by Pete Tolton
Long stretches of highway and wide breadths of landscape have dominated our summer. This body of work represents thousands of miles traveled, a half dozen mountain ranges, and countless good times in between. The following is an account of just one such trip, from Billings, Montana, to Paradise Valley, Bozeman, and back again.
Though the stretch between Billings and Livingston is familiar to Tyler Murphy and me, Montana natives, its beauty still astounds on a day like this. The clouds provided only partial cover for the sun, like a camouflage pattern, or patches of color on the rear of a paint horse. Great, moving stripes of sunlight splashed the ranchland, prairies, buttes, and cliffs that slid by out the window of the submarine.
The submarine — that’s what we called Tyler’s funny car, the military gray box-on-wheels taking him, Daniel Keys, and me westward for a long weekend of painting, art exhibition, and revelry. Richie Carter, who joined us on the way back, referred to the car as “K-219,” after a famous Russian sub. That name may have caught on had Richie not described the horrific demise of the real K-219. Everyone died near Bermuda.
The usual suspects joined us that lovely June afternoon on I-90 — all manner of submarines, semi-trucks, livestock trailers, motorcycles, and the season’s first big road construction. It was hard to look away from a perfectly pink ’50s Buick that merged onto the highway near Reed Point. The driver made a sour face when I leaned out the window to snap photos; I just couldn’t help myself. Fortunately, the landscape did not mind if we stared too long, photographed, or stopped to paint it.
Painting was just part of our mission. We also had eyes on a visit with Stephanie Revennaugh in Livingston and the Bozeman Art Walk, where Tyler and Daniel were showing new work at Legacy Gallery. If, in between, we had to suffer through a few games of pool or a dip in the hot springs at Chico, that wouldn’t be the end of the world.
We turned south at Livingston onto Highway 89. This long driveway to the park follows the Yellowstone River, cradled by the Absaroka and Gallatin Ranges. The energy changed immediately after leaving the four-lane highway. We crept through a narrow, green canyon, feeling sky and field emerge anew, welcoming us to one of Earth’s most picturesque valleys.
This affected Tyler especially, who stopped the submarine at the first proper turnoff, camera in hand, eyes wide. The river roared beneath us — muddy, high, and intimidating, powered by spring runoff. His excitement would last until sundown and was contagious to Dan and me. He spotted a far-off scene up high on the Absaroka side, two peaks bridged by a deep saddle with a canyon mouth in the fore. We suddenly had a specific, immediate goal: get to a place from which to paint that scene.
He had his cowboy hat on, which somehow gives the impression he means business. Daniel and I do not own cowboy hats, and thusly felt much less businesslike and more that we were along for the ride. Tyler’s enthusiasm extended to his pedal foot, so we careened up winding gravel roads, past both well-kept ranch houses and dilapidated barns, through the dappled light of aspen pods and pine groves of the fortunate few who get to live in this place.
At multiple points along the way, Tyler stopped to delight at herds of cattle. To the untrained eye, this was an all-too-common scene in these parts. But this guy was taking account of the light, the curves of the hills, the greens and tans of the grassland. Yet Dan and I could not miss an opportunity to poke fun. I began referring to the cows as “friends Tyler hadn’t made yet.” We did stop near a clear-flowing creek to meet some handsome, muscular horses. To me, they felt more like friends than the skittish cattle who anxiously called to each other as we approached from the borrow pits.
Finally, up at the perfect spot to paint this mountain scene, we hurriedly assembled easels and palettes. Tyler painted the scene he’d been chasing up the hillside; Daniel painted a side-profile portrait of Tyler painting. They both applied oil to canvas with astonishing speed and accuracy, making the best of this golden hour before the sun disappeared behind the Gallatins and the light changed completely.
We painted until near-dark and by that point we were famished. Earlier, Dan had displayed his Californism (sorry, Dan) when he popped into a Laurel coffee shop searching for a salad and emerged empty-handed. Suffice to stay, we’d been hungry since Billings.
It was nearly 10:30, so we high-tailed it toward Chico with burgers on our minds, knowing their kitchen closed at 11. Once, there, we placed our orders in the nick of time. Tyler practiced his pool game in anticipation of seeing Richie, his longtime rival on the green felt. Evidently Richie was the reigning champ since their last game.
We also played shuffleboard with a cadre of longtime college friends, who were at Chico reuniting in yearly tradition, having graduated together nearly 40 years ago. I was reminded of the Chuck Murphy poem “Old Friends,” and looked upon their camaraderie with reverence, thinking ahead to far-future gatherings with my oldest friends.
We didn’t make it back to Stephanie Revennaugh’s house until around midnight. Yet she was a most gracious host, offering great conversation and a few fingers of Scotch despite our late-night arrival and her commitment to an appointment in Billings early the next morning. An impeccable encaustic painting of a horse’s back hung on the mantle. Before this, I hadn’t heard of encaustic art, which involves painting on canvas with hot wax. Once again, the varied, world-class output of this group of artists floored me.
After all the zooming about and late-night chitchat, we were thankful for a restful day. We lounged, snacked, edited video, and prepared to make our way through another canyon entrance, this time to Bozeman. The sky and cool air promised rain. When it came, people still showed up in droves for Art Walk.
Legacy Gallery is the real deal. Both Tyler and Daniel’s paintings stood out to me in that beautiful, dark wood room, masterful artwork hanging on every wall. The change in the scene and context gave Tyler and Daniel’s pieces new life. Plus, Ken Yarus and Richie Carter joined us there. Those two add a splash of color and character to any room they enter.
As Art Walk ended and more friends joined us, we sought out a few downtown pool tables. Tyler and Richie take this seriously — hefty bragging rights are at stake. By bedtime, they were a tall stack of quarters down. I won’t say who won, but I will tell you the winner’s white wide-brim sat proudly on his head all the way back to Livingston.
We hit Gil’s Goods for breakfast the following morning, simultaneously thrilled and exhausted from the good times had by all. I bought some biscuits to take home to my dad, who is passionate about biscuits.
Richie hopped in the submarine with us so he could make it to Billings for the Garth Brooks concert the following day. I later heard from him and Tyler it was the show of a lifetime, the highlight of their year. For me, a weekend of painting, high-stakes parlor games, and gallery tours was plenty to be thankful for. Five stars, would recommend.
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