by Nicole Skeltys
On Friday night, Tanya was bouncing around in front of the bathroom mirror in her new slinky black stovepipes, rock and roll stud belt, black skivvy and red neckerchief. She was getting ready to go out and see a concert with Scott and was sparkling with happiness. As she tossed her dazzling blonde mane over to one side and blasted it with the hairdryer she yelled “Hey, I feel like a teenager again!” After she snapped it off, she bounced out into the loungeroom looking for her handbag, then chuckled gleefully with a wink: “A baad teenager!”
Tanyas remark about feeling like a teenager again reminded me of Montana, where we both started to have “teenager revisited” experiences. Given I started this blog in New York in September, which was almost at the end of our epic road trip that began in May, perhaps now is a good time to get some ‘back story’ in and recount some of our neo-juvenile adventures in Montana in June.
Escape from paradise
Life in an artists refuge shows just how contrary human desire is.
Tanya and I had finally arrived at an idyllic retreat. The Montana Artists Refuge was a cluster of historic Wild West buildings in a tiny former gold rush town called Basin (pop. 250). Basin was nestled in a tiny high plains valley framed by soaring mountains and forests, many miles away from anywhere that could be called a serious town. The Refuge was run by a bunch of women artists who had discovered Basin in the ’70s and settled there. They were pioneering women of enormous courage and hardiness, who had the vision and conviction to pool what little money they eventually saved to buy some of the tiny town’s historic buildings and turn it over to the use of other artists. They joked with us that in the early days of ’70s counter-culture lifestyle experiments, bemused locals would muse that “there will surely be a war between the hippy bikers and the arty lesbians”. But in fact, everyone got on just fine, and the women run artists’ refuge was now just as much a part of the region’s proud history as the disused gold mines and the cowboys.
Our residence was the top floor of a former 19th century bank, all old exposed beams, high ceilings and buttery mountain light through enormous windows. The faded wooden floors creaked like a ship at sea every time I walked from the kitchen through the bedroom/ living area to the large open studio where I had set up my work station. I tapped away at my computer each day in front of a panoramic view of Basin’s main street (where a 3 legged dog limping down the middle of the road was the most exciting thing that ever happened) and I could gaze for hours at the nearby mountains which were still snow capped in early June. Tanya set up her laptop in the kitchen, where she could look down on the backyard and domiciles of our fellow artist residents, one of whom was a handsome young poet from Pittsburgh called Scott.
Here we were finally getting longed for rest at last – after all the weeks of stress getting ready to leave Australia for an extended period of time – possibly for good. Then the nerve wracking build up to our second only ever gig at Vancouver’s biggest New Music festival. Followed by our back-breaking stint as volunteer organic farm workers on Galiano Island, one of Canada’s Gulf Islands, off the coast of Vancouver. Then the long, intense cross-examination by US customs officers as we tried to cross the Canada/US border in an overstuffed SUV with a Taiwanese driver, courtesy of a rideshare lift we’d found on Craigslist. But finally we had made it. Here we were in the promised land – America! And nowhere looked more like God’s own country than western Montana; the drive from Seattle to Basin had been the most spectacular of my life – verdant mountains, serene valleys, glassy green rivers gushing everywhere, diamond clear lakes, and the famous Big Sky – the eggshell blue of the earth’s outer atmosphere was so close here, you could see the curve stretching forever.
But after two weeks of splendid isolation in this astonishing environment, we got bored.
When Saturday morning rolled around again, the sun dazzling in through all the windows, I sat down at my computer to work, but then I immediately got up and creaked all the way down from my studio to the kitchen. T was fixing some kind of breakfast, a “cowboy meal” as we called them, because so much of our diet for the last 2 weeks had been based on beans and leftovers as there was nowhere to buy fresh food in Basin. I said “I can’t stand it anymore, I feel like I’m trapped in a nunnery, I have to get out of here”. T agreed. She was going stir crazy too. She was easily persuaded that we had to check out Butte – a town about 20 miles away that apparently had great bars and was full of slightly unhinged but friendly people.
A couple of hours later, we were scrambling over some barbed wire fencing on the outskirts of Basin, making our way to a verge on Interstate 15. We held up a hand scrawled sign saying ‘Butte’. And we waited.
We took turns holding up the sign and tried out our friendliest Australian smiles. Neither of us had hitch-hiked since we were teenagers, and we were a tad nervous. Cars whizzed past, many of them not even bothering to glance at us. There were frequent pauses in traffic: it was not a busy interstate, and besides, it was not a busy State – there were less than 1 million people in the whole of Montana. Half an hour passed. Then finally a red 4WD screeched to a halt up ahead of us, and with a mixture of relief and trepidation we ran up – quickly glanced at the guy – he looked small and non-threatening – and jumped in.
A few minutes down the road, the scenery went from serene to sublime. Out in front of us in the distance, a ring of gigantic snow capped mountains suddenly jumped out from a curve in the highway against the intense blue sky. I gasped out loud. Our small, bearded, driver, who wore paint stained overalls and gripped the steering wheel intently with his calloused, grease stained hands, had said almost nothing since we hopped in the car. But finally he volunteered: “Thats the Rockies. Don’t know their names. Just the Rockies”.
As we got to the outskirts of Butte, our driver opened up a bit more. He launched into a favorite topic of conversation by Montanans, and that was how Californians – who could no longer afford to live in their own over-hyped, over-priced State – were migrating in droves to Montana, putting condos on perfectly good grazing land, driving up property prices, and generally screwing up everything with their yoga studios and their organic decaffeinated coffee houses. Our driver explained – “You know what they call Missoula? Miss-angeles. And Bozeman? Boze-wood. But those Californians haven’t got to Butte yet – its still our town and we hope it stays that way.”
As we drove into Butte, the gigantic open faced copper mine that our driver informed us had been the town’s source of boom and bust throughout its history spread for miles around like an artificial canyon. Old drilling towers came into view down long empty streets, their black frames silhouetted high like skeletons against the sun. As we headed downtown, some of the town’s most important bars were pointed out to us. There were a lot of biker bars. Butte was Evel Knievel’s birthplace, and every year the risk-obsessed showman’s birthday attracted about 30,000 bikers who paraded down the mainstreet non-stop for over an hour and probably made enough money for the biker bars to keep going for another year. A former train station was now a watering hole; that former crumbling brick drygoods warehouse is now a snug bar. We asked about the Silver Dollar which we had been told was the most hopping bar in town – there it was, still with its ’50s/’60s neon saloon sign, right next to the original Chop Suey restaurant with its blinking sign from the same era.
The further we drove downtown, the more excited we got. Abandoned buildings, warehouses, shops everywhere, most with their original faded advertising painted on their sides, promoting long gone products and services. Glorious heyday architecture starting from late 19th century right through to 30s, 40s, 50s, now razed across with broken windows, crumbling eaves, boarded up wooden doors, paint peeling in the breeze. The town looked like it had lost its wealth suddenly and pretty completely decades ago, leaving the town in a time capsule. I was reminded of pictures I had seen of Cuba, where the US embargo kept people poor and living in an immaculate simulacra of the ’50s. But we could see that the locals were starting to reclaim some of these spaces, and transform them into bars, eateries, quirky shops, art spaces – so there must be money coming back in again, the town was starting to slowly be reborn.
The Cohen brothers and deja vu
We were let out uptown Butte, the oldest part of town high up on some hills, outside the Capri, a rundown ’60s style motel, which our driver informed us would give us a room for $35 a night. That was our kind of budget. We stood on the pavement and looked around; the streets were silent except for the soft breeze, some kind of clinking tin sound in the distance (the drilling towers?) and the occasional dusty car cruising slowly past. We could see for hundreds of miles across the town, across the surrounding plain, our vision halted only by the cresting grey and white waves that were the Rockies in the distance. I felt the thrill of discovery and the eagerness of a child to run up and down the steep streets looking at everything, gulping in the atmosphere, which seemed full of secret messages about times past. For some reason, this was the kind of town I was hungry for.
First things first – we walked into the Capri’s peeling foyer and were shortly greeted by a skeletal elderly woman, in carefully coiffed hair and an ironed-thin pastel outfit from the ’70s. She looked genuinely startled to see us. She shook (not from shock but from Parkinsons). The thought flashed into my head “This is just like a scene from a Cohen brothers’ movie – maybe some of their stock characters are real after all”. She told us with a wary look that rooms were $55 a night; disappointed, we thanked her and left. T said outside: “She put the price up just for us”. Later that night, one of the bartenders told us that was right – rooms were usually only $35 – but that was because the hotel was a hangout for crackheads!
T took off up the hill with her long Swiss legs shouting “I’m in photography heaven!”. I wandered around with the video cam. Can a town have too many sagging gabled rooves, colorfully painted Victorian turrets, overgrown lilac bushes, porches lined with old bowling pins and other found kitsch, nooked and crannied laneways, rusting gold-tipped ’50s Pontiacs, rainbow peace signs and mountain views from every corner? No, it cannot. Many porches were hung with wind chimes so that gentle tinkles wafted everywhere through the lazy Saturday afternoon sunlight. And most houses, no matter what their state of repair, sported ‘Welcome!’ signs on their front doors. People smiled greetings passing us on the street, or from heads lifted up from gardening. Despite the obvious hard times that had hit and stayed, it was clear that people were happy here.
T said: “The hills, the architecture, the feeling here reminds me so much of San Francisco in the early days, when it was still vibrant and still affordable to live there.” T had spent the best times of her life, the times when she had felt “the most alive and most free” in San Fran in the early to mid ’90s.
Our impressions of a largely happy, friendly town (except, presumably, for the biker meth and crack addicts) were confirmed when we came across an old bar high up on a hill called The Goodwill. I needed a wee badly. T peered in through the window to make sure it was ok to come in – it could well have been another biker bar. She saw all the locals in the little bar staring back at her, gesturing eagerly for her to come in.
When we walked in, people called us over to the bar and started talking to us immediately. After our first beer, a middle aged man and his son-in-law bought us a second round. The bar owner Annie (in her 70s at least, custodian of The Goodwill for 30 years) gave us a packet of chips and refused to take payment. After a while, one of the three older women sitting next to me – the one who smelt delightfully of old hairspray – offered to drive us up to another bar further up the hill where “there is a poker game going on this afternoon, its going to be really hopping, honey”. We declined the kind offer, as we had our heart set on seeing some live music at the Silver Dollar – and we wanted to meet some younger people. I handed around one of our few copies of our album ‘Larceny of Love’ for the regulars to look at – and was gratified to see how they were genuinely impressed – by the look of it anyway. And once again we were congratulated heartily on choosing a great name. We’ve hit upon something for sure, I thought, something that resonates, but it did intrigue me: why do people like the concept of jilted brides so much?
After a couple of hours, we reluctantly left our new friends to continue on with our wandering and photography. As we started off down the hill, the father in law ran out and asked if he could buy one of our CDs. We had to explain that we sadly didn’t have a pressing yet, but we gave him our MySpace site so he could hear some tunes. He hoped we would come back soon and play at the Silver Dollar; we really hoped we could too.
As we made our way down the hilly streets to look for food and more bars, T said: “I have never been made so welcome by strangers in a bar before – never”. I couldn’t recall a similar experience either. I looked around the town as the sun started to decline and another strong wave of nostalgia hit me. “Does all this seem very familiar to you?” I asked. “I mean very familiar”? “Yes!” she said. “It sure does”.
A couple of hours later, we were cruising downtown, sitting in the back of a Chevvy driven by a curly haired teenage girl called Sarah and her buddy Megan. They had spotted us walking down the street after we had had our cheap dinner at the Sports Bar. Once again I did not get through my alleged American meal -most of the ‘pork chop sandwich’, Butte’s specialty dish – a squashed and deep fried bit of meat product in an aerated bun – sat in a styrofoam container in my backpack, infusing it with crumbed meat smell; I didn’t leave my meal behind this time as I calculated that this combination of fat and protein would be precisely what I needed later to soak up a night of bar hopping.
Megan and Sarah were driving us to the local bottle shop so we could buy them a 24 pack of Pabst and a pint of Nikolai vodka. When they saw us on the street they said “You looked like teenagers” who might be able to buy them some booze, so they stopped and offered us a lift. Although we turned out not to be teenagers, we were still most happy to oblige. In the bottle shop, we were astonished that the pint of vodka they asked us to buy only cost $4. So we bought one for ourselves too.
Back in the car, the girls were full of gratitude. They had everything they needed now for an evening “with some boys”. “Lucky you” I remarked. They laughed and dissed Butte: boring as hell, and most of the boys “are backward and goofy looking”. I felt transported back in time: I remembered being a teenage schoolie so well, the emotions fresh like they were lived yesterday – the sexual drive straining against parental restraint, the hunger for excitement, the frustration of growing up in a dull town, slim pickings when it came to boys (actually, this is starting to sound like my recent life in Melbourne). Megan asked if we were married. “Do we look married?” I asked. They laughed again and said “No way. You sexy ladies look like you’ve just stepped out of Sex in the City”. Thats great, I thought! My confidence was boosted, ably assisted by the Moose Drools we’d downed at the Sports Bar. I was looking forward to a good night out. Maybe even a wild one.
They dropped us off at the former railway station, The Depot Bar as it had now been reincarnated. But there was a wedding reception there (irony not lost on us), so we wandered back up the hill to find another bar. We found the warehouse bar that our driver had pointed out. Inside was indeed cosy, all exposed beams and golden pine chairs and tables. But it was full of mums and dads treating themselves to a Saturday night meal. It was dull. We downed our dangerously large and cheap bourbons quite quickly, and waited to be given the bill. We weren’t. We started to make our way to the cash register, when I suddenly turned to Tanya and said. “Lets pull a runner”. T said: “Thats exactly what I was thinking”.
So we just kept walking, out the door. Once on the pavement, we picked up our pace and giggled hysterically as we ran towards Main St where the Silver Dollar awaited. Neither of us had pulled a runner for a very long time – probably not since we were teenagers.
The Silver Dollar reeked with old saloon atmosphere – long polished wood bar, blinking red Bud lights, old photos and assorted band paraphanelia – the kind of place I would live at if it was my local. But it was empty -at the bar, there was a plump, heavily made-up barely 21 year old girl, and further down, a geeky looking guy (who turned out to be a petroleum engineer). And that was it. The house band turned out to be a mediocre white blues band. Mediocre country is ok with me, but blues played by white guys- and ok, reggae too – white blues and reggae are genres I have always failed to ‘get’, striking me as genres that are presumably a lot of fun to play, particularly if you are stoned, but monotonous beyond belief to listen to. We hung around, downing more bourbon, but no more people showed. Our hopes for finding some friendly Buttites to party long into the night with faded.
The Silver Dollar bargirl was helpful, and recommended we go to the old Finlan Hotel for the night, and gave us directions to the historic hotel, and also to a good diner for breakfast the next day. At the end of the night, we staggered up the road, found the Finlan and pushed open the heavy glass doors into the foyer.
The Hotel Finlan foyer looked exactly as it must have in the ’30s when it was the hotel of choice for rich and famous visitors who, according to the faded black and white photos on the walls, had, for some inexplicable reason, frequently found themselves in Butte. We slowly wobbled through an imposing row of gold and pale green gilt columns illuminated by art deco chandeliers throbbing out pale yellow light from high up in the ceiling. We eventually found ourselves at the front desk. The night porter guy, who was of around the same vintage as the columns, slowly looked up from his book and stared uninterestedly at us.
Sixty-six dollars for a room, he told us blankly, with a take it or (hopefully, for customers like us) leave it attitude. He elaborated: “Thats a good price. A third less than the flats. You’ve come down from the flats haven’t you? Everyone is pleased when they find out the Finlan is a third less than the flats”. It was 1.30 in the morning, we were sozzled, and could not figure out what he was talking about. Once again, I felt I’d stepped into a Cohen brothers film – not ‘No Country for Old Men’ as up at the Capri, but ‘Barton Fink’.
We had no choice so we accepted, and grabbed the keys from his reluctant hands. To my disappointment, the actual accommodation was not an atmospheric piece of Americana, but a room in a standard low budget motel which had been annexed to the grand old original building; the old Finlan infrastructure had apparently been turned into apartments. But I didn’t care too much. After we got into our room, I made myself eat my pork chop sandwich remains (which then tasted ok) while T excitedly got a much needed TV fix, surfing through late night movie channels. I must have then passed out for maybe 3 hours; only to be awoken by doors slamming and T swearing. In the room next to ours, there were teenagers – going back and forth to the balcony, drinking, smoking, laughing and talking loudly. T rang the front desk to complain- she hadn’t been able to sleep at all. But the old Cohen Brothers porter didn’t seem to intimidate the kids, so the noise continued. Finally, after T made a second call, the door slamming and loud talking stopped. Good, I thought, glancing at the clock and registering 5.00am, we can get some sleep at last.
Then the unmistakable thump, thump and cries of bad teenage sex. The walls were paper thin. This is one memory, I thought, I could do without. Although I admired the fact that these kids had the stamina and sheer good times determination to stay awake all night. Later, T wondered how they could rent a room while being so young. In a cash-strapped town like Butte, I suspected that the Finlan would rent out to toddlers if they could produce a credit card. More of a mystery to me was where their parents thought they had been for the evening. Crawling home at 7.00 in the morning, stinking of cigarette smoke and alcohol, ruffled hair and clothes, what possible story could they produce? Out cow-tipping all night?
Back to Basin: lesbian capital of Montana
Sunday morning was, as I knew it would be, painful. After checking out, we eventually found one of the diner’s that the bargirl had recommended. Cheerful mom and pop ’60s decor, shiny red leather stools, the smell of pancakes and coffee. After a cup of weak coffee (weak to Australians, who are used to Italian style cardiac arrest concentrations of caffeine), my hangover felt temporarily cushioned. We both ordered the vegetarian omelete, which sounded promising as it listed broccoli and cauliflower as two of its ingredients; but no, when the gigantic egg mound arrived, all the vegetables had been thoroughly fried then strangled in two kinds of cheese, including the ubiquitous fluro cheddar kind. I ate my rye toast, picked out all the vegetables I could recognise, and once again left most of my meal on the plate.
Hitching back to Basin required trudging a long way down the highway as it led out of town, to the turn off to Interstate 15. The sun was now high in the sky, my head ached. Once again, I felt how conspicuous we were, two women with thumbs out trudging down the road. I asked the angels and guides to protect us, make sure we got home safely. Later, T told me she had done the same thing.
A red car turned around when it saw us, and pulled up. Two very dodgy looking guys with tattoos, wrap around sunglasses and faint smell of beer leaned out of the car and grinned. “Basin? Oh yeah, we uh, just were talking about going there. Its got a bar we could all go to.” T and I looked at each other and shook our head: we’ll just keep walking thanks.
That was rattling, but at least it proved we could just refuse to put ourselves in a dangerous situation. After picking up some groceries and much needed painkillers, we eventually made the on-ramp to 15. I noticed another figure further up the ramp, hitching. That made me feel better, less of a freak. Within minutes, an SUV pulled up – a sketchy, unshaved guy as a passenger, but a peaceful looking Indian with a welcoming smile behind the wheel. We checked each other’s look to see if we should take it, but we both felt it would be ok.
The journey back was dominated by Mr Sketchy, who was clearly an ex-junkie or speedfreak, proclaiming loudly about nothing and everything. I wished he would shut up and let the Indian guy speak, who was calm and thoughtful – he was from the Blackfoot reservation, his son was training in Basin to be a volunteer firefighter for the season. T and I both wanted to know more about local native Indian culture. But Mr Sketchy wouldn’t shut up: “Won’t be any f**n fires this season” he cried maniacally at his friend, laughing loudly. ” Too much f**n rain! Too much f**n rain!” and then, swivelling around to bore his eyes into mine, “Hey, you know Basin is the LESBIAN CAPITAL OF MONTANA?”
Tanya and I couldn’t help but laugh nervously. “Really?”
“Oh yeah. Bunch of bush bumpers down there man! Oh boy, bunch of BUSH BUMPERS!”
It was a huge relief when we were dropped off outside the refuge and waved goodbye to our lift. I pitied the quiet Indian guy who was going to have to put up with his friend’s ranting all the way to Helena. And although T and I got to have our much needed night on the town, and arrived back in one piece, nevertheless neither of us really wanted to have to hitchhike again. That was one teenage experience we were happy to leave now in the past!