Livingston features trains, wind and trout
By Paul Bruun, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: October 17, 2012
Traveling through Montana in October is a gamble in which the odds are heavily weighted against the players. Over 40 years of fall visits allow me to predict: If snow doesn’t get you, the wind will.
Perched along the Yellowstone River, the town of Livingston especially deals from the bottom of the weather deck. This frontierish Park County seat and outpost remains somewhat faithful to the grimy Northern Pacific Railroad-based maintenance headquarters that first breathed everlasting life into it. The mountainscape surrounding Paradise Valley, while ruggedly attractive to ranching, recreating and cultivating a batch of pricey summer homes, continually generates a wicked wind multiplier effect.
Livingston’s best breezes rank competetively with Wyoming’s average I-80 “Ho Chi Wind Trail” and even Tierra del Fuego. Screaming wind is Livingston’s biggest negative. Anglers who survive along the Livingston/Paradise Valley portion of the Yellowstone will qualify as casting pros anywhere. Fishing around Livingston has taught me more about outlasting brutal conditions than being stationed in North Dakota.
Old-time character intact
During a recent Yellowstone visit, new discoveries emerged. The first and easily most pleasant is that despite its proximity to the latest unstoppable Bozeman sprawl, at least parts of Livingston remain proudly dilapidated. Older vehicles and pickups with character abound. Dominant commercial buildings along Park Street that front the historic NPR Depot are empty and probably will remain that way for a long time. The once-proud Livingston Bar and Grill marquee stays lit, but its bar activity is minimal. Any trace of its once formidable dining is invisible. Wilcoxson’s Ice Cream Co. (don’t miss a scoop of Moose Tracks) still survives. Right down the street, as in most every other Montana settlement, the Mint Bar opens early enough for working folks. Sax & Fryer is still a warm and friendly book store with varietal insight into Livingston’s litany of king-size author/characters such as McGuane, Brautigan, Harrison, Hjortsberg, Cahill, Hiaasen and Chatham.
It was the promise of fall brown- trout fishing on the Yellowstone River that sidetracked me during the late 1960s into Livingston from my prized haunts of Pinedale, Dubois and West Yellowstone, Mont. One of my favorite outdoor writers, Charlie Waterman, encouraged my first visit. Charlie and his wife, Debie, wintered in Deland, Fla., and lived in Livingston during summer and fall. Ultimately, Charlie handed me off to Ray Hurley, another once-in-a-lifetime fishing-guide character who, until his death in 1990, devoted himself to educating me about Livingston, Western trout fishing and guiding.
Through Hurley I became familiar with Livingston legend Dan Bailey and a new collection of fishy folks, including top-ranked guides such as Don Williams and Chester Marion. Rarely would a Hurley fall brown-trout quest not begin with a quick turn through Bailey’s fly shop on the way to Martin’s Cafe just off the railroad tracks or the nearby Murray Hotel for breakfast.
Then came seven or eight hours of withstanding the predictably furious wind, wading on greasy bowling-ball-size rocks and enduring a continuously sore right shoulder from whipping a 10-weight rod and weighty shooting head across Yellowstone River whitecaps. The entire event was delightful.
Returns to the windy environs of greater Park County were minimal after Ray died. On several occasions, there were quick visits with Jim Hurley, Ray and Elizabeth’s son. One included a somber float from Carter’s Bridge to the Hurley house across from Ninth Street Island and a brief stop in the Whorehouse Pool where friends spread Ray’s ashes. As usual, it was a cold, windy day laced with drizzle. Magically, the sun broke through and warmth enveloped me for a few minutes as I floated into one of Ray’s favorite fall streamer casting venues.
Until the past weekend, my last Livingston visit was for Elizabeth Hurley’s memorial. The morning after coincided with the horror of 9/11, which Jim and I watched unfold at the Old Saloon in the tiny former mining community of Emigrant, in Paradise Valley.
Rick Wollum, a well-traveled and longtime friend, invited Jean and me for a Livingston reunion. Rick was a many-year “guest guide” for the Jackson Hole One Fly and currently works with Matson Roger’s Anglers West Flyshop (MontanaFlyFishers.com) in Emigrant. Before moving to Montana, Matson and his family lived in Jackson. He guided for Bressler Outfitters before its transition to World Cast Anglers.
In addition to helping us explore varied sections of the Yellowstone River, Rick facilitated several meetings with other exceptional past Jackson residents. The first was Doug McKnight, a former Pennsylvania outdoorsman whose love affair with the West continues thanks to his industrious and talented pursuit of a fly-tying, art and guiding career. Doug departed his job at Jack Dennis Sports for Montana a few years back. A recent article about his innovative multimaterial Home Invader streamer pattern in Fly Fisherman magazine vaulted Doug into the big-trout-chaser limelight. Check out his many creative, custom-tied fly patterns as well as his framed antique Atlantic salmon flies and other artwork at BigWaterStudio.com.
Nice surprise: good food
Over relleno-piled plates in Fiesta En Jalisco, another Jackson mystery guest paid us a visit. Tim “Will” Williams is a policeman in Livingston after experiencing a job buffet ranging from construction, remodeling, guiding and teaching. This Jackson native — a standout athlete and son of the late Broncs industrial arts teacher, track and football coach Lynn “Burr” Williams — is truly making a difference as the school resource officer. The always enthusiastic Tim outlined many areas where trained police personnel make huge contributions to students and institutions facing difficult modern situations. Tim’s outline of his job and goals delivered an immediate feel-good about an often-unmentioned ingredient of current education.
A float from Carter’s Bridge to town Thursday featured rain and relentless bone-chilling north winds that tarnished wistful pleasant memories of Livingston. That experience paled in comparison with discovering country-style Brussels sprouts prepared in bacon at Montana’s Rib & Chop House and duck confit-assisted cassoulet and a lamb ragu on Brian Menges’ 2nd Street Bistro menu in the shined-up Murray Hotel. No longer, I fret, can my analysis of Montana being the place where food goes to die be applied in Livingston.
Menges, a former Jackson Hole Four Seasons Resort kitchen operative who is now executive chef and general manager of the expanding Murray Hotel enterprises, invited us to the Saturday opening morning breakfast at Gil’s Goods, adjacent to Dan Bailey’s famous fly shop. Gil’s Got It, a former gift, souvenir and gadget shop of the highest order, is now a rustic garagelike dining facility (complete with roll-up door) featuring a new bakery/deli and high-octane coffee house. Although Menges calls the Denver area home, somehow he managed to recognize that house-cured pancetta and white cheddar grits are splendid breakfast additions in southwest Montana.
Several in-store visits with John Bailey that elaborated on the Wall Of Fame, historic flies, his father’s migration to Livingston in the early 1930s and the latest gear updates completed a fine Livingston visit.
Afterward, I was left with a colorful vision of Bailey’s early regulars — such as Don Williams, Chester Marion, Charlie Waterman, Joe Brooks, Ray Hurley, Lee Wulff, Red Monical, Fred Terwilliger and Ray Donnersberger — sitting around Gil’s Goods sipping double mocha lattes.
Perhaps they’d echo what a Rick Wollum pal reports about Bozeman: “My wife likes it here because in 10 minutes she can be in Montana!”
Paul Bruun writes weekly on his adventures and misadventures in the great outdoors.