On The Temporal Nature of Loss

burnt house

Photo courtesy of B. Frank

Way I remember it, he was wearing a corduroy jacket, or maybe it was wool flannel — either would have stood out as old-school, since we were already living in the age of miraculously wicking fabrics with trademarked and patented pedigrees, available even to thrift-shop-haunting dirtbags like me. I’d been following his outbound ski tracks for a mile or so away from the snowshoe-chopped roadside trail. I was climbing with my partner toward a paradise best left unnamed, the better to keep trail-choppers from realizing how easy it is to reach from a certain over-used highway in my home range.

He appeared at the top of a hill and stepped out of his ski tracks. While waiting for us to pass, he pulled out a battered old thermos and poured himself a cup of steaming dark brew. As we neared and could see his white-whiskered chin and weathered face, I idly speculated that he might’ve started skiing these mountains before I’d been born.

After exchanging comments with the old man about the day’s snow and sunshine, as people tend to do about impermanent things, we skied toward paradise, he continued down his back-trail, and I forgot that day for years — until just now as I pass by the soon-to-be-forgotten hulk of yet another piece of my home range’s history.

To hear the mourning former regulars tell it today, without the Hollywood Bar, there will be no haven from the “ … hippie bar across the street,” no place a man can “ … get a cheap beer, shoot some pool and go smoke a joint on the patio out back.” You see, this is the story of the last days of the Hollywood, a bar with a reputation for trouble and comfort, for providing sustenance to sawmill savages, dam-builders, fire-fighters, dirtbags and bar bums of all stripes, so long as you kept your name off the 86ed list. One local remembers hanging out at the Hollywood as a child, while his mother tended bar and added a few more names to the list, some with a note that the ban would last a lifetime.

As with my version of skiing paradise, I’m not going to name the town the Hollywood called home, so you’ll have to seek it out if it’s that important. If you find it, though, nothing will look the same to you, because the history is different now — so let’s go back to those final days. The tin ceiling tiles wore a bronze patina of ancient cigarette smoke, and there were brown splatters above the ceiling fan from the time a guy got his throat cut at the bar below. (It’s said he lived. It’s also said that Cactus Ed Abbey drank here, but that might not be any special distinction, judging by the author’s self-reported reputation.)

A couple years back, I took a newly arrived resident of my home range to the Hollywood, hoping to show him a piece of the area’s history, but since I’d last been there, the bar had been bought by a Texan, who’d replaced the tattered tables and ripped chairs with polyurethane-smelling wooden booths. The bartender treated my friend (a scion of a still-wild place in another urban-wildland-interface blighted state that [you’re right] I won’t name here) like a tourist. I left with only the blood-splattered ceiling, the bar-top with generations of names carved into it and a silent television screen showing a burning oil rig as reminders that the Hollywood still had a bit of history in it. I never went back inside to witness its decline into yet another sanitized caricature of a mountain-town bar. Now, of course, I wish I had.

My partner and I walked by a day before the fire, noted that karaoke night was just beginning, and went across the street to the “hippie bar.” It’s a micro-brewery that serves good food, while providing a place for traveling musicians to earn a little gas money to get to bigger, more lucrative gigs on the other side of the mountains. At least a couple of local kids have grown up behind the bar and in the kitchen, washing dishes and helping make the place a destination for the area’s younger set, along with more than a few miracle-fabric-clad dirtbags. I’ve seen forest workers, construction crews, skiers, river-rats and rednecks mingle there. The brewery was packed, the band was good and the next time I saw the Hollywood, there was a bouquet of flowers in an old Jim Beam bottle on the sidewalk, in front of a burned-out hulk.

Crime-scene tape blocks the door. A sign says that arson is suspected and warns that trespassing is a felony. The old stone walls are blackened, the roof gone. Firefighters say the blaze was so hot that it almost ignited an apartment building next door. Local gossip says the bartender 86ed an unruly patron, who slipped around back and started the fire a couple hours later. The bartop, the ceiling, the list of 86ed lifers, the still-new wooden booths, the pool table — from the alley behind the patio, it looks like a total loss.

The owner of the hardware store down the street remembers that his wife’s family ran the place back in the sawmill days, but now the mill site is underwater behind the dam, and the people who remember those days are dying off, or selling out to new folks who are more likely to take their kids to a micro-brewery with live music than a bar with blood on the ceiling and karaoke Wednesdays.

I now have almost as much white in my beard as the old man who broke trail to paradise, and as losses keep piling up in my personal history, I’m spending less time with other graybeards lamenting changes in my home range. More often, you’ll see me nursing a good micro-brew while I eavesdrop on the multifarious life stories playing out around me. Here’s to hoping the next time I pass through that little town, at least a couple of the Hollywood’s old regulars will be bellied up to the bar with me.

Senior correspondent B. Frank is the author of “Livin’ the Dream.” He splits his time between the Colorado Plateau and the Border Country.