Friday, September 10, 2010

Bannack, Montana: Ghost Town

I don't want to remember waking up today every again. Cold. So very cold.

This was the first day Katherine got up before me. She, who loves warm blankets more than I – I usually despise them – was greeting the day while I complained and attempted to snuggle up and tie myself within the sleeping cocoon. But this was not to be. As is usual for us these days, we had far too much distance to cover, with not all that much time to do it in.

We broke down our tents, and left the campsite behind us.

I had hoped the skies would have cleared, and that we could re-drive the going to the sun road in Glacier National Park once more... but this was not to be. Montana was still a depressing state of grey. Rather than going back, we pressed forward, looking to explore the Many Glacier Area.

There were not many glaciers here – but there were some lovely mountains. It always strikes me how these photographic pull offs are always in areas lined with trees, blocking vision, while just down the road there are perfect places to snap away from – these, of course, with no place at all to safely pull to the side.

Much like yesterday, however, all was not lost. No. While there was no Grizzly bear (I'm not saying I'm upset by this) nor was there another goat, there was a moose.

A moose full of juice on the loose?

Sadly not. This moose was contenting itself by eating the plants beneath the surface of the lake.

A large crowd of people had gathered to watch the moose wade through the waters and go about his business feeding. We all worked on running our memory cards to full snapping away, and taking video of the animal. Sure it was darkish, and the light wasn't right – but it was a moose, and damned if that isn't an exciting thing to see.

Eventually a ranger came by and warned us all to stay back (this was advice I was already following.) He went on to explain how dangerous moose can be. They're unpredictable and can kill people with ease. A calf had been spotted near by the day before, and this would only make things more dangerous. For a while people listened to the sound advice. Until he left.

Then people got closer again.

By the time the ranger pulled up a second time, we were already driving off. Back out of the park, and into the vast state of Montana once more. Where we drove.

And drove.

And drove.

Until we reached the town of Choteau. Here we stopped in at John Henry's Family Dining. It was time for lunch. Time for a third pound of beef, served with a side of fries, at a very reasonable price. $6.50, and with no sales tax in Montana, that was all one needed to pay.

After winning a dime on the video poker machines there, it was as if I only had to pay $6.40! Ohh!

Now the burger? A little burned, but when dipped in the plentiful ranch sauce, all was forgiven. The fries on the other hand? I had never imagined such flavour as these. I don't know how they were made. I can only describe how I assume they were made. First – you take the most delicious waffle fries the town could get their hands on (which, I guess would be good being so close to Idaho and Washington.) Then you deep fry them. In butter. Not oil. Butter. That locks in the sweet butter flavour right in the cooking process. Next you dunk them in spices which is fifty percent powdered cheese. Then – piping hot, you serve.

These are the most disgusting – most delicious – fries I had ever had in my life. McDonald's be damned – one of these fries will clog your arteries worse than a Big Mac, and I had a whole plate of them in front of me. It was spectacular.

As we ate different people from town would walk in, find a place to eat, and then hop from table to table. This was the town where everyone knew everyone. The best way to describe the place is to say when Katherine asked if they had an ATM the reply was, “I think we got one back here – but don't ask me how to use it.”

It was a regular ATM. Nothing strange. Nothing different. But here in Choteau it was like an alien invention. Most of the banking in this town happens at the local branch, where everyone still lines up to deal with the teller behind the counter. There are no electronics here.

This is the type of town when the bill came reading 6.50 + 6.50 = 12.00 you don't just take advantage and skimp. No you bring it up:

“You charged to little.”
“Did I? Let me see the bill.”
“No I didn't.”
“...yes you did?”
“You charged us twelve. It should be thirteen.”
“Oh! I knew it was thirteen. I don't know why I wrote twelve.”

Uh huh – sure. Knew all along. But the point isn't the lack of Math skills. Few people like math, and we all make mistakes. The point is I, who sees every dollar as a potential value menu meal, could not simply walk away. There was a friendly atmosphere which permeated the whole place.

Now I don't know if I could ever live in a place like Choteau, but I can't say I don't wish a little bit of Choteau wouldn't rub off on my neighbourhood.

Once we left, as could be predicted, we spent hours more on the road. I tried to find some dinosaur museums, this being Montana and all, but one was closed, and the other? The one that would actually take you out to dig sites? That one required registration a few days in advance. No time. They did have a 10 day program that I may keep tabs on for later years, though.

After that, the only thing of interest this time being the billboard reading “Before Meth I had a daughter. Now I have a prostitute.” While this isn't the same painful ironic humour as the sign outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario which reads “Spousal Abuse is a Crime,” or the sign which read, “It's Never OK to Shake a Baby” - there was a little bit of WTFness in the fact that the sign seemed to imply that the father was now engaging in acts of deviancy with his daughter. And, that she was charging him. Meth – no good.

Anti-meth ads were lined up along the highway. One citizen painted a spot sign with the word METH in it on his barn, along with the words, “not even once,” on the other side. Clearly this is a problem here.

And then we reached the town of Bannack. This was the Ghost Town which I had managed to keep secret from Katherine, and when we pulled up she was overjoyed. Very excited. This was the thing she had wanted to see most – old abandoned building. A sliver of history, seemingly untouched. There was history here, life here, and also the touch of the ghosts which once made their way through the town.

Bannack is a one road town. It is a main street, and everything was situated along it. It was just how you would expect a town from an old western (or in my frame of reference, Back to the Future III) to look. It was like Pioneertown, in California, except even more like the movies. This town also had the benefit of being – real.

Part of a Montana State Park we paid our fifteen dollars entrance, for both of us. This fee also included space to set up our tent for the night. Not wanting to waste time getting the tent up, just yet, we headed into town. All but a small few of the buildings were unlocked, and open for exploration. Those which were not available for our wanderings were the ones used as storage, or for the preservation of artefact's. Out of thirty or forty major buildings, all but five were accessible. And the dozen more on the periphery? They didn't have anything close to a lock in the first place.

The story of Bannack is an interesting one. Founded in the 1880s, it was a gold mining town. But when the gold boom ended, not everyone left. In fact, it wasn't until one hundred years later that the last citizen finally moved out.

One hundred years of history laid within these homes, wallpaper now peeling, doors doing their best to stay shut – the warped floors helping hold strong against each and every offending push.

Inside the houses linoleum floors extend past rooms with nothing but dirt underfoot. A history can be read in the wallpaper, figuratively most often, but literally at times as well. Five layers of paper lie atop one another. Each covering offering a different floral pattern, not all that different to the passive observer. In some cases the layers strip away to reveal the original covering – newsprint. Stories of soldiers thought lost, now returned, can be read in bits and pieces of the history which seemed so unimportant at the time, and yet priceless now.

White graffiti now covers many walls, named scratched into the paint, there is an eerie feeling that some of these houses have not been permanently abandoned. Shelves, cabinets, and tables remain. The rooms are simply empty, seeking new ownership. These are houses lost to time, and – lost. The sense of occupancy strangely removed is what makes me want, quite badly, to visit Chernobyl. But here, in this small town USA, a similar feeling can be felt. Perhaps it is more eerie, as no sudden accident caused this town to empty. People just left – one after the other, after the other.

From the old Saloon, to the multi storey hotel, with room upon room, one wonders what life these places held. Where did the bandits meet with the bar girls? Where did law triumph over corruption – and where did the opposite occur?

In a town with but one street, the world must have seemed a very small place indeed. What is amazing is that it popped up at all, but even more so that it lasted for one hundred years, turning ghost just before my birth.

Katherine, all the while, snapped madly. This was, after all, one of the places she'd wanted to see most. Painfully, ironically, it is because of this that her camera stopped working.

“What's wrong with it?” she asked me. In a moment I could tell. Her memory card was full.

It would seem foolish for myself to assume an eight gig card could last the whole trip – but for her, she'd never needed anything else in her life. An truth be told, she did stretch it out to last for two months.

On the fly I had to delete some of her doubled up shots to free up room – and when we finally left this town, I'd rush into the nearby town of Dillon to help her grab another card, a 2 gig MircoSD with adapter – the only thing for sale in the town, found at a video rental shop that also dealt in cell phones. With this, she'd be able to shoot the city tomorrow morning.

Of Bannack, not much remains now, even though the sites still stand as proudly as they once did. Here there be only ghosts, ones with stories – and if I am not to know them, then I will simply make them up. The cemetery gives inspiration for all kinds of tales:

Michael Whitney Jacobs: Died in nineteen oh ought.
Born a rich man, died a poor man, loved the ladies a lot.
From the talk of the town, to never concerned, the people's feelings ranged.
But all who knew him will surely say that for him the Fortunes changed.

The days he would spend with a pan in the stream,
searching for gold in the black;
Through the nights he would scream, never needing to dream,
with the new girls on their back.

From riches to rags, he never did care,
though to all he seemed out of luck.
Dancers called him by name when he would strike fame;
Every penny from him they would suck.

From mansion on main, to a small little shack,
he lived happy on bachelors row.
For now, he'd not walk the long dusty street;
the saloon was but a stone's throw.

On the day he died, folks looked away, ashamed of the self-made poor,
Yet he never complained from the time of first pain, til the knocking at Death's door.

Six feat under he rots now, away from the world
his body devoured by ants.
Still, he'd never speak ill of his times on the hill
When he gave every new girl a chance.

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