Feb 20, 2024, 06:29AM

Welcome to Real America

Karaoke, trash piles, bars, and bottles across the Northwest.

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It was the worst hangover I ever had. I looked up and inexplicably Spider Baby was playing on the motel TV. Chris didn’t know what he’d stumbled upon while flipping channels. “It’s the maddest story ever told,” I told him. His therapist tried to find him an activity that would take him out of town, off-handedly suggesting Sundance. He asked if I wanted to make a weekend of it, while we were both drunk at our regular dive, wasted off Black Velvet, PBR, and stale Gardettos. I was happily unemployed and terribly depressed and it was barely a seven-hour drive to Park City, so why not? We could stop in Butte on the way, visit the Frank Little shrine at the Silver Dollar and stay in the Motel 6 built over the spot where he got lynched by either the Montana Vigilantes or the Anaconda Copper Company or Dashiell Hammet in his Pinkerton days or whoever else would’ve wanted the best Wobbly in the West dead.

Spontaneity quickly gave way to a total blur through that old mining town. After the richest hill on earth dried up (or at least, the company’s interest in it did) and the old open-faced mine in the middle of Uptown became a lake leached with earth-stripping chemicals—a superfund site with gunned guard towers trying to scare away the flocks of birds that would melt in its waters—the historic boom city that once was owned by a host of the richest men in America became half-empty and half-bars. We darted our way along the sub-zero streets, between ruinous brick beauties and saloons with holes in their ceilings, looking for the crowd, although none was to be found on a Monday or Tuesday or whatever night we set out on.

We were losing steam and needed something hot. A bartender somewhere gave me a cup of black coffee and didn’t charge me for it. We found a Subway in the desolation and had our sandwiches toasted. The artist there told us something about the nature of reality but I can’t quite remember it. It spooked me though, almost as much as I got spooked on our march back up the hill where we saw some meeting house where an Irish flag was emblazoned with an Iron Cross. While the union may persist, what was once a hotbed for revolutionary left-wing action had fallen victim to that post-industrial wagon circling of nationalism. Somehow, still, the town was a hold out of the old red of labor while the new red of American Republicanism had slowly swept the state after all the violence and romance of the frontier days had worn out.

What we presumed would be our last stumbling-through-the-door was the Party Palace, where we finally found the crowd. Karaoke night and some absurd deal on well drinks. I could barely stand as I went up to sing a Garth Brooks song I didn’t know the words to because the bartender misheard me when I tried to put down “Thunder Road.” Some septuagenarian woman came on stage with me and saved the performance; later she bit Chris’s ear, although I can’t say if it was out of flirtation or unprompted violence. In my ear was an aggravated thirtysomething dude, who was calling Chris all kinds of homophobic things while apparently trying to fuck me. Some kind of twisted, pained self-hatred was coming out of him, or perhaps just the antics of a burned-out alcoholic (not a year later we found his obituary in The Standard—he was survived by a wife and some kids, presumably estranged long before his death). Either he roofied me, or I’d managed to drink more of my gin & tonic with four shots of Tanqueray than I remember, because there’s nothing in my head between those moments and waking up neatly packed back in my motel bed. I’m told that I threw a glass bottle at a building (Butte is open container, why not have some to go?), stumbled up a back alley, and even somehow managed to get served a martini at an upscale hotel bar, which if I really stretch the depths of my memory I can picture myself out of body in a dimly-lit room with a low ceiling and a lemon twist.

We got back on the road, and I was in physical pain at the harsh light of Montana’s bright winter sky. At that elevation, heavy overcast is always preferred to the deep blue and UVs of the cold January sun. Passing south through the hills and valley of I-15, I made a note on my phone of a brilliant set of metal scrap on the roadside: “Trash pile south of Butte (mile marker 96? 97?) come back later” [1/30/19].

We pulled in for gas outside Dillon. I needed something for survival from the station’s Loaf and Jug, and entered through the casino-side. Every little convenience store in the middle of nowhere in Montana has a Lucky Lil’s attached to it. It was eight or nine in the morning on a Tuesday (or was it Wednesday?), and the walls wrapped with digital slots and an empty industrial rugged center was practically packed with geriatrics. “Welcome to real America,” Chris told me.


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