By Micah Hanks
It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: a journalist, a Bluegrass singer, and a Presbyterian minister walk into a bar; but sadly, there’s no punch line to this strange set of circumstances.
It was in the summer of 2006 while visiting the great state of Montana that I was taken to one of the strangest Tiki bars I’ve ever visited. Nestled in the mountain town of Great Falls at an altitude of about 5,000 feet, my comrade Tom Godleski and I were taken by our guide, Pastor Tim, to The Sip-N-Dip Lounge.
Few bars have any real claim to fame; the Sip-N-Dip, on the other hand, has several. With an illuminated swim tank visible through reinforced glass windows behind the bar, beautiful gals dressed as mermaids swim around and interact with the bartenders on weekends. In fact, after her success appearing alongside Tom Hanks in Ron Howard’s 1984 flick Splash, Darryl Hannah even donned a mermaid costume and swam around in the tank during a visit to the famous watering hole.
Keep in mind that when I say famous, I mean famous. In its April 2003 issue, GQ Magazine voted the Sip-N-Dip Lounge as the “Number One Bar on Earth.” ‘Nuff said!
It was approximately 10:30 PM Mountain Time the night Tom, the Reverend, and I arrived. Tropical music played in the background—a swift departure from the sort of music the bar features Wednesday through Saturday nights, where local favorite “Piano Pat” performs (who, as I understand it, has performed at the lounge on this schedule for close to thirty years).
We shuffled in, led by our fearless host. Pastor Tim wasn’t the kind of guy to kid around; six and a half feet tall, sporting a long ponytail, tie-dye shirt and hiking boots cut for the extreme terrain of the Rockies, the benevolent giant was well known in the area, and received salutes from every direction as he led us through his town. Entering the lounge, we found the place almost empty; must have been a Tuesday… but damned if I can remember, since the high altitude there can have strange, horrific effects on one’s perception.
Tom and I straddled a couple of barstools and asked what the house specials looked like. The bartender, a short, friendly guy in his forties, slid a colorful yellow and pink concoction garnished with pineapples and cherries down the bar towards me. The aroma alone commanded a salty breeze the likes of a Tahiti Pelican Blast (don’t ever ask what that is unless you’re in good company. The island locals will just laugh and pretend they didn’t hear you anyhow). Tom, not daring enough to try the tropics on his first round, instead ordered a popular local favorite, the “Moose Drool Porter.” I have to admit that, in spite of its name, this is a deliciously malty brew.
As we sat with the Pastor, who also partook in the gamey hometown porter, he explained some of the local traditions to us. “It’s a shame Piano Pat isn’t here, because she loves to share CDs with musicians that come out this way.” A shame indeed; the bartender clued us in on some of the maestro’s blazing renditions of favorites like “Margaritaville,” “Ring of Fire” and others… yes, so many others. Fortunately, a bartering agreement was arranged with the bartender in her absence, and my associate Tom, who always carries half a dozen copies of his farm-bred Southern Appalachian Bluegrass someplace on his person managed to make an exchange.
After the mystery Mai Tai and a couple rounds of Moose Drool, we began to remember the strange, counter-sobering affects the altitude out west has on outsiders, and we decided to call it a night. The Pastor led us back out into his car, and shuttled the Buncombe balladeer and I back to our hotel, where I crawled upstairs into a bed adjacent to that of my attorney, who lay sprawled out on the opposite side of the room sporting a sleep pap machine that hummed consistently. I slipped on headphones, cranked Hank Williams as loud as it would go, and drifted off into a strange sleep peppered with visions of Montanese Moose and mermaids.
Weird stuff indeed, my friends.
The trip south to our next destination was a no-less strange. As I watched the empty plains of Montana sprawl outward, grappling with the horizon over mesas that jutted from the prairie like massive stacks of Montanese flapjacks, Tom decided to put in the Piano Pat album. My dizziness from the bumpy prairie backroads became a swirling seasickness, and suddenly I heard Pat’s squeaky voice sing, “Some people claim, there’s a woman to blame… but I know, it’s my own damned fault!” Suddenly, Dr. Thompson’s words entered my mind:
“BOOM. Flashing paranoia. What kind of a rat-bastard psychotic would play that song—right now, at this moment?”
It was a long ride back to Hamilton, and what seemed like an even longer ride back to the airport. Montana is beautiful country, filled with beautiful people and beautiful places. But none, perhaps, quite as magical as that strange little Sip-N-Dip Lounge. I’ve vowed to return there… with or without my attorney, and find out what was in that confounded Tuesday Night Special… and this time, any bartering with Piano Pat will be done in person! I hope she takes requests… if anything, it will have to be “Gonzo” by James Booker. A fitting theme song for “the greatest bar on Earth,” and a place where calamity and creativity collide to create the most oddly comfortable place this side of the cosmos.