On the night after Thanksgiving, I wander into the Dirty Shame Saloon, in Yaak, Montana, with a few friends. A half-dozen people congregate around the pool table, not playing pool. Camo and hunter’s orange are on abundant display. A Confederate flag hangs behind the bar; shotguns are embedded in the counter.
We’ve stopped here out of curiosity about the Yaak Valley, and the people, all 250 of them, who make it home. The valley is known, in its small way, for a few things: the writings of Rick Bass, a former petroleum geologist who has long and ferociously defended it; the haven it has provided to some of the West’s darker elements — doomsday preppers, hermits and a few white supremacists — and the “World Famous Dirty Shame Saloon,” with its reputation for rowdy drunkenness. The valley, wedged up against Canada, is a funnel for wildlife to travel south and then out across the West. In its dripping woods, species from the Pacific Northwest forests and the Rocky Mountains live side by side. It’s a small valley, Bass, a Texas transplant, writes in The Book of Yaak: “Everything is all crammed in on top of everything else.” But only around the Dirty Shame do the human inhabitants live close enough together to put on any appearance of a town. Still, they’ve left their mark in the form of the logging roads stitched across the valley, hemming in the grizzlies, the caribou, the wolves.
Bass and a few others chose this place to settle in, for reasons that elude me. I find its stands of ash, hemlock, pine and cedar — the way they form dense green walls that block the horizon — claustrophobic. I live in scrubby piñon-juniper, and, like a jackrabbit, prefer the open spaces. The Yaak “is not so much a place to come to,” Bass says. Rather, it’s a “biological refuge like the Great Dismal Swamp. There’s nothing to see and no one to see.” But I’m curious, too, about what draws people to these dark, unappealing corners of the West, about why some of them devote themselves to defending close woods and ugly vistas. “Reattachment,” Bass calls it, even as the West splinters biologically and culturally; in The Book of Yaak, he writes, “I see more and more the human stories in the West becoming those not of passing through and drifting on, but of settling in and making a stand.”
I sit at the counter’s dimly lit corner as the bartender and owner, a man named John Runkle, entertains my friends with stories of the Yaak’s wild woods and bars, of the reality TV show producers who come to document both.
My neighbor, Andrew, a heavily bearded man in a ball cap, hunched over his beer, tells me a different kind of story: He says his cousins are Cheyne and Chevie Kehoe, white supremacist brothers who went on a murder, bombing and robbery spree in the ’90s. They holed up for a time in the Yaak, where their mother lived. He describes an infamous cop car dashcam video of the two, getting pulled over in Ohio. “You can see one of them pull on a bulletproof vest,” he says; the traffic stop, caught on camera, turned into a shootout. Andrew, whose last name I never catch, says he grew up in Florida and sometimes spent family vacations in the Yaak. He doesn’t associate with his relatives, he says, but he settled here just the same.
He and everyone else I meet here have made an uneasy home in the Yaak, aware of its marginal location on the map of America but loyal nonetheless. “There is a certain undeniable raggedness of spirit — a newness, a roughness,” Bass writes of the valley. “It’s not a place filled with easy certainties.” Runkle, a boisterous Southern California transplant wearing flame-covered surf trunks, seems the most at home. Once a real estate broker with offices in seven states, he says he was driving one day, talking on the phone with a business associate, when he ran out of patience with the conversation, with the lifestyle, with the phone. He threw the phone out the window, quit his job and escaped to the Yaak. Some longtime residents, resentful over past squabbles, avoid the bar since he bought it. That doesn’t faze him. Wet T-shirt contests, hats screaming “Yaak Attack” and an on-again, off-again employee who accidentally shot out the fridge: Those are concerns he can devote some passion to.
I finish my drink, and we drive the windy road back to our rented cabin. A great gray owl perches on the eaves, and calls. Behind the cabin, in the darkness, the Yaak River rounds a corner, rustling against the grassy banks. I walk across a meadow, softly lit by the cabin’s windows, to the river. Although meeting a grizzly or other large predator is unlikely so close to the highway, I find the darkness unnerving. I walk closer, listening. Only silence, and the run of the river, rises from the shadows.
Kate Schimel is the deputy editor-digital for HCN. Follow @kateschimel