My third day in Butte, Montana started out innocently enough. I had moved camp on Friday from my Couchsurfing host’s place to a motel down on the flatlands because my host was going out of town that weekend. When I awoke on the morning of Saturday, April 16th, 2016, I decided that, seeing as it was my last full day in Butte, I should spend some time getting to know the city and people. Upon looking at Google Maps, I discovered that my motel was pretty far from the historic Uptown Butte and its museums, so I called Mining City Taxi—Butte’s equivalent for Uber in 2016—to get a ride.


When the driver picked me up, he asked what I was doing in Butte. I told him I had come to visit Montana Tech, and that it was my last day in the area so I was trying to learn about Butte’s history and people. The driver, to my surprise and immense delight, volunteered to give me a little tour. I said I’d love a tour, if it wasn’t too much trouble. He said it was no trouble at all, and proceeded to drive me around while talking about all the big-ticket items associated with Butte—Evel Knievel, the Speculator Mine Disaster, the Berkeley Pit, Our Lady of the Rockies, the copper mines—and stopping at the most accessible locations with any relation to said items. At the end of the tour, he dropped me, per my request, at the entrance to the Montana Tech campus. He waived the cost of our little joyride, stating that he didn’t think anybody should have to pay for a history lesson. I thanked him profusely, and that was that.



I had made the Tech campus my final destination so that I could visit the World Museum of Mining situated on its south-westernmost edge. Of course, the driver had offered to take me straight to its front door, but I’d told him that I wanted to take my time walking across campus—I could use the opportunity to see it through the eyes of a Tech student, which I was soon to be.


I barely got ten feet past the copper arch marking the entrance to campus when I realized it was pretty late in the day and that I should probably check the hours for the museum before trekking all the way over there. I wasn’t too worried about missing the museum, but I figured that if I were going to miss it, I might as well stay within the main class building cluster rather than walk nearly to the prairie beyond campus. So, I stopped just inside the copper arch and pulled out my phone to check the hours.


Before I could even finish typing “World Mining Museum,” I caught movement beyond the top of my phone screen and looked up. A young man, dressed sharply in slacks and a white button-up, was walking towards the nearest class building. He had his eyes on the sidewalk, face shielded under the bill of a Montana Tech Orediggers baseball cap, and he carried a large school pack. He looked like he worked at the school—a recruiter, or something, so I slid my phone back into my pocket and yelled, “Excuse me!”


The man stopped and looked up.


“Hi,” I said, taking a few steps towards him. “Do you work here?”


He took a few steps towards me, too. “No,” he said hesitantly, “but I might be able to help you—what are you looking for?”


“I was just curious if the World Mining Museum is open today,” I said.


He frowned off into the distance, then dropped his gaze to the ground in thought, taking a few more steps in my direction. I followed suit until we were standing a comfortable distance apart from each other. “Hmm,” he said. “I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.”


“I can just look it up,” I said, pulling my phone out of my pocket again, “I’m sorry, I could’ve just done that to begin with, I didn’t mean to bother you.”


“No, it’s all good,” he said, “I don’t have anything important going on right now.”


I finished typing “World Museum of Mining” into Google and hit search. As I waited for the results, I looked the man up and down over the top of my phone, pointedly eyeing his slacks. “You sure look like you’ve got something important going on.”


He looked down at his slacks and smiled. “Oh. I just came from an interview,” he explained.


“The museum is closed today,” I said definitively as my search results finally sprawled across the screen.


“I was gonna say,” the man said, “it kind of isn’t tourist season.”


I shrugged, putting my phone back into my pocket. “Oh well. It would’ve been fun, but I don’t really mind. I should probably focus on exploring campus anyways.”


“Are you a new student?” he asked.


“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, not yet—I just officially visited campus yesterday, and I go home tomorrow.”


“Where are you from?”


“California,” I said.


“Cali girl, huh?” he said with a smirk.


I laughed. “Yep.”


He hesitated, pushing a rock around on the sidewalk with the toe of his shoe for a second. Then he looked up. “Tell you what,” he said, “what are you up to right now?”


“Well, like I said, I was going to wander around campus, but I guess that’s not super important. Why?” I asked.


“You wanna hang out?” he blurted. Then, quickly, as if trying to save face or something, he added, “I can show you all around Butte; you been to Delmoe?”


“Sure,” I said, “I’d love to hang out. And, no, I haven’t been to Delmoe. Is that a bar?”


He laughed. “No, it’s a lake. It’s up there,” he said, pointing behind me.


I followed his finger to the East Ridge, where the Lady of the Rockies was perched, shrouded in mist. Then I turned back to him, one eyebrow raised. “Is that still Butte? Or is that…the mountains?”


“It’s only a fifteen minute drive,” he said. “I’ll drive us, if you’re comfortable with that.”


Despite the obvious risk that this could be a horror movie in the making, I said with unbridled enthusiasm, “Sure!”


We walked to the young man’s house, which was only a block or so from campus. On our walk, I found out that he was a Montana Tech student, a sophomore, in the Petroleum Engineering program. I did get his name, finally; we’ll call him Colter Hardman. He was about a year younger than I, and from all outward appearances, he was your stereotypical pretty boy, and a gentleman. His housemates, who I met upon our arrival at his place, were childish, gentlemanly pretty boys, too. There was this youthful innocence about all of them that put me at ease, and I felt safe.


Colter Hardman

Even when we climbed into Colter’s little beat-up sedan and I had to share my leg-space with about a hundred crushed beer cans, no red flag was raised. Colter apologized for the mess, scooping them by the armload and tossing them into the back seat where they clanked against other empty beer cans and half-shredded 12-pack boxes, and I laughed. Even when Colter cracked a fresh one and put it in the cupholder on the dash, I just shook my head in amusement. It was Montana, after all, the last state in the country to implement speed laws, and per the words of the taxi-driver tour-guide from earlier that day, even in 2016, the lawmen were lax about speeding, guns, and alcohol.


The drive to Delmoe Lake was definitely longer than fifteen minutes. Three beers in, however—we stopped at a gas station to grab a fresh 12-pack and some smokes—it did feel like a short drive, and based on all the cans in the back seat and the rate at which he was consuming fresh ones, I figured that most times that Colter did this drive, it felt to him like fifteen minutes. Colter pounded two beers for every one beer I forced down; thus, by the time we pulled into the little parking lot by the lake, I’d had only three beers and Colter had had six—seven, if you count the one he grabbed from his house and finished before we even bought the 12-pack.


At that time of year, there wasn’t much water in the lake. There weren’t many visitors, either—just a couple old fishermen and some dirt bikers. We basically had the whole place to ourselves. Due to the lack of water, Colter and I were able to traipse through the muddy lakebed to a large boulder near the waterline, which Colter scaled with a wobbly deftness that put my three-beer-tipsy scramble to shame. He had to haul me up to the top of the boulder by the arms like a child. We laughed about it, but I was already doing the Mountain Man thing—I was competing with Colter. I was peeved that I hadn’t managed to drink as many beers as he’d consumed during the drive. So, when he opened up a little Jansport backpack and produced the rest of the 12-pack, I grabbed one and hastily began to chug it.


We talked about nothing up there on that rock, watching the sun slip below the trees, totally enrapt by each other’s stories and mannerisms. We finished the 12-pack—I had four and Colter had eight—and I thought that was it and we’d need to return to Butte if we wanted to continue our little party, but Colter’s Jansport was like Mary Poppins’s magic purse: he pulled four more beers out of it, along with a small bong. He explained that he’d grabbed these from his house—“I didn’t just grab my car keys when we went inside,” he said with conspiratorial glee.


I managed to down only one of the four beers Colter pulled out of his magic backpack. He drank the other three, and then pulled out a baggie of nasty-looking brick weed. “You smoke?” he asked me, wagging it in my face as he reached for his bong.


I shrugged. “Sure.”


“You probably have better weed than this crap,” he said with a smirk as he loaded up the bowl.


I giggled. “Yeah, we’re kind of spoiled in Cali.”


“You lucky Cali girl, you,” he said teasingly. “We only have one source for weed in town—this dude named Casey. He goes to Tech, too; you’ll probably meet him. You’d like him, too—he’s a rock climber. But the only weed he can get is this stuff”—he shook the baggie—“and it’s fuckin’ nasty.”


“Should’ve met me sooner,” I said. “I smoked all of the stuff I brought with me already.”


Colter’s eyes went wide. “You brought some Cali weed with you?”


I nodded.


“Damn,” he said, shaking his head as he scooted the bong closer and pulled out a lighter, “and you didn’t save any for me.”


I threw my hands up. “How was I supposed to know I was going to meet you?” I said laughingly.


He wrapped his lips around the bong and lit the bowl, taking a long, gurgling rip before lifting the bowl out of the downstem. He nudged the bong towards me, holding in the smoky steam until he coughed, and a white cloud billowed out from between his lips.


I picked up the lighter and was about to light the bowl when it dawned on me that I couldn’t even remember the last time I hit a bong. That tiny sliver of reality gave me pause. Had I ever hit a bong? I thought about the five beers I’d had; bongs were supposed to deliver a high that was significantly more intense than a joint, right? I couldn’t remember. I didn’t want to get the spins—that would be beyond embarrassing.


“That weed won’t really get you high,” Colter said, as if reading my mind. “One rip is like smoking a spliff.”


That was all the encouragement I needed. I shrugged and put my lips over the mouthpiece, lighting the bowl as I did so.


Colter was right—it really didn’t make me too high, but one small hit was plenty. I needed to eat something, I realized. I hadn’t had food since breakfast.


“Should we head back soon?” I suggested. “I’m getting kind of hungry, and it’s getting kind of dark out here.”


Colter took a few more hits off the bong, and then we packed up his backpack. As we made our way back to the car, a jolt of adrenaline surged through my heart as it occurred to me then that Colter might be too fucked up to drive. I studied him as we walked; he didn’t seem to be stumbling much, and he was very animated, telling me some story about his sister or something. But he had pounded a total of eleven beers, I reasoned.


“Hey,” I interrupted as we reached the parking lot. “Are you good to drive?”


Colter didn’t bat an eye. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “Of course!”


But when we got on the potholed dirt road back to Butte, Colter couldn’t keep his eyes on the road. He was telling me stories about his life and he kept looking at me, taking his hands off the wheel to make wild gesticulations to embellish his tales. The car was going every which way, and every time he glanced ahead to see how far to one side of the road he’d veered, he’d overcorrect his steering and we’d bounce and jerk all over the place. I held on for dear life, and after we almost went off a cliff, I interrupted Colter’s enthusiastic storytelling to tell him to pull over.



“What’s wrong?” he asked as soon as the car came to a stop.


“I think I should drive,” I said, turning to face him from the passenger seat.


His eyes were wide and glassy, and he had that damned puppy-dog look in his eye, that innocent expression that had made me feel so safe just a few hours before. “How come?” he asked.


“You’re all over the road,” I said. “I think I’m a little less drunk than you are, so, if you don’t mind, I’d like to drive us back into town.”


He studied me for a moment, and then shrugged a shoulder. “Okay, fine,” he said, and opened his car door.


I did drive us back to Butte. But, despite suddenly having control over the vehicle to a much larger degree than my crazy companion, I was a nervous wreck. See, I didn’t mention this to Colter, but if you recall, I didn’t have my driver’s license yet. I still had my learner’s permit, and I didn’t even have it with me in Montana. I was definitely drunker than one should be while operating a moving vehicle, and I knew that if I got pulled over, I’d be in big trouble. Colter, on the other hand, just continued telling me stories, seemingly oblivious to my state of acute anxiety. In fact, he found half of an old 12-pack behind the passenger seat and was still gulping down beer all the way into town. He even offered me one, and I had to refuse, despite this ridiculous twinge of defeat that stirred in the depths of my mind. I can’t believe that, thinking about it now—even in the middle of breaking multiple laws and trying to get back to Butte in one piece, I was internally competing with Colter for the crown of badassery. That is unfathomable to me today.


When we got off the highway on the edge of Uptown Butte, Colter immediately set about directing us to a Mexican restaurant. I didn’t believe, until we got there, that it even existed—he was so drunk by then that he was starting to slur his words and he had his eyes closed, not to mention the fact that he was directing me through a residential zone, throughout which I hadn’t seen a single building intended for commercial use. But we did arrive, eventually, at a Mexican restaurant, and for Rocky Mountain Mexican food, it was pretty damn good. (That, or I was just too drunk and hungry to care.)


Colter drank two margaritas at the restaurant. I drank one, still trying to catch up. I knew I’d been teetering on the precipice of becoming so drunk that I was incapable of rational thought, and that one margarita pushed me over the edge. I do not remember how we got there, but somehow, we made it to my motel. I don’t know if I drove us or if Colter drove us, but his car was in the lot in the morning, so one of us had to have gotten behind the wheel. At some point that night, once we got back to the motel, I witnessed Colter selling weed to the guest in the room across the hall from mine. I remember thinking it was funny that the guy wouldn’t open up the door all the way throughout the transaction, and Colter had to both take the cash and hand him his weed through this sliver of an opening, through which neither Colter nor I could even see the guy’s face. I did discover why the guest was being so secretive the next morning, however—there were multiple cameras in the hall, and Colter had told me after the weed sale that it was highly illegal to possess marijuana in Montana. In any case, I think Colter and I used the weed money to buy more booze, because shortly thereafter, my memory of the rest of the night is kind of blank. I don’t think Colter and I hooked up, but when I awoke in the morning ten minutes before my flight out of Butte was due to take off, Colter was under the covers beside me, butt-naked, and snoring like a bandsaw. I was not butt-naked, however, which has left me puzzling over that night ever since.


I tried to wake Colter, but no matter how hard I slapped his face, he kept right on snoring. I raced around, packing my things quickly and haphazardly, and I tried multiple times to wake Colter up, but it was useless—he was out cold. This left me with no other option than to sheepishly tell the front desk that there was a man passed out in my room and I couldn’t wake him up. There were two staff members behind the desk that morning—a man and a woman—and after hearing my story, the man said, with a perfectly straight face, “Don’t worry, it’s not the first time this has happened. Do you know the guy’s name?”


I blinked, then quickly tried to swallow the surprise at the man’s nonchalant reaction. “Uh,” I said, “Colter Hardman?”


The two staff members exchanged a knowing glance.


“How did he get in here?” the woman hissed.


The man shrugged at her, then looked over her shoulder at me. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, “we know the guy, we’ll take care of it.”


As I stood outside the motel, sucking down a cigarette while waiting for Mining City Taxi to pick me up and bring me to the airport, I wondered what sort of fate I’d just brought upon Colter. I never found out, but he certainly made it out alive because he was able to send me a message on Facebook the next day, apologizing for how things played out and how much of a mess he was. “It was great meeting you,” he concluded, “and I can’t wait to have more adventures when you get here in the Fall!”

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After moving camp from my Couchsurfing host’s house to a motel down on the flatlands, my second day in Butte, Montana—Friday, April 15th, 2016—was all about visiting Montana Tech.


Montana Tech campus, looking out towards the flatlands

I showed up for my scheduled tour at 12:55 PM and checked in with Enrollment Services. Then, I met with an Enrollment Specialist, followed by a Scholarship/Financial Aid Specialist. I remember nothing from these two meetings, and only vaguely remember the subsequent campus tour, provided by a current student whose name escapes me, but starting around 3:00 PM, when I met with a faculty member from the Geological Engineering Department, my brain recorded everything in extreme detail.


At 3:00 I walked into the office of Professor Mariah McLaren. (That isn’t her real name, I made it up, but let’s keep it that way for privacy purposes.) Her office was small, but well-stocked: floor-to-ceiling bookcases lined the walls, the shelves bowing under the weight of ancient textbooks and reference volumes; plants, green and exploding from their pots, all but blotted out the only window on whose sill they were arranged; rocks and minerals adorned every surface, some eye-catchingly glimmery, but most plain, cylindrical hunks with glittering veins cutting through them (these were called core samples, as I’d come to learn). Behind a paper-piled desk, in an outdated, plastic, oversized elementary school chair, with her glasses slid all the way to the end of her nose as she squinted at a computer screen from underneath a mop of dark brown hair, sat the Professor. She turned when I walked in, and an infectious smile split across her face. “You must be Alexandra,” she said, standing up with her arm extended for a handshake. “I’m Professor McLaren, but you can just call me Mariah.”


Mariah cleared off a chair for me in the corner. We talked for over an hour—it was starting to get dark outside by the time I was leaving campus—and I learned that she went to graduate school at UC Berkeley. We talked about Berkeley and Oakland for the first fifteen minutes at least, and our conversation then shifted with ease into more pertinent topics, like what Geological Engineering is, why I wanted to study it, Mariah’s role in the Department, my research interests and how they aligned with hers, et cetera.


I really enjoyed talking to Mariah. She seemed to think I was a valuable asset for the Geological Engineering program—she offered to be my advisor, and also mentioned something called the Mitchell Scholarship, which she said I might qualify for. Later on, once I was back at the motel, I received an email from her saying:


Hi Alexandra,

It was great meeting you today!

Here’s the PowerPoint presentation in case you want to share it with your parents.

It’s only one person’s perspective (mine) of what geological engineering is, but it should give the flavor of what it’s all about.

Good luck deciding which school to go to—there are no wrong answers!

Mariah


Naturally, by the end of the night, I came to the decision that I would attend Montana Tech in the Fall of 2016. I felt desired by, useful to them, and it gave me this massive ego boost. Unfortunately, that ego boost would carry through to the next day, my final day in Butte, during which I would once again put myself into a sketchy situation.


Looking down Park Ave from Montana Tech campus

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When I got on the connecting flight from Salt Lake City to Butte on April 14th, 2016, it was as if I’d tried to get on a commuter bus but somehow accidentally wound up on the party bus. Everyone was drinking before we even got off the ground, and as soon as we were in the air, half the passengers got out of their seats and wandered along the aisle, stopping to cheers each other with whiskey shooters, chatting with everyone from the front to the back of the plane as they went. My seatmate—an enormous, soft-spoken, elderly cowboy—must’ve caught on to my wonderment at the camaraderie aboard and, with a touch of amusement, finally leaned over and said to me, “You aren’t from around here, are you?” When I asked him what he meant, he explained that strangers usually came to Butte by car or truck, and even then, were typically just passing through on their way to some grander destination, like Glacier National Park or Yellowstone. “But this time of year,” he said, “you don’t even see many of those folk. Strangers don’t fly into Butte unless they’ve got some family business, a work shindig, or a school to visit. You don’t look much like you’re going to a work shindig—” he gestured to my hoodie and sweatpants “—so, I’d imagine you’re either visiting family or visiting a school. Am I close?” He ended his little spiel with a tobacco-yellowed grin.


“Spot on,” I told the old cowboy. “I’m visiting Montana Tech.”


“Oh,” he said, eyebrows lifting enthusiastically. “Well, they have a great nursing program.”


I smiled, feigning interest. “Really?”


“Oh, yeah,” he gushed.


“Well, I’m not going for nursing,” I said quickly. “I got into the Geological Engineering program.”


After mumbling a surprise-riddled congratulations, the old man changed the subject entirely. He told me that there are—or, at least there were at the time—only three flights in and out of Butte per day: once early in the morning, once about midday, and once in the evening. All flights went only to Salt Lake City and were operated by Delta—SkyWest DBA Delta Connection—and all aircraft were some variation of a Bombardier CRJ; that is, they were small, seating between 50 and 100 passengers each. It was typical, according to the cowboy, to have the same pilot and the exact same plane bussing people between Butte and Salt Lake City all day long, sometimes all week long.


Being surrounded by such a friendly crowd gave me a good feeling about visiting Butte. The mantra from the Couchsurfing website—strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet—tinkled pleasantly, like crystal windchimes in a warm breeze, at the back of my mind. I was excited to meet these new friends. I became convinced that I was going to a good, safe place, and by the time we landed at the Bert Mooney Airport around 12:30 PM, I had found myself a nice pair of rose-colored glasses.



Butte’s airport is cozy. It has one landing strip, which doubles as a runway, one gate, one terminal, one baggage carousel, two TSA lanes, and one bathroom. As we all deplaned and made for the baggage claim, the passengers greeted the TSA agents warmly, slapping each other on the back in one-armed bro hugs. Most of the airport staff were standing around near the gate, waiting to say hello to their buddies. I got my bag and made for the exit, realizing as I stepped out into the chilly air that I had completely forgotten to set up a ride to my host’s house, but I didn’t even have to—my Couchsurfing host was already there, waiting to pick me up. She helped me load my stuff into her car and drove me to her place, explaining apologetically that she didn’t have long—she’d have to just drop me off and then get back to work. I thanked her over and over again, but she waved it off, saying it was no trouble at all. When we got to her house, she managed to help me bring my things inside, give me a quick tour and tell me where to find snacks before taking off. She wouldn’t be back until pretty late, she said, but she could take me somewhere to eat if I wanted to wait. Floored by her generosity, I agreed and told her I’d find something to do until she got back.


After my host left, I looked at the weather and learned that it was supposed to start snowing that afternoon. I dilly-dallied, unsure if I should even leave the house, especially considering that I only had my own two feet for transportation and hadn’t brought proper winter clothes, but finally made up my mind to go for a brief stroll around town. I hiked to the top of Big Butte to catch some views first, then wandered around part of the Montana Tech campus and meandered through a few alleys on the outskirts of Uptown Butte. When the first snowflakes began to fall, I hustled back to my host’s place.



I don’t remember where we went for dinner. All I remember is feeling extremely comfortable. I had barely been in Butte a full day and I was already falling in love with it, and that love was wholly derived from situation-based vibes and encounters that had, by pure chance, gone well. As fate would have it, this happy-go-lucky shroud would remain draped over all further experiences during that visit to Butte, prompting decisions that would allow my belief that I was immune to negative consequences to prevail.

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