A Scouting Life: Marlboro Man at the Liberty Club

March 18, 2010 | Sam Hutchins

Ely, Nevada Pop. 4,041

Ely, Nevada is a town of roughly 4,000 people in White Pine County, close to the geographic center of the state of Nevada. It exists largely due to the now-defunct Kennecot Copper Mine, once a major source of the metal in this country. Tourists visit for the abundant hunting and outdoor activities in Great Basin National Park, as well as the Railroad Museum. Ely has three casinos, dozens of bars, and two whorehouses. Its population was now temporarily increased by four.

Main Street laid out nicely, framed by the mountains as it was. There were a few architectural gems there amidst a lot of ugliness. Had it been preserved a little better it might have potential for us, but initially I didn’t see any attraction. More tragedy than victory in the buildings, as far as I was concerned. Some sort of civic boosterism had paid for a series of criminally awful murals depicting the town’s history. Generally it just felt a little sad. Part of Kar Wai’s genius is seeing beauty where others don’t, however, and he seemed to be a little captivated by this town.

The place that initially caught his attention was a dive bar called the Liberty Club. It was a pretty great little dive with a hundred years or so of history to it. We stumbled upon and into it right around lunchtime. The bar was manned by a grizzled old lady bartender who would have looked just as comfortable in any 8th Avenue joint in New York as she did at The Liberty. The sole customer was a cowboy sitting at the bar enjoying a beer.

By cowboy, I mean the real deal, an honest-to-God horse-riding, calf-roping Marlboro man-type cowhand from the Rio Grande. Men can have all sorts of issues dealing with other men at times, and this is a perfect example of such. I like to think I’m a pretty tough guy, I’ll admit. Been through all sorts of tussles and scrapes and always come out all right. Drop me on any street in any city and I’ll clock the action in front of and behind the scenes right away. I can score drugs in a dozen countries, throw and take a good punch, tell you which guys in a bar are strapped and instinctively know who can be pushed and who can’t. Put me in a room with a guy like this, however, and I’m flummoxed.

How do you define your masculinity when you’re dealing with a guy who really works the land? City tough isn’t the same as country tough in the end. Also, I pride myself on my ability to relate to almost anyone but was at a total loss due to the utter foreignness of his vocation. I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of what to converse about. Hey, how you like the new Ford pickup? Feels weird for me to be at a total loss like that. Doesn’t help that guys like that are usually reticent to begin with, either.

We took some pictures but didn’t get far with the social game. The bartender was drunk and a little crazy and the cowboy was quiet. Kar Wai was also curious about him and eager to get some local color from the fellow but failed even more spectacularly than I had. Taking a page from my playbook he offered to buy a round for the bar. The bartender had hers inside her practically before he finished speaking. I reluctantly put my whiskey back. The cowboy refused the offer. The whole scene felt a little awkward and weird so we soon took our leave. I could now see how Kar Wai was fascinated with this place. There were stories here that we needed to know so we could improve them and make them our own.

While there were very few restaurants there was no shortage of bars. We popped in and out of most of them that early afternoon. Outside of the Liberty they were all awful. Nothing you couldn’t find in a strip mall in Phoenix. That first whiskey had not treated me overly well given the previous night so I made an effort to avoid any more as we scouted. Though I didn’t see anyone obviously tweaking, the town seemed to give off a pretty strong meth vibe. All things considered, I was ready to get the hell out of Dodge, unheard stories notwithstanding. Kar Wai held firm however, so we went on exploring.

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