A classic downtown, a pristine river, and galleries galore await you.
I live in a town of 7,300 at the head of a valley named Paradise in southwestern Montana, just an hour north of a world-renowned natural wonder. "Yellowstone National Park—gateway to Livingston" is the town's unofficial motto, and that sidelong boast might be grating if it weren't in part true.
The park claims geysers and bison and wolves and waterfalls—all spectacular. But Livingston is full of exceptional people, and it seems most excel at some kind of art. I know sculptors, boatbuilders, flytiers, novelists, wood carvers, painters, furniture makers, photographers, movie stars, river guides, chefs, and lithographers.
Take my landlord, John Bailey, perhaps the world's most famous fly fisherman. His dad started Dan Bailey's Fly Shop in 1938 and it's still a going concern. If you've ever watched Bailey lay a perfectly arched 50-foot line over a pod of rising trout, you know he's an artist with the rest of them. As an adviser on Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It, he helped edit the fishing scenes and taught the cast to cast.
"Nowhere—and I mean nowhere—has the tremendous variety of water we have in Livingston," says Bailey, who has hooked fish from Bhutan to Belize. "Right out our back door we have spring creeks, mountain streams like Mill Creek, big rivers like the Yellowstone—where I fish year round. I've never been anywhere in the world that would take me away from here."
We are ambling together through the Federation of Fly Fishers Fly Fishing Discovery Center on the second floor of the former Lincoln School, where Bailey attended junior high. The center, which is both a school for anglers and a kind of museum, has aquariums with bass, a sturgeon, and cutthroat trout, and rooms filled with rods, reels, and thousands of meticulously hand-tied flies. Floors above and below teem with artists' studios, among them those of Time magazine photographer William Campbell and video journalist Randi Jacobsen, whose credits include Oprah, The Today Show, and Dr. Phil.
"This isn't small-town America," says Bailey, gazing at an antique pheasanttail nymph tied with copper wire by Frank Sawyer, the fly's originator. "Most small towns, you have to act a certain way. Here, there are a lot of black sheep. Always have been."
Among all of those is writer Maggie McGuane, daughter of actress Margot Kidder and novelist Thomas McGuane, both local fixtures. Curled up with a cup of tea on a sofa at Chadz—a breakfast and lunch joint strewn with retro furniture—McGuane winces at mention of barbs flung at her by bloggers after Vogue magazine ran her anguished essay about her boyfriend's son's decision to join the National Guard. "How cool is it that downtown is still the heart of the community?" she asks.
As McGuane peers down Main Street toward the snowy Absaroka Range, Chad Petrulis, the restaurant's owner, pulls out a bullhorn and blares, "Order No. 17, your Scramwich is ready." (Eggs, veggies, ham, and cheese on toast—I've had it and it's good.)
Another of McGuane's haunts is the Pine Creek Café, in a 1946 log cabin near town. The café serves Mexican- American dishes and hosts a local writers' lecture series through May. You might also find her—alongside fishing guides, farriers, and screenwriters tugging Labrador retrievers and red wagons full of kids—at Sacajawea Park on the Yellowstone River, site of a busy farmers' market on Wednesdays. That is, when the weather turns warm.
In the cold months, most folks hole up and get stuff done, says graphic artist Lynn Weaver. She created Artsmontana.com, a deep Web site on which she posts every book reading, music date, art show, and opening in Park County—and lists artists and their galleries, too.
"What I love about this town is that it absolutely embraces gifted amateurs," Weaver says, citing landscape painter Russell Chatham, who moved here from California in 1972. "Go see his shop or check out his lithographs at Russellchatham.com," she says. "You don't have to come here with a degree of any kind. What you have to have is character and a connection to the place."
From among Livingston's dozen-plus galleries she singles out the Danforth, which shows works by emerging artists, and the Hayseed, tucked inside B. Civilized, a boutique selling abstract jewelry and sassy T-shirts. "We don't have an art scene that's pandering to a commercial what-the-tourists-will-buy type of market," she says. "You don't see many stereotypical elk paintings." Hung on the wall behind her are vibrant landscapes by painter Edd Enders, whose urgent brushstrokes and vivid palette recall van Gogh's.
What if you're not really into art? Weaver suggests an evening show. "I am so impressed with the quality of the productions," she says, naming the town's venues: Blue Slipper Theatre, a tiny downtown playhouse where if you sit in the front row your knees touch the stage, and Firehouse 5 Theatre, known for rousing musicals and comedies. "I'm not just saying that to be a good neighbor," Weaver says. "I've lived in metropolitan areas with exceptional theaters, but I prefer my culture homegrown. I want it to involve people I know."
That culture is not too hard to find. There's 93-yearold retired brakeman Warren McGee, who lives across the street from Weaver and is the proud namesake of the Yellowstone Gateway Museum's railroad gallery, one of 10 historical exhibit rooms in the three-story former grammar school. And John Fryer, whose grandfather started a book and office supply store called Sax & Fryer that's still going strong—a virtual museum with creaky wooden floors, a basement full of antique saddles, and stacks of books by local authors including Tim Cahill, Jim Harrison, Thomas McNamee, and Maryanne Vollers.
And then there's Parks Reece, the painter and gallery owner whose popular print After the Spawn depicts two trout with lighted cigarettes dangling from their lips. Reece's advice for visitors? Hold onto your hats in the unrelenting wind. "This is a relaxed, freewheeling place," he says. "You can walk down Main Street, hit the river, and be practically in wilderness in a few blocks. And you just never know who you're going to run into."
Photography by Lynn Donaldson
This article was first published in March 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.