Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Pit. A Road Story

We were driving through Montana. It is a beautiful state. Truly God's country if there ever was.
Our route was from Great Falls, in the north, to Butte, in the center of the state. The road cuts through some exquisite natural landscapes. There were sandstone cliffs dotted with snow and hardy trees. Jagged red rock cathedrals on each side of the car. It was beautiful enough to make me forget some of crap I had endured on the road. Isn't this one of the reasons I came out here? I thought to myself.
Damn you Jack Kerouac, for making traveling sound so romantic.
About an hour into this trip, I notice a sign in all this splendor: Scenic Overlook - 80 miles.
My god! All I could think was, this is pretty amazing right now. What could the scenic outlook be?

The other comic was a road warrior. A hack, really. A guy whose entire career consisted of making these trips all the time. When I asked him for some comedy advice, he didn't pause for a second and responded, "Always change your oil, turn your lights on during the day, and when you get close to town, slow down."

It had stopped being about the art for him for a long time now. It was just a paycheck and the little bit of glory he could get from whatever crowd showed up at the redneck bar or hotel we would be at.

A while later we saw another sign telling us the scenic outlook was getting closer.
"You might want to get your camera ready." he suggested.
He said it with a slight smile. Something was up. He must know what it looks like because he had done this run a hundred times before. But, I got my camera ready.
Finally there was the sign I had waited two and a half hours to see; scenic out look, turn here.
We were just outside of Butte, Montana. I had never been nor had ever heard anything about this town.
A little history might be in order so you understand the place better.

Butte was a huge copper mining town in the 1800's. Most of the pennies you have in your pocket were crafted out of copper that came from their mines. They were not so concerned with the environment back then. In fact, they basically had one huge strip mine. The hole, or the Berkeley Pit as it's known, is so large that it is one of the few man-made things that is visible from space. After they got as much out of the pit as they could, new science came along. With the miracle of chemicals, they could leech even more metals from the ground. When there was nothing left to pull out of the ground and all they had left was a giant wound in the surface of mother earth, the good people of the town made lemonade out of lemons. Let's take other peoples garbage and waste and since we got ourselves a big hole, we can throw it in there.
Makes sense.

You may or may not have heard of the EPA's Super Fund Program. It was set up to clean America's worst toxic disasters. Well, it was created specifically to deal with Butte's toxic waste dump. Right there in the heart of God's country is America's biggest toxic waste dump.
It is also the site of the scenic outlook.

I don't get it either. But when you think about it, it sort of makes sense. Every town has something. Right?
In San Francisco, we are blessed with an abundance of cultural and natural places and things to have pride in. We have the Golden Gate Bridge, the Gay Pride Parade. They have that pit.
But that's not how I am thinking in the moment. In the moment, I am pissed. We just drove two hours through some of the most majestic land I have ever seen in my life. All the way being promised a Scenic Outlook, which strikes me as extreme false advertising considering I am staring at a huge hole bleeding a hundred years worth of chemicals and garbage!

Before we can check into the hotel, we have to stop in at the local radio station and promote the show. It's really the headliner's job, but he lets me come with him. Mistake number one.
We get there and all I can talk about is that damn pit and the signs along the road that build a very unrealistic expectation of what's to come. I am convinced it is some kind of a practical joke.
Suddenly the phone lines start lighting up. Basically the callers say something to this effect: "Screw you, Mr. California. That's our thing and who are you to make fun of a place you've never really seen."

I want to tell you this about the town too. When you drive in from the other direction, you notice a huge statue of the Virgin Mary up at the top of a hill. The story is that a man's wife in town had cancer. He made a deal with God. If his wife was cured, he would put a statue of the Virgin Mary up on the hill. Well, she lived and he followed through on his promise.
Here's what you have to wonder: on the only major road leading into town, you want to draw people to your town's attraction. Do you go with toxic dump or giant statue of the Virgin Mary? The good people of Butte went with the dump. Call me crazy if you want, but maybe the man's wife would not have gotten cancer if they didn't live next to a toxic waste dump.

Finally a guy calls in and says,"Why don't you come on down to the Berkeley Pit, I will give you the tour and something from the gift shop."
The Gift Shop?
Oh. I have to see this.

When I get there, a good portion of the town is waiting to see me. I take the tour. Circling the entire pit are those binoculars you can put quarters in. There must be some sweet school field trips out there.
"Teacher! I just saw a bird land then burst into flames!"
Then we get to the gift shop.
What, are you going to get a t-shirt: I saw Butte, Montana, and all I got was this RASH!
It's a waste dump, people!

That night, the show was packed. Standing room only. People wanted to see the California asshole who was making fun of their Pride and Joy pit.

Whenever a comic is introduced at a show, you always get that polite welcome applause. Not this time. The host was also the radio personality. That didn't help me any. She said my name and... complete silence.
I was ready for yells of "you suck!", or aimless hillbilly shouts, but complete silence, that's unnerving.
I walked across the stage. In that second before I reached for the microphone, the biggest, meanest-looking redneck (in overalls, too) I had ever seen stands up and yells out as the spokesman for the entire town: "What did you get at the Pit?"
I took the mic out of the stand and very confidently replied, "Cancer."
That's when the riot started.

Have you ever been the focus for a whole town's hatred and rage?
People always say that love is strong. NO! Hate is much stronger.
I know that as I brought that town together, somewhere high up on a hill, a certain virgin was looking down on all of us.

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