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ZipUSA: 59631
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By Kira SalakPhotographs by Landon Nordeman



Folks come from all over to sit in a Montana mine and inhale radioactive gas. Is it good for what ails them?



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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 (32,000 metric 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 big-ger 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 (200-meter-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."

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
In the United States most doctors are skeptical about any health benefits of the radon "therapy" offered at mines like the ones in Basin. Some even warn that repeated visits to the radon mines could increase a patient's risk of developing lung cancer. In other parts of the world, however, radon treatments have been around for much longer and are more widely accepted. In fact, in Germany and Austria, where some 75,000 people go to radon spas for medical purposes every year, doctors sometimes prescribe radon treatments and the public health system often covers the cost.
 
—Robin A. Palmer
Did You Know?

Related Links
Merry Widow Health Mine
www.merrywidowmine.com
One of the two "health mines" in Basin, the Merry Widow welcomes hundreds of visitors every year.
 
Jefferson County, MT
www.co.jefferson.mt.us
Located in the southwest corner of Montana, sparsely populated Jefferson County contains not only the mines of Basin and nearby Boulder but also Montana's first state park—Lewis & Clark Caverns—and some popular hot springs.
 
Montana Artists Refuge
www.montanaartistsrefuge.org
The Montana Artists Refuge is located in downtown Basin. It hosts artists working in a variety of media and promotes the arts in the local community.
 
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Indoor Air—Radon
www.epa.gov/radon
The EPA's website provides information about residential radon testing, research on the health risks of radon exposure, and some frequently asked questions about radon.
 
Travel Montana
visitmt.com/index.htm
If you're planning a visit to the Big Sky state, check out this site, which offers everything from weather reports and lodging guides to recipes based on local ingredients like huckleberries and venison.

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Bibliography
Committee on Health Risks of Exposure to Radon. Health Effects of Exposure to Radon: BEIR VI. National Research Council, 1999. Available online at www.nap.edu/books/0309056454/html/index.html.
 
Hively, Will. "Is Radiation Good for You? Or Dioxin? Or Arsenic?" Discover (December 2002), 74-83. Available online at www.discover.com/issues/dec-02/features/featradiation.
 
Singer, Mark. "The Radon Cure," The New Yorker (July 16, 2001), 40-43.
 
Wolle, Muriel Sibell. Montana Pay Dirt: A Guide to the Mining Camps of the Treasure State. Sage Books, 1963.

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NGS Resources
Mishev, Dina. "Montana Soakin'," National Geographic Traveler (July/August 2003), 101.

Edwards, Mike W. "Should They Build a Fence Around Montana?" National Geographic (May 1976), 614-57.

Borah, Leo. "Montana, Shining Mountain Treasureland," National Geographic (June 1950), 693-796.

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