rough-and-tumble railroad town
Story By Amanda Fortini
Photography By Jesse Lenz, Duncan Wolf and Jon Levitt
"If you are here, you belong here. Period."
Livingston, Montana, population 7,000, has not become a hollowed-out husk of itself. It remains a bustling, vibrant, if decidedly eccentric, community. In Jubilee Hitchhiker, a biography of the counterculture novelist Richard Brautigan (who for many years called Livingston home), longtime resident William “Gatz” Hjortsberg described 1970s Livingston as “all Leave It to Beaver and John Wayne in Big Sky Country.” The current reality is slightly more complicated than that, but his words still apply. This is the rare American town where the dry-goods store—the essential, omphalic Sax & Fryer, founded at the same time as Livingston, in 1882—still employs a manual punch-button cash register from the 1920s; where you can count on running into almost everyone you know, including a few you wish you didn’t, at the weekly farmers’ market; where the annual 4th of July parade is the local Super Bowl, a don’t-miss, line-up-for-seats event. “No grander nor more satisfactory observance of the birthday of American Independence was ever witnessed in this section of Montana,” the Livingston Enterprise wrote of the 1897 parade (which took place on July 5). The sentiment holds true today.
I first visited Livingston five years ago, driving in from LA with the man who would eventually become my husband. It was love at first sight—I’m talking about the town as well as the guy. He told me his own conversion experience had occurred two decades earlier, in 1990, when he’d arrived to report on a cult, the Church Universal Triumphant (CUT), which had gathered near Livingston to ride out a supposedly impending apocalypse, and learned that he could buy a spacious craftsman house for $30,000. This is no longer possible, alas; real-estate prices started rising after the shooting of Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It in 1992, though housing is still far more affordable than in much of the rest of the country.
As we pulled onto Main Street around dusk that first night, I was enchanted by the rustic, throwback quality of Livingston, and by the profusion of lurid neon signs throughout the downtown business district. As I climbed the stairs to his building, an erstwhile boardinghouse built in the late 1800s, complete with room numbers and transoms over the doors, I knew that I was home. If you’d told me even a year earlier that I’d live in a scruffy mountain town where dogs are welcome in the bars and people stop their cars at busy intersections to talk out their windows about the weather, I would have scoffed. But you don’t know what you’ll like until you like it. Not long after that visit, I moved here.
Once I’d been here for a while, I realized that lot of townspeople have an origin myth about how they ended up in Livingston. Some came to visit a relative or friend and knew, just knew, that this was where they were supposed to be. Others drifted in when they were down on their luck: the town seemed small and manageable, but also big-hearted and free-spirited enough to allow for personal reinvention. Many stories involve driving across the country and discovering an unexpected sanctuary from the anxieties and troubles that grip the rest of the country. One artist friend stopped here on a midlife-crisis road trip. She’d divorced her husband, shuttered her advertising business in San Francisco, and hopped on a lover’s motorcycle. She’s still here. Similarly, a well-known bad-boy pop musician happened upon Livingston during a cross-country tour; when his ailing career needed the sort of rehab that could only come from dropping out of sight, Livingston was where he chose to disappear to.
Maybe that’s because the social contract here just isn’t the same as it is elsewhere, in this sanctuary for the wounded or weird. Geographic isolation accounts for some of the difference, but the essential spirit of the town is also one of absolute equality. Everyone recognizes that everyone else is a little bit of a badass for choosing to make a life here, at what can sometimes feel like the end of the Earth (especially in the winter, when the incessant wind keens like a person in mourning). If you are here, you belong here. Period. Only in Livingston’s reality does John Mayer turning up where Jim Harrison lives make utter, perfect sense.
Livingston’s most distinctive cultural product—there’s no university here, no major corporate employer, and the railroad left in 1985**—may be the intense, unpredictable, piercing conversations that you end up having with the most diverse collection of barflies in the world. These might take place over a beer at the Mint or the Murray, or simply while walking down the street, but spend a little time here and you will find yourself deep in talk with someone you might not ever meet in stuffier, more orthodox communities. One local fellow who considers himself something of a freelance shaman calls such odd, unexpected encounters “stranger bangs.” It’s a funny phrase, but an apt one in a town where so much that would be unlikely in other places—movie stars attending the local rodeo, plumbers mixing it up with Fortune 500 CEOs—happens all the time. That’s the alchemical magic of Livingston. —Amanda Fortini