The Yaak Valley’s ‘Dirty Shame’

In the infamous Montana saloon, a lesson about home in harsh places.

 

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.

The only functioning gas pump in Yaak, Montana, sits across from the Dirty Shame.
Julia Moss/Great Falls Tribune

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    The Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations to value, conserve, enhance, manage, and protect...
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • NORTH TUCSON FOOTHILLS
    11.63 acres of lush desert foothills on Tucson's near north side, secluded, secure, no HOA. 10 minute walk to Waldorf and Montessori schools, regional bike...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • MS ACCESS DATABASE PROGRAMER
    Looking for an access programmer. Contract position. Send resume with references and rates to: [email protected] www.prospace.biz
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.