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You can't blame the folks at "The Daily Show" for wanting to do a spoof on the idea of charging people money to look at the Berkeley Pit in Butte --- until you actually look at the thing. Sure, it's a gigantic hole full of highly toxic water, but it is also an awe-inspiring, thought-provoking window on what the human race is capable of, for good and bad.

During my brief time in Butte, when out-of-town friends came to visit I never let them escape without taking a gander at the Pit. In fact, I'd also insist on taking them way up the Hill, beyond Walkerville, to what I think was a giant settling pond associated with the mining operations. It was a place of intensely weird beauty, a vast lake of oily water and viscous sludge, surrounded by withered trees. With mountains rising up beyond it, it was kind of like an anti-oasis, a place of such awful sterility that you couldn't take your eyes off it.

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The same quality used to attract me to the endless series of settling ponds outside of Anaconda. These ponds, recipients of God knows what toxic effluents from the Anaconda smelter, were separated by earthern dikes whose tops were wide enough to drive over. I'm reasonably sure I was trespassing, but no one ever stopped me on my excursions over the miles and miles of dikes. The pools of water were of many different colors, but all of them looked powerfully dangerous. That whole area looked rather like the approaches to Mordor. I used to imagine my Volkswagen bug tumbling off a dike into one of the ponds and dissolving within minutes, my disappearance a mystery forever.

What I'm leading up to is this: Rather than fearing what jokes Jon Stewart will launch at Butte's expense, the Butte Chamber of Commerce should offer a "Toxic Tour" of the Butte-Anaconda complex, taking in the attractions described above as well as the dozens more available in the area. I'm thinking of the 250-million-ton slag heap near the old smelter (its size was estimated for me once by a manager at the smelter), the old flumes above the Anaconda golf course, the winding walls of solidified slag at the bottom on Montana Street in Butte, and the dozens of old mine pits that dot the Hill. I'd pay at least ten bucks for that tour.

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