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As a youngster, I was enamored with the idea of becoming a pirate. Sailing from one exotic locale to another, free on the high seas, living like a waterborne outlaw. As a teenager, I was forbidden from drinking alcohol, which just made me want it more. I also liked to fight. Pirates were forever drunk on rum, and got to fire cannonballs at their enemies from the workplace. It made sense to seriously consider it as a career path.
During the golden era of Caribbean piracy, the safe haven for all swashbucklers was a Haitian seaport called Tortuga. In various literary and cinematic depictions, Tortuga is portrayed as a lawless party town, where pirates arrived to stash some of their loot, then spend the rest on rum, women, explosives, flintlock pistols, and all manner of debauchery.
I liked that idea a lot— a place with no rules, no civility, and a mad, unshackled populace; a home for the derelict and unhinged, where it was perfectly OK for one to marinate in a barrel of rum, and chaos was the accepted standard.
I really wanted to be a fucking pirate. Even now, nearing age thirty, part of me wishes I had the balls to braid my beard, get finger tattoos, and dress like Jack Sparrow. Unfortunately, my receding hairline would make it impossible to pull off the dreadlocks.
But the golden age of piracy is dead and the only respectable buccaneers still left operate out of Somalia. The plane trip there is prohibitively expensive, so when I decided to abandon mainstream society to become an aquatic outlaw, I took a job as a river guide instead. I couldn’t call myself a pirate, but I did find my own version of Tortuga in the high alpine desert of the American West.
It was a dive bar tucked away in the mountains of Montana, alongside one of the country’s most pristine waterways. I won’t name it, as I’d like to avoid a lawsuit (in fact, you should just consider this fiction, Dear Reader). Instead, I’ll call it Tortuga West.
Tortuga West was housed in a building that served as a brothel during the region’s fur-trapping heyday. It became a saloon in 1898, and rumors suggest that there are tunnels behind the basement beer fridge that were used to smuggle booze during the height of prohibition. Its identity was rooted in a long tradition of defiance and lawlessness. But by day, it appeared innocent.
When the sun was still shining, Tortuga West was filled to the brim with tourists from the Midwest, who lazed about, drinking beer they believed to be authentic and local, gorging themselves on shrimp tacos and sloppy burgers, stopping their gluttony only to wipe ketchup from the corner of their chubby children’s lips. A few of the river guides who took those same tourists rafting would show up in the late afternoon to rehash their respective days on the water, have a PBR, and spend tip money on greasy, carb-heavy food, in order to line their stomachs with a protective barrier ahead of the evening festivities, or to ease the after-effects of indulgence from the night before.
It would be a major embellishment if I were to suggest that every night in Tortuga West was madness. On most nights, there’d be twenty patrons or less: the town drunks, involuntarily celibate cowboys on the prowl, or park rangers fed up with litter duty. Sometimes local blowhard business owners would slide their swollen guts over a barstool, order top shelf shit, pontificate about their vision for the future of the little town, and pretend they were high-rolling movers and shakers. And always, always, there was the aging, sallow-skinned crew that could pass for statues bolted to the seats in front of the Keno and slot machines, were it not for the Pall Mall and Maverick cigarettes they stepped outside to smoke every five minutes.
But when the sun settled behind the mountains on some nights, the ghouls came out, and it became a gathering place for the freest folk I’ve ever known.
There were five different raft companies, each of which had its own distinct personality. The hippies who lived in the Rat’s Nest would stroll down the long hill into town after sipping a few hard seltzers, convening on the bridge with the happy-go-lucky folks who called Man Mountain home, then meeting the heavy drinkers who’d made their way to Tortuga West from the Hobo Hut. The Cobra Kai kids would roll in from Tent City, and five miles away, The Red Eyes at The Ranch would pile into the Minnesota Dream’s Jeep to make the pilgrimage too.
Every few weeks, there was a special event. Nights like the Toga Party, the PBR Ball, and the Gender Bender. Those were always delightful evenings; it was hard not to laugh when one dude dressed like a chick and stood on the bar, then acted as if he were about to deliver an emotionally charged speech, only to lift the edge of his dress to shake his bits and pieces at a hundred whiskey-soaked dirtbags.
There were concerts too. When folk bands or other acts came to town, the back bar and music hall were unlocked, and every breed of degenerate showed up. The middle-aged hippie in the Steelers gear was always there, dancing as if he’d ingested a dangerous amount of bath salts. Between shots of whiskey, the Tom Petty lookalike spoke gibberish to anyone who would stop and listen, and that portly kid in the Grateful Dead t-shirt with the untamed ginger mane would do Yo-yo tricks in the gravel smoking area.
But theme nights and concerts weren’t when the purest pirate-like spirit came out. That happened once a week, every week— Raft Guide Tuesday.
Why Tuesday? Probably because that’s when the fewest tourists were in town. Doesn’t really matter though. Tuesday meant discounted PBR, a raffle, a free round of Pendleton shots for everyone, and $3 margaritas that weren’t really margaritas, but a 16-ounce plastic cup of bottom shelf tequila, with a splash of orange juice and Triple Sec on top.
It was a way to thank the hardworking paddlers who drove tourist traffic in town, and a clever method through which the Tortuga West owners were able to devour our tip money on what would have been the slowest night of the week. And every week, the dirtbags were more than happy to feed them our green, get plastered and run wild.
It wasn’t just the river guides who showed up for RGT though. On the deck, without fail, you’d find the burnouts sitting in a circle as one of them stroked a guitar. The barback who lived under the bridge was always happy to bum you a smoke, the housekeeping staff from the hotels in the National Park showed up in droves, foreigners on J-1 Visas ordered cocktails the bartender didn’t know how to make, and the horseback riding guides wore their best jeans to turn loose and look for a lay near the pool tables.
In reality, the non-river guides were there to take advantage of cheap drinks. But I like to believe that they were there to watch the show put on by us dirtbags, because it was a grand one.
The tequila went down easy, tall boy PBRs disappeared at a rapid pace, and our inhibitions were suffocated without mercy. If I had enough margaritas, myself and a redheaded Missourian would burn two days’ worth of tip money at the jukebox, ensuring that The Beach Boys’ Kokomo played on repeat until last call. Stools were knocked over, drinks were spilled or thrown across the room, a thousand embellished river stories were told, veteran guides harassed rookies, lady paddlers danced on the pool tables, and I’ve even heard rumors of copulation without the proper use of protection occurring in that basement beer fridge.
A crew that ate too many mushrooms scaled the building to dance on the tin roof, nipples and nether regions were allowed to breathe free, and couples sometimes dry humped in plain sight.
Oh, and there was the night the main bartender disappeared as a dozen of us were waiting for the next round of margaritas. We found him mid-shit, passed out, with the bathroom stall locked. After breaking the door open, we got him home and I nominated myself as the fill-in bartender. A lot of dirtbags enjoyed free drinks for the remainder of that evening, and I walked away with enough tip money to buy a new kayak (and he somehow got to keep his job).
That’s just a taste of what occurred each week. I recall very little. Apparently, most of the other attendees don’t remember a whole lot either. In the process of writing this, I texted Zach, who worked for another company and is one of my favorite storytellers, to see if he had any anecdotes to share. He texted back “There is not a single RGT I remember. It’s all a fog."
What I do remember, is that it was a laugh from start to finish, and I felt like I’d found my clan of swashbucklers, though instead of rum, we were spending our loot on tequila and Pabst.
It wasn’t always a big love and chuckle fest. There were tensions between companies. Once or twice a summer, fists would fly, and the sweetheart who ran the local café would scold us all in the street, until the sheriff showed up and we scattered. But by and large, it felt like we were all together, and it was our place.
After choking a troublemaker unconscious at the Rodeo Dance, I was offered a job working the door whenever I wanted. It was incredible, not because I got to take part in the removal of scumbags, but because on nights when I was bouncing, I could snag a few twelve-packs for my friends, and the manager would turn a blind eye.
But it also meant that on nights when I was just a patron, the bartenders deferred to my 6’5 friend (who looked like a tree trunk with a mustache) and I whenever someone started problems.
One night, a park employee got aggressive with our lady bartender, who I loved dearly. She screamed for us, and we dashed through the crowd, then dragged him out by the neck. After being thrown into the street, he threatened to return with backup. I hocked a loogie in his direction and went back inside to drink the free shot and beer I knew would be waiting for me.
But he wasn’t kidding.
Thirty minutes later, he was spilling out of a Toyota Celica with three other dudes, calling my name. When I stepped out, they asked to scrap. I analyzed the musculature of his entourage, calculated my odds and asked if they’d allow me a moment to urinate first.
I dashed back into Tortuga West, and rather than look for my closest friends and coworkers, I simply called out “Raft guides! I need backup!”
A dozen dirtbags dropped their drinks and followed me out front, at least two or three from each company, one carrying a pool stick, another being a kid I’d almost squared up with weeks before. The Celica crew saw the waterlogged savages at my back and drove off.
Despite the petty squabbles between companies, we all felt that Tortuga West was ours to defend. If a non-regular caused a problem, everyone stood up.
To you, the ignorant observer, Tortuga West would look like your run-of-the-mill, small town dump. But to me, in the nicotine stained walls, the kitschy signs, the tacky decorations and the worn wooden bar top, a special spirit lived in perpetuity. It was where I got intimate with a subculture that has come to define a large part of who I am, where we dirtbags got to be the animals we are inside, and where there was always the promise of cold PBR after a long day on the water. If you were ever short on dough, the bartender who passed out in that stall made sure you got at least one drink on the house.
Over the course of two whitewater seasons, I wreaked havoc and had a lifetime's worth of laughs in Tortuga West. In the summer of 2019, I moved to another, more challenging river and had to leave my beloved bar behind. Through the grapevine, I heard that ownership had been bought out and Tortuga West was overhauled. Raft Guide Tuesday was cancelled and prices were jacked up on both food and drinks. It was no longer a home for the broke, dirty, sunburnt and unhinged.
And then, in the summer of 2020, I got word that it had caught fire and burned to the ground.
I like to believe it was the river gods who set fire to the place, in retaliation for the new ownership’s attempt at pushing out the riffraff to make room for fat wallets on vacation.
But a lot of good folks lost work and their apartments behind the bar. Cooks, bartenders, food runners and managers. Rumor is that new ownership set up a GoFundMe under the guise of helping the staff, raised a shit ton of dough, handed a few employees a pittance, then took off with the lion’s share of the relief money and whatever insurance had paid out. These are just allegations, but apparently, the staff was left to fend for themselves after losing their workplace and homes at the height of the pandemic.
I don’t know if it’s true. Again, they're just allegations. Conversation among locals in the town that’s home to Tortuga West is sometimes a whirlwind of gossip and who-gives-a-fucks. So, I won’t try to state the rumors as fact. It’s probably blather.
But based on the trajectory of other businesses I saw in my time there, after rebuilding, it’s likely that the new regime will start serving some “locally-sourced” horseshit on crostinis, do away with tall boy PBRs in favor of more overpriced craft beer, and make a concentrated effort to erase any trace of the subculture that once called that dirty dive home.
In an afternoon, a million memories were burnt to a crisp. But those memories aren’t dead. Beneath whatever tourist trap they erect, the ashes of the old Tortuga West will lie. Decades of river guide giggles, camaraderie and spirit will live on in the dust of the former whorehouse and saloon. I hope that dirtbag magic is carried through the central air system they install, and infects the next generation of paddlers in that little town, inspiring them to drink heavily, don their peg legs and eyepatches, cause chaos, and return Tortuga West to what it’s supposed to be: a haven for the river pirates of the American West.
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