Berkeley Pit, Butte Montana. March 30, 2004

One of the drawbacks of being a Seattle band is that it’s a full three-day drive across the Northern plains to get to our first show in Minneapolis.  We try and take in the sights along the way and one of our favorite stops is the famous Berkeley Pit in Butte.  Butte, Mont. is an historic mining town built on what was once called the richest hill in the world.  They sent mine shafts down into the hill from all over to pull up the copper and silver and melidium and so forth until one day in the ‘50’s the mining company decided, “to hell with these mine shafts”, and dug a huge, open-pit mine right in the middle of town.

Big HoleThey mined it for 30 years or so and then when the price of ore dropped they just abandoned the hole, which was now a gigantic, really awesome hole.  The problem was that they also turned off the pumps that were keeping the groundwater from seeping into the hole and so very quickly the pit filled with water.  Unfortunately the years of mining had exposed all these terribly corrosive heavy metals so when the pit filled up with water it became the largest, most toxic chemical disaster area in the United States.  Hooray!

Of course no one wanted to take responsibility for the ecological disaster.  The original mining company was sold to a bigger company, which had sold some parts to somebody else and given all the executives big bonuses and laid off the miners and so on, so that when it came time to acknowledge that someone had really fucked-up here with the whole “turning off the pumps” business, well it was predictably nobody’s fault and anyway that guy doesn’t work here any more, etc.

Meanwhile the water keeps rising in the pit.  The story goes that the water is so toxic that when birds land on the lake they die.  At a certain point in the very near future the water will rise high enough that it will spill over into the groundwater of Butte, and then ultimately into the headwaters of the Clark Fork River, which is one of the tributaries of our own great Columbia River.  It may also flow down into Yellowstone and create a pack of mutant, killer wolves that can use telephones and the internet to find the Florida addresses of the retired executives of the Anaconda Mining Corp. and go lick their faces off.  The EPA is presently planning on pumping and treating the water.  Someday.  Soon.

Nerds!On our first day of driving we had one of those “three guys in a van” moments, where in the course of the conversation I found a way to make a Monty Python reference, like, “A tiger?  In Africa?”,  and then Michael said something about a “shrubbery”, or whatever, and then Eric mentioned a “waffer-thin mint”, etc., and we all did our Python bits and then Eric brought it all home by knocking on the dash and saying, “Landshark”, woo-hoo,  good times.  We’d only been on tour a few hours and we were already using up all this precious comedy material.

So… we all riffed on the landshark gag for about thirty seconds and then went back to staring out the window.  I got to thinking about those episodes of SNL and tried to recall if they had used the “Jaws” theme music to introduce the landshark.  My train of thought then meandered to the scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind where the spaceship is trying to communicate with the scientists at Devil’s Tower and it uses the “Jaws” theme music for just a second.  Ha Ha, that Spielberg.

Devil's TowerSo we’re driving along, quietly, and I absentmindedly whistle a few bars of the “Close Encounters” theme, whereupon Michael leans forward and asks, “are we going to go by Devil’s Tower?”

Well, none of us had ever been.  So we got out the map and realised that, although it was a couple hundred miles out of the way it really seemed like a good way to start the tour.  Plus, it would take us right by the Custer Battleground at Little Bighorn, so it was decided that we would detour down through Wyoming to visit Devil’s Tower.

We woke up early the next day in Southern Montana and went to Little Bighorn.  Having seen the battle reinacted a hundred times on the History Channel I was somewhat prepared for the look of things out on the prairie, and I knew the story pretty well.  In fact, I knew both stories; there’s the one that was popular for about a hundred years wherein Custer was a valiant hero who made a fatal miscaculation fighting the savage red man, and the version that’s more popular with the kids, wherein Custer was an arrogant bungler in service to a corrupt and genocidal regime who got his comeuppance on behalf of oppressed people everywhere.  Ho-hum.

GravesIn actual fact it’s pretty impressive to picture those 7th Cavalry guys pinned down on that grassy hilltop ridge, surrounded by angry Sioux provoked to their last wit.  The story gets told and retold as one of America’s founding myths, and with a little reflection I guess there’s good reason for it.  The army that won the battle ended up losing the war, and now the battlefield memorial is smack in the middle of exactly the kind of Reservation that the Sioux were resisting.  Bummer.  These days the Sioux would have to ride across I-90 to get from their camp to that hill, about a mile from the casino.

So we left there feeling predictably conflicted and drove across a couple hundred miles of Reservation land, characterized by the occasional squalid and litter-strewn communities situated in a vast and epic landscape, before arriving at the Devil’s Tower National Park, which is a really big honkin’ rock that left us all totally impressed.  See it for yourself the next time you’re in the Northeast corner of Wyoming.

After this it dawned on us to stop dicking around and get busy driving the 900 more miles to Minneapolis to meet the Pernice Brothers, so we put it in gear, ate a series of forgettable meals in roadside diners, gassed up the van at a succession of interchangeable, flood-lit islands, and slept a couple of nights in utterly barren, indistinguishable motel rooms.

Next installment:  We meet the Pernice Brothers!