Dear Family, Friends, and Diary,
When we rearranged the second half of the Big Western Road Trip after Yellowstone filled up, we fell back on friend connections for new destinations. Barb and Buffalo Wyoming worked out great. Next in our list is Pam, an art teacher with whom Marianne has been studying, on-line, for a couple of years. She lives in and teaches from Hamilton, Montana, off the beaten path and hence a good BWRT choice. Let's see what we can find.
Monday, June 7, Bozeman to The Bitterroot
While we did not face a terribly long drive, only 232 miles from Bozeman to Hamilton, but we were up and out before 9:00. We did not expect a day with much more than some freeway driving and then some back-road time. Speeding west on Interstate 90, we moved out of the hills surrounding Bozeman into some of Montana's big-sky flat-lands. The sky really does seem bigger in these spaces.
Our first stop was in Butte where we needed to get a full charge before we headed off the interstates to reach our small-town destination. The Supercharger was located right next to City Brew Coffee, so we stopped for drinks and pastries. For some reason, Starbucks are rare in the Montana towns we've visited, just one in Bozeman and one in Butte, but City Brew is an almost-identical clone; same layout, same colors, similar smiling staff, same offerings. If anything, I liked the coffee better.
Since we had time, we decided to drive across town to the World Museum of Mining, an attraction that we happened to notice on our map. On the way, we saw a sign that said "Berkeley Mine Viewing Point" and decided to see what we could. This was a fascinating stop. Butte sits on top of what was once the richest mineral deposit in the world, first with silver and then copper, along with small amounts of gold, platinum, and other worthwhile metals. Starting in 1955, the pit for the Berkley Mine started gobbling up dozens of deep mines, as well as several city neighborhoods and part of downtown.
By 1982, when copper prices no longer supported the expensive operation, the pit was massive at 7,000 feet by 5,600 feet across. It was dug to a depth of 1,780 feet, but when the mine was shutdown and the dewatering pumps shut off, the pit half filled with water. That water has a pH of 2.5 and is laden with toxic chemicals, deadly, but a great tourist attraction.
To keep birds away from the deadly pit water, the small building on the left make a wide variety of strange noises, adding to the surreal nature of viewing.
The poster on the right shows how far below the Berkeley pit the network of mine tunnels literally undermines the entire city of Butte. Since the mines were connected underground, water now floods all the tunnels below the level of the green water surface of the Berkley Mine.
Leaving the flooded pit, we drove through the old city of Butte. The downtown commercial area still has many of the handsome old high-rises from the boom times. I'm not sure how many have tenants today, but there was considerable activity filling ground levels with new shops and businesses.
In the blocks surrounding downtown, were houses from those same times of prosperity. Many blocks had ornate turn-of-the-century mansions like these, while others had old-but-no-so-grand homes of a middle class. It was reassuring to see that the majority of these old places seem to be occupied by people willing to put in the care and expense of maintenance and restoration.
Montana Technological University occupies the hill across town from the Berkley Mine. Opening in 1900 as the Montana State School of Mines, Montana Tech bills itself as the leading STEM school in the State. There are 2,200 undergraduate students on the 108 acre campus. We came to the Tech campus to visit a unique facility: the World Museum of Mining.
There are two parts of the tourist attraction, part above ground and part below. We started above ground, with a display of minerals and then a bit of wandering through "Hell Roarin Gulch", a reconstructed mining town of several dozen buildings from the 1800s. Before we could see much, however, we heard that the underground tour guide looking for two missing tourists and we volunteered to take their place. This was great luck!
Bob, our guide, first took us through a few of the buildings associated with miners work, from the "dry room" where they showered after their 14-hour shift and hung up their work clothes to dry. He then explained the drilling process, from the earliest hand drills up to the pneumatic drills still used in active mines today, although air compressors have shrunk to a tenth their 19th Century size.
Our guide explained the process involved in running the lifts that carried men and supplies from the surface to work levels thousands of feet below. The lift operation was so complex and important, that no one was allowed to talk with him, lest the distraction would initiate a deadly mistake. (Tens of thousands of miners died inside the Butte mines.)
Walking over to an example mine hoist entrance where we posed for a picture, we passed an ice storage building and a sauerkraut "kitchen", dating from the era when winer ice was saved for summer cooling and German immigrant workers were provided traditional food.
But our underground mine tour did not involve a risky descent hanging on a cable. We went underground in the Orphan Girl Mine via a "drift" tunnel, simply walking down the ramp from the surface.
Over the next hour or so, Bob explained the working of this mine from the entrance down to the rock face 100 feet down. Marianne and I probably took 200 pictures and tried to remember what we were being told. I'll do my best at summarizing enough to give a feeling.
Explanations of how mine ceilings are held up and how hard it is to push an ore cart.
(Mules were used because they could pull five wagons, whereas a man could mange just one.)
Miners did most of the manual work digging up to mineral areas while laying on their backs.
This red wagon received the human waste that was, occasionally, hoisted back out of the tunnels.
Bob showed some veins of ore still remaining in this old mine as we passed under beams
that would have been high enough for the shorter men of the day.
As a final demonstration of old-time mine work, Bob lighted a single candle,
we turned off our headlamps, and he held a hand drill while tourists took turns swinging at it.
In the camera's flash, this looks simple enough, but in the dim light of the candle?
Back on the surface, we were blinded by the sunlight, but managed to find our way out so we could get on the road again. We were not even half done for the day. The unexpected mine tour had set us behind any schedule we had considered, but it was more than worth it.
From Butte, we drove south on Interstate 15 a few miles before turning west on Highway 43 along the Big Hole River. (Love that name!) From there, the highway was almost empty and we felt we had finally left behind the crowds looking for Yellowstone. The full and fast-flowing river was beside us all the way. Reportedly, this is one of the finest fly fishing rivers in the State.
Somewhere along the road, we passed a crew working with huge, smoke-spewing machines as they removed and replaced the road surface, far from any fixed asphalt plant. It was like seeing a dragon in the middle of the wilds.
Toward the end of the valley, we came to the Big Hole National Battlefield. In August of 1877, American Military attacked a camp of American Natives who were moving down the Bitterroot Valley, headed for the buffalo hunting ground of the plains. This became part of what was called "the Nez Pierce War" that saw the destruction of the nomad life of the plains Indians.
The theme of the National Park Service monument and displays was a recognition of the tragedy of the 19th Century wars, while offering hope for a life of peace together. In this and earlier Park Service visits, we have been encouraged in the long-overdue acknowledgment of past failures in portraying Native American life and culture.
Speaking of making friends, as we were getting out of our parked Tesla, a couple came up and asked how we liked the Model Y. Given the car's novelty, this has happened before and I respond with my normal enthusiasm. The couple, Dave and Cherie as I would learn, said they in fact had a 2013 Model S, one of the first, and an original 2007 Roadster, the car that defined Teslas as real cars. They added that their grown children have two or three more of the various Tesla models. I was impressed with these EV pioneers, both for their car vision, and for their outgoing friendliness. If we are ever in Salmon, Idaho, we need to visit them!
At the end of Highway 43, we turned north on Montana Highway 93 into the Bitterroot Valley and immediately saw a "Welcome to Montana" sign. Strange, we thought we had been in Montana for days. It turns out that the Idaho border is just feet south of the junction of highways 43 and 93, and the "welcome" was meant for others.
By now, we were far behind our desired schedule and we wanted to warn our B&B hostess that we would be late. However, it had been an hour or two since we'd been able to receive cell coverage. The Big Hole and Bitterroot Valleys are definitely off the beaten path.
Finally, we did reach her and told her the situation, asking as well if we would run across someplace for a quick dinner. She recommended the Blue Joint Bar and Grill in Darby, "a real cowboy bar, but a restaurant that serves good food". She was right. We would never have stopped at such a rustic establishment, but that just proves that local knowledge is very important.
A few miles farther, we turned left onto Lost Horse Road, which turned to dirt a mile off the highway. Finally, 11 hours after we left Bozeman, we reached The Moraine B&B. Owner Jeanne greeted us and welcomed us to our home for the next few days. Nice.
Tuesday, June 8, Birds and an Art Consult
We started the day with breakfast and then a trip to the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is north of Hamilton, while we are staying south, so we had a chance to see more of the Bitterroot Valley. The valley floor is a rich green this time of year and the mountains to the west are still dusted with snow. We've been told that, in the lee of the Bitterroot Mountains, this is the "banana belt" of Montana, with far milder winters than the wind-swept plains to the east. It is Spring now, so we can't judge.
The main attraction at the Metcalf Refuge are the birds. I am not an avid birder, but looking for the little critters prompts nice walks and taking pictures is good practice for that African safari we may never get around to. This particular park also had its share of land animals, if little squirrels can be considered "land animals". OK, so they are not lions or tigers or bears, we shoot what's in front of us.
In our hour or two, I managed to capture over a half dozen different bird species, from a few ducks on the ponds to an osprey high in a man-made perch. Afterwards, I used a bird-identifier phone app to start learning names, and am repeating them here to get memory reinforcement. One can not be a birder without being able to whisper with excitement: "There's a Northern Flicker".
Nice outing. Not the Serengeti, but a wildlife refuge nonetheless.
Back in Hamilton, we headed to the day's main event and indeed the reason we are here in the Bitterroot Valley at all. Marianne has been doing on-line abstract art classes with Pam Caughey for the last year or two and Pam lives and works here in Hamilton. When we had to re-plan the second part of the BWRT, swinging through the town for a coffee or a chat seemed a worthwhile endeavor. Today was the day.
We met at Pam's studio in the basement of the local Grange Hall. The place was filled with art material and supplies of all kinds, from colored wax for encaustic, to oils, and acrylics for painting. Mixed in with the paint and art tools were various cameras and light set-ups, appropriate for a star of the social media world.
Marianne and Pam immediately started talking like long-standing painting buddies. I took some pictures to capture the moment and then retreated outside the room and made some phone calls. When she came out, it was clear that the engagement was all Marianne had hoped for, so a three or four day visit to Hamilton could be deemed a success.
After that success, we went back to Darby for dinner again at the Blue Joint Bar and Grill. We felt like regulars and the food was as good as it had been the day before.
Wednesday, June 9, A Hike and ??
Another day in Hamilton with not much planned or expected. Our hostess Jeannie prepared a good breakfast again and we got instructions from her on a hiking trail that starts on the back corner of The Moraine's ten acres. She noted that we could walk for six or eight miles, but we assured her our goal was much more modest.
The walk started with a visit to Nick's corral. He's the host horse, a gentle 28-year-old stallion who has his own house (B&B?) and one of those ten acres. It was nice to see age being treated with proper respect.
The trail we were directed to is called the Coyote Coulee Trail and is one of the oldest paths from the valley into the Bitterroot mountains. The area was originally settled for the pine forests that were here and, even today, there is a substantial logging industry, although the trees are a fraction of the old-growth size from a hundred years ago.
As far as we went, the Coulee trail was a nice, gentle, upward slope, at least for walking. A bit rocky, but OK. Reportedly, the slope increases at the high elevations. The path is also open to horse and bike riders and I'm not sure how "gentle" it would be for them, particularly the two-wheelers.
We kept our eyes open for wildlife, bears specifically, as others had reported they had been prowling around the area, looking for post-hibernation snacks. We did not want to become hors d'oeuvres. What we did see, as long as we looked carefully, were small, colorful wildflowers. As usual, we stopped and took far more pictures than needed. Consider it a bouquet from us to you.
After that country exercise, it was time for an urban stroll, if Hamilton, Montana, can be considered urban. Like many small, western towns, some streets are parallel with the highway and some perpendicular. Central Hamilton has maybe a dozen north-south streets and half that many east-west. The center seems defined by the corner of Main and First (aka: Highway 93).
We were looking for art and lunch venues and chose lunch first. All that country hiking, you know. The first recommendation from our hostess had been A Taste of Paris, but when we called the recording said they were closed because the chef was not feeling good. Nowadays, "not feeling good" is cause for shutdown.
The second choice was Bouilla, again French-influenced, but lighter fare. Marianne had a pita-bread lamb sandwich called a Gyro and I had a meatloaf sandwich, called a meatloaf sandwich. Both were quite excellent. I added a small salad to mine, but Marianne added a potato soup before and a creme brulee after and they each may have been meal highlights.
For art, there were just two or three galleries, offering mostly western art, good or kitschy. However, we wandered into Corwin Galleries and were impressed with the Western and African wildlife paintings. Marianne struck up a conversation with James, the young man behind the reception desk, and praised the paintings. He gave a proprietary "Thank you", as it was his own work being praised. With that, we looked even closer, listened to the description of his process, and were even more impressed. Maybe best of all, we learned he does indeed make a living selling his art, a measure of success few artists reach, at least in their lifetime. (Van Gogh, for example, died penniless.)
So, our unplanned day in Hamilton was a success: good food and art inspiration.
Wednesday, June 9, Rain
We extended our stay in Hamilton to include Thursday so that Marianne could take part in a Zoom instruction session from Pam Coughey. Otherwise, it would be a quiet, indoors, rain day, with plenty of time to charge Carla. The option of just a 120vac connection has proven a good match for this stay, since we don't drive much at all.
Marianne had her Zoom class at 2pm and I napped. That's also something that's good to do on a rainy day.
Class behind her, we disconnected Carla and drove into Hamilton for dinner at the Blogett Canyon Cellars, a Main Street winery/wine bar where the wines are created in a back room. Grape juice is apparently imported from the Columbia River valley in Washington State and turned into wine on-site, kind of like a micro brewery. Food was limited, but a pair of hors d'oeuvres plates were more than enough, particularly since the drinks were probably all the calories we needed.
For dessert, we went back to Boilla for a berry crumble a la mode and a baked Alaska. Way MORE calories than we needed.
On the drive home, the evening sun was shinning off the new dusting of snow on the Bitterroot Mountains and the valley pastures were even greener than usual. The cattle were getting their calories as well.
We will look back favorably on the white mountains, the green pastures, the wildlife, and the good meals we've experienced here in the Bitterroot Valley. However, the politically conservative nature of the region is too apparent for our comfort. I wonder when we will get to leave that behind.
Friday, June 11, Drive North and West to Idaho
Tomorrow will be a 200 mile drive up to Coeur d'Alene in Northern Idaho. Maybe we will see something interesting along the way to give a new diary a good start.
This has been a longish stay in a small, un-researched, village. It was interesting on a couple of levels.
John and Marianne