Off to see Montana’s Mermaids — a road trip to Great Falls
16 Tuesday Oct 2012
Oh my, I am way behind on blogging. I’m truly sorry. But, wow, what a whirlwind few months: busy summer, wedding in San Francisco (um, not mine, in case you were wondering) and then almost a month traveling through Italy, France and Morocco. Watch for posts on that soon — I promise. Until then, here’s a trip I took in the spring.
Jesus bought a round of shots as one of the mermaids swam by, her slightly diaphanous tail rippling in the aquamarine water. And that moment solidifies the oddness of the trip we’re on.
We have come to Great Falls partly for a chance to get out of town and do a little shopping. But mostly we have come for the Sip n’ Dip Lounge at the O’Haire Motor Inn – a tiki-themed bar where mermaids swim most nights as patrons sip their themed drinks.
Almost a decade ago, GQ named the Sip n’ Dip it’s top pick for bars worth flying for. It’s a distinction the bar remains proud of, noting it on its website.
I can’t remember who told me about the mermaids or when.
Mostly, I have associated Great Falls with a Target and being the site of one-time Lethbridge alderman Dar Heatherington’s faked disappearance from the Montana city, which grabbed international headlines. But somewhere along the way, the idea of seeing the mermaids swim at the Sip n’ Dip took root and was at the back of my mind when I’ve thought about heading stateside for a road trip and cross-border shopping. My friend, Kirsten, who flew out from Victoria for an extra long weekend, was game. So we booked our hotel online, made a six-hour playlist for the iPod (a key factor for song choice were ones we could belt out as we made the trip) and, passports in hand, headed for the border.
Any expectations I have are challenged as we get out of the taxi at the O’Haire Motor Inn on a rooftop parking lot in front of a non-descript door, surrounded by a handful of smokers.
The bored-looking bouncer checks our ID and wraps our wrists in bright yellow bands with Sip & Dip Lounge, Great Falls, MT, written on them. And then we push our way in.
The ceiling is a faux thatched roof; pleather banquettes ring the edge of the small establishment filled with fake flowers and Christmas lights, mermaid-inspired plaques and statues. It all looks as if it hasn’t changed since the 1960s.
It’s packed with patrons, sipping American beer and blue cocktails. Many have gathered around the pleather-padded seating area that encloses Piano Pat Spoonheim and her key-boards. She is as vintage as the decor.
We can barely spot her – her tiny stature, combined with the tall bar (and even taller guests) make it nearly impossible – but her voice carries through the bar.
Her rendition of Sweet Caroline gets the entire bar singing.
We push past the crowd and settle into two turquoise seats right at the main bar – prime seating in front of the two windows that look into the pool where a goggled mermaid finally swims by, long hair and colour-coordinated tail floating behind her.
She surfaces quickly for a catch of breath, then slips down again to wave and smile in the few seconds she has before needing more air. At last, a second one appears and for a minute or two they co-ordinate their appearances – one for each window.
A flutter of dollar bills, tips taped to the window in exchange for a smile and wave, obscures part of the view, but we are two of only a few actually watching the underwater act.
We order some drinks and I marvel briefly at the $3 price tag for a highball before moving onto one of the nautical-themed drinks, some of which are available in giant, keepsake fishbowls.
At the bartender’s suggestion, I pick the Marvellous Mai Tai: a four-shot, three-rum concoction with a hint of citrus. It leaves me feeling like the mermaids are not the only ones swimming.
And then Jesus strikes up a conversation, eventually offering to buy a round of shots.
Jesus, who goes more simply by the name Jay, moved to Great Falls from Texas, taking on odd jobs at a nearby ranch. He barely looks at the mermaids, but I watch the windows carefully for their brief but steady appearances, waving back when they wave, echoing their smiles.
I’m delighted when one finally swims through a hula hoop set up in the middle of the pool.
And, as we watch, the crowd thins and Jesus calls it a night.
The mermaids disappear from the swimming pool, taking their glowing balls and hoop. They reappear in human form in the bar, wet hair and all, to gently peel the dollar bills from the window and head home.
The next day we fulfil our second mission: shopping.
We hit the stores along the main drag: Target, the Ross and JC Penney at the Holiday Village mall, and the independent boutiques inside.
But we also head down-town where brick buildings house antique stores and other shops, including Candy Masterpiece, where we stop for chocolates, gummies and other candies. Their vanilla caramels are so good we stop again the next day as we are heading back. But not before lunch at the retro 5th Street Diner. The burger is average, but the milkshakes and soda floats are stellar.
And then, with the iPod on and the sunroof open, we make the drive home.
Kirsten and me at the Sip n’ Dip at closing time.