The Richest Hill on Earth


We thought we would stay a night but stayed three, and didn’t want to leave.

We stayed with Carly and her son Miles. Carly is interesting and funny and relaxed. She even makes being mum look effortless, although maybe she will un-friend me on facebook for saying that. She can’t take back the delicious meatloaf she made on our last night though. Ha!

Miles is really cool and five years old and he basically just wants to have a good time, and so he does.

Butte is gorgeous, although many Buttians seemed to find this a strange way to see their town. Perhaps to them the crumbling old buildings, sagging balconies and squeaking porches make the place feel run down. Or maybe all the old gallus frames perching astride abandoned mine shafts, dismantled hills, and piles of grey rock at the edge of town seem bleak to them.

Not to me though. Butte is a charmer, even if a little lived in. I prefer tables with constellations of burn marks and cup rings, if you see what I mean.

Butte wears its history on its sleeve, and the people are generous, and they tell you what they think. It is about a hundred and fifty years old, which is around nine hundred in European years.

Buttites still very much identify as Irish, for most of the miners were Irish immigrants, and St Patrick’s is legendary there. It is the only place in the States where you are allowed to drink in the street.

It’s greasy spoon cafes are really traditional. They are so nice that I am tempted to eat in them every day until I die.

The following history of Butte was assembled from talks we had with the following characters:

1. A boss-eyed amateur historian and living Butte-a-pedia who runs a shop full of trinkets and homemade t shirts.
2. A guy who came to fix Carly’s cable, who incidentally has a truly brilliant claim to fame: at school he beat up Evil Knievel’s son – the Knievel’s being residents of Butte, and the son being a spoilt bully.
3. A Scottish guy who moved to Butte because his sweetheart is a Butte-er, and together with her is building a house out on the edge of town by the drive-in cinema.

As such it is an oral history not a book history, so don’t come to me with corrections.

Butte was already a profitable mining town from healthy deposits of just about every mineral known when everyone started wanting telephones and lights everywhere, and they desperately needed Butte’s copious supply of electricity-conducting copper.

Butte was a bustling metropolis before any other place out west was really a place. “Butte IS Montana!” claimed the cable guy. “This country was built on the back of Butte” mused the boss-eyed historian.

Today there are around 40,000 people here, but there were 100,000 during the boom.

The miners were not unionised in Butte. To avoid the difficulties of an organised workforce the mining companies paid them $3.30 a day, where elsewhere miners got $1.60.

The town was full of relatively prosperous miners then, and an elite of extraordinarily well off bosses. As a consequence it was the biggest gig for plays and cabaret acts outside of Broadway. Charlie Chaplain came to Butte. He reported his stay very tiring. You had to do three shows a day – one for every shift down in the mines.

When he wasn’t on the stage, being who he was, he kept himself busy in Butte’s famous red light district.

The various mining corporations had a war for control of the town. ‘The war of the copper kings’ involved intimidation, arson, assassination, militias, and many tedious court battles.

Eventually one family won the day, and then Butte was run by a single corporation.

By this time the miners had seen fit to unionise, as had just about everyone else. Even the sex workers were in the union. Apparently there was some debate about where among the Byzantine network of groups and sub-groups to put them, this being a time when prostitution was tolerated, even encouraged, but never spoken of.

In the end the sex workers joined the seamstresses, “after all”, it was said, “they too make alterations”.

The last brothel closed in 1985.

The people won various historic battles with the corporation. Notably, after the discovery of rich deposits directly beneath the town, the saving of Butte itself.

They lost many too of course. One morning Butte awoke to find a beloved union man hanging from the railway bridge by his neck. Pinned to him was a plaque bearing the figures 3,7,7.7; the dimensions of a coffin.

The militia who protected the bosses interests continued using this sinister calling card, and today the number is still found on state Police vehicles, for it was the very same militia who eventually became Montana’s official law enforcers.

The people’s sorest loss in these disputes was perhaps Columbia Gardens. Columbia Gardens was the people’s theme park. Built by one of the early mine owners it had a wonderful wooden rollercoaster and a little zoo.

Happy workers must have their circuses, but the corporation wanted close this one because they had sniffed out some mineral treats underneath it. There was an uproar from Butte at the suggestion. The corporation relented, but then, ‘mysteriously’, the place burnt down.

Now, on the spot where it once stood, there is a great open caste mine, half full with water. Berkeley Pit is the most polluted body of water in the states. It is slowly filling up, and if they cannot clean it by the time it raises enough to get into the water table, Butte will be poisoned.

A recorded message that jumps from a speaker at the viewing platform above the pit assures you this won’t happen.

Let’s hope it is telling the truth because Butte is one of the best places we have come across. We wandered around, learning these things, eating, and looking in strange shops.

Every night I told Miles stories and once he went to bed we got wrapped up in blankets and watched Zombie movies.

It was as good as it sounds.

Our mission, if you choose to accept it

Perhaps I should explain.

We had to go to Canada because our car, who is from Vancouver, really wanted to go home for a couple of days. I think she has a sweetheart in the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Then we went to Seattle where we stayed with a great family. They were funny and interesting and we ate gourmet burgers and chatted and laughed.

Caitlin, the ‘mom’ (which means mum), showed us the new house they were building. It is bright yellow and is on a hill. To build your own house is the thing.

The kids told us about life in Seattle and let us play their video games, which were stupendously advanced and satisfyingly violent.

Mon watched ‘football’ (which means a kind of turn-based rugby played in space suits) with the dad, who is called Paul and who has tenaciously protected his Irish accent over nearly 30 years in the States.

Paul is in the sewer business and he implored Mon to throw away his carpentry tools and “get in the underground game. The underground game is the ONLY game. No one can see what you’re doing!” He slapped his knee in mirth.

It was with heavy hearts that we said goodbye to these folks and began to head east.

We went up into the mountains. They were big and jagged and had snow on them.

After a few hours you break out onto a plateau. The landscape is like an immense furrowed blanket.

Few trees or buildings break the mottled ground. It’s like the sky has battered everything into submission. Hundreds of hills cower from the winds, pulling their scraggy brown hats over their ears. They march on and on and on and on and on, finding no escape.

Nothing happens suddenly. There are gargantuan valleys but no gorges or drops. Each hill takes a few hours to drive up. Your sense of progress is ruined; mocked by the exaggerated scale.

It is like an ocean of land. Easy to picture wagon trains sailing slowly across it, buffeted by the terrible winds, sinking down into each crevice and slowly rising up the bosom of each hill. It must have been terrifying.

We stayed in Couer d’Alene, whose beautiful name was bequeathed to her by French traders. This was the first conservative and Christian town we have been too.

We stayed with a lady who describes herself as a devout pagan. She used to be a biker and a drug addict, then cleaned up her act because she got pregnant. She told the dude who had done the deed to “get”, and he happily obeyed.

She decided she wanted to have a faith to pass on to her son, but not the Christian one she grew up with. She chose paganism. She does rituals and celebrates the passing of the seasons.

She is sympathetic to Christianity and her Christian neighbours, but sadly they do not always return the sentiment.

Sometimes friends of her son are told they cannot play with him because his mother is a witch.

The town, despite being fairly prosperous, has lots of problems with crystal-meth and alcoholism. The children often get a very hard time there, either from parents who are addicts or parents who are abominably strict Christians.

When kids come to play with her son, or when customers come to get a massage or reiki therapy from her, they see something different. She is training to be a counsellor and asks people about their feelings a lot, she is spiritual but non-dogmatic, liberal but not an addict.

I say she is the custodian of balance and a true pioneer.

Then we drove into Montana, which is real cowboy country. We are staying in a great little mining town. It is called Butte (not pronounced “Butt”, but “Beaut”). Butte is going to get proper treatment in the next entry, which I will bring you soon. I am going to tell you everything about the place. I’ve totally fallen for it. I have been snagged on its rickety old buildings and Gallus frames, and sweetly intoxicated by the famous Berkly pit; most polluted body of water in North America.

There is snow on the ground and our windscreen is iced over. From here we are going to Yogi bear’s very own Yellowstone National Park. It will be cold.





Then we plan to go to these places:

Salt Lake City
Canyon Lands National Park
Arches National Park
Sante Fe
New Orleans
El Paso
The Grand Canyon
Las Vegas
Joshua Tree National Park
San Diego
San Francisco

If we haven’t blown budget by Vegas I plan to get rich.

Either way I’m definitely gunning for a shotgun wedding in a drive-thru chapel. Ideally not with Mon, but we’ll see.