Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Richest Hill on Earth

My favorite city is not Paris. I’ve been to Paris. It was cold, rainy, and full of aggressive street vendors hawking miniature Eiffel Towers. When they tried a sales pitch in French first, and then English, I pretended to speak German.

It’s not Zurich either. A beautiful city, full of cobblestones and cathedrals, but one in which the public restrooms seem to be constructed from the refuse of an original Star Trek shoot. When I got locked in one of these restrooms for over twenty minutes, I tried to read the instructions in German first, and then English, until I realized I didn’t speak the lavatory-Swiss German of: “You’re screwed.”

I wandered through these cities in a permanent state of awe and confusion. I gawked, spinning around like a top stuck in a sidewalk grate. A top, you realize, has no business being in a sidewalk grate. I’m not sure exactly what does belong in a sidewalk grate, but I certainly didn’t. Those cathedrals are meant to tower over carelessly chic, peripatetic, polyglot Europeans who stroll arm in arm under crouching concrete gargoyles and stiffly postured saints, not a dork with a twenty pound backpack and some rusty high school Spanish. That’s when I realized. When I tasted the truth of it, bitter as Turkish coffee.

My favorite city is not one of these magical places. It’s a place where I can stand still. Where I speak the language, which can only be described as a cross between rancher and miner, with some base metals on the tongue. Butte, Montana. A stone of a place that manages to get down inside you and rattle around your skull so much that, when you’re not there, you actually miss the noise.

When I first visited Butte, a dirty city carved into a cluster of denuded, mine-scarred hills, my husband and I were looking for a place to settle in Montana. We had narrowed it down to Butte and Dillon, one a city of 30,000 and the other a town of 4,000. We had a hard time deciding, so we did what we always do: we looked for ice cream. It was August, and we stood around – there were few outdoor tables at this particular establishment – with chocolate cones dripping down our wrists. The guy next to us, born and raised in Butte, said: “Ice cream is good on a day like this. Of course, come winter, we’ll all wish we were somewhere else.” He had a look like he was seeing the future, our future, in the reflection of the glass window, just behind the Go Bulldogs sign, and it wasn’t good.

Afterward, we wandered up and down the streets, all with names that function as testaments to the copper boomtown Butte was until 1920 or so. Mercury. Granite. Quartz. The hot wind blew up dust devils that raced past our legs, and we strolled on, staring at the grand old Hotel Finlen, at brick buildings with the shadows of bankrupt business names stenciled above the windows, worn away by decades of snow. We kept squinting; something blew in our eyes.

“Could you live here?” my husband asked. “I don’t know,” I told him. “The grit in my eyes is keeping me from saying yes.”

When we checked into the Capri Motel to deliberate, a man emerged from a back room, a TV dinner still warm in his hands, and gave us the key. We started our laundry, went back to the room to look at a map, and when we returned, someone had stolen my underwear.

We never did end up living in Butte. Dillon won out. But as anyone who lives in Dillon knows, if you have any emergencies or need anything important, you go to Butte. So we came to know it. We’d drive an hour up through the Pioneer mountains –sunrise, sunset, bighorn sheep crossing the road – to conduct business at a little copy shop full of kind ladies. Their pug, Pearl, sat in the window, frosting it with her breath. We had lunches at the Hanging Five diner, which I thought for years was the Hanging Umbrella diner, not realizing the “umbrella” was an upside down 5, our car parked precariously on an ice-covered hill in the parking lot. Once during Knievel Days, when Butte’s own Evel Knievel family is celebrated raucously, I waited for a mechanic to bring my car back to life while motorcycles flew over the car dealership and flames shot out of pyrotechnic equipment positioned in hollow trash cans in the street.

We flew in and out of Butte, with half of our outgoing flights cancelled from blizzards. We didn’t mind. It seemed a better deal to be in Butte, even if it just meant wandering along Blacktail Creek trail. Sometimes, flying in, we were given the option to stay put in Salt Lake or risk a flight with the world’s bravest pilot (sorry, Sully Sullenberger) through blank-white skies and clouds like speed bumps to get back home to Montana. We always chose to take the risk, and as we’d come down, a cemetery on one side of the airport and a bowling alley on the other, we were never sorry.

I love Butte and its contradictions. In the winter, the cold freezes everything, and the bitter air gets down in your lungs like metal, but ice crystals fall from the air like some kind of miracle. It’s a poisoned place, with arsenic and lead left behind from copper mining days. It had the longest running brothel in the United States, but its inhabitants also built a giant, 90 foot Our Lady of the Rockies statue out of donated material, which juts out of the mountains like a toenail. It was built, they say, to honor women.

Butte is not pretty. The biggest tourist draw is the Berkeley Pit, what remains of the largest truck operated pit mine, a toxic brew so full of heavy metals that, a few years ago, three hundred unfortunate geese made the mistake of using it for nesting grounds and perished. Almost alone among U.S. cities, Butte allows open containers of alcohol on the street.

If you go to the brand new Butte-Silver Bow website, you’ll see a pretty picture of the county courthouse. You won’t see the ramshackle buildings, the ice cracked roads. The website seems to suggest that Butte needs – and is getting – a city’s version of an Extreme Makeover. It says, as a selling point, that Butte is “…located halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, which makes us a natural stop.” It’s like the most the city can ever be is the cultural version of a rest area.

I disagree. When you drive over the Continental Divide in fall, the mountains yellow with aspens and red with mining scars, you know it’s a place worth stopping for. That it has earned its hardness, and that it demands the same of you.

Butte is a hard, ugly diamond of a city. Maybe it could use some polishing, starting with cleaning up the lead and arsenic in its rivers. That I can get behind. But I don’t want Butte to become Disneyland or Times Square. I don’t want it to be anything but rough and cold to the touch. It’s probably selfish of me, I know. But in the end, I want “The Richest Hill on Earth” to stay the same, or at the very least, to hoard all its strange riches for myself.

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