Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Let Love Drive: A Road Trip with My Dad - Dinosaur CO to Butte MT

Itinerary: Dinosaur CO > Idaho Falls ID > Butte MT
Miles: 619

In June, despite pandemic and civil unrest, my 85 year old dad and I went on a 5000 mile drive through the mountain west, in his Buick, to see his sisters in Texas and Montana.

The day's drive was going to be our longest of the trip. The end goal was Butte, Montana or somewhere close. Dad really wanted to show me this giant hole he'd seen when he lived up in the area in the 80s. It was the result of copper mining and from his memory, he kept saying how the hole was so big that the trucks driving down its walls looked like toys. 

"Where is the hole, Dad?"

"I'm not exactly sure. We'll figure it out when we get there. Just tell your phone to get us to Butte."

We would end up driving west along the top eastern corner of Utah before turning north into eastern Idaho and finally crossing into Montana by way of the Bitterroot wilderness.  All said and done, we'd drive in four states that day!

Leaving Dinosaur, CO in the wee hours was like a vacation for the eyes. The high desert in the morning is an orchestrated dance of color and light, where the shadows get to dance before the sun burns them off. It wasn't long before we crossed into Utah and it looked much like the Utah I've been to in the more southern regions. Seriously, Utah is such an extremely rugged place. We've ridden bikes countless times in Moab and hiked around the Canyonlands. Bryce, Capitol Reef, Grand Escalante and Zion are absolute wonders of nature. I highly recommend going to Utah in the spring or fall when the temps aren't as hot and really getting into the interior. Capitol Reef and Grand Escalante are the lesser of the known areas which is fine by me. When we were there, we could get right up to the formations and see the lines of color at arm's length. Go. Now. 

I didn't realize our elevation until we started descending into Deer Valley by way of Daniel's Pass at around 8000 feet. It took a solid 20-25 minutes to get down the mountain and the terrain went from desert to pure alpine, with mountain sides thick with evergreens and budding aspens. Back country skiing is a big thing in Park City, home to the 2002 Winter Olympics. In fact, we could see they Olympic ski jump from the interstate. Dad thought that was pretty cool. We stopped at a gas station after the descent off the mountain. I needed to get gas and being back in the mountains, I thought I better buy another container of coolant just to be on the safe side. 

We gained some elevation on the way to I-15 and the Buick handled it fine. I was still driving and being in 80-90 mph traffic was a crazy wake up call since it was morning rush hour. We were too far north to see the Great Salt Lake. We drove parallel to the railroad and passed the sign leading to The Golden Spike National Historical Park. I kinda wished we would have taken time to stop but we had a long day of driving.

By lunch we made it to Idaho Falls and while stopped Dad's sister called. I could hear both sides of the conversation and so could everyone else in the Subway restaurant. Dad has bad hearing and even with his hearing aid in, if he chooses to wear it, he still puts his phone calls on speaker and talks LOUD and when he's feeling ornery, he'll answer the phone with "What" instead of "Hello" and today was one of those days.


"Where you at?" asked Aunt Charlotte.

"Idaho Falls."

"What are you doing all the way over there?"

"I'm on vacation. I'm seeing stuff."

"What stuff? Are you coming to see me or not?"

"I'm on vacation. We'll get there tomorrow. Bye"

This was the same conversation he'd had with his sister two times prior. He was getting bit over it.

We drove over to the actual falls of Idaho Falls and parked along a popular walking path. From what I could discern, the falls are just a beautified flood water management solution. It had a developed River Walk around it with lots of points to view and art installations. The businesses around it were quaint so it seemed that the area was in the middle of a revitalization. It was a good leg stretch stop for sure!

Idaho Falls

Sculpture on the River Walk around the falls

The man himself at Idaho Falls

With state number 5 checked off the list, we made our way to the sixth state of the trip: Montana. I'd never been to Montana and I was excited to finally get to the place my dad talks the most about aside from his military travel. Ryan's been there and many friends. I've been to Idaho and Wyoming and now I was finally going to see what Lewis & Clark dubbed the Gates of the Mountains and the land that birthed the Missouri River.

I asked Dad to take the wheel for the next stretch. Before we got on the interstate, we stopped for gas. Dad noticed the truck at the pump in front of us had a sticker or something on it that related to Butte. Dad went up to the group standing outside the truck while I pumped gas. I hoped Dad wasn't going to be too annoying.

"The hole is still there", Dad said when he returned to the car. "They drove by it this morning."

"Oh, yeah? Did you ask them where it was?"

"No. I forgot."
I rolled my eyes as I went around to the passenger side.

The next three hours was a mix of classic country on the radio where we got to sing On the Road Again and Ring of Fire before we lost signal. Then talk turned to Dad's days of living in Montana. He moved there after my parents separated. I was probably around 11 or 12 years old. I would hear from him occasionally by letter or by phone. He lived with his sister Barb and her family for while in Great Falls. His other sister, Charlotte, who we were on our way to see, had moved up there with her family as well so he had a support system. It seemed he bounced around depending on where the work took him. He had a fishing and hunting buddy and Dad claims his friend didn't like killing animals and would come along for the adventure but not actually shoot anything.

By the time we arrived in Butte, it was close to 4pm. After the roach motel in Dinosaur, I thought we needed a place a bit more upscale, where we felt we could shower in safe and sanitary conditions. I got us a couple of rooms on the first floor but one wouldn't be ready for a few hours (the hotel was short staffed due to Covid). So we put our things in one room and headed out to find the elusive Big Pit.

Dad remembered that the company running the mine was Anaconda Mining Co or something of that nature. There just to happened to be a town about 40 minutes up the road with the name of Anaconda. Seemed like a good place to start. What's another 1.5 hours of driving, right? My eyes were about shot but Dad was visually excited and unlike me, not exhausted, so I sucked it up and off we went. I looked up Anaconda, MT on Google and there was some kind of place where you could park and walk up to an actual smelter stack. Ok, things were looking promising. So we drove there and it was a pretty drive and we get to the stack and there are large mounds of coal, one after the other, along the road we were on. Dad was certain we were NOT in the right place. I asked him if it's possible the pit was back in Butte where the GIANT AF strip mining operation was that could be seen from the interstate. I believe his exact reply was "No. No. No." He told me to pull into the gas station we could see ahead of us and he'd go in and ask. I stayed in the car.

As I'm Googling the shit out of this pit thing, a lady knocks on the car window. Dad is standing behind her. I rolled down the window and she said the mine pit is back in Butte. I wanted to scream. I wanted to shout. I listened to her directions which were confusing AF and I asked her to just tell me what it's called and I'll plug it into the phone. Clearly, I was tired and hungry.

Aha! We had directions, finally, to the Berkeley Pit.

Forty minutes later we arrived back in Butte and went through an older part of town. When Molly said, "You've arrived" we were on a nondescript street. Our heads were spinning side to side. If this thing is as big as he said it was, like, it should be really noticeable. I pull a U-turn and then I see a sign on a shack-like building that says Berkeley Pit. I pull into the empty parking lot. The sign on the building door said it had closed at 5pm. It was almost 6pm! Dad looked confused. He looked up the hill next to the parking lot that had a fence at the top. He suggested we walk up to the fence. I disagreed and noted there was $2 entry fee that would allow us to get onto a viewing platform so we'd be trespassing (and Dad couldn't climb it anyway). Dad was deflated. His memory is pretty vivid of this place and he recalled seeing it from a high vantage point. Upon further research, as I write this, there is A LOT of information about the pit. It closed in 1982, about 2-3 years before Dad moved to Montana so I'm thinking at that point in time it probably wasn't a tourist site and he could walk right up to the edge. The pit is literally full to its brim of very poisonous water. The local who gave us the directions said it was supposed to hit its peak this year, as in it won't be able to hold anymore water. 

Google Street view

Google aerial view

screenshot from the internet street view

One website says: The Berkeley Pit is a former open-pit copper mine in Butte, Montana and now one of the only places in the world where you can pay to see toxic waste. The sheer scale of the site is something to behold. In aerial photos, it appears simply as a huge black splotch. The pit is one mile long by half a mile wide, and over 1,780 feet deep, 1,000 of which are filled with acidic water with high concentrations of heavy metals and toxic chemicals, including copper, iron, arsenic, cadmium, zinc, and sulfuric acid.

If only I'd had the name of the pit I could have planned this better. Considering all the info, even a website dedicated to the science of the pit, it's amazing I didn't find it online at first. My Google foo was definitely off that day. So, we decided we'd go to it in the morning. It didn't open until 9am so that meant we could sleep in a little. I was stoked.

But before we could even think of sleep, I needed to get some food. My headache was reaching epic stage.

Dad had been wanting to get pizza so we drove to a place across the street from our hotel. It was packed with a 20 minute wait. (The town had just relaxed some eat in ordinances so people were taking advantage of the new freedom). I didn't want to subject Dad to a noisy, non-mask wearing environment so we went to another place a block away that was connected to a casino. Dad was hoping to play some black jack. (Dad, hello, pandemic). But when we went in, the casino side was closed, of course, and the pizza side had literally just opened that day and was only fulfilling to go orders. Dad didn't want to do that so I looked up a third place that was back towards the mine and same thing, only to go orders, and of course a long wait. When I went back to the car to tell Dad, he said to just go to Arby's. Deal. At that point I was ready to eat horse meat, which is probably what I did but the curly fries made up for it. At least we could eat without a million people around. It's not the ideal experience but I was slowly starting to side with Dad's way of doing things. Keep it simple. He doesn't care about having a good culinary experience. Give him a hardy ham sandwich or a tasty burger and he's good as long as there is Dr. Pepper to wash it down. Menus just confuse him and loud places make it hard to communicate. Plus, he'll hate the food anyway or get upset about the cost of "two pieces of bread around some meat".

We got back to the hotel around 7pm or so. Before I went to my room I challenged him to a game of cribbage. Dad loves cards and he'll play with anyone who asks. (When he was in a rehab facility after he had surgery a few years ago, he was in paradise, playing cards with all the patients who were more than willing to pass the time with him). I went out to the car and grabbed one of his beers and one or two of my White Claws (it's all that the Cubby's had in Scotty City, Kansas. Sue me). I dropped off the drinks and went to my room to get a chair and a bag of popcorn I had bought along the way. Under multiple lamp lights (Dad needs lots of light to read and these new hotels do not have ceiling light) we snuggled up to the desk in the room. Dad and I played cribbage using an app on my phone for the board. It was fun. Dad has no qualms about winning or losing. He would make sure I had counted all my cards, even if it would put me ahead. Winning was not the point at the moment. After a couple games, I went back to my room, took a long bath and poured myself into bed, grateful to not have to worry about cock roaches or no air conditioning. It was heavenly.

The next morning, I got a call around 8 from the front desk. "Your dad wanted me to tell you he's up." I laughed. He was in the lobby getting coffee. I had been up so I walked out and could here Dad from down the hall asking the attendant about how to use the coffee dispensers. His suitcase was sitting next a chair. He was ready to go but unfortunately, it was raining like a banshee so we didn't get to see the pit. I didn't have any feelings one way or another but after looking at the photos on this website, it would have been pretty amazing to see.

"Well, we'll have to come back and see it", he said.

I totally agreed!

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