Location:The Sportsman Club, Columbia Falls, Montana (map)
Safely and legitimately back in the US, with a tankful of crappy gas I bought in Bonner’s Ferry, I steered east toward Glacier National Park. Highway 2 is in pretty good shape up there, and now that I’m keeping the daily dose of driving down, I am better able to appreciate the beauty of the land once more. Top down, sunscreen on, tunes playing louder than was strictly necessary (Desolation Boulevard by Sweet – remember them?), I was making time.
I missed the sign welcoming me to Montana; I was trying to read all the different speed limits to make sure I didn’t get caught in the fine print. The speed limit is different based on what you’re driving and the time of day. Speed limits are not based on the size or quality of the road. I know of no other place that allows you to drive 70 on little twisty two-laners. Montana’s approach to speed law is more or less to let people drive as fast as they want, and point out along the way where people have died. There are lots of little white crosses along each side of Highway 2, sometimes in bunches. I wonder if people drive differently as the number of death markers increases. The locals have probably stopped seeing them.
I had planned to stop in Kalispell, but all the hotels were the upmarket Holiday Inn sort of thing or were crappy-looking. I would have accepted crappy if there were a interesting-looking bar nearby. There were lots of casino/lounge combinations, but I wasn’t up for that kind of thing. The sound of video poker and slot machines is not what I’m looking for when I want to relax with a beer and write. I even stopped at one crappy-looking hotel that didn’t look so bad from the road, but I couldn’t find anyone to give money to. I didn’t try that hard. Onward, then, toward Glacier.
Columbia Falls is a nice little town. I found a room that was only marginally overpriced and asked about a bar while registering. After some consultation the hotel staff recommended The Sportsman Club. It was on the main drag and I found it easily. I didn’t take any technology with me; I decided to try some conversation with the bartender and to just relax for a while.
I wasn’t too surprised when I discovered myself in a bar with both kinds of beer – Bud and Bud Light. I had a Bud and my first pleasant surprise was that the beer was pretty cheap. My Cheap Bastard genes overcame my Beer Snob genes and it became a Budweiser night. The NBA finals were on that night, and the bartender told anyone who asked, “We’ll have that on all the TV’s except this one right here. I’m watching baseball.” The bartender and I got along great, and I spent the rest of my time on the fringes of the conversations around me.
Happy hour started. Two drinks for the price of one. Patrons would walk in and Helen the bartender (her name probably wasn’t Helen, but that’s the best guess I can come up with now), would set up two glasses and pour a pair of cocktails. Three guys came in from fishing, and she immediately set to work on six glasses of booze.
At one point an attractive woman settled onto the stool next to mine. Two drinks appeared in front of her almost immediately. She didn’t seem to be in a conversational mood, so I just nursed my beer and wished the fishermen would take at least a short break between cigarettes. I talked baseball with the bartender. Two younger woman came in and once they had a drink in each fist they started talking to the woman next to me. The bitter, angry girl turned out to be the woman’s daughter. At that point my surreptitious ring check was out of curiosity more than any personal interest in the woman. Ring finger empty. The two girls went down to the end of the bar and the woman ordered another pair of drinks.
Alcohol in quantity attracts a pretty good crowd, and soon the place is getting pretty loud and my eyes are starting to burn from the smoke. I was still having fun talking to people, however (except the guy who refused to speak with me after I told him I was from San Diego) so I ordered another beer. During that beer I learned that a happy, scruffy drunk around the corner of the bar was the woman’s husband. He was drunk, she was drunk, the daughter was getting rapidly plastered and increasingly angry. One big happy family. About to get happier – the woman told me her daughter was pregnant.
Happy hour ended after – get this – an hour. People stayed in the bar, however, having got their drinking momentum going. I chatted a while longer but it was time to get out of there. I went up the street to the supermarket and got supper, then headed back to the hotel. I was so throughly impregnated with smoke that I took a shower when I got back to the room. My clothes reeked so badly that after I got out of the shower you would never have guessed that I was in a non-smoking room. Thick smoke aside, however, it was an interesting and educational evening at the Sportsman Club.