There’s a magical place tucked amidst the mountains of Montana, just a few yards off of I-90, and a few miles from the Idaho border. If you’ve driven along that stretch at any point in the last 30 (or more?) years, you’ve likely noticed signs advertising the “50,000 $ilver Dollar Bar,” but have you ever stopped in to check it out? In truth, I’ve never closely scrutinized the bar/restaurant, or its titular silver dollar collection… I’ve always been too distracted by the gift shop. It’s quite the place.
My family never really stopped there with much regularity during my childhood, but it feels like it hasn’t changed too much from when I may have first visited it. I remember it as being the kind of place with LOTS of touristy trinkets, like those geodes of varying size with all of the tiny pewter miners in them, and a variety of bizarre knives whose supposed utility and stylistic sensibility could really only appeal to twelve-year olds or comic book characters. I also remember there being a lot of “naughty” greeting cards, involving things like butts and fart jokes. Every time I’ve ventured in over the years, I’ve half-expected it to have “modernized” somewhat, but change seems to come slowly to the 50,000 Silver Dollar Compound. The geodes and “turd birds” of my youth have disappeared, and there seems to be more bullet fetishization than I remember, but log clocks featuring the holy trinity of John Wayne, Elvis, and Jesus are still to be found adorning the walls. Do you need to warn someone that “Caution: A Yorkshire Terrier Lives in This House”? There are signs for a variety of tiny, rambunctious breeds of dogs! There’s a fake dog poop section of the shop. Perhaps you need a cigarette lighter that looks like a small gun. And, of course, if you need a t-shirt or sweatshirt featuring either a moonlit snowy landscape, a wolf, and/or an “indian princess”, there are a variety of options.
There’s definitely a certain darkness to the store that both fascinates and repels me, though. It’s not ubiquitous, but there’s a little more “stars & bars” than is perhaps appropriate for Montana, especially at a location so not The South that it’s only about 100 miles or so from Canada. There’s also an air of menace about the place, with all the knives, throwing stars, katanas, blowguns, brass knuckles, tomahawks, and bullet “crafts”. And, of course, there’s colonial spectre of the pervasive “indianerschmuck“– various First Nations motifs appropriated into a potpourri of “Western Gift Shop” nonsense: Plains-style headdresses, Great Lakes-ish tomahawks, Zuni pots… not to mention all the neon-colored dreamcatchers. If any of you out there are anthropology students, this one building could provide you with a pretty good supply of material to write at least a thesis examining a certain cross-section of American culture.
Still, there’s something captivating about the place. It seems like a time capsule, and a link to a certain kind of American West that is seldom mythologized: the “Trucker’s West” of the late twentieth century. Stops like these are becoming increasingly scarce, and one day, they’ll all be gone, replaced wholly by brightly-lit corporate-owned “Travel Plazas”, where the only regional differences end up being the post cards on the spinner rack, and the state name on the t-shirts. Sure, it can be a little creepy and maybe not as family-friendly as might be prudent (why do they put the children’s toys section so near the “adult novelties”?), but places like these are kind of like your old great-uncle: unapologetic about rough edges, “too old to change”, but nevertheless part of the family tree. So, when you next venture along the route of I-90, somewhere in the vicinity of the Idaho border, be sure to stop in and have a look. After all, you might find yourself in need of a $20 katana, a bright pink bedazzled cowboy hat, and a small metal sign featuring a chihuahua with enormous, Photoshop-enhanced testicles.