The Bars of Winnett

According to Kendra, who holds court at the Winnett Bar (where the sign reads “It’s 100 degrees outside and 75 degrees inside”), there are 118 households in Winnett that get water bills.

Gary, the proprietor of the General Store and, as the son of homesteaders, a lifelong resident of the town, remembers when Winnett had two banks, a doctor’s office and a population in the low thousands.

The first oil discovered in Montana was found nearby, which led to the creation of Petroleum County with Winnett as its seat. In a familiar cycle, the town grew and attracted homesteaders, but subsequent drought, farm failures, decline and depression pretty nearly finished Winnett off.

Joe and Charlene run the town’s only motel, and they do a fine job of it. Joe was the one who put us onto the bunkhouse in Ingomar, about which more later.

But this is a tale of the town’s two bars, both of which also serve food. They sit a longish catty corner away from each other amid the dry desolation of vacant lots and gravel roads.

You reach the Kozy Korner first if you’re coming into town from Hwy 200. It has the better kitchen what with a write-up in Gourmet magazine, but its bar is less inviting.

In what’s become the usual pattern, I rolled into town ahead of Roger and, given the heat and wind I’d been fighting, decided I’d have a beer before finding the motel. Since we had been following Hwy 200, it was the Kozy Korner for me.

The outside door opens into a vestibule with two closed doors, the one on the left leads to the bar and the one on the right leads to the cafe. So after the stutter step of finding myself in the vestibule, I opened the door to the bar with a slight sense of dislocation and walked into the low gloom.

All conversation stopped, and for a long moment, the four people inside regarded me with sullen disbelief. Finally, the woman behind the bar demanded to know what I wanted, and released from their supporting roles as aggrieved townsfolk, the others resumed a conversation straight out of a Shepard play.

Once I paid for my beer, I receded into invisibility, and the bizarre banter between my fellow bar mate and a Native American woman at the table behind him continued along the practiced lines of him insulting her for being lazy and her exaggerating her replies to goad him along.

Tiring of this, John (as I later learned and with whom I had an interesting chat) began an extended monolog directed at the woman behind the bar (who never came near me again) about driving home at 5:30 that morning after counting calves all night and the big doe leaping right in front of his truck leaving him no time to do anything but square up his impact and then the doe was under the truck and there was all this mess and at the end of all that he had to leave a lot of good deer meat at the side of the road.

So that was my first 10 minutes in town.

Awhile later, on my way to the General Store, I decided on a whim to duck into the Winnett Bar.

An odd out-of-kilter vibe energized the place. A young guy with a serious movie-capable camera strapped in front of him wandered among his three antic friends recording the cacophony of their call-and-response chatter with Kendra the faux-insulting bartender.

The group of four – all guys about the same age (late 20s-early30s? it gets harder to tell) and with the relaxed confidence of being from somewhere else – radiated anticipation, and
I learned from the one sitting closest to me, David, that they were awaiting the arrival of a friend not seen in years who had sent them a cryptic summons to be at this bar on this date between 2 and 4 in the afternoon.

David further explained that he and the three others, inexplicably all named Adam, had had some encouraging success in making a couple of films and that their mysterious friend, Nathaniel, wanted them to make a documentary about the off-the-grid group he’d joined out in the wilds a couple of hours’ drive outside of Winnett.

At this point, I’m wondering what the hell is up with this town and with the characters it draws to the bars.

But I’m intrigued – and it’s not like there’s anywhere else to go in Winnett since I’ve already been to the Kozy Korner – so I stick around and sure enough Nathaniel shows up as promised.

After all the greeting and hugging and laughter and toasting, there’s a curiously diffident questioning of what Nathaniel has been doing and why. He mostly puts them off with bland assurances that they’ll be able to understand it all when the van comes to pick them up at the rest area up the road.

This causes some consternation among the group, but somehow Nathaniel starts talking about this guy he met at the rest area named Wilson who’s biking across the country!

Of course it’s the same guy I met so I chime in with the bit about how Wilson lives in DC and has been biking since January with his dog Polo and how I was just riding with them a couple of days ago.

In the course of the back-and-forth I have with Nathaniel about Wilson, I start asking him about the beliefs and practices of his group – attitudes toward medicine, spirituality, etc. – and get some of the expected responses without there evidently being a strong core set of beliefs or a single charismatic leader.

The rationale for the group’s decision to form their own community still seems elusive, however; but the mystery is resolved once the cameras are put away. The movie is to be a fake documentary. Assisted by some people he’s met at Burning Man, Nathaniel has been mocking up some sort of camp, and now David and the three Adams (?) have come to film the results.

I won’t say any more about the set up but wish them all well and hope the film is a great success. Hopefully they’ll get on a festival circuit that will bring it to DC.

It was all quite strange and great fun, and I’m glad they let me in on the deception. They later told me that when I started talking about Wilson and asking questions about what the commune was up to, some of the “film crew” starting wondering if I was a plant. By design, David and the Adams don’t know what’s in store for them at the site itself. So once they saw me “collaborating” with Nathaniel, they began to wonder whether I was somehow in on part of what’s going on!

So long story short, eat at the Kozy Korner, drink at the Winnett Bar and expect weirdness wherever you are.

4 Comments

  1. Interesting interpretation Bob! “Only in Winnett” still stands!
    Glad you stopped in! Take care!

  2. You are definitely hitting your stride Bob! What fascinating characters. Can’t wait to see and read about what and who you run into next.

  3. You’re just 50 some years late. Back then Winnett had four churches and four bars. My parents owned the Gusher bar on the eastern edge of town across from the courthouse. Even then the town was dying, but could still kick up the dust occasionally. There were some old cowboys who showed up when the bar opened, and closed it too. When my Aunt from Billings showed up for a visit in her ’57 pink caddy all the men showed up to party at the bar. A couple from Musselshell came in on the weekend and the wife played a mean honky tonk on the piano drawing a huge crowd.

    • Sorry to say I just now read this comment but I’m glad you posted it. That’s a wonderful snippet of Winnett history – do you still live in the general vicinity? Someday I hope to be out there again – biking across Montana was a great way to see the state and meet people and there’s so much more to see and people to meet!

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About Me

Born in Baltimore and raised in Cincinnati, I have lived on both coasts and driven back and forth across the country a number of times. I now have the "midlife opportunity" to do so on two wheels.