Toby Thompson And Ken McCullough Reflect On December In The New Atlas Bar

Dec 30, 2016

"In my youth, I was restless enough to have spent four years on the road searching for the Great American Bar," writes Livingston, MT teacher and author, Toby Thompson.  "I often visited thirty a day, learning in my travels that the mountain West– specifically Montana–held more saloons than any other region.

This was my drill: I studied the facade and structure of a strange bar to decide whether I might find comfort there, and risk a step inside.  I examined the bar’s exterior within its geographical setting.  A good bar requires a strong form to isolate chaos.  A great bar and its architecture are not unlike those crystal spheres that house make-believe snowstorms.  Snowstorms are the chaos.  And at that restless age, I wanted storms.  But the glass ball is needed to contain them.  Once inside, a strong interior keeps the chaos in check— worn, vintage furniture, dusty paintings, tattered pool tables and the carved front and back bars, which are like altar pieces in a Renaissance cathedral.

Back then, I shook the glass ball as hard as my mood dictated.  Or another something, faceless and edgy, shook it for me.

Now that I’m older, I thought saloons no longer held the same appeal.  But not long ago, on a snowy December evening, I stopped at the New Atlas saloon in Columbus, Montana.  It was a dark season of my life, heavy with loss and regret.  As I approached the mahogany bar, I saw lights hanging from antlers of mounted deer and from the carved entablature of the mirrored back bar.   A string band was completing its set.  I glanced toward a  figure beside me, but did not speak.  The band finished, and its leader stepped between us.  He called for a drink, nodded to each of us and began “Silent Night,” a ‘capella.  We joined him without hesitation or irony, and sang heartily--three disheveled angels in a forgotten town on a frigid night, singing just to stay alive.  At carol’s end we embraced, shared a round, then hiked toward the blizzard, Christmas in our hearts."

Poet Ken McCullough also found refuge and consolation in Columbus's  New Atlas Bar. From McCullough's book, Walking Backwards:

“Atlas Axis”
In the days before
interstate cappuccino
and llama ranch incursion
you'd stop here
before winding up
into westering hills
through a scrim of early snow.
It was your own
delerium tremens in waltz time.
Your conversation
was not so much
with the two-headed patrons
or the barkeep waxing at the tap
but with yourself
as you sat in buffalo coat
your cornucopia
of melancholy on the bar.
If you were sanguine
you'd last the night
and the old-timers
would put you on the clock--
if they suspected
a hidden agenda
you'd disappear into thinner air.
Times have changed now
but not the register--
the New Atlas
holding up the hills
with droll mahogany shoulders.

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 1/7/14, 1/8/14, 7/15/14, and 7/16/14, . Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)