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