Head, Shoulders, and Brains Above the Rest: Reflections on Missoula’s Oxford Saloon. By Cameron M. Burns
In 1990, after spending two summers in the Sierra Nevada, climbing with fellow sadomasochist Steve Porcella and a few other wayward grovelers, I returned to my parents’ basement in New Mexico while Steve headed back to Montana and graduate school.
Our two Sierra summers had led us to the notion that someone ought to write a guide to California’s fourteeners. I corresponded with Galen Rowell about the idea (he’d been up on Whitney with us in early 1990 when he and Dave Wilson finished off Galen’s and Kike Arnal’s abortive attempt on Left Wing Extremist). Both Steve Roper and Galen were supportive, so Steve (P.) and I hunkered down, 1,000 miles from each other, and, when time allowed, began writing. Within a few days, it was pretty apparent that we needed to be nearer each other in order to get the thing done. I was broke (as usual—how come after a 30-year and somewhat successful writing career I’m still broke? Maybe not as successful as I thought, huh?)), so my father offered me the job of sanding the entire exterior of his Los Alamos house, and staining it. He said he’d give me $1,000, which sounded like a fortune to me.
The job was brutal. The paint was like concrete, and it took hours just to do a few square feet.
Two weeks later, after several accidents, one of which included my right index finger getting caught in the belt sander I was using (you ever see one of those applied to flesh?), I moved on to the thrill of staining. At least the stain had some nice, mind-bending fumes whereas the sander just ate through any human meat it could connect with.
In the spring of 1991, I had enough money to head north. I invited a woman I knew from college, Ann, to go with me. She jumped at the idea. Like everyone who’s ever lived in Boulder, she was in a rut. And here I was—some young Romantic suggesting we were headed to paradise. It must’ve been the fumes from the stain. Or maybe she’d had a bad knock on her head as a child. Anyway, she agreed, and we shimmied north in my old, hand-me-down Toyota, camping along the way because that was all we could afford. We eventually got to Missoula, and moved in with Steve and his new bride, Sandy, who was pregnant. This arrangement was not to last, as Ann had already lined up a gig radio-tracking moose in Glacier National Park, and I was simply an easily rejectable third wheel in a situation that did not call for a tricycle. So Ann departed for Glacier within a few days, and I stayed with Steve and Sandy for a couple of weeks.
Each morning, for sanity reasons, I went and drank coffee at a place called the Oxford Saloon.
The Oxford Saloon was established in 1883 and has been continuously operated 24 hours a day since then. It’s not an easy place to describe, as it’s not just a saloon. It’s a saloon, keno lounge, diner, strip joint, casino, and liquor store all rolled into one. The old menu summed it up nicely: “Good old-fashioned eatin’, drinkin’ and gambling.” Think amusement park of adult vices and you get the idea.
After a couple of weeks in Missoula, Steve convinced Sandy that we needed to do a bit more on-the-ground research for the book.
How climbing Half Dome had anything to do with a book we were writing in Missoula, Montana on peaks mostly in the high Sierra has been lost on me ever since, but Steve somehow got out of the responsible would-be parent role, and we jetted south in his truck for a couple of weeks.
Half Dome was a bust. We got up a dozen pitches before some ne’er do well got in trouble up at Big Sandy (I think). The rescue gang came out and started blaring commands at the wall. That was all well and fine, but lingering out to the west was a massive storm. Massive, massive storm. We descended. Everyone descended before we were power-hosed off the wall.
Back in Missoula, we licked our wounds. And I spent more and more time at the Ox. Ann was out cavorting with moose, and my partner in crime was having a baby, doing his studies, and generally unavailable. The Ox it was.
As my visits there went on (typically in search of as much caffeine as I could hold down), it became apparent this was no ordinary … um, establishment.
Let’s take a quick tour—or a tour of it as I came to know it in 1990.
Walk in the front door of the Ox and you would be presented with a large hall-like space. Nothing out of the ordinary except that in that space there were three very distinct areas. Immediately to your right was a large, dark, heavy wooden bar—the kind of thing that could’ve done duty as a support pier for an interstate highway. People had worn sections of the bar with their elbows, carved initials in it, and generally abused it, although it was the kind of bar you could never demolish because it was just so darn solid. There were likely a few bullet holes in the wood, although I never saw any. Certainly there were several stains that I’m convinced were dried human blood.
Behind the bar was a great big mirror. Along the bottom of the mirror was a neat line of bottles—liquor of all manner and sundry. A few grizzled and genuinely rough types were always on the stools—morning, noon, and night—but there was never more than three or four of them. And, though they looked like something out a zombie apocalypse / western / hard crime / Rikers Island documentary, they were always cheerful and showed us their missing teeth, or rather, the gaps where said teeth might’ve gone.
Above the bar’s mirror was a sizeable collection of rifles and shotguns in glass cases, each with a placard describing the weapon and, I assumed, the kinds of flora, fauna, and road signs the piece had blown to smithereens.
I remember one morning, 8 am or so, when Ann was down from Polebridge. A huge man with eyeballs that pointed in different directions and wearing, it seemed, nothing more than a pair of dirty blue overalls and black boots wandered in. He looked like he’d been rejected by a mental health facility for being too crazy. He sat down at the bar, ordered six shots of whiskey, downed them, and walked out. Curious as all get-out, Ann and I stealthily followed him outside and watched as he climbed on the biggest, nicest-looking Honda Gold Wing I’ve ever seen, cranked it up, and chugged off down the street.
“Another day in paradise?” Ann suggested.
Off to the left side when you came in the front door was a pool table and, when I was there, a keno board on the wall. The temperament of the rough types at the bar was complemented by the elderly folks who seem to congregate for keno at all hours of the day. When the keno gang wasn’t in residence, the pool table was used for poker, and a dark and crusty collection of old men would gamble for hours on end.
Walk farther in—the bar ends and there’s an ugly Formica counter. This is the diner part of the Ox. Behind the diner were several refrigerated pastry display cases with pies of various flavors. The kitchen equipment—griddle, blenders, toaster ovens, etc.—all looked to be at least fifty years old, but they were kept miraculously clean and seem to work without incident.
When I lived in Missoula there was one waitress there with the most mannish of faces. She had a massive hooked nose, large beady eyes, a flat forehead big enough to mount a billboard on, and a strange tube-shaped body clad in what appeared to be left over worsted from the reupholstering of a couch. She looked remarkably like the Monty Python guys when they dressed up as little old ladies and reenacted famous military scenes. Her nametag said Francine or something, but behind her back we called her Frank.
Her sidekick, the cook, was a young man with an outgoing demeanor who both danced and sang Elvis Presley songs while he cooked eggs, sausages, ham, pancakes, grits, toast, and whatever else got ordered up. We labeled him, not surprisingly, Elvis.
There was a strange symbiosis between Frank and Elvis. Frank never smiled or said much and looked as if she / he might be in some kind of pain. Meanwhile, Elvis danced around and cracked jokes, laughed a lot, and was genuinely amusing.
“This guy’s pretty funny, huh?” Frank would snort sternly while thrusting a sloshing pot of coffee at Elvis. (Elvis would then blow Frank a kiss behind Frank’s back.)
The most notable thing about the diner, however, was the Ox’s most famous dish: brains and eggs. It was listed at the top of the menu on the wall, like some kind of gastrointestinal challenge. Our small collection of friends often joked about ordering it, but none of us really had the cojones.
Behind the diner, the Ox narrowed down into a wide, dark hallway of sorts. Each side of the hallway was lined with slot machines (one-armed bandits), where you could gamble away any money you might’ve saved by dining at the Ox. Behind the slot machines was a strip club.
Of course, when you’re sitting down to a breakfast omelette and a quite unclothed stripper leans over the counter next to you to order dry white toast and a Budweiser so she can keep her energy up … well, that works a mite better than coffee in the attention-span department. None of the strippers was particularly pretty, but they were all nice. The thing I hated was the fact they all smoked, even when standing at the Formica counter eating their toast and drinking their beer.
The other very noticeable aspect of the Ox was the “decoration” on the walls. There were excruciatingly rough portraits of longtime Oxford patrons. Dozens of these images were nailed to the walls, all the way up to the ceiling. The portraits looked like a cross between a fourth grader’s artwork and police suspect sketches.
Still, in 1990, while I lived in Missoula for six months, the Ox was a home away from home. Certainly it had an air of good down-home dysfunction. I fit in the way a glove fits in the bed of a pickup truck.
In 1996, Ann and I returned to Missoula for a wedding. Our trip included a visit, with much of the wedding party, to the Ox. After some raucous taunting and teasing—and me considering that I might never see the Ox again—I ordered the brains and eggs. This brought me a round of applause from the gang, but it also meant I was committed.
After considerable time, the dish arrived. The meal was $5.99, according to the menu, but when it arrived it looked to be enough food to nourish a small Montana town. The scrambled eggs, of which there must’ve been about six, sat in one corner of the massive round plate. The rest of the dish was piled high with an opaque, gray Jello-like substance. There must’ve been five pounds of the stuff.
I pushed it with my fork, which slid easily into the gelatinous lump. I cut a piece off with my knife and put the soft gray Jello lump in my mouth. It didn’t taste like much. It was sort of tasteless. It was the consistency that disturbed me. Like some kind of soft pudding that you could probably snort through a straw. A violent shiver went down my spine. But I kept on.
I must’ve eaten about a third of the brains before I was forced to retire. The texture and color were making me exceptional queasy and the barrage of jokes from people rumored to be my friends was getting to me. I pulled up shy by several lobes and switched to coffee. Remarkably, everything stayed down.
In recent months I’ve read that the Ox no longer serves brains and eggs—the meal canned by one of the public health agencies. I’ve read the walls are no longer covered with the portraits of Oxford regulars (but, rather, with scenic images of logging, mining and railroads). And I’m sure Frank and Elvis are long gone. And as far as the liquor store, I never knew there was one until I read it online the other day—no clue if it’s still there or ever really was.
There are certain dining and drinking establishments that loom large in your youth. Places where you met your first girlfriend or ate your first Mezcal worm or tried steak tartare for the first time. Places that loom larger in your mind than they really were.
El Chapultepec in Denver, Evangelo’s in Santa Fe, the Purple Pig in Alamosa, Michael’s Kitchen in Taos, Laughing Ladies in Salida, Mother’s Café in Boulder (RIP), the Golden Burro in Leadville, Tacqueria El Nopal in Glenwood Springs—are among my dozens of loomers.
But the Ox stands head, shoulders—and, of course, brains—above the rest on my list for its sheer quirkiness, its colorful denizens, and the strange intersections of vice, humanity, food, and of course, beverages. I’ve never seen a finer collision.