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Remembering Peter Bowen

Peter Bowen by John Zumpano

© John Zumpanao

by Marc Beaudin

Wherever I travel, I often find myself looking for the same bar. Quiet. Dark but not gloomy. Pool table. Handful of regulars. Absolutely no Fox News on the TV. Preferably Patsy Cline on the jukebox.

In different cities, in different periods of my life, the bar has had several names: Ewald’s in Saginaw, the Old Bar in Bay City, the Black Cat Voodoo Lounge in San Francisco, Palmer’s in Minneapolis, Yogi’s in NYC. Countless others. So, when I first came to Livingston, Montana, nearly 20 years ago, it was only natural that I found the Owl Lounge.

I stepped in, away from the glare of midday light, gave a moment for my eyes to adjust, and saw I was home. The pool table sat silently with the detritus of its last game scattered on its face: Stripes had won soundly. Two guys talking gravely and gravelly at the bar who, judging by how they were dressed, were either ranchers, railroad workers, itinerant miners or Hollywood producers. Dana with his beard, somewhere between Merlin and Santa Claus, served me an Oly.

The only other person there sat alone at a table with an overflowing ashtray and a glass of river-brown whiskey. His stony face and long gray hair gave the impression that he’d just ridden 100 miles by horseback through the worst of an eastern Montana wind. There may have been a small notebook on the table with a pen laid across it, but maybe my imagination has added that detail.

We exchanged greetings and his eyes danced with a blue I would have never expected to co-exist with such a weathered and montane face. They were as if obsidian glass had been forged from mountain bluebirds. It was Peter Bowen.

He asked me to join him. We drank and talked. I bummed one of his cigarettes. It turned out we were both writers, and we talked shop for a while. He, of course, knew my cousin Doug Peacock. In fact, as I write these memories, it occurs to me that I was probably there with Doug, and Doug had made the introduction. But somehow, I came to meet Peter, to be drawn in by his eyes, by his soft voice that seemed to be from another century—a frontier elegance like a cowboy who’d emigrated from a great European city and had come West to find his fortune, but more importantly his freedom. That seems like an important word when considering Peter. He was, more so that the vast majority of people one meets in this life, fully and freely himself. There was no question that Peter Bowen was Peter Bowen, entirely. Most people are only partly themselves and partly who others decide them to be. Peter Bowen had found the freedom and courage to be 100% Peter Bowen. I envy that.

Livingston has a great community of creatives, a loose family of artists in every incarnation of the word: poets, painters, novelists, journalists, photographers, musicians, actors, cooks, naturalists, curators, educators, fly-fishers, bartenders, etc. When one of us dies, we come together in a way I’ve not seen anywhere else I’ve lived. There’s usually an impromptu wake on the day word breaks at Glenn’s bar—one of our bases of operation where the Friday happy hours are a master class in storytelling. Later, the official celebration of a life is held at the Elks Club, where Dana and his legendary beard have re-located to. Our community gathers to mourn and celebrate like crows and elephants do for their departed.

Peter Bowen died on April 8, 2020, during the lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Glenn’s and the Elks were closed, people were sheltering at home, we couldn’t gather as we would have, as we need to. One of the worst things about this virus, is that in times of trouble our instinct is to come together, yet the virus demands that we disregard our instinct and stay apart. Peter’s death has not been properly honored, his life has not been properly celebrated.

Eventually, we will be able to safely gather. We will have our wake, though not impromptu, at Glenn’s. We will pack the Elks Club to the rafters with the countless people who were lucky enough to call Peter a friend. We’ll share food and stories, raise glasses and our own spirits. … Eventually.

In the meantime, we can revisit Peter’s last book reading at Elk River Books—no doubt his last anywhere. We can hear that voice again, see those cerulean eyes, and enjoy his one-of-a-kind ability to spin a tale. Enjoy.

Gretchen Minton discusses the Bard in Big Sky

Bozeman author and theatre scholar Gretchen Minton will visit Livingston to discuss her new book, Shakespeare in Montana: Big Sky Country’s Love Affair with the World’s Most Famous Writer, on Thursday, June 25 at 7 p.m., with a live-streaming event on Elk River Books’ Facebook page.

Tracing more than two centuries of history, Shakespeare in Montana uncovers a vast array of voices that capture the state’s enduring interest in the author of the world’s best-known plays and sonnets. From mountain men, pioneers and itinerant acting companies in mining camps, to women’s clubs at the turn of the 20th century, to the contemporary popularity of Shakespeare in the Parks throughout Montana, the book chronicles the stories of residents across the Treasure State who have been drawn to the words and works of Shakespeare.

Montana State University professor of history Mary Murphy writes, “This book renders a new twist to Montana history and makes an important contribution to the history of drama in the American West.”

Minton is a professor in MSU’s English department, where she teaches classes on Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, drama, the Bible and other topics. She has edited numerous publications of Shakespeare’s works for Arden and Norton, including Timon of Athens, Troilus and Cressida and Twelfth Night. Frequently invited to speak to audiences and performing artists at such venues as Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Utah Shakespeare Festival and the American Players Theatre, she serves as the dramaturg for Montana Shakespeare in the Parks and Bozeman Actors Theatre.

To view the event, navigate to Facebook.com/ElkRiverBooks at 7 p.m. on June 25. You do not have to have a Facebook account in order to watch.

Shakespeare in Montana will be available for purchase online from Elk River Books before, during and after the event at shop.elkriverbooks.com. Minton will sign copies for those readers who desire it, and Elk River will provide both pickup and delivery options.

Toby Thompson on Western Art

Essayist and educator Toby Thompson returns to Livingston with his new collection, Fired On: Targeting Western American Art, on Thursday, June 11 at 7 p.m., with a live-streaming reading and discussion on Elk River Books’ Facebook page.

The third in a trilogy of collected nonfiction, personal essays and profiles, Fired On joins Thompson’s Riding the Rough String and Metroliner in charting his long and varied career in American letters. For more than 40 years, Thompson has been preoccupied with Western art and those who create it. From early works by Carl Bodmer and Paul Kane to Charles M. Russell and Fredrick Remington to modern masters like Russell Chatham and T. C. Cannon, Thompson considers three centuries’ worth of art in Western America. This anthology includes pieces previously published as well as essays written specifically for this collection. This book’s title comes from a 1907 oil painting by Frederic Remington.

“This is an eclectic book,” notes Thompson, “comprised of brief lives and random asides, saloon tributes and artist profiles, book and music notices. The earliest was written in 1983, the latest in 2019.”

Thompson is the author of five previous books of nonfiction: Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan’s Minnesota, Saloon, The ’60s Report, Riding the Rough String: Reflections on the American West, and Metroliner – Passages: Washington to New York. He has published articles in Vanity Fair, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Outside, Men’s Journal, Gray’s Sporting Journal, GQ, Playboy, The New York Times and many other publications. He teaches nonfiction writing in the creative writing program at Penn State.

To view the event, navigate to Facebook.com/ElkRiverBooks at 7 p.m. on June 11. You do not have to have a Facebook account in order to watch.

Fired On, as well as other Thompson titles, will be available for purchase online from Elk River Books before, during and after the event at shop.elkriverbooks.com. Thompson will sign copies for those readers who desire it, and Elk River will provide both pickup and delivery options.

John Clayton’s “Natural Rivals”


Elk River Arts & Lectures opens its 2020 lecture series on Thursday, March 12, with a talk by Red Lodge author John Clayton on the origin story of America’s public lands.

Clayton’s talk will be based on research for his most recent book, Natural Rivals: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America’s Public Lands. In it, he “shows how the forces of conservation and preservation, Progressivism and anti-monopolism, science and spiritualism, East and West, united in the 1890s behind the idea that a democratically-elected government should permanently own and manage land. Clayton tells stories of heroes both well-known (naturalist John Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt) and quirky (botanist Charles Sargent, Congressman William Holman).

“Audiences gain an understanding of the societal problems that public lands were designed to conquer. And in discussions of the 1890s’ mass extinctions, income inequality, public skepticism about science, and dysfunctional Congress, they may gain historical perspective on today’s challenges as well.”

John Clayton is a nonfiction writer who is drawn to the intersection of history, nature and culture. His book Wonderlandscape: Yellowstone National Park and the Evolution of an American Cultural Icon won the High Plains Book Award. His previous books include The Cowboy Girl: The Life of Caroline Lockhart and Stories from Montana’s Enduring Frontier. He often writes for the Montana Quarterly and Big Sky Journal, among other magazines.

During Clayton’s visit—which is made possible through Humanities Montana’s Montana Conversations program—he also will meet with students at Park High School. The free, public event will take place upstairs at 7 p.m., at Elk River Books, 120 N. Main St., in Livingston.

Elk River Arts & Lectures is a nonprofit organization that seeks to bring writers to Livingston for free public readings, and to provide opportunities for those writers to interact with local public school students. For more information, call 333-2330 or visit elkriverarts.org.

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