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Acid Pits, River Surfers, and More: My Road Trip through Montana

I made my way west across the state of Montana over three days. It's a 10-hour, 700-mile drive along Interstate 90, and the route passes through the cities of Billings, Bozeman, Butte, and Missoula. After Billings, the landscape changes from North Dakota-flat to pine-covered mountains. It was picturesque, and I enjoyed getting a tour of the major areas. Though, I use "major" lightly because the populations of Montana's largest cities are quite small.

First, I spent a day in Billings, working from the public library and wandering around the downtown area. Billings is the largest city in Montana, the only one with a six-figure resident population (~120,000). The town reminded me a bit of Salt Lake City with fewer Mormon temples. It wasn't the most charming place I've ever been, so the only picture I have to offer is of these blooming bushes outside the library.

I stopped on my second day in Bozeman to see the city and get my haircut before the wedding I'm attending this weekend. It was an odd experience, getting a trim from "Big Sky Spence." He described my hair as "ethnic," which is new for me. Specifically, he hoped he did okay because he had, and I quote, "never worked with ethnic hair before." I was deeply confused until I later heard an acid pit tour guide (more below) say that Butte has an "ethnic population of Irish immigrants." Interesting...

Otherwise, I quite liked Bozeman. It reminded me of Boulder, Colorado, or maybe Chapel Street in New Haven. The brick buildings of the main downtown area were charming, and you really can't beat the views of the mountains in every direction. The city has roughly 50,000 residents, and it goes very quickly from commercial to residential on the small downtown strip. There is a great park next to the library called Lindley Park, and I loved walking among the massive conifers.

My third Montana stop was Butte, and what an interesting place it was. Butte currently has about 35,000 residents, but at its height in the 1920s, it was double that. Butte was a major mining town, and you can see the remnants of that from miles away. The Berkeley Pit was once the largest open-air mine in the United States, and it produced more than nine million metric tons of copper. It also produced zinc, lead, silver, gold, and a few other metals.

In 1982, the mine was closed due to increased costs and decreased copper demand, and the mining company turned off the massive pumps that were keeping groundwater out of the hole. The pit is 1,800 feet deep, and now 1,100 feet of that is filled with water. But it's not just water: the runoff from the pit means that these heavy metals have leached into the water. It has a pH of 2.5, which is about the acidity of vinegar, and it is the largest contaminated body of water in the U.S. It's a serious environmental hazard, and efforts to keep the water levels stable mean that companies (as ordered by the EPA) are pumping out SEVEN MILLION gallons of contaminated water DAILY, treating it, and dumping it into the nearby Silver Bow Creek. Wow. For only five dollars, you can walk up to the viewing platform and see this colorful, massive disaster firsthand.

My last stop in Montana was the city of Missoula. This is the second-largest city in the state and probably my favorite of the four I visited. I thought Bozeman was pretty charming, but you can't beat the outdoor opportunities of Missoula. The Clark Fork River bisects the city, and there's tons of green space on both sides. Plus, a little dip in the river makes it a great spot for surfers and body-boarders.

The drive from Missoula to St. Regis, Montana (just before the border to Idaho) was the best part of the drive. Interstate 90 winds through the hills and crisscrosses the Clark Fork River. I wish I had pictures, but, ya know, I was driving. Just trust me - it was very pretty!


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