Most of the time, writing means sitting down to the computer and cranking out word after word, but sometimes it takes you places. Most of my writing can be researched online or through books, but recently it required a little real life investigation, which turned out to be an unforgettable adventure.
A while back, I was working on a story that is way down the line in the Barren Fields Fruitful Gardens Series, and, in the process of researching, I had an idea. What if I set parts of the stories in real life ghost towns to honor those who lived there? Even though the towns, for whatever reason, didn’t survive, they still are a part of our history. In fact, sometimes they are a huge part of our history. So over Labor Day weekend, two friends and I headed out to explore the first ghost town to find a potential place in the BFFG series: Maiden, MT.
My two friends prefer not to have an online presence, so they will go unnamed, but I should say that this sort of adventure is our favorite way to spend a Saturday. This Saturday, however, may have been one of the most exciting.
Maiden, MT, a mining town established in 1881, has been on my radar as a possible setting for a story for long time. Over the last couple of years, I’ve done online research and found information in an extremely old book of Montana history. But the more I read, the more I felt it might be better to see it. There was just one problem. I kept reading that the location of the town was now on private property and could only be viewed at a distance from the road.
I figured even that would be better than not seeing it at all. Even so, on Friday night before the trip, I decided to try one last time to find out who owned the property. To my surprise, I found a video telling a little bit of the history of Maiden, including the fact that Maiden still has one year-round resident. (You can watch the video here.)
I sent a quick email to the producer of the video, but by morning I hadn’t heard anything. I did a little more investigating and found a phone number. The number worked! I left a voicemail, hoping to hear back from Maiden’s sole resident.
Meanwhile, we loaded up and headed out of town. It was a beautiful day. Hot and clear as most of the summer had been. We hadn’t gone far, when my phone rang. The next thing I knew, we were setting up an appointment to tour Maiden right after we visited the Central Montana Historical Museum in Lewistown. But those plans were about to change.
Lavina, MT had barely disappeared from our rear-view mirror when a little column of smoke appeared on the horizon. This year’s fire season in Montana was incredibly bad. Over one million acres burned. You’ve heard the song, It Only Takes a Spark, well, that pretty much summed up our summer. The further we went the larger the column of smoke grew. A few more corners and, just as we started up a rise, we all realized the fire was near the highway just ahead of us. Even with that realization, however, we didn’t expect to see flames along the road as we crested the hill.
As I snapped this picture from the passengers seat (the only pic we got), my friend said, “Do they need help?”
I took a quick survey. The fire had already burned down one hillside and was about to climb the next one. Four men with shovels were along one edge. That was it. There were no emergency vehicles on scene.
“Yes,” I said. “They need help.”
We pulled over and started looking for a way to help. The only shovel we had was a plastic snow shovel, which was pretty useless. We found a rug and started beating the flames back as best we could. We took turns, swinging the heavy rug over our head and down through the flames to extinguish them in the dirt. While one of us beat the flames, the others stamped out whatever we could with our feet. Between our rug-beating and the men with the shovels, we kept the fire’s progress to a slow crawl. The Ryegate fire department arrived just in time. The wind was beginning to kick up and would have pushed the fire wildly once it topped the hill. Within just a few minutes, they had the east edge extinguished and were working on the north edge.
Forty minutes after jumping out to help, we loaded back into the car and drove away, along with the others who had stopped to help. We were all strangers. We’ll probably never meet again. But for that moment, we were neighbors.
Our journey took us on to Harlowton where we stopped to clean the soot off of our arms and faces (we were quite the singed, smelly bunch most of the day). We had just gotten back on the road when we came across a pair of bear cubs. This isn’t something you see along the highway every day. We stopped and took pictures from the car, all the time trying to spot the cubs’ mama, but she was nowhere in sight. We later found out that the cubs had to be captured because they could not be reunited with their mother.
We had one more unexpected delay when we saw a man at work—doing a job I would never want. Can you imagine having the job of repairing the massive windmills on a wind farm? My hands start sweating just thinking about it.
By the time we reached Lewistown, we were way behind schedule. So, once again, we shifted our plan. Rather than touring the museum, we simply stopped by to pick up some brochures that we were supposed to take with us to Maiden and then headed out of town.
We found the road into the Warm Spring Creek Canyon and made our way to Maiden, where our host gave us a personal tour of the property that now belongs to his family. He showed us the sweet little porch where he was about to host a party; gave us a tour of the refurbished saloon, which he remembers as his grandfather’s assay office; and then sent us off to wander as we pleased.
After much exploring, we said our goodbyes and piled back into the car to head through Maiden Canyon, past the Spotted Horse Mine, and over to the ghost town of Gilt Edge, MT.
We may have gone the wrong way from Gilt Edge and come to a dead end. But that’s okay because in the process we saw these guys.
We finally made our way back to Lewistown, had supper, and then headed home with happy hearts and an adventure under our belts that we will never forget. Whoever said writing is a boring profession never did book research Montana style.