A Small Town in Montana

I hated Butte America (Butte, Montana) while I was growing up there. It is an ugly place, home to the Berkeley Pit, now a major superfund site. Home to a never-say-die can-do attitude, it is also home to a mean-spirited violence, masquerading as manliness. It has made a fetish of Evel Knievel Days, celebrating a man who is the epitome of mean-spirited bravado. To the rest of Montana, it is “an island surrounded by land”.

I left, along with my wife Jeanne and her daughter, in 1983. We both still have family there. It is the only reason we return. We visited from June 5 through June 11, 2017, along with our dog Googie.

Getting There

On June 5th, we broke camp at the Madison Campground, in Yellowstone National Park. We gassed up in West Yellowstone, walked around looking for huckleberry mints, and ate lunch at Buckaroo Bill’s Ice Cream Parlor and BBQ. Jeanne got some Huckleberry Ice Cream at City Creamery Homemade Ice Cream. I did eventually find the mints, on the same walk where I noticed Buckaroo Bill’s. 

We drove past Hebgen Lake and Quake Lake. Neither of us had ever visited the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center, so we took spent some time there. Quake lake, as the name suggests, was formed by an earthquake:

It was near midnight on August 17th, 1959 when an earthquake near the Madison River triggered a massive landslide.  The slide moved at 100 mph and in less than 1 minute, over 80 million tons of rock crashed into the narrow canyon, blocking the Madison River and forming Earthquake Lake.  This earth- changing event, known as the Hebgen Lake Earthquake, measured 7.5 on the Richter scale.  — visitor center web site.

I was four years old. I remember, the next morning, sitting for breakfast in our home in Butte. We watched an old coffee pot shake on the stove in response to one of the aftershocks. We were nearly 100 miles from the epicenter.

We drove to Ennis, where we turned west. We passed through Virginia City, but did not stop. Virginia City was a frequent destination while I lived in Butte. My family would frequently make a day trip of driving to the city.  Later, friends and I would drive down on weekends to see the melodrama provided by the Virginia City Players. 40 years later, the Opera House is still the stage for the players.

We took a break and changed drivers in Twin Bridges. Jeanne had spent time there, participating in rodeos. For me, it was just another small town to drive through. From Twin Bridges, there are two paths around the Highland Mountains. We took the shorter route, going north, rather than the longer route, through Dillon.

Silver Star is a small town, near where my father grew up on a ranch near Waterloo. One of the few memories I have of my father is driving to Silver Star and spending time at the Silver Star Bar. The bar is no longer there, and my uncle sold the ranch many years ago.

5 miles north of Silver Star, there is a junction of MT-41 and MT-45. From here, there are many possible routes. We continued to Whitehall. My father’s mother emigrated to Montana in a covered wagon in the early 1900s. She lived in a one room log home, without indoor plumbing or electricity, until, in her 80s, my uncle convinced her to move to Whitehall, where she lived until she died. When we were young, my mother would take us once a week to see my grandmother Fouts.

In Whitehall, we changed from Montana back roads to Interstate 90. We drove through construction, but still made good time to Butte.

Encounters with car rental agencies.

In Twin Bridges, I called the Butte number for Enterprise.  It transferred to a call center.  I reserved an economy car. We reached the Enterprise office at 4:30.  They had no cars.  One was due back “in twenty minutes”.  We decided to wait in the RV.  at 4:45, without informing us, the only person there left for the day.

From the Enterprise lot, I called the local Hertz number. The local representative answered the phone.  He was very helpful.  There would be a car waiting for us at the airport when we arrived there. We didn’t need to worry about closing time, someone would be there 24 hours.  We picked up a Ford Focus without hassled.  We would have no problems when we returned it.

A place to stay.

We drove from the airport to the Butte KOA, where we would stay until we left Butte. I had called from Twin Bridges. Our reservation for four nights was ready. We checked in with no problems.

We had a small dilemma: we didn’t know how long we would stay in Butte.  I had made the reservation for four nights, but there was a good chance we would need to stay longer. I talked to the people who checked us in.  It would not be a problem. They would hold the campsite for two additional nights. We could leave when scheduled, or we could let them know and extend the visit.

My sister’s unfortunate residency in Billings, 225 miles away from Butte, coupled with her full time job is the source of the dilemma. Our plan was based on the assumption that she would not be able to drive to Butte to see us, so we would leave on Friday morning. She probably wouldn’t be able to make it in on Friday, but if she did, we would leave Saturday. More likely, she would be able to drive to Butte on Saturday, so we would leave on Sunday.

About food in Butte

There are three local comfort foods that we always try to eat at least once on each trip:

Fried Chicken: I don’t know if it’s the altitude, or the quality of chicken used, or some secret process, but there is something special about fried chicken in Butte. Oddly, one of the best places in town to get good fried chicken was about 100′ from our campsite. Part of their secret is that they broast the chicken.

I texted my brother from West Yellowstone to ask him what we should do about dinner. He preferred ordering out and eating in. I volunteered to pick up KOA chicken on our way to see him.  I looked them up and discovered that they changed their name to Chicken Shack. I worried because name changes often accompany menu changes.  No need, the chicken and jojo potatoes were as good as ever, although I forgot to order the excellent spaghetti they provide.

Pork Chop: a breaded, boneless pork chop, fried in batter, served in a hamburger bun. When we were growing up, the best choice was, without a doubt, Pork Chop John’s “uptown” location.  Now, our go to is the unfortunately named “wop chop” from Muzz and Stan’s Freeway Tavern.

On Tuesday, our second night in town, I had dinner with Mary Anne Harrington-Baker, a friend from my college days. She had to pick me up, because Jeanne had the rental to take her brother’s family to dinner. We ate at the Freeway, then returned to the RV where we sat outside chatting. Jeanne eventually joined us, and we had a nice chat.

Pasty: A “letter from home” was a staple in the lunch pails of hard rock miners.  While there is much disagreement on who makes the best, my money is on Joe’s Pasty Shop. The miner’s pasty is similar to a  Cornish pasty, but is usually made without the swede, (sometimes turnip). Either catsup or a brown gravy are often used as condiments with a pasty.

We didn’t get around to pasties until Friday. We had lunch with Mary Lou Jones and Roberta Tilly, two other friends from college days. I really shouldn’t eat pasties. They are loaded with carbohydrates, both in the crust, and in the potatoes that make up half the filling.  This trip was not good for my blood sugar.

Beyond those, there are a few venues that we sometimes visit because of their atmosphere. We didn’t make it to any of those on this trip. We did try to go to the Pekin Noodle Parlor, but they were closed for vacation the entire time we were in town. Instead, we tried one of Butte’s newest venues, The Staggering Ox.  One of the sandwiches they serve is THE 406™ IN MEMORY OF THE DELUXE BAR, which I had to have, because the long-gone Deluxe, and its incredible ham sandwich, featured prominently in my college days. The ‘406’ in the name refers to the area code that still covers the entire state.   They describe the sandwich as

4 cheeses. 0 veggies. 6 meats. Ham, turkey, beef, pepperoni, turkey pastrami, salami, swiss, provolone, cheddar, monterey jack & choice of sauce. Lettuce on request at no charge.

Although good, it was a faint memory. I would have bought one of the tee shirts their employees wear, but they don’t offer it for sale.

Six days

Monday, we arrived, had dinner with my brother and his wife, and set up camp at the KOA. He is undergoing chemotherapy and had finished a round a few days earlier. We didn’t stay long.

Tuesday was a bad day for my brother, so we didn’t bother him. Jeanne spent the day with her family.  I spent the day in the RV with Googie. We took a few walks. I ate fish and chips from the Chicken Shack. They were out of cod, so I had halibut. They were out of fries, so I had jojos. It was good, but not as good as the chicken. I had dinner with Mary Anne.

Wednesday was also a quiet day for me. Jeanne and I had lunch together at It’s Greek to Me. In the afternoon she visited her brother while I read and did housekeeping on my laptop and iPad. In the late afternoon I spent more time with my brother. I made a 360 panorama of the campground.

Thursday we had lunch with Mary Lou and Roberta. Jeanne spent the afternoon transferring the title for her mother’s house to her brothers. We went to the pit viewing stand where I made a Butte panorama of the Berkeley pit. Later in the evening, I went to the Mountain Consolidated Mine site and made a few more pictures. ( See the aside Mining in Butte) The only one that came out was also a panorama. Both can be found in my gallery Postcards from home, along with a panorama of the inside of the RV.

I tried to make a 360 panorama from the viewing stand, but I was unable to make the turns necessary without moving too far for the software to compensate.  I dropped my iPad, damaging the case, but not the iPad itself. We went to the local Staples and bought a replacement case.

I had the same problem trying to make a 360 panorama of the inside of the RV. It is difficult to stay in one place and completely rotate the three or four times necessary.

We heard from my sister, and from my nephew who lives in Missoula. Both were only able to make it in on Saturday and both wanted to see us. This settled two questions. I told the KOA folk that we would stay the two additional nights and leave on Sunday.

One of our choices for returning home was to stop in Missoula to visit my nephew, then continue on to Seattle, visiting friends there. My nephew wouldn’t be available on Sunday, and Jeanne didn’t want to add the 800 extra miles that a swing through Seattle would take. We decided to take a more direct route home.

Friday it rained off and on through out the afternoon and evening. I stayed with the RV, again not bothering my brother. I went  out and got a haircut in the afternoon. The first barber I went to was on vacation. The second was open and did a good job.

Saturday, my brother called and my nephew texted, both wanting to spend some time. I didn’t notice either message, so didn’t see them until dinner.  My niece Jamie made arrangements for dinner, which would be at Sparky’s Garage. My sister came in from Billings with her husband. My nephew came from Missoula with his wife. My niece brought her son. My other nephew joined us. We had a nice dinner.

I took a lot of photos during dinner. This was the first time I’ve ever done that.  Because of low lighting, strong back lighting through the south facing windows, and my shaky hands, very few came out.

Sunday, we dropped off the rental car and drove the RV to my bother’s home, where we chatted for a while, before heading back to California. Leaving is bittersweet. We would like to spend more time, but we want to get home.


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