I return, a bit desperately, to Thursday, July 11, the day we made our circuitous exit from Yellowstone National Park. In retrospect, the 90-mile route we followed out of America’s first national park falls into perfect harmony with the arc of our journey.
I had been going around in circles for almost a month. I had gotten lost in America.
Big, bad, beautiful America threatened to swallow this project whole and leave me holding nothing but my own self-loathing.
We’d gone national park crazy. In mid-June, we did Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave and Devil’s Tower in a four-day whirlwind. Now we were coming off a five-parks-in-six-days bender. Max was racking up junior ranger badges. We were awash in America’s ineffable beauty.
And I was going nowhere.
We took more than 1,500 miles to cover the 300-mile distance between Gillette, Wyo., and Yellowstone. I had little to show for our absurd, U-shaped fever dream.
As we hit West Yellowstone, I held a thread of hope. We were going to meet old friend Blind Charlie in Philipsburg. He is intimate with Philipsburg. He promised to hook me up with suitable interview prospects.
Blind Charlie has been there for me at every turn since I landed in Washington. I could only hope he’d save the day again.
As is our wayward wont, we made a wrong turn almost immediately upon leaving the park. Instead of veering west onto U.S. 287, we stayed on U.S. 191, which cost us a half-hour we didn’t have.
We passed through the heart of Gallatin National Forest and along the river of the same name. The falling sun suffused the winsome landscape with a rakish, yellow glory. Water tumbled in silvery-white whorls, carrying nature lovers along for the ride.
Fishermen tested flies, tossing them out in looping lines that caught the fading light and glittered in the shadows. The spirit of Norman Maclean was palpable.
In two hours we hooked up with Interstate 90 in Belgrade.
We were still two hours out of Philipsburg. The sun, which had fought decline for hours, disappeared beyond the horizon, leaving left behind a twilight sky of of gentle blues and steely grays.
The sky was indeed big. Nothing short of capacious. It looked as if it stretched from Hudson Bay to the Gulf Mexico.
It was bigger even than a marketing campaign.
For the first time it occurred to me that finding Charlie in a strange town in the middle of nowhere without the benefit of modern communication might not be easy. We hadn’t had cell service since Nebraska.
He said he’d be at the Philipsburg Brewing Co. What if the brewery was closed? How easy would finding it be in any case?
I had no idea.
Heedless to potential logistical quagmires, we pressed west. We stopped for gas in Butte, then exited the interstate for Montana 1 about 10 miles east of Anaconda. As we slowly passed through Marcus Daly’s careworn old town, I was distressed to learn we were still 28 miles from Philipsburg.
They say the drive on 1 from Anaconda to Philipsburg is a scenic wonder. That’s what they say.
What’s scenic in sunshine can turn foreboding in the cloak of darkness. At least for a weak-kneed traveler like me.
As the Behemoth pitched and labored along the twisting shoreline of Georgetown Lake, the Pintlar Mountains loomed above us with stony disregard. I glanced out the passenger window nervously. The unfathomable black giant spread its hem on the roadside. Its presence was unnerving.
We finally reached Philipsburg around 11:30. We came in through the back door, rattling downhill along Sansome past the Granite County Museum. If we hadn’t turned left at the Club Bar, we would’ve smashed into the brewery in a spectacular blizzard of glass.
Darkness enveloped the brewery and spread out into the nooks, recesses and storefronts along Philipsburg’s main street.
The Club Bar was closed, too. I crossed Sansome, walked a few storefronts west and entered the White Front bar.
Charlie sat at the bar and talked affably with Jasper, the White Front’s sarcastic, 30-something female bartender. He bought me a drink. He always buys the first drink.
A few minutes later, we walked out into the soothing balm of the warm night air. In Montana, it is legal to wander the streets with alcohol. It’s like New Orleans in which the gumbo-funk is replaced by rugged mountains and Wild West ethos.
Chuck’s Forester was parked up the hill on Sansome, pointing down toward the Club Bar. He was staying in a one-bedroom flat in the Victorian building occupied by Philipsburg Brewing Company. Like I said, he’s on intimate terms with P-Burg.
When we got there, I broke out the pint bottle of Yellowstone Bourbon I’d picked up a few hours ago. We toasted Philipsburg.
July 13, 10:15 a.m., Mountain Time, Philipsburg, Montana.
Philipsburg, it turns out, is an informal kind of town.
You might even describe it as intimate.
It’s the kind of town you can enter on the cusp of midnight and, without the benefit of coordination, immediately track down a friend who has come here from 600 miles in the opposite direction.
And so I sat in the courtyard outside the Daily Grind in Philipsburg, where 25 percent of the adult population are ball-scratcher pervs and fucking each other. At least that’s what Christina said.
We met Christina at the Club Bar and Grill, where she serves drinks and keeps the peace four nights a week. Chuck met her while we were still on I-90, and assured us we’d like her.
He was right.
She is straightforward and salty. Words spill from her mouth with refreshing insouciance. She is smart, contrary, acerbic.
Christina and her husband, Beau, have a 9-year-old daughter. He pilots a salmon boat in Alaska, though he’s taking this year off while they build their dream house in the hills above town.
They’re building their home out of straw bales and found objects. A bit of cord wood here and a granite boulder there. While this is going on, they’re living in a tent. Friends are advised to honk while coming up the mountain so as not to catch Christina bathing in an outdoor tub.
Last night, a fellow bartender from Anaconda walked into the nearly empty Club Bar, blood matted in her hair and streaked on her face. Christina debriefed her with the interrogatory elan of a Gitmo spook. She wanted to know if the woman was a victim of domestic violence. She searched for bruises, welts and wounds. In the end, she determined the blood was someone else’s.
That’s how they roll in P-Burg.
We spent the weekend in Philipsburg as if we’d be here a month and time was of no consequence. One of my many weaknesses.
On Friday, we drove out of town and toured the Old Montana prison at Deer Lodge. Charlie’s dad worked there as a screw for two years in the mid-1960s.
Turkey Pete was Deer Lodge’s most celebrated resident, but the old joint had more than its share of notoriety.
On Sunday morning, March 8, 1908, two inmates saw their bloody escape bid foiled, but not before they killed Deputy Warden Frank Robinson and put Warden Frank Conley in the hospital.
George Rock had killed a man in a bar fight. William Hayes was a horse thief and a good prison citizen. They attacked Robinson, a father of five, with a crude, homemade club called a “slungshot.” Hayes then slit his throat.
Rock was hanged to death three months later, but not before jerking in the air for 11 grisly minutes. Hayes suffered a similar fate the following April.
A half-century later, on April 16, 1959, violence rocked the old prison again. Jerry Myles, a brilliant psychopath who had organized a prison mutiny in Atlanta and done time at Alcatraz, was the ringleader. His teenage protege, Lee Smart, had bludgeoned a traveling salesmen to death with a pair of lineman’s pliers during a robbery. They were assisted by George Alton.
After Myles attacked Deputy Warden Ted Rothe with a meat cleaver, Smart killed him with a single rifle shot. They took Warden Floyd Powell hostage and seized control of the prison for 36 hours. The Montana National Guard ended the siege with the help of a bazooka and a machine gun.
For Myles and Smart, the riot ended in murder-suicide. Alton, who had retired to his cell during the siege, lived to die a free man.
On the lighter side of prison life, there’s Turkey Pete. New Jersey native Paul G. Eitner arrived here in 1918 after shooting a man to death in an unprovoked attack. Sentenced to life at Deer Lodge, Turkey Pete became a model prisoner.
Kicked in the head by a horse when he was younger, and given to heavy drinking, Turkey Pete was not always on intimate terms with reality. As the years at Deer Lodge unraveled, his mental state deteriorated. The administration humored him. They treated him like a celebrity and allowed the prison shop to print checks for him. Turkey Pete used his good fortune to “buy” the prison.
When we got to Bremerton, I asked Joe Stark, Charlie’s dad, about his time at Deer Lodge. Joe Stark, now 88, remembers Turkey Pete’s business operation well.
“I went in there one day and he comes up to me and he gives me a check,” he said. “I forget how much it was for, maybe a million dollars. This was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He says, ‘Mr. Stark, I want you to take this check, buy a bunch of planes and bomb the hell out of the Cubans.’
“He was pretty young when he went in there. He turned out to be a pretty good inmate, so they made him a trusty. Adjacent to the prison was a farm. It was a working farm. They had turkeys, they had cattle, they had everything up there. It was a self-supporting prison. Anyway he was in charge of the turkeys. One day he sold all the damn turkeys to somebody who come along the road. He sold them every turkey, for 25 cents apiece. So back to prison he went. That’s where he got the name Turkey Pete. He died in prison.
“The inmates adored that old boy. He was their idol. Like a little pet, is what he was.”
Closing time was nigh, so we left the prison and visited Charlie’s old house at 704 Main Street. Then we met Ed Scharf at the Broken Arrow.
Ed’s dad used to work at the Deer Lodge prison with Charlie’s dad. Ed followed his old man into the penal business. He worked for 30 years in the new prison. Later he taught school and tended bar.
At Deer Lodge, he managed the prison canteen.
“I decided right away I wasn’t going to judge them,” he said. “That part had already been done. I liked to hire murderers. They often committed a crime of passion. They were generally more trustworthy than dopers and thieves.”
We had dinner and a few beers. Charlie gave Ed a hug and we headed back to P-Burg.
We spent Friday and Saturday feeling out the place. Why rush into anything? We spent a lot of time in the brewery, almost as much in the Club Bar. We returned there on Sunday morning for coffee.
It’s not easy to escape scrutiny in P-burg.
If they don’t know your name, everyone seems to know what the hell you are up to. Especially if your name is Delbert Yardley. Delbert’s name is scrawled on the men’s room door at the Club Bar. As in “NO SMOKING IN BATHROOM. Delbert!”
Susan Graham had the Sunday morning shift at the Club. She had been on the other side Friday night, during the final stop of her daughter’s wedding eve party.
Susan Graham is old-town Philipsburg. Mining Philipsburg. Both her father, Merv Graham, and her stepfather, Paul Coble, worked underground in the hills surrounding town.
As testament, their photos adorn the plywood wall down the street at the White Front.
“There used to be seven bars here, all on this side of the street,” Susan said, “and six churches on the other.”
Philipsburg’s tavern keepers always had a slight but distinct edge on the soul preachers. Such is the tenor of life in a mining town.
Susan Graham grew up on the fringes of town yet she is firmly enmeshed in old Philipsburg. She has 21 cousins hereabouts.
She left for a while. Did some college. Saw the country.
But she was always coming back. This is home.
“I have no intention of going anywhere,” she said. “I had to come home when it was time to raise babies. I didn’t know there was a downtown Philipsburg until I was 8 or so.”
To my left sat Speed Kingery. What a name. What a face.
Speed Kingery logged 14 years in the Anaconda smelter. Today his eyes were narrow slits. His weathered face betrays a permanent sense of amusement.
I asked about Wild Meat. His real name is Davey Harris, but everyone calls him Wild Meat. He’s an old-time miner with old-time ways. People describe him as a recluse who should be approached with proper caution. He just happened to be having a few beers at the brewery last night, and I screwed up my courage and accosted him as he waited for the men’s room.
He was a little tipsy, so I had the edge. I said I’d like to talk to him about P-burg’s mining history. I asked if he’d been here all his life.
“Well,” he said with deliberate mischief, “Not yet.”
He seemed quite harmless. He said we were free to come around his place and see if he was about.
An irrepressible smile illuminated Susan’s face. She recalled one time she went camping in the company of Wild Meat and the local sheriff. Wild Meat showed off his marksmanship at the sheriff’s expense.
“Davey grabbed his hat, threw it in the air and shot it,” she said. “And when it hit the ground, he shot it three more times. The sheriff, he was running around trying to get his hat back, and Davey was just laughing. Every time he got close, he’d just shoot it again.”
So, I asked, is there anything dangerous about Wild Meat?
“He is a nice guy, but he can be ornery,” Susan said. “He doesn’t want anybody to move to this town. If you bring up subjects he doesn’t care about, he can be disagreeable.”
We resolved to visit Wild Meat at our earliest convenience. For now, we had other business. We were bound for Butte and the final day of the Montana Folk Festival.