We left Missoula just over 24 hours ago. In that time I have been off-grid and have no idea how Sir Paul’s gig was. I will google it secretly later to feed my Beatles’ obsession.
Our first stop out of Missoula was Philipsburg, a town of just under a thousand people whose claim to fame was that it was home of the Hope Mine, Montana’s first ever silver mine, in 1866. It is a bit twee now as it has become somewhat of a tourist destination. However, two things about Philipsburg made it perfect for E:
1) It has the biggest sweet shop on this side of the Mississippi called the Sweet Palace
2) It has a sapphire mine where you can buy buckets of gravel and sift for gems. E found 8 high quality sapphires that we were told we could send off for heat treatment and polishing. Not bad for a first-time miner.
Although I have to admit to a slight sense of discomfort at the idea of trawling the earth’s resources being turned into a family day out. But this is Montana and the the relationship to the earth here is so different from anywhere I have ever been. Montanans seem very connected to the land, with many living off it either through mining or ranching or hunting. Much of Montana’s wealth came from mining, and although the bad side of raping the earth far outweighs the good (in my liberal and humble view) I can understand the desire the get at those gems and all that gold and silver. The vastness here does give one the illusion that it will go on forever. And the knowledge the locals seem to possess about the land around them is astonishing. To use a much-overused phrase, Montanans seem very much ‘in touch’ with the land. Even a parasite knows it’s host inside out. But because many do need the land in order to survive I am sensing a deep respect here. But I haven’t spoken to enough people yet to be able to really get at the heart of this relationship.
In Philipsburg, we found a great motel, the Inn at Philipsburg. It was was on the edge of town, picturesquely wedged between a Conoco and a church. The flamingo-loving owner of the Inn at Philipsburg is a transplant from Florida. She told me her pink flamingos are fading because there aren’t any shrimp in Montana. We bumped into her today working in a Pizza joint in Anaconda, the next town over. Are there any B+B owners in the UK daylighting in Pizza restaurants? Doubt it. The Yanks work damn hard.
Anaconda is tiny but, like pretty much any town in Montana, insanely photogenic. The vast, rolling landscapes and the golden light coupled with that iconic Western architecture is too enticing. Unlike Wyoming, however, I get a stronger sense of history here. Maybe it’s because the people who live here have been here for generations.
The gentrification is starting though. I even heard of a bumper sticker that says, “Montana is full, try Wyoming”. I can understand why some Montanans feel antagonistic to yuppies (they hold a special dislike for Californians) coming here and buying land or even worse buying ranches without understanding the land and the animals. I saw a poster today that read: “The next time you are moved by wilderness, thank a hunter”. This is a massive issue that lies at the centre of Montana: the idea that it is the hunters who are keeping the wilderness wild as opposed to the activists. In the embodiment of Montanan hunters you find that strange American axis where left-wing, eco-activists meet right-wing, gun-toting Republicans. As a vegetarian who wouldn’t be able to pull a trigger if the gun were sighted on an apple, I find myself siding with those who feed their families from the land. I can’t find it in myself to condemn it. Today our waitress in a diner in Anaconda told us how she and her husband shoot enough elk to feed their extended family, some of whom are disabled and unable to look after themselves. If the alternative for these people is a soup kitchen full of factory-farmed chicken nuggets, then I know what I think is the kinder, less destructive option. But I am just dipping my toe into the hunting/anti-hunting debate. I am sure I will have more to say about this in a later blog.
We left Anaconda reluctantly and got into Butte this evening. Butte is half the size of Missoula and, like Philipsburg, was an extremely wealthy mining town in the late nineteenth century. The nearest I have been to somewhere like Butte is Detroit. The faded grandeur is incredibly melancholic. Once this town was home to gold, silver and copper mines and the original prospectors were richer than the Rockefellers. But when the great depression hit, the bottom fell out of metal trading and the town began a long, steady decline. In the 1980s, a Montana-born man called Denny Washington bought up the remaining open-pit copper and molybdenum mines and some industry still thrives. But the feel of the place is like a film set after the film has had a champagne-fuelled opening night and then flopped. J and I have fallen in love with Butte. The ancient mansions crumbling against the silhouettes of mine heads and the famous blue sky are calling out for documenting. I am not sure how, but I feel I need to explore this place and get under its skin.