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Wandering the West

Thirsty? In the summer, hydration is essential, and if you’re on the road in the next few months, you might have fun searching out where the locals stop to have a beer and a burger. My favorites are the genuinely old bars, taverns and saloons of the West, where the atmosphere is real, the drink is beer, and the food is hamburger off of a greasy grill. You can generally strike up a conversation with someone who’s lived there a lifetime and knows some off-the-beaten-path places to fish, hike or ski.

Montana is full of such places, like pretty much any tavern in Butte, especially uptown in old historic Butte. Although it’s called the M and M Cigar Store, the M and M brags it is "the best greasy spoon in the area." The locals start arriving for beer at ten, just as the breakfast crowd is clearing out. The M and M opened its doors in 1890 and served up food and drink to miners coming off round-the-clock shifts in Butte’s prolific mines. Gambling was wide open, fights were routine, and you could hear many languages filling the air. It’s all a lot calmer now, but a fabulous place to soak up the atmosphere of the West’s greatest mining town.

If you’re heading down Highway 89 south of Livingston bound for Yellowstone’s north entrance, pull into the Old Saloon in Emigrant. The false-fronted building has stood there for a century, keeping cowboys and railroaders in beer and steak. The crowd is largely local, with tourists either dropping in randomly or seeking out the place, which is listed in guidebooks as one of the West’s original old taverns.

Sixteen miles outside of Missoula, seek out the Jack, a log roadhouse that feels like it’s out of one of troublemaker Brad Pitt’s hangouts in "A River Runs Through It." Its log interior dates from when there were huge old-growth cedar trees in the mountains all around.

Wyoming is cowboy country, so if you pull into Bondurant, between Pinedale and Jackson, expect things to be a little rough around the edges. If you pull into the Elkhorn Bar during spring bear-hunting season, you might share the space with hunters who bring their dead creatures into the bar to drink to their success.

It’s far more refined down the road in Jackson, where things are a bit more touristy. The big bar here is the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, with horse-saddle bar stools, live bands, and cowboy kitsch galore. If you try to pry out one of the 600-some silver dollars imbedded in the bar top, you won’t be the first. Like I say, it’s touristy, with souvenir T-shirts and the like, but its also great people watching and fun dancing the Western swing with people who really know what they’re doing.

If you want it quieter, go around the corner to the historic Wort Hotel’s Silver Dollar Bar, also decorated with silver coins deep under the laminations of the bar. To get the more genuine article, head to the foot of Teton Pass in Wilson a dozen miles west, where the Stagecoach Bar has a more authentic vibe to it, with live bands, dancing, drinking and dining.

Utah is not without its fair share of classic roadhouses as well. The Cotton Bottom near the mouth of Big Cottonwood has served up garlic burgers and beers for skiers pouring out of Big and Little Cottonwood for generations and is still going strong. In Ogden, just wander down 25th Street, where old buildings are mostly filled with more modern versions of bars.

Of course, the tavern with the most press is Huntsville’s Shooting Star Saloon, Utah’s oldest, which began 1879, and offers up pool, cold beer, and Starburgers double hamburgers topped with a knockwurst and trimmings.

If you’re heading to canyon country, you’ve got to try Ray’s Tavern in Green River, which I’ve written about, and two locals’ favorites in Moab with live bands, Woody’s Tavern and the Rio.

And just before heading over the San Juan River into the dry Navajo Reservation, the place to stop is the San Juan Inn, on a cliff above the river at the foot of the bridge across it.

A cold beer on a hot day is refreshing anywhere. It’s a little more fun when it’s in a memorable place.

Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.

INSIDER TIP: If the bar in a Western town is named "The Mint," it’s the real deal. For some reason, many Western towns I’ve been through seem to have a Mint on their main streets.


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