Finding Memories in the Ashes of the Pine Creek Fire
BY PAT HILL
The Pine Creek Fire devastated parts of the small community of Pine Creek while leaving others unscathed, and at Pine Creek Lodge, the storied Cabin Number Two was the only real structural casualty of the blaze. Cabin Number Two will now join Cabin Number One, taken out by a wayward driver a few years ago, in the annals of Paradise Valley history, and now both old favorites will live on in story and memory only. The demise of the cabin stirred up old memories for one Paradise Valley notable.
William “Gatz” Hjortsberg, who wrote the screenplays for the movies Legend (1985) and Angel Heart (1987), was a member of the “Montana Gang,” a group of writers and artists who called the Living-ston/Paradise Valley area home in the 1970s. The Montana Gang included Hjortsberg, Tom McGuane, Russell Chatham, Jim Harrison, Richard Brautigan, and others. Some, like Hjortsberg and Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall), still live in the area. Pine Creek Lodge, built in 1946, was a favorite haunt of the Montana Gang back in the ’70s. Hjortsberg reminisced a bit about the old days in September, during the last outdoor concert of the season at the Lodge with the Dave Walker Band. He expressed relief and some amazement that the Lodge had survived the fire, but learning that Cabin Number Two had been done in by the blaze seemed to strike a chord in Hjortsberg.
“Some good times were had here,” Hjortsberg said that night. “Jim Harrison hosted some wonderful dinners out here under the trees along the creek. And Cabin Number Two was Richard Brautigan’s favorite.” Hjortsberg recently published a biography of the late Richard Brautigan titled Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan (2012), and the antics of the Montana Gang are well-represented in its pages. Hjortsberg talked more about those days with the Montana Pioneer in October.
Pine Creek Lodge was a convenient place for the Gang to gather. Hjortsberg said he lived in Pine Creek, and Tom McGuane and Russell Chatham both lived on nearby Deep Creek. Brautigan and Harrison both spent time living at the Lodge before buying property in the area. But the Lodge provided more than convenience for the artists and their friends.
“It was an incredibly wonderful place back then,” Hjortsberg said. “It still is, but this was before there was a restaurant, before there was live music under the trees.” Hjortsberg said that Gang often had the run of the place, making for some intimate gatherings, especially during the summer and fall of 1973. Brautigan lived in Cabin Number Two that summer, writing his book The Hawkline Monster: Gothic Western (1974), which he had started work on in San Francisco before coming back to Montana (Brautigan had paid his first visit to the Paradise Valley the previous fall). As that summer of ’73 drew to a close, Hjortsberg said that the Gang and their circle of friends began to gather at Pine Creek Lodge.
“A huge contingency of the Gang were here, all staying in various cabins [at the Lodge],” said Hjortsberg. “The boys were out for a good time.” There were fishing excursions, trout dinners under the pines at the Lodge in the evenings, and bucolic fellowship until the end of October, when the friends began to disperse like geese heading south.
“Jim [Harrison] headed for Michigan to hunt grouse, and Richard left the first week of November,” Hjortsberg said. But Brautigan was back early the following year; he had purchased property at Pine Creek, but a major remodel was underway, so Brautigan turned to the Pine Creek Lodge for refuge at Cabin Number Two. Hjortsberg said the writer was disappointed to learn that his favorite digs at the Lodge were already occupied for the 1974 spring and summer season. Rancho Deluxe (screenplay written by Montana Gang member Tom McGuane) was about to be filmed in Montana that year, and some of the movie crew had beaten him to Number Two.
“Michael Haller was the production designer for Rancho Deluxe, and was on the scene earlier than the rest of the crew scouting out locations,” said Hjortsberg. “He and his wife G wanted their kids to go to Pine Creek School while they were in the area. Richard was mad…he liked the quiet of Cabin Number Two.” But Hjortsberg said that Brautigan, while initially upset because he didn’t get his favorite cabin, eventually became good friends with G Haller.
“Richard would go over and have coffee with her in the morning,” said Hjortsberg. In June of ’74 Brautigan’s home remodel was finished, and his stay at Pine Creek Lodge was over. But the Lodge was still a hangout for the Gang and friends that summer, with filming on Rancho Deluxe occurring in the area.
“After 1974, the Gang mostly stayed at Richard’s place, or up at McGuane’s when things got too frisky at Chez Brautigan,” Hjortsberg said. “Jimmy Buffett and Jim Harrison stayed at the Lodge cabins on some of their future visits. I hope they can restore Cabin Number Two. It was the most authentic surviving cabin, after Number One was destroyed.” According to management at Pine Creek Lodge, the plan is to rebuild Cabin Number Two. Whether it will retain any of its old presence and patina remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt Pine Creek Lodge is still alive and kicking.