Here's the Beef

Page 4 of 6

The spot was Mountain Barbecue, which specialized in Smithwick's favorite food: smoked meats. A few years later, he opened Smithwick's BBQ Smokehouse Restaurant on Main Street in Frisco. But by 1997, Smithwick decided to close both eateries and concentrate on his real passion: jerky. "We had been playing around with making our own jerky in the restaurant for a few years," he explains. "I wasn't sure how those stands did, money-wise, but I just thought, 'Heck, I'll go out and try it.' So I did."

First he tried it at the top of Loveland Pass. "But the Forest Service didn't have any sense of humor," he says. "They ticketed me and I left." Then he tried to test-market his jerky at seventy convenience stores around the state. "But the USDA didn't have any sense of humor," he says, chuckling. Now Smithwick sits by a tarp-wrapped black barrel smoker in the parking lot of Antler's in Frisco 120 days a year, smoking buffalo and beef jerky in a variety of flavors. (When the weather goes south, Smithwick's jerky is still available inside Antler's, as well as at the Buffalo Bar & Restaurant in Idaho Springs.)

Smithwick calls his meat "camp jerky." It's a thicker, chunkier style that became popular with hunters in the eighteenth century because they could hack the meat up more easily while they were out in the bush than tear it into strips. It's chewier and more dense than commercial jerky, and the flavors have a purer, meatier quality. Smithwick buys his meat from Colorado purveyors, and because he doesn't use any preservatives, his jerky is more perishable than most, good for weeks to months, "depending on the humidity you're in." He also tries to make it less salty than commercial brands. "I soak the meat in cold water to leach the salt out after I cure it," he explains. "The salt in it can raise your blood pressure." When the jerky's done, he bags it in Ziploc baggies and slaps on a Smoke Jerky Co. label, which includes an e-mail address in case a customer wants to get on Smithwick's mail-order list.

Then he sits back and waits for them to come.

And come they do, as many as a hundred people a day, evenly divided between "loyals and lookee-loos," Smithwick says, but buying enough jerky that he can earn in "the low six figures" each year. "I get 'em with the smoker being here, because that smell will literally pull them right off the highway. And jerky's a good traveling snack, because it'll fill you up pretty darn quick." He understands jerky's addictive qualities. "I'm always testing the batches, which I make every day, so I've always got some jerky in me," Smithwick adds. "But when I'm away from it for a week, look out. I get a hankerin' for it like you wouldn't believe. And that's when I'd drive just about anywhere to get me some jerky."

He pauses. "But mostly, around here, I think people come looking for jerky because it's one of the last pieces of the Old West we've got left," he concludes.

"I don't give a shit about the Old West," says Bryan Boynton. "I'm out here to make some money, not feed into some tourist's idea of pretending to be Buffalo Bill." The cowboy hat perched on his buzz-cut head and the Marlboro clenched between his fingers notwithstanding, the Chicago-born Boynton says he's not really into the Western thing: "I just wear this hat 'cause it's the best thing to keep the sun off my head."

On this early-fall day, Boynton has parked his white van on the shoulder of the road leading off I-70's Buffalo Bill exit. Because he doesn't pay taxes on his jerky, he has to move around a lot, and he's always avoiding the law.

The state prohibits commercial businesses from operating on public highway right-of-ways. "The guys who are going to be enforcing that are the county sheriff's departments," explains Colorado State Patrol technician Rob Marone. "There's a fine the first time, and we would definitely be looking to enforce any infractions. It's not just a police issue; it's a Department of Revenue and a Department of Transportation issue, too."

Legitimate vendors like Smithwick and McKinlay, who pay taxes and secure the property owners' permission to run businesses on their land, consider renegades like Boynton jerks. "Those guys had better watch out, because we'll turn them in the second we see them," says McKinlay, who has the okay of Phelps Dodge, owner of the nearby mine. "They ruin it for the rest of us."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner