Aspen Untucked: Marveling in Meeker | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Untucked: Marveling in Meeker

by Barbara Platts

Colorado has a lot to offer. Visitors and residents alike know this well. No matter the season, no matter your hobbies, this state is the place to be, and that's becoming more and more obvious with the increasing population. However, even those of us who have made Colorado our home for decades can often overlook some of the less known destinations that really make this state so special. Many of us exist between the thriving metropolises and the world-famous mountain towns, basing our experiences and our outdoor activities around areas that are well known and popular. But often times, what's far from the beaten path is what's worth experiencing about the Centennial State.

This weekend, I was reminded of this when I visited the town of Meeker, which resides in Rio Blanco County. Located 109 miles northwest of Aspen, this community is home to roughly 2,500 people. It was founded around the same time as Aspen, and was originally known as a central hub for banking and trade in northwestern Colorado.

I had never, not even once before, heard of the town Meeker. I wouldn't have even been able to point out its general vicinity on a map if someone had forced me to. This wasn't due to a lack of interest to explore the town, I just didn't even know to look for it in the first place. I've spent nearly 24 years of my life in Colorado, and still, there are so many places I've yet to visit. Meeker was on that list of unvisited destinations until last weekend, when I was cordially invited to judge a lamb cook-off there.

The Jammin Lamb Festival is a part of The Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials, one of the largest and most well-known dog trials in the state, possibly even the country. The lamb cook-off started four years ago as a side event of sorts for the trials. Since then, it has grown drastically, gaining its official title only this year. The festival takes place on a whole city block on Main Street in the downtown core. This year there were five entries, or dishes. Each chef had the choice of cooking with lamb shoulder or ground lamb. A total of 350 pounds of the meat was donated by American Lamb and Lamb Colorado for the event, but each chef was required to provide their own cooking equipment and any extra ingredients for their dish.

I was one of three representatives from the media in charge of scoring each lamb dish and choosing a winner. For all five entries, we judged on three categories: taste, tenderness and creativity. I'm not exactly a lamb connoisseur by any means, but I like to think that the excess of foodie events in Aspen prepared me somewhat for this job.

Right off the bat in this cook-off, I learned that these chefs were not messing around. From a lamb charcuterie board, complete with homemade hummus and pita bread, to a ground lamb taco accented with a fresh Israeli salad, each of the entries was mouth-wateringly good. Ranking them was a huge challenge. I felt like an anxious school kid who hadn't properly studied for a math exam as I went back and forth between entry forms, crossing out numbers and then rewriting them. Eventually, my fellow judges and I came up with sufficient scores and combined them, deciding on three winners. While it was a competition, it didn't seem like winning or losing held much merit for cook-off. Attendees were just excited to be there, eating good food with the community. Before the event was even over, each chef had run out of lamb, showing just how tasty each delicacy was. There were close to 450 tickets sold, the biggest turnout yet for the event.

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The lamb festival is only a small part of what makes this time of the year in Meeker so special. The event that really brings the crowds to this quaint town is the Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials. This five-day competition, which is in its 31st year, brings in 131 dogs and their handlers, plus close to 700 sheep. Around 6,000 people come out to watch the sporting event, and it brings the town roughly $800,000 to $900,000 worth of revenue.

Sheepdog trials, also known as a dog sport or dog trial, originated in New Zealand in the 1860s. It came to the U.S. roughly 20 years later. The whole process seems a bit complicated to the layman (i.e. me), but the basic idea is that a border collie and his handler work together to herd sheep from one side of a field to another. They guide different herds through fence openings and other obstacles, eventually combining the herds and then separating certain ones out from the rest of the pack. They have to complete this in a certain amount of time, and there are judges scoring the dog each step of the way. I can barely get my own dogs to come when I call, so seeing these border collies and their owners working this well together was unreal.

The competition ended Sunday with one winner (Dennis Edwards and his dog Coup, if that means anything to you), however the top 20 teams get some kind of cash prize, and so do the spectators who choose to bet on a border collie for the final day of competition. The money left over that doesn't go to operations costs is put back into the pot for next year's trials, which people are already booking their lodging for.

For me, last weekend in Meeker had many firsts. It was my first time judging a lamb festival, first time experiencing the bar Chippers (more on that in the sidebar) and first time watching a sheepdog trial. But the most important first was getting to experience the town of Meeker and its overly generous community. This town has a pure authenticity to it that's hard to find in the Aspens or Denvers of this state. It's a place where people still go to their local drug store for a cup of joe in the morning or a pop in the afternoon. It's where almost everything is closed on Sundays, and people get more excited about meeting a new horse on their family's farm than going to some glitzy event. In Meeker, the American small-town culture is alive and well. Plus, it has a nice dash of Western flavor that reminds visitors they are in the Colorado Rockies.

Colorado is home to many incredible places and experiences, but those aren't just found in the big cities and the well-known ski towns. They live in the small, close-knit communities, the humble old Western towns with kind, hardworking people. Those places are what help make Colorado such a special state to live in.

Barbara Platts highly recommends taking a visit to Meeker, as well as other towns in Rio Blanco County. Reach her at bplatts.000@gmail.com or on Twitter @BarbaraPlatts.

IF YOU GO …

Along with several events in town each month of the year, there’s plenty to do in Meeker, as well as other parts of Rio Blanco County.

History buffs should make sure to check out the White River Museum and the lobby of the Meeker Hotel.

Those in search of a watering hole with character must visit Chippers in downtown Meeker. This is your quintessential dive bar, a one-of-a-kind place. Hopefully the main bartender, Reno Rain, will be there slinging some drinks.

For those seeking outdoor adventure in the summer, there’s trail running, camping, hunting, fishing and more. Plus, for those who enjoy off-highway vehicle driving, there’s the Wagon Wheel OHV Trail system, offering 250 miles of trails in the White River National Forest. For more information, go to meekerchamber.com.

For those seeking outdoor adventure in the snowier months, there’s snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and even ice climbing. For more information, go to rangelychamber.com.

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