Hogs and Horses
Writer Tom Scanlon
There are plenty of restaurant and bar employees around Cave Creek and Carefree who always seem to be happy and helpful, perennially perky.
Harvey is not one of them.
Indeed, sometimes his boss will give him an order, and Harvey will just stare him down, motionless, chewing away. The order will be repeated. Harvey might comply, or he might just yawn and shake his head lazily.
You can get away with that, when you come from a line of celebrities.
And when you weigh 2,500 pounds.
Full-grown at eight years old, Harvey Wallbanger Jr. is the biggest thing to hit Cave Creek since – well, he’s probably the biggest thing to hit town ever. This buffalo is the star of a new show known as Hogs and Horses. Technically, this is Cave Creek’s newest bar and restaurant, but it seems like one big carnival, as owner T.C. Thorstenson is putting the emphasis on entertainment, Wild West-style.
“It’s not a bar with entertainment, this is a Western theme park with a bar,” says Thorstenson. He’s something of a cowboy version of P.T. Barnum, and plans on bringing more family shows to Cave Creek than the town has ever seen. He is hosting buffalo trick shows starring himself and Harvey, plus roping and riding shows with pro cowboys, with music and comedy in the mix.
Oh, and did we mention bikini barrel racing?
The varied entertainment has attracted big crowds in the first few months Harvey’s place has been open. Thorstenson always wants big and bigger, as evidenced by his choice of animals to train; while he has been generally pleased with the opening of Hogs and Horses, he says the best is yet to come. In 2014, he expects every night he’ll put on a show – sometimes two.
Looking like a mid-career Robert Duvall, T.C. sits down at a picnic bench to answer some questions after leading a somewhat reluctant Harvey through a Sunday afternoon show. On a drizzly, cool late afternoon, there were only a handful of patrons watching the tricks, but that’s all this showman needs. “I want a full house. But whether it’s a full house or not, my goal is for every person who comes here to have a good time. I want this to be a destination place for America.”
Thorstenson, 56, wears a worked-out white cowboy hat with a feather shooting out the back, and is layered up in flannel shirts and a thick sweatshirt; he has some hay on his shoulder, after rolling around with Harvey. And by “rolling around,” we mean that literally.
The owner/trainer runs through Harvey’s repertoire: “He lays down, he plays dead, gets up on a pedestal, goes through a burning ring of fire. And, when he feels like it, lays down on top of me.” Most people wouldn’t perform such tricks with a cranky co-star, but clearly, T.C. Thorstenson isn’t most people. He has been training the giant animals for decades.
Harvey is the latest in a line of big buffalo bred by T.C. This Harvey has been a star of commercials and corporate events; previous Harveys had camera time in movies such as “Lonesome Dove” and “Dances with Wolves.” And these beasts aren’t just huge, they are surprisingly speedy.
Photos of Harvey and his predecessors are laminated in the bar. There are pictures of T.C. and buffaloes doing tricks, half-time performances, celebrity appearances – there’s even one of T.C. riding a buffalo that’s about to cross the finish line ahead or racehorses.
Funny Photoshop stuff, right? Nope. Give T.C. a stack of bibles and he’ll swear that photo is legit.
“The first Harvey won 76 of 92 races against major racehorses. He beat Willie Shoemaker two out of three times. We did that for seven years, then he died – he’s fully stuffed in the house. Then I started doing pro rodeos over the last 20 years.”
Ten years ago, T.C. bought a 10-acre parcel of land smack in the middle of Cave Creek, a span stretching from just south of the Buffalo Chip. After years of planning and false starts, he finally got the green light from the city and pulled the trigger on the place of his dreams. Now that he finally has the place up and running, he is not holding back. In addition to being a trainer, T.C. is also a champion shooter and rider. He doesn’t just tell you about it, he proves it – he likes to ride around the ring on Harvey and, taking careful aim while in motion, shoot a cigar out of a volunteer’s mouth.
This is Wild West, 365 days a year. Thorstenson’s goal is not just to have a successful bar and restaurant, but to be “the town’s arena.” His motto: “Rodeo seven nights a week.”
With the Buffalo Chip next door long established with bull-riding shows, T.C.’s bison shows, shooting, roping, riding and other old-fashioned entertainment will keep the spirit of the Wild West going year-round.
“I’m in the Western entertainment business,” Thorstenson says. “That’s all I want to do. It’s about having a place where cowboys can go, where bikers can go, where tourists can go. And everybody gets to have a good time. I just want to show ’em all good, Western entertainment.”
Thorstenson had planned on a soft opening in the fall, but by the time Hogs and Horses was ready to throw open its swinging doors (just like old West saloons), it was the weekend of Wild West Days, likely the biggest festival in Cave Creek. Hogs and Horses was a key venue for the festival. “We had 4,000 people come in the first two days,” T.C. said with a tired grin.
He spent months working 12-plus-hour days, getting Hogs and Horses ready to roll, and then smoothing the kinks out of the new place. It wasn’t unlike breaking a wild animal, but it took him away from Harvey time. “I spend a lot of time here. An hour before sunup to two hours after dark for months. It hurt the buffalo training – buffalo need to be trained every day.” He indicates with a nod toward Harvey, munching hay (he eats 35 to 40 pounds a day) in the fenced-off arena. “That’s why he’s not working as good as he should.”
Raised on a ranch in the Sioux country of South Dakota, T.C. Thorstenson has lived in Arizona for 25 years; he’s had a ranch with four buffalo, 10 head of horses, two longhorns, a few dozen chickens and a wolf or two (“I also train wolves”) in Cave Creek for the last decade. The city suits this cowboy just fine. “Great people. Good, small-town country living.”
The budding superstar of the town is Harvey Wallbanger Jr., and, cranky as he is, the big fella seems to be taking to the spotlight just fine.
One of his favorite things is to walk up a ramp and laze around on top of a 50-foot trailer. Phoenix TV helicopter cameras filmed him doing this during recent rainstorms, thinking he was fleeing the rain. Nope, he just likes it up there, the king of Cave Creek in his throne. “He likes the view up there,” Thorstenson says.
The same could be said of his owner, thriving in the scene from the top of this town.
“There ain’t no place like Cave Creek,” says this traveling cowboy who has found a home in the foothills. “I love Cave Creek and I’ll be here ’til the day I die.”
Harvey Wallbanger Jr. would probably agree with that. And, if you told him the town’s new motto is “Cave Creek: Where the Wild West Lives,” if Harvey could talk, he’d probably say, “You got that right, little human! Now get me some fresh hay, I’ll be up on my trailer.”