The Vietnam War weighed heavily upon the cowboy poet.
Rod McQueary, an Elko native, graduated high school in 1969, briefly attended community college, and then found himself a military police officer in Vietnam.
The experience haunted him.
“I think a lot of it wore on him,” said Neil McQueary, his youngest brother and former CEO of the Elko Chamber of Commerce. “Life’s stress became more apparent. His youth pushed those demons down, but as he got older it was just something he had to deal with.”
Eventually, the horrors he encountered in war would lead to an ongoing battle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’m not sure he ever came back home completely,” fellow cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell said, “but he made some of the most poignant, creative poetry of modern-day authors.” Mitchell grew up with McQueary. They both lived on remote ranches in the early 1960s and boarded together in Elko while attending high school.
“We went through high school more or less as brothers,” he said.
McQueary died Dec. 29 in Cheyenne, Wyo.
Mitchell, who now lives on a ranch in Twin Bridges, was just one of the many friends and family members who attended McQueary’s memorial service in the Western Folklife Center on Jan. 2.
“It was a very moving tribute to him,” Mitchell said. “Many people came in from across all the ranches in the county ... but no one could find the humor without him there. It was a somber deal.”
McQueary’s mother, Eloise, joined others in reciting several of his poems aloud.
“He was a very generous person and did not want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” she told the Free Press days after the memorial. “If he met you, he’d have to make you laugh. He’d come up with some good one-liners to make you giggle. He was a charmer, if ever there was one.” Meg Glaser, artistic director for the Western Folklife Center, believed sharing his poetry aloud at the service was a fitting tribute to the poet.
“That’s the ultimately compliment: when poetry gets passed along,” Glaser said.
Glaser was introduced to McQueary’s poetry by Mitchell, who suggested that she invite him to the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. So she did in 1986.
“I think coming to Elko and reading his poetry at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering gave him a larger audience,” she said. “That was a powerful experience for him. Later, he would use that poetry to express the tough things he went through in Vietnam.” In 1993, McQueary and his friend Bill Jones published “Blood Trails,” a book of poems based on both of the men’s experiences in Vietnam. Some of McQueary’s other stories, many light-hearted and humorous, have been published in numerous anthologies, including “Buckaroo: Visions and Voices of the American West” and “Cowboy Poetry: The Reunion.” He and his wife, Wyoming legislator Sue Wallis, co-wrote “The Cowboy Cattle-log” and published “Surviving the Good Life,” a memoir of Wallis’ grandmother.
“He was a complex character,” Wallis told the Free Press. “He had many different levels and his poetry reflects that. Even when he was writing about the demons in his own soul, he was fixing it. He was getting better.” “He was just brilliant in so many ways,” Glaser said. “He was one of those westerners who had a lot of gifts and touched a lot of people, not just in this community but all over the country. No matter what changes, his poetry will always speak to the heart of a cowboy.”
Friends, family, and McQueary’s Ruby Valley neighbors shared stories of McQueary’s adventurous and gentle spirit at the memorial service. McQueary’s daughter, Ceci, presented a 17-minute slideshow (which can be found on YouTube) that documented important landmarks in his life.
McQueary married Wallis under the full moon of July 1994 and celebrated every anniversary at the same time each year.
The full moon was a symbol of life’s cycle for McQueary, Mitchell said.
“It’s not so much a connection with religious or scientific beliefs,” he said. “(The symbol of) the moon is more about a rancher’s life within the cycles. The low moon and the high moon are good ways to tell what’s coming.
The seasonal changes make a big difference to them (ranchers). As the changes come on, so does the moon. Those who aren’t living within Mother Nature’s set of rules forget that others do.”
A stone for McQueary will be placed beside his father under the full moon of July in a Ruby Valley cemetery, according to the eulogy. His ashes will be scattered throughout Nevada and Wyoming in places that were meaningful to him.
“He was one of the most brilliant, kindest person I ever met and I had the luck to marry him,” Wallis said. “I’m one of the lucky ones, I know it.”