One of my earliest Montana memories is sitting at Winnett Bar with my dad and his uncle. We had just finished a day of hunting and had walked over to the bar for a nightcap after eating dinner at the only place in town that served food. I remember it being dimly lit and the decor being mostly wood, bottles and old photographs, a decor style I would later learn is standard in these types of places. My great uncle told us a story about my great-grandfather dancing on a table top at that very bar after a day of hunting. I remember watching the bartender intently, I thought he was pretty neat, a young handsome cowboy with a big silver buckle that said "RAY". After the adults finished their Wild Turkey, we walked outside and to our camper, which was parked on the main street outside of the Petroleum County Courthouse. That was our campsite for this trip. No one seemed to mind the three bird hunters and their dogs camped out on Main Street. I spent a lot of my childhood chasing pheasants around the Montana landscapes. I was always in love with the land, but what did it for me was the people. Every person told these wild tales and of course, as a kid, I believed every word.
I remember hunting in the Shields River Valley with Merv Olson, a retired Lutheran Pastor who used to minister to the area. He knew everyone in that valley and apparently every curve on the road because I don’t think he touched the brakes once. We drove through Wilsall and stopped for some snacks at the mercantile, which is across the street from the Bank Bar. True to its name, the Bank Bar used to be the bank back in the day, a stately stone building now stood as the local watering hole, where people go to make a different type of deposit. We didn't go in to the Bank Bar that trip, or any trips after that. It either wasn't open, or there wasn't time. Wilsall is close enough to Bozeman, that most of the time, it was worth it to just get home and eat dinner and take a shower in a timely manner. I saw the Bank Bar through a windshield many times over of the years, always wondering what those walls contained.
I have been working on a project that started off as an assignment for my bookmaking class for a few weeks now. The simple pitch of the book is the west and the people who carry on traditions and an appreciation for the ways of the west. I had made a preliminary list in my mind of who I wanted to shoot and what I wanted the book to look like but still had a hard time finalizing what the book was going to be about. I went to Cody to interview and photograph Kalyn Beasley, a singer-songwriter. Through our conversations about life in the west, he asked me questions that I should have been asking myself about wanting to be a storyteller. The couple weeks between that first shoot in Cody and now have seen this project pick up steam and evolve into a meaningful and powerful collection of photographs and stories. It's far outgrown the scope of the school assignment and has turned into a passion project, taking me across Montana and Wyoming to small towns, some of which I am seeing for the first time ever, and some of which I am seeing for the first time as an adult.
Sadie and I pulled into Wilsall Friday morning after making the drive over the Bridgers and through the Shields. We stopped and let the dogs run for a little, and found what we thought was a dog park. We were met by two French Bulldogs coming out of a doggy door attached to a house, attached to the yard we were standing in and thought was a park. Dogs sorted out, we decided to walk around Wilsall and make some photographs of Sadie for my book. It was chilly out, a damp chilly that doesn't happen often here. We took photos along the mural and watched as semis passed by. Once that open sign on the Bank Bar lit up, we headed in seeking warmth and refreshments. I finally was in the Bank Bar. A sort of childhood dream had been achieved. We chatted with the bartender and staff for a little and shot some photos at the bar. I got up to use the restroom and on my way back, peeked around the corner to the back of the building. There was a small room connecting the bar and restaurant, it was stone and wood with the bars from the old bank teller's windows in the wall. There was an old piano and great light coming in from the windows. I grabbed Sadie and she brought her guitar back. She sat at the piano while I snapped some shots of her, the sun hitting the Maker’s Mark and the wood of her new guitar just right. She played some of her new songs, which rang through that old building rich and melodically. After a few more songs and photos, we headed back to the bar and gambled a little at the Shake a Day and slot machines. We won 11 cents, more like lost 89, but still, the machines and bartenders make you feel like a winner. We finished our drinks and I bought a sweatshirt to commemorate my long awaited trip to the Bank Bar.
We headed down the highway to White Sulphur Springs, passing through the settings of Ivan Doig's book This House of Sky. One of my favorite things about open landscapes like that, is you can tell which way the wind blows. There aren't many secrets out there, the landscape is frank and humble. It will tell you things if you'll listen, but the key is, you have to want listen. The lessons can be subtle but powerful in the end. I think the same can be said for some of the people in these landscapes. They are shaped by the landscape and have been handed experiences from the landscape that turn into to stories and lessons that deserve to be heard.
After taking the dogs for another walk down some dirt road, we headed to Bar 47 to get lunch. Warm food and shelter from the mild wind seemed like just what we needed. We were greeted by the friendly staff and quickly struck up conversation with them. We listened to stories about their lives and told them about my book and Sadie's singer-songwriter endeavors. Jan, the hostess wrote down a handful of names and phone numbers of people I should reach out to for my book. We met an amazing family who invited us to out to photograph some calving. We eventually paid our tabs and headed back to Bozeman in time for Sadie’s gig downtown. We couldn't believe how incredibly productive that trip had been. We were energized on the way home, recounting the incredible people we had just spent time with. Sadie got info for some gigs, I got great leads for people to photograph and we got to know each other and the world better.
The trips I have been on since starting this project and the conversations I have had with people have ignited this inspiration and passion in me that I have never had for any other project. I am exploring options for pursuing this project and pushing it deeper and further. Adding in videos, podcasts, and exhibits have all been avenues I am exploring and considering. The landscapes of the west are changing, and the people who hold onto the west have amazing stories to tell. If their stories aren't told, they will fade away, pieces of history and tradition lost in a modern era.