Photos courtesy of Griffin Gotta
Photos courtesy of Griffin Gotta
As the four members of the all-lady team make their way into the circle, one especially rotund member saunters towards the middle of the soupy, Ovaltine-and-water-looking pool of slop with an empty plastic cup in hand. The crowd senses what will happen next as she leans over and dips the cup into the murky liquid. She holds the brimming cup for all to see above her head and then, she slams it. Chugs the whole thing. The crowd reaction is a mix of fear and rapturous disgust.
What probably began as just muddy water was now mixed with a half-a-day’s worth of pig excrement, sweat, and any sort of runoff that might result from teams of people in the northwoods of Wisconsin getting up close and personal with a live pig. It was now someone’s pre-game protein shake.
Caldron Falls Bar and Grill, located about an hour north of Green Bay near a state sweet spot for outdoor activities called Crivitz, refers to itself as the “hog wrestling capitol of the world,” a claim to fame that may be self-appointed, yet it also seems hard to argue once you’ve seen it.
And seeing what it has to offer doesn’t begin with hogs. Many attendees, in what is a perfect extension of the event, treat the day like a warped adult Halloween fashion show. The standard issue apparel for Saturday, the day of the wrestling, consists of cut-offs and shorts—but the more ridiculous, the better. Grown adults walk around in banana hammocks; daisy dukes; full-length fur coats; replica costumes of pro wrestlers such as Vader, Macho Man Randy Savage, Diamond Dallas Page and Stone Cold; overalls cut off at the knee; matching and decorated T-shirts with pig-related sayings and “Hog Wrestling 2012” splayed on the front and back; and plenty, plenty of American or Star-Spangled red, white and blue garb.
When I asked folks, some in full hog wrestling regalia, some with eyes already looking ready to depart from the planet, why they were here to begin with, the expression and tone was almost always laced with confusion. People have either been coming for at least a few years or are attending for the first time at the behest of someone they know who has. For the most part, the impression was that if you showed up once of course you’ll be back because it’s hog wrestling, dammit. And if it’s your first time it wouldn’t be the last because see previous sentence.
Caldron Falls welcomes you with a giant wooden sign cut in the shape of a happy pig leaning on a barrel with a mug of frothy beer raised in the air. After attempting to walk the few miles between the campsite and hog wrestling grounds and consequently hitching a ride in a convoy of pickups from the aforementioned “pro wrestlers,” it’s five bucks and an ID check to get through the gates with a pink approved-for-drinking wristband. From there, Caldron Falls opens up all around you. It does not resemble the bar and grill of its namesake; rather, it’s the grounds of a small festival. To the left, an impressive lineup of Port-A-Potties eats up most of the chain-link fence line before a large pavilion with food, refreshments and picnic tables takes over closer to the actual bar, which hides innocently in back of the property behind all of the action. To the near right, off the walkway that snakes down the middle leading to the muddy main event and bar, is a long covered stage and concrete floor where a cover band called Johnny Wad will take the reigns of the festivities later in the evening as the wrestling winds down.
The stage area stretches to the wrestling arena, the aforementioned pit filled with wet mud and other filthy discards from man and beast alike. The pit is surrounded by rain barrels and a wooden-staked fence. In one corner a chain-link partition swings open allowing wrestlers and referees to enter; alongside it, a wooden panel manned by a guy in a striped referee shirt that says “Hochuli” on the back leads to a shaded area of slop up a nearby hill where the hogs mill and lay about, unexpectedly waiting for their call to the show. The arena is encircled by a dirt standing area for the brave and behind that, your run-of-the-mill metal bleachers likely found in just about any high school football stadium in America. They sway back and forth rhythmically as more people try to find places to squeeze in and watch. This makes things difficult after a day of drinking the event’s signature Summer Hummers, though, as the neon green beverage may not taste to be anything more than lime Kool-Aid, but from my own fuzzier-throughout-the-day perspective and after witnessing a few people faceplant trying to make a move during one of the bleacher’s waves of movement, they are certainly an added test to one’s balance on the rickety stands.
Behind the pit and next to the bar in the back is another drinks and food station (they only serve brats or burgers outside), along with an umbrella-shaded picnic table area that connects this back space with the main walkway and the rest of the grounds. To the hog’s left is a grandstand raised above the bleachers where a commentator announces things like the competing team—names such as “Knee Deep in Shit,” “Donkey Punch,” “Swine Flu,” and “Pigweiser” are called with the same matter-of-factness as departing flights at an airport—who’s on deck, as well as when to begin wrestling, when time is called, and any potential rules violations or announcements that may come about. He also, throughout the day, will throw out jabs and innuendo towards particularly outrageously dressed teams of either sex or ones that failed in some noteworthy way. During intermissions, he chain smokes and surveys the land, a content grin on his face.
Ninety-seven teams of four, comprised of either males, females or coeds, registered this year to wrestle hogs, so the big name of the game here, so the event ends at a reasonable time, is speed. As each team enters the ring, they are separated in twos on both sides of the hog’s entrance and must hold a short rope tied above the rain barrels until the pig is steered out into the circle and to the opposite side of the ring for consistency’s sake. This can sometimes take awhile if the pig acts understandably confused and upset about being guided in one direction and one direction only, but once the animal is situated to the referee’s liking (to be a referee, by the way, apparently requires a similarly portly frame and reverence for all things muddy that a hog has), he raises a hand and the commentator simultaneously starts his stopwatch and yells “Ready, wrestle!”
Teams come in all shapes, sizes and levels of sobriety. Pretty little petite girls; older, hardened badasses; what looks to be four-fifths of some professional football team’s offensive line; glazed-eyed twentysomethings and mega bros possibly confusing this for a workout all enter the ring with determined looks and typically leave by performing some sort of splash or swan dive into the mud. Sometimes the matches come easy, sometimes the pig almost runs right into their arms. But other times it’s a struggle to get on the hog’s comfort level, as teammates fall over one another in pursuit. If too much time—about a minute, as far as I can tell—passes the match is called and the team is relentlessly booed out of the pit. The ultimate shame in an event otherwise lacking any of it.
The goal is to pick up the pig—without grabbing the tail, face, ears or legs, as those all result in automatic disqualification from the event—and place it on a padded rain barrel three-fourths submerged in the mud in the middle of the ring. The faster the better; in recent years, the winning men’s team has accomplished this in five to six seconds; the women anywhere between six and fourteen. And though one wrestler described the strategy simply as “Run at the pig and pick it up,” the most entertaining parts are when that best laid plan goes awry. When a pig is able to make a few laps around the circle, human limbs flailing in the spittle behind it, people diving and slamming into rain barrels, spraying front row patrons with grime, that’s when the crowd’s chants of “Pig! Pig! Pig!” amplify most with excitement; basically, when the humiliation factor is at its highest, that’s when the crowd is most engaged. It’s also why, when another wrestling veteran tells me, “You have to try it once,” I remain steadfastly unconvinced.
It has to be said that even though the crowd technically “roots” for the hog to elude its chasers, this doesn’t make the squealing, or the faces-with-the-tongues-out, or the general idea of putting a probably terrified animal in a ring and having people try to tackle it any easier to watch. But when it gets particularly squirmy, there is plenty to distract attention. A walk around the grounds, another drink, maybe one of those gut-bomb burgers they’re serving. In the bleachers, I’ll eavesdrop on a group of middle-aged people a row behind me frantically calling out and trying to keep track of numbers: “15! 7! 12! 8!” They were slinging dollar bills back and forth, betting on who could guess closest to the correct finishing time of the upcoming team based on what they looked like.
Watching hog wrestling gets old. For that, Caldron Falls has another time-tested tradition: the intermission, or, as the announcer fellow calls it, the “pause for the cause.” It usually happens right when you’re starting to get the feeling that the wrestling has been going on for too long, when you start discussing strategy with those around you—“You need two quick guys on the outside to herd the pig and two bigger guys on the inside to lift it. It’s simple!”—and though they say it’s a fifteen minute break for the refs and commentators to rest, I’m quite sure it lasts longer. Intermission is pretty much all about the “hose guy,” and the “hose guy” is the same guy every year. A slender man in his late-twenties to early-thirties, perhaps, with a buzz cut wrapped in a bandana, face-filling aviators, and gray cut-off T-shirt that reads “Marines” across the front to go with tattered jeans and shit-kicker boots, climbs atop the pit-encircling rain barrels.
For an event that is on its 27th year, certain aspects of it feel as though little has changed from its very beginning. The intermission is one of them. Walking along the barrels, the hose guy, green garden hose in hand, sprays well-endowed ladies, or, failing that, alive and willing ladies, as a sign to present themselves to the chanting, and really quite frenzied about the whole thing, crowd. Some women will duck for cover behind their men, others scamper off the bleachers until it’s over, and there’s more than a few, in every age bracket from 20 to about, unfortunately, 60, who perch on shoulders or stand tall, sometimes barely allowing the water to hit them before flashing the goods. The crowd does not get more excited for any pig bout than they do as a whole for the intermission. It’s a clear event-within-the-event that somehow doesn’t quite make the main description.
As the last few teams get their wrestling in, Johnny Wad begins what will be a roughly four hour set of mostly ‘80s and ‘90s rock hits straight on through to around midnight. It’s crowded and full of obliterated folks pushing their way to somewhere or recklessly throwing elbows to the tunes. A stage in front of the band gives ladies who feel like basking in some spotlight a chance to dance for the now-even-more-frenzied crowd of cheering, actually gawking, onlookers. The hog wrestling portion of the event is decidedly over, and after a while you almost forget where you’ve been all day.
Around midnight, between Johnny Wad’s set and their short encore, fireworks erupt over the grounds. It’s sort of a strange way to end the day if you think of fireworks as remotely romantic, but in the end maybe Caldron Falls is celebrating another year of pulling this crazy fucking thing off. We find another ride, crammed in the back of a covered pickup, on a pitch-black country road back to Thornton’s, our campsite a few miles away, which, quiet townie bar and whitewater rafting resort by most days, turns into a sweaty college town nightclub on this night. Hog wrestling, the event, is both completely dead and alive and kicking for the next few foreseeable hours.
Leaving the campsite on a steamy Sunday morning—always watching for zombie-like survivors stumbling near or on the dirt paths along the way—and getting onto the main stretch of twisty pavement responsible for spitting you out of the northwoods eventually, also takes you past Caldron Falls Bar and Grill. There are flatbed trucks loaded up with Port-A-Potties but not a soul in sight. You wouldn’t know if this place was preparing for or cleaning up an event. The giant smiling pig, with his welcome sign and mug of beer raised in hoof, reminds you of all you may or may not want inside your brain; the all-seeing pig’s eye. The road gently bends and, just as soon as it appears, the sign dips out of sight.