Ode to Rough Ski-Town Bars

The only fur you'll find here was killed with a rifle and mounted on the wall behind the taps.

The only fur you’ll find at this après was killed with a rifle and mounted on the wall behind the taps.

None of the hard cases playing hold ’em in the Oxford’s back room emerged to watch, but the drunk women thrashing around on the floor captured the imagination of everyone else in the bar. As the fighters choked each other and yanked on hair, a toothless relic in a ruined Stetson bet a fat man selling newspapers from a canvas bag that the blonde would win. Suddenly, the cops arrived to separate the combatants, who were now, in police parlance, “persons to be removed.

Although Missoula, Montana, has morphed from a rough railroad and timber town into a hip and gentrified college one, neither the Ox nor the other half-dozen working-class bars downtown have done thing one to make themselves après-ski. That’s why getting hammered in these dives is the logical yin to the yang of a day at the hill.

When you jump off the lift at Snowbowl, the sun blazes against a cobalt sky and an antiseptic breeze wipes any residual moral smudge from your soul. When you look below the groomed trails, Missoula has vanished, smothered under a pillow of heavy fog, inversions turning western Montana into the apparition of a vast Ice Age sea. Random peaks thrust through the chilled gray skin of this soup, like volcanoes in the ocean.

It’s when you’ve had your fill of good clean fun that the underworld beckons. Head through the miasma to the Missoula Club and coat your stomach with a gazillion-calorie chocolate shake followed by a double hot-pepper cheeseburger. Obey the bartender and shovel your peanut shells onto the floor. Note that the surface of the bar has been furrowed by generations of fretful drunks rubbing it with coins.

Then it’s off to Red’s for shots of Aristocrat vodka. Tonight there’ll be no driving. It doesn’t matter, though, since all the joints are within staggering distance of one another. Next, head toward the freight yards and belly up to the ancient bar at the Silver Dollar. Then on to Al & Vic’s for a Jack and Coke. As the evening wanes, mush over to the Union Club for a blurry game of pool while eyeing a woman at the bar eyeing you.

At Charlie B’s it’s a nightcap with a mystery writer who’s a Missoula fixture as much as a legend. As you toast the fading health of this literary lion, you notice that the right side of his cowboy clothes is matted with black dog hair.

Finally, end your crawl at the Oxford with chili and the night’s last beer. Before mad cow, you could order brains and eggs and the counterman would yell to the cook, “He needs ’em!