There’s a tradition I repeat twice a year, every year. It begins in late May three miles east of the tiny mountain town of Pony, Montana, at the Karl Ohs Ranch. In the song of a spring morning, we start a drive of momma cows, their calves, and a handful of bulls up the highway toward Pony and the mountains. It takes only a half dozen of us, but once we get to town, we put the heel to the cow ponies and bring the whole herd right through the middle of Pony at a wide trot before most residents are wiping the sleep out of their eyes.
Once through and up the mountain, the cattle are left to their own. By that time, we’ve developed a powerful thirst. And the ritual: a drink at the Pony Bar. In the fall, we repeat the ceremony: drive the cows home and park again at the Pony Bar.
If you live on the far west edge of the Gallatin Valley, it’s not too unusual to find yourself at the Pony Bar. But people from all over the world somehow stumble across the Pony Bar, too. Perhaps they visit because the town has such an interesting name (though few know that Pony is named for a person, not an equine), or maybe they know someone who knows someone who has been here. A friend who pulls a few shifts behind the bar once served a couple from South Africa and then ran into the same couple a year later in New York City, of all places.
In Pony (which really just means “in the Pony Bar” because it is the epicenter of this town of about 100 permanent residents), a stranger doesn’t stay that way long. The first time I went up there, about ten years ago, I wasn’t at the bar an hour before I had two wooden tokens for free drinks in front of me. The Pony Bar may not have invented the copper-cupped Moscow Mule, but they damn sure perfected it.
You don’t run across folks who hate Pony. You’ll meet people all over Montana who bash this city or that city, this bar, or that. But I’ve never heard anyone say they hate the Pony Bar. Usually it’s, “I LOVE Pony!” That’s because it’s just a damn fun place to be, even on Sunday nights.
One Sunday a few years ago, I heard there was going to be a band that night, so after a day of fishing and hiking, I made my way down the mountain and into the bar. There stood a pretty young lady with a guitar slung over her shoulder, her dad at the standup bass, a fiddle player, and a banjo player. She belted out some of the loveliest bluegrass tunes you’ll ever hear in a voice that would make the angels cry. I remember looking around at a bar full of patrons clapping their hands, dancing, whooping, and saying to their buddies, “Can you believe this is Sunday night in Pony?”
Entertainment is just part of the picture at the Pony Bar; proprietor Scotty Lambert is a world-class promoter who put Pony on the map with events such as the annual Pony Bar Duck Races every Memorial Day weekend. Or there’s the famous Halloween party (to which a friend went last year as Juan Valdez, complete with a live miniature donkey that he took into the bar and fed potato chips; another friend rode his horse into the bar on a bet another year). There’s the Pink In Pony benefit for breast cancer, New Year’s Eve in Pony, Monday Night Football (when local folks take turns cooking and serving), and benefit concerts for friends who have fallen on this or that piece of bad luck.
From the unique center bar that serves two rooms at once, to the horses tied up outside next to four-wheelers, Harleys, and mountain bikes, to the laughter that booms through the dinky place, Pony is one special little town anchored by a special little bar. And I’m proud to say it’s my home.
Tom Reed lives just down the road from Pony, Montana, works for Trout Unlimited, and is the author of four books. For more information, visit tomreedbooks.com.