Livingston, Montana Main Street

Exploring the Enchantment of Livingston, Montana: A Comprehensive Guide to a Rare Inexplicable Wonder

Livingston lies twenty miles east of Bozeman along Interstate 90 in south central Montana. The town is easy enough to overlook as you drive through, if you happen to be changing stations or if you blink it will be lost to you, most people will continue driving never knowing they have missed one of the country’s most inspiring sites. These days, regardless of where you fall on the map, small town life can be coveted, and the locals are wary of too many travelers being inspired by their lifestyle and moving in and changing things in their image. The people of Livingston, as friendly and mildly progressive as they are, are whimsically living in the past; for whatever reason and for whoever’s past, it’ll be different for each of them, but there’s no question that Livingston’s identity curls in the smoke of the town’s further than recognizable yet rousing history. I see Livingston as one part avant-garde hereafter, and two parts maudlin romanticism, but you have to look beyond the surface. The town has been the home of more authors, per capita, than any other town in the United States, Jeff Bridges, Michael Keaton, Margot Kidder, Dennis Quaid, James Cameron, and John Mayer among others have also called the area home, it is the site of one of the NYT best restaurants in America, and the town rests only forty-five minutes from the north entrance—and the original entrance—of Yellowstone National Park. And between Livingston and Yellowstone is the unparalleled beauty of Paradise Valley, largely made up of the Gallatin National Forest and the Absaroka and Gallatin Mountain Ranges. Where artists and cowboys meet, there’s a little something here that you really have to look for, and not only among one of America’s most beautiful Main Streets, but within yourself. There’s a sense of a growing type of person that might pull into Livingston and wonder why they travelled halfway across the country “for this,” if you can’t see beyond the façade, then don't bother looking.

Sitting Room Peckinpah Suite

          I’m sitting here, with a glass of wine cupped in my hand, in the sitting room of the Peckinpah Suite at Livingston’s famous Murray Hotel. Dimly lit by a single antique pulley industrial table lamp, and I can still clearly see, through the balcony’s French door windows in front of me, the red neon sign of the Hiatt House bar on the adjacent intersection. I watch patrons coming and going as the sun, drifting, scatters the light of the not-so-distant Livingston Peak of the Absaroka Mountains from green to brown to red to orange, until only the bar’s red neon sign and the corner streetlamp are all that remain. The Peckinpah Suite was named for a one-time hotel resident, and renowned western film director Sam Peckinpah, who lived here at the Murray Hotel shortly before passing away. Although this historic hotel—and the luxurious $749 a night Peckinpah Suite—have seen such guests as Will Rogers, Calamity Jane, Robert Wadlow, Sam Shepard, Kurt Vonnegut, Brad Pitt, Mahalia Jackson, Tom Skerrit, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Gregory Peck, Scarlet Johansson, Waylon Jennings, Ron Howard, Dave Matthews, Robert Redford, and Jimmy Buffett, it is the late world-renowned chef and media personality Anthony Bourdain’s story that sits with me the most, at least tonight. Bourdain considered the Murray Hotel one of his top ten favorite hotels worldwide. I can easily picture him sitting here, also with a glass of wine in hand, and also watching the comings and goings of patrons walking into and stumbling out of the Hiatt House across the street, drifting off as the sun wanes, and being startled awake by the brazen hollowed cornet of the approaching train across the street of the opposite block. 

          Livingston may remain transitional for now, but still the town is also somehow timeless. And trying to put a finger on what it is about Livingston, as I stand at a window looking down at the roof and red brick façade of the neighboring business, Gil’s Goods, that knowing feeling begins to come and, as such things often happen, the thought is then caught and dragged away with the blustery winter winds that sometimes hallmark Livingston.
The Peckinpah Suite

In the morning, I walk the stairs down and through the historic hotel lobby, passed the one hundred twenty-year-old OTIS lever operated elevator, and the picture of Robert Wadlow (the world’s tallest man) standing in the hotel lobby directly next to the same elevator, and out through the corner doors toward the train depot across the street. The north wing of the depot houses Northern Pacific Beanery, a local diner that may not hold the same weight as Pinky’s but is, nevertheless, my favorite local breakfast eatery. I’ll plant myself on one of the short, disgruntled metal stools at the bar and order breakfast. I think about what Livingston was like in the fifties, because I can easily imagine the beanery as if straight out of the decade. I picture Leave It to Beaver meets the beat generation: soda pop fountains and opposition prose, extravagant parades and staircase chain smoking, elegant formal wear and Hudson Commodores. I imagine that you would find whomever and whatever spilled off of and from in-between the passenger cars of the Northern Pacific Railroad, many of which were headed to Yellowstone.

       I walk along the tracks for a few blocks, there’s a park adjacent, and a freight train comes bringing a heavy cold wind with it as it passes. Freight trains are the only trains passing through Livingston these days. I’ll stand there watching the train and counting the seconds, and spotting the graffiti and hobo tags that paint the sides of cars that have seen more of the country than most people. I make my way to Yellowstone Street, and ogle the town’s oldest homes, statuesque monuments to a different time planted every block and half or so, interrupted by period piece homes erected as a testament to other bygone eras between way back then and now. And stopping in the middle of the street at the mouth of the Yellowstone Street Bridge over a tributary of the Sacajawea Pond, is awe-inspiring.

Yellowstone Street Bridge

This might be my favorite spot. I love this bridge, as far as bridges go it’s among my favorite of bridges, and this is among my favorite of spots. In the summer, kids fish off one side of the bridge, with their broken plastic tackle boxes open and dropped on their sides, spilling soil and dried worms onto the stones, and their makeshift fishing poles barely falling beneath that water’s surface, while an elderly man patiently fishes off the other side. I kick gently at the roots of the trees as I walk around the pond and try to avoid scaring off the Mallards and Canadian Geese that make Livingston their winter home. I consider walking to the pier but instead cross River Street and walk up a small series of concrete steps and as I step off onto the pebbled walkway the Yellowstone River emerges before me as if out of nowhere, sprawling and free flowing, forming islands with sand beaches where people sunbathe in the summers and yards of palm sized stones matching any color of the spectrum. Near constant rafters, kayakers, paddle boarders, and Flyfishers enjoy one of only a few free-flowing rivers that remain in the world. The walkway runs roughly a half mile along the river, I sit on a bench and get lost in the rushing echoes of the coursing river. Here, I’ve seen Pelicans, Crane, Canadian Geese, Seagulls, Mallards, Bald Eagles, Ospreys, and Golden Eagles, and a Moose, once crossing the shallows to the south. I was walking along the pathway along the Yellowstone River one afternoon, and I happened upon Brad Zellar, the author of Suburban WorldTill 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. In the spring, the air throughout Livingston, but walking south along the river especially, is full of dandelion seeds floating with the wind, like a roasted snow blanketing everything in new life, and then of course there is the untraceable perfume of flowers that seems to emanate directly from your nostrils because it’s coming from everywhere. My only real civil complaint is that the town of Livingston could be more walking friendly, especially to and from the river and bordering parks back to Main Street.

            At the heart of Main Street is Tru North Café, one of my favorite coffeehouses anywhere, and most definitely in Livingston. As I prepare to order a Golden Milk I watch as James, the café’s owner, engages every single person that walks through the door. Under the bay window, atop a raised platform I sit with a great vantage of inside the café, it’s ideal for people watching. There’s a middle-aged couple sitting at the table nearest to me, they have a small unfinished plate of something in front of them, and each of them have a cup of something warm although it has now cooled a bit. He’s wearing sunglasses and a trucker hat that reads, “Douglas.” It was only when he shifted in his seat and turned toward me that I recognized him as Michael Keaton. As he left, we made eye contact and I smiled and waved, and he smiled and waved, and they started for the café entrance. Michael Keaton has a quiet 565-acre ranch outside of town and is often seen around Livingston talking to and laughing with the locals.      

          I think about Livingston in the seventies, and some would say—stoned crackerjacks, mostly—that this was Livingston in its prime, represented by 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. Bar patrons with roots tell stories of the raw, yet rousing sampling of life that is the heartbeat of the Livingston experience.

Master Bed Room Peckinpah Suite

An aged and versed Jim Harrison is immortalized in Anthony Bourdain’s episode of No Reservations titled, “Montana,” (Season 5, episode 14), Harrison yarns about his beloved Livingston as Bourdain only harks in awe. The pair dine at The 2nd Street Bistro, one of the most notable of the numerous notable restaurants in Livingston. Singling out any one restaurant in town is all but impossible, they’re all amazing: 2nd Street, Campione, Livingston Bar & Grill, Neptune’s Eatery & Taphouse, The Mint Bar & Grill, and the typical, yet chic bar food of Gil’s Goods/The Murray Bar where you may see Jeff Bridges parked at the mahogany wood bar top enjoying a beer. Fortunately, not all the restaurants are open all the time, and for me to speak as to when they are, your guess might be as good as mine. In the meantime, you might kill time exploring the handful of art and photo galleries, bookstores, and boutique shops. If you stop by Fireflies Pottery & Art Studio for a small afternoon coffee, make sure you wander into the backroom, nominate a piece of greenware, and after retrieving your coffee, design and paint a piece of décor, a gift perhaps, in order to inch your way toward your daily creative quota. Fireflies is also a favorite local spot of Drew Barrymore’s, featured even on her show.

          I stumbled upon Livingston entirely by accident, which is true of most of the best places I’ve visited. I had never heard of the town before exiting I-90 and driving up Park Street; the row of hundred-year-old pine trees illuminated in white Christmas lights leading into town, the neon signs with their obscure afterglow in the night that, in my youth, I had thought tawdry and inordinate, and of course the unmistakable Livingston Peak towering like a citadel, watchful over a reviving community. Very few people ever only come to Livingston, Montana once, and those that do refuse to acknowledge that there is more to life than surface level rationales, but then again, who's complaining, because Livingston, like any small town, isn’t heartbroken at the sight of departing tourists. I’ll see Livingston in my rearview mirror enough times to know that it won’t stay there for long, and it’s a pleasant thought knowing that the town will still be there, relatively unchanged, as it has been, whenever I do return. And until then, it’s another glass of wine and singing along to a few stanzas of Jimmy Buffett’s “Livingston Saturday Night,” that lay ahead. 

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