A favorite book of mine has always been John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. Perhaps, because of Steinbeck’s yearning for wanderlust in his early 50’s, the same time I realized how much I wanted to experience the beauty, meet the people and hear the stories of this amazing land we call home. When I think of Bannack Montana, I am reminded of the words from those pages “A jo...urney is a person itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us”
When you visit Bannack, the old mining town, you immediately find the true meaning of these words and that of the “wild west”, when law and order seemed to be nonexistent. This well preserved town now sits empty, consumed only by the ghosts of days gone by.
On an earlier visit, a few years ago, to this location, I was cautioned that the current “residents” still run this town. On that stop I encountered a spirit in the Bannack Hotel Meade. He made his presence quite clear to me with cold drafts, the smell of sulfur, malfunctioning my camera, draining its batteries and sending me racing down the stairs and out of building faster than I had moved in quite some time! Following this confrontation, I became a bit terrified of the unknown, but intrigued and wanting to face my fears, I returned for a second visit. This time with a plan to spend the night.
I arrived early in the afternoon on a beautiful day and was a little relieved to find a park ranger ready to accompany a group of school kids on a tour of the town. I walked though photographing these amazing old structures trying to stay ahead of the visitors. I listened to my footsteps echoing through the spring air as I walked the old wooden boardwalk towards that dreaded Hotel to face my fear. Now standing at the front door, I found my hand shaking a bit as I turned the knob to gain access (to what seemed in my mind) to hell.
Once inside this grand old hotel, I started my ascent on the creaking old stairs, ever so cautiously, to the scene of my last meeting with “Mr. Not So Nice”. Once upstairs I rounded the corner to that long hallway where all the doors were open allowing the light to pour onto the floor, except the one door at the end of the hallway, which was shut tight, and the reason, on my first visit, I let my curiosity get the best of me. I had to know what was behind that door. Again in almost the same spot, came the cold draft, then the smell of sulfur. My heart racing, paralyzed for the moment, a couple of kids came running up the stairs and as quickly as Casper’s not so friendly cousin came, he was gone. No cold draft, no foul smell. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, I regained my composure as nothing had happened and greeted the kids. Bravely, I walked to the end of the hallway to find that the door nailed shut, simply lead to the old second story porch on the front of the hotel.
After spending a couple of more hours photographing this “ghost town”, I headed several hundred yards to the river to set up camp. Carefully preparing my accommodations for the evening, saying hello to the only other campers at the grounds, an older couple in a huge RV, I started a fire to cook my gourmet cuisine of beans and franks. After filling my belly, I noticed the sun making its way to the Montana horizon and grabbed my gear to photograph this amazing light casting upon the plains.
Climbing the grassy hill leading to town, I once again was feeling a little pensive, after realizing I was the lone breathing person in a town abandoned and now taking on a whole new vibe. Setting up my camera I turned my attention to the beautiful light and began to photograph this place ripped from the pages of history. As I made my way towards the end of town snapping the shutter of my camera, I found myself frequently looking over my shoulder expecting to see someone there. Shaking off this feeling each time, I went back to the task at hand.
I reached the end of the town, which was only about two to three blocks long, I turned and headed back to photograph the now even more dramatic light making its last attempt to spread its hues of gold and reach across the land before retiring for the evening. I began my quest to capture this new, ever changing light and shadows drawn from the old buildings, and it was then I realized that not only had the light changed but so had everything else! There WAS someone else in that town, but how, but who, could have possibly opened almost every door in town!! All the doors, that on my short journey to the end of town were closed tightly, were now all WIDE OPEN! Frozen in fear, trying to rationalize this happening, I struggled to peruse my original goal of photographing this light, when a wind from the west whisked though the streets, overwhelming me in panic. “What in the world was happening”? Did they expect me to go in one of those doors, only to have them slam shut, locking me in wild west hell for eternity? I think not. That is when I picked up my backpack, my tripod and ran (and I mean full on marathon running) back to my campsite where I pulled up the stakes on my tent, threw my gear in disarray in the trunk of my car and left nothing but the dust in my path behind me.
My journal entry from that evening was titled “A Change of Plans” and boy was it ever! I was now able to breath comfortably, as I found myself nestled in to an extremely busy KOA Campground next to 15 Texas A&M students who were enjoying their night with cold beers around a campfire swapping stories and laughter. I am usually the one who seeks out quiet, remote camping quarters, but this evening, the sounds of people, real, living humans, was such glorious music to my ears!
Now, because I am truly suffering from a bruised and batter ego over this event, I am sure that this is not the last time there will be an entry in my journal in regards to Bannack Montana. But I AM sure, that it will take a couple more years at least to rebuild the courage so injured in defeat, when I can finally make the photographs I have hoped for, documenting this forgotten town in the middle of nowhere, under the evening stars. So until that time, I will continue on my journeys in hopes that I will maintain some sort of control over the adventures rather than them directing me, but that remains to be seen. June 1, 2016