Glaciers, Goldmines and Dandelion Wine

Reflections on reaching for the stars

Public domain photo of St. Mary’s Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana


IN A RECENT CONVERSATION with a friend in Los Angeles, Glacier National Park in Montana came up for discussion. My friend informed me that the glaciers were melting and would disappear shortly, adding for emphasis that the entire earth would be inundated within a few short years of the Glacier Park meltdown.

It is true that the glaciers in the Park have been receding for many years, but I have vivid memories of how stunning the area looked during my last visit in the late 1970’s while I was still a student at the University of Montana.   

The jagged, verdant summer mountains were beautiful, and the vistas from Going to the Sun Road were breathtaking. My Native American friend Santo (Cherokee mother, Italian father) and I drove north to Kalispell from Missoula in my beat up old International Travelall van, fishing all the way into the Park. 

Santo was tying his "famous" black ants on the spot, trying different variations to emulate what we were seeing on the water for fly fishing. The antithesis of the brothers from A River Runs Through It, we hardly caught a thing, but we were drinking and carrying on, not seriously fishing.

We used the Travelall as a camper and drove into the park for a few days to hike and fish. It was pristine at the time. I had a bed in the back of the Travelall. Santo and I alternated, one of us sleeping on the bed, the other in a sleeping bag on the floor of the van and the reverse the next day. The biting night cold gave way to brilliant, sunny snow-capped mornings each day.

GOLD MINES AND DANEDLION WINE

I've lost track of Santo over the years, even though he was best man at my first wedding. He was working as a dynamiter in an underground (vs. placer) gold mine in Virginia City, Montana, living in an isolated cabin in the woods, gnawing on mushrooms and experimenting with peyote. He did not have a phone, so I called the big bar on main street in Virginia City and left a message with the bartender that I was getting married on such and such a date and needed Santo to drive to Missoula to be my best man.

They wrote such messages on a blackboard at the entrance to the bar because a lot of folks in the area didn't have phones. Everyone came into the bar on weekends, and that was how you got a message to them. Santo saw my note and called one Saturday night from the noisy bar to say he would be there. He showed up with two bottles of homemade dandelion wine as a wedding gift, a vintage so rank, it was fit only for use as anti-freeze! But I was thrilled to have him there.

Santo later went to work at the Homestake Gold Mine outside Deadwood, South Dakota, long before Deadwood became a tourist town championed by actor Kevin Costner. He lived in a turn of the century boarding house where he shared the lone bathroom down the hall with a girl with long wavy black tresses who worked in one of the local saloons. 

Public domain photo of Deadwood, SD historic main street


Like all the miners, Santo found clever ways to smuggle small amounts of gold out of the mine at least every other day using clandestine methods that were likely to escape detection. Some of the miners used small plastic tubes filled with gold dust that they would lubricate and stick up their asses. Others tamped down gold in the bowls of their tobacco pipes, and a few inventive souls had false crowns on one or more of their teeth that would serve the purpose.  

Later still, Santo became a high paid dynamiter in a uranium mine in Wyoming. During this uranium period, he visited me in California and we took a trip to Baja California for a jai alai game, then had a good time carousing in San Diego. The last report I got of him involved a drunken fight at the bar in Virginia City, and I then heard that he had wandered up to Alaska to settle a homestead. 

He was a brilliant guy with a double degree in economics and computer science, an avid student of Marx and Native American culture. His native name was Star Not Afraid, and I remember that he used to go to a radically alternative annual pow wow in the mountains around Flathead Lake where he connected with like minded natives who rejected traditional politics.

His stories from these excursions were of wild drinking and dancing around night fires in long, trance like celebrations of spirit nature with drumming, chanting, games and rituals for the recently departed. The resultant politics were revolutionary, driven by a belief that our unbalanced society was destroying nature by alienating us from it.

LOOKING TO THE STARS

The rituals that Santo described take on new meaning as the world is engulfed by pandemic and environmentalists predict an ineludible ecological apocalypse. 

The environmental narrative says that the diversity of species, the strength of any ecosystem, is disappearing at an irreversible rate and that the coastal areas of the earth will be flooded in a few years by humanity’s role in the changing climate of the planet. 

Cultural anthropologists say much the same thing about the disappearance of cultures and languages, each one a loss of a unique worldview, and with it, a unique set of answers to life’s most persistent and vexing questions. And now, in the era of COVID-19, epidemiological science has added yet another layer of political uncertainty.

If fear is humanity’s perpetual enemy, the enduring quest towards higher truths in every culture may still be our best bulwark against despair and inaction.

Caught between these two impulses, Santo’s native name Star Not Afraid could serve as an ancestral reminder that a people who fear reaching boldly for the stars are likely to lose sight of both heaven and earth. 

Hubble Space Telescope images of star clusters in the Large Magellanic Cloud satellite galaxy of earth’s Milky Way. NASA public domain

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