On our way to Missoula from Bozeman, we stopped at two interesting sites, both at my prodding. The first was the Madison Buffalo Jump State Park and the second was a large mining pit in Butte, Montana. Alan and Van kindly accompanied me to the first, but Alan couldn’t fathom spending $2 a person to see a copper pit (even if it was one of the largest of its kind when it was in operation), so Van and I braved that ourselves. Madison Buffalo Jump State Park is one of the locations at which, when bison outnumbered people on our fair continent, Native Americans would attempt to stampede bison to and over the edge of a cliff. Upon their crashing fall, most of the bison would die, and the ones that remained alive would be put out of their misery by quick-acting hunters. The bison would then be butchered right there, and the meat, hide, and other important parts would be laboriously carried back to their camp. I had read about this process as a child and was fascinated. I always wanted to see one of the jump sites and, though to the naked eye there wasn’t a whole lot to see other than the all-important cliff, it was equal parts fascinating and awe-inspiring to be in a place that extinguished and also supported so much life.
Heading northwest towards Missoula, we stopped in Butte, a city clearly dominated by its current and former mining glory. After picnicking right next to the open copper pit, Van and I paid our admission (it was free for the little guy) and headed through a tunnel to see the pit and the water that is slowly accumulating within. The water is heavily acidic, with a pH of 2.5 (similar to lemon juice or cola). The color alone is enough to warn you that this is no swimming hole. There are major cleanup operations going on, especially to deal with the fact that the water, which is currently below bedrock and not threatening the local groundwater, is slated to reach bedrock in 2018 or thereabouts. I could go on and on, but I’d bore all of the non-environmental lawyers or professionals out there. As I’ve bored Alan. Countless times. Alan put his foot down and said no to any more mining sites (I clearly have a problem), but without spoiling anything, I was able to get him to go on a search for one more mine. It came a little later in our trip, but I’ll mention it now so you’re not in suspense. Ha!
We went to Libby! Libby, Montana happens to be the site of a former vermiculite mine, home to the largest environmental removal action in U.S. history under Superfund, as well as the first place that EPA has ever declared a Public Health Emergency, in order to assist victims of asbestos-related diseases . Libby was on my list of destinations from the get-go, so Alan could hardly deny me the pleasure of seeing this town up close. The town is ordinary and somewhat nicer than I expected given its sad history. But driving by the schools and ballfields reminded me that asbestos-contaminated vermiculite was used as fill to help create the ballfields and as a foundation under a school’s ice-skating rink. A search for the mine itself turned up restricted access roads. Since we didn’t have the appropriate credentials, no mine gazing for us. But, the area was beautiful and we didn’t want to let the visit go to waste. We spotted a picnic and boat launch area along the Kootenai River and got out to eat. It was absolutely beautiful – deep blue water, evergreens as far as the eye can see, no development, which all lead to make the smell that much more jarring. I expected it to smell wonderful, piney, and outdoorsy. If it had smelled like nothing, I probably would have noticed. Instead, it smelled gross, like chemicals and industry. We’re not sure why it smelled this way – was it due to the cleanup operations, current industrial operations that were out of sight, or something else entirely? We stayed to eat, but couldn’t get over the strange juxtaposition between the beauty of the area and the distinctly not natural (or nice) odor.
The rest of our stay in Montana consisted of exploring Missoula, which we enjoyed, but not nearly as much as we enjoyed Bozeman, swimming in crystal clear Flathead Lake and at Whitefish Beach, getting a tour of Montana Motel 6s, and visiting Glacier National Park (the subject of a future post). Most of all, I came away from our visit to this beautiful, rugged, aptly nicknamed big sky country, thinking about the state’s countless contradictions and idiosyncrasies. A land where you see a traditional town square protest, and then realize that the protestors are armed militia men from the area calling for the impeachment of the president. A town where, after commenting on how nice, and cute, and tourist-friendly it is, you notice a healthy population of folks who ride the rails on its periphery. Home to a gigantic mining pit in the center of one of the biggest cities in the state, and you have to pay just to peer down inside. A state where the preference for guns is only equaled by the surprising number of safety signs seen around the state (“be polite, don’t tailgate”). A state where spotting three bears (two grizzlies and a black bear) is somehow just as interesting as watching a man drive down main street while eating corn on the cob. A citizenry whose penchant for casinos (there seems to be at least one in every town, no matter the size) is only outdone by its love of the outdoors. But regardless of these idiosyncrasies, and in some cases because of them, we both felt a connection to certain parts of the state in a way that we hadn’t in many other places. It got under our skin, in a good way, and hasn’t left. I look forward to returning one day – maybe as a visitor or maybe, just maybe, as a resident.