Sometimes when traveling you hear about places that have a certain character. Having seen much of our country, I have noticed that there is a lot of faux character out there. For example near Scottsdale, Arizona you can visit an “authentic” western town called Rawhide. Gunfights occur every hour on the hour (admission required). Buy official Rawhide T-shirts in one of its many stores. In short, it is just another tourist trap. If you want a place with real Western character will have to look elsewhere. Frankly, I was convinced it had wholly disappeared.
I found the mythical western experience early this month in Marysville, Montana at a place called the Marysville House. I have been meaning to write about the experience for weeks. I had minor issues to deal with since then, like my mother’s death and funeral. However, even such tragic events could not erase the memory of the Marysville House.
Marysville, Montana is a genuine ghost town about twenty miles northwest of Helena, Montana. (Earlier this month I was in Montana on business.) During its heyday in the late 19th century, over four thousand people lived in Marysville and surrounding areas. Almost all of them were there to find gold. Those that could not lived off servicing the local economy. Of course, the gold eventually tapped out. What remains is a genuine Western ghost town. However, this is not a story about Marysville because I saw little of it. My party arrived there at dusk as the season’s first snowstorm arrived.
To get there from Helena we had to travel about seven miles north on the interstate, then head west on Route 279 for about ten miles. Look carefully for Marysville Road, a plain dirt road on the left. I am glad we had a guide; otherwise, we would have never found it. Once on Marysville Road you drive for five or six miles moving into the mountains. Then suddenly you are deposited in what is left of Marysville.
What I did see of Marysville in the twilight were a few genuinely dilapidated buildings. The new wet snow collected quickly on our rental cars. On the other side of the road through the snowflakes and under a bright light was the entrance to a dubious looking building called The Marysville House. A first glance might dissuade you from entering. The Marysville House is a bar and a restaurant. Like the decomposing buildings surrounding it, this “house” has seen much better days. I do not know what Montana has in the way of building codes, but I suspect a professional safety inspector might feel the need to put on a hard hat before entering. If you are wary, do not be. Go on in.
For in the Marysville House is a bar that puts Cheers to shame. It comes with a collection of regional barflies on intimate terms with each other. Clearly, the bar is the social center of this area. Behind the bar are the usual collection of spirits, stacked toward the ceiling. There is also plenty of draft beer on tap. I did not hang out at the bar, not being the drinking sort. But it was hard to ignore because of the constant roar of laughter coming from the bar.
Our guide had been to the place many times, and seemed to know everyone there by first name. He guided our party into the “restaurant”, an adjacent room with a large roaring fireplace. Patrons sit at indoor and unadorned picnic tables. Bring a cushion if your derriere is sensitive because you are likely to be there a while. Like most of the restaurant, this room is paneled with unfinished planks. Practically every inch of the paneling was spoken for with numerous carved initials, names and dates. At the Marysville House, if you can find the space, you and your Swiss Army knife are welcome to carve away.
Our waitress was a woman who had obviously not spent much time in charm school. She took our orders matter of factly, made sure we had plenty of drinks, and brought out a basket of rolls to tie us over until dinner. At the Marysville House you had better be prepared to wait for dinner. For you see the chef in the back (who is easy enough to watch hovering over the pits) will only do one table at a time. And if you arrive at rush hour, as we did, and there are a half dozen tables ahead of you then you will get your food when he is darn well done with it. Meanwhile have a drink. Have another drink. Because you will have plenty of time to drink, ponder carvings in the paneling and the odd pictures on the wall while you wait for dinner.
Nevertheless, only we fussy easterners seemed to mind. The food may take a while to reach your table, but you cannot get braised meat like this at your neighborhood Chili’s. When your meal finally arrives (we waited nearly two hours), you are not going to complain. You are going to chow down. The steaks were expensive but enormous. One steak at the Marysville House should provide plenty of calories to see you through one day and part of the next. I got the feeling to fully appreciate a meal at the Marysville House I needed to have spent the day doing something authentically western, perhaps roping steers or mending fences.
That is not to suggest that its patrons consisted of cowboys. Many were “city slickers”, if you can call a relatively modest city of 30,000 or so like Helena a real city. They were largely working folk, but a fair number were obviously living in the vicinity. Smoking, thankfully, was not allowed in the restaurant. (In April, Montana finally passed a law requiring smoke free restaurants, although bars are exempt through 2009.) However, the patrons were definitely full of western values. In addition, they were both noisy and friendly.
Our waitress though was not so much unfriendly as indifferent. She would disappear for a half hour or more at a time, resurfacing only to take new drink orders. After an hour we politely inquired about how much longer it would be before our food arrived. It bounced off her like water bounces off a duck’s feathers. “It’ll get here when it gets here,” she replied tartly.
With so long to wait, nature called many of us. The restrooms are located an arm’s length or two from the bar. You might have the expectation that when you use their restroom you should be entitled to some privacy. Not at the Marysville House. The good news was that the doors did lock. The bad news was that the doors were made out of slats and there were prominent gaps between the panels. But no matter. No one at the bar clearly gave a damn so you had to discreetly unzip yourself and do your business. If you did not like it, the great outdoors was a convenient and nearby alternative. However, they at least did not discriminate. The “ladies room” was equally as transparent. By this time, I was almost expecting an outhouse and newspaper for toilet paper.
Most of the dinners come with an overly soggy half ear of corn. It was hard to forget the taste of the baked beans, for they had clearly been simmering for hours over the pit. My bill (I had barbeque chicken) came to about twenty dollars. Had I bought drinks or steaks it would have easily been twice as much.
Would I go back? In a heartbeat. My food was okay and a bit overpriced. But this was the first western meal I ate that actually tasted like it came off the chuck wagon. And to have it served in aging restaurant off a dirt road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere frankly tickled me pink. And if that were not enough, I was surrounded by a cast of characters that seemed surreal but still felt authentically Montanan. It was a true grit kind of place. So if in Montana, take a chance and revel in the unique and somewhat bizarre experience of dinner at the Marysville House.