We never saw the big sky of the Big Sky State. We never saw blue sky at all, just gray. A depressing shade of gray. The gray was continuous from high overhead until it coated the Bitterroot Mountains and soaked the land. Sometimes in layers of a fog like murk, but mostly like a painting with outlines of hills drawn in pencil. Maybe someday an artist will fill in some color. Someday, I hope. But today just gray.
Lillian has turned grocery shopping into an Olympic sport. She approaches the chore as if it was the steeplechase or pentathlon. A sport requiring both skill and cunning. She’s been doing it for 97 years. Remember, she’s a lot older than me. She’s memorized where everything is, not just the aisle but shelf location, high – low, mid aisle or towards the ends. First, she surfs the periphery stocking up on vegetables and raspberries. But only if in season. Occasionally she’ll substitute strawberries, but she knows I prefer raspberries. Grocery shopping is no time for chit chat, small talk or greeting old friends. Lillian is on the hunt. If I volunteer to fetch an errant item, I’ll lose her. But she was just on aisle twelve? Where the hell did she go? I cruise by the checkout, back by the eggs and cheese. I’ve lost her. Then like Houdini, she pulls up from behind to say she forgot cookies. I didn’t put them on the list so I must not want them. I didn’t put milk and eggs on the list either, I’d say but I see you got those I’d respond. Now as I sprint to the cookie aisle, I know I’ll lose her again for sure. The lookers, chatters and idle wonders bug her to no end. “Know what you want, get what you want and get out,” she says. Those are the rules Lillian shops by.
Yesterday was no exception but aisle after aisle was filled with the roughest looking guys in the dirtiest cloths. Oil-stained overhauls, sweat stained long-sleeved t-shirts. And ball caps. They all had sweat soaked ball caps. No sports teams, just Brown’s Farm Implements or Jake’s Auto salvage. Aisle after aisle, Lillian had to navigate past these amateur shoppers. Rough looking guys holding open the milk cooler and just staring. Maybe they’re letting the cool air out on purpose? Then she noticed, no baskets or carts. The men were picking up whatever they could carry. The quarts of chocolate milk and Yohoo were long gone, so were all the Little Debbie’s and the ones I like made with coconut. Four guys in front to checkout and a few more behind. She then realized who these men were. She stepped back out of line. She waited until they all bought their supplies and passed. Going across the parking lot toward our big white truck she saw six or seven firetrucks pulling out in unison. They were all turning left. Montana was on the left. Montana was on fire.
Lillian and I love Montana. It’s a big state and we’ve been through most of it at one time or another. This trip we spent a week or so in Butte and another two weeks in Dillion the county seat of Beaverhead County. Butte is along Interstate 90, past Missoula if you are headed east. but it’s still considered western Montana. Dillon is south of Butte along Interstate 15. Exit 62 and 63 to be exact. Montana is not nowhere. Montana is a short break from going somewhere. Seems like we are always headed somewhere.
I like to stop for a spell in Montana. We stop because I want to fish. There’s not much more to it than that. Lillian and I just love being in Montana. Ok, ok, we’re never going to be in Montana in the winter. Love has it’s limits.
Butte is a tough town or at least it was back in the day. With a little over 30,000 people, Butte is the largest town for miles. As you drive along Interstate 90 you can see the entire town scattered along the hills. Church steeples, mining towers, historic hotels. Begun in 1864 with the discovery of gold, Butte quickly swelled to accommodate workers from all over the world. Irish, Mexican, Chinese, Welsh and Cornish labors flooded Butte looking to make their fortunes. What they found instead was the back breaking work of digging in a mine, deep under the surface. When the Gold ran out, they mined silver. Then the silver gave way to copper and a host of other precious metals. The miners from all over the world dug over 10,000 miles of tunnels under and around Butte. They did this on a little over $3 a day. Today a large open pit mine sits on the Eastern side of the city.
Butte historic district is the largest collection of historic buildings in the United States. Vera was our tour guide on the trolley tour of downtown. She grew up in Butte, raised a family and now lives happily alone with four dogs. Two Cocker Spaniels and two Shiatzus. Lillian found this out when she tried to pawn me off at the beginning of our ride. Vera’s only taking dogs now. “But he’s house broken.” Lillian tried.
One of the first things that caught my eye were all the posters on the antique looking lampposts. Pictures of smart and happy kids along with their name and “Class of 2021.” Our adopted home of Rock Hall in Maryland proudly displays pictures of local military veterans. Looking at the smiling faces of the soon graduating seniors of Butte, I couldn’t help but think, Rock Hall would be better served by displaying their local graduates. 2020 was a difficult year for everyone. It would be nice to celebrate the seniors who most likely missed any form of ceremony. As Vera drove us around town it was clear that Butte was composed of Irish, Cornish, Italians, Fins, and Asians. Butte was and still is a truly American Mixing bowel. There must be a dozen or so places selling pasties. Thank you, immigrants from Cornwall. A pasty is a piecrust filled with meat, potatoes, and vegetables. If you were thinking a pasty was those other things, you need to stop staying at Harbor Shack past 10pm. Thank you, residents of Rock Hall.
On a previous visit, Lillian toured the World Museum of Mining on the grounds of Montana Technological University. She went by herself. I’m not keen on mines or caves. It’s not a phobia or weakness, it’s just – I don’t have to, so I’m not going to. She said it was interesting and the miners worked under horrible conditions. A poster at the museum’s entrance stated that “without mining, civilization would not be possible.” I found her description acceptable.
Vera weaved the trolley past the shanty towns of each nationality. None were better than the other. No running water, little heat. A miner and his family had a tough life on $3 a day. The Dumas Brothel in the famed red-light district of Butte is said to be haunted. Given that the youngest worker is now 106, I left that portion of the tour to others. It closed in 1984, a sad day in Butte for sure. There are also tours of several old speakeasys. A respectable business in the front and Prohibition era saloon in back. Sadly, the Famed M&M Cigar Store just burned down. Cigars in the front and whiskey in the back. All my vices under one roof. Now all gone. A fire saved me from my vices. They say, the M&M was open 24 hours a day. If the property ever changed owners, they’d have a ceremonial losing of the keys. The fire is still under investigation. Lillian has not been ruled out.
While the uptown section of the city holds several stately Victorian mansions the lower section of the town contains the working-class neighborhoods. Many of the houses of these working neighborhoods no longer exist. The expansion of mines throughout the city destroyed the Irish and China towns of the 1900s. Today, the underground mines are all closed. Open Pit mining began in the 1950’s. A huge strip mine has carved a great scar in the hill overlooking Butte. It is said to be the richest hill on earth. It is also the site of the largest Superfund Site in the United States. I find myself favoring environmental policies and gave regularly to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. But I also like my TV, the computer I write on, and that damned smart phone Lillian is fond of complaining about. The pit mine of Butte used to produce half the world’s copper.
If you find yourself in Montana. If you find yourself driving Interstate 90. Spend a few days in Butte. Take the Trolley tour. Ask for Vera.
At Butte, if you take Interstate 15 South for about 50 miles you come to a real western town called Dillon. We spent two weeks here. I did a lot of Flyfishing and then we went to the First Annual Dillon Territorial Rodeo. Dip me in saw dust and roll me in a cow patty we are in the West now. As the County Seat, Dillon is big enough to have what you need but small enough to enjoy as a small town. It sits among the hay farms and Talc processing plants of the Beaverhead Valley. Here in the summer of 1805 Sacagawea lead Lewis and Clark to the headwaters of the Missouri. Further south of this valley, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains a small spring named Bower Springs begins the trickle which will grow into the longest river in North America. The spring flows into the Beaverhead River and continues northward through Dillon until it is joined by the Ruby River and then in the small hamlet of Twin Bridges, it’s joined by the Big Hole River and forms the Jefferson. The Jefferson runs for 80 or so miles northward until it meets up with first the Madison and then the Gallatin Rivers. These three rivers merge at Three Forks Montana and become the Great Missouri River. I fished the Beaverhead, Big Hole and Ruby Rivers. What an awe-inspiring land.
Montana is quite discovered with tourism feeding many local economies. We heard over and over about how expensive it was to live in Montana. Billionaires are muscling out the millionaires for that coveted mountain getaway. We were told that the average house in Bozeman Montana is around $930,000. Many of the locals complain that they can no longer afford to live in the State they grew up in.
For Lillian and me, Montana is between nowhere and somewhere. Somewhere is where we’re headed next.