September was cold in the Montana mountains, and we’d just enjoyed an afternoon soak in the hot springs at White Sulphur Springs. We debated spending the night. After all, it was hunting season, and there was live music at the local hangout. There were a few other things to poke into around town, too, including a mansion built by one of the Ringling Brothers, of circus fame. On the other hand, there was enough light left to enjoy the King’s Hill Scenic Byway through the Lewis & Clark National Forest.
Besides, it was Thursday night, and there were mermaids in Great Falls.
The byway was sprinkled with small national forest campgrounds, and as we pulled through a couple of them, mostly deserted and mostly strung along small mountain streams, we again considered just pulling off for the night. Frankly, I was for it, but Tom was determined to see the mermaids, even if it meant night driving in the mountains. Sure enough, it was plenty dark when we arrived in Great Falls, and the lights of the big refinery there lit up the horizon.
The O’Haire Motor Inn was built almost fifty years ago during the heyday of motor vacations. It features a casino, an enclosed parking garage, a restaurant called Clark & Lewie’s, and, most importantly, the Sip ’n’ Dip Lounge. There was a time in the fifties and sixties when tiki bars were all the rage. Some still survive, and as you travel around North America, we encourage you to visit one for a bit of kitschy nostalgia. The Sip ’n’ Dip is one of these. Things were buzzing when we arrived, and we counted ourselves lucky to find two seats at the bar.
A gregarious bartender immediately greeted us and informed us that we looked like we could use a fishbowl. The signature tropical drink was soon in front of us, yes, in a fishbowl (yours to take home) and sporting two straws. While we waited for fish tacos, we visited with our neighbors at the bar. On one side were two bikers from Jasper. Alberta making their way south on a long weekend fall ride. On the other was the morning news anchor from the public radio station in Valdez, Alaska.
I immediately chatted up the Canadians about the best route and things to see between here and Jasper, and Patti found out from Karen the news anchor just why there was so much excitement. Over in the corner, surrounded by a crowd of barroom singers, sat Pat Spoonheim at the keyboard. Piano Pat has been tickling the ivories in this room since the bar opened in 1969, and tonight the New York Times was in town for an interview and photos.
And let’s not forget the mermaids. Tonight there were two of them, swimming on the other side of tall glass windows behind the bar. Up and down they cruised, blowing bubbly kisses to patrons and posing for pictures. The bartender told us mermaids are surprisingly hard to find, and both of these would be graduating from high school soon and swimming off somewhere else. I wasn’t surprised. After all, these were the only ones I’d ever seen except the ones at Weeki Wachee Spring in Florida.
Going out to a bar is not one of our regular travel activities, but we agreed, as we settled down to sleep in a parking lot a few blocks away, that festive atmosphere and easy conversation had made this one of the absolute highlights in our years of traveling.
So, you can click through to the New York Times article linked below and see us, sitting there with the mermaids, or just maybe you can find an empty bar stool yourself, somewhere off the beaten path.