Montana town home to fine summers, famous faces
By Charles Perry
Los Angeles Times
By Charles Perry
LIVINGSTON, Mont. — "Summer in Montana," said Tim Cahill, "is like the best piece of pie you ever had. Only when you ask for another slice, they tell you, 'Sorry, you have to wait 12 months.' "
Cahill is a freelance writer, and I had noticed that he wangles gigs in the tropics during Montana's howling winters, but he always spends his summers at home. Maybe there was something to what he said. So 12 years ago, I drove up to check it out.
He was right. There's a gentle quality to the light in south-central Montana, so summer really does have a luminous beauty here, as if nature were somehow holding its breath. I've been back to Livingston every year since.
It's a town of 7,000 and hundreds of antique buildings, surrounded by rich grassland that stretches to the mountains on three sides and down to the Great Plains to the east. The Yellowstone River runs through it, luring anglers from all over. A constant breeze runs through it as well, because of Pacific air currents funneled down by the Absaroka and Gallatin mountain ranges.
It's not just the glories of Montana's summers that draw me now, though. It's this odd little town itself, where I've become a kind of honorary resident, entitled to all the latest gossip.
I hadn't been in town more than an hour in June before I heard that the Owl Lounge had been sold and that the new owner had decided to make the funky old dive "brighter" and "more attractive." This offended all the writers and bikers who drank there, and they were boycotting the place.
People were also talking about local figure Bob Perkins, an ex-Marine who lives in nearby Manhattan (population 1,396). For many years, he has tethered a goat or a sheep — always named "Buddy" — in his front yard to keep the lawn trimmed. This year, a neighbor complained to the City Council that Buddy was bringing down the town's image because the goat was the first thing impressionable folk might see when driving in from neighboring Belgrade (population 5,728).
Majority opinion supported Perkins, and he was fighting back. To an Associated Press reporter, he charged that the complaining neighbor was just jealous of his Buddies.
"They were a real babe magnet," he said. "It's the way I met half of my ex-wives."
The biggest news in Livingston itself was a plague of cat killings. The cat killer turned out to be a passionate bird-watcher employed by the Livingston Enterprise newspaper, which, to its credit, made his confession a front-page story. People in Livingston seem more into dogs than cats, but out here, you just don't mess with other people's animals. I heard people half-seriously mutter, "String him up."
This is not just any small town. What makes Livingston and its neighborhood the way they are?
Maybe it's the in-between location. To the east spread rolling plains of timothy grass, the best hay for fattening cattle; it's why Texas cattlemen once drove their herds to Montana. Hay farming is still the foundation of the local economy, and earnest posters warn about the danger of noxious weeds.
West of here, you're heading into the Rockies. The Northern Pacific Railroad founded Livingston in 1882 on the last patch of level ground before the Bozeman Grade, the natural place to put its main locomotive repair shops.
So for more than a century, until the Northern Pacific shops were closed in 1986, Livingston was something of a rip-roaring railroad town. Calamity Jane spent most of her time there when she wasn't in Deadwood, S.D. Many of the geographic names in the area sound as if the rip-roarers chose them purely to spook tenderfoots: Poison Creek, Hell Roaring Creek, Froze to Death Creek.
Back in the days when Americans traveled more by rail than by car, Livingston was the gateway to Yellowstone National Park, 30 miles to the south through dude-ranch-lined Paradise Valley. That's how this remote burg came to have the most spectacular train depot between St. Paul, Minn., and Seattle. Reed & Stem, the architects of New York's Grand Central Terminal, designed a sort of Renaissance Italian palace where Eastern dudes would transfer to Yellowstone in style.
The railroad started to decline in the 1940s, but Hollywood people such as Peter Fonda, Jeff Bridges and Michael Keaton started moving to Livingston in the early 1970s. Director Sam Peckinpah lived in the Murray Hotel for a long time. The Murray's new owners have lovingly restored his suite, though they've decided to cover up the bullet holes he put in the ceiling.
Novelist Tom McGuane and poet Richard Brautigan moved up, too, along with the painter Russell Chatham, whose landscapes — all of which look as if they were painted just a moment before dusk — capture the tremulous quality of the local light. First thing you knew, Livingston was an artists' and writers' colony. It now glories in the slogan "15 Galleries, 3 Stoplights."
In some rural art colonies, there's tension with the locals. Not here. The artists who moved to Livingston were outdoors types — McGuane is a horseman, Chatham an angler, and every time I meet the lithographic artist Parks Reece, he hands me a freezer bag of venison jerky or smoked elk heart. Their novels and paintings revel in Montana.
Livingstonians like that just fine. On Art Walk nights, you see townspeople heading down Main Street for a steak dinner at the Stockman, pausing for wine and cheese at the galleries and inspecting the art. I don't know how much of it they buy, but the Hollywood people are said to be pretty good patrons.
So you have hay farming, railroading, hunting and fishing, media figures (Tom Brokaw and Ted Turner have spreads in the area), Yellowstone and art. I'm sure the combination explains Livingston, somehow.
After catching up on the gossip with Cahill, I went down to Sax & Fryer, a mellow old bookstore on Callender Street. When I say old, I mean it opened in 1883, six years before Montana became a state. It specializes in local authors and regional-interest books and exudes a serene indifference to change, using an antique mechanical cash register and disdaining credit cards.
Then I walked half a block to the corner of Main Street, where former Los Angeles jazz writer Jim Liska runs an ambitious little Italian restaurant named Adagio. After lunch, he took me into the basement and showed me a grim, windowless room that served as a speak-easy during Prohibition. Last year, a movie company used it for a film set in 1930s Montana.
"I've been kicking myself ever since," he said. "They set it up so it actually looked like a nice bar. I should have talked them into leaving the props."
From Adagio, I crossed Main Street and walked halfway down the block to look in on Pinky's, a breakfast and lunch hangout full of regulars having conversations that have been going on for years.
The old part of town is compact and amazingly well preserved; 430 structures are on the National Register of Historic Places.
I ended up at that gorgeous 1902 railway station. No passenger trains have used it since the 1970s, so the town has converted Livingston Depot into a handsome museum of local history, focusing on the days when the glamorous North Coast Limited dropped off fashionable tourists.
Across the street from the depot is the 1904-vintage Murray Hotel. Co-owner Kathleen Kaul unlocked the stairwell to the roof for me so I could savor the view of the town, the Yellowstone Valley and the Crazy Mountains and Absaroka Range that frame it. It's the best view in Livingston because, at four stories, the Murray is the tallest building in town.
In the rather forbidding-looking former Lincoln High School building, the Federation of Fly Fishers has its headquarters, complete with an impressive museum of fishing lures.
Trout fishing isn't for me. I'm more likely to be thinking about dinner. I might eat in town, or I might drive out to Big Timber, 30 miles east, to dine at the excellent restaurant in the Grand Hotel, or 10 miles up Paradise Valley to Chico Hot Springs, a resort with a fine restaurant of its own.
But I won't have pie for dessert. Livingston is my pie.