It’s rodeo time: seven seconds of hell on an angry bull. That’s what many San Diegans picture when they think of Poway. But times have changed in the “City in the Country,” as old-time Kiwanistas and Rotarians call it. Though it’s still a stop on the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association’s annual barnstorm, you’re more like to see a mega-buck estate than a bucking bronco nowadays, unless it’s late September.
I first discovered Poway back in ‘81 when I moved to Mission Valley from Riverside. I’d wind up at the Pomerado Club, which was housed in an old rock-hewn Pony Express station sometimes monikered the “Big Stone Lodge.” Passable country bands such as the Savery Brothers, cold beer, and San Diego’s iteration of bucolic babes made it a common weekend watering hole for me. But the music ended years ago at the venue; there’s little trace of the old Highway 395 that led to a dirt parking lot, spreading oaks, and neon signs.
That was Poway to me, a tucked-away corner of ruritania that reminded me of the Inland Empire where I was born and whose honky tonks I’d frequented in my early twenties. Sure, Powegians (think Norway and Norwegian for the quirky derivative) can still be found on quarter horses on trails, and the oak trees abide. But unless you have a lot of lucre (three mil or more, pardner), you’ll sure as shootin’ never set your boots down at the Heritage Estates.
A while back, I got a shiny mailer from Poway On Stage (an organization that sounded vaguely familiar, but one I couldn’t quite place) inviting me, and I presumed a whole passel of other folks in and around 92131, to something called A Taste of Our Towne, held on June 22. It was one of those ubiquitous food ‘n wine fests that seem to spring up anywhere from Spring Valley to Valley Center, from Bonsall to Borrego and back again — and this one set folks back $100 a pop, or $1000 if they yearned to “sponsor” a table. Offerings ranged from java local Mostra to Urge and Brothers Provisions gastropubs, to the prosaic Brigantine bunch. And when it came to wine time — you gotta give the ‘On Stage’ folks credit — Ramona AVA (American Viticultural Area) standouts Chuparosa, Edwards, and Woof ‘N Rose were flowing.
Unshockingly, I-15’s version of a June-gloom bacchanalia kicked off with you guessed it — a silent auction. But wait: there’s more! Because once you’d had your fill of virtuous victuals and fruit ‘o the vines, the party hosts promised that “the evening [would] climax with a raucous live auction.” And if the auction action proved a tad too tumultuous, if not downright orgasmic, at least insurance behemoth GEICO, the ‘diamond’ sponsor, had your back, Jack.
Is this Poway 2.0? Michael Rennie, Poway on Stage’s director, lends his views.
“Poway hasn’t been a rural community in the 19 years that I’ve worked here. When I first started at the foundation, there were people who associated Poway with rural living. Poway’s very proud of its rural roots; they do have horse trails, and some of the intersection crosswalks still have ‘walk’ buttons at horse-height so you can press them without getting of your horse. But this area really changed in the ‘80s.” Noting the slew of high-priced homes in several pockets of Poway, including the north end of the city near Maderas Golf Club, I asked Rennie if the influx of bucks has helped his group. “My board includes lawyers, wealth asset managers, and mortgage brokers, but Poway runs the gamut. Obviously, there are some very affluent gated communities, but there are also some more affordable neighborhoods down near Poway Road. What really caused the boom? The highly-ranked school district. In the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Poway was seen largely as a retirement community, but people relocated here in the ‘80s and ‘90s for the schools; there are a lot of young families.”
But as is the case throughout San Diego County’s suburban haunts, there’s a relative dearth of 18-35 year-olds. “When kids graduate from high school, go off to college and graduate,” notes Rennie, “they’ll move to places like Pacific Beach, which seems to be a rite of passage for people in their late teens and early twenties. They’re not setting up homes here in Poway.”
So where do the younger Powegians hang out? “As far as late teens and twenty-somethings, I’d totally be guessing,” he muses. “The Gaslamp? The beach? They’re finding something to do in San Diego; I just don’t know what it is.”
One way to take the pulse of a city is to check out the officially sanctioned events that civic boosters boast about in websites and pamphlets. Another is to engage the proverbial “man on the street” and gather opinions on what it’s like to live in a given city. In an effort to locate dissenters, as it were, from the Poway official line, I collared a local who spilled a few beans. I was at the Poway Sushi Lounge on a Saturday night, and there were two couples sharing roll sections and drinking Sapporo. One guy turned around and seemed amenable, so I asked, “What’s it like living in Poway?”
“Poway. Boring, man, really boring. I mean, it’s nice enough, no one’s gonna’ get in your face if you mind your own business. But partying is kinda’ sketchy here.” Josh, almost his real name, lives with his parents right off Martincoit Street, in the sort of leafy, used-to-be rural neighborhood that sits somewhere, in real estate terms, between the estates in the craggy north and the weathered ranch homes due south. At 26, Josh, a 2011 Poway High grad, takes classes at Palomar College part-time, with a simultaneous stint working at the Walmart down the road.
For him, there’s a bit of suburban ennui mixed with a realization that he can’t move out on his own unless he’s willing to move to a shitty part of San Diego. A skater, Josh is slight and unassuming, and wears his black hair in a buzz-cut.
“Some of my buds got out of Poway, went to college in L.A., even NorCal. Most of the bros are still here. Like I said, it’s quiet, but we still put on some pretty good ragers.”
“Yeah, well it’s not like hundreds of people, but, you know, you can party anywhere, and my folks are pretty chill about it. I mean, as long as the Sheriffs don’t come around.” As for his future plans, he’s a bit disconnected from long-term prospects, and seems content enough with the status quo. “Walmart isn’t bad. I mean, the piss tests are bullshit, but I have that covered — you know, a kit, it cleans out the THC. Palomar’s OK too, but I’m not really sure what I’m doing there. Maybe I’ll transfer to a UC. I dunno, my grades are pretty edgy that way, right?”
Boring? A lot of locals would prefer that.
By most standards a quiet, safe, and occasionally quaint burg, Poway was thrust into the national headlines on Saturday, April 27 when 19-year-old John T. Earnest, a lone wolf neo-Nazi from nearby Rancho Peñasquitos, burst into the Chabad temple on Espola Road during a Passover gathering. Before he fled the synagogue, the Cal State San Marcos nursing student had killed one person and injured three others, thwarted from inflicting more carnage by his perhaps-jammed AR-15 and by an armed off-duty Border Patrol agent in the congregation.
Here’s where the attack gets personal for me: at the very moment the shooting took place that morning, I happened to be within a mile of the Chabad building. My wife and I had been in Rancho Bernardo traipsing through estate sales, and as we watched the first San Diego County Sheriff’s Department SUV speeding toward the scene, I commented to her, “That’s interesting. Sheriff from Vista all the way out here.” My wife replied, “Maybe it’s a murder.”
Earnest’s mission to murder Jews hit home with me — not only because I’m a member of the tribe, but because I know a few folks who attend the Poway Chabad shul. They’re largely immigrants from Iran and other Sephardim from the Middle Eastern diaspora, and a good-sized crew of Russian expatriates, people who’ve made the I-15 corridor a surprising locale for the quintessential American melting pot. And it’s right down the road on Pomerado, at Ner Tamid, where my youngest daughter celebrated her bat mitzvah seven years ago.
Indeed, Poway is a town chock-full of houses of worship — synagogues and pretty much any sort of church you’d care to attend, and possibly a few you’d rather eschew. So we know that Powegians pray, but how do they play? For that, I decided to inaugurate a new measure: the ‘Cannabis Dispensary to House of Worship Ratio,’ or ‘CD-HOW-R.’ Meant to complement, if not displace, a similar, more traditional lifestyle calculator, the CD-HOW-R, instead of using the number of bars (whether they be rustic, ramshackle taverns or fancy-pants martini-marts) to gauge the sinful side of the calculus, tallies the number of pot shops in town to generate its results. And in the case of Poway, the number is zero. No-way, as in zero, zilch, nada, bupkis, jack shit — because Poway’s pols, like their counterparts in other burgs (e.g., flyblown San Joaquin Valley shit holes like Mendota), reject reefer retailing, statewide vote be damned.
In September 2017, Poway’s gatekeepers, including Mayor Steve Vaus and Poway city councilman Barry Leonard, invoking the evergreen “save the kids” mantra, voiced their intense opposition to any proposed Poway pot purveyors. “We Don’t Sell Marijuana in Poway” could be a country song, I guess. So if you wanna score some wakky tobakky in Poway, grow yer own — no more than six, mind you, and inside the house, okay? Or if your thumb’s not Kelly green, meet me in back of the mini-mart at midnight. But keep in mind that The Hag smoked the evil weed for decades. Hell, he may have even vaped the day he turned 79 and died.
But however staid the scene or expensive the real estate, there are still a lot of horses, horse people, and horse facilities here, and the hills are very much alive with the smell of hay, mixed with an occasional whiff of manure. An what about the venerable Poway Rodeo? Is it symbolic, perhaps even iconic? Or is it just a hoary anachronism, a vestige of an agrarian past that is all-but-forgotten in this time of rampant rapping and torrential texting?
Murray Bankhead, an attorney who’s served as Poway’s rodeo czar for three years, answers, “It’s actually a very popular event; we sell out Saturday night every year, and get pretty close on Friday night. Total attendance is 10,000 to 12,000. We gear our Saturday daytime performance to families with kids, and there’s a free dance afterwards both nights.” What about Michael Rennie’s assertion that Poway’s no longer rural? “There’s no question that it’s changed, admits Bankhead. “I used to go down there in the ‘70s, and there were still farms and ranches on Twin Peaks; but if you want to get real rural these days, you have to go to Ramona and beyond. Here, as you drive down Poway Road or Scripps Poway Parkway, or as you hang out at a restaurant you’ll see a lot of pickup trucks and a lot of horse trailers.” But “the culture of the town has changed over the last 30 years, from rural to semi-rural. Rodeos in other towns are now experiencing that.”
I asked, “Who goes to the Poway rodeo?”
“We commissioned a study by San Diego State to look into our rodeo. We found that over half of the people who come are ‘millennials’ who know nothing about rodeo, per se. They’re typically looking for something different. Depending on whether they’re new to San Diego County or come from other parts of the county, they may never have been exposed to it, so they want to check it out. We find that every year, we get a whole group of new people. We’d always assumed that we pull primarily from Poway, Lakeside, and Ramona, which are sort of western cow towns. But we learned from the study that we also get people from Temecula, Encinitas, Chula Vista, Bonita. I was shocked. And we get a lot of Europeans, especially from Germany and Sweden. They want to see one thing they don’t have over there; rodeos and cowboys are foreign to them.”
Even with the influx of young’uns who wouldn’t know a latigo from a latte, old-timers continue to come around, notes Bankhead. “There are still a lot of people who work on ranches around here; the horse community is huge, and they all support one another.” Acknowledging the gentrification of San Diego County’s erstwhile back country, he quips, “It doesn’t mean they’re pushin’ cattle.” But the equine scene is still a big deal in Poway, says Bankhead, who extols the virtues of the younger horsey set. “A lot of them are doing things like dressage, primarily girls, and it’s a great way to grow up for these terrific young adults who learn to take care of a big animal. They seem to have really high self-esteem, and they don’t get in with the wrong boys. They’re tough young ladies.”
Bankhead says that the Poway Rodeo isn’t merely another entertainment choice for jaded San Diegans. “We help keep the sport of rodeo alive by introducing it to people in the modern world. Everything that’s in the rodeo except for bull riding is still done on ranches. And what I hear most is that there’s something for everybody, including the kids who want to get into it and pass it down to the next generation.”
Speaking of bulls: What is it about setting your keister down on a half-ton block of raging bovine that’s so special? “People love the bull riding,” exults Bankhead. “It’s incredible. You couldn’t pay me to get on one of them, but I have a real respect for the bull riders. And people love the saddle bronc and bronc riding events as well. For a lot of people, that’s their image of a rodeo.”
When you look at YouTube videos of rodeo legends like bull rider J.B. Mauney, already a grizzled veteran at 32, rodeo appears to be a young man’s sport, with cowboys 18-30 the norm. “When you’re talking about the ‘rough stock,’ that’s mostly true,” agrees Bankhead. “Then you get old and your body can’t take it. But the ropers, even bulldoggers — you see those guys well into their forties, even their fifties, and we had a gal two or three years ago, a barrel racer, who was in her sixties, and she beat all the 20- to 30-year-old women.”
Rodeo and country music have always been as inseparable as twisters and trailers, but Bankhead demurs: “I’m not a country and western guy. My daughters love it. Although I like rock & roll, I still enjoy the rodeo, which my son calls the ‘original extreme sport.’ The demographics have changed and we reach as many people on KGB as we do on KSON, versus 30 years ago, when everyone who went to the rodeo was a country & western person.”
I couldn’t help asking: “So, I guess someone like me who listens to traditional honky tonk or western swing would be outta luck then?” Bankhead didn’t need to say it: anyone yearning, say, for something like Hank Thompson’s live album Cheyenne Frontier Days, recorded in 1963, will be saddle-sorely disappointed. The choice of music for the big Saturday night dance reflects a radically different feel and approach. “We want to attract ‘millennials’ as well as older folks who grew up with the rock music of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The band plays the [pop] country music of today as well as rock, and they tend not to be stuck in a particular genre; music is music. If the singer watches the crowd and if he sees people dancing to the Beatles, he’ll play that.”
For the oft-cited, oft-hyped, and ill-defined ‘millennials,’ Bankhead notes, “The dance is often the big draw, the rodeo itself second. They say, ‘For 20 bucks, I get to go to a dance. Oh, and there’s a rodeo attached to it.’ It’s a great place to meet different types of people, and it draws from all over, so it’s not like going to your neighborhood bar in Pacific Beach where everyone you run into lives in P.B. Poway and Lakeside both have the distinction of being known for the rodeo, but we’re still trying to reach people who don’t know there’s a rodeo here, like people who live on the coast.”
Different types of people? When it comes to ethnic breakdown, the rodeo poohbah, who serves without pay, says “I don’t know.... We don’t keep tabs on the demographics; that’s offensive to me.” But he notes that advertising on Spanish language radio helps get the word out in a big way.
Language and ethnicity aside, Bankhead says that the Poway cowpoke wingding draws a slightly different herd of fans than its Lakeside counterpart. “It’s hard to describe; you just have to go out there and get a feel for it. Because Poway is more affluent, what spectators are willing to buy and what the vendors sell is different. But Poway also has working-class people; we recognize that it’s hard for them, so we’re not looking to gouge people. We try to keep prices low for families. It’s $8 for kids, up to $23 or so for a ‘preferred’ seat closer to the bucking chutes.”
Nationally famous? “Poway’s know all across the country for its rodeo,” beams Bankhead. “I had a client in Wyoming whose 14-year-old son wanted to come to the Poway rodeo. I went, ‘He knows about it’?” All the cowboys know about Poway. Now, the top rodeos in the country — Pendleton, Cheyenne, Houston, the Denver Stock Show — those go on for three, four days, if not a week and they are enormous, multi-million dollar enterprises. But those are the exceptions. We’re more of the average; most of the rodeos around the country are like ours — one or two performances over a weekend.”
As for the winners, they still get belt buckles, but Bankhead says, “A lot of the cowboys don’t want them because they end up with so many of them. One of the rodeos gives away Yeti coolers and the cowboys just love those.” Speaking of belt buckles, I laugh, “At the rodeo dance, do you get a lot of belt buckle ‘polishing’?”
“Yeah, yeah,” laughs Bankhead. We always bring in off-duty Sheriffs. Nobody’s gonna’ drive drunk; if you’ve had too much, Uber will take you home.”
Big shiny oval buckles aside, I wondered if, when folks go to the Poway rodeo, they don the usual mufti of boots ’n hats seen among spectators. “It’s 50-50,” says Bankhead. “There are a lot of tennis shoes; we don’t expect people to go out and wear western garb. Rarely shorts, and most people know that wearing flip-flops in the dirt isn’t smart. But some people really get into it.”
One man who gets into it is Mayor Steve Vaus, whose 24/7 cowboy hat was no doubt noticed by millions of people who watched his empathetic press conferences in the wake of the Chabad shooting. “That’s the old Poway,” notes Bankhead, “and that’s who he is. He’s part of that. He grew up with that and he’s got horses of his own. Also, one thing I’ve told the mayor is, ‘You’ve got to embrace the backyard horses, because if you lose that, you become Tierrasanta or Peñasquitos — nice communities, but….’” Referencing the decades-old City in the Country motto, he adds, “This is part of the ‘country’ that’s still there. The mayor and the city council have used it in their literature to entice companies to move to the business parks. The message is, ‘We’re not like other communities — we have something they don’t have.’ But it’s not a competition between the new Poway and the old Poway.”
In the new Poway, is the Rodeo a cannabis-friendly event? Deflecting at first, Bankhead replies guardedly, “It’s always been no-smoking in the stands.” As for tobacco in general, “We had Skoal as a sponsor years ago, but the committee made a decision that we didn’t want them anymore, because it sets a bad example for the kids; we lost a lot of money because of it.” What about vaping? “People see a lot of Sheriffs walking around, so they get nervous.”
Meanwhile, back at Poway On Stage, Michael Rennie says, “KPBS and NPR listeners tend to be our crowd. “We call it the ‘Professional Performance Series,’ and you’re going to see everything from Arlo Guthrie to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. We target people 35-plus, although our audience skews 55 and up. They’re Baby Boomer ‘empty nesters’ whose kids have gone off to college, leaving their parents’ weekends free.”
I asked him how the audience compares with the Poway rodeo crowd. “I’ve found that in our business, there are two kinds of people: Those who go out and those who don’t. People who go to the rodeo in late September — there’s a high probability that they’ll go to one of my shows around that time also. Also,” notes Rennie, “people who go to arts center shows go to lots of them. When I have Roger McGuinn [ex Byrd] coming to town for his only Southern California performance, there are people attending from Orange County and Las Vegas.”
Rennie credits Ramona wines for the emergence of Taste of the Towne. “It came about as the direct result of the growth of the wine industry. We found out that Ramona had these great wines that no one knew about, and we were big fans. We wanted to feature these great wines from our own backyard.”
But back down in the flats, it’s a different price point altogether. Now and then, San Diego County residents and a “Wiki” reader or two will encounter the term, “Poway Valley,” and if you drive down Poway Road between Pomerado and Community and scan the horizon, indeed, you’ll find that you’re in a valley, albeit a modest one. This is the commercial heart of old Poway, where small-town America melds, pretty darned seamlessly it seems, with the scents and sounds of the third world. It’s replete with dueling tire stores, taco stands, lawnmower repair joints, karate-chop shops, car dealers, and a grocery store where you can buy anything from a sheep’s head to a happy hookah. And don’t forget the bowling alley, the motels, and the discount dentists.
Whether it’s the fleeting scent of horse dung you hanker for, or maybe the vaunted Poway High wrestling program for your son — if you’re itchin’ to move to Poway, you might ask: “Are there affordable neighborhoods?” Sure, if you’re willing to live in the most hardscrabble house on the south side near Metate — or for a full-on down-and-out experience, a trailer park. And notwithstanding disappearing edge pools and 2000-square-foot cabanas in the tony sectors of town, Poway has abodes that can be had for under $100,000. Hell, not far from where I live in Scripps Ranch, a one-bedroom, 1000-square-foot “manufactured home” recently sold for $89,000 in a hidden vestige of ruritania called the Pomerado Oaks Trailer Park. Built in 1975 with 31 “sites” in trailer parlance, it’s got narrow but paved alleys to traverse, and sits chockablock to the remains of the Big Stone Lodge.
As for the boulder-hewn Lodge, I drove by the other day, half out of morbid curiosity, half out of sentiment. It’s as forlorn in person as it looked in photos. Boarded-up windows that once sparkled with beer signs. A couple of desiccated palm trees stand guard in front. The old roadhouse is surrounded by chain-link fence to ward off anyone who might wander by for a last, last call. Abandoned like a bastard stepchild in 2003, it’s now on the chopping block, slated for demolition — just another piece of San Diego County’s past that’s been plowed under, torn down or otherwise extirpated and liquefied. There’s nothing some folks like more than trashing the past, it seems. But no matter what politicians or developers do, the spot under the oaks will always be the Pomerado Club to me.