MY ROMANCE WITH RED LODGE, MONTANA, started on a date with a guy who is now my husband. He lived there for only a year almost two decades ago, and during that time our courtship included hikes along Rock Creek, motorcycle cruises up the Beartooth Pass to “The Top of the World,” bomber ski runs at Red Lodge Mountain and one too many late nights at the Snow Creek Saloon. After a day spent outside in the elements, we’d belly up to the bar, then dance like amoeba with the locals before stumbling down Broadway to our gorgeous room in The Pollard Hotel. Back then the town was only slightly aware of its cachet as the perfect Western hamlet.
To me, Red Lodge is like a box of chocolates (Thank you, Forrest Gump!). Enrobed in a lively history that the good citizens have sweetened in the form of historic renovation along the main street, Red Lodge’s diverse business community provides a new flavor for every shop door opened.
Arguably the most classic chocolate in this proverbial box is The Pollard Hotel. Built by the Rocky Fork Coal Company in 1893, the meticulously restored hotel anchors Red Lodge’s historic downtown. Early guests included Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane and William Jennings Bryan. Today anyone can stay there, whether outlaw or politician. The restaurant, with its crisp tablecloths and plush passenger train car-inspired décor is delicious for dinner or Sunday brunch. But cocktails and a light meal in the pub accompanied by some music after a day of skiing is a casual second-best option.
One of many diverse businesses on Broadway is Red Lodge Books & Tea, where literary titles and luscious flavors meet.
Just across the street at Red Lodge Books and Tea, with flavors that range from literary to luscious, owner Gary Robson plays host to regional authors and a world-class selection of tea. Garbed in a dandy 10-gallon cowboy hat, Robson’s sundry interests (he is an award-winning children’s book author, horseman, cigar connoisseur and blue-ribbon chili cook) punctuate what makes this town interesting. Every Wednesday is game night, from Pictionary to Pinochle. Need I say more?
The boom-and-bust cycle is evident in the architecture of Red Lodge, from the classic brick façades on Broadway to the tiny “shotgun” clapboard miner’s shacks to the former digs of the painted ladies in the “Hi Bug District,” where bankers, lawyers, mining engineers, businessmen and ranchers left their mark. The mixture of European immigrants in the early days, when there were enough Italians and Scandinavians to dub a Little Italy and Finn Town within the settlement, enriched the area’s history. Valued by developers for coal mining, the town grew rapidly with the addition of the Northern Pacific Railroad branch line in 1889. From the 1880s to 1932, immigrants trooped into the remote town to work the mines; half the population was foreign-born.
Before that, of course, the Crow Nation considered the region part of its homeland. According to the Carbon County Historical Society, this is the territory of Chief Plenty Coups, and the town’s name is rooted in Crow lore. Local artist Kevin Red Star, who resides in nearby Roberts, can attest to that. His contemporary paintings of Crow symbolism are widely collected among art enthusiasts.
The bar at Bogart’s is rarely empty.
Though modern interests have replaced the Native American culture and Wild West days of Red Lodge, it’s that heritage that deepens the local color. All along Broadway contemporary boutiques speak to the creativity born of diverse beginnings. Meander down the street any time of year, but especially during the magical nights of the Christmas Stroll (Dec. 4 and 5, 2015) and you’ll find shopping that’s as glamorous as the square in Vail Village, Colorado. You’ll see everything for the kitchen at the Swanky Fork, the sumptuous design and housewares of Kibler & Kirch, and thoughtful gift items at The Glass Rabbit. When that proves exhausting, hop one block off Broadway for a pick-me-up of espresso at Babcock & Miles. Here, self-dubbed “merchants of the delectable” Karen and Andrew Porth have restored a historic hardware store building and transformed it into an outstanding shop where wine and other lovely specialty foods inevitably find a place in your shopping bag while you wait for your double, half-caf cappuccino.
Surrounding this flavorful little village all the while are the vast Beartooth Mountains. Infusing every aspect of life in Red Lodge, from the blasts of Arctic wind that gust across the steppes to the habitat for the ubiquitous flock of wild turkeys that waddle past the Yodeler Motel most evenings in winter, the Beartooths define this town. Providing unparalleled wilderness experiences and excellent trails for both Nordic and alpine skiers, the Beartooth terrain is what makes Red Lodge so remote (Highway 212 dead-ends just outside of town each October until May) and also so enticing.
Looking back at 20 years of winter getaways to Red Lodge, I realize it’s a rare place. Long a holiday and weekend retreat for the Billings urban set (just an hour to the east), it turns out that this community of roughly 2,200 souls is the ideal mix of glamour, grit and the great outdoors.
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