Obituary: Good Spirits Bar and Grill

Obituary: Good Spirits Bar and Grill

My first piece for Mountain Gazette, from August 2003: An obituary for — and defense of — a short-lived bar in Paonia that had (re-)opened its doors just as I arrived in town. The building now houses the local community radio station.

Good Spirits Bar and Grill

— Joshua Zaffos

The Deceased: Good Spirits Bar and Grill (a/k/a The Great Escape Pub and Eatery), Paonia CO
Born: August 2002
Died: March 2003
Cause of death: Teetotalitarianism

GoodSpirits sign
Good Spirits Bar, c. 2003

“Any town with more churches than bars, that town’s got a problem. That town is asking for trouble.”
– Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang

When I first arrived along the North Fork of the Gunnison River, I remember reading one of the tourist rags promoting the North Fork valley. Amid the popular trail suggestions and bed-and-breakfast listings, the paper also included notes from town meetings for the small communities of Paonia, Crawford and Hotchkiss. That month in Paonia, a proprietor went before the town trustees proposing to re-open a bar along Grand Avenue, the town’s main street.

Previously known as the Great Escape, the bar had built a reputation for a roughshod roadhouse atmosphere that led to its eventual demise. At the town meeting, trustee Dave Weber remarked to the new owner: “Let me tell you a story. I was walking down the street one day and I saw blood on the sidewalk. I followed it and it led right to the door of the Great Escape. I hope you are planning on doing a better job.” Weber and the council then approved a liquor license for the new establishment, Good Spirits.

Blood on the sidewalks is a legitimate concern for any town council. But, at the same time, no local government should deny its citizens a place where they can unwind after a hard day of coal mining, farming, assembling Chaco sandals or housesitting.

For those inclined to commit righteous deeds after a day’s work, Paonia offers its 1,500 residents at least 14 churches where folks can meditate, worship or reflect. On the other hand, Good Spirits was one of only two legitimate bars serving liquor and fifty-cent pool to the public seven days a week. And it was the only bar with windows – an exercise in optimism. A few restaurants also serve alcohol, but Good Spirits had a monopoly on the weekday whiskey-drinking crowd (barely a crowd) that was interested in looking out on the bustle (rarely a bustle) of Grand Avenue in Paonia.

During my nights inside the re-opened bar, I never saw a single brawl or any other raucous incident that sent someone home bleeding. But Good Spirits never could get out of the dark and smoky shadow of its predecessor. One reason for the uninterrupted association was that the bar never actually removed the sign from its façade that read, “Great Escape.” Instead, the owner chose to just airbrush its new moniker on a window. Most people still referred to the bar as the Great Escape, or more commonly as the Great Mistake.

Great Escape façade, c. 2003

The lack of a crowd didn’t much matter to the regulars, including myself: Our attraction to Good Spirits (née Great Escape) was directly related to everyone else’s aversion to the place.

My sentimentality and nostalgia towards Good Spirits stems from the fact that we both arrived in the North Fork valley at the same time – and discovered ourselves together. The bar was a mistress I’d visit irregularly, but when I showed up I gave her my devotion. In return, Good Spirits offered me comfort and spontaneity – the defining characteristics of small-town romance. On any given evening, I could either drink without speaking to a soul and just listen to the jukebox or hold a conversation with a caffeinated workman lecturing me on fiber optics while watching a couple dry-humping next to us on the bar rail.

On Monday nights during football season, the bar would show the game and cater to hunters who had just returned from their weekend in the West Elk Wilderness. Fellas from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Oklahoma and Texas usually demonstrated signs of chronic wasting disease of the mouth, rambling loudly to themselves and drinking Budweisers and watermelon pucker shots.

Karaoke night at the bar was Thursday and run by the North Fork madam of sing-along, Holli Karaoke. One of the regulars would sing throughout the evening, always accompanied by his dog yelping and howling along to the chorus of “Mustang Sally” or “Proud Mary.” I was the one who usually waited till the end of the night and then liked to sing Stealers Wheel or Eddie Rabbitt.

Weekends guaranteed less consistent, but equally entertaining distractions. One Saturday night, Good Spirits actually had a tattoo parlor set up in a front corner of the bar. Less than twenty people were in the establishment at any point that night, but the tattoo artist was busy the whole time (and didn’t send anyone home bleeding). The unnerving whining of his needle steadily detracted from Willie Nelson’s rendition of “Pancho and Lefty,” which played over and over on the jukebox.

Unfortunately, a small band of Tuesday night whiskey warriors and Thursday night karaoke superheroes weren’t enough to keep the bar afloat. Good Spirits shut down this March under the guise of “renovation” – but the bartender told me a week later that the doors were closed permanently.

And now our town must wait for a new bar to take over the location, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed it doesn’t fall into the hands of a local bible study group or a sinister boutique owner from Aspen. An establishment open daily – and nightly – serving liquor and natural light can do more to satisfy the all-season sanity of a small town than any church or kitschy fashion salon.

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