A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES
Big Sky Sketches: Butte and Missoula
Visitors to Butte, Montana tend to depart the decidedly depressed and dying city with a very firm impression. They call it Butt. The scars of open pit copper mining are all around. A tourist ‘Discovery’ map suggests a visit to Bowman Appliance. Butte is the epitome of a western busted boomtown. Better days were a century ago and they’re not returning any time soon. However history is not entirely mean spirited and there are certain charms to be found along downtown streets named Platinum, Mercury and Quartz.
The core feels like an incredibly elaborate Hollywood back lot. Most of the buildings are brick and feature elegant entrances and facades. Black iron fire escapes dangle at crazy angles. Alas, many of the window panes are plywood. Although it’s a National Historic District Butte needs a little maintenance and a fresh coat of paint. And yet, from the Copper King mansions on the hill down to the Old City Jail, you can picture a film being shot here, likely set between the world wars. One version of the American Dream was found and lost here; and Our Lady of the Rockies, a blindingly white 90-foot statue of the Virgin perched atop a mountain peak, looked on but didn’t hear the prayers.
Friday night the Montana Tech Orediggers commence their hockey season against Utah State. Twenty-two players are listed on the ’Diggers roster. Sixteen are Canadian. Nine of those 16 are Albertans and every single one them majors in petroleum engineering. There’s seating on just one side of the ice, wooden accordion benches you generally see in high school gyms. They’re packed with students, there’s no bad seat and the hockey is superb. Up close to the game, Ann’s taken aback by its velocity and violence; scheduling and geography dictate a matinee rematch some 18 hours from tonight’s opening puck drop. The rink itself is akin to a Quonset hut; we’re fatigued from driving and shiver in the crowd’s Budweiser body heat.
After the first period we head outside to warm up. The girl at the entrance, selling tickets, handing out programs and stamping hands, an Edmontonian, tells me it’s okay to bring my American flag tin of Bud into the parking lot. ‘This is Butte! Anything goes!’ A pretty blonde girl half my age who’s already had one too many needs to know if I’m having a good time. I enjoy the moment up until she calls me ‘Sir.’ The incident is accompanied by a mind flash. I suddenly remember a story about my late brother impersonating a plastic surgeon specializing in breast augmentation one late night in a bar. ‘I suppose I could examine them here if you’d like.’
Saturday morning we drive through the rain to a Walgreen’s pharmacy. Ann has a hankering for a rare snack, something we can’t get in Canada, maybe a Hershey Mr. Goodbar. The clerk practically pays us to saunter out with a case of beer and two packages of cigarettes; God bless America.
In downtown Butte an entire block of Park Street is closed to traffic to accommodate the weekly farmer’s market which runs May through September. The rain is cold and there are no customers. Sellers are breaking down their stalls, packing up. Ann makes a pity purchase of baked goods but the prices keep dropping and our mound of pies, loaves and cookies on the table beneath the vinyl pavilion keeps expanding. I wander around sipping a Miller Lite because I can; this is my kind of open carry. Montana, like most U.S. states, has no bottle bill so I can simply toss my worthless empty tin into the trash. Beverage manufacturers, distributors and liquor, grocery and convenience stores refuse to be responsible for collecting the containers they sell; perhaps there are recycling elves I don’t know about.
This morning Ann handed me a capsule filled with fish oil. ‘What’s this for?’ She was scrambling eggs in a frying pan. ‘Brain function, memory… I forget what else.’ Um. Last night I did promise to make our Sunday breakfast. Uh-oh. And if I’d been thinking at all about our trip to Montana, we’d’ve gotten our heads out of Butt and turned up in Missoula one day sooner. Our Sunday arrival there was the day after the University of Montana’s Homecoming football game against Montana State. In these parts the Grizzlies are gridiron gods; there is the Big Sky Conference and then the NFL. Weekends consist of two days, praise the Lord.
The U of M operates its own team store downtown. The range of maroon and silver gear and merchandise is astounding. A visiting alumnus in a Grizzlies sweatshirt tells me, ‘That’s nothing. You should see what they sell on campus in the bookstore.’ The fellow follows Canadian football. He’s hoping former Stampeders and Lions quarterback and current Calgary offensive coordinator Dave Dickenson will return to his alma mater as head coach some day soon. An enlarged, framed full colour action shot of Dickenson as Grizzly QB hangs in the corridor near our hotel room door. In fact, the entire Holiday Inn is decorated with images of U of M athletes. A tired looking desk clerk informs us that we missed one hell of a party here last night following Saturday afternoon’s big game. Rumpled fraternity and sorority banners still hang in the atrium. GO GRIZZ!
Too much football just ain’t enough. The sidewalk sandwich board outside the stylish Top Hat Lounge reads: BEARS VS PACKERS. THAT’S IT. No daily specials needed today. Around the corner at Red’s Bar, a football-themed dive with remarkably tolerable bathrooms, every NFL game underway at the moment is being shown across a multitude of flat screens. Focusing attention on one single tilt is near impossible. Expensive team apparel aside, the kids are all dressed like delinquent hippies with random lanyards hanging from the pockets of pants belted below the crotch. However they are all disconcertingly polite when not yelling at the TVs and insist on calling me ‘Sir.’ Granted, Ann and I were the only folk in the joint trying to enjoy the Sunday New York Times amid the din and the crunched peanut shells underfoot.