The Dirty Shame Saloon in Yaak – Part II

Big Sky Country between Yaak and Eureka

Followers of this blog are aware of our fourteen-day June road trip through Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming – the first six nights I drove solo before picking up Janet at the Billings Airport for the remaining eight days.  The two posts which provide an overview of this 3,700 trip can be seen by clicking on this link.

The first two night’s lodging were in the Moose Room of the Yaak River Lodge.  Yaak is near the NW border of Montana – 35 miles from the Canadian border – a community which about 250 people call home.  In the center of Yaak also sits the “World Famous Dirty Shame Saloon,” owned and managed since 2013 by John Runkle, who also owns the Lodge he bought in 2004.

I might add that even with its proximity, based on the beauty of the surrounding Kootenai National Forest, there’s no compelling reason to go to Canada unless you want to get Moosehead Lager Beer or visit the birthplace of native Canadian, Justin Bieber – a thought that would require a double shot of Canadian Club Whiskey rather than beer.  Hall of Fame hockey player, Wayne Gretzky was also born in Canada, although he never dated Selena Gomez But I digress……

The Yaak River Lodge which sits on 7.5 acres of beautiful property

Wildlife abounds in Yaak – and not necessarily just in the two bars in the “center of town.”  Besides a Sasquatch in a field (see photo below), I also saw elk, deer and feathered prey, but fortunately no grizzly bears.

And indeed, hunters are some of John’s main clients at the lodge and at the Dirty Shame Saloon in the fall.

Taken from the window of my car on Yaak River Road

Across the highway from the Shame is the Yaak River Tavern – owned by Gwen and which has a personality quite different from the historic and much written about Dirty Shame.  (There used to be a strip of four bars  in Yaak including the Golden Nugget and the Hell Roaring Saloon – these two are now gone but not forgotten.)

I spent quite a few hours in the Dirty Shame, interviewing John, talking to regulars and “drinking” in the ambiance of what became the most interesting of the 350 watering holes I’ve visited since starting Thebeerchaser blog in August, 2011.   These justify the title: “The World Famous Dirty Shame Saloon.”

Thebeerchaser and John Runkle – owner.

The first Beerchaser post on the bar chronicles John’s background – almost as interesting and varied as his bar and why he was named this blog’s most recent Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter.  Click on the link above to read the story.)

You will want to read the highlights of The Dirty Shame before John bought it out of foreclosure – the only bidder and paying cash in 2013.   In that narrative, I tried to put to rest the concern of author, Joan Melcher, who wrote two wonderful books on “Montana Watering Holes’ and her fear in the second book about the Shame’s future.

I described why she loved the Shame when she first visited in the 1970’s.  (I used both of Joan’s books extensively for research and planning on my road trip and you should check them out.)

Joan’s trepidation was that Gloria and Don Belcher – the husband and wife from the East Coast who purchased the bar in 2006 – tried to “civilize” the bar.  The book clubs and music they introduced while attempting to turn it into a “bistro“ were totally out of character with the saloon’s roots.   (There was even carpet on the floor at one point!)

Joan Melcher’s first book published in 1983.

My narratives will try to reassure this wonderful writer that John has rekindled the spark that made hunters, bikers and adventurers return to the Dirty Shame to drink beer with the regulars.   Also to enjoy one of the community events Yaak celebrates and in which the Dirty Shame revels.

(I sent my last blog post to Joan in an e-mail and told her that her sense of loss was no longer valid and tried to convince her that she should return to validate my claim.)  She responded, in part:

“I do love the Dirty Shame and I’m glad it’s on the rebound.”

Now the trappings of the Dirty Shame are not unique – they reflect the same character as most good dive bars with a more western flavor –  a large rifle, cowboy boots, an old wood stove, a pool table, and Fox News on the big screen TV over the bar.  (The bullet holes in the wall when John bought it, have been removed.)

Oh, and there’s the bottle of MD 20-20 wine prominently displayed on a shelf and which John says dates back to 1978.  The two bottles of Benedictine Brewery Black Habit Beer that I brought as a “bar-warming” gift will now be displayed next to the “fermented juicy, luscious fruit infused with tasty flavor” contents in the Mogen David bottles, which we learned in college made it the “Original – Ready to Drink” or more aptly labeled, “Wine of the Century.”

What distinguishes the Shame are the people – not only John and his crew who run the place, but the regulars who reside in Yaak and those – be they the bikers and hunters, who return year after year and the tourists who have heard about this watering hole.

They come not only for the Sasquatch Festival, the Crawdad Festival and the Adult Easter Egg Hunt, but to mingle with the unconventional, one-of-a-kind characters.  These personae, who based on the stories from years past and recently, seem drawn to the Dirty Shame like a moth to the light reflecting off a bottle of Budweiser on a moonlit Yaak evening….

In the Adult Easter Egg Hunt, about sixty women search (often in the snow still on the ground) for the “golden egg” among those scattered around the outside of the saloon.   The lucky finder is the recipient of a “$200 Sex Package,” – one on which John commented, “I didn’t know what most of that stuff was…..”

Howie Long – occasional visitor to Yaak

As John emphasized to me, “You never know who you are going to sit next to at the Dirty Shame.” I’m not talking about “celebrities” such as sports broadcaster and athlete, Howie Long (who owns a home near Flathead Lake), or Mark Furman of the OJ Trial fame.

No, I’m talking about some who are clearly bad dudes and misfits, but most who are salt-of-the-earth patriots one wants to write about – so I will.   And I’ll also tell you about the events in Yaak that you should plan your next road trip around……

The Kehoe GangChevie and Cheyne Kehoe were two of eight sons raised starting in Arkansas.  Chevie, who was named after his dad, Kirby’s, favorite car was born in 1973 – the oldest, and when they moved to Eastern Washington, he was an honor student (but evidently not most likely to succeed) at Colville Jr. High in Deep Lake, Washington.   His mom, Gloria, then homeschooled the boys during their high school years, which may have been when Chevie became enamored with white supremacist ideas.

Chevis at his trial

To summarize, he and Cheyne were involved in a number of frauds and property crimes in Arkansas, culminating with the murder of a family which owned a gun store in 1996. They disappeared and ended in Spokane.   In 1997, they had a shootout with two Ohio police officers who had stopped their car.

The supermax prison that houses Chevie

Along the way, Chevie married three times and had three children.   As was inevitable, the law finally caught up with him in Utah. After a trial in which his mother and Cheyne (who had turned himself in) served as star witnesses for the prosecution, he was convicted of murder and several other felonies.

Chevie is now serving three life sentences in Florence Prison – known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” – in Colorado.

My second afternoon at the Dirty Shame, I noticed two men who were talking to Darilyn, the bartender. One of them stated in a soft-spoken voice, “Dar, I think I owe you for the meal I had last week and didn’t want to let that slide by before I forget.”  She checked and said that another regular had already paid it.

John introduced me and they were both nice, personable guys.   He stated that they do some maintenance and electrical work for him at the bar.   After they left, John told me that the older one was Chevie Kehoe’s, brother Noah and the other was Axel his son – the one who wanted to make sure his bill was paid.  Noah lives in Yaak and Axel in Spokane.

The Sasquatch Festival

So let’s talk about a few of the periodic events that attract visitors to Yaak and John has used to enhance business and add to the bar’s cache’.   These also are great events which bring the residents of this small but rugged community together.

The Sasquatch Festival was first held three years ago and is now an annual Yaak event held in the early summer months.

John’s friend, Todd Berget, a retired teacher who taught at an alternative school in Libby for thirty-one years, came up with the idea and is now the coordinator of the event which is heartily celebrated at both the Dirty Shame and the Yaak River Tavern.

As stated previously, there is a competition between these two establishments.  Although both are great places to get a beer, there is a distinct difference in character.

John summarized this quite well: “During the Sasquatch Festival, they have an Ugly Sweater Contest.   The Dirty Shame has a Wet T-shirt Contest!”  Nevertheless, the two rivals cooperate during the event which draws about 200 people to Yaak and has robust participation from residents.

This includes the Big Foot Run, where a local athlete dons a Sasquatch costume and about twenty-five contestants try to catch him (or her) and win the prize of free beer. (Three people have accomplished this since the inception.)

During the Festival for which the proceeds go to charities, the Shame is also center of a number of other competitions which John orchestrates.

These include the Miss Sasquatch Pageant and the contest for the hairiest male back – the female version of this competition was discontinued for obvious reasons…….

You also wouldn’t want to miss the beard contest, the Sasquatch screeching contest and related events.  Last year they showed the 1987 Academy Award-winning movie (Best Make-up and Hairstyling) Harry and the Hendersons (“The Henderson family adopt a friendly Sasquatch but have a hard time trying to keep the legend of ‘Bigfoot’ a secret.”)

One of Todd and his students’ creations that cause a double-take while driving……

Todd is responsible for one factor that enhances the festival – and the area all year round for that matter.  Before he retired, he started a fundraiser for his school by having his kids make plywood Sasquatch replicas – about six feet high.

These show up in fields, not only in Yaak, but in the surrounding Montana countryside.  Before I knew this, I took this picture – after I did an abrupt double take driving by a field on the way to the Shame.

I sat down and had a beer with John and Todd and loved the stories they related and seeing their rich friendship – an interesting fact and one which made the conversation robust because of their divergent political philosophies – John Runkle is a staunch conservative and Trump supporter.  According to John, “Todd is a liberal whose ideology would be left of Stalin’s!”

Two good friends with divergent political leanings in a typical civil conversation

Todd Berget is an artist and talented craftsman as evidenced by the metal sculptures which are displayed at the Dirty Shame and one can see coming into Libby, Montana where a metal eagle with a forty-foot wing span greets drivers on the highway.  He produces these in his Libby business formed in 1997 – Custom Iron Eagles.

He also has gifted the Dirty Shame with his collection of metal motorcycles that he started collecting when he was a kid. They are intricate and reflect an artistic talent for capturing detail which is intriguing and the displays add to the spirit of the saloon.

In fact one of the great stories involves Todd’s friend, Jay Graham who is also a teacher and was the high school wrestling coach in Libby for eighteen years.   Two young women came into the bar and needed money to get to Portland, suggesting that they strip for cash.  John responded that the Dirty Shame was not a strip club, but the enthusiastic guys there urged them to go ahead.

Todd and Jay happened to be present and Jay had his head lowered and turned away.  Todd asked him what was wrong and Jay responded quietly, “I taught Halley in third grade.  I just can’t look!”

I mentioned that John is a Trump supporter and his own timeline and that of the Dirty Shame on Facebook are filled with pictures of John and friends and bar visitors with a life-size cutout of Trump (life-size except for the size of the hands….).  John’s wife, Dallas, bought it for him as a present two years ago.

John inevitably is in his thumbs up pose and there is often a handwritten poster with some right-leaning phrase displayed. The one below is an example and since this is a family blog (of sorts…..) I won’t include the others although very entertaining.

John and I have distinctly different political philosophies, but he is a guy with whom one can have constructive and civil conversations about ideology and one’s view of government – a practice which is becoming far to infrequent in today’s society.

During the Crawdad Festival on Labor Day, 2018, a stranger who had consumed a number of beers, walked to the back of the bar where Trump was displayed, picked him up and dashed for the exit.

A biker who observed tried to stop him and the “thief” did a face plant by the bar’s entrance. He recovered, rode away with Trump and notwithstanding the wanted poster, has never been seen since (although there was one sighting in Greenland…)

The new Trump – also bought on-line in case you’re interested – is not as sizeable, but still is displayed as can be seen by this picture with John.

The replacement President….

The Bar Crew

I mentioned in a previous post that John met his wife, Dallas, who lived nearby and was working on graduate studies in Applied Behavior and started working as a bartender.  They just welcomed their second daughter in mid-August.

Darilyn Street, is a very impressive woman who helps John manage the Dirty Shame.  Besides handling a major portion of the bar duties, she is also a great cook – both at the bar and at the Lodge where I had her wonderful cheese omelet for breakfast.

John and Darilyn

She and her family – all very nice people live in nearby Libby and come to Yaak for the summer.   Her husband, (Robert and son Robert Jr.) work on the machinery and also do maintenance work around both operations and Vicki, the daughter, who just turned 18, started bartending – that’s minimum age for the job in Montana.

In the picture below, you can also see Sandie – the blonde on the right.  She joined the crew in May this year under somewhat unusual circumstances (except for the Dirty Shame….).

A disheveled Sandie showed up at the bar one week night – distraught and in somewhat ragged condition. She told Darilyn that her boyfriend got drunk and they had a fight.

Sandie then exclaimed, “I’m not going back there.”   They put her up at the Lodge and she started doing some odd jobs for her room and board.

Then about two or three days later, they see a “Missing Persons” poster with none other than Sandie’s name and picture clearly shown.   John called the Sheriff and let him know that the missing person had been found.   When I rolled into the Lodge on a Friday evening in June, Sandie checked me in and told me, “They found me and now I’m here for good!”   She’s now one of his crew.

And so ends the second post on the World Famous Dirty Shame Saloon.  Stay tuned for the final Beerchaser installment and then the details on the other forty-eight bars and breweries we visited on our June road trip.

The Dirty Shame Saloon      

29453 Yaak River Road,    Troy Montana

 

John Runkle: Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter and the Dirty Shame Saloon – Part 1

Thebeerchaser with new friend, John Runkle after the ceremonial presentation of two bottles of Benedictine beer.

John Runkle is a burly, outgoing guy who radiates energy and charisma – one reason he has a loyal and diverse customer base in his Yaak Montana bar – the Dirty Shame Saloon.

A number of long-term customers, most notably hunters and bikers, also stay at his other business – the Yaak River Lodge – about a mile down the road from the “center” of this small unincorporated burg in the upper Northwest corner of Montana.

It sits on 7.5 acres of beautiful Montana land fronting the Yaak River with llamas and horses.

The Lodge – A favorite for hunters and bikers…

In fact, during hunting season and other busy months, he runs a shuttle between the bar and the lodge so his customers don’t jeopardize not only their own safety, but that of the other approximately 250 residents of Yaak.

Optional shuttle service to the Lodge….

While some think the community was named after the “yak” – a long-haired domesticated clove-footed mammal similar to the bison,  the village’s name was derived from the Native American term for “arrow.”

The yak in the photo below – in the dining room of the Lodge, was purchased at a yard sale for $350 according to John!

Blueberry pancakes under the watchful eyes of the yak…

And Yaak – only 61 miles from the nearest Canadian border crossing – is where I spent the first two nights of what was a combined fourteen-day 3,700-mile June road trip through Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming.  I was ensconced in the Moose Room – comfortable and spacious with rustic charm.

No locks on the Moose Room Door or for that matter on the outer doors of the Lodge itself…

The first six days of the trip,I drove our Prius solo, marveling at the Big Sky scenery and rocking out to various Sirius Satellite Radio channels – my favorite being channel 70 –  “Yacht Rock Radio.”

The psuedo falsetto and boring melodies and lyrics finally got to me.....I heard Christopher Cross sing “Ride Like the Wind” and “Sailing” one too many times on Yacht Rock.

So I switched to BB King’s “Bluesville” #74 and “Big Band Forties Junction” #73 spinning my favorite Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller classics.

I could listen to Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade any number of times…

Subsequent nights in Montana’s Kalispell, Hamilton, Anaconda and Livingston before picking up my spouse at the Billings Airport, gave me the opportunity to explore thirty Montana watering holes – many of them historic dive bars.

These establishments supplemented the nineteen bars and breweries, Janet and I visited in the final eight days of the trip – a journey that was also highlighted by three National Parks, two National Monuments, the incredible Custer State Park and the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Janet overlooking Teddy Roosevelt – one of three magnificant National Parks

For an overview of the entire trip, see the first two posts on Thebeerchaser with the links below:

https://thebeerchaser.com/2019/07/05/big-sky-beerchasing-the-preface/

https://thebeerchaser.com/2019/07/11/big-sky-preface-part-ii/

I first talked John Runkle three years ago after Tara, a bartender at the Moose Saloon in Coeur d’Alene, told me that my blog hobby should definitely include a review of the World Famous Dirty Shame Saloon in Yaak where she used to bartend.

After reading about the infamous bar and an extended phone conversation with John, I told him that my bucket list now included a future visit to his bar.

Of course, John was not impressed when he learned that two other items on my bucket list were:

Cadillac Ranch – one of the Seven Wonders???

1. Visiting Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas.

Bucket list pipe dream……!

 

 

 

 

2. Sitting on the 50-yard line when the Oregon State Beavers win the College Football National Championship (while the Beavs are still in Division 1….)

Why the Dirty Shame?

The Dirty Shame has a long and fabled history.  Let’s get some insight on that from an acclaimed expert on Montana bars – Joan Melcher– she has authored two wonderful books on Montana Watering Holes.

In her first book (1983), Joan stated:

“….the same wood-planked front porch, the same deer rack used as a door handle, the battered pool table, the loose bathroom door, the grotesque graffiti inside, the loggers, ranchers receptionists, Forest Service people using the bar like a third leg….

The Dirty Shame is the fresh, sharp smell of pine, and the dank odor of dirt-laden, beer-splashed floors, wild nights of revelry and mornings of shared pain.”  (Page 88)

The DS in years past.

According to one local legend, the original Dirty Shame was built in 1951 by airmen in the United States Army Air Corps.

They erected it so that they would have their own place to dine and drink.   The original bar, with only a dirt floor, burned down and was rebuilt.

The author laments the “deterioration” of this historic and iconic bar in her second book written in 2009.  She was pessimistic about the perpetuation of the Dirty Shame’s tradition after a female – a former Wall Street stockbroker and her husband, moved from Maryland and bought the bar in 2006. 

I say “deterioration” because they tried to “clean it up.”  (Perhaps they should have recognized that as being counterintuitive – given the name of the bar!)

These bikers are not at the Dirty Shame to discuss Dostoevsky….

“What I learn is the that the Dirty Shame died a typically raucous death and has been reborn as a law-abiding establishment, that is really more coffeehouse then bar. Sacrilege!…..Besides a piano and set-up for musicians….she also has book readings and draws many people who aren’t close enough to Yaak to be miffed about what happened to its legendary bar.  

The Dirty Shame is dead.   Long live the Dirty Shame.”  (Pages 54-7,9)

Well, ironically, the stockbroker’s plans were permanently shelved in 2011 when her 82-year old husband, Glen, was taken out of the bar in handcuffs and extradited to Maryland after he pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of two female minors according to a story in the Montana newspaper The Ravelli Republic.

John Runkle who had purchased the Yaak River Lodge in 2004 and operated it since that time, knew he had to do something:

“It was a matter of self-preservation.  I started getting cancellations because hunters and bikers wanted to hit the Dirty Shame when they stayed in Yaak. 

I was the only one who showed up at the foreclosure sale.  I paid cash and was now the owner of another business that I didn’t know anything about how to operate.”   

He and his army buddy, Ray Falconer, purchased it out of foreclosure in 2013 and the rest is history.  (John’ partner, Ray, bailed about a year later after going through one Montana winter.  (“It was the coldest in 15 years at one point hitting 32 degrees below zero.”)

Purchased out of foreclosure in 2013

The rest is history and as you will read below and in the following posts, Dirty Shame regulars no longer have to worry about the original “ambiance” of their bar sliding up to book club decorum.   And that’s because this wonderful saloon reflects the magnetic personality of its owner.  No, neither the Dirty Shame or John Runkle is anywhere close to being deceased…….

Now before getting into the details, let me state that examining photos John has sent and those on Facebook, the most frequent shot is somebody posing with him – Runkle inevitably is in a two-thumbs up posture reflecting his outlook on life.

Two thumbs up on life….

Alternatively, the photo shows John and his visitors with the Donald Trump life-size cut-out – it’s now gone, but not forgotten after being “kidnapped” last year.   (Stories on the Trump escapade and John’s politics in the next post.)John Runkle’s background reflects  some of the same fascinating interludes as his bar.  He was born in Orange County and graduated from LaQuinta High School in Westminster, CA – that was only after a brief period where he even attended Rex Putnam HS in Portland (about seven miles from my current residence) when he “ran away” to Oregon with his then girlfriend!

He joined the Army in 1980 and was ordered to Jump School at Fort Benning, Georgia.

“I was pretty big for a paratrooper, but I did what they told me… and that first jump is the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve had besides getting married…”

He became a Paratrooper with the 509th Airborne Combat Team, was shipped to Europe and graduated from the  French Commando School.  He also earned Spanish Jump Wings.  The big guy made a total of 53 jumps.

He was then stationed in Italy and a member of SETAF – an Army Service component command of United States Africa Command , which although based in Italy, primarily operates in Africa. 

In 1983, the Army surprised him with new orders – this time to be a jump school instructor at Fort Benning:

“Italy was great.  To be honest, I probably would have made the Army a career, but there is a lot of difference between Vincenza, Italy and Fort Benning.” 

Smoke ’em if you got ’em

Upon leaving the Army, he used the GI Bill and ultimately graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a BS in Business Administration – a degree he has used extensively along with his natural propensity for sales and marketing.

Pictures  of John from his days in the Army reveal why there have been some great reunions of his military buddies at the Dirty Shame Saloon in recent years.

Runkle is an entrepreneur and a natural leader.  His sales acumen led him into the real estate business and he formed his own company in 1988. In the twenty years he managed it, he successfully expanded the business to seven states with 300 realtors.

He became a well known force in the industry while garnering awards such as Realtor of the Year and Outstanding Performer.  (He still does some real estate work in and around Yaak.)

John also had successful stints in the mining equipment and banking areas including time in Queensland, Australia for several years after he bought Yaak River Lodge and before the Dirty Shame.

If one looks at his resume, one can see an emphasis on staff development and motivating a team – it was still evident even with the small group at the Dirty Shame.

According to John, after growing his real estate business, “I reached my limit one day in 1998 while on a vacation to Glacier National Park.   I threw my cell phone out the window and knew if I didn’t escape the grind, I was heading for a heart attack.”    He fell in love with Montana and when the Lodge came up for sale, “I bought it on the spot — although it was a mess….”

And it’s understandable why someone who wants to escape the tyranny of the urgent and appreciate nature’s wonder in the West would gravitate to Montana.

Yaak River Falls – only a little over 20 miles from the bar

If you look at one of his recent Facebook posts, one can see the ambivalence that owning a small business(es) sometime creates – very typical in the hospitality and lodging businesses where balancing the job and family becomes a major challenge:

“Ever since I was 21 years old, it seems like I have always been in charge no matter where I end up.  At my age I keep thinking of the movie ‘American Beauty’ where he quits his job as an executive and goes to work at Burger King. His exact words to the interviewer were ‘I want the job with the least amount of responsibility.’  Does anyone else ever feel like that too?”

Chief cook at Yaak River Lodge – not Burger King…

That said, I can’t see John being in a subservient role very long – partly because of his own personality and because those around him look up to him and seek inspiration from his leadership.  As the quote below shows, after some frustration, reality and the pursuit of excellence return for overachievers:

“As another summer approaches, I think of how much whining I do as it become overwhelming busy at the Dirty Shame.  I have to continuously remind myself that I own a hunting lodge and a wild west bar.  Life just doesn’t get any better – truthfully.”

Before we leave this part of the story, we need to talk about family.   He met Dallas Wilson when she applied for a bartender job three and one-half years ago.

She had studied at Arizona State and while working, she is completing work on her Master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis.

A testament to her abilities as a teacher and tutor is this shown from this Facebook post from John.

 

 

 

They married and were blessed with their first child – an outrageously cute little girl who is now two and one-half.   And Dallas was about nine months pregnant when I was there in June so……..

Now there is plenty more to share about the Dirty Shame and the Yaak River Lodge, so stay tuned for the next post of Thebeerchaser.

You won’t want to miss the stories of this legendary bar and see how the Runkle marketing talents and creativity have continued to make the Dirty Shame Saloon a popular destination.

John is one of the most fascinating people I’ve met in 7 1/2 years of Beerchasing and joins a select group of authors, war heroes, athletes, academicians, lawyers and just plain interesting individuals and groups who have been named  the Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter.  (Although none may have liked Halloween as well….)

 

The Dirty Shame Saloon  

29453 Yaak River Road, Troy Montana

Big Sky Preface – Part II

The 3,700 mile route of our fourteen-day trip through Oregon, Washington, Montana, North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho

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.

The lobby of the historic Murray Hotel on Main Street in Livingston

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.)

On a walk next to the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park

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:

https://thebeerchaser.com/2019/07/05/big-sky-beerchasing-the-preface/

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.

Favorite Breweries

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.

They have an amazing story and are true entrepreneurs and innovators, are environmentally progressive and actively support their community.

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.”

Rachael, Emile, Sarah and Miles – a personable staff

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.

The brewpub quarters have great ambiance – located in one of Sheridan’s historical buildings right on Main Street.   And we were particularly impressed with their new head brewer – Jason.

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.

Favorite Bars

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.

John Runkle and the center of Yaak, Montana!

Montana Bar – Miles City – As Joan Melcher wrote in 1983 in her wonderful first book Watering Holes – A User’s Guide to Montana Bars:

“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.

A portion of what is purported to be the longest bar in Montana

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.

The amazing Sapas

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.

Bill Sappa and part of the fabled “upper room.”

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.)

Favorite Bartenders

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.

Such was the case with Andre’ from Macedonia, who had an infectious smile, a warm personality and joked with us notwithstanding a very busy bar.   We enjoyed him and wish Andre’  well.

Andre from Macedonia

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.

I was sorry I didn’t hit Wise River on the weekends because Tom still plays and sings.  He was a great guy with a still wonderful accent and sparkling personality.

DarilynCook 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!

John Runkle and Darilyn

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.”

Geoff – a character to remember

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.

That’s my Miller High Life on the bar at the bottom right.

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.

Fritz – a memorable regular

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.

A great bar

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)

Will Rogers and his friend purportedly tried to use it to bring his favorite saddle horse to their  suite on the third floor at one time.

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.

Big Sky Country at its best..

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.

Teddy Roosevelt National Park was great. Medora – not so much.

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.”

Tree-lined streets..

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.)

Part of River Park

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.

The Red Sox in their stadium next to Bitter Root Brewing

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….

The Bitter Root River right by River Park

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.

The view of Sheridan and its surrounding scenery

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.

Kings Saddlery – the main building

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)

There are great walking paths through the city, nice parks and notable outdoor art sculptures on almost every corner.  It is a picturesque and charming village.

 

Stayed tuned for future posts on Thebeerchaser which will tell you the stories of the forty-nine bars and breweries we visited on our route.

Cheers!

 

In the park along the walking path by Goose Creek in downtown Sheridan

 

 

 

 

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