Striking Out at the Bar in Dillingham, Alaska – Dillingham, Alaska

Striking Out at the Bar in Dillingham, Alaska

Dillingham, Alaska

This past spring I spent quite a bit of time in Dillingham, Alaska for work. I’ve been to Dillingham now approximately half a dozen times over the years. Although Dillingham is indeed a “wet” community, I had yet to ever venture out to the bar. If you know me at all you will realize that this is quite unusual. Something always told me that I was better off in my motel room at the Bristol Bay Inn watching late night talk shows.

Ever since I returned from a semester of school in Tucson, Arizona last fall I have been reading a collection of Western American literature on and off. Sometime this spring I read a poem in it entitled “Dillingham, Alaska, the Willow Tree Bar” by Gary Snyder. The poem was from a few decades ago (1983) but lo and behold, the Willow Tree Bar was still the main bar in town these days. I decided to pay a visit to the Willow Tree Bar my next time in Dillingham to see if anybody knew or cared about the existence of this poem about their watering hole.

Willow Tree Bar and Old Blue
Willow Tree Bar and Old Blue
So, with book in hand, I finally ventured out to the Willow Tree Bar in Dillingham, Alaska on a bright summer evening. As I parked my ever shitty rental truck from the mom and pop rental outfit in town (no kidding – the particular rental truck, “Old Blue”, had a tachometer that did constant 360s, windshield wipers that would not shut off, a leaking fuel tank, and was missing the grip on the shifter), I could already hear the din of noise pouring out from inside the bar. The noise I heard, however, was not the noise of people celebrating Mardis Gras, the crowning of the Bristol Bay Beauty Queen, the Mud Festival, or whatever they celebrate at the Willow Tree Bar in Dillingham, Alaska. No, it was the overamplified voices of two or so ridiculously loud individuals. I decided not to bring the book with the poem in the bar right from the start. I might need to feel this one out first.

I walked into the bar and eyed up the patrons and it consisted of about five or so folks, all Native Yupik Eskimos. When I sat at the bar I realized that one of the hysterically loud voices that I heard was in fact the bartender. I figured that this must be a bad sign, Strike Number One. He and a customer at the bar were yelling at the top of their lungs at each other. I soon found out that the customer that was yelling at the top of his lungs was the other bartender who was off-duty that night and drinking at the bar, Strike Number Two.

Now when you are the only white boy at the Willow Tree Bar in Dillingham, Alaska you better not be an alcohol snob, you better drink your cheap, stiff drink and enjoy it. This evening I was craving a beer though, a Bud bottle to be exact. Everybody in bars from Nome to Key West identify a Bud drinker as an Average Joe, hard working, commie killing, good old American. Mmmmm, Budweiser. What bar in America doesn’t have Budweiser in a bottle? The Willow Tree Bar in Dillingham, Alaska – that’s who. Looking at the selection they offered I just couldn’t bring myself to order an MGD or a Corona Light (which I don’t recall seeing anywhere before stepping into the Willow Tree Bar in Dillingham, Alaska) or worse yet, a wine cooler. So I ordered a Killian’s Red, Strike Number Three.

So the bartender, August, took a break from yelling at the off duty bartender to take my Killian’s order and promptly resumed screaming. These two were “play” screaming. They weren’t mad with each other at all but they sure got quite a kick out of yelling at each other. I was not too far into my Killian’s before the off duty, Captain Morgan and Coke drinking, screaming, bartender pulled up a stool next to me, asked my name, where I was from, and said that I seemed a bit scared. I ensured him (let’s refer to him as the Captain) that I was not at all scared but just from out of town and all alone enjoying a beer at the bar. He promptly introduced me to the bartender.

“hi august”
“hi august from Dillingham”

Next thing I knew, August from Dillingham was teaching me how to beat someone up with a pool cue, and in a very cowardly way I might add. When the Captain got himself another drink, he also backed up my Killian’s. Well I guess I’m not leaving the bar after my first drink now, Strike Number Four. August then informed the Captain that he was cut off, because the Captain himself instructed August to cut him off after three drinks.


I guess this is Strike Number Five, huh? So it wasn’t clear to me whether my new friend, the Captain, was cut off after three drinks due to sobriety concerns or monetary concerns. Being that the Captain does indeed work at the bar and that I saw no money exchange hands between him and August, I doubt that it was due to monetary concerns. It was most likely due to sobriety concerns, Natives are not known for their alcohol tolerance and many villages are dry because of this. August and the Captain informed me that two people from Dillingham had drowned drunk in the past two weeks. (While working on the beaches in Dillingham it was not uncommon for me to watch a bunch of drunk, arguing Natives to polish off a bottle of Rumplemintz before heading out in their skiff to go fishing in Nushagak Bay.)


So it was most likely due to sobriety concerns that the Captain was to be cut off. Anyhow, the only way I saw to diffuse the situation a bit was to offer to buy the Captain a third drink. I asked August if that was allowed and indeed he said it was. So now I have backed up my Killian’s and the Captain’s Captain and Coke. Evidently, I’ll be at the Willow Tree bar in Dillingham, Alaska for a third drink, Strike Number Six.

Now sometime during all of this, a white, trashy, commie killing couple walked in and sat down the bar from me. During a lull in all the screaming the woman got my attention and said in a really whiney voice,

“Excuse me sir…”
“Sir, what is that you are drinking?”
“it’s …”
“Oh, is it one of those dark beers?”
“well, actually …”
“Well does it taste like shit?”

Now try to imagine the word “shit” uttered by the whiniest sounding, trashiest looking, middle aged woman you have ever seen in a bar and you might be half way there to what I heard at that moment. Quite frankly, I don’t remember how the hell I responded to that question but I now realized that the only two white people in the bar thought I was a beer snob yuppie from Anchorage drinking something called Killian’s, Strike Number Seven.

Now what could be next? Not more than a few minutes after taking my money for my third Killian’s and the reciprocal Captain and Coke for the Captain, August cut off the Captain due to inebriation. He dumped the Captain and Coke that I bought down the drain. I swear they set me up with the free beer that nobody paid for just so I’d spend more money at the bar by backing up the Captain, Strike Number Eight.

When you are approaching three strikeouts at a bar, you have to step back and ask yourself, “Why did I come to this bar?” Oh yeah, Dillingham, Alaska, the Willow Tree Bar! It’s all about poetry, that’s why I’m here! So I did it! I actually attempted to engage August in a conversation regarding poetry.

“hey August, I’ve been reading this book, it’s a collection of different stories and stuff.”
“YEAH !!!”
“yeah, it’s actually got a poem in it about this bar.”
“YEAH !!!’
“yeah, it’s called Dillingham, Alaska, the Willow Tree Bar. I’ve got it out in my truck.”

August promptly walked off, utterly uninterested in my poetry information, Strike Number Nine.

The Captain went to relieve himself in the head, August went to the other end of the bar to answer the phone, and George from Anchorage promptly left behind a half drank bottle of Killian’s Red in the Willow Tree Bar in Dillingham, Alaska as he drove off with his poem.

Dillingham, Alaska, The Willow Tree Bar by Gary Snyder

Drills chatter full of mud and compressed air
all across the globe,
low-ceilinged bars, we hear the same new songs

All the new songs.
In the working bars of the world.
After you done drive Cat. After the truck
went home.
Caribou slip,
front legs folded first
under the warm oil pipeline
set four feet off the ground –

On the wood floor, glass in hand,
laugh and cuss with
somebody else’s wife
Texans, Hawaiians, Eskimos,
Filipinos, Workers, always
on the edge of a brawl –
In the bars of the world.
Hearing those same new songs
in Abadan,
Naples, Galveston, Darwin, Fairbanks,
White or brown,
Drinking it down,

the pain
of the work
of wrecking the world.