Off the Beaten Track But Going Strong

[A bit of southern, rivertop non-fiction, though the names have been changed to protect the guilty. This is the longest post I’ve ever done or am likely to do again. At twice the usual word count, I realize that to post this is a risk, but hey, if DSCN5931 you’ve been reading RR for any length of time, you are not a typical reader of the Blogosphere. You have more than the average attention span, not to mention the ability to recognize decent writing (wink!) when you see it… Please enjoy…]

1.

Matt McCloskey had been tending his bar for 35 years. He lived on the building’s second floor and, with exception of his wife who scrubbed the floor and tables six days a week, had worked the business by himself.

On the drab and peeling face of the establishment, the words RIVERTOP BAR & RESTAURANT arched above a gravel parking lot. The bar-cum-restaurant was situated in the curve of an obscure road and drew farmers and various denizens of the hills to the allure of beer and words with friends.

By early afternoon, Matt had not yet switched on the power for the jukebox. A window, broken from a weekend tussle, wore its aging cardboard pane. A stuffed grouse flew as always just above a taxidermied trout. The creatures’ habitat, an anemic green wall paint, led the eye to a bathroom door for “Bucks” (with a sign that read “Wood For Sale”) and to a doorway for “Does” (with a fading sign prohibiting the use of foul language).

For 35 years the short and stocky barman had worked the place and never felt what he was feeling now. Old Ben Newgate, thin and wiry as a sapling with his leg-brace and handcarved walking stick, may have noticed Matt’s altered state but didn’t show it. As if nothing special was about to happen, a handful of friends tossed a steady stream of jokes and insults at each other. Matt, sitting crosslegged on his stool behind the bar, was chewing a cigar stub, as accustomed, but I could see the specter of anxiety on his lined round face.DSCN5914

His smoky blue pants, matching jacket and shiny zippered boots, were worn for a reason. It would come– the long-awaited interview!

Kyle Everson, a reporter with The Cawtakarp Times, was scheduled to arrive in minutes and her article would land him in the valley papers. I asked Matt how he felt about being interviewed. He smiled and bared his dentures, turned and ambled toward the television. “She’ll be late,” he said. “Probably scared to come inside.”

I thought of how, after two years of steady patronage, I had finally become a friend. One day Matt handed me a glass of dregs and stated, “On the house.” I knew I had arrived. Old friends got the bottom of a keg for free, while relative strangers had to pay for it. At no other time did anyone, ever, get a free beer at the Rivertop Bar & Restaurant.

Matt turned down the volume of the TV. Long before, I had learned that in here the TV could be blaring in obligatory fashion but the customers would rarely give it a glance. The local gossip, news, comedy, and put-downs were typically strong enough to relegate the tube to something like a mumbling and obsequious customer alone with his schizophrenia.

Kyle’s slender form soon cut boldly into the room. All eyes fell upon her. “Hello,” she said. “I’m Kyle Everson… Matthew McCloskey?”

I wondered if this blonde-haired reporter imagined hushed obscenities from the men who sat behind her but, if so, she kept her poise and moved easily to the bar and sat beside the jars of fat green pickles and pinkish hog knuckles. Matt introduced her to his customers. “Old-timers, mostly,” he said. “Been here since I opened up the place.”

Kyle ordered a Coke and then commenced the interview by asking if rowdiness was a problem here. “Naw,” answered Matt. “Most of my customers are nice and quiet.”

“Not when they’s under the affluence of incohol!” cackled Benjamin.

Matt confessed. “I gotta throw out a few every now and then.” He jerked his thumb toward the kitchen door through which came sounds of a large dog trying to paw its way past an obstruction. “That,” he added, “will keep anybody at his seat.”DSCN5930

It was time to show off the bullet hole in the woodwork of his bar. Since the wide aperture appeared, he had taken to holstering a .38 beneath his jacket. He spoke proudly of the ragged hole, as if for the first time. “I have trouble once in a while with hippies. They smoke that marijuana out there, or get drunk and litter up the parking lot. Sometimes I get disrespective of them.”

“I don’t understand them young cats nowadays,” mused Ben Newgate. “That stuff they smoke– it don’t make yer heels kick up like that tasty corn likker do. Whoops!… Shouldn’t a said that in front of a newspaper woman!” Everyone laughed and watched Benjamin struggle to his feet and then lurch toward the men’s room.

Kyle ordered another Coke and, then, buckling from persistent ribbing from the guys, changed her mind and asked for a beer. Matt handed her a “Lite” and said, “On the house.”

A congratulatory cheer rang out from the customers. Someone shouted, “Christ, I been drinkin’ here for 30 years and never once…!”

2.

For 35 years Matt had been proprietor and never had a word about his business come to print in the local papers. Sure, there had been some mention of the infamous curve in which the restaurant was nestled– of how the cars, trucks and buses had spun off the road and tumbled into a stone wall. Matt and his wife had made their share of calls to state police and rescue squads for assistance to the dazed and injured travelers. “Accidents used to happen every dang time it rained. Sloshed-over gas and oil coated the road, and when it rained it was slicker than hell,” said Matt.

“You don’t mind that they’ve rerouted most of the traffic from your business?” asked Kyle. She knew the restaurant’s location was like an oasis drying in a desert of the modern world. For years the restaurant had been a salient feature of the main road looping through this mountain range. Then a four-lane road was slung across the ridge above the restaurant and nearby hamlet. It gave the valley dwellers safer, more efficient access to the cities beyond, and it gave the urban dwellers an open road to the mountains when they sought a respite from the summer heat and madness. The Rivertop never benefitted from their visits.

“Oh my business really depends on old friends and customers,” replied Matt. He exchanged an over-chewed cigar for a bright red pipe and then lit it. Thinking that Kyle would soon be taking photographs, he doffed his spectacles. “My friends come back no matter where the road is,” he added. “I got second generations coming in here now. Sons of fathers who are friends of mine stop by. It’s a quiet place and folks like it that way. This place is all I know.”DSCN5934

A man in his 60s entered the bar and sat beside Kyle. “Hey, you’re with the newspaper aren’t you? Is it possible to advertise for a wife in your paper? I got social security and a good pension. Hey! You’re not married are you?”

“Off it Henry!” protested Benjamin. “She’s probably got a husband big enough to fight bear with a fly swatter.” He rose from his seat and balanced on his braces. “Didja hear the joke about the newlyweds who….”

Kyle began to look uneasy, slightly out of the control she liked to have. Matt complained. “Alright guys… she’s gonna think you’re a bunch of dirty old men.”

“We’re not dirty old men,” quipped Henry. “We’re just vulgar senior citizens!”

Kyle reached for her camera while Matt McCloskey rocked from his stool and pulled a veteran black cowboy hat from beneath the bar. He twisted back into his seat and slapped the cowboy hat firmly on his head.

For months I’d known that cowboy hat as an integral part of Matt’s daily wardrobe. Its curled and pointed front had given visual balance to the square-rimmed glasses and the all-seeing eyes. But today the hat had been mysteriously shelved and then procured as if with an afterthought.DSCN5920

I turned to face the large windows of the Rivertop Bar & Restaurant, the woods that edged the road, the home of bobcat, bear and ghost of American chestnut tree. I saw the quietude and then the face of an urban menace growling everywhere beyond. Here, for now, humanity and wildness bought each other drinks.

3.

Two weeks after Matt’s interview, I dropped in to see him. I had read Kyle’s feature article, “It’s Off the Beaten Track But Going Strong,” in The Cawtakarp Times and thought it pretty good. Matt was jubilant and already had a copy of the full-page article framed and hanging underneath the taxidermied trout and grouse.

One photograph was interesting, if not a bit absurd. It showed Matt standing underneath his cowboy hat and offering a porcelain cup of coffee to the viewer. The cup, distorted hugely past proportion, outsized Matt McCloskey’s head with hat and all.

Matt was smiling as he lit a new cigar. After 35 years of working in one place, he was noticed by the papers, and the article shone like a star.

“Did that article drum up any new business for you?” I asked.

“Naw. Not really,” answered Matt. “Just some old friends who returned from who knows where to rib me about that picture with the coffee cup.”DSCN5939

 

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About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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14 Responses to Off the Beaten Track But Going Strong

  1. Bob Stanton says:

    Nice yarn, Walt! I have no doubt that the names were changed to protect the guilty. Man, there’s lotsa Rivertop B&Rs around here, and you’ve captured their essence nicely. Now you’ve got me thinking about some pickled eggs and a Yuengling!

  2. My thanks, Bob. If you know of some B&Rs like this in PA, savor them while you can. I find that they’re disappearing fast, due to all the regs and the reevaluation of social priorities, but the ones that do remain and haven’t yet become totally plastic, are tough establishments and have seen a lot. I’d gladly shoot the breeze with you over some eggs and suds there (will pass on the pig knuckles).

  3. Anonymous says:

    Come on down to Florida and I can take you into the General Store at Slip-‘n’-Slide and buy you a beer. You can have your choice of Budweiser, Busch or Bush Light (cans only). A buck apiece or six dollars for a six-pack.

  4. I’d love to come down to the Slip-‘n’-Slide right now in the middle of this brutal winter, even if those flavors of beer are not my favorites, to be sure. At a buck apiece, though, it’s hard to go wrong on a hot and humid day. Reminds me of how I could buy 2 quarts of Stegmaier for a buck at a general store in Cameron, NY, but, yeah, that was back in the 70s. I love the character of the old general stores! Thanks much for the comment.

  5. Brent says:

    I just looked on Google’s street view, and the place you’re writing about (I think) is still there, nestled in the curve. I’ve never driven past it but the photographs show that the immediate surroundings are still very green and rural. From what I can find in a Google search, it looks like the place is still a bar serving locals barbeque, but I can’t imagine “Matt” is still at the helm. Maybe on one of your visits, we can make the trek to investigate it.

    • A re-visit would be good, I think, though I’ve been reluctant to do so, fearing that it’s just gone the way of so much more that was. Old “Matt” is long gone, so I’ve heard. But the mountain was special for me, living as I did at the base of it. The Appalachian Trail passes just above the site. And in the mountain itself, is the federal government’s “doomsday city,” very hush, though only a mile or two from the bar.

  6. Mark W says:

    Enjoyed the story Walt, thanks for posting!

  7. Steve 24-6,
    Funny you should say, because the business at the “Rivertop” when I knew it was almost evenly divided between local mountaineers and employees of the “doomsday city” (which is still there underground). I’ve got a real story of that place that will appear in my memoir, scheduled to be published in early fall of this year. Living there, on the edge, knowing that a Soviet nuke was targeted for the spot if WWIII were to begin (this was in the 1970s) was a creepy feeling, indeed.

  8. Mike says:

    Nicely done, Walt. So many empty establishments in those Catskill and Adirondack towns these days. You brought us all back. I was fortunate to have some barstool time in these forgotten places a while back and am fortunate for it. Thank you for bringing us back.

    • You’re welcome, and thanks, Mike. Yes, empty establishments or, in many cases, places that once had plenty of character, along with good food and beer, and have now gone completely plastic and lifeless. Glad you’ve had a taste of the real thing, and will know another when you find it.

  9. Brent says:

    Having just visited, I don’t think it’s changed too much. I didn’t notice whether there was a jukebox, but there’s a little podium in the corner for acoustic musicians. The place is still small and dimly lit, although not shabby at all. All of the beers are bottled; most are American macro pilseners (Bud Light, Bud, Coors Light, etc.), but there was also Yuengling, Sam Adams, Heineken, Guinness…and even Sierra Nevada IPA and a couple Virginia beers from Devil’s Backbone. The Sierra Nevada and the Devil’s Backbone IPA were $4.75 apiece–not cheap, but not bad by Northern Virginia standards. I didn’t look at a food menu.

    The original owner’s granddaughter, who played acoustic guitar when you knew the place, now owns the place (with her husband) and still plays guitar sometimes. They both thought it was cool that we had stopped in because my parents had a history with the bar. If we get a chance to go back with you, I don’t think you’d be disappointed. It certainly hasn’t gone to the yuppies!

    • Brent,
      Glad you guys had a chance to stop in at the Horseshoe Curve. I spent many an evening (and afternoon) at the place in the late 70s. From your photos and the web site, the restaurant is looking better than it did on the outside, and the interior still resonates with a similar rural character although its seems brighter now and filled with more plaques, signs and geegaws. Their beer is now more diversified (thank god). We used to have to drink National for 50 or 65 cents a bottle. I remember Tracy and her boyfriend playing guitars there when she was just a kid. It would be fun to revisit some day.

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