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The invitation sounded too good to pass up. "Head 'em up and move 'em out. The Turtle River Ranch, the Bowman Crew, and Miss Americow invite you to the Trailer Trash Party." Sure it's a Monday night, and it's a long trek to Jupiter. But when you have an excuse to leave behind the pasty-faced snowbirds and get a horsy blast of old Florida, you don't think about tomorrow.
As you exit the turnpike at Indiantown Road, the night is blissfully black, with not a single garish strip mall in sight. The thought dawns that it probably won't be like this five years from now, because a big real-estate company just bought thousands of pristine acres around here and plans to develop the land.
Still, it's best to enjoy the moment. An orange full moon hangs low over the horizon. Christmas lights twinkle on the side of a large trailer, in the shape of horses pulling an Old West stagecoach. Just past the stagecoach are cars, pickups, and SUVs crammed into a rutted field, which means you've arrived at multimillionaire rancher Billy Bowman's cow pasture.
Hidden from the road, in a field covered with mangrove mulch, hundreds of people are eating, laughing, and dancing. You know you're not on Clematis Street anymore. Many of the folks here are wearing cowboy hats and boots, and they look like they belong in them. A giant bonfire takes the chill out of the night air and casts a glow over the revelers. Giddy children, blissfully unsupervised, are heaving blocks of wood into the fire and getting sprayed with sparks.
A lean, hawk-nosed man in baggy shorts, with long silver hair tucked under a baseball cap, is greeting people and swigging a bottle of Bud. "Welcome to Turtle River Ranch," says Billy Bowman, who has put on this soiree with his wife, Dari, for the past three years. In a rich Tennessee drawl that comes from his mother, the Dade County-born Bowman explains that what draws so many people to his parties is the chance to rub shoulders with a wide swath of Palm Beach County society. "That one dancing there, that's trailer trash," he says with a grin. "And that one there, that's a classy lady from Boca. And see that older woman there? Wait a little bit, and she'll take off all her clothes. She does it every year."
Attending Bowman's ranch bash is like traveling back in time to the days when good old boys in cowboy hats ran things, before the northerners swarmed down like locusts. Everybody knows everybody else, and everyone seems to love Bowman. "I've been buddies with Billy forever, and I think the world of him," says Harry MacArthur, who owns Harry and the Natives, a 56-year-old restaurant in Hobe Sound. "He likes to party."
The invitation read, "Bring your own steak or bird," and several long barbecue pits are hissing with blackened meats. Large pans of corn on the cob, black-eyed peas, potatoes, and coleslaw -- prepared personally by Dari Bowman -- line wooden tables in front of the barbecues. "You've got something there to grill?" asks a man wielding a pair of tongs and wearing an orange T-shirt that reads, "We cheat tourists, drunks, and attorneys." He promises to sear a visitor's steak to a perfect medium-rare.
A two-man country group, the Doublewide Band, is standing on the back of a 1953 flatbed Ford, twanging away on guitars. The sign below their feet reads, "Smiling Jack's Fish Camp: beer, soda, groceries, bait." The singer, who's named Hot Curl, is belting out an X-rated version of the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman," and people are getting up on the cable-spool tables and boogeying.
Just as Bowman promised, the crowd is an eclectic mix. One enthusiastic dancer jumps on stage and gyrates next to the musicians. Someone identifies her as state representative Sharon Merchant (R-North Palm Beach). She's not the only VIP here, though. Palm Beach County Commissioner Karen Marcus and county public defender Richard Jorandby are spotted not far from the stage, conversing sedately.
The 61-year-old Bowman is legendary for his hospitality, having hosted numerous fundraising barbecues for political candidates and charitable causes. In 1995 he catered an inaugural street party in Tallahassee for newly reelected Gov. Lawton Chiles. As a humorous protest against the city's strict food-safety rules, he served Chiles a plate of ribs sheathed in condoms -- for "maximum safety." Throughout the '70s and '80s, he held an annual giant Super Bowl party with outdoor big-screen TVs at his dairy farm in west Delray Beach. He and Dari finally ended that tradition in 1987, when the guest count hit an unmanageable 4000.
Bowman shut down his dairy operation -- the last one in Palm Beach County -- several years ago. Since then, he and his brother, Jimmy, and his son, Dick, have been grazing 1500 head of beef cattle on several spreads they lease around the county. "Now I only have union cows," he quips, an allusion to the much shorter workweek involved in raising cows for meat compared with milking them. "You see Miss USA yet? You gotta go over and see her," he urges.