Highway Haiku # 10
Where past is present
Where ghosts take root, where mistakes …
Linger … Yes, that’s Butte
I don’t know if he respects Him or just finds Him boring, but Ace has never shown the slightest interest in Bobblehead Jesus – never seen Him as a toy — even though, when he rests his head on the console between my front seats, his nose is just inches from Christ’s wobbly noggin.
Bobblehead Jesus travels in my cup holder – sometimes getting ousted when a cup of coffee needs the space.
After stopping for gas after I entered Montana, I crossed over a cattle guard on the entrance ramp on the way back to Interstate 94, which made the bobblehead start nodding vigorously. He was still nodding when I hit 75 mph, so, assuming He approved, I set the cruise control for 80. I figured I could get away with that in a state that, for five years in the 1990’s, had no real speed limit at all, instead just mandating people travel at a rate that was “reasonable and prudent.”
Bobblehead Jesus has been a fixture in my car since 2007. He rides in the rear section of my dual cup holder, except when I’m meeting up with someone who might be offended – either by Jesus, or by Jesus being portrayed in bobblehead form. At those times, I stuff Him under the seat.
He was a gift offered up at a Christmas party during the semester I was a visiting professor at the University of Montana – one of those affairs where you randomly get a gift and then, if you see somebody else’s gift you like better, you can steal it and give them the one you originally received. It seems to run contrary to what Christmas is all about, but I had to have Him.
He rarely shakes his head from side to side; instead He almost always nods up and down. He has become part good luck charm, part yes man.
On the interstate, rolling through Montana’s less scenic (just my opinion) eastern half, I was breaking two personal vows: one, to never use cruise control; two, to not get into a hurry during our travels.
But I had an appointment in Butte – to meet a woman about a dead dog.
My high speeds put me ahead of schedule, and when I heard a spot on the radio about an exhibit underway at the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University in Bozeman, I wondered if we might have time to squeeze it in. Bobblehead Jesus signaled that, yes, we did.
Dogs weren’t allowed in the exhibit, despite being its focus. “Wolf to Woof: The Story of Dogs” offered lots of information about dogs, their origins and their unique role in our society, much of it in interactive form — “interactive” being one of the fancy words of our day that generally means when you push a button something will happen. It’s not really all that modern a concept. Vending machines, electric chairs, and garbage disposals have all long been interactive.
At the exhibit, visitors could see inside various models of dogs, test their noses against a dog’s sense of smell, hear what dog’s various howls and wails mean, and get a dog’s eye view of the world. It asked the questions, did human beings domesticate wolves, or did wolves choose us? Were we drawn to their cuteness, or were they drawn by our garbage? What was it that led them to alter their deeply instilled ways just to hang around with us?
Having left Ace in the car, I rushed through the exhibit in 15 minutes. Monitoring dog news, as I do daily, I know how often and how quickly dogs perish when left in cars, even with the windows cracked, even on non-sweltering days. Just a few weeks earlier, I’d blogged about a tourist from Michigan whose 8-year-old Chihuahua, left crated in his car, died while his owner was visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
After a brief romp on the campus, Ace and I pushed on to Butte. If towns were characters, Butte would be proud, eccentric and gritty, at times raucous, at times withdrawn, a leathery-skinned sort with a hacking cough and wise but somewhat reddish eyes whose glory days were behind him.
Butte is the hometown of Evel Knievel, who after defying death in countless glory-seeking motorcycle stunts was killed by pulmonary disease in 2007. Butte’s top tourist draws include a huge toxic mine pit, part of a Superfund site that encompasses the historic district. In Butte, poisons lurk, zombie-like, beneath the ground; irony clings like blown dust to rough surfaces; and sun and clouds cast shadows that crawl like tarantulas up and down ridiculously steep hills.
Downtown Butte sports many ghost signs, most of them advertising cigars, booze and hotels that no longer exist. Painted on the sides of buildings, they are quaint reminders of the past – not flashing, not interactive.
One recommends Flor de Baltimore, a defunct cigar brand that — named after either the city, or Lord Baltimore, the founder of Maryland — appears to go back at least a century or so. Others tout luxury hotels long gone, but still ghostly boasting of their air conditioning, or being fireproof. Once, back when they were bolder, the signs shouted. Now, fading, they only whisper.
Butte, with its massive copper deposits, was once called the “Richest Hill on Earth.” In the early 1900s, it boasted a population of 100,000. When the mines shut down by 1982, Butte was left economically crippled and environmentally contaminated. Piles of mine waste and years of smoke from smelters tainted the land and water around town with arsenic, mercury, lead and other metals. In the 1980s, the Berkeley Pit and Butte’s historic Uptown District were declared a Superfund site — one that extends 130 miles downstream due to tailings that drifted west and settled along the Clark Fork River.
Only about a third as many people live in Butte as did in mining’s heyday. Today, storefronts sit empty, far less is spent on mining than is spent on cleaning up the mess mining made, and you can’t find a good whorehouse when you need one (they say the defunct one is haunted). Nobody – though the signs that advertise them linger — is drinking Butte Special Beer, or staying at the New Tait Hotel, which isn’t new anymore, or even a hotel.
Ghost signs, like glory days, grow wispier as time goes by, fading into the brick after close to a century of sun and wind and snow and rain. But they never quite disappear. They still do their jobs, even though what they’re selling no longer exists.
Mining’s glory days, like those of newspapers, are mostly gone now. John Steinbeck’s glory days, arguably, were behind him when he took his trip with Charley. Mine, though I don’t entirely count myself out, may be nostalgia as well.
Humans love to revisit the glory days, especially when we are stuck amid a particularly inglorious stretch. The trick is to make it a brief visit, to not get stuck there. Sometimes we get so focused on reminiscing about the glory days, so bummed out by the growing void between what once was and what’s left now, that it interferes with our enthusiasm and ability to bring about some new ones — glory days, that is.
Some look at Butte and see the void, viewing it as a depressing town, with rough edges and a shaky base, just rotting away — a one-time peach of a city that’s been picked apart to the point that all that’s left is a pit.
But what you can also see, if you look hard enough, is a fight-hardened survivor, a testament to man’s resiliency — a town that shows off its scars and says “don’t count me out yet,” a town that continues to sniff out new opportunities and still walks with its head held high,
Once upon a time in Butte, in a huge and barren expanse of waste that’s part of the nation’s largest Superfund site, there lived a large white dog.
Nobody knows how he got there, why he stayed, or how he managed to remain alive in the toxic confines of what’s known as the Berkeley Pit.
But he did, for 17 years — during times of active mining, during its suspension, during its limited restart, during the ongoing clean-up efforts and right up until the pit transitioned into one of the country’s oddest tourist attractions.
He was first spotted in 1986. Once miners figured out that the ghostly white image in the distance was a dog, they named him “The Auditor,” because of his tendency to appear when he was least expected. With long and matted ropes of white hair covering his legs, and yellowing strands blocking his vision, The Auditor — a Puli — moved slowly, and almost appeared to be hovering.
He seemed to want nothing to do with humans.
The miners would leave him food, and he’d eat it. They’d build him a house, and he’d use it. But he continued to keep his distance. When they noticed he was limping, they started sticking baby aspirin in his food. The Auditor remained mostly unapproachable up until the end.
He died peacefully in his dog house in 2003, but The Auditor – like mining – would leave a legacy. His name would live on in statues, in science, and as a symbol for surviving hard times.
Berkeley Pit lies just a few blocks from the center of Butte. It stretches a mile-and-a-half across and is almost 2,000 feet deep. Barren soil surrounds a lake laden with heavy metals. In 1995, more than legend has it, a flock of migrating geese landed in the water. The next morning 342 were found dead.
How The Auditor managed to survive as long as he did is as mysterious as the dog himself. Maybe his mop-like locks somehow soaked in the toxins, keeping them from reaching his skin. Maybe the toxins weren’t as toxic as thought. Maybe, as dogs do, he adapted to the conditions he was in, building up a tolerance.
When he finally died, the only company still in operation at the site had The Auditor cremated. With no necropsy being conducted, no corpse to parse, that would have seemed to have slammed the door shut on the mystery of how The Auditor died, and more curiously, how he lived.
But Holly Peterson already had her foot in that door. Peterson, an environmental engineer at Montana Tech in Butte, saw a newspaper article about The Auditor — 16 years old by then — in 2003. It tugged at her scientific curiosity, and even more at her heartstrings.
“How can that not touch you?” she said, pulling out a newspaper clipping as we sat in her office. “I kept wondering, how can that thing survive? With all the contamination in Butte, I started thinking, how can we study that in a different way?”
Before The Auditor died, Peterson and her students began getting samples of hair from dogs in Butte and the surrounding areas, and when she ran into an official from the mining company, Montana Resources, at a presentation, she asked about getting a sample from The Auditor, by then, it appeared, on his last legs. Later, Peterson went to the site, where a mining company employee, wearing gloves, approached The Auditor and snipped off a few locks of hair.
“You could tell he just wanted us to leave him alone,” Peterson said of the dog.
Tests on the sample in July of 2003 revealed “elevated levels of almost every element imaginable,” Peterson said, including 128 times the amount of arsenic in a typical dog’s hair.
Peterson’s research project would expand from there, shedding new light on the extent of environmental degradation in Butte and introducing a new, if not conclusive, way to measure both it and the continuing efforts to clean it up. Her work marked the first time pet hair has been used to monitor toxins in a residential Superfund site.
Since then, the project has moved on to testing the hair of animals in Australia and Nairobi, and sampling the hair of animals bagged by hunters back home in Montana. Through taking samples at hunter check stations, they found far higher levels of metals in animals shot in the area around Anaconda, once home to a huge smelting operation.
The Auditor, as it turned out, inspired Peterson on several levels. She was the one behind the effort to install statues of him around town, including the one she showed me at the Butte Plaza Mall. It’s made of bronze, with a copper patina that has worn off in spots from people petting it. Most of funding for the sculpture came from a California couple, who read of The Auditor in a Puli Club of America newsletter.
Peterson’s hope was that The Auditor, after his death on Nov. 19, 2003, would become a mascot for Butte, or a mascot for environmental causes. His legacy, she hoped, would serve as inspiration to others and a reminder to not abandon pets, or otherwise abuse the planet.
Along the way, she ended up with her own little Auditor. After making contact with the Puli Club, she started getting emails every time a Puli would show up in a shelter. Living with her 86-year-old mother, she didn’t see a dog fitting into her life – until she was sent a photo of Birke-Beiner.
“I couldn’t pass him up when I saw the picture of him,” Peterson said.
Birke-Beiner came along on our trip to the mall. Earlier in the day, he’d gone to a Halloween Party, as a basket of yarn.
Peterson says some people call him Little Auditor, but Birke is his own dog — playful, people-friendly and, one gets the impression, destined to live a happy and non-toxic life.
As for The Auditor, three statues in Butte pay homage to him, though he never performed any feats of the sort we’d normally consider heroic.
All he did was stay alive in a place where not much does.
Sometimes, when all around you seems hopeless – when signs are telling you it’s time to give up and quietly fade away — that’s a pretty glorious achievement in itself.
John Steinbeck and I — in addition to traveling with our dogs, being about the same age when we set forth on our journeys, going by the same first names, and having a lot of the same letters in our last ones — share something else:
“I am in love with Montana,” Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, after what was his first trip to the state. “For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”
He babbled on, as people in love do: “…the mountains are the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda … the calm of the mountains and the rolling grasslands had got into the inhabitants … the towns were places to live in rather than nervous hives. People had time to pause in their occupations to undertake the passing art of neighborliness … Of all the states it is my favorite and my love.”
I have trysted with her three times — as a reporter in the early 1990’s, as a visiting professor in 2007, and as whatever it is I am now. She remains, despite the passage of time, despite all the ravaging she’s been through at the hands of man, as seductive as she was when she turned the heads of Lewis and Clark.
Steinbeck stopped in Billings and bought a cowboy hat. In Butte, he bought a rifle. He dipped down into Yellowstone National Park, but after seeing Charley’s reaction to bears that approached his car — “he became a primitive killer lusting for the blood of his enemy” — he turned around and spent the night in Livingston.
I stopped in Billings and Bozeman and spent a couple of nights in Butte before heading to Missoula. Once again, the return to a place I’d spent some time triggered memories. The closer I got to Missoula, winding through the hills alongside the Clark Fork River, the more of them resurfaced, leading me to wonder how I could have temporarily misplaced them, especially those that were only three years old.
I guess they get pushed to the back of my brain – into the deep storage area — to make room for new ones. Going back to a place somehow gives them permission to return. It could be something as simple as seeing the lay of the land, the way grassy golden hills climb up into the big blue sky, a sharp curve in a crystal clear river, the golden outline of Tamaracks among evergreens.
Some of the memories were from nearly 20 years ago — visiting the Unabomber’s former shack in the woods; hanging out in radon mines, where people soak in radioactivity to heal what ails them; wandering resort towns that, around then, suddenly became a destination for celebrities, herds of which came, when they weren’t to busy with the work of celebrities, to graze in the state’s peaceful vastness.
Others were only three years old, and less dusty: hikes in the mountains; the little house we rented, dubbed the “shack-teau,” while I played professor; the peaceful University of Montana campus and the students in my class who, despite preparing to enter a field that was in transition and not looking too promising at the time, were earnest and enthusiastic enough to recharge my dwindling hopes for journalism; how, for our class project, we chased the train hauling mining waste that had collected in the river outside Missoula 100 miles back east to be dumped in a little town called Opportunity.
This time around, I jumped on an offer of free lodging from a colleague I’d worked with in Philadelphia, now working for the local newspaper, The Missoulian. Gwen said we could stay with her, her husband and their Brittany spaniel, Nell, for as long as we wanted, which I conservatively translated into meaning three days.
Ace and I enjoyed all the comforts of somebody else’s home. While they were at work, I drank most of their milk. I ate all of their eggs. I fired up their coffee maker, read their magazines, watched their TV and enjoyed a comfy bed in the basement, usually with one or two other occupants.
On the first night there, I retired early and Ace came to bed with me. Nell came down and jumped in, too. To be honest, she jumped up, putting her front paws on the bed, and I pulled her up the rest of the way. When that happened, Ace jumped off, and I fell asleep snuggling with Nell. When I woke up the next morning, she was gone and Ace was at my side.
The next day, Gwen was working late on election night. I watched a little bit of what everybody was calling the “shellacking” before retiring early again. This time, Ace didn’t mind Nell joining us, and I fell asleep with the two of them – once Nell completed her routine of nibbling my hands, walking over me, turning in circles and pawing at the bedspread before finally flopping down with a sigh. By morning, she (like many a Democrat) was gone.
On the third night, I retired even earlier and they both followed me and jumped in bed. But when I woke up they had both abandoned me. While I slept, Gwen had returned home and the dogs joined her for the night.
My only worry during the stay was that Ace would try and follow Nell on one of her many trips out the doggie door. It was just the perfect size for Nell, and she darted in and out of the house at amazing speeds. It was the perfect size for Ace to get stuck in. I had visions of having to remove the hinges and take both door and dog to a vet, or hardware store, to have them surgically separated. Luckily, Ace didn’t try to use it, or even poke his nose through, probably because it made a noise when its flap opened and closed.
Nell, at four months, was still engaging in the kind of mischief pups perpetrate. At home during the day, while I wasn’t paying attention, she snagged a full roll of toilet paper, took it through her dog door and proceeded to decorate the lawn with confetti. She managed to get into my toothpaste, but apparently decided not to make a meal of it.
Ace, though he seemed unsure how to react to her puppy ways at first, ended up wrestling with her in the way he does with his favorite dogs, nipping at her legs, trying to put her entire head in his mouth, going after her little nub of a tail — all with his trademark gentleness.
She was Muhammad Ali to Ace’s Joe Frazier. In her back yard, a stone’s throw from the base of Mt. Jumbo, she ran circles around him, egging him on, jabbing, nipping and darting away. He kept plodding forward, swinging at her with his paws, mostly missing.
On our last morning in Missoula, they went at it again. After half an hour Ace grew tired and went back into his corner, taking one of her toys with him and flopping down in a backyard covered with frost. For 15 minutes, Nell looked on, running circles around him, then laying in front of him, bringing her snout right up to the toy, but making no effort to actually steal it. Ace laid there calmly with the purple toy – working to get to any remnants of peanut butter that might have been in it. When he finally got up, there was a big green spot, in his shape, where the frost had melted away under his body heat.
I sat on the edge of the deck – atop its layer of frost — as the dogs played, drinking more of Gwen’s coffee, plotting the next leg of the trip, and noticing how every place I put my mug down would leave a similar outline. I stood and checked to see if my own butt was melting the ice. It wasn’t.
Thumbing through my travel atlas, I contemplated our route west through Idaho and into Seattle, where another former colleague had offered up her home. I was hoping we’d get pointed south before winter hit, and I was feeling thankful for old friends offering us warm spots to stay.
When you think about it, the things that warm us make for a pretty short list – heating, fire, sweaters, coffee, lovers, tea, friends, laughter, hot chocolate, family, soup and dogs.
Dogs melt away our frosty exteriors. They knock down most of the walls we put up, and leave a lingering imprint on those we insist remain. They bring out that hidden, not totally jaded, not yet entirely cynical, part of you that’s often buried. They keep you tethered to reality, appreciative of the simple pleasures, and they manage to see beyond our bad decisions and bad moods. Somehow, they get us to see beyond them, too.
They make us realize every day is a glory day.
Breed: Chocolate Lab
Age: Pretty old
Encountered: On a sidewalk in downtown Missoula
Back story: Ace and I were walking around downtown when we saw a chocolate Labrador in front of us stopping to pee — well, not really stopping at all, which was the interesting part. Maybe the human had an urgent appointment, or maybe the dog had a weak bladder.
For almost a quarter of a block, he, or maybe it was a she, zig-zagged along the sidewalk, leaving a squiggly trail behind. By the time I got my camera out, the dog was around the corner, but his or her trail lingered, so I took a picture of it. It didn’t look like much until I turned it sideways.
I’m probably reading too much into it, but to me it looks like the dog was trying to spell “Missoula, Montana.”