Local flavor

My 13-year-old eyes had never seen such redneck mastery.

With a cracked and calloused hand, the crusty old-timer reached into the front pouch of his coveralls and produced a pouch of Red Man chew. With his other, he flashed a dirty pocket knife to life, cut off a slice of the tobacco plug and flicked it straight into his open mouth. The man then moved the plug side-to-side and settled the gob into his puffy right cheek before spitting a wad of dark juice directly onto the restaurant floor.

His mouth already bulging, the codger then addressed a plate piled high with grub, took the same knife and cut into a thick slab of country fried steak. He bathed the piece of “rug” generously in white gravy, opened his largely toothless mouth and sent the meat, breading and gravy directly into the tobacco-filled chute.

Red Man and country fried briefly shared the dark space before he expertly swallowed the food, kept the chew afloat, and sent another spit of dark juice onto the less-than-virgin floorboards. The man then adjusted his John Deere cap, wiped essence of gravy and spittle from his chin, righted a pair of dusty bifocals and looked up, busting me as I stared open-mouthed.

“You ain’t from around here, are ya?” the old timer barked, clearly irritated.

I did my best not to shake in my child-size Dickies and Telluride Bluegrass ballcap. He was right, after all. I was not from around there – a mountain fish drawn out of water by the promise of my first real job and $5 a day (thanks Dad, I still owe you for negotiating that wage). As an added plus, my new bosses, the owners of Williams Ranches, were dishing up daily tests for this eighth-grader. In my first days on the job, I’d spent 26 hours on a fenceline, followed a 16-mile cattle drive on foot and bucked hundreds of hay bales onto a moving flatbed. At $5 a day, I could literally hear the pennies falling into my pocket. To make matters worse, the first trip to town and into the Maverick Café hardly offered the relief I craved.

But I shook off the codger’s stare, puffed up my young chest, imagined what it would be like to sport my own gob of Red Man and bravely told the old rancher the name of my hometown. The old hand chuckled through his double mouthful. “That’s a good place to be from,” he laughed, sending a fresh splash dangerously close to my boots. He then turned deadly serious and added, “a good place to be far from.”

That volley marked two turning points in my young life. Shortly thereafter, I started dabbling in the Pinkerton Tobacco Co.’s highly dubious product line. And, thanks to Mr. Deere, I’d been introduced to my first, but by no means last, installment of the “local” game.

Though best played in a small town, “local” is practiced all over the country. Each player chooses a color: Carhartt khaki, Ralph Lauren indigo, Patagonia pearl and Red/White/Blue are all favorites. The competitors then advance their pieces through the years and a series of obstacles toward the ultimate goal of “local status.” Various bonus pieces – fat skis and short boats or high torque horsepower and throroughbred horses depending on location – can be added to a player’s arsenal. Home ownership boosts, but does not guarantee, a player’s status. As play progresses many competitors trigger “accent penalties” or “style violations” and are sent precious spaces back in time.

I’ve played more than a few games of “local” over the years, my matches ranging from the bluest of blue collar affairs to snooty resort engagements that open with “So, how many winters have you spent in the village?” Regardless of the setting, the outcome of the match is nearly always the same. Somehow, even multi-generational players never quite meet the expiration date. Despite best efforts, none of the pieces seem to ever arrive at “native.”

I am most pleased to report that I have yet to play “local” inside the confines of La Plata County. Maybe my game piece is finally the right color. Maybe this town just doesn’t go in for the pissing contest.

Oddly, nearly 25 years to the day after that first match in the Maverick Café, I stumbled into a match of “local” last weekend in a nearby satellite community. There was no John Deere ballcap, Red Man plug or dusty floorboards. But the family and I still managed to go under the microscope of a new generation of rancher, just after stepping through the swinging front doors of a well-known watering hole.

Wearing a freshly pressed pair of jeans, sparkly new Tony Lama boots and sporting moussed silver hair and a gold wrist watch, the man offered an abrupt introduction. “You all aren’t from around here, are you?” he chuckled in his best faux cowboy dialect.

His guard dropped a bit when I explained that we lived nearby, and that he could rest assured we had no designs on his little piece of paradise.

Nonetheless, he decided to roll the dice and start the game, telling us about his “ranch,” a 35-acre section of a once-proud cattle ranch where he and his girlfriend were raising ponies. We also learned that he had been “farming” for close to three years and had been washed downstream from a resort town. Our new friend then incurred a “local” penalty when the drawl stuttered into an East Coast accent.

“OK, so where do you live anyway?” the New Rider asked us in his best imitation of a chummy voice. I puffed up my chest, pressed out my right cheek (bad habits die hard) and said the D-word, bracing for a flashback to the chicken-fried chew era.

“Oh, Durango,” he replied, slightly disarmed. “We love Durango ... someday wouldn’t mind living there, truth be told.”

We shook hands, exchanged names and brought a happy end to that tired 25-year-old game. And I daresay we both came away winners. “Durango,” he whispered as he walked for the door. “Now that’s a good place to be from.”

– Will Sands



In this week's issue...

July 21, 2022
Wildlife success or deal with the devil?

Land swap approved in Southwest Colorado, but not without detractors

July 21, 2022
Tapping out

The latest strategy to save the San Luis Valley's shrinking aquifer: paying farmers not to farm

July 14, 2022
Hey, good environmental news

Despite SCOTUS ruling, San Juan Generating Station plans to shut down