Bellying up

The watering hole had been waypoint for yellowcake miners, long haul truckers and cowpokes in its early days. According to folklore, management painted the floor red to hide bloodstains – the sloppy signatures of the many late night brawls. Even crusty old Ed Abbey seemed to prefer king cab six packs (empty cans tossed out the window, of course) to time inside that smoke-filled room.

“After a few games of rotation pool … I am glad to leave the last of those smoky dens around midnight and to climb into my pickup and take the long drive north and east back to the silent rock … ,” the red rock rat wrote in Desert Solitaire.

For all of these reasons, and none of them, I’ve always passed by Moab’s Woody’s Tavern on my many visits to Grand County. For nearly two decades, I’ve glanced at those swinging front doors and felt there was always something distinctly off-limits about that long building with dark windows. Woody’s always seemed to be someone else’s place, despite the kitschy “World Famous” signage’s obvious appeal to the German tourist set. It was a classic dive bar that belonged to Moab’s classic dive set, and crossing that line could be painful, an episode colored with blood red floors.

Or at least that’s what I thought.

For the last four years of that nearly two decades, the Sands family has been putting a sandstone spin on Turkey Day, blending a little time on the fat tires with the Ball of Butter, mashers and gravy, and excessive libationing.

And so this year, we once again found ourselves in Moab on the day after Thanksgiving, surrounded by friends and family in a group “healing” session that involved stacking 3.2 beers and sidecar margaritas inside the Utah town’s limits. This time, the Thanksgiving Day hurt had been reasonably light. As a result, the day-after healing was definitely going too far and slipping deep into the realm of wounding.

Right when things starting getting a little blurry, I heard Woody calling me from down the street. A fellow Durango friend also heard the call, and we quietly plotted our assault, hoping the wives weren’t paying attention. He slipped on his Carhartt vest and work pants. I put on my best West Slope grimace (I’d left my Carhartts and Red Wings in Durango and was nervously wearing shorts and sandals). Thus equipped, we pointed it for the front door of the tavern. Feeling like a couple of giddy school girls, we cautiously stepped toward the dark hole just as a pair of barflies stumbled boisterously out into the street. Mustering up two beehives full of courage, we crossed through the same swinging door, across the threshold and into the smoke of ages.

A cheerful, likely third-generation Utahn checked our IDs and asked us for four bucks apiece to cover the cost of our temporary “membership” to the club. She filled out a small piece of paperwork, handed it our way and then graciously returned the cash. “First couple rounds are on us,” she smiled.

That generosity (and the eight bucks) added a glimmer of hope to our once desperate quest. No longer school girls, we strolled with the confidence of adolescent males, walking through the Kool haze of Camels, Marlboros and Lucky Strikes, past the green felt of four billiard tables and toward the taps. A handful of dollars later we each held an ice cold mug of low-octane Budweiser. After a couple swallows and a smile from the barmaid, another round slid our way. We praised the power of the Carhartt vest. Having found our flow, the two Durangoans hammed it up beneath a stuffed turkey with fellow revelers decked out in Wranglers and foam trucker caps, their bellies swimming in a blend of Anheuser Busch and bourbon. The odds had favored us, and strong chances of survival seemed likely. At that moment, all was right with the world.

But just at that watershed instant, a strong pulse issued from the far side of the bar. The beat grew into a melody and suddenly the sounds of three guitars and a drum kit filled the air. Let me tell you, “That ain’t no country and western outfit.” There, on the other half of the bar, a heavy funk line sounded, a stage exploded in bright light and bodies starting shaking. Unbeknownst to my Budweiser besotted self, the sound hit and my sandals took on a life of their own and started twitching my dancing feet to life. In the middle of an extended guitar riff, we stepped out of the land of cigarettes and taxidermy, across the dividing line between yin and yang, and into the New West. Trucker caps were replaced by pony-tails and dreadlocks, Bronco-wear gave way to tie-dye and steel-toe was traded for open toe.

Granted, it wasn’t like there was hunter’s orange and camouflage out twirling on that dance floor. But the two sides of Woody’s Tavern managed a peaceful and dare I say happy mix at that moment. New and old had found a comfortable place to share out the remainder of the evening.

Eventually, the Carhartt vest and sandals from Durango had their fill of Utah bubbly and stepped back toward that swinging door. But as I looked back, the band was still going strong, and nothing but footprints and the occasional spilled sip had made their way onto that bright red floor.

– Will Sands

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Rolling retro

Vintage bikes get their day to shine with upcoming swap and sale