Dinner at the Marysville House

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Rocky Mountain High

The Thinker by Rodin

I am sitting in my room at a Hampton Inn in Helena, Montana. Helena is not your typical destination for either business or pleasure, particularly at the end of October. Perhaps this is because Helena (like most of Montana) can be a challenge to even get to, since it seems too remote from most of the rest of the lower forty-eight.

To get to Helena by air usually requires transferring planes in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City is one of the more spectacular airports to fly into. When flying in from the east it means descending rather sharply over some very craggy and often snowy jagged mountains. The Great Salt Lake is impossible to miss since you usually fly right over it from the north. With so many mountains in the way, pilots must turn one hundred and eighty degrees before landing from the south. Book a window seat.

You reach Helena via Concourse E, a busy hub full of commuter jets. These are the kinds of jets that require most passengers to stoop while standing in the cabin. If you do not you risk head injury. Montana is about an hour from Salt Lake City by air. A night flight to Helena reveals little but an inky blackness outside the window. Then Helena appears like an oasis of light.

I am here until Friday. I expected Helena to be a bit detached from the real world. I expected (shudder) dial up access to the Internet, if that was even available. My fears were unfounded. The Hampton Inn here has high-speed internet access, as do most of the hotels in the city. You will find most of the chains here that appear elsewhere.

Montana is “Big Sky Country”. You certainly get that sense when visiting Helena. For those of us who live on the East Coast, Montana seems almost pristine. If Helena were Northern Virginia, its surrounding real estate would quickly be turned into numerous, ugly and poorly planned subdivisions. For now Helena seems to have achieved some balance between the needs of a growing population and the palpable feeling of wildness that is here.

Montana is a state of big vistas. Its grandeur is impossible to miss. Montana feels limitless. Its relative remoteness, something of a hindrance in the past, is also its biggest asset. For now the growth of cities like Helena, the state capital, seems modest compared to the frenetic growth where I live. Yet it is still worrisome, even if cities like Helena are proactively purchasing land to ensure its most pristine areas are never encroached on by development. Happily, the federal government does its part. Large parts of this part of the state are part of national forests.

My reason for being here on business starts tomorrow. Today was my chance to experience the natural wonder of Montana. Since 2003 when my family and I peeked into Montana from Yellowstone National Park, I have been intrigued by Montana. I remain no less enamored now with a closer exposure. Wendy, a fellow USGS employee, flew in a day early to experience Montana with me. Dave, one of my employees who work out here, acted as our guide to natural wonder. This meant hiking.

I love hiking but I am out of practice. Dave took us up many a winding, steeply ascending gravel road to the end of a trail that begins in a city park eight miles away. For four and a half hours, we hiked over many a meadow, and scaled two peaks, including Mount Helena itself. Hiking in November in Montana can be chancy. Precipitation was expected, but we also had to deal with howling winds that threatened to toss us down the side of the mountain. The temperatures began in the low 30s and gradually ascended into the forties. Precipitation did arrive, first as flurries, which was followed by periods of spattering rain, often mixed with sunshine.

This climb turned out to be a bit too ambitious for me. Even with good hiking shoes, this was a challenging hike, with the descents proving more painful to my legs than the ascents. My legs and feet were up to the challenge, but just barely. Descending Mount Helena was particularly difficult. My right legs felt like gelatin. There was no lack of dangerous gravel, treacherous slopes and large, sharp rocks to make the hiking challenging.

Yet the views were spectacular. There is little that can compare with such a direct experience with nature. While I am now popping ibuprofen to deal with the inflammation in my leg, I do not begrudge the pain. I am just grateful I had the time and the experience to get my own Rocky Mountain High.

The rest of my week will be full of business. It is unlikely that I will get to experience too much more of Montana’s natural side. Nevertheless, I hope for at least one clear night before I leave. I want the opportunity to drive my rental car out of the city to a very dark spot, turn off the lights, and revel in the tapestry of the stars in a way that is impossible out east. In Montana, nature is impossible to wholly escape. It is a shame that in so many other parts of the country, it is hard to feel its majesty.