Radiation Vibe

Friday morning somehow evaporated and I didn't end up straggling back onto the intersate until shortly before noon. I didn't have far to go, though - only about 30 miles. My plan was to spend most of the day exploring the radon health mines near the tiny towns of Basin and Boulder.

Radon gas, apart from causing hysteria in homeowners, is used therapeutically to treat autoimmune (especially arthritis) and endocrine ailments. According to what I was able to find on the web, there is archeological evidence that people have been congregating at places where radon gas is naturally emitted since prehistoric times. Germany, Austria and Russia currently have the largest number of operating spas, with insurance even covering part of the tab in some of the countries. The United States has only four of these sites and they are all located less than 10 miles apart on a gorgeous stretch of I-15 between Helena and Butte in Montana. I had read about them earlier this year when I was researching places I might visit on my road trip and became intrigued when I got to thinking about the concept. I decided a while back that the mines were a must on this summer's itinerary.

The first place I stopped to visit was the Sunshine Health Mine. Being a neophyte, I hadn't a clue what I was supposed to do or what the protocol was, and the owner of the Sunshine, Lisa, could not have been more welcoming, helpful or informative. She and her family live on the property and maintain a set of adorable 50s era cabins to house the visitors that make the pilgrimage, most of whom stay for an entire 10 day course of treatment (about 3 times a day, 1-2 hours a sitting). Lisa and her family were so welcoming that I instantly felt right at home.

Lisa advised me to limit my first visit to about an hour or an hour and a half, so I loaded up some items from the car to entertain me in case I couldn't scare up any good conversation and headed in the door. As soon as I entered the tunnel, I knew I was going to love it - the temperature was on the order of 64 degrees or so. The mine is accessed via a long winding tunnel (which was unsurprisingly the case at all three of the mines I visited) which also offers little alcoves for sitting along the length of the passage, each containing an assortment of plastic lawn chairs and oftentimes a large plastic table to hold all the games, puzzles, books and other diversionary materials that are littered about. All the mines I visited have at least one larger (well, not that large, really) community room where people tend to congregate and socialize. Since this was one of the things I found most intriguing about this subterranean society - that a place existed where people would actually sit and play games together and share stories - that was what I was eager to discover. Happily, I didn't have to wait a single moment to find what I was after. When I arrived in the community room at the Sunshine, there was a couple sitting at a table playing with fancy dominoes. We introduced ourselves all around (including Kiki the bulldog) while I found a small table nearby where I could spread out the assortment of craft items I had brought on the trip to make cards I could mail to unsuspecting friends. There I was, ultracontentedly scissoring and gluing and drawing in my little radon filled corner of the room, conversing as fast as I could go. I chatted easily with Sharon and Victor and very much enjoyed Sharon's tales of her favorite job as a high school librarian in a ultra poor all Black neighborhood in suburban Dallas. Victor had worked as a bus driver for 14 1/2 years and seemed to know how to run a tight ship, even though he wasn't quite as big a talker as Sharon. Eventually, Sharon got around to unspooling the tale of how she came to be in a wheel chair, sitting in a radon mine in the middle of Montana. She had been working at her home trimming a tree with a chainsaw when she slipped and fell 20 feet to a concrete driveway below (the still buzzing chain saw landed five feet from her head). As she was recounting the littany of woes that resulted (it brought to mind poor Hugh Glass - all that was missing were the maggots) she told me that at the moment she heard the fateful snap of the limb breaking from under her, she turned her head just in time to observe a large robin's nest on the limb she was perched on and remembered distinctly hearing it and seeing it rush past her head on the way down. When she landed on the concrete, the nest had fortuitously landed beneath her head, helping to mitigate the devestating blow. The doctor told her that that nest probably deserved more credit that anything else for saving her frail life. The fall snapped her back clean in two and gave her 64 other fractures to boot. She ended the story by saying it had taken her well over a year to even start feeling human again. I've heard that expression a million times, but for the first time ever I think I might just actually understand what it means.
My hour and a half flew by. I was so content and happy. Getting to do crafts while listening to stories of adventure and derring do is my idea of heaven. As I began packing up my stuff, I resolved to leave my mark there, at that happy place. One of the rites of radon health mine sitting is to leave a record of your visit. The graffitti takes all sorts of forms: painted rocks, souvenirs, drawings, on light cords, on rock walls, on chairs. I left mine right on the desk surface where I had been so happily working. Thank goodness I had my silver Sharpie with me! I bid Sharon, Victor and Kiki a fond farewell and exited the mine. My gracious hostess Lisa was waiting on me and showed me the cabins she had available in case I decided to stay overnight. If I had ended up spending the night in the area, Lisa's place would definitely have been the one I chose. A great setting with great hosts. I have a feeling I'll go back one day.
The next mine I visited was a little further down I-15 near the tiny outpost of Basin. Lisa had generously taken the time to describe each of the mines for me in great detail, so I felt pretty certain before I even pulled up that the Earth Angel would most likely be the source of a potent experience, and everything I saw while trying to figure out where to pay my entry fee endorsed that assesssment. The Earth Angel is owned by a fellow named John, a veteran who came back from his war paralyzed and unable to move without a wheelchair.

John hosts visitors to the Eath Angel in an RV park near the mine entrance and presides over the admittance logistics from a bed at the epicenter of a well lived in mobile home on the grounds. I entered the trailer on the advice of a woman who was either a renovator of cabins or an RV park guest or most likely both. "Just go on in," she said, "You don't need to knock or anything." When I finally mustered the courage to barge in, I was greeted by a friendly mutt who examined me much like the attendant at the gate of the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. As my eyes began to compensate for the dark, I saw that I was surrounded by mounds and stacks and piles of dishevelment and so gingerly picked my way through the maze, moving toward the sound of daytime television. John lay in bed and his daughter sat nearby in a Lazyboy rocker. I introduced myself and then proceeded to spend a good half hour, asking about the mine, why John bought it, what he wanted out of it for himself. John says he bought the mine because he wants to help people, provide something for them that'll ease their suffering. When I looked around me and thought how hard his life must be, it made me instantly humble. Here's someone that needs help sitting up in bed and he's taking it on every day to ease other people's suffering. John and his daughter both regaled me with tales of miracle cures in the mines, citing the stack of discarded wheelchairs at the entrance as evidence of their curative powers. Everyone I talked to at the mines knew of someone that had had a miracle recovery. I loved hearing the stories.

After passing now famous herd of abandoned wheelchairs by the door, I entered the mine and started down the tunnel back toward the seating areas. It was of course dark and surreal anyway, but this tunnel had an even lower ceiling than the other, giving it a distinctly hobbitish feel. To my great delight, as I looked ahead into the darkness, a very tall Amish man materialized from the shadows, walking toward me, getting bigger and bigger all the time, hunching over with all his might in order to walk along without bumping his archaically chapeaued head. His hat was tall with a wide brim and he sported a long, long gray beard and spectacles. He disappeared as quickly and quietly as he appeared and I was left feeling that I had just watched a brilliant short film at an art cinema festival.

The Earth Angel mine is the shape of an F with the top doohickey fallen off. At the bottom of the F is a trough shaped dead end that forms the foot soaking pool and water spigot. At the end of the crossbar on the F is a little chamber with a number of tables and chairs, and as I walked up, a group of two Amish ladies and a gentlemen were just saying their goodbyes to a couple that sat side by side at two of the tables with their books spread out in front of them.

As before, as soon as introductions had been made, I fell instantly to conversing and by the time Orchid and Rudy left at the end of their treatment, I felt sad that our encounter was concluding. They were so wonderful - I just loved chatting with them. They had both recently retired, so we had some great conversation about what that was like. Orchid and Rudy live in Vancouver and were also on a nice long road trip themselves. They waid they figured they'd come by Montana and do the whole treatment package just for fun. Orchid had a giant water bottle that she had filled from the spigot and was busy drinking it down while we chatted. I walked Rudy and Orchid to their van so I could give them some flash paper fortune cookies. When I exited the mine, there sat the Amish gentleman, quietly what looked to be a bible while seated on a folding chair. He still elected not to utter a single word, but at least now I knew he wasn't a figment of my imagination.

I returned to my table at the mine to finish up the card I had been working on, but it just wasn't the same without Rudy and Orchid. It wasn't long before I decided to pack up and move along, turning the lights out behind me since I was the only one there and that was the clearly stated protocol. It felt sad to turn off the lights.

The third and final mine I visited was just on the other side of the interstate from Earth Angel and is probably the best known of the lot: the Merry Widow. A fellow named Jim runs the Merry Widow, and he came down into the mine for a treatment shortly after I arrived. Orchid and Rudy had told me to expect a bigger crowd at the Merry Widow and when I entered the mine and found six other (and evenutally 8!) folks happily chatting away - it bordered on feeling crowded! Not long after I had picked a seat so I could scout out the situation, four of the other guests decided they'd partake of the foot soak. I figured this was an opportune time to give it a try myself. I peeled off my socks and shoes while the other dippers grinned silently in anticipation of my reaction. I had been warned that it was cold, so I braced myself. OH MY GOSH! That water was so cold and it hurt so badly! it must have been 32.1 degrees. I couldn't keep my feet in for more than a minute at a time and it tickled the others that I had so little stamina for it. "Put some cold water on the crown of your head!" one fellow suggested helpfully. It wasn't long before I gave up - it was clear I wasn't cut out for this sport.

I retreated to a large table where Jim sat reading his book and began spreading out my craft supplies so I could make my third and final card. Jim followed my hands with interest while pretending to pay steady attention to his book. Finally, he couldn't stand it anymore and asked, "What on earth are you doing there?" I showed him the other two cards I'd made that afternoon and explained that I was cutting out bits and pieces of paper I had accumulated on my trip and gluing them to a blank greeting card. He was quiet for a moment and then offered this conversational gem: "You know, that's what they have the people up at the institution do to keep them busy." It took all the concentration I could muster not to bust out laughing. He was just so earnest in his appraisal that I didn't want to guffaw. I finished my card after the nice nurse brought me some round tip scissors, and packed up my things to head out. I walked back toward the entrance slowly, savoring the particularly good graffiti in this mine. A number of people had painted rocks with their names and lodged them in little niches along the mine walls. I was impressed by the number of instances I saw where an entire family was listed which was then followed by a listing of multiple years with room to add more. This is apparently a family destination.

As well as a pet destination! As I walked toward the exit of the Merry Widow, I went by a room that Orchid and Rudy had told me about - the Doggie Den. As I passed, my color alarm went off and I actually stopped dead in my tracks and turned around. What I found when I went back was a little room off the main hall that was designated as the pet area. The room also had a large rock tub lit dramatically by red heat lamps and complete with a spigot high on the wall for showering, all of which formed a mighty colorful backdrop for the couple sitting tete a tete on the seats outside the tub. As soon as I began speaking with the pair, an enormous Doberman Pinscher stood up from beneath a blanket where he had been quietly and invisibly tucked away while his master and mistress played cards on a black cushion suspended on their knees.

Sandy and Bob were there for their annual visit and showed me various rocks embedded or marked in the walls of the room where Sandy's mom (who went to the mines for over 30 years!), Sandy and Bob and even their dog Rock listed the years they had made the trip. Once again, I got to sit down and converse with total strangers and have the privilege of getting who they are. Sandy and Bob are from Napa and were as nice as the could possibly be. I really enjoyed visiting with them.

When I got back in the car, I was done. I had enjoyed such a phenomenally rich day, full of the most delicious characters and stories, there wasn't room or desire for a single bit more. I was in love with each and every person I had encountered this day, even the silent Amish man of my poetic vision. I guided the car onto the interstate and began driving towards Billings. The scenery was beautiful (although pine beetles were busy devestating a large part of the forest west of Basin) and I felt deeply at peace, running through all the delights of the day in my head as I drove along. The sun began to set as I approached Bozeman, and as if in recognition of the glowing nature of the day, it pulsed with color and majesty.

I finally laid my head to rest in Hardin, Montana after a midnight avocado and some cold green grapes. My life is so amazing.

No comments: