‘I could kick you for givin' him all them ideas about Montana.
Now we're gonna suffer for the rest of our damn lives.’
Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
I steered down the remaining ruts of the refuge, from the montane to the mundane. Just before the elk antler arch exit, an SUV flew by, throwing gravel in every direction I tried to avoid it. I got my cowboy up again, and chased him to the Mercantile, ready for the ironic and the unexpected. Unleash the hounds.
“OK.” Said the bacon fat goatee and sunglasses and punched-in Stetson driver. “I’m sorry.” I wondered what had happened to all the real bad guys, but I had to let him go. We made a pit stop, to similarly courteous signage. Please do not throw trash in the toilets- it is extremely difficult to remove.
The wagon turned south, through small Mon-taw-na towns. There was Adlee, with 58 kinds of licorice, and Evaro’s Buck Snort Bar, and Skull Church, with an honest-to-God skull where the cross should have been. Rolls of hay, like gigantic wheels of cheese, spun by. Big sky. Thick steak. Full belly. We passed the promise of a Testicle Festival, and travel plazas to nowhere. Buckshot had gone ahead, through road signs that asked perfectly logical questions, if we had planned on staying. Do you have defensible space? Further along, there was a House for Sale. The nothing around it went forever.
“What are they thinking?” Asked Robyn, correctly. That would be there for a while.
We turned off the Missoula highway across a small wooden bridge, and followed a pretty winding stream east, into a Chinese rock garden, until we didn’t, turning off, and north, and up. The gravel became coarse and sparse and gone, and the two wide ruts merged into one narrow trough of potholes. And then some. And then some it got stupid.
The name of the road should have given it away. Secret Gulch.
“I wonder what the secret is.” said Robyn, lurching and swinging around the steering wheel in thirteen distinctive kinds of gait, including one that reaches nearly eight yards per stride.
“Stay out.” I said. “Would just about cover it.” We passed a wooden shack, abandoned to all appearances, and time. An old couple emerged onto the porch. I wasn’t sure they were waving, or waving us down.
“What do they do all day?” Robyn asked. But our preoccupation with survival would soon dwarf any more trivial musings. We climbed into a tapering constriction of precipitous switchbacks, up the pine-studded rock face of a mountain, with a view of the sun on the plains in the distance, and a black void on the edge of our starboard tires. The back left one kept trying to jump to its death. We had solved the mystery of Secret Gulch. The track held no more torment.
“Are you sure this is the way?” Asked Robyn. I told her I was sure.
“We need a sign.” She said. And we got one. Road closed. Cave Gulch detour 5 mi.
“You must be joking.” I said, to no one in particular.
“Let’s turn around.” Robyn said. “While we still can.” It was usually at this point in any of our off-road adventures, that I paused, analyzed the situation carefully, and came to a completely erroneous decision.
“Remember that mushroom-picking logging road you found on Mount Arrowsmith, that turned into the trail of tears?” She asked. I was reminded. We had almost gone off the cliff. But I had learned from that experience and, most of all, I learned that this was my chance for redemption.
“Let’s keep going.” I said. “It can’t be that far now.” And it wasn’t, if you were a crow. But we were a Toyota, and our powers of flight were more modest. The switchbacks got sharper and shorter. The lurching and swinging became bouncing. If you looked out the window and up, you could almost see God, exactly like if you looked out the window and down. We turned a corner, to a Florida license plate, and a bumper sticker. Honk if you love Jesus. We loved Jesus, until he got the hell out of our way.
“Well, honey.” I said, pulling out all the stops. “If he can make it, so can we.”
“He hasn’t made it yet.” She said. “And it’s not clear where either of us are going. We need a sign.” I pointed.
“That’s a broken tree trunk.” She said. But beyond the broken tree trunk was a clearing, and in the clearing was a patchwork of old wooden shacks, and next to the clearing of old wooden shacks, was a sign. Garnet. Elevation 6000 ft.
“This better be good.” Said my one true love. This better be good, I thought.
I had researched Garnet as ‘Montana’s best preserved and least visited ghost towns.’ So it came as a complete surprise, when we pulled into a parking lot full of vehicles that looked like they had just rolled off the factory lot. Not a scratch, not a speck of dust. SUVs, 4x4s, camper vans, and RVs. Whole Asian families were getting out of RVs.
“RVs?” Said Robyn. “How did RVs get up here?” It was a question that demanded an answer, and we set off to find one, and see the ghost town, of course. In our enthusiasm, we took a short cut down to the where most of the ghosts had lived, off the main trail. We were met by a ranger at the bottom.
“You need to stay on the path.” He said. I told him we had, fortunately, straight up the mountain, and asked him how whole Asian families were emerging from RVs in the parking lot, when they should be dead.
“You came up the south face?” He asked.
“Apparently.” I said. “Didn’t everybody.” He hesitated, in breaking the good news.
“Hell, no.” He said. “Wallace Creek Road comes from north of here, up near Missoula.” I glanced over at Robyn. It wasn’t pretty.
“So how do we get to Philipsburg from here?” She asked. He hesitated, in breaking the good news.
“Whew, Philipsburg.” He said. Not an auspicious beginning. “Wow. You’ll have to go north, then east, then south.”
“Big state, Montana.” I said.
“Tall too.” He said. “You’re over a mile high.” But that was something we already knew.
Our path of pilgrimage had taken us up, into the gold rush towards truth and redemption. Some archetypes of the authentic American West weren’t cowboys and Indians, but miners and mining communities. Ophir holes and gopher holes and loafer holes. Hidden at the edge of the high desert in the Front Range, on the sheltered forest dirt floor of First Chance Creek in Granite County, was a ghost town named for the ruby-coloured semi-precious stone first mined here, until the granite gave up its secret. The yellow metal in California and Colorado had been easily extracted by placer mining, washing it out of the sand and gravel with water, until it ran out. By 1870, the miners had migrated towards the Garnet Mountains, with their rockers and sluice boxes, but most of the gold would be stubborn and hiding, in quartz veins, beyond the extracting and smelting techniques that had not yet arrived on the poor roads, which had still not arrived. The silver mines began to draw the miners, until the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1893 shut them down, and the diggers trickled back to Garnet
In 1895, Dr. Armistead Mitchell set up a stamp mill to crush the granite, and Sam Ritchey hit a rich vein of gold, at his Nancy Hanks mine, just west of town. The boom was on.
By January 1898, a thousand people lived in Garnet. There were twenty mines, four stores, three livery stables, two barbershops, a union hall, a butcher shop, a candy shop, a doctor’s office, an assay office, and a school with 41 students. Four hotels had been opened with rooms ranging from one to three dollars. The poor miners who could not afford that price could sleep in the window-less attic for a quarter. Garnet was lubricated by the liquor that flowed freely, in it’s thirteen famous saloons, and the brisk business in its bawdy houses.
But there was no Official Community Plan. Garnet was a haphazard hamlet, built by miners and entrepreneurs more eager for the riches below the ground than above it. Buildings had been hastily erected without foundations, on existing or future mining claims. They were small and easy to heat, and flammable. Less than seven years later, it was all over. In 1912, fire destroyed half the buildings and, when WWII restricted the use of dynamite for domestic purposes, the ghosts had come to Garnet.
There were still scorch marks on some of the wooden buildings, but the surviving square-faced storefronts and boardwalks and cabins were well preserved and well kept. Robyn and I leaned on the bars of the saloons, and felt them lean back. A cracked record lay wounded on the old Victrola in a forlorn corner of one, missing a triangular arc of its music, a pizza slice of its past. The dull metal plates of gilded ghosts waited on the wooden tables in darkened dining rooms, for the no one that would ever sit in the wooden chairs, and the nothing that would ever come again, from the chipped enamel pots in the shadows.
We left past another sign on an actual road, heading north to go east, to go south.
Safety zone- no shooting. The ravages of Western pine beetle were rusting out the forests, all the way down to the purple sage.
“The winters don’t get cold enough to kill them.” Robyn said. We went by Camp Utmost, and pink rock outcroppings, slanting up on angles out of the ridge. Whatever ground level was, we were the only traffic, in the middle of, except for the river that ran through it, nowhere.
“Makes you wonder where everybody went.” I said.
The day was draining away to the west, and the race to get to Philipsburg before dark, had commenced. Helmville went by, and the empty Copper Queen Saloon. The hay bales shapes were long and flat, like the road before us. We turned onto Highway 271, too many numbers to have vehicles, a route of Black Angus and sage. Dead trees, chain-sawed to their trunks, were densely nailed with and antlers and animal skulls.
An open wedding wagon went by, decorated with pennants and garlands, pulled by two Clydesdales trimmed with blossoms. It was full of white cowboys hats and moustaches and suspenders, and dancing girls, with bows and pompoms in their hair, carrying bouquets of flowers and pink parasols. White hats waved in the air as Robyn and I drove by.
We were sprinting against the sun, almost setting now on our right. Three ATVs were parked hard up against the front of a house, as we blew through Maxville, at warp speed.
And then, as Philipsburg announced its proximity, a blackness pulled up like a wraith behind us, and the dusk became an explosion of cobalt and carmine and purple stroboscopic white lightning. We pulled off onto the shoulder and watched, helpless, as our Vaudeville plans, evaporated in the large shadow, slowing advancing towards Robyn’s window.