Editor’s Note: This story contains adult content and strong language – or, at least, stronger language than you usually get here at BTT. Reader discretion is advised.
The first thing that you need to know about Michael Dean is that Michael Dean refers to himself as Michael Dean when he tells a story he’s in.
And he tells a lot of stories.
Stories like ending up on the losing end of a game of Drag Queen BINGO in Las Vegas. Or trying to give his now ex-fiance away to Stone Cold Steve Austin. Or how he ended up with the saying on the back of his T-shirt:
Not Jimmy Dean. Not Paula Deen. Michael Dean.
Lord willing, Michael Dean Caldwell woke up this morning, his first full day as a 60-year-old. He and his partner Gilbert have lived in an accessible home on 40 acres up a mountain above Florence, Colorado for about 20 years now. It’s a short drive along the Arkansas River, right in the cradle of the Banana Belt, to his restaurant in south Cañon City.
At Michael Dean’s Country Café, Michael Dean is the man behind the register, the head waiter and master chef. He and his partner made all the ceramic coffee mugs and bowls for sale in the restaurant’s lobby. Gil’s mother makes the decorative dish towels and quilts.
He’s a restaurateur, a maker and a writer. And he’s not sure what he’s going to do next.
Down the Worn Path
The world Michael Dean has made for himself is a world away from what he knew back in his native California. He seemed destined to follow the path of his father and many others in the high desert of San Bernardino County, where there are only so few employers and honest ways to make a living.
“I swore I would never work for the government – I don’t like those green uniforms – and that’s what I did for 17 years,” Michael Dean said. “I was at college at Whittier, but I had applied for a job at the federal government like six or seven months prior to that.”
Michael Dean’s friend in the human resources department at the Department of Navy back home reached out to him while he was at Whittier College and let him know his application had come up. The job was his if he wanted it.
He took it, even if he didn’t want it.
“I was like, you know, my family has property in San Bernardino. We had 20 acres and a lake. I didn’t have to deal with the hustle and bustle of Whittier,” Michael Dean said. “So I went back and took the job and moved up the ranks and hated every minute of it.
“Some people love to be in those positions, but not Michael Dean. I hated it.”
Michael Dean put in 17 years as a civilian, starting in warehouses, working in a hazmat suit, training officers on fire safety, and ultimately leading large teams including temporary workers during the summer. Michael Dean made it a point to hire members of the LGBTQ+ community – not only because he is a champion of the community, but he also has seen the positive results of making such hires.
“Once I hired 30 people temping for 120 days, and probably 25 of them were lesbians, and I did it for a reason,” Michael Dean said. “I had some lazy, lazy full-time federal employees who were just milking the system. I hired them because I knew they would get my guys to work. They would pick up the pace, and that’s what they’ve always done. They really picked things up.
“I had one full-time guy, and for four years he’d work all sorts of overtime, Sundays, he didn’t care. His wife was miserable. He was miserable. Well, I guess one of the girls one day kind of told him the finer arts of going down on somebody. He started taking weekends off after that.”
Michael Dean laughed for a good while as he told me this.
Breaking Away, Staying Together
Michael Dean took the buyout from the Navy in 1999, just as Gil was wrapping up motorcycle mechanic school in Phoenix. They settled in Las Vegas for a few years, delivering Harley motorcycles and often putting break-in miles on new bikes riding together out in the desert.
It was some of their finer days. But their toughest were ahead.
In 2002, Gil was riding when he collided with a commercial vehicle, sending him into the air, landing on his head. The head trauma led to a life-threatening brain injury.
Michael Dean was by Gil’s side as he battled, as days turned to weeks to months.
“Going through his brain injury and being at the brain institute and all the miracles you see along your path, it’s one of the most eye-awakening things I’ve seen in my life,” Michael Dean said. “At rehab hospital in Nevada, I would see people come in, and they’d just leave their other half right there saying they can’t do this. I don’t get that. If you love somebody, you love them.
“I’m 20 years taking care of Gil, and they gave him three years to live.”
Michael Dean has known Gil since they were 10. He was committed as ever to helping Gil find his new normal, their new normal. But it wasn’t going to be in Las Vegas – the Nevada heat was too much for Gil to take now.
Gil’s parents had moved east to Monument, Colorado, and visits to the southern side of the state led them to a property for sale just outside of Florence, about two hours south of Denver. It stayed on the market long enough for it to become their home.
The home had been already adapted to make it wheelchair accessible, and the views of the Wet Mountains sealed the deal. Michael Dean counts their home as a fateful blessing. They’ve been in each other’s lives for 50 years now, and they aren’t going anywhere.
“He is my very best friend, my partner, my everything,” Michael Dean said of Gil. “Life is life and love is love and you do what you can do.”
He and Gil still have all their motorcycles that they have moved around with for the last 40 years. Gil wants to sell them, but Michael Dean isn’t ready to let go. Not that he rides much anymore.
“Riding was something we always did together,” Michael Dean said. “It’s just not the same.”
A Whole New Life
Michael Dean wasn’t quite sure just what he was going to do in Colorado. His dad was raising cows at the time and sent him a bull and a few heifers – “He thought I needed something to do,” Michael Dean said. He named the bull Weeman after the Jackass star.
On a visit back to Las Vegas, Michael Dean met Weeman himself in line at the Starbucks outside the Cosmopolitan.
“All these people keep turning and looking, and I know they’re not checking Michael Dean out,” Michael Dean said. “And then I look and I see this little guy in front of me, and it was Weeman.
“I am like, ‘Dude, hold on, I named my bull after you!’ He’s looking at me like I am a crackhead or something, and I showed him the picture. Never in his life.”
When Michael Dean got to the counter, the baristas recognized him from Drag Queen Bingo Night.
“One of the guys winks at me and says, ‘Are you still wearing the underwear you had on last night?’ Well, as a matter of fact I am, bitches. Yeah, so that was the night I went out with drag queens and ended up in my underwear in front of everybody. And that was my encounter with Weeman.”
In Colorado, Micheal Dean and Gil started making and selling their pottery, and he started cooking more. Soon, he was selling burgers and brats at festivals and smoking farm-to-table meats.
“I’ve cooked my whole life, literally,” Michael Dean said. “I mean, even as a kindergartner I would make french toast before school because I got sick and tired of cereal.
“So once I got my little cart with two grills, I would make the rounds to the bars and cook my hash on the street. Fremont County is Fremont County, and I got pretty well known for my brats.”
Michael Dean started taking his mobile grill to bigger shows like the annual chile festival in Pueblo. He was soon making a lot more selling his meat than his ceramics. When the little restaurant with a courtyard beside a trailer park on Elm Avenue became available five years ago, Michael Dean jumped in with both feet.
The menu at Michael Dean’s Country Cafe changes by the day, all depending on what Michael Dean wants to make and the local ingredients he can get, but his smoked meats are his signature items. He recommends the smoked beef or rib sandwich, unless he’s also smoked a whole slab of ribeye.
“Lately I am just mixing everything up,” he said. “Right now I have pork shoulders sitting in green chili for 24 hours. It’s the last of pepper season and I have a bunch of sweet peppers that I can roast with the pork, rice and cheese. This will be a good special.”
The restaurant has its busy days and its quiet ones. He’s a bit off the beaten path of the rest of Cañon City and has kicked around the idea of moving to a better location – or maybe just giving it up.
But while he has the restaurant, he is always looking to help others. Michael Dean’s food has become a staple in the Pride community, and he’s been known to give a meal to anyone who needs it. He will take charge if he’s asked.
“Somebody bailed on a Pride ceremony a few years ago and they asked me, ‘Michael would you be willing?’ And I said, ‘Yeah I’ll do it, but I am not doing it like those other bitches,” Michael Dean said with some gusto. “We did everything right down along the riverwalk. We had 300 people show up. All these drag queens were coming in and I was dancing with them – it was just a real good turnout, just a bunch of quirky things we do in our little town.
“I’ve kind of become known as the openly-friendly restaurant, if you know what I mean, and it’s all good to me. But I want people to know me for my food, not just my twerking side.”
The Next Phase
Michael Dean knows there are a lot of loved ones in heaven who would laugh and say “I told you so!” if they could see him now. He’s gone from working for The Man to being his own man, making a living as a creator.
Even still, talking to him on this late October afternoon, it’s hard to guess what Michael Dean will do next. He has a handful of stories in the works, but he hasn’t found time to finish any of them. He wants to publish a cookbook but has about 40 recipes to go.
After catching COVID-19 earlier this year, Michael Dean is still trying to restore his energy levels. He says he’s feeling better every day, but he has a long way to go.
“I am not in the gym and I need to be in the gym because I have a double-pack of wine on my belly right now,” he laughed. “I didn’t lose taste, but I won’t lie to you – two sips of water and I’m puking it up to this day. I can’t drink water right now. It’s totally out of my diet.”
As he stares at 60, he knows there are a lot more things he’d like to do with his creativity. He plans to make it through the end of the year – the holidays are tough because he’s lost a lot of loved ones in December – and do some soul searching in January.
If he decides to keep the restaurant going, Michael Dean wants to make new shirts that are a bit more true to him. He wants to perfectly recapture the origin story of his saying on the back.
“I was cooking at the (Pueblo) chile festival for the first time, and I didn’t realize I would have a line of people all damn day,” Michael Dean recalled. “Somebody saw my sign and got confused and said, ‘Is this Jimmy Dean’s?’ I said ‘This isn’t Jimmy Dean’s, this isn’t Paula Deen’s, this is Michael Dean’s, bitches.’
“I kind of became known for saying that, but when I went to have my shirts made the lady didn’t think ‘bitches’ was appropriate. But who asks what’s appropriate? I say bitches all the time. When I get my new shirt made, I think I am going back to bitches because I think it’s appropriate.”
Michael Dean is OK turning 60. He hasn’t thrown a party in years, and his energy isn’t what it was, but Michael Dean is ready to keep on living, telling his stories to his customers and helping out how he can.
“I went through a dark world and got into a funk, but I am OK – just getting ready for the next phase,” he said. “I’m trying to get it all together.”