Read Caption
Covellite (copper sulfide) from the Leonard Mine in Butte, Montana (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)
TravelTraveler Magazine

Covellite

Never judge a town by its exit ramp . . .

. . . because at night, every exit looks the same: fast food beacons and glowing gas stations with trucks steaming in the cold.

I spin away from the dark rush of the interstate and down the town’s widest avenue—to the snow-crusted parking lot of a nationwide hotel chain with its cheerful hello and coffee-scented hallways. It’s 9 p.m. and I have safely arrived in Anywhere, America—to sleep and eat, to wash, dress, and repack—and then leave.

Towns are like people—some you know well, others not at all. Some you pass by with a glance, some you meet for a five-minute fill-up, others you end up marrying and staying with forever.

But I believe every place in the world deserves a lifetime. A month from now, my credit card bill will remind me that I was in Butte, Montana, and list my exchanges for that date. Otherwise, I will have nothing to show for this brief time and a place in my life. Our world has become too anonymous.

Up north they warned me that Butte was “blue collar”, though I’m not sure what that means. I am wearing a blue flannel shirt, but only because it’s cold outside, and the first resident I see looks like a glamorous showgirl in mourning: a tilted black beret, a bushy black shawl, leggings and shiny black high heels.

“I went to Mass today—and I will go tomorrow,” she announces to the air, pacing the hall.

I feel guilty for eavesdropping, but cellphones make our lives so public. To her friend on the line, she offers a favorable review of her new priest. It’s my first hint of Butte—a town that was settled by a wave of Irish immigrants and still home to one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the West.

“I have to drive to Helena to get my hair done,” the older woman chirps into her phone, “I’m beginning to look like a cocker spaniel!” She talks about “her girl” over in the capital, the one who understands hair—and I make a mental note never to get highlights in Butte.

The next morning I miss the turn-off onto the interstate and drive aimlessly. Montana Street climbs steadily uphill, passing block after block of metallurgical street names: Platinum, Mercury, Gold, and Iron. In the weak winter daylight, Butte reminds me of other mining towns I know: Donetsk, Potosi, Bendigo and Kalgoorlie, Merthyr Tydfil and Timmins. I see great wealth and I see dirt. There are fanciful painted brick facades and Victorian palaces with turrets, and then above the snowy horizon, the beige scar of a strip mine, as if an angry child had scratched away the mountains.

View Images
Headframe Spirits in Butte, Montana distills their own whiskey, gin, and vodka (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

How I love a town with contrast—I decide to park my car and wander down the block. There are saloons and Irish pubs painted with shamrocks. I pass the Butte Pioneer Club Ballroom and poke my head into Headframe Spirits where it’s not even noon but the drinkers are drinking Moscow Mules: vodka, ginger beer and lime in a pure copper mug.

Copper built Butte—there may be silver and gold in them hills, but it’s the wide vein of copper under these sidewalks that turned a forlorn and forgettable butte into the capital “B” big city Butte. For a brief moment in American history, Butte was the largest city west of the Mississippi (bigger than San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Seattle) but today, with only 30,000 residents (Buttites?), the copper capital is a shadow of its former self.

Despite derelict buildings and vacant lots, I sense an eagerness to remember past glories. Signs point to the Mining Museum and the city’s last functioning brothel (shuttered only in 1982 after a century of nonstop business) is now a charming bed & breakfast. Across the Street, a pawnshop window shouts, “We Buy Precious Metals.”

But I am more intrigued by the shop in front of me with its cluttered window display of beautiful gems and colored crystals. I don’t know what “Asterism” means, and I’m not even sure they’re open, but I step inside to see the stones.

I love rocks and I collect them wherever I go—I have obsidian from Iceland and shale from Kentucky. In our anonymous world, rocks are genuine, always with a unique story to tell about a place. Rocks never lie—all the Walmarts in the world can’t hide the stones you’re standing on.

Behind the counter, a geologist with a headlamp and spectacles is busy with his rocks. Two large dogs look up at me from the floor, decide not to attack and go back to napping.

I peruse the shelves of precious stones, boxes of glossy quartz—gin-clear stones that looked like sucked-on ice cubes. The inexpensive tiger agates and pyrite are for tourists—the geodes and sparkly crystals for collectors. Inside a locked cabinet sit the real gems, like Montana sapphires set in white gold. Rumor has it that Montana’s famous yogo sapphires are the only American gems found among the British crown jewels.

But I’m not here for jewelry. I am keen to see the rock that built Butte.

“Excuse me, but do you have any copper ore?” I ask the geologist.

He comes out from behind the counter and shows me a broken cardboard box filled with heavy chunks of blackened mineral. I hold up one lump of enargite (Cu3AsS4)in my hand, gently turning it under a lamp. The stone sparkles silver and gold, blue and then purple. An iridescent splendor shines up at me—the color of peacock feathers set in stone. It is such a rough yet beautiful rock, and it is the whole reason that Butte exists. It’s also poisonous.

View Images
Enargite, a type of copper ore from the historic copper mines of Butte, Montana, once the largest in the United States. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

“Enargite is copper with arsenic in it,” explains the geologist.

“You know Cornish pasties?” he asks, and I nod yes. In fact, I’ve had them in Cornwall. Cornish pasties are like a handheld meat pie with a crust and Cornish immigrants who carried their tradition to the mines of Montana.

“You know how Cornish pasties have that crimped edge on ‘em?” the geologist asks. “The miners would hold that edge and eat the pasty, then throw away the crust because there fingers were covered with arsenic.”

What he says is true—the copper miners of Butte worked with mineral ore that coated their hands with poisonous dust. Cornish pasties offered a baked “handle” that kept them from ingesting arsenic.

“What’s that rock over there?” I am distracted by another shimmering purple stone behind the glass, like nothing I’ve seen before. The color is curious—changing from indigo to shiny purple and then metallic red, depending on the light and where I’m standing.

“That there is covellite,” he answers, and he hands me the most beautiful mineral I’ve ever touched with my bare hands. I stare at the shimmering surface, captivated by its brilliant color and light. One second it looks a royal purple, then it switches to scarlet and then deep blue-black reflections. How could I have lived this long and never seen such a stone as this—or even known that it existed?

Covellite is copper sulfide (CuS) and it is, in fact, quite rare. In the mines of Montana, it was the secondary, low-value deposit to more-desired copper ores like enargite and bornite. And yet, a piece of covellite from Butte offered the first scientific evidence of superconductivity in nature. The rest is history—indeed, the whole story of modern electricity comes down to a pretty rock in Butte.

I am drawn irresistibly to this stone—like Golem to his Precious—and I dawdle at the counter until I build up the courage to pull out my credit card.

I want that piece of covellite! It’s a feeling I’ve never had before. I typically find gold boring and diamonds cliché, but even though I’ve never heard of covellite until now, I suddenly crave it and desire to hold onto some small piece of it forever.

The piece I purchase comes from the famous Leonard Mine—carried up by miners from 3,500 feet below the surface. Covellite is a very rare stone and since the mine closed some 45 years ago, it has become even rarer. Montana is still the best place in the world to find covellite and as I leave the mineral shop on Montana Street, I feel lucky for my little discovery.

For a brief moment, I am a contented tourist with my souvenir in my pocket, but when I’m back in my car, a quick online search reveals that I am not just holding some pretty little rock.

It turns out that covellite is magical.

The Internet tells me that covellite stimulates one’s psychic ability, opens up the third eye, and will help me see into my past. According to the Book of Stones, “Covellite can help access one’s lifetimes spent in other realms.”

While I have spent my lifetime in many different realms (and all seven continents), this is not what they mean. Rather, the New Age spiritualists indicate that covellite is the key to unlocking past lives. They counsel me to hold onto this stone, to wear it or sleep with it, and that by so doing, covellite will help me unearth old memories and relive my reincarnations. Apparently, ccvellite sparks such a powerful recovery of lost memories that I really should not use it without consulting a therapist or a medium.

I’m afraid the magic is lost on me, a skeptic. I view crystals as nothing more than Earth’s atomic patterns—I will not be placing covellite on my open chakras tonight, nor do I believe that gemstones decide our fate.

And yet, this pretty little stone determined the fate of Butte. Covellite made copper crucial, copper brought money and men from around the world, the women followed the men; children were born in this place—a city swelled up and then so quickly retracted when copper prices fell. This stone is why Butte’s phone book is filled with O’Sheas and O’Malleys. This stone is why miners were once relieved from the draft—to mine metal that became the bullets that flew across the Western Front. This stone bled arsenic into the land and this stone is why I am eating authentic Cornish pasties for lunch in Montana.

View Images
Steak and potato Cornish pasty from Joe's Pasty Shop in Butte, Montana (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Joe’s Pasty Shop is my last stop before leaving town, and like covellite, the snug little diner on the east side of town reveals at least one of the past lives of this place.

I take mine to go—a football-shaped steak and potato pasty with crimped edges and a tub of brown gravy to go with it. The first bite tastes like Sunday Dinner in a pie—meaty and filling with a touch of onion and pepper. Another hearty bite and I can imagine the Cornish miners from a century ago, huddled half-a-mile underground in the Neversweat Mine, holding their pasties with blackened hands and devouring mouthfuls of love from home.

I leave town with a full stomach and a purple stone in my hand. My visit has lasted all of seven waking hours—far too brief to know the place. I don’t have a lifetime for Butte—I didn’t even have a day, but I know enough to appreciate the town with all of its past lives.

Another mile down I-90 and the town of Butte disappears from my rearview mirror—another exit ramp on the anonymous interstate. There will be other towns along the way, but none quite like this one. From the road, it’s impossible to judge, but scratch beneath the surface, and the place begins to shine.