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We never intend to wash up in Livingston, Montana. My friend being a native New Yorker means she has neither a driver’s license nor a desire to gain one, so I’m exhausted from hours behind the wheel. Our GPS gave out as soon as we hit the highway out of Seattle and can now only be illuminated for a few seconds at once. This gives us just enough time to find out that we are going in the wrong direction then cuts out without shedding any light on which road we should be on.
We pull into a roadside café at what resembles a town to search for budget accommodation. At 50 dollars a night, the lodgings we stumble upon are half the price of the cheapest motel. The website shows interior photos of a rustic log cabin complete with a stuffed deer head mounted under the roof beams, a throw rug on the wooden floorboards and a kitchenette in the corner.
There are no exterior photos. As we pull into the Livingston RV trailer park, we understand why.
Winding our way through the caravans and portable homes, a gruff middle-aged woman in denim overalls and dark cropped hair emerges from a ramshackle building marked with a handwritten sign: OFFICE. “I’m Billy,” she grunts, reaching a hand through the driver’s window of our car to firmly grasp mine.
Billy leads us past the gaggle of children playing tag in the dirt and we turn the corner as she gesticulates with a flourish to our booked accommodation. The log cabin stands in the shadow of the enormous Quality Inn and is flanked on one side by the motel parking lot and the RV camping ground and on the other by the Interstate 90.
“Brand new, it is.” Her face flushes with pride. “Y’all are our very first guests.”
She shows us around inside, pointing out its features – throw rug, deer antlers (sans head), microwave and something that resembles a splayed numbat pinned to the wall.
“If you folks aint got nothing to do this evening,” Billy says, “you might wanna heat up your TV dinners in the microwave, pull the chairs out onto the porch and sit watchin’ the cars go down the highway.”
We sit in our plastic chairs, TV dinners in hand, and watch as the golden lights of the McDonalds arches flicker in the distance while the sun skulks over the highway. Billy, seated on her own plastic chair outside her campervan opposite, gives us a wave and a thumbs-up.
The whir of cars down the Interstate begins to thin out and it is time to find some other form of entertainment. Darkness is creeping over the main street of Livingston which means the “quilts and liquor store” is closing up for the night and the jukebox bars are opening. The dying sunlight glances off the craggy mountain backdrop and casts a spectacular glow over the pastel rainbow of the Empire cinema. Inside the mint-green Owl Cocktail Lounge next door, a few bearded locals have been building beer can towers since about 2 o’clock this afternoon under framed pictures of rippling waters and white sand beaches.
A bluegrass band is in full swing at a small bar tucked off the main street and a handful of people are scattered amongst the row of booths. A neon cowgirl is lit up on the wall behind the bar and flashes different colours as the woman bartender leans across the counter: “What can I get y’all?” With her denim micro skirt and cowboy boots, Kristal is about as Montanan as apple pie and assault weapons. She is thrilled when she finds out we are foreigners: “Y’all come all the way from Seattle?”
“No, no, we came from Seattle,” we explain.
Further down the bar, a tall older gent is bent over a bottle of Budweiser, which he sips thoughtfully. A cowboy hat covers dark hair peppered with grey. He says slowly to his beer, “I thought about travelling. But then I thought, aint no reason to go somewhere else when I haven’t even seen all of Montana yet.” Kristal hands us our beers.
The band is still playing on a small stage set up in one corner of the bar. A singer blows soft into a harmonica and plucks at the banjo strings and a drummer behind him brushes on the cymbals. In front of the stage, a middle-aged woman swings her ample hips and taps her feet. Her eyes are shut tight and one hand clutches her tin of beer while the other waves exuberantly over her head. Mary is barefoot, oblivious to the cigarette butts and beer stains that litter the carpet and lap at her toes.
When the band pauses for a cigarette break, she opens her eyes as if awakening from sleep and brushes her limp hair back from her face. “I just left my husband!” she cries. “I haven’t been out dancing in 20 years!”
“Where are your shoes?” I shout back and she hoots with laughter.
Mary begins to sway again to the music playing in her head, tipping her head back so her hair tumbles over her shoulders. The tall cowboy at the bar shifts his gaze from his glass to Mary and, with a decisive swig of his beer, strides silently over to place his arms gently around her waist. She looks up at him as though he has appeared out of a dream then nestles her cheek into his chest.
The drummer is out the front, leaning against an old school bus and puffing on a Lucky Strike. He wears a checked shirt and a majestic ginger beard. He hands me a business card that only has one word beneath his name: TROUBADOUR.
“There aren’t any contact details,” I say.
He looks at me like I have fallen off another planet. “I’m a troubadour,” he says. They have been riding the school bus since Tennessee.
“Do you do any Arctic Monkeys covers?” I ask.
He tuts, flicking the cigarette butt under the front wheel of the bus. “We only do originals.”
He has already headed back inside for the second set before I can tell him it was a joke.
The tinkling of the banjo starts up again and the cowboy has returned to the bar, hunched over his beer. Mary rushes over to me gushing, “I met a guy! He is just sooo groooovy!”
Beside her, George nods and shakes his white beard. His hair is twisted into a long white plait down the length of his back and his head is wrapped in a tie-dyed bandana. His faded white t-shirt shouts: WOODSTOCK 3 DAYS OF PEACE AND MUSIC. He wasn’t at Woodstock, he says, but he sure feels like he was and that’s what counts, aint it?
He’s a retired poet and a full-time groupie and he too rides the school bus. That’s where the after-party is going to be held if I want to rock on like it is ’69. By now, Mary is in ecstasy over a third man, a burly biker with a thick moustache and a sleeve of tattoos. Soon after, she disappears from the bar altogether. As does he. The last thing she tells me is that she aint ever going back to her husband ever. She’s just gonna keep on dancing. I find her high-heels shoved between two empty booths; the glitter has rubbed off and is scattered over the debris of crushed chips on the table.
My friend has called it a night and gone back to our log abode. The troubadours are rolling joints and packing harmonicas, drums and banjos into cases. Kristal is collecting empty beer cans, the cowboy has sauntered off into the night, and George is waiting for my answer.
I shrug, pick up a guitar case and board the bus.