As with the drive into Twin Falls, the way out on US-93 took me over the Snake River and a fairly spectacular canyon, not a mile from my motel. Once clear of that sight, for which I braved the cold air and strong wind, the countryside could not have been less remarkable.
|Bridge over the Snake River, US-93, Twin Falls, Idaho|
Eventually, proceeding east on US-26, the ground began to appear black and upturned. As if endless acres of the richest loam had been tilled on a cosmic scale. This the prelude Craters of the Moon National Monument.
"Craters" is a very strange expanse of rolling volcanic landscape, cones and caves. For most of my visit, the preserve was swept with fog, obscuring much of that landscape, but rendering it an all the more otherworldly.
I first stopped to scale the Inferno Cone, only about a third of a mile. Not a hundred yards up the black, pebbly slope, I could neither see the modest peak, nor the parking lot and car behind me.
|Inferno Cone, Craters of the Moon National Monument|
There was really no clearly marked path, just a subtle seam up the hillside. I felt it wise to make a few marks to insure my way back. Then I realized that the markings themselves where probably useless without direction. So I tried a new version....
|The car is this way...hopefully|
Images from my wanderings and driving about the preserve...
Since little above ground could be seen from more than a few feet away, it seemed a good day to explore Crater's caves. A couple are little more than holes in the ground, products of the collapse of one lava cone or another. However, the far cave of the bunch, Beauty Cave, is several hundred feet long.
Aside from getting a permit for the caves at the visitor center, there is no proscription on entering. This perhaps another example of Western laissez-faire. I think of most U.S. public lands as erring on the very conservative side of safety, the avoidance of litigation, the most extreme example of which I usually experience is the red-suited young martinets who prowl the beaches and water of Lake Michigan in the city of Chicago, blowing their whistles in rebuke if you approach water more than thigh deep. At Craters, if you want to clamber into a cave, trip and crack your fool head on a jagged piece of volcanic rock, you are at your leisure to do so.
I managed to reach the mouth of the cave safely, but it had not occurred to me to bring a light source. From my position below the surface, I startled a woman who arrived at the entrance, not expecting to see anyone inside . She was kind enough to inform me how to activate the flashlight on my iPhone, before moving along to the more visitor-friendly Indian Cave. So, there I was, alone in the dark cave. The phone's small light did at least allow me to see the icy floor right in front of me, the cave ceiling not far over my head. Thus I pressed on...for several feet into the dark. Then I turned around and left the cave.
|Entrance to Beauty Cave|
|On today's episode of primal fear therapy...Beauty Cave|
The woman whom I had encountered at Beauty Cave was already down in Indian Cave when I got there. Indian Cave is almost a tunnel, with enough openings in the ceiling to provide light for a walk all the way through. My fellow spelunker was Barb, a firefighter in the Air Force stationed near Boise. This explained her asking how long I planned to explore Beauty Cave before she left me to it. Her firefighter's instinct made her wonder if I was a clueless civilian who was going to need rescuing. We chatted as we wove our way through Indian Cave, taking photos. Her husband and daughter were out collecting petrified wood somewhere, presumably closer to their Boise home. After we walked back to the parking lot - a narrow paved path over that strange, black landscape - she apologized in case she had invaded my peaceful exploring. I told her not to worry. I had enjoyed the conversation and was getting plenty of solitude.
Through a lonely stretch of Idaho landscape, the only settlement of any size through which I passed on the way to Interstate 15 was Arco.
|Hillside above Arco, Idaho. As you might guess, a tradition|
for graduating seniors of the area high school.
A long drive up I-15 finally brought me to Butte. I had already decided to stay at Uptown (a literal distinction as the neighborhood is atop the hill on which the city lies) Butte's Grand Dame, the Hotel Finlen, host to Lindbergh, Kennedy and...well, now, me. Still a grand building, but with the same unassuming air I found about the other establishments I visited in Butte.
Quite ready for dinner, I made a bee-line around the corner to Main Street and the M & M Cafe. Another good Road Food recommendation. I fell in love with the place at once, taking a seat at one of the two bars on opposite sides of the main room. Mine was the bar in front of the grill, at which I sat with a couple of women to my right and a sad guy nursing a cup of coffee to my left.
While I waited for my meal to arrive - their "Watzit burger, a bacon cheeseburger on texas toast - I savored my dark beer, read about the history of the M & M and watched the tattooed young guy who was preparing my meal. I always like watching a good short order cook going about his work.
The M & M has apparently been around since the late-19th century. Through Butte's glory days, the establishment was open 24 hours a day, the front door never locked. Miners with some money to spend could drink at any hour, gamble in the back room. As for that other common diversion for restless men with money in their pocket, the red light district was right around the corner on Mercury Street (The famous Dumas brothel was open until the early 80's; it's long been a museum but is currently under renovation). The M & M is still open 24 hours a day and there's still a back room devoted to gaming.
The bar was not particularly lively for a Saturday night. Perhaps it would pick up later. Just before I got up to leave, an old man walked in, small of stature, impressive of flowing white beard. He looked like Bilbo Baggins in a big cowboy hat and (for whatever reason) a florescent yellow traffic vest.
|Totally worth the drive. Nirvana by the Continental Divide: The M & M in Butte, Montana.|
I walked around Butte in something of an ecstasy that Saturday evening. Sure, the beer played its part, but it was more a matter of feeling at home. I love these old industrial towns past their prime, much as I realize that state of affairs doesn't necessarily suit the people still trying to make a life in such places.
To walk around such a downtown (or uptown) is like walking through the rooms of a parent, perhaps a grandparent now departed. As if you open the closets to see the clothing they used to wear when young and full of energy for a night out. The jewelry they bought. The objects with which they chose to define themselves, their homes, when times were good, when they were flush.
It may be a sign of stagnation for the residents of Butte that uptown seems in some ways a throwback to its former self. Clearly, the great flow of copper money slowed to a trickle decades ago. Or maybe the enduring life of joints like the M & M provide a sense of continuity. I can't speak for any of them. As for me, I walked around falling in love with the town.
Images from a Sunday morning walk around Butte, ghost signs, regular signs and whatnot...
|Breakfast heaven - Gamer's Cafe, Butte.|
|God House, Nevada Street, Butte.|
I should have visited the Cavalier Lounge in the hotel Saturday night while I had the chance. As with the nearby Club 13, I was quite disappointed to find it closed Sunday night.
|But one of the many charms of the Hotel Finlen, Butte.|
|Alas, the beauty shop was not open...although I probably would have|
presented too big a challenge.
|Late Sunday morning at the Finlen.|
My afternoon walk took me up the hill to the Berkeley Pit, an environmental mess turned tourist attraction. The Anaconda Copper Mining Company opened the pit in the mid-1950's when they determined that old fashioned mining was no longer cost effective. So a few historic Butte neighborhoods were eradicated and the pit opened. Such charming enterprises are despoiling large tracts of The Appalachians in the present day.
After the Berkeley Pit was finally closed in 1982 (on Earth Day, apparently), the pumps were turned off and water began to seep into the great hole. Since then, the water, a noxious mix that's highly acidic and contains such salubrious ingredients as arsenic, has risen to within 150 feet or so of the groundwater level. At the current rate, the poisonous water is due to reach the water table of Butte in 2020, not to mention Silver Bow Creek, headwaters of the Clark Fork River.
To make the experience even stranger, I was the only person at the viewing deck above the pit when I arrived, located at the end of a lighted walkway/tunnel reached from a small visitor center and gift shop (then closed). Informational displays on the deck are rather matter of fact about the pollution of the pit. If you press the black button for an audio overview, a pleasant woman's voice pierces the silence to outline the history of the Berekely Pit and the ongoing environmental challenges, all of this to a jaunty fiddle accompaniment. As if all this pollution and a lake of poisonous water menacing Butte is the most natural thing in the world, the city apparently still reluctant to bite the hand that fed (and to a limited extent still feeds) it.
|Looks pretty, huh? The toxic hillside cocktail known as|
the Berkeley Pit.
|Belmont Mine - now the Butte Senior Center.|
|The 129 foot gallus of the former Belmont Mine.|
|Teal shingles, Galena Street, Butte.|
About 25 miles west is Anaconda, founded by Marcus Daly, one of the "Copper Kings," as a place to smelt and process the ore pulled from hill in Butte. Driving west on I-90 and Montana 1, the snow-covered Pintler Mountains were a memorable show before the show, the film I was going to see at Anaconda's Wahoe Theater.
Based on what I had read, I was most excited to see The Washoe of all the theaters on my agenda for the trip. The theater more than lived up to my expectations.
|True enough, a kid with a change belt showed up before|
the film started to collect the fifty cent balcony premium.
|Auditorium, Washoe Theater - photo from visitmt.com|
The Washoe is a distinct Art Deco palace, just as is the case with the Fargo and Boulder Theaters (the latter is devoted to live music these days), theaters worth a long pilgrimage. At least for the likes of me. The Washoe, which has plenty of touches of more sinuous Art Nouveau in its interior decoration, was designed in 1931, though apparently not opened until 1936 due to the depression.
It was a full-on movie experience, as I took a seat in the balcony and donned 3-D glasses for the afternoon's feature: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Pretty good if you're into this sort of thing, the latest Captain American does at least provide a slightly subversive storyline - a critique of preemptive military action, surrendering freedom for the sake of security (Oh say can you see...?) and a WikiLeaks-type release of classified information on the part of Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson).
Amid all the bombast, I didn't really mind that some kid in the balcony whined and talked through most all of the film's 136 minutes. I did, however, have to move to the front row when a couple came in late and sat behind me. The wife (presumably), first exclaimed, "I CAN'T SEE!,"(bumping into me). Then, "EVERYTHING IS BLURRY." "Put on your glasses," responded her husband, at a more reasonable volume. "IT'S STILL BLURRY!" I gathered my jacket and fleece and moved down to the front of the balcony, as ever thinking that someday I'm going to have my own theater, and it's going to be called THIS IS NOT YOUR FUCKING LIVING ROOM.
The Washoe even stopped the film about midway for an intermission. Quite the throwback movie-going experience. This, unfortunately, extended Captain America toward the two and a half hour mark. I didn't really feel all that emotionally invested and would have bailed on the preternaturally-youthful-looking Steve Rogers and his cohorts, as I had Jesus and his crew a few days earlier at the Casino Star in Gunnison. I finally did duck out a few minutes early, the vat of diet soda I had consumed prevailing over any curiosity I had about the fate of the world. I thought I would wait out the audience then take my pictures, forgetting about the evening performance to come. I was surprised to find the lobby full of people, the concession area positively packed. It looked like every teenager in the county was there (mainly the boys, of course). I wasn't sure what was going on, but was at least happy to see The Washoe doing good business.
I saw a few good examples of Deco architecture and facades in Anaconda, one of the best of which was the corner Club Moderne.
As you enter or depart Anaconda on Montana Highway 1, there are separate turnoffs with signs that read Wisdom and Opportunity. Really. Unfortunately, I was hungry and eager to get back to Butte for another deeply satisfying visit to the M & M. So, no time for a drink at Club Moderne. I was in no position to ply to road to wisdom, unwilling to answer the call of opportunity. Ain't it just the way?
But after dinner at the M & M, I was happy to wander the snowy, windblown and nearly abandoned streets of Butte for a while.