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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Road trip — there and gone

Inside the Sourdough Saloon, Beatty, Nevada. —
Inside the Sourdough Saloon, Beatty, Nevada. — Russell Wangersky/SaltWire Network

As you come into Beatty, Nevada, from the north on the I-95, the hills rise up as if, ahead of you, they are cradling something important. (This, by the way, is another in a loose series of travel pieces to distract from weightier topics just right now.)

Beatty’s set into a little bowl of age-rounded, red- and rust-coloured mountains, and there’s obviously some water around — in this case, the headwaters of the Amargosa River.

After a cattle-grate crosses the highway, there are suddenly trees: poplars, to be precise.

It’s a quiet town of about 800 that’s 100 miles or so north of Las Vegas. Small enough to basically be a main street surrounded by a supporting cast of side street houses and trailers — small enough that, on the nighttime front deck of the Atomic Inn, you can watch a small multi-generational herd of burros (from grey-muzzled oldsters right down to fuzzy youngsters) bray their way down the street, owning the road like a teen gang.

Think of it like focusing in from a satellite: here’s Nevada first, then zoom in to that surrounding cup of mountains, then to Beatty itself, then to the Atomic Inn, a family-run hotel business with — wait for it — an alien theme. Like space aliens, I mean.

But this is all really to get you to the nearby Sourdough Saloon.On the outside, it’s greying barn boards, opaque glass block windows, and one ordinary but mostly covered window where I glimpsed a tattooed arm holding a pool cue, an arm that I later discovered belong to another person named Russell. (As a Russell myself, I know we are relatively rare.)

Get there on a pool tournament night if you can — it will be busy, noisy and familiar.

The ceiling’s covered with $1 bills, signed with Sharpies and then stapled in place, between over a thousand of them, and on the walls, too.

On our side of the bar was a small family of Dutch tourists in town to visit the nearby Death Valley. There’s Bill the bartender and a potter from California, halfway home after dropping off a load of his work for sale. On the other side of the bar, there’s a beer menu of a unique kind: a wooden grid of five rows of 20 different bottles of beer. With one space in the grid empty. If you haven’t gotten it yet, it’s 99 bottles of beer. On the wall.

The ceiling’s covered with $1 bills, signed with Sharpies and then stapled in place, between over a thousand of them, and on the walls, too.

One of the guys from the pool tournament originally came from Hawaii and tells us that three times — Bill the bartender served in Iraq, where he ran a commissary and bar and made a fine return when German troops cycled out and he inherited a “sea can” (shipping container) of German beer. The potter gets handed a guitar that’s behind the bar, and he can really play.

I get a pizza for dinner but it’s huge when it arrives instead of one-person sized, but Bill says he got the order right, the kitchen didn’t, so I’m only paying for the smaller size. A beer, a beer, another — Leslie’s vodka sodas are wickedly strong, the “American pour” no measured ounce and a half. We play pool later, and everyone left in the bar was literally draped around us, like we’d been there for years.

I was still eating leftover pizza the next day as we hit the road south for the airport in Phoenix.

Just a gang of strangers, becoming a loose sort of friends on a single raucous Thursday night in dusty Beatty — where, it turns out, the mountains are actually cradling something important.

Don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.


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