The Mouse Is In The House
A story (and playlist) about Rocky's Nuthouse, a watering hole in West Yellowstone, Montana.
“There were days, and there were days, and there were days between.”
—Grateful Dead, “Days Between”
Sometimes I think about how I used to be. You know what I mean? I think you know what it's like to feel it. To sit, and think, hm, that was different then, and that was something that I think I liked. But then you don't know, do you? Or do you? It doesn't matter. Or does it? There's joy in circles of thought, at least when you can see amusement in roundabouts. All I know is what's in front of me, and right now what's in front of me are some mountains. I'm in a shed turned into an office, staring through a window, looking at very big hills cutting against a crisp blue sky. I’ve taken a few breaks today to sit outside on an old wood bench, leaning back, basking in the sunlight, thinking about how I used to be. If only there was somebody to take my photograph in these moments of whimsical whimsy. I could hold a cigarette like a real tough guy. Maybe it could even be an album cover. Make sure you get my tattoos in the shot. Shut up please I am trying to be cool here.
I did a big long drive by myself over the summer of 2021, through the mountains of Montana and Wyoming and Colorado and maybe some other states but I'm not really sure because at a certain point mountains just kind of blend together because they're fucking mountains. It was incredible. This endless feeling of an endless road over endless snow-capped hills, the white tips blurring into an infinite blue sky. I stopped the car when I felt like stopping. I drove the car when I felt like driving. I pulled over next to a river and took some video of some people rafting through rapids. They cheered at me like they’d just spotted Big Foot. Is that him?! I didn’t care. My hair was long and my beard was scraggly. So, fuck it, I thought. I’m Big Foot! I cheered back. I believe!
There's a lot of beauty to behold when you stop, and you stare, and you look at things, and you think about how you used to be.
My drive took me along the spine of the Rocky Mountains and through dozens of tiny towns with populations of three digits or less. One of those centers was a place called West Yellowstone, Montana, just on the border of Yellowstone National Park — which, in case you're not familiar, is 3500 square miles of preserved land in the mountain west. Its mass stretches across parts of Wyoming and Idaho and Montana. In fact, Yellowstone was not only the first national park in the United States, but it's widely believed to be the first national park in the world. The world! America wins again. You've probably seen pictures of Old Faithful, a very famous geyser that's erupted every hour or so since the land before time. It's where the buffalo still roam, too. And if you’re lucky, you may see a random chubby tourist from Louisiana get out of their car and try to take a picture of a bear.
In West Yellowstone, there was a watering hole called Rocky’s Nuthouse, a locals only oasis in a desert of tourists in baseball hats and billionaire cowboys in Patagonia vests. The Nuthouse had all the dive bar cliches that make cheap beer taste better. The floor was carpeted. The stool seats were ripped. The bartender had long black hair and a big belly and was named something generic like Bill. A sign hung behind bottles that read: "West Yellowstone is too small to have a Town Drunk. So we all take turns!" I chuckled as I ordered a Coors Banquet for three bucks and noted the fact that "Town Drunk" was capitalized. Eventually I bought a T-shirt with a drunk squirrel wearing a helmet on the front.
A guy named Mouse was a regular at the Nuthouse, and we got to talking about one thing or another. He told me stories that I can't really remember because we were drinking heavily. It was a Tuesday. Who drinks heavily on a Tuesday? Mouse does. I don't know what his actual name was, because who cares when people call you Mouse. He was a musician, or at least that's what he tried to be. He was in his 50s and he’s been around. He had a flip phone and worked for the park.
I learned that's what people in West Yellowstone call Yellowstone. The park, they say. Yeah, the park. I work at the park. Yeah, you know, doing stuff at the park. Nevermind that it’s one of the most beautiful areas of land in North America. But the nonchalance was charming, and working for the park seemed like the quaint and simple kind of life that I’d like to live until I think about what it would be like to get groceries on a Monday in late February. Then again, maybe West Yellowstone is beautiful in late February, and the grocery store is fully stocked with T-bones and rib-eyes and venison and other meat that people eat in the mountains while wearing Carhartt overalls. I guess it could be a nice place to find a life; a life that I would then one day look back upon and think about how I used to be.
I asked Mouse what kind of music he listened to.
"Everything, until the whole Grateful Dead thing happened," he said, throwing his hands up in exasperation as he delivered this extremely cool answer. He proceeded to tell me about how he followed the Dead around America from 1990 until Jerry died.
That was 1995. Years later, Mouse remained very proud of this, carrying himself with a cocktail of confidence and sadness and regret and hope. Someone who hasn't seen the edge might've described him as tragic, but that would've been foolish. Mouse spoke with authority and wonder, a man who wouldn't hesitate to tell you that it was all gonna be all right despite wondering how all those bills were gonna be paid. He'd always be right, though, and those bills were always paid — at least the ones that needed to be.
Mouse wasn't the only oddball at the bar. A heavyset guy sat in the corner playing a slot machine. He was transfixed by the spinning fruit, continually pushing the red button with dollar signs, that jangling whirr repeatedly coming to life. CHA-CHING. CHA-CHING. CHA-CHING. At one point he pulled himself away from lighting money on fire and cornered me. I couldn't stop staring at his gaping mouth as he spoke, thinking about his horrible teeth and horrible breath. He said he was rich and that he didn’t need to work. He told me he was cousins with the mob in New York. That's where he got his money, or some of it, or something. He grinned like a Cheshire Cat as he paid for a few rounds of drinks with multiple 100 dollar bills so I had no choice but to believe him.
Another man sitting at the bar was called Freddy and he worked for a luxury ranch "up the way, kind of near Blue Sky." I liked the simplicity of explaining directions in West Yellowstone. Freddy was a bit older than me, probably in his early 40s. I heard him complaining about the current price of beef, and chimed in with how I thought the world was going nuts, a go-to conversation topic in the summer of 2021. I learned that the name of his venue was something fancy that referenced a wild animal, and I imagined the lodge smelled like George W. Bush's house. Freddy was the ranch manager.
I'd already booked a room for the night across the street, but, hey, this guy might hook up a kindred spirit, right?
"Buddy," Freddy said. "I deal with the one percent of the one percent."
I laughed. I asked him what he meant with a wink, thinking he would maybe remember that there was some presidential suite available for the night and this random guy Rick could maybe stay there on the house because why not, this random guy Rick seemed like a cool guy and might write a story about it someday.
"Look man, I don't mean to be rude," he smiled. "But if you don't have at least 100 million dollars in your bank account, I won't even begin to have a conversation with you about staying at the ranch. Do you have 100 million dollars in your bank account?"
Freddy slapped my back and went outside to smoke a cigarette. Fair enough. I did not have at least 100 million dollars in my bank account.
Mouse didn't have 100 million either, but he did have a lot of tales. They float through my memory almost dreamlike; we got lost in our conversation in ways that can only happen with strangers. He didn't tell me specifics about mistakes he'd made in life, but he didn't need to. His thick framed glasses made him look like an English professor. He was also wearing a maroon colored swimsuit, a sartorial decision I'm still wondering about. He told me that he had killed it the previous night at karaoke, and that everyone in the bar was impressed, and how he's the greatest drummer on planet earth. No shit? Some of these facts were backed up by others sitting around the Nuthouse.
"You know, he's pretty talented," a woman with white hair said, giving an air cheers in the general direction of a smiling Mouse. She was elegant and her jewelry suggested that she liked to come hang out with the riff raff, but she probably spent her nights at the ranch near Big Sky. Money dangled from her earlobes.
"Thanks sweetie, I love you too," Mouse replied. I don't think he was lying.
Hey Mouse, how many Dead shows did you attend?
"Somewhere between 220 and 240, depending how much I can remember on any given day."
Then he erupted with laughter. Mouse really loved to laugh. A big, gregarious laugh that dominated the room. Mouse seemed happy; satisfied despite bullshit; proudly grizzled. As he told his stories, he wasn't nostalgic, but he did speak about how it used to be.
Mouse once hung out with Phil Lesh on a beach in California and, according to Mouse, Phil Lesh was a really nice guy. I asked Mouse how Phil Lesh got to the beach in California. He said that it was just one of those things. I asked Mouse how he got to the beach with Phil Lesh in California. He said that was also just one of those things. Both explanations were good enough for me.
Then Mouse lifted up his shirt. "MAMA TRIED" was tattooed across his stomach, one of his three Grateful Dead tattoos. He grinned, and I think he even pounded his chest. I noticed another tattoo placed across on his heart — it looked like someone’s name and a date. I didn’t ask about that one because, man, we were just having too much fun.
By then we'd appropriately loaded up the jukebox with Dead songs. I asked him what the vibe was at the lot outside shows in those days, like a little kid begging grandpa for wartime stories. Mouse smiled, but then got serious. Told me it got “twisted, heavy, and strange.” He cocked his eye as he delivered these clichés and didn’t say much more about the subject. He didn’t want to remember the details, despite wanting to tell me the details.
"I just... I don't know, man. I wish I would've..." He wobbled a bit on his barstool. "I wish I would've known what I was doing. I was young, you know. I was 27 when Jerry died. And I wish I would've taken something from what... you know, the Grateful Dead are."
He placed his hands down on the bar at this moment in order to make his point. Or maybe he was catching his balance. Or maybe he was remembering how it used to be.
"And put that forward in my life," he said. "I guess... Or, I don't know..." He trailed off. We ordered another shot and I sipped another Coors. The mountains on my can matched the mountains out the window.
"You know, Rick," he said. "There was this period of time... I was... you know, I was just happy. I don't know. It lasted for five years. About ten years ago. This woman. We were together. We weren't married, but we were, you know what I mean? Don’t know what happened. Life, I guess. I wish I would've taken that time and pushed it forward."
Then he took a long pause, stretching his neck in thought before shaking his head, almost waking himself up.
"Man. Me?" He threw his arms out to the side. "I'm just Mouse, man!"
The familiar chords of "Bertha" kicked on the jukebox and Mouse laughed his big laugh, told me to shut the fuck up, and started to play the air guitar.
This is a playlist inspired by Mouse.