“Waiting for the right person”
The road to Polebridge is slow going even in the summer, and I’m driving it in the winter, in the wrong car, one equipped with a turbo rather than snow tires, because mine’s in the shop.
About 35 miles from my destination, I come around a corner where the pavement ends. After that I’m driving on solid ice. I slow down and drop into a lower gear as I creep up and down steep hills, with a drop off to my right that leads straight to the North Fork of the Flathead River.
Along the way I pass men who stand amid messes of sawdust and bark as they cut firewood along the road, or hunker over the steering wheels of pickup trucks already laden with logs. Each one looks up from his task to wave. They don’t see many people on the road this time of year.
I arrive just a couple hours after my start in Whitefish and park in front of the town’s most visible symbol: the Polebridge Mercantile, a tall, narrow, 93-year-old, barn-red building. The historic town is usually backed by the peaks of Glacier National Park’s Livingston Range, but today thick clouds have put a lid on the valley. There’s a minivan and a truck parked in front, but no humans to be seen—only 10 people live in the town proper during winter, with a dozen or so more scattered throughout the valley. Next door to the Mercantile is Polebridge’s only other commercial structure, the Northern Lights Saloon, a squat, unpainted log cabin. Scattered around the grounds are four rental cabins, and to the south and east of this hub an assortment of private cabins fills out the town.
When my wife and I visited this summer, something about Polebridge reminded us of our travels in Patagonia. The high mountains, the free-roaming dogs, the dustiness, the eagerness of the locals to talk—even the terrific pastries for sale at the Mercantile seemed like a typical South American incongruity. When we found out that the Mercantile, along with the 22.5 acres on which it sits, plus five cabins, a barn and multiple outbuildings were for sale, our imaginations took off, despite the $950,000 price tag. The entire way home we talked about trying to get a group of old friends together, buying the Mercantile, starting a family and living out our lives in the shadow of the mountains. I suspect we weren’t the first.
Polebridge, and the North Fork River Valley in which it sits, crystallized a large part of the reason I’d left the Illinois suburbs a decade ago for the west, why I’d spent months backpacking around Patagonia, why I’d moved to Montana, and why I still spend summer weekends in the mountains.
Polebridge lies 44 miles north of Columbia Falls and 22 miles south of a closed Canadian border crossing. Glacier National Park walls it in on the east, the Whitefish Range to the west. It’s wild, rugged, untamed country. There’s no electricity, except for the generator that supplies the Mercantile and the saloon, and no indoor plumbing. There’re no streetlights, cell phones or traffic. Mail gets delivered just twice a week. The most obvious occupation is the chopping of wood.
But ultimately, it was more than the $950,000 price tag that made Polebridge a pipedream for us.
“You’ve got to be able to afford it, and want that kind of lifestyle,” says Joe Basirico, the real estate agent who sold this property to its current owners, Dan and Deb Kaufman, and who is trying to sell it for them now.
“In the summer, I get lots of people calling me on a beautiful sunny day,” he says.
He says such prospects come to town, have a pastry, walk around, enjoy the views, “and then reality sets in.” Polebridge has been on the market just over two years.
It’s an easy place to love when you’re just visiting, enveloped in its mellow summer atmosphere. Moving here means braving the winter and the realities of cutting yourself off from society’s conveniences. We weren’t sure we were ready for that.
When I was planning my trip here, I asked Deb Kaufman if she and Dan had found someone to buy the store yet.
“We’re waiting for the right person,” she told me.
“What makes the right person?” I asked.
“You’ll just have to come here and see,” she answered.
“I can almost hear myself decompressing”
In the summer, coffee-drinking, pastry-munching vacationers like myself usually populate the chairs and tables on the Mercantile’s front porch. Now, half the porch is occupied by firewood. I walk around that, past the tables and chairs piled into a corner, and into the store. It’s warm inside, and the way the heat pulsates tells me I’m in the presence of a woodstove. A variety of rolls—flavored with spinach and artichoke, Spanish olive and feta cheese, jalapeño and sun-dried tomato and ricotta—fill the pastry case. There are also chocolate chip cookies, snicker doodles and cinnamon rolls.
The wall above the pastry case is dominated by the huge, dusty head of an elk with a big rip under its left eye. Old traps, axes, snowshoes, a rifle and what appears to be the timeworn pelt of a giant squirrel surround it. A mix of souvenirs and basic food supplies clutters the rest of the store.
Deb, a smiling, silver-haired woman, greets me from the kitchen in back. She explains where my cabin is and tells me I’ll probably want to get the woodstove started right away. I take her advice and head over with a piece of egg carton and some newspaper she’s given me for kindling. The snow around town is knee deep, but paths the width of sidewalks take you wherever you need to go. I follow one to my cabin.
Inside I can see my breath, but soon enough there’s a zone of four comfortable feet around the stove.
The cabin’s single room is perfectly Spartan: two bare mattresses on frames, a small gas range, a gas lamp, four chairs and a small table. There is no running water and no bathroom; an outhouse waits about 20 feet down the snowy path.
Once unpacked, I step outside to see that the fog has lifted and the sheer white peaks of the Livingston Range and the forested peaks of the Whitefish Range suddenly surround me. I decide to go for a hike and head over to the entrance of Glacier National Park, just a short distance up the road. The park service has gated the road, but a cross-country ski trail leads from the gate toward Bowman Lake.
The snow-covered landscape, with its bare trees and white mountain peaks, is simplicity embodied.
It occurs to me that, since fall, all my exercise has been taken in a gym or on a ski slope. I haven’t had a long walk in months. In the snow-muffled quiet, I can almost hear myself decompressing.
“What’s your poison?”
I’m back in the cabin eating a hot meatball sandwich from the Mercantile when Heather Kaufman, daughter of Dan and owner of the Northern Lights Saloon, stops by to invite me for a drink at 9.
I spend a quiet evening in my room, playing guitar next to the woodstove, writing next to the woodstove and reading next to the woodstove. After 9, I walk over to the saloon twice. Both times it’s empty. I wonder if I misunderstood something, but then I remember that in remote places, people tend to have their own reckoning of time. They probably call it “Polebridge time” here.
Heather shows up at 10, says something about her sense of time being off, and again invites me over to the saloon. Before leaving, she notices the guitar I’ve brought.
When I’d visited this summer, locals gathered around the picnic tables outside the saloon to play guitars, mandolins, banjos and even an accordion. Someone was nice enough to lend me his 12-string and invite me to join in. That night in Polebridge, I got the impression that music was the town’s unofficial language.
I brought my own guitar this time on the hunch that the scene hadn’t been killed off by winter, and Heather confirms that locals gather inside the saloon to play music on Friday and Saturday nights.
When I get to the saloon a few minutes later, it looks dark inside, but then I notice a single lit candle. I gingerly open the front door and see Heather standing atop two barstools, lighting a gas lamp with a match. A yellow glow fills the room and she leaps from the barstools.
“What’s your poison?” she asks.
I order a beer.
Normally the phrase would seem a ridiculous affectation, an attempt to make a recently remodeled “western saloon” in a place like Whitefish seem authentic. But the Northern Lights is a real saloon. There’s an empty bottle of tequila surrounded by a hodgepodge of empty shot glasses sitting on the small, weathered bar. An upright piano, looking like one Doc Holliday might have played, sits in the corner.
Heather, too, seems an authentically Western presence. Her wild red hair, blue eyes, and her intense focus suggest she would have fit right in back in 1914, when the saloon was built.
Heather’s family had been visiting Glacier for a long time, since her growing-up years in northern Idaho. When her dad and Deb bought the Mercantile in 1994, she began having recurring dreams of moving here. In 1997 she abandoned a nascent singing career on the West Coast, moved to Polebridge full time, and began working at the saloon. In 2000, the owner, who Heather tells me had better offers, sold her the saloon. The Northern Lights, at least, seems to have found its right person.
We talk about music, about how she’s been learning the piano this winter, how she’s set herself the goal of writing a song a week, about “Accordion Bob,” who played for his meals last summer, and who is now in Prague digging the music scene there.
We talk about Aurorafest, a small music festival that Heather has been putting on in the yard behind the Mercantile for five years.
This spring she hopes to build a smaller stage behind the saloon and start hosting music on a more regular basis.
She also hints at some of the hardships of living in such a remote place. Four days a week, she drives her young sons to and from school in Whitefish. She says she’s gotten the drive down to a little over an hour each way, but she makes that round trip twice a day on school days, so that’s still 16 hours of driving per week. Recently, she says, the roads got so icy she couldn’t make it up one of the smaller hills, so a friend driving a larger truck with chains towed her old Range Rover 30 miles. It took four hours to go the distance, she tells me.
I ask her about the history of Polebridge, and Heather shows me around the saloon, pointing out a photo of Bill Adair and his wife, Jessie. The Adairs built both the Mercantile and the saloon, which was originally their home, back in 1914, and lived here until the 1940s.
Jessie, Heather thinks, ran the show. As evidence, she points out that the walls of the saloon, made of logs, are planed flat on the inside.
“So she could hang wallpaper,” Heather tells me, noting how much extra work that must have made for a man busy trying to build a town.
Jessie looks stern in the old photo on the saloon wall, with her hair pulled back tight and a dress that comes up to her chin. Bill has a stern look on his face too, but it’s undermined by his huge curlicue mustache.
The thing about this photo, Heather tells me, is that the uncropped original included Bill’s business partner and his wife, Emma. Jessie, she tells me, eventually grew sick and died around 1930, and shortly thereafter, the business partner died too. And the funny thing about that, Heather tells me, is that Bill then married Emma. Next to the prim photo of Bill and Jessie is one of Bill and Emma in their old age, showing off a pair of giant cabbages.
We finish a second beer, poured from a tap that’s been drilled into an old radio, and Heather invites me back the next day, when the saloon will be officially open, and there’ll be a chance to play music.
Outside the night is clear and cold. A meteorite streaks across the sky. As I’m gathering an armful of wood in front of the Mercantile, I hear Heather begin to play languid chords on the piano. The half moon above casts a silver glow across the valley. To the east, the snow-capped peaks of Glacier glow silver, to the west, a thick blanket of fog gathers around the peaks of the Whitefish Range, tucking them in for the night.
“Can’t do town”
I’ve set no alarm, so I have no idea what time it is when I wake up, but it’s already light out. I’m still warm in my sleeping bag, and it takes a few minutes to work up the ambition to unzip it. When I do, I walk straight to the woodstove, toss a few logs in, and go right back to the bag. When the edge is off the room, I quickly get dressed in front of the stove.
At the Mercantile, Dan, who wears his thinning hair in a ponytail and has clear blue eyes, offers me a warm cinnamon roll with banana pudding filling that he’s just taken from the oven. I ask him how he learned to bake and he tells me he grew up in his father’s bakery, “taking naps on the flour sacks.”
I spend a few hours hanging out at the Mercantile, writing, observing and conversing. It’s a quiet morning in town, as, I guess, it always is in the winter. The most serious discussion I hear is about how to handle an unruly dog. There are, as far as I can tell, more dogs than people in Polebridge, and they all seem to roam freely. It’s hard to tell who their owners are; they seem to be communal pets.
Deb, Dan and their 13-year-old son Connor are preparing to go into town, partly because Connor, who’s learning to play drums, has broken all his drumsticks. After they leave I chop enough wood to last the evening. It’s been a while since I’ve handled an ax, and my first few swings just shave pieces off the lengths of log. I’m glad nobody’s around to see me. When I finish, I decide to go for a walk along the North Fork, on a cross-country ski trail I’d noticed the day before.
The banks of the North Fork are frozen and the water runs in a narrow, slushy stream. There are animal tracks everywhere.
This river valley, in part because it is so undeveloped, is home to wildlife that includes the largest grizzly bear population in the continental United States. It is also the site of the gray wolf’s first incursion back into Montana in 1986.
To the west, between the river and the Whitefish Range, there’s a bench of land upon which huge new log cabins perch. Land in the North Fork has kept pace with other Western Montana towns in terms of value, but due to zoning that prohibits lots smaller than 20 acres, it hasn’t seen the influx of people or subdivisions.
In the evening, I head over to the saloon for dinner. Tonight the electricity is on and a string of dim lights illuminates the room while a stereo plays bluegrass. All five of the bar stools are taken, there’s a couple at one of the tables, and four tourists from Seattle sit at another, bundled tightly in puffy coats zipped to their throats, scarves, hats and gloves, and still looking cold as hell. The bar is cold everywhere but within a few feet of the woodstove. I stand next to it and ask Kevin Terman, the bartender, for a menu. In Kevin, I see something I’ve noticed in the other Polebridge residents I’ve met, but hadn’t yet put my finger on. It’s difficult to tell how old they are. At first glance, I think he may be in his late 20s, but as the night wears on and a few creases appear in his face, I decide he must be in his late 30s. Later I find out he’s 42. Maybe it’s just the perpetually dim light of any Polebridge establishment that makes it hard to tell.
The menu, Kevin tells me, is pizza. I order one, along with a beer, and move to a barstool that’s opened up.
At the moment, the bar’s clientele appears to be half locals and half tourists, likely here for the cross-country skiing. The locals quickly engage their visitors in conversation, and it doesn’t take long before I’m talking to a woman named Penny.
Penny’s got long, gray hair, and she looks tough, like Jessie Adair in a way, but with a warm smile.
Before she started talking with me, Penny had been swapping stories with the bartender about the critters that inevitably invade one’s log cabin in the winter to seek warmth. Penny came out on top with a story about a brazen flying squirrel that trashed her kitchen.
I tell her what I’m doing here and she tells me about life in the North Fork, where she and her husband Ted live in a cabin on 36 acres a few miles north of Polebridge, about how they make part of their living cleaning Forest Service cabins, how Ted prints T-shirts and does pottery as well. She says she rarely leaves the valley.
She also tells me two things that I hear from nearly everyone in Polebridge at one time or another.
First, she says, she “can’t do town.” All the people, cars and lights are too much.
Secondly, she says, she prefers Polebridge’s winters to its summers. I wonder if this is the test, if it’s not about being the kind of person who can bear the winters or the isolation, but the kind who loves those things.
Throughout the evening, Heather pops out of the kitchen to set pizzas on the counter. The visitors from Seattle get theirs first, eat quickly, and leave.
I finish mine and move in front of the woodstove. At the behest of some of the locals, Heather eventually comes out of the kitchen and sits down at the piano. Her playing seems simple, although it’s certainly beyond “Chopsticks,” but in any case it’s only backup to her beautifully strong vocals. When she finishes, Kevin leaves his post at the bar and Zeke, a 19-year-old local (who I later learn is Kevin’s son) joins him to play some guitar. I run over to the cabin to get mine, and when I return the saloon’s patrons are facing Kevin and Zeke, who sit atop tables in the corner next to the piano. They play something bluesy and uncomplicated. When they finish, they invite me to join in. We play several songs together, taking turns on rhythm and improvised lead.
Eventually I take a break and walk over to the outhouse, and when I return Heather is playing guitar with Kevin and Zeke. She sits directly beneath a sign that reads, “Consort not with a female musician, lest thou be taken in by her snares. Ben Sira C. 190 BC.”
I chat with a woman who is visiting from Whitefish. She tells me that this musical community is what has compelled her to visit Polebridge the last couple of winters.
Sometime around 11, the generator gets shut off to conserve fuel, and everyone except Heather, Kevin, Zeke and me leaves. The four of us sit up for a little while in the light of candles and gas lamps finishing our drinks and talking.
At one point, Kevin teases Heather about all the times she’s fired him. At first I think he’s joking, but it becomes clear that Heather has fired many of her employees at one time or another, and hasn’t been afraid to boot rowdy patrons. It’s also clear that after a probationary period, nearly everyone is invited back.
Kevin recalls a time this summer when he and another bartender were sitting at the bar having a drink, and Heather suddenly returned from a trip to town and kicked the front door open.
“We both pointed at each other and said, ‘He did it!’” Kevin says.
“If I’m going to be up here, everyone better believe I’m crazy,” Heather says, laughing.
“This has been
a good life”
I wake up again early in the morning. The sun’s just a hair above the mountains and my room is cold. I dress quickly, replenish the woodstove and make a dash for the Mercantile. Dan and Deb are back, and Dan has just finished making an assortment of handmade turnovers. I select one that bursts at the seams with blueberries. Deb tells me there are people who come all the way to this side of the park just for the pastries. Once, she says, they had an Israeli come in who said that friends in his kibbutz had recommended the Mercantile’s baked goods. I can see why. I’ll be telling people about my blueberry turnover for a while.
Heather stops in for coffee and the three of us talk about Polebridge. They tell me that there are a lot of people here with doctorates who have traded potential lives as professionals for lives of chopping wood and odd jobs.
I ask why people who have invested so much in the world outside Polebridge would come to a place where their talents are essentially useless.
Heather ponders the question for a moment.
“It’s a chance for people to make their own community,” she tells me.
Before she arrived, Heather tells me, there was no music scene in this town. In a place so small, one person has the ability to change everything.
That puts the potential sale of the Mercantile in perspective for me.
Deb and Dan took ownership in September 1994. They had planned to visit Bigfork that June, and on their way there Dan randomly turned to Deb and said, “Wouldn’t it be neat if the Polebridge Mercantile was for sale?”
Deb had recently worked as a real estate agent and, out of habit, grabbed a real estate guide as soon as they stopped in Bigfork. She flipped through it, paused, and turned the guide around for Dan to see a photo of the Mercantile, for sale. Four months later, they owned it.
They didn’t know exactly what they were getting into. Deb recalls the dreariness of their first winter in the apartment above the shop, which was lit by a single propane lamp at the time.
And they didn’t know it would become a lifestyle.
“It wasn’t like, ‘We’re going to commit our whole lives to this,’” she says.
Over time, Dan started baking more and more pastries, they extended the store’s hours and kept it open every day except Christmas and Thanksgiving. They attracted Heather, and Aurorafest got started. In the end, they probably shaped this community as much as Bill Adair before them.
But now, they say, they’re ready for a change.
“We want to do some traveling,” Deb says. She also notes that it’s been difficult to home-school Connor and mind the store simultaneously. While it’s not busy during the school season, the irregular interruptions make it difficult for her to teach.
But they do plan to move somewhere just as remote; Dan says he’s pushing for Costa Rica.
“This has been a good life,” Dan tells me, “but I’d like to continue to live a good life.”
Heather, on the other hand, tells me she’s never leaving. Polebridge, she says, is the end of the road.
When we finish talking, Heather invites me to take a walk along the river with her and her dogs.
The river south of the Mercantile narrows a bit, and there are ice dams whose jagged topography makes them look like scale models of Glacier’s peaks. Followed by three dogs, we walk out onto the ice, right up to where the river runs past.
Our progress south is eventually stopped by a wide gap in the ice and we turn around and walk north until we reckon we’ve passed the Mercantile. The snow beyond the riverbanks is thigh-deep, and we have to break trail through it to get to the road. The walk takes much longer than anticipated, but there’s nowhere else I need to be.
When we get back I eat lunch at the Mercantile, pack up and clean my cabin. I say goodbye to Dan and Deb, whose store is suddenly packed with a dozen visitors all wanting pastries, then head over to the saloon to say goodbye to Heather.
She’s in the kitchen, grilling chicken breasts for tonight’s dinner: enchiladas with a green chili sauce. We go to the front of the saloon and she sits down at the piano and asks if I’d like to hear a song.
It’s something she says she wrote this year, as winter began. There’s a repeating line about standing still, watching the seasons as they swirl past.
We say goodbye, and within a few minutes I’m driving back toward Whitefish. I decide that I love the winter in Polebridge, perhaps more than the summer, but that I’m not ready to leave the rest of the world behind just yet. In the meantime, I keep driving to where the road branches out, fills with cars, and gets complicated again.