When I was a boy growing up in a Long Island beach town, one of the symbols of summertime for my family was stowed in a canvas tote bag. After school let out, this bag came along every day to the beach, either strapped to the back of my father's bike or held tightly in my mother's hand. Inside lay four U-shaped pieces of metal, two pins and an old rusty hammer. After setting up folding chairs, umbrellas and beach towels, one of the adults would walk off an impromptu horseshoe pit near the water's edge, where the sand was firm. I often fell asleep in the afternoon to the clanking sound of metal striking metal and someone yelling "ringer!"
For years, many Santa Feans I know have been spending their summers participating in an odd ritual called the shoe-b-que. I've even attended a few of their events, held at the homes of our pals Mitch and Shannon, Jeff and Marcy, or Jim and Mary. Since these social-athletes also come from the school where we equate summer with tossing metal, I drove out to Eldorado to see one of the founders of the shoe-b-que, Dano Woodward. I found him pitching shoes with his wife Sarah in a benefit for Bienvenidos Outreach, aptly named the Wild West Shoot Out. Woodward is a big, amiable-looking guy with a graying beard and sunglasses shielding his eyes. That day he was dressed like he'd just come from the job site—old jeans and a yellow flannel shirt, obviously soft from wear. The straw hat on his head and Tevas on his feet let anyone within striking distance know he's from the laid-back West. Like me, Woodward grew up playing horseshoes on the beach, only his early experience was with his mom in Southern California. When he moved to Santa Fe 21 years ago, his mother duly retired the family shoes to her son.
Four years after he traded the sand dunes for the desert sand, Woodward, Bradley Mountain Wear owner Scott Ebinger and a few other guys wanted to start a regular social event that combined horseshoes and barbecue. The idea, according to Woodward, was to "get people out and get them together in the summer." The shoe-b-que was born out of that generous and seasonal idea. For the first few years, it was a "money league"—each team pitched in $50, and all the cash was paid to the winner at the finals. That for-profit model made things a bit too intense or, as Woodward put it, "When money's involved, all bets are off." They had to change the structure of the shoe-b-que so it could appeal to those who were serious about leaners and those who were serious about just leaning.
During those early years, Woodward and Ebinger put out a monthly publication called The Shoe-B-Que Times that featured reports from different pits, not only in terms of win/loss records, but also who dropped early or lasted longest in the legendary post-match bacchanals. Since some players didn't like the way they were portrayed in the tabloid (often in revealing photos) and Ebinger moved to Laramie, Wyo., to open Atmosphere Mountain Works, the paper folded. The shoe-b-que, however, lives on.
Over almost two decades, the shoe-b-que has swelled to as many as 12 teams but has since settled at eight. In the early years, all the teams would gather every two weeks in a massive get-together—but that many shoe-b-quers in one place every fortnight got too out-of-hand. Now, the season begins in May and ends in late September. Each team has a two-week window to play its scheduled opponent, and the hosting team provides the location. According to Woodward, just because the scheduling is less centralized doesn't mean the shoe-b-que is rigid. "People know you are playing a certain team, and they might just wanna drop by or something of that nature," he says.
The typical shoe-b-que event goes like this: People show up, have a few beers and fire up the grill. The home team is required by the rules to have a quality grill and the food is "shoe-b-que style," which translates into layman's terms as potluck. Woodward told me that the cuisine and pace of the match vary with the home team. Some hosts enjoy a leisurely tempo and restaurant quality food, while others are more of the "chip and dip, pitch and run" variety. The players and spectators eat after three matches to 21, with the teams self-judging on an honor system.
I ask Woodward if there were any "ringers," outstanding players that other teams fear, in the league. "Oh yes," he says, laughing. "There's a husband-and-wife combination who are pretty top-shelf. They wanted to get into the league for many years, but we didn't have room. When they finally got in, they took the first year's finals, then the next year's finals, then the next." The married duo was very serious when they began, but the relaxed atmosphere and a good dethroning mellowed them out. "Now, they're a little more about the 'que' than the 'shoe'," Woodward says.
Even though the league offers a relaxed summertime social experience for men and women, people still find ways to keep the competitive aspect of the sport alive. Teams with names like Concrete Slugs, Ricochet Poodles and Team Smart often trade players, offering incentives for some of the quality throwers to consider changing sides. "I lost one of my star women," Woodward says. "She jumped ship on us."
As if on cue, the traitor, who was also participating in the charity event, approaches us. She is dressed casually but has the Natasha-esque voice of a Russian spy.
"Why did you leave?" I ask.
She eyes the recorder in my hand. "Is this on tape?"
I nod and repeat my question. Behind us, people have started throwing shoes. I can hear shouts of "good shoe" as players got closer to the pin.
"I'm not telling," she says. "We should have some wodka and then I might tell you." We all turn after hearing the clank of metal striking metal. A ringer. Later that afternoon, I'd see why the traitor is such a hot commodity. She would hit more than a few ringers for her team and would eventually win the tourney. "You should have caught me when you were incognito," she tells me before sauntering away. "Now that I know you are on the record…"
Everybody in the league plays at the shoe-b-que finals, which are held at an undisclosed location in the Santa Fe National Forest known to the players as Whiskey Creek. The pits are laser-leveled and accurately measured. The finals take all day. Players hang lights, haul out a portable toilet and set up camp. That night, the previous year's champion presents the trophy to the winning team. Most folks stay over to enjoy a night full of food, drink and music provided by shoe-b-que members whose talents extend beyond horseshoes.
"People dig it," Woodward says, reflecting on his role as steward and social director over the past 17 years. "The goal is to kick back, relax and be one with the shoe. Or the que. Or the brew." He laughs then nods toward his wife, ready to join her in the pits.
Help shoe-b-que support Bienvenidos Outreach and its programs to combat food insecurity at joyfulcharity.org