Travels Without Charley -- Montana: Love at first sight
October 24, 2010 4:00 AM
The Custer Memorial at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument site in Montana.
Historic Downtown Livingston's 100-year-old buildings are testimony to the city's early wealth.
By Bill Steigerwald
"I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love."
-- John Steinbeck, "Travels With Charley"
LIVINGSTON, Mont. -- John Steinbeck fell hard for Montana. Who doesn't?
But the great author's love affair with the Treasure State was really more like a two-night stand.
Though he said in "Travels With Charley" that it was his favorite state, he was inside Montana's borders for only about 60 hours during his iconic road trip in the fall of 1960. He slept in the state only two nights -- both in or near this town of about 7,000 on Interstate 90.
As Steinbeck streaked across the state from east to west on old U.S. Route 10, a two-lane highway now mostly buried under I-90 and I-94, he stopped a few times along the way.
He bought a hat in Billings and a gun in Butte. He took a side trip to pay his respects to Gen. Custer and Sitting Bull at the windswept Custer Battlefield site -- a simple but powerful and somber place that's well worth the detour. And he motored down to visit Yellowstone Park.
Otherwise, Steinbeck did little more than drive down the main streets of Montana's small cities on U.S. 10. He didn't go fishing for trout in the cold rivers that run through the Treasure State. He didn't go hunting for elk or go bird-shooting with his dogs, as Michael Keaton of suburban Pittsburgh has learned to love to do since he immigrated to Montana.
Steinbeck didn't go skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling -- the transportation modes of choice and sometimes necessity during Montana's long winters. He didn't climb a random mountain peak in the Little Belt Mountains. Or visit the ruins of an old silver mine. Or drive 10 miles on a logging road and picnic in a meadow at 7,000 feet -- any of the things you can do for free on any given day in the country's fourth biggest and arguably most beautiful state.
Steinbeck had an excuse. He was making time on the highway, he wasn't vacationing. But he chose a good spot to sleep. Livingston, on the quiet Yellowstone River, is a great place to stay overnight even if you aren't using it as a base camp for fishing and hunting expeditions.
Livingston boomed into existence in the late 1800s after the Northern Pacific Railroad built it as a place where it could put repair shops for its trains headed into the Rockies. When Yellowstone opened and a rail line connected the park to the town in 1883, tourists started coming through Livingston and have never stopped.
Livingston's attractions include everything from a railroad museum and a fly-fishing museum to the preserved little houses used by the "ladies of the night," circa 1900.
But it is the turn-of-the-century buildings in Livingston's historic downtown that alone are worth a visit there. Striking testimony to Livingston's early wealth, they hold art galleries, coffee shops and western clothing stores like Bob's Outdoor, where Steinbeck might have bought a jacket. Around the corner is Sax & Fryer, a stationery and bookstore that's been in business for 127 years and still uses mechanical adding machines and cash registers.
The Murray Hotel on old U.S. 10 is probably the most famous of Livingston's old buildings, thanks to its flamboyant neon sign, its crazy Western decor and its wild 106-year-old history. Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill stayed there -- not together as a couple, mind you. And there are tales of cowboys riding horses into the bar and movie producer Sam Peckinpah shooting holes in the ceiling of his room.
An old-time Western hotel with all the modern necessities, the Murray's 30 rooms start at $89 a night and are decorated with original or vintage furniture. There's fine grub and good wine on the hotel's ground floor at the 2nd Street Bistro. The bistro wins awards and has become a mini-hangout for Livingston's colony of artists, authors and actors, who include lithographer extraordinaire Russell Chatham, writer Tom McGuane and that ex-Pittsburgh guy who played Batman but never went Hollywood.
If going to a bistro in Montana doesn't sound quite right, around the corner is the less-refined Murray Bar, where on Friday nights local bands such as the Fossils rock the joint and single cowboys play pool hoping a bored movie starlet will walk in.
Livingston is great, but it's not much like the rest of Montana I've seen. I'm a Montanan by marriage and have spent about two summer months of my life there. I've seen cities such as Great Falls and Bozeman and crossroads towns such as Roundup and Cut Bank, but I've seen a pittance of the state.
As Steinbeck did 50 years ago, I saw what Montana is famous for when I drove across it last week at 70 mph -- big sky, big land, endless sunsets and not enough humans to form a Wednesday night basketball league. But to really see Montana -- and understand why everyone loves her -- you have to get out of your car and stay a few decades.
Correction/Clarification: (Published October 25, 2010) Montana is the Treasure State. The wrong nickname was given in the latest installment of Travels Without Charley, a series retracing the route that John Steinbeck took 50 years ago and wrote about in "Travels With Charley."