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By Kira Salak
People come to Basin looking for miracles: cures for rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, depression, cataracts. From the highway, though, the tiny Montana town doesn't seem to offer much. There's just one exit, and a single long look reveals all there is to the place: a collection of weathered houses and old miners' cabins huddling close to the interstate, caught between the high peaks of the Elkhorn range. Basin looks like a place left behind on a whim. Were it not for its radon "health mines," Basin, population 250, would probably vanish back into the mountains as quickly as it came, left only in the memories of the boomers, or prospectors, who first called this place home.
Miners founded Basin in 1880, when it was nothing more than a collection of brothels, tents, and saloons in a Montana that hadn't even graduated to statehood. Law and order depended less on rules than on the strength of a man's fist. "They were a tough bunch of people, and they all liked to fight," says 68-year-old "Hap" Bullock. "There were cowboys on one side and miners on the other."
Hap claims Basin roots that go back three generations. He settles himself in his chair in the Silver Saddle Bar and examines me with the patient stare of a man who's seen more than his share of newcomers.
"Did you like to fight?" I ask him.
He gives me a slow grin and winks. "A little," he says. "We were looking to make a fortune. What you did is, you hollowed out a mountain and walked through it. I shipped 35,000 tons of gold, silver, and other metals from my mines."
You can still see evidence of Basin's late 19th-century mining heyday. Hike up in the hills and you practically stumble on tunnels abandoned during the gold fever search for bigger and better. Graves of Chinese laborers lie in unmarked mounds along Basin Creek. Ghost towns stare down on Basin from the high hills. Why did the town survive? Local legend explains it this way: Someone once put up a small sign along the highway that said, "Basin—Heaven." If you saw the sign, you'd end up in Basin for life. "Every time someone crazy comes to live here," one resident says, "we say, 'Oh, they must have seen the sign.'"
I look for the sign along the highway but only see ones advertising the Merry Widow and Earth Angel Health Mines, two of the world's handful of radon mines. Believers claim that ten days in the mines, breathing in radioactive gas and drinking radioactive water, will cure a whole host of ailments.
The owner of Earth Angel, "Wild Bill" Remior, a disabled WWII veteran, goes into the mine every day with his dog, Mr. Stup. "Now I seen a dog go in that mine that couldn't hardly walk," he says, "and by about the second day he was chasin' rabbits. That was my rabbits that he was chasing."
He's referring to his more than 120 pet rabbits that live on the mountainside around the mine. When he leaves his trailer, they flock around him like he's a latter-day St. Francis.
"Lady, I seen miracles go through this mine here," he says, pointing to the 600-foot-long tunnel that cuts through the granite bowels of the mountain. "But what does it? I don't know. Now, I cannot see the radon in there, and I cannot smell it, and neither can I see the good Lord nor smell him neither, but there's something in there that does ya good."
Even scientists who advocate the therapeutic use of radon haven't studied how it works in Montana's mines. Nevertheless, medical studies conducted in Europe, where radon spas have been popular destinations for more than a century, have shown beneficial health effects of radon treatments for various inflammatory joint diseases, including rheumatism and arthritis.
Still, the mainstream medical community and many laypeople in the U.S. find such claims unsettling if not downright dangerous, given the well-documented ill effects of high-dose radiation on the body. Yet ever since the Merry Widow became a health mine in 1952, hundreds of thousands of people have come from as far away as Germany, Korea, and Japan to walk 450 feet into the mine for one-hour "treatments," three times a day.
Their signatures and messages cover the rock walls. Old bus seats line the sides of the mine to provide resting places for the daily crowds of 50 or more people during the summer months, with one passageway leading to the Doggie Den: a cubbyhole with built-in shower, where you can bathe yourself and your arthritic dog. At the end of the main tunnel, I find people soaking their hands and feet in basins of the frigid 44˚F radioactive water, which they believe to be more beneficial than just breathing in the radon gas. A rack of magazines and board games helps visitors pass the time, their conversations creating a pleasant rumble down the mine shaft.
Being in these mines is like entering an odd sort of club in which everyone greets you with nods of congratulations and knowing. Because, they will tell you, miracles really have occurred here—and not just to the faithful or the lucky, but to nonbelievers as well.
"I was a nonbeliever," says Sue Schuster-Johnson, who first visited the mine eight years ago from Nampa, Idaho. "I just came along with my Uncle Clyde for a vacation." (Clyde, 94, has been visiting the mine nearly every year since 1962, when he says it cured his rheumatism.) "But when I got back from the trip, my migraines were gone for good—and I'd had migraines for most of my life."
Sue collects clay from the walls of the mine, swearing that it heals skin infections. Most visitors end up taking some of the mine away with them: lichen or mold, water, mineral secretions—even little pillows filled with radioactive gravel. One man is said to have loaded up his truck with a hundred gallons of water for his racehorse.
Stories like Sue's brought Tanya Beck from Duluth, Georgia. Her four-year-old daughter, Allison, suffers from progressive rheumatoid arthritis; her doctors, having run out of solutions, predict she will spend her life in a wheelchair.
"This seemed like our last hope," Tanya says. "When we got here to the mine and I saw what it was, it was kind of like a Twilight Zone thing. I thought, there's no way. But Allison is running and playing now. She hasn't been hurting. She's definitely getting better, and this mine has something to do with it."
The other mine-goers and I have been listening raptly to Tanya. We all hope it's true, that Allison is getting better. For the first time, I join in and drink some of the radioactive water along with everyone else. I figure it couldn't hurt.