Friday, April 28, 2017

Dillon, Montana

I’m driving south on Interstate 15. Butte’s famous Mile-High hill slowly disappears from view. The highway cleaves across Deer Lodge National Forest. Only the tops of the black skeletal mining gallows can be made out now. The vertiginous granite walls of the Rocky Mountains suddenly retreat into the horizon. New broad valleys and a flat landscape replace the snow-capped peaks. Farmlands scattered with copper-colored prairies. Lush mountain meadows line the highway’s boundaries. Herds of Black Angus and Hereford cattle graze on yellow sagebrush. Snow-fed mountain streams flow into the main rivers. The deserted highway trails its way deeper into the open countryside. Ranches and homesteads of all shapes and hues now come into view. Time appears to have stood still for these Western prairie dwellers. The Union Pacific Railroad runs a train, transporting fattened steer down its tracks. This is the only sound of life in a landscape otherwise completely engulfed in silence. I drive into a wide valley traversed by the Beaverhead River, filled with old ranches and brimming with trout, and arrive in the authentic old train town of Dillon. I park in front of The Metlen Hotel Bar & Café and step into the bar. Charles Marion Russell reproductions and stuffed trout adorn the green walls, weathered by decades of use.  A sign at the bar reads, “Work is the curse of the drinking class!”. The place is filled with locals, cowboys and your regular part-time professional barflies. In the back of the bar a silver disco ball eerily spins round, for no one, flashing its hypnotic light over the dance floor and the dark leather furniture dating from the 60’s. With the dull green lights hanging over two blue pool tables and the walls behind the counter crammed with fierce looking wild beasts it’s difficult not to compare the bar to the décor and ambience of a David Lynch film. A cowboy dressed in a fancy blue shirt, authentic cowboy boots and beaver felt hat talks with a colorful character sporting a ZZ Top beard and tattered hat about the best time in spring to wean calves from their mothers. An old timer with twinkling blue movie star eyes, hidden under a rather worn out cowboy hat taps his dirty knuckles against the bar counter to a Bob Wills song on the jukebox. Two young cowboys flirt with a much older heavily made-up waitress, inundated with breakfast orders, before putting their goatskin work gloves on and heading out the door. An extraordinary mix of characters that seems to reflect perfectly the kind of Anytown of the modern American West. That rugged self-reliant hard working can do attitude. I get a hot coffee, served with a dash of something a little stronger, at the recommendation of the bartender. It’s what everybody drinks in these parts to start the day and get ready for another’s day work. It’s called “an eye-opener”, he tells me. On my way out the door a sign reads “As long as there’s a sunset, there will always be a West…”. I fill the car up at the local gas station and get back on the road. I drive through acre upon acre of prairie as broad as it is flat, covered with sagebrush and longhorn cattle. Further into the farmlands ranch hands are leveling the ground and seeding. As I cross the Idaho/Utah border I keep my eyes fixed on the slowly setting sun on the far horizon out west. It seems to go on forever.

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