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Butte - Ireland's Fifth Province

The route was starting to get more interesting. Where the Great Divide is concerned, the word interesting is simply a synonym for challenging. The small city of Butte would represent the last bit of civilisation until either Ashton in Idaho or Jackson in Wyoming. Ashton was a five or six day ride away but was off-route and Jackson was at least a week away. Riding in remote country is fun but it means that you need to carefully study the map to work out where you can get food and water. To travel for a week between supermarkets means that I would have a full load of rations. To have to cart 10 litres of water on top is a real drag so it is this which requires the most calculation. On the one-hand biking remotely is an inconvenience but on the other it's cool as you can look forward to plenty of enforced burgers and fries at random way-points along the route. While there may be no proper towns there are still plenty of fishermen and hunters in Montana giving rise to some bars and small restaurants in remote natural surroundings. Mind you, there are not a lot of them, just enough that they act as stepping-stones that one has to take giant leaps onto. In such scenarios you plan for having access to nothing so that if something is shut then you are not stuck. While being miles from a bike shop in case of trouble is a worry, the biggest concern for me is that I won't have enough treats to satisfy my sweet tooth. In the absence of a fridge I can not really carry more than raisins or apples as fruit, so I end up eating trash. Bars of chocolate melt and cakes crumble. Cookies work well but my current favourite is spooning marshmallows into a jar of nutella. YumEEE!

Butte is a very strange sight on arrival. It is at total odds with everything I have seen up to this point. As opposed to being downtown it is in fact uptown. The architecture is all bricks and stone unlike the timber saloon-type buildings that populate other Western towns. A fire burnt down the original uptown area and naturally they didn't want that to happen again. What is most striking is that uptown Butte sits like an island on a hill surrounded by mountains. Its rich mining history has scarred the land quite visibly, so much so that it's hard to fathom how man could happily ignore the environmental impact for so long. The mountain-sides that surround uptown are red raw from all the open-pit mining that took place. It very much looks like man has bled the mountain dry, quite a disturbing site. Of course, the town has the mercenary Irish to thank for it. Naturally, someone else would have been to thank/blame if we hadn't of gotten there first. Indeed, a certain Marcus Daly from Ballyjamesduff noticed that the red hill-sides were more abundant in copper than the silver and gold that was being mined. He eventually succeeded in getting financial backing to start mining for copper and with the advent of electricity Butte turned into a boom-town. The word was out that Daly had a preference for hiring Irish and so we heeded the call. In 1900, 12,000 of Buttes 47,000 residents were Irish. In 1908 there were 1,200 Sullivans in Butte. The Irish soon began to infiltrate all levels of local society, so much so that an Arab rug merchant changed his last-name in court to 'Murphy' for business reasons. The Anaconda Mining Company owned by Marcus Daly became the fourth richest company in the world at the height of World War one; copper was used in every single bullet. To this day the Irish and mining play a vital role in this small city. While mining operations are much more limited now due to the environmental impact, the fortunes of miners continue to play a role in how prosperous the city feels. The city also hosts one of the most popular Saint Patrick's Day celebrations in the country. People from all over travel to get their fix of 'craic agus ceol'. There is even a second more sober Ri-Ra festival each August where the emphasis is on the ceol rather than the craic.

The first introduction to the Irish connection came when I visited the Great Outdoorsman bike store. This store belongs to Levi Leipheimer's brother. Levi is the most successful American pro-cyclist of his generation behind Lance Armstrong. As soon as I said I was from Ireland he took me to a photo-collage with a lot of pictures of Levi from the Tour de France. In the middle of all these photos of Levi was a photo of Stephen Roche after collapsing at the top of La Plagne in the 1987 Tour de France, which he won. It was this moment that inspired thirteen year old Levi to dedicate his life to cycling and riding in the Tour de France.

Having visited the bike-store I made my way to Safeway to stock up on supplies. As I have a finite amount of space in my packs I make for an unusual site outside of supermarkets as I repack everything and discard of all the cumbersome packaging. One guy ventured up to me curious to know where I slept at night, when I told him in the woods he was just aghast. Not long after another man came up to me asking me how my journey was going, he too was a cyclist and soon I was tailing him and his daughter back to their house where they put me up for the night. The hospitality of some people is very touching. Not only does it get me out of the elements and a better night sleep but it gives me a much more informed view of the places I travel through. I spent the evening with Dan and his daughter Kalli in their beautiful home. It was Kalli's last night before she returned to Panama where she works with the Peace Corps. Having dropped her to the airport early the next morning Dan drove me around town so that I could complete my chores giving me a small tour of Butte at the same-time. It was a beautiful day, part of me wanted to stay as it looked like a very photogenic place but the other part of me felt the need to press on. It is hard to take a rest from the Great Divide when there is such a mountain of work still to be done.

I hope the form is mighty


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Reader Comments (1)

Mmm, Stephen Roche inspired Levi. That figures.

November 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJD
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