A Moment In Montana’s Colorful History –
This weekend we celebrated 150 years since gold was discovered in Alder Gulch in SW Montana. It was 1863, and within weeks of the discovery Alder Gulch was crawling with miners. A town, Virginia City, sprang up at the bottom of the gulch, long before Montana would become a state. At one point, 10,000 or more lived in the area. There are many fine books which give the colorful details of that magical time in these hills.
Somehow, long after the miners left and the excitement died, the town of Virginia City survived and *barely* escaped becoming a ghost town. Helena became the state Capitol in 1875 and the energy and greed that drove Virginia City in the early years was on the wane… but for the dredging of the Alder Creek bed on a 12-mile stretch west northwest of Virginia City. The courthouse in Virginia City was built in 1876 and became the county seat, sheriff’s department and jail for Madison County. Probably the facts that 1. V.C. became the Madison County seat, and 2. there were those who believed all the gold had never been found – were probably the two main elements of survival for this little “overnight success” which appeared to have run out of reasons to exist. Well, that and a small and probably crazed group of miscreants who had grown to love the place and had no intention of leaving it.
Yes, a little blurry… like me.
Tonight I have just poured myself a double Jameson’s… no rocks, no nothin’. It sits in a great little glass that B bought me over the weekend, a double shot glass on which is written, “Virginia City, MT. 150th. 1863-2013” For one thing, the double-shot glass is so appropriate… this was, and continues to be, a hard-drinking little town. A good friend of mine calls it “a drinking town with a tourist problem.” This drink tastes great, and memories of my life here are flooding back. We all know the feeling of home… when you’re home you know it, and it’s really home, regardless… no matter what… it’s home. That’s what this place is for me. The people have changed over the years, hell, I’ve changed, but V.C. is still home… more than ever.
It’s chilly and damp out tonight, but the wind died down after sunset and the hills are still. My only desire right now is to finish this double shot before midnight, to honor the little village that has guided my life from end to end. Think about it… if you have lived in the same place for any time at all, it begins to shape you, get inside your skin, and sometimes begins to define you. If that happens, I think it’s okay, as long as you respect your home, as long as your home holds integrity for you.
Virginia City, June 1, 2013
I grew up here, had the childhood of dreams here. It, and the people here nurtured me, showed me life in so many facets, and kicked me out into the larger world to make my way in a manner that Virginia City could not support. Even though I lived and enjoyed my career back east for 38 years, this town, this place, these hills and the community that helped raise me never left my mind, or my heart. In fact, it was my inner strength when life was difficult, when I was challenged beyond what i thought i could overcome. It was always there, my springboard, my roots, for I had become a part of it, and in that process its toughness and resilience bolstered me and gave me a courage I didn’t think I had.
I have to finish this glass… it’s 11:55 p.m. and I have to finish it before this holiday is over. Is it that important?? Hell yes! Excuse me just a second…
Aahhh. It’s now after midnight, and I have honored and saluted my home town. And it felt good. i think I’ll have another.
There. Now… see, when I was growing up here, it was the town and the people. Even during my grade school years, V.C. was what V.C. was 90 years previous… a town of miners and merchants. And those two were still strangely balanced. The miners were still eking out enough gold to make some money and buy their weekly goods. The merchants were making a modest living on the money the miners spent in town. Wild, huh? As kids, we thought that all small towns were like ours, that all little old ladies would let kids pick apples off their trees, would give kids cookies and candy. We thought that all small-town kids got to sled down their steepest hills deep into the night without ever worrying about a car coming up your street. Yup, we grew up thinking all small towns were like that. On the weekends, the miners and the merchants sat down in the bars together and laughed, danced and told stories. Honest to god, it was that good, that simple.
I retired and came home about 8 years ago. V.C. & I have both changed, of course. Now V.C. is not (for me, anyway) so much the people and community as it is the hills and creeks around it. Sure, the same kind of crazies, rogues, roughnecks and (I better be careful here… ;^) “fringe riders” are still attracted to this place, and still live here. Difference is, back then I was a little kid, and thought I owned the joint. Now I’m an old guy and the community is basically much younger, and different. It’s not really my town anymore. Well sure, it is… but it isn’t. What is mine now are the hills, valleys and streams I wandered as a kid… ponds and rivers I fished with my dad, rocky bluffs I climbed with Ricky Gohn, heavy-timbered camp sites we knew as boy scouts which later became adventurous escapes “into the wild.”
B and I went downtown tonight. We listened to the music and watched the young people. It’s their town now, I get that. But it’s a little weird, you know… because they don’t know it, feel it or care for it as we do. It’s a deep and abiding part of us. We understand it and its history, and we love it for what it was… and still is. Maybe the younger ones are trying to create their own history here, while we’re content to simply appreciate the history which has already been, and continues to hang heavy in the chilly May air this evening.
That first celebratory drink finally hit bottom. Am relaxed, grateful, ready for bed. Yes, i’ve tried to romanticize my hometown tonight… I know. One shouldn’t even have to try, actually… this little town is an incredible place, which has been and continues to be, a magnet for many incredible people. It was certainly good enough to draw my folks in. It has been, for me, a fantastic springboard to the outside world, and an equally fantastic landing place after the flight.
Aaahhhhhh. Thank you, Virginia City. Thank you for being my home town. Thank you for molding me into a person I would have otherwise never become. Thank you for luring my parents into loving you, seeing the potential for their lives in you, and moving here to live for 31 years and raising me here. For the wild times, the wonderfully fun times, thank you. For the friendships of the crazy people who were lured here like we were, thank you. For your enduring spirit of harsh survival, and for your teachings of nature’s incredible beauty and brutality… thank you. Thank you for always being in my heart when I was so far away from you. Thank you for being a most beautiful and unique place to share with my friends and loved ones now. Thank you, Virginia City, for being my home.