According to perhaps the sole taxi driver in Livingston, Montana—a white-haired woman driving a beat-up brown Buick, who claims to have been Wolfman Jack’s personal assistant—Robert Redford ruined Montana. He was the one who made the Academy Award-winning A River Runs Through It, about two brothers coming-of-age in Big Sky country, the film that, according to her, brought tourists and tackiness to the area and drove up rental rates.
Rivers—or, at the very least, creeks/streams—seem to run through a lot of Montana. There’s the one running through Pine Creek Lodge fifteen minutes south of Livingston, where a Pink Floyd cover band (Pinky and the Floyd) will play to a crowd of hundreds. There’s the Yellowstone River running under the overpass. And in nearby Bozeman, at what my road-tripping companion Cora and I agree is the best college bar in America, there is a stream running through the middle of Bar IX’s back patio.
But Bar IX isn’t the best college bar in America because of the aesthetic beauty of a river running alongside inebriated Montana State co-eds (although it doesn’t hurt). It’s more that, on Thursday nights, the place serves mixed drinks in those clear plastic Bud Light pitchers for $15 a pop. In my twenty-five years of life I have not seen a more perfectly designed vessel for getting groups of fresh-faced college kids drunk—and I went to school in New Orleans. There are the big black straws that make it perfect for sharing; not to mention they are lightweight, indestructible and easy to enjoy mid-dance-move. Later, a tall dude in a blindingly white cap uses his pitcher of Tequila Sunrise to court a jiving Cora—yes, of course, Usher was playing, as it should be, as it should always be—who happened to be in his vicinity. The buckets, as they’re called, are more than a good drink and a good deal—they are an invitation to debauchery, the catalyst for a textbook dance-floor-makeout.
There’s a simplicity at work here, buckets and otherwise. Red solo cups are used at the bar out back. The bartenders wear what might, at best, be described as lifeguard-chic, and at worst, bathing suits with jean shorts. The dudes in the bathroom mumble something to me about the inane hilarity of us both drinking Coors Lights in the bathroom. The DJ looks like he just won a Madden ’17 tournament from his mom’s basement.There are pool tables, a taco truck outside. It’s not too crowded, but it’s crowded. Like Cora’s Bozeman bro, everyone wears caps—plain, curved-brim baseball caps—and t shirts, cargo shorts, gym shoes.
The best college bars are always this simple. Their only aesthetic is—and should be —dim lighting, a raunchy dance floor, the worst pop music and cheap drinks that get you drunk. They are also timeless, a vacuum embodied by Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused: “I get older, they stay the same age.” Bar IX has all this in spades, with the added benefit that Montana itself—its Americana fashions, the hard-working genteel manners of its people, the jocular men’s room conversation — seems, at least to me, pretty timeless. I mean, fuck, Bar IX is literally on Main Street, and Main Street is the actual main street in Bozeman. As in, here is where you’re going if you’re going out in Bozeman.
By roughly 1 AM, I’m sipping my fourth tequila soda and watching Cora dance with Bozeman bro. He’s wearing her pink backpack, and has already asked if there’s molly in there (spoiler: there’s not). I’m thinking—not too cogently—about Robert Redford. Sure, he may’ve ruined Montana for some, but maybe he also changed it for the better. Sometimes the best and the worst is all bundled together in one convenient package. Bar IX is like that too: A place where I can both get hit in the face—literally, by a girl’s ass as she gets low on a thin slice of raised stage replete with a ballet barre-cum-steel pipe for extra grip/dance potential—and where I can sit outside with a beer and watch a river spool out into the beautiful Montana night.
Standing alone at Bar IX before the lights go up, I am having a good time, even as I am, assuredly, not having a good time. What could be more college than that?