If you get to the end of the beaten track, then keep going through a mountain pass or two you’ll find Livingston, Montana. Beyond the cultural hub of Bozeman, and nestled next to the wonderfully named Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, this is a town seemingly unchanged in almost a century, and yet infused with a vital creative energy and a sense of community that infiltrates every aspect of life here. It’s a place where explorers and artists, poets and cowboys mingle in the neon-lit streets, and where you can find an authentic American West—one that both lives up to archetypes and, simultaneously, explodes them.
The sun is just beginning to fall behind the mountains in Paradise Valley—a place that is every bit as bucolic as the name suggests and which connects Livingston, Montana, to Yellowstone National Park. With every passing minute, the vast expanse of grassy plains surrounding the home Audrey Hall shares with her husband, Todd, glows ever more gold. It swells like an ocean in the wind.
Standing on the deck, watching the shadows stretch out ever longer, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would live anywhere else but here, arguably America’s last true frontier.
Audrey, a nationally acclaimed photographer and Airbnb host who studied architecture, and Todd, a scientist, designed this home with an architecture firm which was local at the time, now separated into two businesses: Studio Ryker + Studio BNA. Once it was finished, the couple converted their former studio into a guesthouse. “It got lonely!” she says, with a smile and a shrug. Now, the studio occupies much of the second floor of the modern-rustic building, where Audrey’s oversize and sometimes abstract photos—her subjects range from landscapes to horses—are often stuck to the steel walls with magnets.
While they extend an open-door policy to all of their friends, be those artists, writers, scientists, or musicians, Audrey and Todd particularly love meeting new people from around the world. “If they want their own space, that’s totally fine of course, but it’s fun to hang out with them!” she says. When they do, it’s often right here, watching the sun go down in Big Sky Country just like we’re doing now, cold craft beer in hand, with nature on a scale few people ever get to witness as the backdrop.
Tonight, as on so many nights, Audrey and Todd have friends over. Downstairs, they have started to gather around a campfire, which is crackling happily in the pit. Someone gets out a guitar. Someone else gets out another one. Before long a low-key folksy jam session is in full swing—Scout, their golden retriever, looks on approvingly.
It’s a paradigmatic scene, but spend some time talking to people here rather than framing your next photograph, and it quickly becomes clear that, while Livingston may look like a picture-perfect, Instagram-friendly mountain town, it’s also home to a creative mélange of people who inject it with an energy that pulses fervently beneath the wide streets, breathtaking vistas, and classic facades.
But about those facades: Main Street is lined with storefronts on low-slung buildings and oversize neon signs that evoke a bygone era. If they look as if they’re straight from a movie set, that’s because several of them actually are. From the classic A River Runs Through It (1999), to Certain Women, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January earlier this year and stars Michelle Williams, film crews come to Livingston to tap into its untouched and quintessentially Western Americana, incubated as much by the people here as by the architecture and topography.
For many railroad workers at the turn of the century, Livingston was, literally, the end of line. The Northern Pacific Railroad, the reason for the town’s very existence, established a depot here in 1902, a year before the death of Calamity Jane, the infamous frontierswoman and raconteur who made this town her home for two decades.
Today, things are more promising and there’s plenty to do around town: Trains a mile long trundle regularly through Livingston carrying grain, oil, even, one afternoon this week, wind turbine blades, huge and chalk-white like oversize whale bones crawling through the center of town. Anywhere else, it would be a spectacle. But this isn’t anywhere else, and no one at Mike’s In & Out, a classic burger joint that locals are justifiably proud of, blinked an eye.
These days, it’s hard to find anyone as familiar with Livingston as John Bailey, whose father Dan moved here from the East Coast and set up a fly-fishing shop on Park Street in 1938, which is still here today.
Audrey knows John, along with seemingly everyone else in Livingston, and, one morning, offers to take us fishing with him. It’s bright and brisk and the river runs along swiftly, the sun glinting off the surface. Fly-fishing, the reason so many people come here, is a meditative and idiosyncratic activity and no matter how many times you may have seen someone cast a line on TV, it’s something else entirely to see it in real life—the line flicking across the surface, the only sound the icy water gurgling over rocks. This not being TV, we don’t catch anything but we do work up an appetite, so we head to Gil’s Goods, two doors down from the Bailey fly-fishing shop.
Gil’s neon signage, jutting out into the street, is from a post-World War II gift shop, and the painted faded text on the front that advertises tours of Yellowstone is from the 19th century. Livingston is full of spectral signs like this (and plenty of great spots to eat), palimpsests daubed on the red brick buildings advertising long-defunct services and stores. “We have our space, but we’re still close enough to pop into town and order a latte,” Audrey says as she orders, yes, a latte. “I love it.”
On our last evening in Livingston, we ask Audrey if she ever gets inured to the sheer natural beauty of this place, a question we’ve asked everyone we’ve met over the past three days here. Like Greg, our taxi driver one morning; like Jesaua, a self-described mystic we met late one night at a fast-food joint in town and who carries protective crystals around his neck in a handmade leather pouch; like Ty, an architect (and host—his Airbnb consists of two shipping containers he has joined together) who took us on a hike to a waterfall yesterday with his Australian shepherd, Blue; like Jordan a 28-year-old ballet dancer and clothing designer who moved here three months ago from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, she shakes her head. “Just look at it,” she says. And we do look—at the vast open and the mountains stretching as far as we can see in every direction—and we understand, or think we do.