A Helluva Time

Known best for its rowdy night rodeo, Caldwell, Idaho, is a true cowboy town... and then some.
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Known best for its rowdy night rodeo, Caldwell, Idaho, is a true cowboy town... and then some.
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Julie Mankin

Credit: Julie Mankin

Historic local branding irons at treasure valley livestock exchange.Holding down a stool in the saloon under Caldwell, Idaho’s, newest steakhouse one morning, I gaze at an old branding rope hanging on the fire extinguisher near someone’s real bronc-riding photos, interspersed with pictures of The Duke and Clint Eastwood. Dollar bills dangle over the bar, one of which reads, in Sharpie, that the food here is “better than sex.”

I’d heard that about this place. The Indian Creek Steakhouse serves nothing but steak and seafood—no chicken—and it’s all cooked Old West-style over an open fire. The shrimp and lobster are mouthwatering and you can slice the sirloin with a butter knife. They have Rocky Mountain oysters, too.

But I didn’t come to Caldwell for the “swinging steaks.” The Caldwell Night Rodeo lured me. As a rodeo competitor and writer for the past 20 years, I’ve gotten a taste of just about every major rodeo that means anything to cowboys or fans—except this one. After all, Idaho just never seemed to be on the way to anywhere.

But no contestant worth his salt skips the CNR; it’s the richest event between Cheyenne and Ellensburg on the summer rodeo circuit. Caldwell, I thought, would be a cookie-cutter version of those other two rural towns, where the rodeo defines the town’s version of “cowboy.”

It isn’t.

• • •

For one, Caldwell is technically part of Boise—the third-largest metropolis in the Northwest, after Seattle and Portland. But where Boise is all museums and trendy entertainment, Caldwell is all tractor drivers and fiddle contests. It’s bizarre, but nice, to travel just a few minutes from big-city Boise and find yourself in smalltown Caldwell.

Driving there feels like stepping into a rough-and-wild sunken living room off the main house. Slipping from the east off Interstate 84 onto 21st Avenue, I literally drop off a plateau onto Indian Creek and remember that Caldwell is the last stop before the wilds of eastern Oregon, whose residents tried to secede from the state in 2008.

What I see first are massive wooden stock-sorting pens used by the Treasure Valley Livestock Exchange on the right, and remnants of the old stock trail to the left. Nearby are the rodeo grounds, which come alive the second week of August during the CNR.

All I knew coming in was that Caldwell had produced a 1980s-era Hall-of-Fame roper, Dee Pickett, and he lived on the curiously named Chicken Dinner Road. His son was an NFL quarterback. Remarkably, this town of just over 40,000 has produced a number of NFL athletes, along with jockeys, racecar drivers, and politicians. Current Idaho governor, Butch Otter, and the founders of Albertson’s grocery stores attended the private College of Idaho, located across the street from the rodeo grounds.

Obviously, this town breeds an ambitious and adventurous species. Still, the owner of the Indian Creek Steakhouse surprises me.

• • •

Forty-year-old Dillon Wickel arrives dirty. In scuffed cowboy boots and well-worn Wranglers, he greets me from under a full mustache and beat-up cowboy hat.

“I was never happy with my meals going out to dinner,” he explains, stoking the applewood fire with an iron he welded from horseshoes.

It’s as if Wickel was plucked from a bronc mid-buck, or tumbled out of his ranch truck and ended up here by mistake. Turns out he doesn’t just look like he came off a horse—he came out from under one. Wickel is a full-time farrier (his clients have included the likes of three-time world champion steer wrestler Luke Branquinho). He starts shoeing at daylight and is done by noon so he can head to the steakhouse.

Wickel was raised on a ranch in Burley, Idaho, where his dad and granddad were both horse traders. He was, too, until the economy tanked in 2008. A lot of his tack now adorns the walls of the restaurant. Always in mid-story, he’s recounting the time he told Lyle Sankey not to go easy on him at a bronc-riding school.

“Give me something that’ll buck!” he demanded of Sankey. So Sankey did. “She’s ringing wet,” Wickel continues. “I’m 15 and she falls and rolls on me and breaks my leg.”

A scar on his face is the result of another time he got bucked off and then kicked and stepped on while moving cattle. And plenty happened to him over more than a decade riding eight seconds for money. It occurs to me that heaps of cowboys have street cred, but most don’t constantly tell hat-whipping re-ride stories, work their tails off, or seek out the one that bucks. Wickel’s noisy green Dodge pickup is outside hooked to an old stock trailer. He’d recently decided to give covered-wagon rides downtown, so the trailer contains a gorgeous 2-year-old Clydesdale he bought and broke to drive, despite the fact that Wickel had zero experience. “

We were up ol’ Sucker Creek practicing his turns and had a runaway,” Wickel recounts, wide-eyed. “Plumb lost me. It was just my dog and him. They went six miles; jumped one cattleguard.”

I look around and see autographed photos signed by world-champion bronc riders who remark they had “a helluva time” at the steakhouse. I’m having one, too, even on a Tuesday morning.

The rodeo might bring a little “cowboy” to town, but it’s not as deep as the “cowboy” that already runs through here. The place reminds me of that moment when you first arrive home—folks are glad to see you; they look directly at you; they immediately know you.

• • • 

Julie Mankin

Credit: Julie Mankin

All 140 holding pens are made of good old-fashioned wood.The apple trees that fuel Wickel’s restaurant fire are grown literally right outside town. Between the rodeo grounds and the Snake River is orchard heaven, where you can pick anything in season from cherries to pumpkins, apricots to pears.

Descending through the curves and catching glimpses of the stunning Snake River Valley, I realize this place has stolen Montana’s “big sky” feel. In less than 10 miles, I encounter Chicken Dinner Road in the heart of Caldwell’s $80 million wine industry. The area boasts 16 wineries, several bed-and-breakfasts, and even a distillery that creates gin and vodka. Most are situated along the Sunny Slope Wine Trail, which hosts its own food and wine festival in September.

My first stop is Huston Vineyards, where a couple of black Labs greet me happily and the scent of mint is a welcome surprise. The exquisite tasting room is an oasis inside an old tin barn that still houses a tractor, a pot-bellied stove, and hay bales.

Gregg and Mary Alger established this boutique winery in 2006. Their 2013 Chicken Dinner White won a silver medal in the Sunset International Wine Competition. I adore the white, and buy a bottle of the red, while eyeballing the Chicken Dinner white and dark chocolates. Their Huston Vineyards line also includes reserves of Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, and Malbec.

“Merlot berries love Idaho,” Kam Smith says from behind the tasting room’s granite bar. She relates that in the early 1900s, residents here invited the governor for dinner and served him chicken, thereby convincing him to smooth their rutted dirt road.

There is not a hint of pretension or wine snobbery in the valley, even from Dr. Ron Bitner, who spent much of his career in Australia studying bees before recently making the list of Top 100 Most Influential U.S. Winemakers. He and his wife, Mary, started Bitner Vineyards in the early 1980s; it was named Idaho Winery of the Year in 2009.

Julie Mankin

Credit: Julie Mankin

Though Caldwell was established on Indian Creek, it was buried with concrete in the 1930s. Recently restored, the creek is now home to kayak races, farmers' markets, and festivals.

Here, I find myself sampling their award-winning Riesling in a spacious tasting room with a best-in-class view of the Snake River Valley. Bitner, who often offers live music on-site, was also inspired a few years ago to grow his own French black truffles, which can bring in up to $1200 per pound. Truffles with my chardonnay? Even better than a smoke and a pancake, I decide.

These are people who had wildly successful careers and then went an entirely new direction into wine. Like Wickel, they have fabulous tales to tell. In fact, the rodeo seems old hat.

Julie Mankin

Credit: Julie Mankin

Janice Youren returned to work at the cattlemen's café after 34 years away.

• • •

But since I’m here, I brave the sticky hot August evening to see what all the fuss is about. Now in its 80th year, the Caldwell Night Rodeo got its name by being one of the first around to buck broncs and rope cattle under lights.

I had heard about the nightly general admission crowd of 8,000—the only rodeo fans in America with their own nickname: Rodeo announcer Randy Corley typically pits the cheering skills of the “Rowdies” (in the stands near the beer garden) against the “Civies” across the arena. Nobody loses.

Sponsorships sell out just like tickets here, with more than 90 local businesses involved in the rodeo. Together, they generate revenue for local charities and offer hospitality that includes free meals and haircuts for contestants.

The competition itself is among the best in the world—last year’s winners included superstars Luke Branquinho and 19-time world champion Trevor Brazile. And the fans themselves are among the most connected in sports.

Take Molly Menchaca, who, for 33 years, has operated Idaho’s Cowboy Supply across the street from the rodeo grounds. She’s Basque (the Boise area claims the most Basque descendants outside northern Spain) and she’s cowgirl. Her shop houses an impressive collection of antique bits and spurs covering two walls. Saddles sit three-deep on stands amid jeans and boots, curry combs and fly spray. Molly and her crew also sell and repair horse trailers.

Like everyone else I’ve met in Caldwell, she reminds me of family. One section of the store is like your grandma’s house— donuts and coffee are on the table and a mini-fridge boasts magnets of beaming youth bull riders. A local radio station plays softly as I come face-to-face with a 1990s-era life-size cutout of George Strait. Dee Pickett’s old partner, world champion team roper Mike Beers, used to frequent this place and his photos are everywhere. Out back, I spot current rodeo star Clint Cooper crawling around, fixing the hydraulic jack on his trailer.

Julie Mankin

Credit: Julie Mankin

Down the street from his steakhouse, Dillon Wickel takes 15-year-old Ben Lydell for a Spin.Or there are the Davisons, just a little further up the street. Their livestock yard—built in 1962 as “the Cow Palace of Idaho”—hosts three sales a week. The old packing house is gone, but it’s easy to imagine cattle being trailed here to be shipped by rail. One still-existing relic that’s a true throwback is the adjacent Cattlemen’s Café, open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day but Sunday.

“Our customers, they’re working-class,” says Joyce Youren, who first served coffee to cowboys here 34 years ago and just recently returned. “It’s like family. They’ve been customers for 25 years.”

For three generations, the Davisons have ranched outside town, cutting their own timber to maintain the wooden planks of the stockyard’s 140 holding pens, alleys, and loading chutes. They work the business like they do the ranch, with a staff entirely of family and a penchant for helping others (occasional sale proceeds go toward feeding beef to hungry Idahoans).

Julie Mankin

Credit: Julie Mankin

The "Rowdies" enjoy the 2013 Caldwell Night Rodeo.

Of the patriarch’s 11 grown grandchildren, only three don’t live and work on the ranch. One who does, Debbie Rogers, greets me in the lobby. She’s remarkably calm and gracious, considering that her relatives have been out all week trying to save the ranch animals from the raging Elk Complex fire that burned more than 130,000 acres around the time of my stay in Caldwell.

Julie Mankin

Credit: Julie Mankin

Canyon County Sheriff, Kieran Donahue, carrying the "Man Up" crusade flag.“We’ve lost two-thirds of our range,” she says while helping set picnic tables in the yard for a local bank’s customerappreciation party. “Only the houses survived and less than 100 acres.”

Then there’s Tony Stevenson, a Boise farm kid who picked up a cowboy craving and became one of the best bareback riders in the PRCA before a bronc somersaulted into a fence and paralyzed him. He recovered, regaining significant feeling before founding High Country Plastics in 1991.

Inside his warehouse at the edge of Caldwell are the molded products he sells—target bases used by cowboy-mounted shooters, water tanks, feeders, and saddle racks. Plus, he and world champion team roper David Motes collaborated on a hard-to-catch roping dummy they call The Devil.

Stevenson, starched head to toe and sporting his 1986 Columbia River Circuit trophy buckle, is not afraid to tell it like it is. And despite doctors who said he’d never ride a saddle horse again, Stevenson regularly leads friends and customers into Idaho’s backcountry just a couple of hours from Caldwell.

• • •

Just when I think Caldwell couldn’t possibly boast any more fully present, fiercely independent, compassionate souls, I’m introduced to the county sheriff. I’d heard a lot about Kieran Donahue by the time I spot him exiting his black SUV on the rodeo grounds one afternoon. Ignoring his constantly ringing phone (he’s in charge of about 300 deputies), he greets me in full cowboy regalia. I notice he has two fingers taped together.

“I got bucked off on Friday,” he says ruefully. “I was three hours into riding this 6-year-old mare. It turns out she can really buck. I was helping a lady who needed her broke. It tore the fringe off my chaps. At least it’s not my trigger finger!”

Donahue is a ranch-raised, self-professed adrenaline junky who nearly lost his life as an underground miner and broke untamed horses for a living before spending the 1990s in the wilds of Alaska as a federal conservation officer. There, a quest to help abused horses led him to found Alaska Equine Rescue. Later he became a cop back in the Caldwell area, where he was deputized by the U.S. Marshals and went undercover as a gangster for the FBI to put the metro area’s most violent criminals behind bars.

“I’ve broken every bone, virtually,” he says cheerfully. “My back and my neck twice.”

Julie Mankin

Credit: Julie Mankin

Dr. Ron Bitner of Bitner Vineyards.Donahue sprinkles my first name throughout our conversation and looks directly at me, unflinching. He flashes a contagious grin after mentioning anything that really moves him.

“I wear a suit nowadays, but a lot of times I’m in my jeans and boots and gun,” he says. “My troops like that. I tried to change the cowboy thing once but it didn’t work for me. I’ve been in it so long now I don’t know anything else.”

It doesn’t get more Old West than putting away bad guys who deal drugs and beat women. Two years ago while running for sheriff, he launched his own non-profit crusade, called “Man Up,” to bring awareness to the domestic violence he can’t stomach on the job.

At the same time, he was filming a movie that was selected for the 2012 Sun Valley Film Festival. Lost River is about the bonds between brothers, as Donahue reaches out to his cancer-stricken twin brother and accompanies him, horseback, into the rugged Idaho mountains to retrieve their mother’s antique cook stove.

“We wanted to preserve something from this life for our kids,” says Donahue, a husband and father of three. “That’s why the Caldwell Night Rodeo is so important— it brings this heritage back for our kids.”

• • •

That sense of promise pervades Caldwell, a town that could have easily lost its agricultural roots to urban sprawl and big-city crime by now. But thanks to a passionate cowboy sheriff, several audacious grape-growers, and a couple maverick restaurateurs, instead it’s a place where good prevails; where farmers’ markets coincide with wagon rides and where gluten-free energy bars are manufactured near roping dummies.

The locals don’t need the Caldwell Night Rodeo to define “cowboy” any more than they need French truffles. It’s just one more way to have a helluva time. And that’s one thing cowboys are famous for.

Julie Mankin

Credit: Julie Mankin

Huston Vineyards on Chicken Dinner Road.