Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.
— Brewster M. Higley, 1872
Brewster was right and it’s still true. But before we get to Big Sky country, let’s pick up where we left off.
In Wallace, Idaho (population 960), where selling sex kept this little mining town satisfied, we were about to hit the road when Eddie Johnson, at his main street rock and gem shop, told us about the Sunshine Mine.
The mine — situated between Wallace and Kellogg, Idaho and started by the Blake brothers in 1884 — is one of the largest and most profitable silver mines. It has produced 36 million ounces of silver as recorded in 2001. It was the main economic driver in this rural area on the Idaho Panhandle, just a few miles from the Montana border.
The mine has a prominent place in Wallace history for more than financial reasons. As Eddie related, a fire broke out in the mine on May 2, 1972 — he was in elementary school at the time — trapping 100s of miners. Though the official death count was 91, he says, “It was actually 92. One of the miners got out, but his brother was still inside, so he went in again and never came back. There was nobody in our town who wasn’t affected — we lost friends, brothers, fathers, uncles…” Even now he still has sadness in his voice.
Stories of the Sunshine Mine may seem to take us a long way from our home state; but just to prove, yet again, that everything is connected, I discovered that in 1921 a group of Yakima businessmen — Albert E. “A.E.” Larson, Alexander Miller and Nathan P. “N.P.” Hull — purchased a controlling interest in the mine. (The Larson and Miller Buildings in downtown Yakima are still standing today.) And in 1957 the company drilled Medina No. 1 oil well in Ocean City, just north of Ocean Shores. It produced 12,500 barrels of oil and was Washington state’s only commercial well until it was capped in 1961.
Even a little town has its heritage: for Wallace it’s sex and the Sunshine Mine disaster.
So we said goodbye to Wallace and headed into Big Sky country. Montana has a tradition of placing big white initials on the hillsides around their towns. Our first letter was “M” on the rolling hills above Missoula. There was no doubt we were in mining country. The Anaconda smelter stack, at 585 feet, was once the tallest brickwork chimney in the world. Though the smelter was demolished and closed in 1981, citizens organized a “Save the Stack” effort. It remains the world’s tallest free-standing masonry structure. (The general public is not allowed access to the stack because the soil is contaminated by the toxic metalloid arsenic, copper, cadmium, lead and zinc residue.)
Just next door in Butte, the Berkeley open-pit copper mine — closed on Earth Day 1982 — is now a lake of toxic waste and a Superfund site. (The pit material was processed at the Anaconda smelting plant.) As stated on Slate, “The water level in the pit is constantly rising at the rate of roughly 0.7 feet per month. As of April 2012, the water level was 5,301.13 feet above sea level. At 5,410, the critical water level, pit water will contaminate the nearby ground water of the Butte valley, home to more than 30,000 people.” This is estimated to occur by 2020. (Some images: tinyurl.com/mmqyksy)
Outside of Butte, the climb over the Rocky Mountains begins. Soon we passed the Continental Divide. One of my surprises was how rocky those Rocky Mountains really are. It appears that some giantess scattered rounded, sliced, or patty-caked rocks all over these slightly rounded hills. It was beautiful to behold but nothing us west-coasters would identify as “mountains.”
We blew by Billings, apparently the home of oil processing, and raced (speeds on the plains are 75-80 mph) to Highway 212, just past Hardin, to meet up with “Putt” and Jill Thompson, long-time friends of our own community-boosters John and Kathy Vale.
The wind was roaring across the grasslands when we pulled into the parking lot. Teepees were set up on the bluff and we were met with seven or eight steer skulls. Putt, with his long pig-tail, well-worn cowboy boots and hat, greeted us, and, with Jill, gave us a special tour of their “office” — really a small-scale museum of beadwork moccasins, maps, photos and (how did they get this inside?) a complete stuffed buffalo.
Putt and Jill often go on buying trips around the West Coast and another strange coincidence emerged as we spoke. Yakima has a family-owned burger place called Miner’s that is famous in Central Washington and beyond. Lee Miner, son of the founder — he was in junior high when the place opened in 1948 — has become a top-flight collector of Native American art. It seems that Putt travels often to visit Lee and even sold him a special Native American beaded dress some years back. (The figure $38,000 was bandied around.)
Lunch of buffalo burger, cowboy soup, and fry-bread capped off our visit to a truly remarkable couple and Custer Battlefield Trading Post and Café, a place not to be missed in Big Sky country (laststand.com).
It was on the road through the corner of Wyoming and on to South Dakota that we saw our first antelope. I was bemoaning the fact that they were gone, but, no, suddenly in small groups of five to eight were beautiful creatures grazing on the grassy plains which seem to go on forever on Highway 90.
It was true, the skies were not cloudy all day. And the land seemed to go on flatly forever on both sides of the highway. As a Pacific Northwesterner, I have to admit that fairly soon I was looking desperately for the slightest curve or indentation in the land, for any little green thing, even a muddy-puddly pond, in those vast grassland plains.
We’d begin to feel a slightly rising highway and at the next vista — OMG! — would be more of the same: the highway stretching out in all directions to the horizon, often with not one car or truck in sight.
Some political insight seeped into my brain. These folks are independent, often isolated on vast farms far from any urban center and from each other. How do they hear a live poetry reading or concert? Where do they go to meet up and talk to each other, or, even more telling, to people different than themselves?
Yet, when we hit South Dakota and glimpsed at long last the Dignity Statue on the east side of the Missouri River, these political divisions seemed to evaporate. The statue is a beautifully crafted and, yes, dignified Lakota woman, holding a star quilt billowing out behind her.
She is not too well-known yet, so there was no mob of people. There were couples and small family groups from Utah, West Virginia, Minnesota, Colorado. No more than two or three people at a time approached Dignity for photos or just to look up at the contours her stunningly-sculpted face. We were quiet, respectful and happy to be together — a small cross-section of our great country — celebrating the contribution of Native culture to our land.
It was fitting. In our travels across four states we had experienced a range of Native culture — tasted its fare; purchased its craftwork; appreciated its beauty. And here, standing in front of Dignity, at a place that also marks the Lewis and Clark Journey, we felt the potential for a coming together. Can we manage it? Can we put our great country together again?
There were more adventures to be had on the way home — Mount Rushmore, a stop for rock hounding, autumn colors, the beauty of Clark Fork River and others. But I’m left with the culminating image of Dignity — she who has been harmed by us yet continues to stand her ground.
Beauty is before me
Beauty is behind me
Beauty is above me
Beauty is below me
I walk in Beauty
— Traditional Navajo prayer