Livingston, Montana, sits on the outside curve of the big eastward bend of the Yellowstone River fifty miles north of Yellowstone National Park. Those fifty miles are aptly named Paradise Valley, where the river snakes along cottonwood-sheathed past lush cattle ranches and the trophy log mansions of absentee movie stars. From its headwaters in Wyoming’s Teton Wilderness south of the Park, to its confluence with the Missouri River in western North Dakota, the Yellowstone flows 671 miles sans dams, the last of the West’s great rivers to do so.
It flows clear and blue at Livingston’s Ninth St. Bridge in the sunshine of an autumn day. Some years in spring the river is high, brown and roily, and threatens to flood adjacent parts of town — as it did in 1997. Not today. Today the Yellowstone makes for a benign and bucolic foreground for Mt. Delano in the sharply defined Absarokas to the east. In the distant northeast are the stony, serrated peaks of the Crazy Mountains, so named for a demented and wandering pioneer woman. Before me along the river are the bright gold torches of the cottonwoods. Behind me is Livingston, and the bustling, horn-tooting of a busy town, thoroughly modern, yet retaining its ties to a rich past.
Temporarily separating from Meriwether Lewis on the eastbound return of their historic journey, William Clark and about half of the Corps of Discovery passed through in July, 1806, only to see Crow Indians run off their horses. They continued on in cottonwood dugouts to the mouth of the Yellowstone and their rendezvous with Lewis. The region was frequented by trappers and cattlemen throughout the 19th century. Eighteen eighty-two saw the arrival of James J. Hill’s Northern Pacific Railroad, and Livingston — named for a Hill business associate — grew up around its depot. The Murray Hotel was built directly across the street in 1910 to serve the railroad’s clientele. The four-story square brick building’s guest register has been signed by politicians and celebrities, the likes of which include Mike Mansfield, Steve McQueen and Robert Redford.
Due to its setting amidst stunning scenery, superb fishing and hunting opportunities, and its inherent cowboy-bohemian atmosphere, the Murray has always attracted the adventurous and eccentric. The humorist Will Rogers and his friend Walter Hill (of the railroad family) once as a prank brought a horse up to Hill’s third-floor room via the Murray’s venerable Otis elevator. In his Howard Hughes-like reclusive last years in the 1970s, the legendary Hollywood director Sam Peckinpah lived in a top floor suite with a pet iguana. One night in a drunken delirium, he shot holes in the ceiling with a revolver. The bullet holes are rumored to remain, and day I was there I asked to see the room, but was politely refused because it was occupied. Jimmy Buffett sang and played his guitar for tips in the bar during his early '70s salad days. But at that time the Murray was mostly known as the center of Livingston’s literary culture. The bar was a hot spot for what the New York Times in a 1982 Sunday magazine article identified as a New West literary renaissance. Livingston was home to a few of the new “Writers of the Purple Sage.”
Thomas McGuane was one of these neo-settlers of Livingston when he arrived in the late '60s fresh from Wallace Stegner’s graduate writing program at Stanford. He took a room at the Murray and divided his time between his passion for fly fishing, and the composition of his first novel The Sporting Club (1968). Mr. McGuane was soon joined by friends: the writers Jim Harrison and William Hjortsberg, the late counterculture novelist Richard Brautigan, and the painter Russell Chatham — all sharing a love of their work and the outdoors life of Montana.
McGuane had Hollywood connections, and indeed had collaborated on the screenplays for the westerns The Missouri Breaks and Tom Horn, and had himself written, directed and shot on location near Livingston the New West cult classic Rancho DeLuxe. Soon the likes of Peter Fonda, Jeff Bridges, Rip Torn and Warren Oates could be spied on the streets of Livingston. Over the years the locals have become blasé’ concerning the presence of the Hollywood film colony.
For McGuane, it wasn’t all Tinsel Town glitter under the Big Sky. In the novels Nobody’s Angel (1982), Something to Be Desired (1984), Keep the Change (1989), and Nothing But Blue Skies (1992), the author has created a fictional Montana milieu based on Livingston (the “Deadrock” of the novels is an ironic play on words for the name of the town), and peopled with angst-ridden, existentially-obsessed New West characters. Patrick Fitzpatrick, Joe Starling and Frank Copenhaver indulge in drink, drugs and serial marriages (thus reflecting certain aspects of McGuane’s own life), and view the wreckage of their lives in the foreground of the familiar Old West heading for the horizon. These tragicomedies have earned McGuane critical praise. Saul Bellow once admiringly called him “a language star.”
Nowadays the Livingston literati (minus the many-years-sober McGuane) hangs out in the Owl Lounge, a small bar a block east of the Murray. The owl motif — in the form of pictures and knickknacks — is ubiquitous. There is a line of books by local writers crowding the bottles on the backbar. The Owl is the kind of place where cowboys and railroad workers rub elbows with writers and painters, and everybody mostly gets along.
Tim Cahill drinks there when he’s not wandering remote parts of the globe for Outside magazine or volunteering for Livingston’s Park County Search and Rescue Unit. Peter Bowen might fill you in about the latest adventures of his popular fictional Montana detective Gabriel DuPre. I bumped into Bill Hjortsberg — “Gatz” to his friends — the afternoon I was there. We had met before, and he inquired as to my freelancing of late. His eyes were bright blue. His wire bifocals perched halfway done his hawk-like nose. He wears his hair in a gray ponytail hanging halfway down his back. “Have you had any good luck?” he asked, as he bought me a drink. Later, the conversation at the bar turned to rodeo and its specific events. Hjortsberg regaled us with a wild story about how as a young man on assignment for Sports Illustrated in 1972, he was crazy enough to ride a bull at Larry Mahan’s Rodeo Cowboy School in Florida. He’d stayed on for the full eight seconds, but afterwards retired to bed for a couple of days with his aches and pains.
“It was worth it,” he said. “It hurt like hell, but it was worth it.”
I thought he could be talking about his hard-living days among his writer friends in Livingston. Back in the '70s time of simple Rocky Mountain bohemia before the Yellowstone got crowded with the drift boats of upscale fly fishermen, and the second wave of Hollywood glitterati drove up real estate prices. Life in Livingston when she was good.
And I thought old Gatz was a lucky man.
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