Monday, July 28, 2008
Butte to Marysville -Montana Day 4
Kathy has developed several 'internet' friendships over the past five years. Readers of her website that provide feedback and general information that occasionally check in on Legends Of America. She had told me of one specific reader in Montana a while back who said if we were ever there to look him up. As time drew closer for our trip, Kathy continued to communicate with him, and he actually invited us to stay in his mountain home near Marysville.
Being the joker that I am, I started teasing Kathy even before we left Kansas City. "So, you never met this guy right? And he has a home in the mountains, away from all other's, with no phone right? Does he have a dungeon as well..he he he?" I poured it on pretty good... in fact so well that by the time we drew closer to his home I started questioning things myself. What we knew was that he had internet, but no phone service. We knew he had to drive toward town to get calls, and that he was completely isolated somewhere in the Helena region. "So what happens if we get there and this guy is some kind of serial killer?" Kathy wasn't too phased by my rhetoric, and we pressed on Wednesday morning with her internet friend as our final destination (of the day that is).
We had made it to Butte the night before, and decided to spend a little time there before moving north on I-90 toward Deer Lodge. Butte was an interesting mining town and has some tragic history. It's open pit mine was the largest in the world when it closed in the early 1990's. During it's hey day around World War I, the copper mine employed about 14,000 miners, but later dwindled as ore production declined in the 1950's. It's also home to the worst hard rock mining disaster in US history. The Granite Mountain Mine Disaster in June of 1917 was a large fire 2,000 feet below the surface that sent flames, smoke and poisonous gas throughout the underground tunnels. Almost 170 men lost their lives, and today Butte has a monument overlooking the mining operation to honor them.
After Butte we move up I-90 and get off on Highway 1, the Pintler Scenic Route. Through Anacanda and up to Georgetown lake, this is another beautiful Montana drive. Once at the lake, turn right at the Ski Resort and just up the road a bit you run into Georgetown. This was on our list of ghost towns, but it isn't anymore. The resort area has taken over, and there are several homes there, but we didn't see any remnants of yesteryear. A short way's from Georgetown is Southern Cross, another mining ghost town. This one hasn't been taken over yet, however amidst the crumbling buildings of the 1800's were plenty of bull dozer's and workers clearing out places to build a new. It was one of those moments that you felt you may be one of the last people on earth to witness what Souther Cross was.
After Southern Cross it was back on Highway 1 with a stop in Phillipsburg. Another old mining town, however Phillipsburg still thrives today as a nice little tourist stop. Very cute downtown, almost like Virginia City, only more shopping than anything else. It's a good stop anyway, with a bit of history. Outside of Philipsburg about 5 miles, up a somewhat rough dirt mountain road, one lane most of the way, is Granite. This mountain top ghost town is very cool. Once a large thriving mining community back in the 1800's, several buildings remain, though many have been taken by the mountain side. You can take a 2 hour walking tour if your in shape to hike (we were there maybe 30 minutes and still got our fill of the history).
After Granite it was time to head back toward I-90 at Drummond, then down to Garrison where we cut off on Highway 12. We were supposed to meet Kathy's internet friend in Marysville, outside of Helena, at 4pm. Unfortunately as soon as we exited we hit road construction. 20 miles behind a follow me car that took an hour to get through. Quickly moving on to Helena, filling up with gas and a quick snak before hitting Birdseye Road past Fort Harrison on our way to the ghost town of Marysville.
Meet Albert, the Mountain Man of Montana....
The plan was in place. We had a good feeling about Albert through his emails. He was already generous with letting us stay in his cabin home, and had even planned on throwing some steaks on the grill that night for dinner. But one must be prepared, so we had already sent the exact location of his home via email to Kathy's daughter in Lawrence, and to my son back in Lenexa. Told them that if they didn't hear from us by Friday at noon to send out the search party. As we finally pulled into Marysville and found Albert sitting in his Jeep waiting, our paranoia was quickly alleviated. Let me describe my feelings about Albert in three words...Admiration, Envy and Awe.
Albert is a mountain man by choice. He had lived in California most of his life, with a career as a Sheriffs detective, artist and educator. He even got a few walk in roles in several movies, including City of Angels, along with his daughter. His acting stints started with her trying to get roles as a child and the casting director encouraging him to try out as well. He had the "detective/Sheriff" look down to a tee. With a clear vision of what he really wanted though, Albert spent years planning for his retirement. Then, when the time was right, he sold his home in California, bought an RV and spent two years traveling America searching for the perfect place. Somewhere completely off the grid. After the life of public service he had, I don't blame him.
It was by chance (payoff for a lot of hard work) that he found out about the home and land he has now. In fact, it almost didn't happen, as the real estate agent helping him couldn't find the place for several days. Both kept searching and had finally given up. Luckily though, the owners came back from the East Coast and guided them in. Getting to Albert's is an adventure in itself. Up from Marysville, then along the Continental Divide and back down just a bit into a small valley. As an 1863 mining claim, his home is completely surrounded by public lands. Not a neighbor in miles, completely isolated with nature.
Albert was easy on us, taking us in on the best roads possible, but definitely needed the SUV. When we arrived at his cabin, I was immediately overcome by the incredible beauty. A small spring behind his home provides all the water he needs. The mountain side behind the stream home to all the forest brings with it, including Mountain Lions, Elk, Bear and Deer. In front was just enough of the valley floor so you didn't feel claustrophobic, but not enough to give view to his home until your right on top of it. It's also enough to provide just the right wind's that allow him to generate electricity. That along with some hydro power. He's installing solar panels that follow the sun later this year.
Living in a place like this isn't something everyone could do. You have to plan, plan and plan some more. You also have to be in shape, as there is a lot of work that goes into living off the grid. He's fortunate in the fact he has satellite internet and can keep in touch with friends who check in on him daily. But you can tell that Albert will be just fine with or without that communication. After dinner that night he regaled stories of his past four years there, including the hard winters when he has to leave his Jeep closer to town and drive in for supplies using his Argo utility vehicle. He even had to buy tracks for it to get up and down the mountain, often times dealing with several feet of snow, finding himself stuck halfway home, having to walk back. Like I said, this isn't something everyone could do. But for Albert, it's a payoff for a the life he's led as a veteran and public servant.
He's not completely alone in the wilderness. Albert has Zach and Zoey, his dog and cat, that keep him company through those long winter weeks when he doesn't see anyone. At first I was completely envious of his life in the mountains, but after hearing some of the stories of the winters there, I can say for sure that I could come no where close to achieving what he has. I guess I'm still too plugged in and out of shape to consider moving that far off the grid. But for a moment there I was dreaming about it. I think for now I'll just have to dream through Albert's eyes.
Next blog: Ghost Towning in the Helena region with our new friend, and seeing first hand what happens when history isn't respected.