Here's the Beef

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The hours outdoors, short workdays and high pay are the reasons McKinlay and other jerky sellers usually give to justify their unorthodox profession. And the people. "I love meeting people," McKinlay says. She admits to a love of jerky, too, even though her doctor once told her to lay off eating it every day because her iron count was far too high. "And you do meet all kinds of people. People who love jerky are a special breed. They might have different reasons for loving it, like they think it's healthy, or they're on the protein-only diet, or they love that it's such an Old West kind of thing. But the bottom line is, they have to have it. And they want stuff that's better than the crap you get in a Slim Jim or some other grocery-store product that's been around for who knows how long and has a ton of chemicals in it."

These days they can get it from dozens of savvy jerky sellers -- some legal, some not -- who park their tents and vans by the side of Colorado highways and byways, near the trademark, handwritten yellow and black signs that are a jerky fan's cue to pull over. "Fresh Jerky," they all say, which, of course, is a bit misleading, because any meat must be preserved in order for it to become jerky. "Yeah, but this is fresher than the grocery-store stuff, so we want to make that clear," explains McKinlay, whose company is called Climax Jerky, after the mine across the road. "Plus, we only sell jerky that's made in the West. A lot of companies make jerky these days, but the guy I get it from in Kremmling gets it from as close as possible, and I go over to Kremmling every week to pick up more. That way, there's a high turnover. You're not going to get that at the local food mart."

McKinlay's Kremmling jerky source, Bob Gillette, supplies many of this state's roadside sellers. And while much of his stock comes from manufacturers in Utah and Arizona, they're generally smaller outfits than those that produce the meat snacks sold in supermarkets.

While many jerky fans start out eating grocery-store Slim Jims -- the lowest form of jerky, made from such meat products as "mechanically separated chicken" -- true connoisseurs quickly figure out that moving up the jerky ladder, first to chopped-and-formed, then to natural-style, means a move up in flavor and texture.

"I love the taste of really good jerky," says Trina Wilkins, a frequent McKinlay customer as well as a member of the Jerky of the Month Club, an online company that provides monthly meat-snack samplers from all over the country. (Climax Jerky has a Web site, too.) "But the other important thing is the chewing, especially on road trips. I hike and bike all over the state, and I stop at every place I can to try jerky. There's Brooke, and there's the place on 285 near Conifer, and there's a guy up in Frisco, and there's the woman in Minturn. I'll pull over anytime, anyplace."

Wilkins's truck always has an open bag of jerky sitting in the otherwise spotless ashtray. "I used to smoke," she says. "Now I eat jerky. I always crack myself up, because I notice that I chew really hard and fast when I'm passing somebody, like going up through the foothills, and then I'll slow down my chewing once I'm past them. And I just crave jerky, any kind, when I'm driving. It must be a chemical thing in my brain."

In fact, chewing does increase serotonin levels, the brain chemical that regulates mood, according to recent research at Princeton University. "Repetitive motor activity increases the production of serotonin," professor Barry Jacobs reported. "People who repeatedly chew gum and perform other types of ritualistic acts may simply be self-medicating to overcome a serotonin deficit."

"Hey, I'd much rather eat jerky than take Prozac," Wilkins says. "The only bad thing is, eventually my jaw shuts down."

Like McKinlay, Larry Smithwick didn't set out to become a jerky vendor. He started in the restaurant business. Originally from Texas, Smithwick came to Colorado in 1984 when the real-estate market in his native state went bust; he'd heard that there were plenty of restaurants for lease here. "Me and my wife, Joy, wanted to live in the mountains, and we initially picked Basalt," he says. "But when we came up to buy a locale there, a man from Austin had come up and snatched our site. I just drove through Summit County and found a location in Dillon."

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner