Last month Chris and I took a trip, a real trip crossing states and such. This is big news for people like us, who usually spend our free time whittling sticks and shooing possums and other Wisconsiny activities near home base. But this trip had a purpose: deliver my dear friend Katie to Montana, with her new puppy secure in the crowded back seat.
Montana in February is a different beast than those we’ve got over here, with even wilder ups and downs, crazy snow-smashed mountain roads that make our bluff cliffs look like ditches you pick daisies in. It’s funny, as an on-the-road tourist, how you notice that everything just screams Montana there, even the lined sweater vests and textured long undies look like the people just shook off a pose for a Gander Mountain catalogue. And when we got to Helena, it was 40 degrees, so I’m not going to lie -- it was so awesome to be far, far away just then.
Some of you may already know that this was a special trip for Chris and I; by the time we left he’d gone from boyfriend to betrothed, the long horizon held thoughts of our future as the miles passed on the way home. But you don’t know everything.
It had it all. Reunions with loved ones after way too many years. Hot springs rejuvenation. Sensational dinners and nightlife -- an evening at the hot Great Falls nightclub named the greatest bar on earth by GQ Magazine, which proved itself at least once for tropical, steamy ambiance, but was made complete by a woman who goes by the name of Piano Pat.
It’s important to understand the way we came to be at the stoop of Piano Pat’s little nook (best bar in the world, mind you) before I let you in on this well-guarded secret spot. We did the whole way to Helena in one crazy swoop, all night, through South Dakota on the southern I-90 path. We made excellent time, Katie’s ‘rents Brenda (longtime love of mine) and Joe were so wonderful to us, Leo the puppy took the trip like a champ, and the dry, rugged mountainside was breathtaking at every glance. So after a few days of fun, we headed north to Great Falls to see my aunt (don’t say “ant”) and uncle, Dave and Colleen, who pretty much wrote the handbook for fun, adventure and travel as a married couple. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot stays at their place when he’s in town (I’m not good at envy, but this gets my shoulder blades creeping up like Gargamel).
Dave tells me we’re going to see some live music, a kind of cover band on a Wednesday night he’s glad we’ll see. I talk to my dad on the phone back in Minnesota, and he says: Are you going to the Sip N Dip? You’ll write a story about that.
I do not write stories about bars, I think to myself.
Enter the Great Falls Sip N Dip Lounge and try not to realize that there is a really, really terrific story there, I dare you. It is a small bar, which reminds me of home, attached to a hotel with a pool that becomes move evident when you see, behind the bar, the huge glass window that is connected to the hotel pool and honest to God fitted with hotty young ladies in mermaid costumes, repeatedly swimming down to the glass to blow water kisses and wiggle into cute little poses for the patrons. The decor is admittedly kitschy, with wicker ceilings and fake plastic fruit light fixture molds and little sea horses emblazoned in the formica. But then, there is the seriousness of a legend, an icon, kicking it behind an organ/electric piano gig little spot, known as Piano Pat.
Pat has been doing this one-woman gig for about 47 years at the Sip N Dip; she croons through classics like Mack the Knife, Sweet Caroline, Pencil Thin Mustache, smooth as if their lyrics were burnt neon behind her eyes as she slept, as they surely are, after all this time. She holds up pages of music so frayed you can tell they’re propped there, half just-for-the-feel-of-them’s sake. And she plays Wednesday through Saturday nights till close, then still gets up on Sunday mornings to rock their worlds on the organ at church, too.
I’m not going to try too hard to further describe the wonders of Piano Pat -- it’s one of those things that you really have to experience yourself. But it does remind a person that really, being a star isn’t always about traveling to far-off places and oozing glamor and prestige at every moment. Sometimes, it’s about being dedicated, being hardworking and sticking to your guns, being the kind of person that people can really count on. For that, Piano Pat is both a fixture of Great Falls and a local legend, one that certainly carried that little bodega up the ranks of GQ’s standings.
The next day we headed back south, for one more stop in Helena before we made the long drive home (this time we took the North Dakota route, and I won’t bore you with stories like “The 12 hours I thought I was going to die in North Dakota,” but so you know, I’ve got some). On the way to Helena we stopped off to take some photos and get out of the car, after driving up a gravel road to get to a high spot for a view of the Holter Lake reservoir. It was there, looking out at the endless horizon that Chris and I decided we would spend our lives together. And on the way home, driving through mountains and across rivers and long stretches of wild open prairie, a new chapter in our lives began, one with two authors, two lives, two hearts pounding together as one.