As I mentioned on the previous blog post, we recently completed a 3,700 mile trip through six states besides Oregon. On the first six says, I drove solo – spending nights in Yaak (2), Kalispell, Hamilton, Anaconda and Livingston before meeting my bride who flew into Billings.
From that point, we spent eight more days together hitting three National Parks, two National Monuments, two Memorials and one incredible State Park (Custer in South Dakota.)
While on my own, I visited twenty-three bars and seven breweries and Janet and I subsequently stopped in ten bars and nine breweries for a total of forty-nine memorable establishments where we met wonderful people, had outstanding beer and good food. The scenery was varied and stunning. The complete list and some additional background information on the trip can be found at:
In future blog posts, I will talk in detail about the watering holes and the people, however, I think it fitting to again preface those narratives with what constituted the highlights of our trip – one that we will remember as a memorable and cherished journey across a big slice of Western America.
Favorite National Park
Badlands National Park in South Dakota – The clear winner. The carved landscape reflecting the incredible and unceasing power of nature was dramatic and humbling.
We visited sixteen breweries or brewpubs during the trip and I’m compelled to name three which topped the list.
Bias Brewing in Kalispell – I spent an hour interviewing (before they opened for the day) Gabe Mariman the co-owner. Bias was opened by Adam and Amanda Robertson in 2018 and Gabe joined them shorty after. He and his family moved from Bend.
Bitter Root Brewing in Hamilton – Founded in 1998, it’s one of the oldest breweries in the State and a family-owned and operated business. Sarah, the daughter of the owners who moved home from Arizona, spent time briefing me on the history and their operations while I had an excellent dinner.
Bitter Root has a wonderful and personable staff and it was obvious that they enjoyed their jobs and took pride in their company. The manner in which Sarah interacted with customers and her staff was remarkable.
They are proud of their kitchen and “source local and organic whenever possible and love partnering with local providers.”
Smith Alley Brewing – Sheridan, Wyoming – It’s opening in January, 2019, made it the third brewery in Sheridan and after having some of their excellent beer we came back for dinner – another good decision.
He stopped what he was doing in the brewery to talk with us, pour us a sample of a new beer which he was still in the process of refining the new brew so it was not yet available on tap – excellent taste and aroma. Turns out, he recently moved from Oregon City, where I graduated from high school and plans to move his family to Sheridan in the next month.
Favorite National Monument or Memorial
While the Little Big Horn National Monument imbued a sense of being on hallowed ground, the visit to Mt. Rushmore National Memorial should be on every person’s bucket list.
Fortunately, due to the admonition of some good friends about crowds, we hit it early on a Monday morning. There were few people at that time and being able to view this incredible sight from a distance and then walk up to see a close-up unobstructed perspective of these American icons left what will be a lasting and memorable impression.
And the background and story of sculptor, Gutzon Borglum and the 400 workers who worked on this fourteen-year project (1927-41) is fascinating.
This presents a dilemma because there were so many bars – many with rich histories, located in historic buildings and with wonderful bartenders.
The Dirty Shame Saloon – Yaak, Montana – Since meeting John Runkle and visiting the Dirty Shame was a primary motivation for the trip, and the time spent there exceeded my expectations, it is obviously first on the list. Future posts will inform you why you should also visit this legendary bar.
“I wondered when I first walked into the Montana if I had not found a bar about as close to perfect as I was going to find….The Montana was built in 1902 by James Kenney and outside of a new coat of paint and new wallpaper, the bar has hardly changed.”
In 2019, this bar still exudes its rich and historic past and the effusive bartender, Blake, was friendly and helpful in telling us the story.
Blue Moon Saloon – Columbus Falls – Based on the aforementioned Joan Melchor’s book, I had to see the Blue Moon on my trip. It’s in a rural area close to Kalispell and I stopped in mid-afternoon on the first Sunday of my trip.
It’s purported to have the longest bar in Montana and is know for its legendary taxidermy and the charisma of its owners, Dick and Charlotte Sapa, who bought the bar in 1973. When I walked in, sat down in the middle of the bar and ordered a beer, I asked the bartender if the Sapas still owned it.
She pointed to her right and said, that’s them sitting down at the end of the bar. That began an extended conversation with this amazing couple who were not hesitant to regale me with stories.
Their son, Bill, after we talked awhile, offered to take me up to the fabled upper room – an honor – which is completely filled with additional trophies from the hunts all over the world.
I am looking forward to telling a more complete story of this bar, but it was one of the highlights of my solo trip.
(You will love the true story of the guy who wanted to show off his new horse, shortly after they opened the bar. Charlotte agreed and the entrance and exit of the rider and his steed is a perfect example of why I want to return to visit more Montana saloons.)
This is another category that given the warmth of the bartenders who greeted me and shared their own and their bar’s stories after I gave them my Beerchaser card, is a challenge to single out a few. That said, here’s a valiant attempt and I will let you know about the others when I describe their bars in future posts:
Andre at the Little Missouri Saloon in Medora, North Dakota – We have found on three of our last major trips – Alaska, New England and this one, that a number of the bartenders and servers are natives of the Caucasus, Eastern, Southern or Central Europe.
They come over during the summers to work and return in the fall – often for continuing university study. In general, they speak English quite well, are personable and enjoy sharing their story when you ask.
Tom Davis – bartender and owner of the Wise River Club in Wise River, Montana – Wise River is really “in the sticks” (on the north edge of the Beaverhead National Forest and about 40 miles from the Antler Saloon in Wisdom so you will have some context…..)
I stopped in about noon and ordered a Miller High Life from Tom, who told me he and his wife are the owners of both the bar and the RV park behind it – they bought them eleven years ago – and his story. He emigrated from Scotland in 1964. “In those days if you had an accent and could sing, you could make some money.”
He formed a band and played lead guitar, and he and his group fronted and toured with Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and Papas and in the Northwest with Portland’s own Paul Revere and the Raiders.
Darilyn – Cook and bartendar at the Dirty Shame Saloon in Yaak – The story of the Dirty Shame and the background of its owner and staff will more than fill two future posts, but suffice to say that Darilyn – is a gem.
She and her family live in Troy and they come up to help John Runkle at various times of the year around the bar and at the Lodge. She is soft spoken, but is an asset to John and probably manages him better than anyone except his wife!
Favorite Bar Regulars
There is no question on the two below although I met scores of great bar regulars.
Geoff at the Yaak River Tavern – There is some competition between the Dirty Shame and this bar right across the highway. Also no question that the Dirty Shame has more character. In John Runkle’s apt way of describing the distinction:
“Yaak River Tavern has an Ugly Sweater Contest. The Dirty Shame has a Wet T-shirt Contest.”
That said, I did go over there for about an hour on my first night in Yaak. An affable old guy named Geoff was playing guitar and singing – right on a bar stool at the bar – nursing one of a number of beers he had that day/night and telling stories.
I told the owner that I was buying him a beer when he came in the next day to credit his account. So he sang us his favorite song. (When the lyrics have “palm trees,” “banana,” “beach” and “Montana” in the same verse, you know there’s creativity!)
(If you don’t see the arrow to play on the video below, tap on the photo and it will take you to the You Tube I posted on Geoff’s song.)
Fritz at the Antler Saloon in Wisdom, Montana – The Antler is a picturesque and historic bar in Wisdom – also out in the Montana boonies – one which requires driving through some beautiful country.
“Bernie” was the bartender and also self-described herself as the “pizza maker” – the bar is known for that but I arrived there about 10:00 AM. I had a very nice chat with her and one of the owners, Tom, who at one time worked at Oregon Steel in Portland and a good client of my former law firm.
A sign in the men’s john stated, ” Please spit chew in the garbage, not the urinal,” and another said, “This establishment serves no drinks with tiny umbrellas.”
But the biggest impact on me was Fritz – Bernie’s dog. He epitomized a great bar regular and waved a paw from his bar stool as I left.
Favorite Lodging Options
We are loyal to the Marriott Hotel chain and like the different options presented with the mid-price options (or ability to use points) which always include a decent, if not enticing, breakfast option. We stayed in a number – all after Janet joined the trip, because I tried to hit either historic or low budget, but interesting motels, when I drove solo.
From a price standpoint, at $55 per night, I might suggest Deffy’s Motel in Livingston, but it was borderline. Although for that price, I got a couch, full kitchen, desk and even cable TV, Janet would have vetoed out of hand.
I noticed from both a sign and on-line that Deffy’s is for sale – price not disclosed – if anybody is interesting in relocating to Hamilton and taking over an “established” business.
The Murray Hotel in Hamilton – I got in this historic hotel because of Janet’s checking after most of the lodging options when I checked, were unavailable because they were filming an episode of “Yellowstone” with Kevin Costner right outside the city.
But this was a rustic gem, with a great bar and very comfortable room right on Main Street. The clerk at the desk was Val – a former land-use planner who had worked for the City of Hillsboro and had some Oregon roots so we had a great conversation.
“Since its grand opening in 1904, the Murray Hotel’s guest registry has been more like a who’s who of history and Hollywood. Celebrities such as Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane have graced the threshold of what was once “the” elegant railroad hotel.” (Murray Hotel website)
From the décor in the lobby, to the bar and overall ambiance, it was great. I loved it and would strongly recommend. And if you hit there at the right time, you might well run into a noted entertainer, artist or writer on vacation.
Marriott Element in Bozeman – A factor in this choice may be how much we liked Bozeman as a city and the hotel was about two blocks off the main street. It had a great lobby, nice staff, a happy hour with complimentary beer and cheese and even tea at 8:00 as a nightcap besides a breakfast better than most Mariott options.
And because of our Mariott loyalty program, we got an upgrade to a suite, but the paramount element to making this list was the view from our room – just outstanding! This was taken right from the window of our room.
Favorite Cities in Which I/We had an Overnight Stay
There was really only one city on the trip through seven states that I didn’t care for – Anaconda – and part of one afternoon and an hour the next morning, probably isn’t enough time to bond with a municipality. That said, besides Yaak, there were no stays longer than one night.
I should also state, that while we really liked Teddy Roosevelt National Park and the bar and brewpub we went to, Medora, North Dakota had kind of a weird or unsettling vibe.
I might add that while the scenery, the people and the setting of many of the cities and towns we experienced, tempted one to say, “I could definitely move here,” reality set in when we remembered the weather during the winter months.
As stated in one website, “Winter sees some extremes in Montana weather. During the winter, it is very common for the areas east of the Continental Divide to be in the deep-freeze of below zero temperatures.”
And besides 50 to 100 inches of snow, it is usually blowing snow. This July night it is a pleasant 61 degrees, but if you plan to relocate, look at the full annual picture.
Hamilton, Montana – One thing that prompted me to check out Hamilton was an article in The Oregonian the city on small western cities by David Lynch of The Washington Post. Further research revealed this excerpt from The Oregonian in July 2014.
“Hamilton, population 4,508, is located near the center of the Bitterroot Valley, an 80-mile north-south valley tucked in on the east slope of the Bitterroot Mountains in far western Montana and about 50 miles south of Missoula. Blodgett Canyon, just five miles from the center of town, is nothing short of gorgeous.
Hamilton was a designed town, with planned street grids right from the beginning, unlike so many other Montana towns that grew up out of mining camps.”
Now I have to admit that driving in on State Highway 93, my first glimpse of Hamilton was very disappointing. It was a commercial strip along the highway. However, an evening walk and getting only a few blocks off the main drag revealed a charming town with the Bitter Root River flowing through the very impressive River Park.
The Park had a wonderful playground and river walk. I then hit both of the breweries, which were great stories.
Higher Ground Brewing – the story of “Two local boys (Jasper Miller and Fenn Nelson) who came home from college and launched a brewery (2011) that takes more than $1 million in annual sales.” They became the youngest owner and head brewer in Montana. (Washington Post April 5, 2019.)
Bitter Root Brewing – one of the oldest in the state (1998) and a family owned business as mentioned earlier in this post.
Right next to brewery, was an impressive baseball field and I watched several innings of American Legion Baseball and saw the first-place hometown Bitter Root Red Sox in the process of thrashing the Kalispell Lakers.
I was impressed by the Montana version of Big Green as the left-field fence. On a Monday night, it was a well-attended family affair.
Unfortunately, my stay in Hamilton was limited to one night as I would have liked to take one of the hikes right outside town in the Bitter Root National Forest.
However, that would have meant another night in Deffy’s Motel….
Sheridan, Wyoming – This northern Wyoming city with a population of 17,500 and founded in 1882, is halfway between Mt. Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park.
Named for the legendary General Phil Sheridan, my attachment to this berg, may have been, in part, based on some family roots. My dad’s father Floyd Williams, was a US Postal Service Inspector and while traveling by train which stopped in Sheridan in 1912, he spotted the young Clara Sarah Willey on the platform at the station.
Sarah’s family ranched cattle (the Diamond Bar T brand) there for three quarters of a century. Kings Saddlery, one of the largest tack stores (equestrian outfitting) in the US, also had a museum (through the rope store in back of the main saddlery) in addition to countless saddles and western gear and there were historic pictures from the Willey spread.
Sheridan has some sprawl along the highways, but a picturesque and historic and thriving main street with fascinating shops and one of our favorite breweries – Smith Alley Brewing (see above)