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Getting Comfy in Butte, MT

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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