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6. Road Trip 2008, Day 4 (continued): Brew Masters and Boy Bands


“Nearly all the best things that came to me in life have been unexpected, unplanned by me.”
Carl Sandburg

Since I needed caffeine to ease my aching head, we decided to seek out a coffee shop. Driving around Bozeman, I finally settled on Rockford Coffee, an upscale joint on the edge of town. Once inside the pristine cafe, we ordered breakfast burritos and one steaming hot mocha. We sat on the patio and talked about, what else, music. We began discussing how we each discovered rock and roll; I’m not sure how the topic came up. I explained to him that I hated butt-rock growing up. I loathed everything that I knew as rock: the bad hair, the make-up, the spandex, and the thinly veiled lyrics about sex.

“So what did you like then?” Paul asked.

“Eh, I guess R and B. In 7th and 8th grade, some friends and I sang in a quartet. We’d always perform Boys II Men and stuff like that.”

“Whoa, wait a sec. You were in a boy band?” Paul chuckled.

“No, we were just stupid kids. We’d sing at like the fair and shit.”

“Did you do dance moves? Have costumes?”

I moved on with my story, knowing if I didn’t Paul would obsess over my boy band days. My musical outlook changed on a frigid January day. I went snowboarding with my friend Mike Edmondson. He had these generic plastic “snow boards” with weak velcro straps. We’d ride Joe Hoye Hill, which usually resulted in us rolling down to the icy river. After a day of boarding and crashing, we went back to my house to warm up. Inside, my brother Nick had the “Singles” soundtrack playing on the stereo. I walked in and couldn’t believe my ears. It didn’t sound like rock, yet it wasn’t R and B. The guitar made strange bleeps and squawks over the rumblings of a tom drum. Then the smooth voice began singing, comparing love to a waterfall as the guitar emulated water cascading over a ledge. By the time the chorus kicked in with a charging riff, I asked my brother who we were listening to: Jimi Hendrix. At the time, I had never heard of Hendrix, and I actually thought he was some new artist since most of the “Singles” soundtrack contained up and coming grunge bands. A few weeks later I bought “Jimi Hendrix: Smash Hits” – the album that changed me forever.

The song that changed everything:

 

"Here's Ozzy!"

 

Paul said he always liked rock music growing up, most of which being the classic rock he heard on the radio while tending his dad’s fields. The problem was that he couldn’t let his parents know that he enjoyed rock and metal. His parents were fervently religious and saw rock music as one of the devil’s gateways. Since they would confiscate and dispose of his tapes and CDs, Paul began hiding his Black Sabbath and Neil Young around the old farm house: a hole in the wall, behind the book case, or under a ceiling tile.

As Paul told me his story, I wondered if the evil spirits of Ozzy and Tony Iommi still haunt the walls of the Peterson household. He told me he’d give me a tour of all his hiding spots when we stayed with his parents in a couple weeks. I looked forward to finally seeing where he grew up, although I feared what his parents might think of me.

We sat talking for a couple hours, which is kind of amazing considering we had spent the entirety of the past three days together. Afterwards, we made a stop at a gas station to refuel, get ice, and restock our water supply. Paul went to the restroom to finish what he started behind the dumpster, so I roamed around the beer cooler, examining the six packs from local breweries. Most of the beers were made in Montana, including one called Salmon Fly Honey Rye. Earlier in our trip, driving through Iowa, Paul pondered why brew masters didn’t experiment with Rye, and here was proof that someone had. I looked at the label to see what brewery it came from and found that it came from Madison River Brewing Company in Belgrade, Montana (a brewery I had somehow missed in my pre-trip research).

 

Now I'll begin my search for a pumper-nickel beer.

 

When Paul re-emerged relieved, I rushed over to tell him about my rye discovery. He held the bottle of beer in his hand like he had just unearthed the Holy Grail. Back in the car, he checked the atlas to see that Belgrade was only 10 miles west of Bozeman. Our afternoon plans were set.

Since it was too early to start drinking, we decided to waste some time roaming around downtown Bozeman. Tons of little shops lined Main Street, although most were of little interest. We finally made a stop at Cactus Records and perused the aisles. I couldn’t find anything because the place had CDs organized by very distinct genres: new wave, punk rock, hard rock, jazz, blues, swing, country, bluegrass, etc. I wondered if Beck’s albums were located together, or if “Midnight Vultures” sat in the dance area while “Sea Change” lay in the alterna-country section. It almost seemed like the store owner wanted to show off how many genres of music he knew. I’m still trying to figure out the difference between indie rock, alterna rock, and modern rock.

Empty handed, we returned to the car and began driving aimlessly . We had a couple hours to kill until the Bozeman Brewing Company opened. As we rolled by a park, Paul had the great idea that we should go take a nap. Neither of us slept well in the VFW parking lot, and I still hadn’t caught up on the sleep lost in Spearfish. We parked the car, ate some ham sandwiches, and headed out into the sprawl of green grass with pillows under our arms. I found a nice shady area away from the road and laid down.

 

"Never mind the homeless guy sleeping by your presents."

 

I fell asleep quite easily and remained in dreamland for a couple hours. Eventually, I awoke to the sounds of children laughing. I lifted my head to see a birthday party in progress just 20 feet from my resting place. I wondered what the parents thought about the two homeless dudes sleeping in close proximity to their little girl’s party. As I walked back to the car, Paul appeared from behind a tree; it looked like the festivities woke both of us from our slumber.

Back in the Element, the clock read four o’clock – drinking time. At the Bozeman Brewing Company, two dirty gray mutts greeted us with wagging tails. After a quick scruff of their hair, we made our way toward the brewery. The dogs wanted more loving, so they decided to follow us all the way to the doorway of the brewery, which just so happened to be propped open. Paul tried shooing the pups away, but they saw his arm movements as a gesture of play. No matter what we did, the little mutts remained on our tails.

With no other choice, we entered the brewery with the two dogs in tow. I walked up to the bar, trying to act like I didn’t notice the animals running around the brewery sniffing patrons. The female bartender scowled when she saw the canines terrorizing the brewery. She came from behind the bar and began chasing the puppies around tables and couches. She couldn’t corral the both of them and finally seemed to give up, marching outside and disappearing for a few minutes.

Paul and I exchanged guilty looks as our invited guests meandered over and at our feet, tongues flapping, tails wagging. She returned with a disheveled, shirtless man who looked like he just finished smoking a bowl. Visually flustered, he called the dogs names and they both ran to greet him. As he walked out, a dog in each arm, he apologized to the bartender. She glared at him as he left, and then turned her evil eye to Paul and me, still waiting for our beer.

“Uh, sorry about that,” Paul said sheepishly. She didn’t seem amused. We ordered our beers and took a seat as far away from the bar as we could. I had decent Amber while Paul drank an excellent Irish Red. We talked about student teaching for a while, with Paul sharing some of his experiences from the spring. I gave him advice, which is always weird. I never thought I’d give anyone advice – a task synonymous with being old and wise.

For our second round I had a Belgian Whit and Paul had the Plum Street Porter. The porter was definitely a standout with its chocolaty aroma and strong coffee undertones. It even had a little bit of a plum taste to it, a hint of sweet fruit freshness. At the time, we thought this was intentional due to the “plum” name, but after doing some research, the beer is actually named after the northeast area of Bozeman. The website mentions nothing about the purple fruit, leading me to believe that our beer tasting abilities may still need a little work.

 

We also enjoy the chicken flavor in Chick-O-Sticks.

 

As much as we were enjoying the Bozone beers, Paul couldn’t quit mentioning the rye beer from Madison River. We decided the time had arrived to venture to Belgrade. Paul apologized one more time about the dogs, she scowled once more, and we headed west. The Madison River Brewery was located in the back corner of a large warehouse, alongside a mechanic shop. Inside, the bar had a cozy log cabin vibe.

Paul of course started off with the Honey Rye, while I ordered the Irresistible Amber Ale. The rye tasted like nothing I’d ever had before, with a hint of spicy rye blended superbly with the malt and honey sweetness. I was surprised by the beer’s light and refreshing finish. I guess I expected a rye beer to be dark, like rye bread.

“Why don’t more breweries make rye beers?” I asked the bartender.

He grinned and replied,” because it’s hard as hell to do well. Rye has a pungent flavor in beer, so you have to be very careful with the amount you use. I try to go about 15%.”

Obviously, this guy knew his stuff. I finally took a sip from my Irresistible Amber Ale and instantly knew where the name came from. The beer went down smooth with a multitude of flavors swirling around my mouth: nutty, chocolaty, biscuity…it all seemed too familiar.

“This tastes a lot like a Fat Tire!” I announced to Paul.

The bartender, who was ease dropping, smiled and said,” Great, that’s kinda what I was going for with the amber.”

What “I was going for”? Were we talking to the mastermind behind these amazing beers? “You’re the brew master?” I asked.

“Yep. I don’t brew the beers anymore, they’re just my recipes. I come in and work once in a while just to check the quality of the latest batch.”

He seemed excited by my reading of his Amber. I took another sipb and knew my first assessment had been correct. It featured all the qualities of a Fat Tire but didn’t have any aftertaste. Could I have actually found an amber beer superior to Fat Tire? I continued drinking the Irresistible Amber and felt both joy and remorse in finding a new favorite beer. “This is the best amber I’ve ever tasted,” I announced.

“Thanks!,” he grinned. “Here, let me give you guys a taste of some of our other beers.” Since there is a state law limiting patrons to three beer at Montana breweries, he began pouring us samplers of everything he had on tap. By evening’s end we tasted eight different beers, with all of them being just as delicious as the amber and rye (although Paul didn’t like the oatmeal stout). As we went through each beer, he’d give us a quick run-down of what he was aiming for with each. It felt like Inside the Brewers Studio, and I was James Lipton. He explained that the hefeweisen had a hint of banana flavor, a quality common with Bavarian wheats. The pale ale, his favorite, might have been the best pale ale of the trip with a unique citrus meets hops combination.

 

 

"After a distinguished career as a field grain, divine intervention stepped in when you took your biggest role as an exquisite amber ale. How does it feel to be the sweet nectar of the Gods?"

 

While enjoying all of the man’s creations, we told him about our brewery road trip. A guy at the end of the bar overheard us and joined our group, enthralled by our journey. The brew master recommended some breweries we should check out, including a little joint in Pinedale, Wyoming called Bottom’s Up. The barfly asked us about our itinerary for the next few days, and Paul explained that we planned to climb Lone Peak. Paul asked about the Montana Woman’s advice to climb up the back side.

“She told you what? I’ve never heard of anyone climbing the backside of Lone Peak. Just drive south from here on 191 to the face of the mountain; it’s a beautiful drive,” he replied.

 

My version of souvenirs.

 

The brew master pulled out an atlas and showed me where we should enter Lone Peak. I wrote down the directions on a napkin. We decided we’d better get going with the sun starting to set. On the way out, I spotted a cooler filled with six packs and decided I needed to make a few more purchases before leaving. When I brought a couple sixers to the counter, he told me they were six dollars.

The barfly interjected,”Six dollars? I thought your six-packs were $7.50?”

“Um…we’re having an unadvertised sale today,” the brew master responded with a smile on his face. Paul decided to also take advantage of the “sale”, buying a couple six packs and a t-shirt.

We said our goodbyes, and they wished us luck on our journey. The brew master seemed to enjoy our company; I guess it doesn’t hurt that we gushed over every beer he offered. And it wasn’t like we were just kissing his ass: his beers were all distinctive, delicious, and satisfying.

Pulling out of Belgrade, Paul told me I would want to exit onto highway 84.

“But the guy at the bar said to take 191 to get to Lone Peak,” I protested.

“I still think we should try climbing the backside. That lady said it was a beautiful climb with waterfalls and stuff,” Paul explained.

“You’re still trusting that weirdo’s advice? Those guys both said it would be stupid to go that way.”

“Dude, she’s a Montana woman who has lived here for 25 years. She should know,” Paul said.

I was feeling too good from all the brews to argue with him. If he wanted to try the path less traveled, I was game. Heading down highway 84, we took in the majestic scenery while enjoying The Walkmen’s “A Hundred Miles Off”.

We listened to “Another One Goes By” as the sunset on another great day gone by:

When we came around one hilly curve, we found a picturesque scene before us with the real Madison River weaving through the valley, leading to the mountains in the distance. People all around us were enjoying their 4th of July weekend, kayaking, white water rafting, and fly fishing. We pulled over and walked down to the water’s edge, soaking up the natural beauty around us. I looked up at the cloudy blue sky and finally understood why this was called “Big Sky Country”.

We decided we needed to find a camping spot soon and got back on the road. 84 turned into 287, leading us through McCalister. Eventually we passed through Ennis, and I couldn’t help but notice all the saloons that lined the street. I wanted to stop, but I noticed none of them had the swinging doors often associated with saloons, so we drove on.

Finally, we came upon an inlet with a sign reading “Fish Hatchery”. We decided this could be considered public land, and made way up the gravel road. Eventually, we stopped next to a roadside tree, seeing it as a perfect cover for our fire – we still needed to cook supper. We set up camp quickly as the last glimpses of the sun peaked through the clouds, sending shafts toward the mountain peak we’d climb in the morning.

 

"Field of Dreams" has nothing on Montana.

 

Paul started a fire, then set a giant can of baked beans next to the red hot ashes. He explained their sentimental value. “I’ve had this can of beans for like five years. I’ve been saving it for when we finally took a road trip.” I don’t know if beans age like a fine wine, but my hunger at that point wasn’t going to be picky. To celebrate another successful day on the road, Paul pulled out a couple cigars. The combination of the aged beans and cigars brought back a memory from college, and I began telling Paul all about it.

As a 19 year old, I didn’t drink even though some of my friends did. With nothing to do in small town Iowa, we would head over to the “great” lakes region on Wednesdays to attend college night at a bar called The Marquee. Before we’d head out, my buddies would get shit faced while I smoked cigars, occasionally inhaling the black smoke to get just a hint of the buzz my friends were enjoying.

One of these nights, our driver disappeared from the bar (he either got kicked out or left with a girl) and my friend David Nitchals and I were left without a way back to Estherville. David talked Brian Bandow, a guy from our town, into driving us. Since he drove a little S-10 pick-up, I had to ride the 20 mile trek in the back. They made a quick beer run for the ride home (real safe), so I went in and bought a pack of “fancy” cigars, with each of the three stogies encased in test tubes.

Back on the road, I couldn’t get the cigar lit with the wind blowing me all around the trail bed. I was already in one of my moods, feeling sorry for myself and wondering what I would do with my life. At that point, I had no clue, attending community college just to push back the task of actually making a career choice. I looked down at my test tube cigars and decided I would smoke them when I did something with my life. I would smoke one when I got married, one when I had my first child, and one when I bought my first house. At that time, I had no idea what I wanted from life, so these three things seemed like the goals a person is supposed to have.

 

My test-tube babies.

 

After telling my story, Paul took the beans off the fire and opened them up. Inside laid a mushy cream, resembling refried beans more than baked beans. I had one bite and was done while Paul gobbled up the gruel. Looking up at the pink and purple mountain sky, I thought about those three goals, set 10 years ago and still unattained. If I had a wife and kids, would I be sitting here in Montana? If I had a house would I be able to afford to take this trip or even leave the place unattended for two months? My life priorities had changed a lot since that night in Bandow’s truck bed. I watched the mountain sky change colors before my eyes, and smiled. No, I hadn’t smoked any of those cigars, still encased in their glass tubes, lying in a night stand back in San Antonio. And at that moment, I took comfort in knowing that.

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4. Road Trip 2008, Day 3: Home of the Brave

Somewhere in between this ocean and mountainside
I have this dream I think of it still sometimes
I know it’s just the season
I sense no time or reason
The sky falls down; it’s evening
The feeling goes; it’s leaving

The Dodos “The Season”

We returned to downtown Spearfish around 8 a.m. and headed to Alpine Coffee. As I was ordering up a grande Mocha, the girl behind the counter commented, “I love your shirt. Two Gallants are awesome.” The cute little red head in horn-rimmed glasses smiled and went off to make my drink. While waiting, I decided Spearfish would be a great place to live: a great micro-brew, the limitless possibilities the canyon offered, and beautiful women who appreciate quality beer and good music. My July 4th was off to a great start, and I knew it would only get better with The Dodos playing at the end of our day’s journey.

Once I had my coffee and Paul his bagel, we returned to the road, heading north toward Montana. We thought about backtracking for a couple hours to see Mount Rushmore, but we knew Bozeman sat 500 miles away. With Paul at the wheel, I began perusing our collection of Black Hills brochures. While reading a short article about Mount Rushmore’s construction, it mentioned that many questioned the addition of Theodore Roosevelt. It made sense; Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington are legendary presidents while Roosevelt was just some dude who had a moustache. Teddy is like the Ringo Starr of Rushmore – the untalented guy lucky to be standing awkwardly behind the rest of the other three geniuses.

Mount Fab-Four

With Paul being a history major, I decided to bring this point up to him. He of course disagreed with me. “Roosevelt is probably my favorite president.”

Figuring he had the wrong Roosevelt, I responded, “You mean FDR right?” (My favorite president).

“No! Teddy was the man. He used to have boxing matches in the White House. When McKinley died, a lot of people hated him because he was this uncivilized cowboy. He didn’t give a shit what anybody said.”

“Like Bush…”

Paul went on to explain how Teddy was nothing “like Bush.” He talked about how Teddy was a huge conservationist, setting aside 16 million acres of land for national parks, which also pissed people off. He was in charge of the Panama Canal, was the first president to ride in a submarine, and often took expeditions to Africa to hunt elephant. Paul continued rambling off strange tidbits about Roosevelt, and after 10 minutes, I was questioning whether FDR was even my favorite Roosevelt.

I decided I wasn’t going to give up on my argument just yet. “Okay, okay, Roosevelt sounds like a rebel, but he still doesn’t deserve to be on Rushmore. The other three are legends.” Paul then spent another 10 minutes discrediting the American mythology of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. I tried to defend Lincoln, but my lack of knowledge left me with little to shield the bearded fellow. I had to give it to Paul; I hated history in school, but his unique perspective on these presidents’ legacies had my full attention. I could tell he was fascinated by the subject matter, and for the first time I got a glimpse of the great teacher Paul would be in the classroom.

This oldey time cartoon forgot to include "Bad Ass".

As we rolled into Belle Fourche, South Dakota, we noticed people in lawn chairs lining the sidewalks. We deducted that we had just beat the start of the Belle Fourche 4th of July Parade. Paul slowed the vehicle, rolled the windows down, and commenced waving to the perplexed Belle Fourch-ians. I grabbed our plastic American hats (bought during our shopping spree) and threw them on our heads, giving our float a patriotic flair. The looks we received were a combination of annoyance, disgust, and confusion. They must have been wondering, “Who are these Texans riding in a strange orange box car?” I would have felt like more of an ass if it weren’t for the little kids waving back; they thought we were the start of the parade – the grand marshals.

"Look kids! They let the special kids drive the short bus this year!"

After getting us through Wyoming and into Montana, Paul seceded his driving duty so he could take a nap. Despite my 5 a.m. cow wake up call, I was full of energy from either the excitement of seeing The Dodos or the mocha I slurped down in 15 minutes. With Mission of Burma’s “Vs.” blaring, I flew through the endless green hills of Eastern Montana, crossing multiple Indian reservations. I actually had the opportunity to see Mission of Burma in Denver with Paul – it was one of his many failed attempts at getting me to head west. I don’t regret missing the elderly band, who are pushing 60. They are still releasing great albums 25 years after “Vs.”, but I’ve already had bad experiences with seeing great artists in the twilight of their career. (Paul and I saw Bob Dylan mumble through an hour set at the 2001 Iowa State Fair. The night would have been a complete wash if it weren’t for us spending the majority of the show trying to sneak past the security guards.)

Seeing Mission of  Burma back in 83′ is a different story:

When “Vs.” finally finished, we pulled over for a quick roadside lunch of cold ham sandwiches and Doritos. It was a nice relaxing meal, out in the middle of Montana without a house in sight, just miles and miles of hills and mountains. We cut our lunch short when a swarm of bees decided to join us. Paul took over driving. My two hours of rest in the land of screaming monkeys had finally caught up with me. I instantly fell into a deep sleep, but it lasted about 10 minutes. This was due to Paul’s music choice, Albert Ayler, a guy he claims is jazz music. The honking saxophone over the endless drum roll sounded nothing like the smooth jazz of Charlie Parker that I grew up on. The album contained two 20 minutes songs, both lacking any semblance of a melody. I have no doubt that my four year old niece could sit down with a saxophone and sound better than this garbage. I tried blocking out the music, but the racket continued jolting me from the brink of slumber.

"Hello Mr. Ayler. I challenge you to a saxophone duel!"

Here’s one of Albert’s “short” songs:

Being both grumpy and exhausted, I finally spoke up. “This has to be the worst excuse for jazz I’ve ever heard.” Paul ignored my comment, although he seemed irritated, and continued listening to what resembled a 5th grade marching band. Paul has always preferred noise over harmony. He likes early Animal Collective – I like their newer, more melodic stuff. When he heard the new Deerhoof, which I adore, he commented, “Why’d they have to start writing songs?”

Here’s the era of Animal Collective that I enjoy most:

…and here’s the era of Animal Collective Paul enjoys most:

With Ayler blaring away, I remained sleepless all the way to Billings. We pulled into downtown to check out our first brewery of the day, Billings Brewing Company. The city streets resembled a ghost town, with only an occasional homeless person stumbling down the street. By the time we found the brewery, we already knew it would be closed. We were right. Disappointed by our first failure of the day, and with both of us thirsty for a 4th of July beer, we decided to take a southern detour to Red Lodge so we could visit Red Lodge Ales Brewing Company. The scenic drive lightened my spirits. The curving, hilly path led us along the edge of The Big Slide Mountain. What I thought were mountains earlier in the drive didn’t compare to the peaks surrounding Red Lodge. The contrast of the gray mountains and the bright green hills encapsulated us with the kind of vivid colors that would give a kid epileptic seizures.

Nature's version of the NES game "Monster in My Pocket"

Red Lodge reminded me of any small town you see in Iowa, only that it was surrounded by mountains instead of corn fields. We drove down one of the few paved roads in town, leading us directly to a faded yellow machine shed with a sign reading “Red Lodge Ales”. It didn’t look like much, but we decided to check it out. Inside, we found a bar packed with people of all ages, ranchers in cowboy hats, elderly in their 4th of July best, and young hippies in hemp gear. I couldn’t believe how many people were in this little brewery. Red Lodge is only a town of 2,500. In Billings, population 90,000, not a creature was stirring, but in this little village everyone came out to enjoy a locally brewed beer for the holiday. After waiting in line to get our first brews of the day, we sat on the back patio and enjoyed the view of hazy mountains in the distance, Yellowstone stood right before us.

Machine shed or brewery?

I came to the conclusion that the quality of their beers hadn’t drawn all the business. Not that they tasted horrible, but they also didn’t have anything spectacular on tap (their best beer had to be the 10 year aged bock with a surprisingly sweet finish). I began to think about whether my hometown could support a brewery. Currently, if you want a tap beer in Estherville your choices are Bud Light and Bud Light. Would these Midwesterners break away from their light beer disillusionment and enjoy a lager packed with flavor (and alcohol content)? I doubted it. Regardless, I couldn’t help but feel fortunate to be here with these small town folk celebrating the 4th of July in their local brewery.

Walking back to the car, Paul was already feeling a bit tipsy, so I took up the driving once again. When I noticed him trying to sleep, I decided it was time for a little revenge. No, I wasn’t going to find noise to play – he’d enjoy it too much. I scoured my i-POD for an album jam-packed with infectious melodies. And there it was, the perfect poison to piss off Paul: Vampire Weekend.

Paul’s poison:

30 seconds into “Mansford Roof” Paul’s eyes popped open. “What the hell is this?”

I ignored him, singing along to “I see a Mansford roof through the trees, I see a salty message written in the eaves.”

“Damn it, what the hell is this?”

“The ground beneath my feet, The hot garbage and concrete, and now the tops of buildings, I can see them too!” I sang at the top of my lungs.

“This is Vampire Weekend isn’t it?…Isn’t it!?” He grabbed the i-POD and looked in disgust.

I slyly smiled at him and continued singing along to the upbeat music. He laid back down for a bit, but by album’s end, he was sitting up at full attention. I wasn’t sure if he enjoyed the music or not. As “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” came to an end, he gave his final diagnosis. “Tracks two and three were amazing…the rest of the album sounds too much like Paul Simon’s African crap.” I agreed with him, although I’ve never found fault in Simon’s “African crap”.

Next we stopped in Livingston to check out Neptune’s Brewery. When we pulled up, it looked nothing like a brewery but more like a townie bar. The same vibe continued as we walked through the door. Maybe we were at the wrong place?

“Uh, is this the brewery?” I asked the girl behind the bar.

“Well, it’s just a bar first, but we do serve Neptune Beers.” I was confused. Is it a brewery or not? She went on to explain that a brew master rents out the back room to brew his beers. The bar serves his creations on tap, although not exclusively. We ordered a couple burgers and began sampling the drinks they had to offer. We were disappointed to say the least: the Bavarian was unusually dark and strange tasting, the Belgian resembled cheap rum, and the IPA was a mix of Pine Sol and gin. We had one beer left to sample: Toad’s Back Boch.

“This is Neptune’s most popular beer,” she said handing me my pint. I lifted the brown concoction to my nose and quickly pulled away due to the pond water stank wafting from the glass. I held my breath and took a swig. The name was fitting. It tasted exactly like a toad’s back, or at least what I would suspect. The syrupy texture hit my palette like a nuke, overpowering my taste buds with its mixture of rotted corpse and old people’s homes, finishing off with a bitter, dusty dry aftertaste. I couldn’t help but squint my eyes and wrinkle my brow at what, to this day, is the worst beer I’ve ever tasted.

When the bartender saw my sour look, she giggled and said,” I never said it was my favorite beer. I don’t like any of the beers he makes.”

Like licking a toad's back, minus the hallucinations.

We put the horrible Neptune experience behind us and drove the final leg of our day’s drive. Once in Bozeman, we zig-zagged through the streets for 20 minutes searching for both the VFW and a possible camping spot. We didn’t find any place to set up the tent, but we did finally come upon the VFW – a tin red garage, set back 20 feet from the road.

When we entered the bar it was pretty empty, except a girl sitting at the bar and a group of guys playing pool. While I made a bathroom run, Paul asked the bartender if he knew a place we could camp for free. The pony tailed metal band reject told Paul we were more than welcome to set up our tent behind his house. Upon hearing this option I felt uneasy. I didn’t like the idea of sleeping in a serial killer’s backyard. We decided to wait and see what the night would bring, keeping in mind we always had the scary looking bartender’s lawn as an option.

We sat down at the bar next to one of the only other patrons, a middle aged woman dressed like an orphan flower child. Her freckled face smiled at Paul, and she jumped straight into a conversation. She definitely wasn’t shy. I became instantly annoyed. When she found out we were from out of town, she began regaling stories of all her run-ins with the Bozeman police force, with each story ending in the statement, “You don’t mess with a Montana woman.” When I noticed the long-haired bartender glaring at her, I knew I wasn’t alone in my disdain. I couldn’t stand her yapping any longer, so I stood up, hoping Paul would catch my drift to escape from the rambling wreck. But Paul didn’t budge; he actually seemed to be enjoying her company (or he was trying to score some old lady ass).

Paul taking a moment to appreciate our freedom in front of the Bozeman VFW.

With people starting to arrive, I strolled casually around the VFW trying to entertain myself. I’d glance over at the bar occasionally to find the woman’s mouth still chattering endlessly. When th opening act started – some fat sweaty dude playing Elliot Smith covers – I made the conscious decision to get shit-faced in order to enjoy my seclusion/boredom. I chugged one Olympia beer after another, occasionally rejoining Paul and his new friend, the yammering mess. The conversation had moved on from the Bozeman police to the local tourist destinations we should check out. Her new catch-phrase was, “I should know, I’ve lived here for 25 years.” When I heard her say this for the third time, I echoed drunkenly,” How long have you lived here?” Followed by, “So would you describe yourself as a Montana woman?” She didn’t get my sarcasm, nor did she sense how much I loathed her.

I filed outside with the other patrons to check the fireworks being shot off at the local rodeo. I sat down at a picnic table behind the bar and watched the bursting colors in the Montana night sky. I began thinking about how exactly a year ago I watched fireworks in Lake Havasu, Arizona with my buddy Justin LeSieuer. I hadn’t talked to him for a couple months, but he seemed to be doing fine, still living with his girlfriend and her daughter. The year before he dreamed of getting out of the place he referred to as hell, but now it seemed like those aspirations had settled like the firework ashes falling from the sky.

Midway through the fireworks, Paul came out and sat next to me. He joked about the annoying woman as we looked on at the night sky.  When the display came to a close, the crowd began scattering back into the bar to hear another local artist do his best Tom Waits impression. All that remained outside were the three pool playing guys, now sitting in the grass, and Paul and I on the picnic table. While Paul was lighting up a cigar, the three guys stood and began screaming the National Anthem, waving their arms around maniacally at the mountains silhouetted by the moon. When they reached the line “which so proudly we hail” Paul joined in on their mini-drunken choir. Soon the five of us were howling the anthem up toward the starry sky, feeling the cool Montana breeze wash over us. After screaming, “AND THE HOOOOOME OF THAAAAAAA BRAAAAAAVE!” the three guys fell to the grass in laughter.

One of them turned back toward us and yelled,” Nice singing boys!”

It was then that I realized, who our choirmates had been: The Dodos. The same band we’d driven two days straight to see.  Instead of being a fanboy, lauding them with my love of their music, I calmly replied, “Thanks!” and then turned to Paul whispering, “That’s the Dodos.” He nodded his head and smiled as cigar smoke rolled out of his mouth and upward, congealing with the settling firework smoke. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my 4th of July: watching fireworks behind a VFW in Montana, and singing the national anthem with the Dodos. Teddy Roosevelt would be proud.

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2. Road Trip 2008, Day 2: Good Vibrations

“Sometimes the path you’re on is not as important as the direction you’re heading.”

Kevin Smith

We continued our trek up I-29 with the sounds of Thin Lizzy pushing us along. Since I’ve always panned Lizzy as garbage, Paul felt it important that I listen to something other than “The Boys Are Back In Town”.

“You’ve got to appreciate the double lead guitar harmony; they were like the first band to do that. Anytime you see a critic reference Thin Lizzy in a review, they are just basically saying that they use double lead guitar.” His lesson on Lizzy would explain why every Ted Leo review ever written mentions Thin Lizzy (I still don’t understand why they always mention Springsteen, other than the obvious New Jersey connection). For the remainder of the trip it became a game to point out Thin Lizzy’s double guitar influence on an artist: Wolf Parade, Iron Maiden, Turbonegro…who knew Thin Lizzy’s influence ran so deep.

Not only was Paul trying to coerce me into liking 70s double lead guitar rock, he also had the goal of convincing me to purchase a giant back-pack for camping up in the mountains. I kept trying to explain to him that I already had a backpack; the same backpack I hauled around in college filled with over-priced textbooks and Bruce Chatwin travel novels. When he began listing the items we would need to take with us, I gave in: water, sleeping bags, pillow, water, tent, food, and more water. We made a short stop in Sioux Falls, South Dakota to pick up equipment at Scheel’s. I wanted to take him to Ernie November’s, the record store my friends and I used to visit as teenagers. Unfortunately we didn’t have much time, and I didn’t even where the new store was located. It’s pretty sad that back before the internet, poor little Iowa punks had to drive almost two hours to buy independent music.

My high school sanctuary.

Back on the road, we made way into the dismal sprawl of South Dakota, a land of vacant hills covered in yellowing grass. The only objects breaking up the monotony were the barrage of advertisements for Wall Drug. Every five miles a sign would appear amidst the bland scenery advertising “Wall Drug: Free Ice Water!” After a dozen signs stating the same sentiment I became annoyed shouting, “WE GET IT!” This didn’t seem to stop the signs from coming though.

At one point Paul asked me about Wall Drug, suggesting we might have to make a stop. That’s what these signs do to you: beat you into submission until you are drawn to visit likes zombies. “Must go to Wall Drug, drink ice water. Eat rock candy.”

Wall Drug: home of free ice water, steam baths, and blow-jobs from horses.

I explained to him that it wasn’t worth stopping for. I remember going as a six year old and being unimpressed, which says a lot. Six year olds are entertained by sandboxes for Christ’s sake. Wall Drug is basically a glorified gas station with lots of old timey souvenirs for Midwestern rubes to spend their money on.

My only fond memory of Wall Drug is when my brother and I got the chance to lay our heads on the plastic boobs of a mannequin.

To help wake us from our Wall Drug stupors, I decided to put the Pixie’s “Doolittle” on. Soon we were both caught up in the music, nodding our heads and screaming alongside Frank Black and crew. With the Kim Deal’s booming bass-line pounding out the speakers, Paul shouted, “I wish I could inject the Pixies into my bloodstream!”

I don’t know if the Pixies ever wrote a bad song (I’m sure you could find one in their rarities, but those don’t count). I’ve always felt they are hugely underrated. I know, it’s not like they are some unknown, underappreciated geniuses like Slint or Neutral Milk Hotel, but I still don’t feel they get the credit they deserve. I know their song “Where is My Mind” is known by pretty much everyone on earth thanks to “Fight Club”, but I doubt the majority of the public would be able to tell you who sings it. They are even featured on several video games, but that’s not saying much since game makers always seem to throw us indies a bone (only “NCAA 2006” could make me sick of Guided By Voices “Teenage FBI”).  I’m not claiming the Pixies are some little garage band that never made it, I just don’t think they get recognized for their genius. They are always referred to as influential, which is a nice sentiment and all, but they are more than influential; they’re fucking incredible.

Once the “Doolittle” greatness ended, we were forced to concentrate once again on the Wall Drug phenomenon, with signs coming every mile now. We had to escape this insanity.

Then, our savior appeared in the distance: The Badlands. Without much discussion, we pulled into the Badlands entrance, looking forward to an escape from the Wall Drug Menace. Despite the $15 dollar entry fee, we both agreed a change of scenery was in order. As we drove up to the first viewing area, we both sat quietly in awe. The bulbous rock hills of beige and crimson looked like something out of a Star Wars movie (pre-CGI). The sun was just beginning to set, which added to the grandeur of the land, casting a golden glow amidst the green grass, straining to grow at the foot of the mounds.

At one of the viewing points, there was a sign discussing how settlers used to try driving their stage coaches through the hilly terrain, hence the name “badlands”. After reading this tid-bit, I looked out onto the bumpy land and thought,” Damn our ancestors were stupid.”

I don't remember passing through these Badlands when playing Oregon Trail.

Back in the car, I put on some Neil Young (we didn’t have Springsteen’s “Badlands” on us) and soaked in the majestic terrain. Paul was so caught up in our surroundings that he suggested we just stop and camp for the night. I would have agreed, but I had a goal for the night. While researching micro-breweries for the trip, I came across a tiny little brewery called Crow’s Peak in Spearfish, South Dakota. My mind was set on the notion that we would end our first day of driving sipping on homemade brew in western South Dakota. Paul was concerned that we wouldn’t make it before closing time, but stubborn as I am, I stuck to my goal. “We will be drinking a beer by drive’s end.”

Paul said goodbye to the beautiful scenery by taking a piss.

As we were exiting the Badlands, still reeling in the brilliance of our surroundings, an antelope with antlers a foot long came running out into the road. As we sped toward the antelope, who decided to stop in the middle of the road, I suddenly awoke from my dream-land.

“AHHHH!” I screamed, swerving the wheel and slamming the brakes. The tires screeched in horror.  Once at a complete stop, the antelope calmly trotted to the side of the road.

“Dude, why are you screaming like that?” Paul asked. I tried defending myself, but it was futile: I’m a puss.

Pulling out of the Badlands entrance, we saw the epic-center of evil right before us: Wall Drug. I pushed the pedal to the floor, hoping to speed past its mesmerizing powers. For some masochistic reason, I still kind of wanted to stop to check it out. Luckily, the thought of sipping a foamy beer helped me escape the evil clutches of South Dakota’s blackhole.

As our drive continued the land became a little easier to tolerate. Paul threw on the Beach Boy’s “Friends”, which I didn’t know how to take. Don’t get me wrong, there were some great songs, but the lyrics were pretty miserable. For example, on “When a Man Needs a Woman” Brian Wilson sings in a falsetto:

You know it makes you nervous
When you wait for your boy
You wait nine months for a bundle of joy
There’s a baby
Yes, there’s a baby about to be born
When a man needs a woman,
They make things like you, my son

This is by the same guy who wrote “Hang On To Your Ego”! What makes it more baffling is that “Friends” was released just two years after “Pet Sounds”.  Those drugs really sunk Brian Wilson fast, at least the lyric writing part of his brain.

Around 7:30 we rolled into the Black Hills, with exits for Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Devil’s Tower popping up every few miles. Spearfish stood at least another 45 minutes away. Our chances of getting to the brewery in time were bleak (the website said it closed at eight). Paul asked if we should just camp in the Black Hills and do some sight seeing in the morning, but after eight hours in the car, I was becoming delirious and stubbornly stuck to my goal. “We’ve got to get to Spearfish,” I insisted.

We sped past the Black Hills, through Sturgis, and soon found ourselves at our destination around 8:15. Since I didn’t plan ahead and actually get directions to the brewery, we made a quick stop at a gas station where we were pointed in the right direction. After maneuvering through a residential area, we came upon what looked like a tiny barn sitting upon a giant clump of dirt. When we saw the sign, we knew we’d found the end to our day long journey. Once parked in front, we hopped out of the car and noticed the closed sign taunting us from the window.

“Damn it, it’s closed,” I said slamming my hand onto the hood.

“Wait, I think I see people inside,” Paul whispered. We tiptoed up the stairs and could see a bartender behind the bar and a girl sitting on a stool sipping on a mug of beer. I creaked open the door, realizing how ghoulish we must seem.

“Uh, hi. Are you guys open?” I asked shyly.

“Um, no, but if you guys want to have a beer that’s cool,” the young bartender replied. YES! Our goal had been attained after all! We didn’t haul ass for nothing. We both took a seat at the bar, and the bartender poured a couple of ice cold brews. Paul ordered up a stout and I asked for the IPA.

“You’re going to love the IPA, it’s the best I’ve ever had,” the girl said. I was so entranced by the beer that I had forgotten about the sole patron at the end of the bar. I looked over to find a cute brunette smiling over at us. She had a spunky, sophisticated look to her, reminding me of a young Parker Posey.

“Oh really? That’s saying a lot,” I joked. On cue, the bartender plopped the golden IPA before me. As I took a sip, the hoppy freshness soothed my parched tongue. This girl knew her beer. It wasn’t an over the top IPA with its perfect blend of hops and a crisp, fruity finish. I told her I agreed with her, and soon the four of us were chatting over our beers.

There was something about this girl I couldn’t put my finger on, a certain intensity. Whenever I’d talk she stare at me with the most captivated look, like she could see the words floating out of my mouth. I began to get the feeling she might be interested in me. Usually girls are staring blankly in the distance when I discuss beer, but she was unfazed by my rambling.  When we told her that we were from out of town and doing a tour of breweries, she seemed even more interested in these two stinky nomads from the Midwest.

A few brews in, she began listing bars we should check out in Spearfish, and I began to wonder if she was suggesting places for Paul and I to go, or if she was inviting us to go with her. Every time she’d take a drink, I’d catch her eyes glancing at me from over the edge of her massive mug. Like something out of a “Wonder Years” episode, our eyes met and I could hear the entrancing organ intro of “Good Vibrations”, followed  by Wilson’s voice:

Softly smile, I know she must be kind
When I look in her eyes
She goes with me to a blossom world
I’m pickin’ up good vibrations
She’s giving me excitations

I awoke from my dream-state when the bartender came around the bar and took a seat next to her. Right before my eyes, she stared at him with the same spellbound stare she had been aiming at me for the past 10 minutes. I was confused. Is she dating the bartender? Was she digging me until he cock-blocked me? Or is she just an attentive listener with everyone?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized what a boob I had been.  A girl gives me an inkling of attention, and I think she’s instantly fallen for me.  I let the beer wash away my internal embarrassment and continued with our conversation. In the end, I think that the bartender’s stomp upon my hopes was a good thing because I know longer had the need to be self-conscious: I could simply enjoying the South Dakota beer.

Our discussion went all over the place: beer, hiking, tourists, kayaking, and yes, even Wall Drug. Soon the bartender was enjoying our company so much he decided to let us have another round for free. We ordered a brown (amazing!) and a pale ale (only mediocre beer there), and continued our banter. He went on to tell us about the current hops shortage in the brewing community. I’ve heard about gas shortages but never a hops shortage. Due to the lack of affordable hops, we found out that the brew master at Crow’s Peak had been experimenting with spruce needles.

For the next hour, the four of us sat around sipping on some tasty beers and conversing like we’d known each other for years. I knew we’d be visiting many more breweries in the next few weeks, bigger and more well-known, but I doubted any would match the intimate experience we had at Crow’s Peak.

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