We left Buffalo, Wyoming early the next morning after dining in the breakfast tent on a hearty helping of biscuits and gravy with eggs and coffee. In the parking lot, we pulled on sweaters in the cold Wyoming morning and planned the best route from here to Bozeman, Montana. After deciding on the interstate, we were interrupted by a pleasant man who appeared behind the van.
“What year’s your Westy?” he asked, grinning.
This is the cool thing about driving a Westy: the van itself is a conversation piece. Other Westy owners will honk at you on the interstate or strike up conversations in parking lots to compare bodies, years, and engine types.
“Yeah, I have the Syncro,” the man was saying. “Just put in a new Subie engine. It’s good! I passed someone once!”
He was a surgeon, it turned out, so he could afford to splash some cash on a good engine. He asked where we were headed and eagerly encouraged us to abandon the flat interstate for a more scenic route through the Big Horn Mountains.
“Just drove through there the other day. Beautiful. The wildflowers up there are incredible,” he told us, insisting that our van wouldn’t have trouble with the altitude and the hills. Up for anything, we got directions and headed north.
The surgeon was right. The Big Horns steered us off the red expanses of Wyoming and up into lush, green forests and grassy roadsides studded with swaying wildflowers in bright yellow, fuchsia, purple, and white.
We contemplated stopping to see a medicine wheel, but decided that if we wanted to make it Bozeman, we’d need to make good time. It didn’t help that we hadn’t slept much the night before, and we were keen on actually getting some rest tonight.
The Big Horns are part of a National Forest, which means that you can camp for free. We toyed with the idea of staying up there and camping, pushing Bozeman back a day, but our failure to stop at a grocery store meant we’d be going hungry for a night.
Back on the road, we decided it was time to inquire about an open mic in Bozeman. I’d emailed a bar called Haufbrau a few months ago, and the manager had replied enthusiastically, telling us to call the bar in advance to book a slot. It was Sunday, and we had no idea when their open mic actually was.
Once we’d crossed the border into Montana, Laura rang the bar and found that tonight was, in fact, open mic night. (Pause to marvel at the fortuities.)
“They have 20-minute slots!” she told me excitedly, waiting to speak to the manager. “He says we’re 7 out of 8. So…we’d be going on at midnight.”
“Early night, or open mic?”
Open mic it was.
Laura had a friend in Bozeman, a guy she used to live with in Hawaii who’d recently moved to town with his girlfriend. We pulled into their driveway after an hour of driving through an unfortunate rainstorm that blotted out Montana’s famously big blue sky.
Ian and Tess were quick to welcome us into their warm house and introduce us to their tiny dog, Emma, an energetic Aussie shepherd. While Laura showered, I sipped Moscow Mules and learned about Tess’ job as a conservationist working in national parks in the area. She talked eagerly about how awesome Yellowstone is, but even better, how awesome the Tetons were.
“You have to camp in the Tetons,” she told me. “They’re beautiful and not as crowded as Yellowstone.”
And this was the joy of traveling without a plan: we could camp in the Tetons if we wanted to.
I had a hot shower and got ready to go. Laura and I hadn’t actually practiced, with the exception of some parking lot strumming the night before, so we ran through our set list while Ian and Tess got ready for bed.
Ian drove us to the Haufbrau at 11:15. We figured we’d get there a little early for our set and enjoy a few beers while waiting and maybe scope out the crowd. The bar itself was unremarkable, a little dive in a college town. Outside the entrance, a small cluster of 20-somethings huddled away from the rain, smoking cigarettes.
“You playing?” one of them asked as we hefted the guitar past.
“Awesome. There’s a band on now that’s been playing for a while. Please rescue the drummer!”
We said we would, and pulled open the door. Indeed, a 3-person band was jamming out on stage to a crowd of about 5 people, one of whom appeared highly intoxicated. We ordered drinks and located the man running the show, an older guy with scraggly hair and a crumpled sign-up sheet in his hands whom I’ll refer to as Michael.
“Oh, great!” he exclaimed. “Yeah, no one showed up for open mic. You guys are more than welcome to play after they’re done. Maybe two more songs?”
I glimpsed the list in his hand and saw all the performers crossed off, including our names.
“Yeah, since no one showed up we asked if anyone else was here. Sorry about that. But hey! This is awesome!”
The band finished out their set, a raucous rock ‘n roll jam session that set a slightly awkward precedent for the mellow folk music Laura and I were about to play. Michael set us up on the stage and we asked a kind man at the bar to record a song or two.
“This is awesome!” he said, getting his phone ready. “What are the odds? I was on my way home and thought I’d pop in for a drink on my own, and I run into you guys!”
I’m not sure why he was so excited. I think he thought we were a famous traveling act or something.
Michael gave us the thumbs up and Laura took over.
From the bar, the drunk patron slurred, “Kiss!”
Billiards balls clacked from the pool table. The stranger recording our songs gave us an excited thumbs up. Undeterred, we launched into our first song.
After, Michael and the stranger clapped enthusiastically. The billiards players gave a weak applause and the drunk patron, who’d spent the entire song slumped over the bar, startled himself awake, looked around, and shouted, “When are you gonna wrestle!?”
In a gritty, cinematic sense, it felt like a scene out of a movie. I half-expected Mark Ruffalo to stagger out of the bathroom and sign us to his record label.
As we plowed through our set, Michael joined us on drums and filled out the music. For people who hadn’t practiced or played together in a year, we sounded pretty darn good, and Michael was a solid drummer.
“What are the odds the organizer is also a drummer?” Laura asked later, as we reflected again on our luck.
Even luckier, the kind stranger at the bar, whose name was Chris, recorded our entire set. Thanks to him and his sturdy hands, I finally have recordings of our set.
Toward the end, a few other customers trickled in and listened. We were buzzing from the adrenaline and joy of playing together again, so we stuck around and roped Chris and a girl at the bar – Erica, who’d given us quarters to play pool after overhearing us complaining again about our lack of money – into a game of doubles.
Other musicians took the stage and bought us celebratory shots. At around 2am, the bar closed down, and all of us were shuffled out to the parking lot together. Laura called us a cab and some of the other guys smoked cigarettes. We were all buzzing with the energy that comes from expecting nothing out of an evening and surprisingly finding a good time. I broke out the guitar and we all sang “What I Got” until the cab showed up to whisk Laura and me back to Ian’s house.
It was after 3am by the time we got to bed. So much for that early night.