Marv Sanders is telling me about the famous people who have been to the Win Place & Show. 

“You know that Toby Keith song, ‘I Love this Bar’?”

“Is this that bar?”

He shrugs in response. Some people think so. And I think they might be right.

Then he says, “This is where I met my wife. She walked right through that door—the prettiest woman I’d ever seen.”

He pulls a picture out of his wallet. The late Mrs. Sanders is stunning and I tell Marv so.

“She was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the out.”

He could have been talking about Ruidoso. 

Ruidoso sits beneath the roughly 12,000-foot Sierra Blanca, the southernmost U.S. mountain that supports alpine vegetation. Commonly known as the Cool Pines for its forests of Douglas firs and ponderosa pines that offer a shady respite from the vast swaths of desert surrounding the mountain range, Ruidoso is a year-round destination town that New Mexicans and West-Texans are well acquainted with. 

In its earliest days, the great bald mountain (it has a treeless and gently curving summit) attracted people from the desert, evidenced by the more than 21,000 petroglyphs on its Western base that date back to between 900 and 1400 A.D. In more recent history, Apache tribes moved through the area, leaving the mountains to hunt bison in the eastern plains and to gather mescal agave in the southern deserts. One particular tribe of Apache relied heavily on the mescal after the bison were wiped off the plains, earning them the Spanish name, Mescalero. The current Mescalero Indian Reservation is home to three Apache sub-tribes: the Mescalero, the Lipan, and the warrior-laden Chiracahua. 

My server at the well-known Log Cabin Restaurant—a breakfast hot spot—is from the city of Mescalero, the hub of the reservation. She is kind and efficient—and she doesn’t want to talk to me. It’s not personal. For the Apache, respect is paramount and often expressed by being reserved and less outgoing. Either way, my eggs are as terrific as the service.

Those who visit Ruidoso, on the other hand, are absolutely outgoing. Time and again, when asked, “the people” are the best part about time spent in the Cool Pines. 

“Everybody’s from somewhere,” explains Larry Yute, of East Texas. “This is where you come,” he says, rapping the bar top.

Larry is referring to Ruidoso, but if you don’t make it to the Win Place & Show while you’re in town, you haven’t really been to Ruidoso. Located in Midtown, the WPS is iconic. Opened in 1956, this establishment has only seen two owners and remains the Country-and-Western place to be, year after year. Run by Eddie Fowler since 1986, along with his son, Dean, the bar hosts live music seven days a week, packing the dance floor even on a “slow” night. 

When asked his secret to success, Eddie states simply, and without an ounce of pomp, “Just taking care of people and being consistent. You gotta be consistent.”

He also demands a level of integrity from his patrons. 

“If a single woman decides she wants to dance, that’s her decision—no one else’s.” 

This simple and chivalrous courtesy, according to Eddie, allows everyone to enjoy a night out, and there’s little tolerance for anything else.

“When you’re barred from the Win Place & Show, you’re barred. And no one wants to be barred from the best bar in town.”

It’s clear that the WPS is not only the best bar to have a good time in, but perhaps to work in, as well. Cathy Passig has been providing table service to bar patrons for more than 30 years. 

“Oh I’ve seen it all,” she reminisces, smiling. She and Marv swap a brief story or two before she is off again. Her tables are filling up quick.

Cowboy hats are common attire at the WPS, but according to the doorman at the WPS, Ruidoso is a Western town more than it is a cowboy town. Boudraux has been employed by the WPS for the past three years. (When I wait for him to continue telling me the rest of his name, he says, “That’s it. Just Boudraux.”) And yet, I get the feeling that those who are cowboy, are really cowboy—including this singly-named doorman.

Asking Boudraux about the Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium—celebrating its 25th year this October—he casually mentions that he rode in the VIP chuckwagon a few years back when he was working for the 88,000-acre Bowen Ranch near El Paso, Texas, which was competing in the chuckwagon cook-off. 

In reference to the Bowens, the coordinator for the Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium, Sunny Hirschfeld, exclaims, “Now those cowboys are wild. They are notorious!”

In a proud moment, Boudraux displays his belt buckle for me—proof of that much-acclaimed notoriety. It reads “Last Great Cattle Drive of the Millennium.” Turns out, in December of 1999, Boudraux and some fellow cowboys headed up 250 head of cattle across 88 miles, with temperatures dropping into the low teens at night.

“I’m glad to have been a part of it,” Boudraux recalls. “But I don’t know that I’d do it again,” he chuckles.

Back in the bar, I discover that once upon a time, Larry was a rodeo man and a rancher out of Slater, Colo. It occurs to me that he’s endured some rough goes, as navigating around the corner of the bar in order to hear me better is a laborious endeavor for him. That is, until he yanks my barstool out from beneath another man who had cozied up to the bar in my absence. It occurs to me then that Larry is nothing short of tough—probably always had been, and likely always will be. And in his mind, that seat belonged to the lady. 

The neighboring town of Ruidoso Downs is home to the world’s richest Quarter Horse race, The All American Futurity. In the summer, the track and its accompanying Billy the Kid Casino are a big draw for folks coming to Ruidoso. In the winter, they have skiing on the slopes of Sierra Blanca. But a number of years ago, there was a lag between these summer and winter activities in Ruidoso, when town would just go quiet. Now, this October, Ruidoso Downs will host the 25th annual Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium. 

Sunny has been involved with the LCCS since its beginning. The event, Oct. 10–12 this year, includes all things cowboy, from cowboy poetry and training demonstrations by Craig Cameron to the famed chuckwagon cook-off and four stages of Western swing music. Nearly 140 vendors attend, catering to some 23,000 symposium-goers. And to kick it off?

“On Friday night we’ll have a huge Western swing dance,” Sunny says. “And I mean, those dances are fabulous.”

To celebrate their 25th, the LCCS will be hosting two headliner concerts this year. There will be a Thursday night concert featuring Mel Tillis, and on Saturday, Marty Stuart and Connie Smith will take the stage. 

As for the LCCS chuckwagon cook-off, it’s the real deal. Often, competing ranches even bring their own water and firewood to the event to ensure nothing different goes into their beans and biscuits. In the end, it’s not just the food that matters, though. Competing ranches are also judged on the authenticity of their wagons and their dress. 

The inspiration for all of these events came from Ray Reed, whose family traveled to New Mexico in the 1900s in a covered wagon. They began ranching in Clovis, N.M., and Ray became a cowboy musician, traveling to California in a railroad boxcar in the ’30s, playing guitar and singing, and making connections with Western swing legend Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys band. 

Upon his return to New Mexico, Ray was also able to put his other California connections to use in promoting Ruidoso’s Quarter Horse racetrack and recruiting for the All American Futurity. As time passed though, Ray recognized a need to preserve the culture of the American Cowboy. 

After performing at the inaugural National Cowboy Symposium in Lubbock, Texas, Ray knew how to celebrate the heritage he so dearly cherished. He also knew where to host it. 

Lincoln County, N.M., is ripe with Western history. Perhaps most famous are its Lincoln County Wars, whose players included Sherriff Pat Garrett, cattleman John Chisum, and Billy the Kid. In the town of Lincoln, northwest of Ruidoso, along what is now the Billy the Kid National Scenic Byway, travelers can visit a number of historic buildings, like the county courthouse or the Tunstall store.

“The neat thing about Lincoln,” Sunny says, “is that it’s like Billy just walked around the corner. It all looks exactly the same.”

I had lunch at the Wortley Hotel in Lincoln. During the time Billy the Kid was imprisoned in town, Pat Garrett owned the hotel and the prisoners were allowed to dine there—except for Billy the Kid, as he was deemed too dangerous for such luxuries. It was during one of these meals that Billy the Kid escaped the Lincoln County jail and shot down U.S. Marshall Bob Ollinger, who had been eating with the prisoners. Today, the hotel operates under the slogan, “No Guests Gunned Down in Over 100 Years.” And indeed, I had a very pleasant experience at the Wortley.

Almost directly to the east, the 24,000-acre historic Fort Stanton Military Reservation, established in 1855, offers a similar time-warp kind of experience. The decay of the various buildings—which not only housed soldiers who protected pioneers from Indian attacks, but also provided the infrastructure for area ranchers and farmers to sell beef and grain to the army and nearby tribes—only aids in the ability to step back in time. 

In its first years of operation, the Buffalo Soldiers were relied upon heavily to enforce peace in the area. One of the few pioneer forts still standing in the West, it once housed the likes of Billy the Kid, Kit Carson, and Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing. It also operated as a tuberculosis sanatorium, a Merchant Marine hospital, and a World War II prisoner of war camp. History is at home in Fort Stanton.

The area’s rich past is what convinced Ray Reed that Lincoln County was the ideal host for a cowboy symposium. It is also a place where three different cultures that each played an integral role in the history of the area still exist: the Western settlers, the Native tribes, and the Hispanics, who settled along the Rio Bonito. Ray was interested in representing the full West.

Today the LCCS has a slightly more narrow focus, but not due to any kind of unpopularity. On the contrary, the LCCS simply outgrew its original venue in Glencoe and now presides over the infield of the Ruidoso Downs racetrack, bringing Ray’s vision full circle. Except for about three people on its payroll, the event is supported largely by a returning contingency of volunteers—the real testament to the public’s devotion to the LCCS and the cowboy heritage.

When I ask Larry about the Symposium, he is adamant: “The music. It’s the best part.”

In regards to the chuckwagons, however, he can’t comment. In all the years he’s been going to the LCCS, the music has demanded his audience. He’s never made it over to the chuckwagons.

“It’s that good,” he says.

As are the people. It’s obvious that Ruidoso has gone out of its way to make sure it takes care of the folks who visit it—Ski Apache and The Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort and Casino, both owned and operated by the Mescalero, are also considerable draws to Ruidoso. But as for the actual quality of the people in town, you won’t find better.

In a place that once fought an entire series of wars over the newcomers in town, those who claim Ruidoso as their own now seem to gladly share its glories with the rest of its visitors. 

“It’s very personalized,” Sunny says, speaking more specifically to the experience of the symposium-goers. “Because I insist on that. That’s why the people come back.”

Ruidoso is full of down-home, good people, making the best of life on the side of a 12,000-foot mountain in the New Mexico desert. They welcome your arrival, and when the time comes to leave, they say, “You have to come back.” And I believe they mean it. 

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