Lunaya Pravda

08 July 2007

Tales from Montana

When P. said he'd show me "the real Montana" that last night, I suspect he was referring to the outdoor scenery, but the quintessential image that stuck with me is this: you know you're in Montana when you find yourself bouncing around helmetless on an ATV in the wee hours of the morning behind an armed man with a beer in his hand.

Needless to say, I had a blast in Montana this past week. This was my second trip out, and while the verdant Pacific Northwest is still my number one leading lady, I'd be lying if I didn't say Montana, with her relaxed attitude and carefree lifestyle, is gaining on her.

Day 1

The first full day there, I didn't do a whole lot. My car was in severe need of a washing because I appear to have done my utmost to hit every insect in western Montana on the drive out, so after a bit of a lie-in, I drove to town to gas up and wash the worst of the bugs off. Then spent the rest of the day hanging out at P.'s gulch drinking beer and waiting for K. to arrive. I rode up to the gulch with M., which helped to correct the unbelievably wrong directions we took last year getting up to the gulch in the dark. P. threw his meat on the grill for us, and we whiled away the time giving each other shit and slapping away the mosquitoes.

Day 2

The next day, K., B., and I spent some helpful but self-serving time cleaning up T.'s upstairs apartment so that we weren't stepping/tripping over things or getting covered in plaster dust. What really struck me was when I found T's truck keys under a particularly large pile of papers. He hadn't seemed to be terribly concerned that they had been missing for some time--"Oh, I was wondering where those went." I know I'd have been tearing my house apart for the keys, but not T. K. and I made a trip to the store for oil soap and a mop, and we polished the furniture (or "we polished his wood", if you prefer).

After we'd showered all the plaster, dust, and oil off and felt refreshed, K. and I drove up to Gem Mountain to pan for sapphires. For a mere $12 FRNs, you are given a bucket and the necessary tools and instruction, and you're rewarded with an oddly satisfying mix of mindless activity and small finds. By the end, I'd gotten good enough in my washing technique to get the sapphires into the center of the pan. Because it was near closing time, the line to have our sapphires evaluated for gem quality was pretty long and not budging, so K. and I decided to shine on the evaluation at that time and drive up to Skalkaho Falls. Beautiful drive, interesting conversation, and the serenity that only rushing, bubbling water can provide. Who can ask for more?

Day 3

On the morning of day three I wasn't feeling well, so I had another lie-in while K. and everyone else went up to P.'s gulch to help him dig a trench for some piping. I didn't want to feel entirely lazy and useless, so I mopped T.'s floor with the oil soap. Not sure how much of a difference it made, but at least I accomplished something (and inadvertently gave myself a defense for later when I discovered I was maligned for not digging with everyone else).

When K. got back from the gulch, we packed off into her Element for our reservations on the underground mine tour at the World Mining Museum in Butte. When our tour began, I found myself wondering if we'd inadvertently booked the geriatric tour, as we were by far the youngest on the tour, and two of our fellow tourists had canes and severe difficulty walking. The guide walked us down the hill to a trailer where we were all fitted with hard hats, headlamps and belts with battery packs. Inside the mine, the temperature was 48 degrees, and I was a bit concerned because I hadn't brought a jacket, but it felt heavenly after the outside heat. We were shown various types of mining equipment, some outdated and some in use, and went far enough in to see the main elevator shaft, which is now flooded with incredibly foul-smelling polluted water. The guide also showed us some examples of the wiring and patterns they use in blasting, and talked about Nonel and detcord, both of which I remember from my days hanging out with the demolition crews at a now-defunct bombing range outside Denver where we all worked.

What struck me most was the map at the mine entrance showing all the various adits, tunnels, shafts, drifts, and other excavations under the city of Butte. The maze extends as far underground as 4 miles, and makes the land supporting Butte look like Swiss cheese. I'm certain the scale makes a difference--it's hard to tell how far apart all those tunnels really are--and because much of the tunneling is flooded, the water would help prevent collapses, but it was still mind-blowing to contemplate that much excavation under a town. I know the Paris Catacombs preclude the construction of tall buildings because the ground can't support the weight, and that thought kept running through my mind while I looked at that map. Come to think of it, Butte doesn't appear to have tall buildings, either...

Then we visited the Berkeley Pit viewing area. On the underground mine tour, we learned that pit operation stopped in 1982, and the pit contains the water from multiple mines in the Butte area. Actually, the area where the mine sits used to be home to several towns built over underground mines. When the price of copper was high enough that open pit copper mining in the area became profitable, the Anaconda Mining Company paid the homeowners off and then allowed them to buy their homes back--just the structures themselves--for $1. The owners would then use the remaining money to have their homes moved, keeping whatever was left over.

K. drove us back to town for a barbecue at a private, seasonal I'm not sure how to describe someone who doesn't bother with permits, inspections, worker's comp, or any other nanny nonsense to run an eating establishment and make a little money for part of the year. There isn't even a roof. But it makes my heart swell to support such an enterprise, and the food was to die for. F. graced us with her incredibly dangerous flourless chocolate torte with a raspberry/strawberry coulee, B. brought a wonderfully mustardy potato salad, and the grilled meat was as excellent as I remember. Later in the evening, someone undertook the Herculean task of herding us all into a group photo with a smattering of guns and birds raised, and one of Dull'Hawk's "Time's Up" flags. I'm thinking this needs to be a tradition for TCF (or at least Granite County) meetups from now on.

Day 4

Much of the day was spent getting laundry done and wandering around town with P.'s daughter. We'd been warned by P.'s wife that if we ventured up to the gulch, we'd be trapped into putting up the forms for the concrete walls being poured the next day. Whew--bullet dodged.

After laundry and errands, we gathered to watch fireworks from near the house P. used to be renting. It wasn't of the scale of the shows wealthy folks around Lake Tapps put on every year, but for such a small town, I was impressed at the lengths to which a few residents went for a good show.

After the fireworks died off and everyone bugged out for bed, K. and I drove to Missoula in the middle of the night for food. After staying up 'til dawn just about every night, 11PM was just too early to fall asleep.

Day 5

This was when it started to get seriously hot around Granite County. Near 100, if I recall correctly. K. and I wanted to see the concrete pouring, so we didn't bother to shower in that heat and headed up to the gulch. Everyone had set up their chairs in the shade of the pines at the edge of the clearing. The whole thing didn't get rolling for a couple of hours because the trucks were late, but I took plenty of pictures of P. up on the wall using the concrete vibrator, a source of much sophomoric toilet humor. It is utterly appropriate that the pumper truck had the word "schwing" painted on it.

Tired of sweating our asses off in that weather, we drove back down to town to shower so K. could get her tortilla soup dinner ready. After much herding of cats (again), we got dinner arranged upstairs, and enjoyed a particularly excellent meal. After K. and a local took off for the lake to look for beavers, the rest of us took up a particularly cheap game of Texas Hold 'Em, a new one for me. My family plays poker often enough, but it's always dealer choice. P.'s daughter managed to bluff her way into a winning particularly good pot from her father, and the highlight of the evening for me was cleaning P. out in one hand. His ego needed a knock down a peg or two...not that it'll stay there.

After everyone left, I was far too awake to sleep (again), so I drove to Butte and back just listening to tunes. Butte has all their original mine shafts lit up in red lights at night, and the effect is particularly striking from a distance.

Day 6

K. and I intended to get back to Gem Mountain to have our sapphires evaluated, and we were hoping to have lunch with E. in Three Forks, so we called to set things up, but couldn't reach him. Out of the 20-25 sapphires I found, two were flawless and large enough to cut, totaling 2.20 carats. I suspect I'll have them heat treated to clear up their cloudiness, but I kind of like the idea of having them set in jewelry while they're still raw. There's a woman over near the coast I met on an art walk not too long ago that designs and makes beautiful jewelry. Perhaps I'll save up and see if she can fashion them into something I'd wear.

We tried reaching E. again afterwards without success, so we continued back to Butte to visit Montana Tech's mineral museum. Holy crap it was hot in there! Not a lick of air conditioning in a room with 25-foot ceilings and far too many windows. For a while, I took pictures of the minerals I found interesting, but then it occurred to me that I should be photographing the minerals I don't know, not the ones I do. And they had a nice selection, with some displays focusing on valuable types of rock commonly found in Montana.

Because we'd promised to help P. take down the forms that evening, we drove back to T.'s to pick up some stuff and change into work clothes and then headed up to the gulch. Because I'm still touchy about doing anything to damage the new vehicle, I hadn't driven it up there yet, but gave it a shot that time. As P. put it, I popped its cherry. Handled great, and I didn't bottom out once.

The weather had graced us with some cooling after another sweltering day, and taking down the forms went pretty fast once the person who didn't want to work took off. (Oddly enough, this was the same person who made some rather rude comments about me not digging back on Day 3.) With six adults and two kids helping, we got it almost entirely done in about four and a half hours, with a few breaks in between. Towards the end we pulled K.'s car around to use the headlights so we could see. Much of the time we were rewarded with an impressive distant lightning display that the Rockies often provide in the summer.

Afterwards, we sat around in our greasy, filthy clothes and shot the shit. One by one, folks dropped out or passed out, and by three or so, P. and I were the only ones still awake enough not to wuss out on some early morning off-roading. Which is when MY defining moment of Montana that started this entry occurred. Looking at aerial imagery on Google Maps now, I think I've figured out where the hell we were, which wasn't too far from the small lake we were looking for but never found.

We had a couple of mishaps along the way which left me covered in bruises and sore as hell, but I haven't felt that alive in a long time. For the first time in a long while, I can honestly say I didn't want to come home. Because the sun was up by the time I came down from the gulch, I didn't bother sleeping. I just showered, packed, and left. But the latte I picked up in Missoula didn't wake me up like I'd hoped, so I pulled off at the next rest area and napped for 45 minutes or so.

Now I'm just laundering the grease and dirt off my clothes and thinking of some changes to make and goals to meet in my life. A second home in Montana might be in there somewhere...

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