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Thursday, September 07, 2006


Roaming the Western States Part 2: Butte, Montana, Home of America's Butthole

Click here for part 1.

Prior to crash-landing there, everything I knew about Butte, Montana I learned from a two-second joke in Beavis and Butthead Do America and a Daily Show segment from back in July. When one of Jon Stewart's laugh conjurer-uppers asked the head of the local travel bureau what sites he would recommend tourists visit, he stuttered and stammered for at least a full minute.

There are more appealing locales in Montana but I don't know of any stranger than Butte. That's saying a lot for a state that's home to the Mammoth Hot Springs and their phallic monolith.

A good portion of Butte was picturesque but, as we learned on the second day of our voyage, its city center is a ghost town filled with vacated warehouses. While they would make a Pearl District condo developer start spewing salvia like Pavlov's pooch, they were pretty creepy. Some of these places have surprisingly well-preserved murals stamped on the sides of them, the sort of post-industrial something or another that would look fantastic down on NW 7th and Flanders. Take a look at this one, for example:

If it were located anywhere in Portland this property would be worth millions. Too bad it actually sits a few blocks from one of the world's biggest sludge pits.

No, really, sludge. I'm confident that isn't the technical name for the stuff that fills the Berkley Pit. Nevertheless, the term "sludge" is even used in one of the informational displays found in the observation deck overlooking Butte's premiere tourist destination. Have a look for yourself:

Various sources label it as "water," including this website devoted to the pit. According to it, in the fall of 2002 the waterline was at 900 feet and 5,000 gallons of toxic h20 was joining the billions already in there every single minute. Since the level is still rising, by 2012 scientist predict the muck will start seeping into Butte's groundwater. If it reaches this critical level those responsible will be fined $25,000 a day until they get it right.

You've got to appreciate a community that at least tried to turn an environmentally catastrophic lemon into $-spewing lemonade. In Butte, the pit is a bonafide tourist trap worthy of Disneyland or at least Carhenge It was even posted on a map of area attractions I found at the Day's Inn. After breakfast, my sibling and I were feeling stupid enough to pay two bucks to walk through a long mineshaft for a look at the pit.

A push of a button attached to a barrier on the observation deck kickstarted a prerecorded narration. A disembodied woman's voice cheerfully recalled the history of mining in Butte and what led a local company to dig an enormous hole in the ground that eventually filled with muck once profits dropped and their pumps stopped.

And, of course, the pit is incredibly eerie. Local wildlife won't go near it. While we were there I didn't spot any birds flying overhead or so much as fly buzzing around. There was no wind and the water down below didn't so much as ripple. It was as if we were looking at a postcard for America's butthole. Hey, that has a nice ring to it. Butte, Montana: Home of America's Butthole.

The Berkley Pit truly is an awful place- like something out of JR Tolkien's nightmares or a particularly cheesy segment from a Sierra Club promotional video. Only Skeletor or one of Tolkien's orcs could feel at home here. Poor Berkley Pit, no one loves you.

Inside the gift shop there wasn't a single Berkley Pit postcard or any t-shirts. While the staff seemed to in on the absurdity of something like this being considered a destination worth rolling off the interstate to see, the products in the gift shop weren't in on the joke. There were plenty of Native American artifacts and bags of gold dust but I didn't see anything devoted to the pit. Wouldn't a t-shirt with "The Berkley Pit: America's Butthole" would sell well on the internet? I could see hipsters and fratboys across the country wearing something like that.

But maybe the Berkley Pit works better as an cautionary tale: a place better mourned than mocked with heavy doses of irony. We should learn from the mistakes of those that made this mess. In fact, I think I'm going to head straight home after work tonight and start installing solar panels on everything from my microwave to my Birkenstocks. I wonder if I can make my lava lamp operate on wind power...

Again, Butte is a pretty great little town, even if it's home to the pit and a ghost town/warehouse district that, to be honest, seemed like something out of an old Scooby Doo cartoon. FYI: I ran back to the car after seeing an dark shadow moving around on the second floor of a warehouse on an empty street. Could have been Jason or the son of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. You never can tell.

Anyway, there's a purty monument devoted to the town's mining history a few blocks from the Berkley Pit. Here's a photo:

Next time in part three of this thrilling travelogue: we actually go someplace that doesn't cause cancer.

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