Ken Coughlin stands next to
his three-sided bar.
© Dawn Kish
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Raising the BarIt's not a classic saloon, like the Palace in Prescott or the Copper Queen in Bisbee, but The Desert Bar is legendary in its own way. Built from the ground up in the middle of nowhere, there's no other place like it. Anywhere.
By Kathy Ritchie
The dusty, dirt road that leads to the Nellie E. Saloon, a.k.a. The Desert Bar, is quiet, except for the staccato of gunfire from a nearby shooting range: pop … pop-pop-pop-pop. It's the last weekend in May, the last weekend the bar will be open before it shuts down for summer. The weather is unusually brisk, almost chilly. A high of 82 is forecast — about 20 degrees cooler than the day before. As the road plunges deeper into the desert, there's no sign of life. No dust from another vehicle. No hint that there might actually be a bar nearby. With every turn comes anticipation … are we there yet? Finally, after ascending yet another rocky hill, the landscape unfolds, revealing what looks like a compound. The brain works overtime to put the pieces together. What is this place? By the time you reach the parking lot, the question remains unanswered. But that's the nature of The Desert Bar.
Ask anyone to describe it, and they'll likely start their answer with an "Um." Even owner Ken Coughlin lacks the words. "I can't describe it," he says in his sharp, Upper Midwest accent. "To me, it's my artwork."
Coughlin's story is a familiar one. A small-town boy from Wisconsin, he moved to Parker in the early 1970s. In 1974, he leased a little bar on the Colorado River, which quickly became a hit with the locals. Five years later, the lease was up, and Coughlin was a man without a bar. "I couldn't find a place to put my liquor license, so I had to do something," he says. "Something," for Coughlin, involved building a three-sided shack on his private property, 71 acres of land just outside of town. "I went to the liquor board and they said, 'Who are you going to serve out there?' "
Attracting customers, it turns out, wasn't a problem. Coughlin had a loyal following, and thanks to word of mouth, people started flocking to the tiny bar in the desert. With the place open for business, Coughlin concentrated what little resources he had on the bigger picture.
"What I wanted to do was build the front of an old town," he explains. "And in an old town, the first thing you'd have is a saloon. The next thing you'd have is a church."
In 1988, five years after opening his little desert bar, Coughlin's vision became a reality. He named the place the Nellie E. after an old mining claim.
"The old-timers that go way back still call it the Nellie E.," he says. "But people started calling it The Desert Bar. Why fight it? I'm not going to fight it."
Everything inside The Desert Bar was either recycled from something else or built by Coughlin's own two hands. The brass-top bar is a Coughlin original. The windows came from old glass refrigerator doors. Coughlin's next project was the bridge that connects the parking lot to the saloon. After that, he tackled the church, creating a solid steel front with a copper steeple. Over the years, Coughlin added an outdoor bar, a stage for live music, a cooking area, enough bathrooms to accommodate a crowd, and two giant cooling towers to help with airflow. Everywhere you look, there's some random oddity. Chairs and other sculptures made from welded horseshoes are courtesy of his brother; an old wagon is hoisted above the grilling station; a vintage Oldsmobile, circa 1920, sits near the bridge, a rusty tractor right behind it.
"A lot of people look down on bar owners," Coughlin says. "I consider myself a developer; I'm developing this. I grew up on a farm, and to live on a farm, you have to know how to do everything. The enjoyment — or the payoff — is that I get to look at it."
The crowds of locals and out-of-towners who flock to The Desert Bar like to look at it, too. That's probably because there's nothing like it. Anywhere. The place feels a little like Mad Max's post-apocalyptic Bartertown. But instead of being fueled by a methane refinery, slabs of solar panels cover the roof of the bar. Ask Coughlin how many solar panels he owns and he'll tell you: "A lot. Enough to power the place." And that's perhaps his greatest achievement. The Desert Bar is, according to Coughlin, totally off the grid. "It took a long time to get to this stage," he says.
Coughlin started going solar in the 1980s, before going green was hip, and before rebates and tax credits were the norm. Perhaps his environmental convictions stem from his early years growing up on a farm; perhaps it's knowing that we live in a world where many children don't even know where hamburger comes from; or perhaps Coughlin understands that we're a nation that consumes, and, eventually, we'll be forced to pay the tab.
On this day, Coughlin is sitting on the back bar of the saloon, taking it all in. For someone who doesn't look or act his age (he's 68), he admits he's bad with names.
"Please, when you walk in, tell me who you are. I know I know you, but I don't know from where." A customer walks up to Coughlin and asks to have his photo taken with the bar owner. He happily obliges. It was supposed to be a slow weekend. But the cool weather means more business for Coughlin. He doesn't mind. "I love what I'm doing," he says. "There's no other place on the planet I want to be." And Coughlin isn't done building his old town in the desert. He has plans to build an amphitheater and create a food-court area.
The Desert Bar may have started out as a place where Coughlin could tack up his liquor license, but standing in the heart of his "town," it's clear he's created his own Utopia — a place where he can hang his hat and play by his own rules.