August 7, 2006.
Idaho was one two-horse town after another. I stopped in Dubois to get gas and a cold beverage. The gas station shop was a grocery store, deli, souvenir shop, hardware store, and everything else rolled into one. I probably could have bought a refrigerator there. It was huge. And it was the only vendor for miles upon miles. Driving was tedious so I looked at my roadmap to see if I’d pass through anything worthwhile today. I noticed some unusual museums in Butte, Montana, so I set on visiting there.
The visitor’s center in Montana was staffed by useless teenagers who’d obviously have little insights to offer on the finer things in the town of Butte. I settled on grabbing a few pamphlets and maps before taking off to explore on my own.
I had an hour to kill before the next museum tour so I went into a small cafe for lunch. The service was abysmally slow but the people were friendly and the food was reasonable. And, I had no choice. So I sat there, sipping a delicious blueberry- pomegranate smoothie while waiting for my lunch.
After lunch I hightailed it to the tour company where I embarked on an underground history tour with 3 other folks and a guide. We were informed that years ago, Butte was a slammin’, prosperous party town rich on mining copper and other metals. Skyscrapers lined the streets, money flowed like water and people were always out and about. Today, there are remnants of the old times still visible to the average person but much of the town’s history is hidden underground. Today’s basements are located at yesterday’s street level, so many legitimate and illigitimate businesses are buried beneath modern sidewalks. Our first stop was a barber shop in the basement of one of the old buildings.
The tour company had restored the barber shop to its 1950’s look based on accounts from aging locals. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and had many anecdotes to share. During Prohibition, he said, barber shops were the place to go to get booze because the barbers could hide the bottles among the many bottles of shaving supplies they had on the counter. This barber shop had a hidden back room that doubled as a bar for certain, trusted customers. In fact, more men probably visited the shop for drinks than for a haircut. There was even a hidden escape door that led up to the street if someone’s wife came looking for him. Crazy.
Our next stop was the Butte City Jail. The old one, shut down in the 1970’s. This place is in the process of being restored; some of it is still inacessible to tour-goers. Our guide told stories of police brutality, the “interrogation room” with three foot walls and no windows, the incarceration of Evel Kneivel, and repeat offenders who’d scribbled their names on every wall they could find. The jail conditions were putrid and inhumane; it’s amazing that it was only closed down 30 years ago.
The final stop on the tour was in an old Speakeasy. This was a place for drinking, gambling, dancing, and other shady goings-on. The guide’s tales of life during Prohibition were vivid and interesting. There were secret passwords, one-way mirrors, hidden rooms, corrupt government officials, and much more. For someone who has no interest in history, this tour was really something. I was sad to be let out back to the modern day streets of Butte, which are far less vibrant and lively than they were in the 20’s.
I didn’t want to leave Montana, with its beautiful scenery and cute little towns, but all good things must come to an end. I passed through Idaho again and drove on to Washington. I felt I deserved a nice night somewhere so I settled into a hotel on the outskirts of Spokane where I could take a nice shower, surf the web, and watch cheesy TV. I stretched out on the comfy bed and enjoyed my last evening on the road. Reality is going to hit hard very soon.