I’ve always been attracted to bars. They pull at me the way a magnet pulls at steel. Perhaps it’s a personal weakness, but now is not the time to delve into that. In my travels, bars are often places of comfort, where I can have a drink and a conversation, or just a drink, depending on my mood.
It sounds odd to say, but one of the most memorable bars I’ve come across was one I never set foot in. I found it seven summers ago while exploring the South Dakota countryside east of Rapid City. It was on Main Street in Scenic, a town that exists only because the railroad passed through it a long time ago.
Whoever gave Scenic its name had a wry sense of humor if nothing else, because Scenic is anything but. It consists of the bar, a dance hall, a trading post, a gas station, an outdoor jail and a population of nine, most of them related to a former rodeo star named Twila Merrill, who, at the time I was there, owned the entire town. All of the buildings in Scenic except the gas station are made of weathered wood, and all of them, except the bar and the gas station, seemed to be rarely used. A virtual ghost town on the South Dakota plains, Scenic could be the setting for a Tarantino movie. It’s a place where strong winds bend the prairie grass sideways, and dust devils swirl in the dry fields. In your minds’ eye, images of Scenic are played back in black and white. Bad things could happen here.
Or maybe not. What attracted me most about Scenic, and the thing that put me in a conundrum, was the bar, the 100 year-old Longhorn Saloon. On the surface it looked like my kind of place, with its cow skull decor and a friendly attitude toward everyone, including Indians, who, according to the sign on the front facade were “allowed”. I wondered why such a public declaration of this admittance policy was necessary, and I hoped the reasons for it were bygone history.
But experience is the best teacher, and I’ve learned a man can get into some real trouble in bars of a certain kind. Like those that cater to a rougher crowd than I’m comfortable with. Or those frequented by local folks not always trusting of outsiders. I’ve even been in a few where it felt like the clientele just didn’t like my face. I’ve become more circumspect where bars are concerned, and my instincts told me the Longhorn Saloon was one that should be approached with caution.
So I parked across the road and mulled the pros and cons of going in. On the plus side was the promise of ice cold beer and an eclectic interior that might possibly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The cons had me getting pummeled with the business end of a broken pool cue. No telling what kind of foul mood the patrons might be in at four o’clock on a weekday afternoon. There were three motorcycles parked out front, but they looked new and expensive, so they could have belonged to some real estate agents and a dentist sharing an alter-ego day. On the other hand, Sturgis was not far away. The annual Bike Week gathering had ended just a few days before, and there had been some trouble. Who’s to say these guys weren’t three bad-ass bikers who had been right in the thick of it.
While I was trying to decide, the screen door of the bar flew open and a gentleman of Native American heritage came staggering through it. He was a small man, slender and dark with long, straight hair. Shocked by the daylight, he put his hand up to shield his eyes, much like his ancestors Crazy Horse and Red Cloud might have done 150 years ago, when they scanned these same vast plains from the backs of their war ponies. Something told me the image those two men presented was infinitely more noble than the one I was watching.
After his eyes adjusted to the light, the man took a few wobbly steps to the building next door, and there he urinated on the wall. Once relieved, he gathered himself together and stumbled back inside the bar, the screen door banging shut behind him. “Great jumping Jesus,” I thought, “what other forms of human depravity could be lurking inside that place.” The whole unsavory incident went in the column with the cons, and that was that. My decision was made. I snapped a photo of the place, then I started my car and drove, thirsty and disappointed, back to Rapid City.
Looking back, I know I made the wrong decision. Recently I saw a photograph of the inside of the Longhorn Saloon. The caption said, “Coolest Bar in the World.” Not the coolest bar in South Dakota, or even in America, but coolest in the world. “This is wonderful,” I said to no one. “Now I have to live with the fact that I drove away from the coolest bar IN THE WHOLE DAMN WORLD.” And I realized then that the figurative punch in the face I got from reading that five word caption was worse than anything that waited for me on the other side of the Longhorns’ screen door. Well, almost anything.
We get one shot at most things in this life. Waver too long and your ship will sail. And so it was with me and the Longhorn Saloon. The bar is closed now. It’s been sold, along with the rest of Scenic, to a church headquartered in the Philippines. I missed my only chance. I have an incomplete story and a photograph to show for it, and if you ask me today, I’ll tell you that it’s not enough.