October 4, 1999
(Left to right) Will Bruce, Bruce Rawlinson, and John Johnson take time out of their Harley tour of old western towns to relax in a Montana saloon.
by Marshall Haley, staff reporter
WOODINVILLE--It's hard to imagine buying a house from a guy dressed head to toe in black leather, head covered with a bandana and wearing reflective shades. You might be just as inclined to visualize suits and ties on three guys riding Harleys over 3,000 miles of back roads in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and South Dakota.
If you or anyone you know saw men fitting either description--sometime during the last three summers--you might have been looking at "closet Hell's Angels" Bruce Rawlinson, Will Bruce, and John Johnson, a.k.a. three of Woodinville's Windermere Real Estate agents.
Three years ago, the mild-mannered salesmen tore off the restraining masks of their daily lives and made a leather-clad pilgrimage to join 300,000 other Harley-Davidson enthusiasts in Sturgis, South Dakota.
"That gathering will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year," said Bruce. "It's been going since 1940. The 10,000 residents actually move completely out of their homes and businesses, because they make so much money renting the space to vendors who supply the gathering."
This year marked the local bikers' third straight summer sojourn, although they didn't go back to Sturgis. They said they wanted to get more of a feel for the small western communities far off the beaten freeways.
"The highlight of our trip was meeting people who still live like they did 40 or 50 years ago," said Rawlinson. "These are people that make $20,000 a year; they don't have two Lexuses in the garage. This was as close to the old west as Woodinville business people can get."
"These people make money with their horses, not riding the pipeline in Eddie Bauer clothes," added Bruce. "Real cowboys wear Wranglers, not Levis! And the old mercantiles are still in all those small towns, like Big Timber, Montana. The ladies still wear cotton dresses!"
"We found out America is a big country, full of good people," said Rawlinson. "Our goodwill and positive attitude is always returned."
"That's why we're out there," said Johnson. "We've never had any confrontations. We met some Hell's Angels types who were as nice as anybody we've met. The only dangerous situation we had was the female moose who seemed to lust after our Harleys up by Lolo Pass."
"When we're dressed up in bike gear, out on the road, it enables us to talk to people who probably wouldn't talk to us if they saw us in suits and ties," said Rawlinson. "It's like stepping into a different world. It's a lot of fun if you can get a two-week pass from your wife. It's not for guys with a wife at home taking care of two four- or five-year-olds."
They said they found the greatest archetype of western rural character holding down a barstool in the "Seven Gables" saloon in the dusty town of Phillipsburg, Montana--about 20 miles northwest of Butte on Highway 1.
"Yeah, old Everett," said Bruce. "He was a 78-year-old cowpuncher with hands like hams. He lives on a ranch in the house built by his grandpa. He was a close friend of Gary Cooper, who owned a ranch nearby. They used to hunt together a lot. He was full of Gary Cooper stories. He said Cooper was just a regular guy."
Then there was Kevin, the injured logger.
"We asked him if he was on L&I," said Rawlinson. "He said loggers don't rely on the state, 'we take care of our own.' That told us those loggers have a pronounced sense of honor. But someone else told us some people around there do collect unemployment, so they can go hunting and fishing seven months out of the year."
The three insisted they weren't dependent on stopping at saloons. "Those are the town social centers," said Johnson. "Even the church folks gather there, whether they drink alcohol or not."
"The 'Bale o' Hay' saloon in Virginia City, Montana, was a wild place," said Bruce. "Up until a year ago, it was common to see people come into the place on horses or motorcycles. They played REAL country music--not Bonnie Raitt, but the kind where people yell 'yahoo' and really mean it!"
South of Missoula, they found a real slice of the old west in Drummond, unwittingly timing their trip to stumble into what many might deem the far-western reaches of the Twilight Zone: the annual Testicle Festival, celebrating the castration and de-horning of young steers.
They said they declined the opportunity to sample some of the celebratory fare, as some locals eagerly did. They also stumbled onto the centennial celebration of Bonner's Ferry, Idaho.
They found a glut of Old West culture in several museums in Montana and Wyoming. The Cody Museum in Wyoming honors the former buffalo hunter and owner of the international traveling wild west show. Despite "Buffalo Bill" Cody's reputation for wholesale buffalo slaughter, he was a renowned conservationist and advocate for women's rights, said Rawlinson. The Remington Museum features the largest collection of firearms in the world, with thousands of guns.
In Great Falls, Charles Russell's home houses the largest collection of the world-famous western artist's bronzes and paintings. New York's Whitney Gallery has a Montana version that features works of N.C. Wyeth, Charles Remington, and C.M. Russell.
Even the saloons were full of cultural surprises.
"Remember that bar with all the bullet holes in the ceiling?" Bruce asked the others. "The waitress was a nationally-known charcoal artist, and a guy in cowboy clothes sitting at the bar with his wife was an oil painter who made $25-30,000 on a painting."
Two passes on Montana's border gave the rollicking roadsters pause for awes. Going from central Montana into central Wyoming means crossing the highest pass in America, 11,000-foot Beartooth Pass.
"That's a two-lane highway, and it can be 45 degrees at mid-day in August," said Rawlinson. "We had to take enough clothes to be able to dress for 40-100 degrees. We went through some torrential rains, thunder and lightning storms that were like riding into the jaws of hell itself. We had to race to get around a couple of big thunder squalls, with lightning strikes coming down out of them and hitting the ground."
Lolo Pass, from southwestern Montana into Idaho, provided a healthy dose of humility for Bruce.
"We passed an historic point where we saw an old, deeply worn trail, and the sign said that was where Lewis and Clark went over the pass," said Bruce. "When we got to the nearby town, I was telling an oldtimer that I couldn't believe how worn the trail was, considering Lewis and Clark couldn't have passed that way more than one or two times. 'You fool!' the old guy said to me, 'The Indians used that trail for a thousand years before Lewis and Clark came along!'"