Livingston, Montana Wood Print

Discovering Livingston, Montana

On occasion you’ll happen upon a place that has a sort of inconspicuous magic about it, and you may catch yourself asking what it might be about that place that is so magnetizing, and so inspiring. The reality is that this place simply has an energy about it, it feels good to be there, and it brings out the best in you. And that’s a feeling that you want to hold on to. Beyond that, the appeal may be altogether inexplicable. Livingston, Montana is one of these places.

            I was sitting at Tru North Café, my favorite coffeehouse in Livingston, in a chair on a raised platform in the bay window that overlooks almost the entire café. I was people watching, and I was reading the chalk boards with the day’s specials and unique food creations, and I was reading the sandwich board next to a pillar that helps to direct the line from the counter that also reads, “We are not fast food, we are slow food. If you want fast food, McDonald's is 1.6 miles that way.” I ordered Golden Milk. As I was sitting, I was stirring my tincture between sips because turmeric isn’t water soluble, but it is an acquired taste that I have acquired, and now it’s one of my favorite hot drinks. James, the owner of Tru North, makes a damn good Golden Milk, in fact, I’ve never had anything at the café that I haven’t liked (next time you’re in ask for a Hot Root Beer Tea). That afternoon, I noticed that, sitting at a two-top merely ten feet away from me, was Michael Keaton. I was taken aback when I saw him, Keaton is revered in my family, and not necessarily just because of Batman. As Keaton was leaving, I nodded and waved to him, and he smiled and waved back. Michael Keaton lives on a ranch outside of town. I didn’t know that at the time. I would come to learn, over the next few weeks, just how many strange and fascinating people live in and around Livingston. People such as Jeff Bridges, John Mayer, Margot Kidder, and Michael Keaton, and a surprising number of others. They come here because that energy that surrounds Livingston is rare and it’s igniting, and it doesn’t just surround Livingston, it is because of Livingston.

          Livingston, in the fifties, was your typical Leave it to Beaver meets the beat generation community; the town was soda pop fountains, and opposition prose, Fourth of July parades, and staircase smoking, elegant formal wear, and Hudson Commodores. You might expect to find whatever and whoever may have been both in, and in-between the passenger cars of the Northern Pacific Railroad, in a train headed for somewhere else. I’ve seen photographs of 1950’s parades along Main Street, and it looks exactly as you would expect the best of the 50’s to look. It was exactly the place that I would have wanted to have been.

In the seventies, Livingston was the relentless, unsexy poker game played on the fourth floor of the Murray Hotel; Livingston was Jim Harrison escorting a gassed Peter Bowen down five flights of a steep, marble staircase, and Sam Peckinpah shooting holes through the hotel’s ceiling, and attempting to shoot off of the tails of his cats. $8 would rent you a cramped bed atop a wooden bunk on the top floor only, with shared bathrooms down the hall. The air was heavy and gray with smoke and had the unmistakable infused scent of stale beer, expensive liquor, and gunpowder. Livingston may not have been pretty in the seventies, but it sure as hell was romantic. I’ve heard stories of the raw, yet rousing sampling of life that is the heartbeat of our experience. It was exactly the place that I would have wanted to have been.

In the nineties, Livingston was an afterparty, with a paint job; it was time to err on the side of reputable. I’ve even heard it referred to as the Aspen of Montana; what, with Yellowstone National Park being just down the road; Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, and James Cameron moving into town. It was well past the time to hang flowers on street lamps, add a dollar sign to the menus, and name a hotel suite after our dearly departed Sam.

And twenty years later, the sun had seemed to be setting on Livingston; a town lost to the century. Livingston was teenage suicide packs, flickering neon bar lights, and sun-faded candy wrappers sticking out from under the snow. Passenger cars had surrendered to covered hoppers, artisans to social media, bull riders to social media, and Livingston was becoming a lethargic memory on the lag of a fag (a cigarette). “Summers and winters scattered like splinters, and twenty more years to slip away.”

          Today, Livingston is sort of reinventing itself, with one part avant-garde hereafter, and two parts maudlin romanticism. I discovered Livingston a year and a half ago, and for me Livingston is breakfast at either the Northern Pacific Beanery or Tru North, and then walking along Yellowstone Street, and reading the historical registry plates in the yards of many statuesque homes. The air is full of dandelion seeds floating in the wind, almost like snow, and there is a perfume of flowers everywhere. And Livingston is walking over the Yellowstone Street Bridge over Sacajawea Pond, where a group of children are fishing off one side of the bridge, and a man in his late sixties is fishing off the other. Livingston is a middle-aged couple sitting on a bench on the pier at the far end of the pond, while their children swim just off the pier. In the winter, on the same pond, people are skating, and leaving their trail of ambiguous picture postcards in the freshly fallen snow, and snow angels, and smiley faces. Livingston is walking across River Street and always being surprised how beautiful the Yellowstone River is over the bank. Livingston is the path along the river, the bench where I sit near the Osprey nest, and the eaglet’s sharp chirrup that displaces the crunch of the rocks beneath my feet, and nearly even the swiftly moving Yellowstone River.

Livingston is the acres of rolling hills, and beyond that the Absaroka Mountains, and the Livingston Peak, standing tall like a citadel overlooking the town. I close my eyes and feel the wind everywhere, and I trace the river back from the bench where I’m sitting, and further toward Paradise Valley, and a little further even to Yellowstone National Park. And as long as I have my notebook, and my beanie to control my hair in the wind, I can easily sit here all day; as beads of sun swell on my skin, the leaves on the trees surrounding me rustle in the wind echoing the daylight, and rafts and kayakers’ occasionally lapse.

Livingston then, is lunch at Pickle Barrel, where I park myself on a table in the window and watch the characters across the street going in and out of The Office Lounge, and people wandering up and down Main Street, while eating the largest, freshest turkey sub I can remember eating. And then again, I may find a table on the rooftop bar at Neptune’s Eatery and Taphouse, order a sushi plate, and their famous blended cocktail, the Painkiller, and savor my lunch with unobstructed views of the Absaroka Mountains to the east. There is too, the famous Murray Bar, with typical, yet chic bar food from next door’s Gil’s Goods, a favorite haunt of Anthony Bourdain’s, and you still just might see Jimmy Buffett or Jeff Bridges planted at the mahogany wood bar top enjoying a beer. Livingston is about walking up and down Main Street a couple of times after lunch, exploring one of the handful of art and photo galleries, bookstores, and boutique shops. I may stop by Fireflies Pottery & Art Studio for a small afternoon coffee, and while waiting, I’ll wander into the backroom, nominate a piece of greenware, and after retrieving my coffee, design and paint something in order to inch my way toward my daily creative quota.

In the evening, I’m torn between Montana’s Rib & Chop House, The Livingston Bar & Grille, Campione’s, the Mint Bar & Grille, and Second Street Bistro, for dinner. Campione and Second Street Bistro are a fine dining experience, and neither are particularly cheap, still it’s an experience that you’ll remember. As a matter of fact, You can check out Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Second Street Bistro on, “Montana.” No Reservations, Season 5, Episode 14, on Apple TV or Amazon. And afterward, it will either be the Mint Bar & Grille or Whiskey Creek Saloon for a stirrup cup, and a night walk along the river.

          Livingston is strange, and does sometimes irritate me, for example, I’ve been wanting to get breakfast at a place downtown, but they never seem to be open; this place isn’t closed, and yet it’s not exactly open either. Down the street from the restaurant is a bar with a sign on the front door that reads, “Closed Monday and Tuesday, Open for drinks Thursday through Sunday until 10:00PM.” What that means is, that the kitchen is closed Monday and Tuesday (the bar is open seven days a week), except that they actually serve Fish & Chips on Tuesday, but only Fish & Chips, and if you want Fish & Chips on Thursday, you can’t get ‘em (the Fish & Chips are among the best that I’ve ever had). Thursday through Sunday you can order from the full menu (except Fish & Chips), but only until 8:00PM, they serve drinks till 10:00PM, or maybe 11:00PM, sometimes 12:00AM, or the bar might even be closed by 9:00PM. Which, I mean, if only more people would stop and actually read the sign, any confusion would clearly be eliminated. I suppose these are the pros and cons of small towns in the north, I do sometimes miss the simplicity of the south, where everything is open whenever it should be open, although that might be the only thing I miss.

          I stumbled upon Livingston entirely by accident, which is true of most of the best places I’ve visited. I believe that there are places that will attract a person, and I have followed that instinct enough times in my life to recognize that. However, before discovering Livingston, I didn’t know how to appreciate the serendipity of that before now, and how a place will actually seem to help you persevere toward your goals. I was walking along the pathway along the Yellowstone River one afternoon, and I happened upon Brad Zellar, the author of Suburban World, Till the Wheels Fall Off, and The 1968 Project. Zellar first visited Livingston after hitchhiking cross country in the 70’s, and he has been coming back, almost yearly, since. The conversations that I have had with Brad have reaffirmed for me not only the attraction of Livingston, but also the path that I’m on now, and the direction that I’ve decided to take in life. I happened upon Livingston entirely by accident, and exactly when I needed to, and it is exactly the place that I want to be.





* "Summers and Winters scattered like splinters, and twenty more years slipped away." Lyric from "He Went to Paris," by Jimmy Buffett. 

* "Trail of ambiguous picture postcards," Poem, "Howl," by Allen Ginsberg. 

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