The place was stocked with beer, though. Lots of it. Their inventory must have been pretty mobile. The bartender just pointed a thumb over his shoulder when I asked for a beer list.
“We’ve got everything in those shelves.”
I counted five rows of 20 cubbyholes each, and every one had a different beer or cider. Maybe one was empty, just for the cliche.
It took a while to pick one from the assortment of ‘domestics’ and craft beers, but I landed on an American brewed Scottish dark of some name and brewery I can’t remember. Not because it wasn’t delightful, mind you. In short order, I was back at the bar and there was a bottle in front of me, with a glass.
Not just delightful. It was really good.
I pored over the menu, scrolling over the typicals before considering the standard grill order: burger and fries. They had the various compilations of cheeses, bacon, avocado, chipotle… the usual stuff …but a couple interesting ones popped out. Hmmmm…
After three days of booting down interstates and lonely secondary highways through tracts of range land and desert nothingness, the thought of mixing this fine beer with yet another burger lost its appeal on the third draft from the glass.
It wasn’t but a couple tens of seconds after putting down the menu that the bartender came to collect it, looked at me with tilted head and raised eyebrow, and a pause.
“I’ll have the rib-eye. Rare.”
With a nod and a wry grin, twisted to one side in a manner I took for approval, he sauntered off to the kitchen.
Can’t fault the service. Fast. Efficient. Personal.
I rolled the beer around on my tongue. Savouring the bubbly feel of it, the bitter and sweet.
“How do you like it?”
I’m not ashamed I can’t remember any particular thing about the man or his wife. Like the bartender they were genial, friendly. Kind, even. That’s what matters most to me, anyway. Not who you are, or how you look, or even who you say you are, but how you treat others.
Of course, I know nothing about how they treat anyone but me and a bartender, but they were kind enough to us that I’ll assume it’s their regular demeanor, their raison d’etre, if you’ll allow.
I suppose over the years I’ve met more than a few truly evil people in passing whom I’ll always remember as kind and compassionate. So be it. For a few moments in time, they managed to suspend their evil ways and make my life a little more pleasant for having walked through it.
Better than the evil fucks I’ve known or worked with who’ve taken every opportunity to make my life miserable.
“It’s really good!”
My enthusiasm is honest.
He smiles. Turns out it’s one of his favourites. The bottle next to his glass is another American/Scottish brew. An ale. He chuckles when I ask him about that.
“Hey, there are actually 99 beers on that wall. Of course I’m trying something different!”
How is it, I ask him.
“Not quite the pleaser you’ve got there, but it’s really good, too.”
I’ll be empty before the steak arrives, so mental note to order what he’s drinking then. In the meantime the three of us have an animated conversation about where we’re going, where we’ve been, what we’ve seen along the way. No kids. Lots of nieces and nephews and an SUV packed with presents.
Eventually, there’s a rather robust plate on the bar, a freshly-filled glass of Scottish Ale, and a conversation continuing between bites and gulps. They went the standard route with their orders, and the burgers look as good as I expected. The wife offers me some of her fries to complement the freshly roasted veggies next to the steak, but the gravied mash is awesome, so I decline, but have a couple just for the flavour and crunch.
The rib-eye leaks red jus into the mash as I cut it. Three days of fast food and a couple of “meh”staurants left me primed for a juicy, and this steak quickly wipes those memories from my palate. It’s perfect. Sear, tenderness and flavour.
More people have been coming in than leaving, so the place has picked up an atmosphere. Funny that we call it that. I mean, what’s creating the atmosphere is a bunch of warm bodies breathing it. Our conversation mingles with theirs and the “air” comes alive.
The couple finish their burgers and beers, then head back to the hotel after friendly good-byes, happy holidays, and pleasant journeys.
“Early start tomorrow.”
I fork the last bite of steak and chew on that while spreading the remaining mash in the lingering juices, which I’ll finish off while waiting for my third beer. I went back to the Scottish dark I’d started with. The fellow was right. This one’s a pleaser. I’m sure the 97 beers I didn’t try will forgive me.
The quiet on my arrival has stirred up some and while you can’t really say the room is rockin’, it’s picked up the kinda vibe that’s plain old pleasant to hang in. So I take my time with the beer. Catch up on social media, correspondence and news of the world with my phone. Eavesdrop on a few nearby conversations, and watch the bartender for a bit.
He’s gone from spending most of his time shootin’ the shit with the waitress and bantering with the dart-playing locals to being fairly well occupied with the tasks of bar tending. He’s good at it, at ease, with a rhythm that suggest he enjoys the work. I don’t wait long after I’ve finished the third before he asks me if I want another.
“Much as I’d love to, the cheque will be fine.”
I try to give him the same kind of look he gave me earlier when I’d ordered the rib-eye, the kind that says “I’d love to as much for the beer as for just the pleasure of being here.” When he drops the cheque in front of me with the machine, I punch in a good tip, take my receipt, and leave it there on the bar on my way out the door as the bar’s receipt chatters out.
“Thanks!” and a wave from the bartender, who’s serving bottles to another travelling couple.
I nod, and wave back.
It’s a street-crossing and a short walk before the motel’s abundant Christmas lights scatter colour off the misty rain are visible. The Atomic Inn would be lit up like a, well, like a UFO even if it weren’t Christmas, but now it’s gone extreme kitsch.
I love it.
I stop in reception where the owner has found the box for the Dickens Village church she’d sold me earlier. One wall in reception is replete with the little illuminated ceramic homes, businesses and churches, there strictly for display, not for sale. Except that when I mentioned to her while checking in that I’ve been racking my brain since leaving Vancouver for a Christmas gift more my mother, she happily offered several options. For $10, which I figure is a bargain. She won’t take more.
It’s perfect. My mother has a dozen or so of these on a high shelf in her living room. On Christmas day, much to her delight, I’ll find the perfect place for it in her village which, up ’til now, has had everything but a church.
Dickens and I make our way back to my room, where among the sci-fi, NASA and Soviet-era space program pictures on the wall is, inexplicably, a photograph of an American F-86 Sabre. In 1961, just a few months before the Soviets began building the Berlin Wall, I was born on a Canadian air force base in West Germany, where my father piloted F-86s during the Cold War.
It’s an odd, but oddly reassuring, note to end an odd but ultimately rewarding serendipity which just several hours earlier had rewarded my online search for accommodation with the last remaining room in the last remaining reasonably priced motel within a 100 mile radius of Death Valley.
Driving an extra fifty miles in the dark to the other side of Death Valley to save over $100 on a night’s accommodation wasn’t part of the original plan. But spending the next day driving through the National Park was. Trade-offs… sometimes they work out for the better.
I fall asleep, glad for the delightful way the universe often doles out the good stuff when conditions otherwise indicate the situation has gone awry. All-in-all, a pleasant end to the day.
Sourdough Bar & Grill
Nevada, United States of America
Taken during travel, 2019