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‘Live Action’ For Montana Ghost Town – Wi-Fi & Wildmen

September 22nd, 2013 · Tags:Cities · Wi-Fi


  Seldom do I expect “The Dirty Gig” to be glamorous. I mean … especially comparing it to the travel blog content that has pinged Major League press boxes, film festivals, bowl games, TV shoots, international flights, NFL games, skyscrapers and fancy places around the world. Typically, the disaster recovery portion of my travel means wading/crawling in nasty funk.


But, when I heard my assignment to help return order to the once lawless streets of a ghost town, I was optimistic. The Dirty Gig took me to Bannack State Park, near Dillon, Montana, the first territorial capitol of Montana … once a wild, wild gold rush boomtown — a town so wild they lynched the sheriff. This living history lesson was hit by a flash flood that came whipping and spurring down the mountains, affecting almost all of the 60 historical structures – jails, hotels, a drugstore, blacksmith shops, barns, etc. The historic Assay Office, or about half of it, was ripped apart and floated across town. The most amazing thing? The powerful water flooded the park just a few days before the scheduled Bannack Days — a yearly event that would have put several thousand people on the street, in harms way. That was a close one.


From The Bannack Association Facebook page … a blurb on the history: “On August 19, 1863, Peter Horan was convicted of premeditated murder for killing his mining partner at Bannack and was sentenced to death. That afternoon he was taken to the gallows that Sheriff Henry Plummer had hastily constructed and hanged. Ironically, less than five months later Sheriff Plummer would also be hanged from his own gallows.”

Bannack Days


Bannock and nearby Dillon are nestled among the hundreds of mountain tops of the high desert. Many of the mountains have pine trees, but few are completed covered in green. Along with Lewis and Clark trail markers, there is sagebrush everywhere, and there are few things better than grabbing a handful of the bush and holding it up to your face to enjoy the flowery/spicy/herby scent. The temperatures here are totally bi-polar … 30s in the mornings … 80s and 90s in the afternoon … for now.


They call this Big Sky and no truer words ever were spoken. The beauty is beyond my ability to describe … but I gotta take a shot. Imagine hundreds and hundreds of mountains on either side of you as you drive. One mountain has a puffy, billowy cloud just above it, as if they are connected to each other. The next peak has nothing but bright sunlight on it, shining down through a slight cloudy blue haze, as if it has its own spotlight … then imagine those two descriptions … all around you … alternating … one mountain shaded in purple and resting under a pillow of clouds … the next under a pinkish-orange spotlight … over and over … And each day, the scene is more magnificent than the previous.

Hotel Meade

For the first few weeks of restoration, Bannack was a Dirty Gig to the letter. With a crew of laborers, we “bucket brigaded” tons of muddy, wet sludge from dirt-wall basements, never knowing what we would find — a rustic relic of pioneer days under the loam or a coiled rattler in the nearby sagebrush where we redeposited the mud.   Luckily, I never saw a snake on this job, although a few were spotted … (seen that is, not marked). I was amused, but appreciated the concern for the natural habitat and its inhabitants at the park.  (Actually, it is very rare to see a snake in the park, but the flood displaced some.) If we saw a snake, we were to get on the walkie-talkie and call in support … a snake wrangler with a pole and a loop was our backup. The wrangler relocated a couple of rattlesnakes on this job. Ha … I have relocated some rattlesnakes too in my time … but typically a piece at a time. I digress …


So, a few weeks after we removed the mud, and continued cleaning, Bannack was starting to look like a proper ghost town again. On the mornings when I was the first to arrive on site, I would walk down the wooden boardwalks on either side of the only street, listen to the sound of my boots, thinking it must have sounded just like that in the 1860s. How I wished I had a pair of spurs to add a little jingle to my Pingel. The town is a very scenic, surreal setting … perfect for a movie set, I would think. On more than one occasion, I spurred on my workers by being silly and playing the theme from “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” on my iPhone. (Who don’t luv some vintage Hugo Montenegro?)


Perfect for a western, you say? Well … apparently so, because a few weeks into the job, there were whispers and rumors up and down the street that a Hollywood celebrity would be visiting to get a feel for the place. That morning, one of my absolute favorites, Tommy Lee Jones rode into town … although he was in an SUV and wearing lace-up hiking boots. Unfortunately he was all business, and none of us got to approach him with our best “I hate rude behavior in a man” from Lonesome Dove … or “more sugar water!” as Edgar the bug from Men In Black … not even an “I don’t care …” from The Fugitive. He was all business, so we were as well. Ha … I asked my crew to just keep working as the star strolled through and they did. But, I may have exaggerated a little to encourage one worker. I told him that as Tommy Lee walked by the hole he was digging, that the actor “winked at me, pointed at the sweaty laborer, and gave me a thumbs up” regarding his work. Ha … after I told him that, Mikey was smiling for days.

School, Beneath Masonic Lodge

You didn’t hear it from me, but look for Mr. Jones to shoot a remake of a western classic in the near future, that may or may not have a Bannack connection. His visit almost made up for the fact that The Lone Ranger left town, over in Dillon, so quickly. I was so wanting to tweet I had seen TLR at the Big Sky Cinema in Dillon …   Thank goodness for all of the laborers on the job! I met some of the hardest working guys on the planet … and funny guys too. My new friend Larry can swing a pick like no one you have ever seen, while bellowing his favorite Christian hymns, alternating with his signature, comical catch phrase, “Get SU-UUUUUM!” Ha in nearby Dillon, I would see Larry in the hotel parking lot, roll my window down as I drove by and give him my best “Get some!” from across the street. This puzzled the tourists …

Aaron, Larry “Get Some!’

There was a local guy named Tracy on my crew who pretty much knew every one of the structures inside and out, which really helped. I think one of his relatives had lived at Bannack back when it was a real town, up until the 1970s … he even married his bride in the old Methodist Church of the ghost town … kind of cool.   Too many great workers to mention all the details — Aaron the “Hi-Ho man” as in “off to work we go” … just a mighty man with a shovel and the best work ethic ever … Rainier, Don, “Red On The Head,” “The Professor” … “Breaking Bad” or “Double B” … lots more. Ha … “we laughed long time” when one worker asked what mountain lions eat, and the group answered in unison, “You!”


And there were more spotlights on Bannack, during the Dirty Gig. Early in the clean up process, the Lieutenant Governor of Montana, John Walsh, his entourage, and a covey of TV cameras visited to get firsthand looks at the roughed up little town.   Fastforward several weeks, and a second visit brought the media attention to town, as Governor Steve Bullock walked up and down the dusty streets to see the work that the state park crew, and our forces had completed for the park’s grand re-opening and to voice Montana’s appreciation for this historic treasure.


The re-opening festivities included historical re-enactment types strolling the streets in period costume, some dancehall piano echoing from one of the houses … and lots of photographers — news, souvenir and the artistic variety. Incidentally, near the piano was an old pump-style organ from the days of yesteryear. You know I did! … I pumped the thing up one day, played the only little harmony I know, and recorded it with my iPhone … a little special souvenir … good until my iPhone crashes and it become a memory like all the other sounds I have recorded all over the world … But still, a good mash up of old instrumentation and modern technology … Next step? I will run the “music” of the old organ through the Garage Band program on my Mac … ha … synthesize it and add some trance beat … I digress …


Ha … but back to the re-opening .. a little politicking and then it was back to business … one day my assignment led to my first try at a firehouse as we used the tourist attraction’s firefighting gear to water some new seedling grass that had begun to sprout. (This was just a day or two after I had watched helicopters dump huge canisters of water on a forest fire near Missoula, Mont. Don’t think I qualify to be in that brotherhood yet …) “Firefighting” the dry dirt was fun, but in the 90+ heat, I would have welcomed some help from above … from a helicopter or rain. Ha … if you have never handled 200 psi, I can assure you … that hose has a little bit of a kick.


After the long hours and emergency response immediacy of this project subsided, things began to get a little more relaxed, and all of us had a little more time to look around … to belly up to the bar in the old saloon, although the only spirits were the ghosts in the tall tales. We explored a little with our cameras drawn and blazing. And we got to see some of the finer points. Being somewhat of a photographer, I had to try out one of the neatest things. If you have taken PHOTO 101, undoubtedly you must have learned about the camera obscura


Well, this ghost town/photo attraction has a camera obscura. Before cameras, some smart guys figured out that a tiny hole in a box or in the wall of a room will not only let light inside, it will project an image on the wall. This discovery led to the camera. In Bannack — I don’t know if it was by design — but in the old hotel, there is a dark, dark steel-sided vault, and in one of the doors is a tiny round hole. The curious and the non-claustrophobic can go in the vault, close the doors and wait in almost complete darkness. Soon, as the eyes adjust, the person will see an image of the street outside, projected on the wall … albeit upside down. I was locked in the vault, checking it out and quite impressed when one of my co-workers drove by on a yellow Caterpillar extended-fork forklift .. or a lull as we call them. It look just like a video of the monster machine going by, except it was upside down. How cool.


Cat Equip


Another day I got to “look under the hood” as a nationally acclaimed architecture photographer was setting up his large format camera to shoot some of the buildings. Everyday, lots of photographers are snapping up and down the road. A few days later, a rock ‘n’ roll photographer from Brooklyn came through, soon after her shooting Eric Burdon of The Animals and War. Man I would have loved to have been at that show! We compared notes … and small world that it is … she actually knows the artist I reviewed at The Gutter (bowling alley/music venue) last year in Brooklyn.

Rockin Kristin Viens


Throughout the project, here and there we found old tools and other artifacts, uprooted from their resting places by the flood waters — square nails, bridal bits, wagon hitches, shell casings, farm implements, mining tools, vanity mirrors, medicine bottles. Personally, the coolest thing I found was a cupel — a tiny cup made of pressed bone ash, used to separate lead from gold. You can tell when the cupel has been used, because it becomes heavy from the bone absorbing the poisonous lead. One of the more rare finds of the group was an antique opium pipe, which one might assume was a leave-behind of the Asian population that had an important share in taming this wild frontier, via railroads and other avenues. Seems the demographic make up of this frontier had just about everything, including Civil War veterans, draft dodgers, deserters … there is a settlement called Yankee Flats … miners, Masons …


Bannack Masons


One fellow on the job told me that the idea for Yellowstone National Park was first conceived and discussed in the Mason Lodge at Bannack. Pretty interesting.




On the topic of opium, a different variety of poppy — not the opium plant — had been growing on this job site and became a special project of mine. There was this single cluster of the plant, somewhat protected by a fence, that got ravished by the flood. Sadly, I don’t think the plant will survive, despite my best farmboy/gardener tricks. Park officials said the legal poppy was planted by the original park manager back in the 1970s … a shame. Maybe it will rebound.


Every morning, either on the drive or in the ghost town itself, I was greeted by herds of antelope, a half dozen mule deer, a displaced cow or two, rabbits, birds, etc. Oh … but in one basement we found one that was not so lucky … the complete skeletal remains of a rabbit — foot and all — somehow trapped in a basement long ago, only to be discovered and given “a proper burial” after the flood.


To entertain ourselves on the 30-minute drive to Bannack each morning, my friend Tim and I started toying with what we called “the animal report.” Usually I drove and Tim gave me a play by play and his predictions on where the herds would be located. He got pretty good at predicting where the deer would be, based on where the irrigation sprinkler systems were. Also there were four horses on a huge ranch along the highway, and Tim pretty much kept a diary on where the horses were each day. He seemed so fascinated by them … I tried to talk him into us stopping and hopping on bareback, without bridles and seeing how long we lasted. Thank goodness, cooler heads prevailed.


Ha … we also had many a run in with crazy birds on the road … We always won. Those became known as “suicide birds” … way beyond “angry.” We noticed the incredible frequency of birds that hit our windows and car grill each morning … and then all sorts of little things evolved from that. Such as, a small flock of birds became known as a support group. … a near miss on the windshield was certainly just a “cry for help” and stuff like that. Gotta keep one’s self entertained on a long job.


This job, being long, afforded me the opportunity to fly home once for a week of Texas BBQ and quality time with my British motorbike … I needed that after watching hundreds of bikes pass through Dillon on their way to Sturgess … But most significant, when I was about to fly from Montana back to Texas for a reprieve, I learned that yes at the security checkpoints at the Bozeman Airport, Gallatin Field, they will check you for bear repellent … LOL, so don’t even try. However, I have a source that will remain anonymous, who says that you may be able to sneak a tiny sagebrush plant through … if you wrap it with enough plastic … Hope this doesn’t lead to Texas becoming overcome by pesky sagebrush everywhere in the near future … oops.


Anywho … while this has been one of the most interesting assignments ever, I admit that after 60+ days in the ghost town, and numerous photo tours, at one point I was becoming a little complacent and ready to finish up, even though there was one major segment of the revitalization to complete — that traveling Assay Office. I think I had already shot 10 “selfies” (photos of mwah) with scraggly beard poking out of the bars of the old jail to entertain myself … That’s when I spotted more cameras down the street to fuel more enthusiasm… not news cameras … reality TV cameras, a couple of them, a crew, a sound man, a producer, a director … and … Turtleman! Just what we needed to shake things up a little.


Call of the Wildman


Yes … what an interesting day that turned out to be as we realized an episode of Call Of The Wildman was being shot at Bannack State Park. All kinds of “live action.” Ha .. as we continued to rebuild the hardest hit structure in the park — the log-cabin styled Assay Office — we also watched the shenanigans of Turtleman, Banjo Man and friends as they shot interviews and outtakes exploring the old gold mining town. … even got to see the guys pan for some gold. Look for that in a future episode on Animal Planet network.



Wildman, Wi-Fi Man

Wildman, Wi-Fi Man


But, rest assured among all the excitement of Turtleman, and suicidal birds and such I had my my feelers out there for Wi-Fi. Ha .. I even detected a special Wi-Fi network called “CLSound” as the Wildman crew was buzzing around, in their backwoods way. I am assuming they were all listening to the audio of the shoot, via Wi-Fi … pretty cool.   But, the down side, that was the one day that I had any problems with Bannack’s Wi-Fi hotspot — Call of The Wi-Fi Day. (I think the Wildmen’s hotspot may have bumped off the park’s Wi-Fi.)


The park has one of the best Wi-Fi networks I have seen at any park in any of the 48 contiguous states … with several repeaters hidden atop some of the antique structures … a network so strong that I have walked from one end of the ghost town to the other, streaming music from Pandora on my iPhone and never lost a beat of whatever eclectic channel I had chosen. At one end of the street I was jamming to some McMurtry “Choctaw Bingo” … down toward the Carrhart House, I tuned in to my Pandora “Poppy Family” channel in honor of the dying plant … and further up the road, I tuned in to Pandora channel Hillsong, and had a little private praise session in Bannack’s old, old Methodist church. The Wi-Fi lifted me … and never let me down.


However, I must point out that I was given special access to the Bannack Wi-Fi network. As great as their hotpot is, for now, the park keeps it locked up for official use only. The park manager, Dale and I had several conversation about the various possibilities afforded by such a good Wi-Fi coverage area. I hope some of that comes to fruition.



But the crazy thing is … at Bannack there is NO cell phone coverage. You have to drive about 20 miles, and start hitting the cell coverage area at the Argenta signs (nearby town with silver mining stories to tell) on 287, headed east on the way back to Dillon. Have you ever encountered an area where the Wi-Fi is there, but no cell coverage? Not me — seven pings … a perfect score.