chuckwagon vittles

McElmo Canyon ranch wrangles the competition in N.M.


Courtesy Photo Rodney Karriker poses with his belt buckle at the Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium in Ruidoso, N.M. The buckle was given as part of winning first place overall.

The cowboy way is the only way for Canyon Trails Ranch.

Tucked down into McElmo Canyon, the ranch is known for horseback rides into the Valley of the Gods for anyone wanting a true cowboy experience. Or catering to special affairs that warrant a good homemade meal.

Owners Rodney and Kristie Karriker have been serving up chuckwagon meals in Utah, Durango and Cortez since they started their backcountry trips.

The true star of the ranch is definitely its beloved chuckwagon.

The wagon was purchased from St. Louis. The 1912 model Weber and Damme wagon was the John Deere of its time. The original license plates remain on the wagon. The Karriker’s have a barn full of wagon wheels, axles and bows they use to make any necessary repairs.

For the past three years their chuckwagon has appeared in Durango, horses and all, to compete in the annual chuckwagon cook-off at Fiesta Days. This year, the Karriker’s and their crew of chuckwagon cooks — Martin Winslow and Bill Vicary — decided to up the ante and compete in one of the largest chuckwagon cook-offs in the country.

The Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium in Ruidoso, N.M., sees close to 22,000 visitors every year.

This year Canyon Trails was one of 26 wagons, come to show off their Old West culinary skills. The wagons arrived from Texas, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado to cook in six chuckwagon worthy categories — meat, potatoes, bread, beans, dessert and biscuits and gravy.

Additional categories included authenticity of the wagon, campsite, and the most distance traveled.

Authenticity is the key word. Right down to the cookware used and the clothes they wear, these competitors are as genuine as a 10-gallon hat.

“I was talking with one of the judges and he made it clear to me that they were very serious about this competition,” Rodney says.

Winslow said there’s quite a difference between the Durango and New Mexico cook-offs. There are a lot more rules in the Ruidoso competition. The mother-of-all chuckwagon cook-offs is a melting pot of true cowboy society.

All meals must be made and served right from the wagon with ingredients provided to the cooks. Everything is made over an open fire. They are judged on the authenticity of the food, wagon and campsite. Cookware, spices and the overall taste of the food must be congruent with the times.

“You can’t use cheese,” says Winslow. “No potato salad, coleslaw or chili. They didn’t eat those things.”

The Canyon Trails crew cooked chicken fried steak, chorizo potatoes, cowboy beans, jalapeno biscuits and bread pudding. In order to feed 50 people, the cooks had to be up before dawn to serve their dinner by noon. Open fires for boiling water are started and the coffee must be ground by hand. There is a collective effort in the cooking. Each cook is assigned to a specific part of the meal. The other cooks act as tasters for one another’s creations. Winslow was in charge of the potatoes which would earn them second place and Vicary was in charge of the bread and dessert.

Vicary was the previous owner of Homesteader’s restaurant in downtown Cortez. Kristie says his experience with homemade breads in a restaurant atmosphere is a plus.

The food supplied to them can be made into any dish of their choosing, so long as it keeps with the time period.

“We made fresh whipped cream for our dessert in our first competition,” Kristie says with a laugh. “I don’t think they liked that very much. We didn’t get any points.”

This was their first time to compete at the cowboy symposium and the crew walked away with the shock of their lives. Canyon Trails Ranch left with first place overall winner and the coveted title, World Champion Chuckwagon.

“We were so surprised,” said Kristie.

Rodney was sure they had made some kind of mistake. Firstplace to first-time competitors? Not possible. It sure put their fresh whipped cream days behind them.

Feeling like the new kids on the range, the Karrikers — Winslow and Vicary —gladly accepted the award along with second place in potatoes, third place in beans and fourth place in biscuits and gravy. Vicary’s wife Sara and Terri Wheeler also took part in the celebration. They were the crews helping trail hands in serving their dinner to the crowds, an overwhelming part of the competition.

Most cook-offs pay out $3,000 to $4,000 in cash prizes. This competition paid out $13,000. The cooks took away $1,250 for overall wagon, $100 cash payouts for the food and a Texas-sized belt buckle emblazoned with the words, World Champion Chuckwagon.

Rodney keeps the buckle safe and secure in the Karriker’s barn.

As champion chuckwagon, it will be the team’s job to help host next year’s annual cowboy symposium. They will continue to take their wagon, with fully loaded horse power, to Durango every year. They may not do the cowboy symposium annually but they will compete twice a year.

The cooking crew hope to keep their hobby as just that — a hobby.

A way to preserve their cowboy life.

Canyon Trails Ranch cooking crew (from left) Bill Vicary, Kristie Karriker, Rodney Karriker and Martin Winslow stand by their award-winning chuckwagon. Enlargephoto

Courtesy Photo

Canyon Trails Ranch cooking crew (from left) Bill Vicary, Kristie Karriker, Rodney Karriker and Martin Winslow stand by their award-winning chuckwagon.