20 Jul Mountain Time
Sunday, driving from Spokane, WA, to Missoula, MT, I forgot I was passing into mountain time. Only when I checked my phone did I discover my mistake: I was an hour late for my reading! Fortunately, my good friends Michael and Sheri — and their friend Phillip — were hosting the event. They held the audience until I raced in. Then they threw us a party. Fine people! My cousin, Peg, happens to live in Missoula. I hadn’t seen her since I was a teenager. We stayed at her ranch outside of town, where Jill got to play with Peg’s 5 dogs. and admire Peg’s three horses. The view from any window of Peg’s house will make you breathless. Generally speaking, you will be breathless in Montana because of the altitude. I haven’t been below 5,000 feet in over a week.
On the way to Butte, Jill and I drove into the back country to see Garnet, a ghost town. It’s 10 miles on a one-lane dirt road that winds into the hills. Jill drove it fearlessly. We had no guard rails between us and the drop-offs into 1,000-foot-deep valleys. Garnet had been a mining town and might have survived had most of it not burned a 100 years ago. Montana is a mining state. No town illustrates that better than Butte. In its heyday, it was the Paris of the West, boasting the world’s first skyscraper (8 stories), high fashion, and just about anything you’d want. Copper mining was the money-maker. In the 1950s, the mining companies switched from tunnel mining to strip mining. Butte is now home to the biggest pit mine in the country (now closed) and because of the toxins in the pit (heavy metals and chemicals used to extract them), it is home also to the nation’s largest Superfund site. The lake at the bottom of the pit is 900 feet deep, one mile long and half a mile wide. It is truly a bone-chilling sight.
Butte is also the largest historic district in the nation. Virtually the entire town is historic. It prides itself on its colorful history (e.g., it had the longest running brothel in the nation) and is unlike any other town in Montana. If you want to get quirky, everybody will tell you: go to Butte. Unfortunately, the city now has one-third the number of residents it once enjoyed. This makes historic preservation very difficult — too many old buildings and too few people to live in them, much less restore them. Still, I met a number of people making a go of it, including a youngish couple who have established a brewery in an old hotel and have plans to renovate it to full use. I had a full-house at my From Animal House to Our House presentation in Butte’s way-cool Clark Mansion.
I had to say goodbye to Jill at Butte’s George Mooney airport, which is so small it has no gates, only a single waiting/boarding area. She had to look after her father in Tampa, cutting short our vacation. It broke me up to see her go. I’ve been watching musicals at night to give myself some cheer. And, of course, Cleo helps. We are now in the Grand Tetons, the most spectacular mountain range in the country. I haven’t been here since I drove across the country after college. At the time, I was looking for something that made sense, something that would hold me. My father had just died at 49 and I felt deliriously, frighteningly unmoored. It would take me about 15 years to recover. Now, I’m grateful to be back, grateful that things have gone well enough in my life that I could come back, with my little dog in my camper van, where at night I dream of my loving and way-cool partner in life, Jill, clear across the continent — the bulls-eye I’m aiming for as I make my book tour beeline across the heartland.