Moving to Montana

Moving to Montana

On the morning of Saturday April 4, in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic and nationwide lockdown, we found ourselves driving away from our Seattle home with a truckload of possessions and our three dogs and a cat, headed for a new home in Montana.

Our friends and family may be perplexed by this turn of events, which we wouldn't have predicted just 90 days ago, so I've written up a few details here while they're fresh in my mind to help answer questions. It's been a wild ride, but we're happy and healthy and excited about the future.

To answer the obvious question up front: no, this was not a reaction to COVID-19. The pandemic has accelerated our plans in some ways, but we've wanted to move to Butte, Montana for years, and we started looking at houses there before any of this was going on.

Although our move wasn't motivated by COVID-19, Butte is a pretty good place to ride out that situation. The population density of Butte-Silver Bow County is 20 times less than that of King County (~50 people per square mile instead of over 1000), and Montana as a whole averages just 7 people per square mile, second only to Wyoming and Alaska in the United States. So Butte will be an easy place to practice social distancing, as we've already discovered. We've taken many dog walks around residential neighborhoods in the last week, and only once passed other pedestrians, who walked down the center of the deserted street to avoid us.

When Montanans were told to maintain a distance of 6 feet from other people, their response was "why so close?"  – popular joke in Montana

Butte will also be an easy place to work remotely, as is required for both of our jobs for the foreseeable future. We'll have higher speed internet connectivity at our new house than we ever had in Seattle, and we'll have more room for our home offices as well.

A NY Times projection (published 3/20/20) of the spread of coronavirus, based on an assumption of moderate social distancing around the country through June. I added this chart on 4/13, and as of this date there hasn't been a new confirmed COVID-19 case in Butte-Silver Bow County for over a week.

Moving Day

A final pre-dawn photo before leaving for Butte, Montana. I drove the U-Haul, with Murg in her crate on the seat next to me, and Megan drove our Toyota Tacoma with the three dogs.

Safely moving during a pandemic is an interesting logistical challenge. We rented a truck a few days early, so that we could disinfect it and then let it sit for a while. And we didn't hire movers – nobody other than Megan and I have been involved. Good exercise, that part.

Walking the dogs at Frenchman Coulee near the Columbia River. The only time we came near another human on moving day was when Megan went into a gas station (with mask and gloves on) to get some ice for the cooler. We stopped at deserted truck stops for gas, and used the upwind pumps.

Weather is always a concern on the drive from Seattle to Montana, and just two days before we left there was a 7-vehicle pileup near Lookout Pass (Idaho/Montana border) in icy conditions that closed I-90 for a while. But we lucked out, and had clear pavement and good visibility all 600 miles from Seattle to Butte.

Crossing western Montana on I-90.
A sign along I-90 approaching Butte.

We arrived in Butte just before sundown on a chilly Saturday evening. Murg had been in her crate for 12 hours, so we decided to get her squared away first. Megan drove to the AirBnB with Murg while I drove the U-Haul to the storage locker with all three dogs in the cab. While Megan disinfected the AirBnB and set up Murg's crate, catbox, and food, I walked the dogs on a country road and then started unloading the U-Haul into the storage locker.

Megan joined me at the storage locker, where we finished unloading the truck and left it there overnight as previously arranged with the owner. We've dealt with several business owners in Butte so far (none of whom we've met in person), and they've all been great. Then we drove to the AirBnB to settle in for 14 days of self-isolation before closing on our house, as required for out of state visitors to Montana per Governor Bullock's executive order of March 30.

Why Butte?

Butte seems to be a polarizing town: some people love it, some people hate it. To my taste, I think Anthony Bourdain summed up Butte pretty well when he described it as  "not pretty, but deeply beautiful."

I have no interest in debating the merits of Butte with anyone, and although I'm a fan I'm no expert on Butte past or present (you can use the Google for that), but for what it's worth here are some of the things we love about Butte:

  • History. Butte was the biggest copper mine in the world in the late 1800s ("The Richest Hill on Earth"), and the largest city between the Midwest and the West Coast at the turn of the century. There are endless fascinating stories and personalities involved in Butte's heyday.
  • Architecture. Butte's uptown district is the largest National Historic Landmark District in the country, with over 6000 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Those buildings built between 1880 and 1920 give Butte a different feel than any other place in the Western US.
  • The Mines. Butte has thousands of miles of abandoned mines under it, and 14 massive steel headframes are the most prominent features of Butte's skyline. There are mining exhibits and memorials all over town, and the World Museum of Mining is not far from where we'll be living. Most of the copper used to run the original telephone and telegraph lines across the Western US came from Butte's mines.
  • Culture. Due to the influx of immigrant miners in the late 1800s, Butte has the largest percentage of Irish immigrants of any American city, and is home to the oldest Chinese restaurant in the US, among other things.
  • The Bars. We've always enjoyed bars that offer good people watching, and if you care more about that aspect than fancy food or drinks, Butte's bars are a treat. Jack Kerouac famously described a visit to the M&M in Butte like this: "It was Sunday night, I had hoped the saloons would stay open long enough for me to see them. They never even closed. In a great old-time saloon I had a giant beer. On the wall was a big electric signboard flashing gambling numbers ...What characters in there: old prospectors, gamblers, whores, miners, Indians, cowboys, tobacco-chewing businessmen! Groups of sullen Indians drank rotgut in the john. Hundreds of men played cards in an atmosphere of smoke and spittoons. It was the end of my quest for an ideal bar..."
  • Politics. Butte was a hotbed of organized labor in the early 1900s, and has long been a Democratic stronghold in Montana. Butte elected a Socialist mayor over 100 years ago, and in the last couple of days I've seen signs in windows saying "Vote Democrat" and "Proud Union Household."
  • The Great Outdoors. This comes with the territory pretty much anywhere in Montana, and Butte is no exception. There are spectacular mountain ranges and wide open spaces in every direction.
  • Friends Nearby. Last but far from least, our good friend Aaron lives about an hour away, with his three dogs who are like family to our three dogs. Not just like family – Nancy's brother Strummer lives with Aaron, and they'll see each other often with us living this close.
Looking west on Park Street to Berkeley Pit, in the heart of Uptown.

A final note regarding climate. Yes, Butte's winters can get extremely cold. Butte's record low temperature was -52F, and the coldest temperature ever recorded in the continental US was -70F at Rogers Pass, less than 100 miles from here. Most winters it doesn't get much below zero, but you never know. Butte is also one of the driest areas in Montana, with about a third the annual precipitation of Seattle. So compared to Seattle, we're going to have to deal with more cold and less rain. I'll take it.

House Hunting

Megan and I first visited Butte in 2010, and we've talked about moving there ever since. It has always been a vague concept, something we might do "some day," but in January of this year we decided to get serious about buying a vacation home. We were thinking we'd have a place in Butte we could visit occasionally, and have two mortgages for a year or two, maybe eventually selling our Seattle house and moving there permanently. Butte real estate is inexpensive by Seattle standards, so we figured that plan could work for us.

We met a great real estate agent in Butte who set up some tours of houses we were interested in, and on a cold sunny day in February we toured eight houses. We had planned to tour seven houses, but we added one more that we heard about that day, a big American Craftsman built in 1917 that sounded intriguing. That late addition was the last place we visited as it was getting dark that afternoon, and we loved it. We made an offer the next business day.

UPDATE: The house we bought isn't pictured above, but you can find many photos of it on the post Our home in Butte.

Coincidentally, on the day we were in Butte touring houses Seattle was making international headlines because of a COVID-19 death in Kirkland, the first in King County. Over the next week or two, as we worked through the details of our offer, the death count grew in the Seattle area and all non-essential businesses shut down. We started thinking about moving to the Butte house for the duration of the lockdown, but the more we talked about, the more that just felt like needless complexity. Why deal with the stress and uncertainty of being responsible for two houses? Why not just set up our home offices in Butte, sell our Seattle house, and live happily ever after?

Why not indeed. That's the plan.

Quarantined Until Closing

So now we're in Butte, halfway through our 14-day quarantine for out of state visitors. Megan returned to Seattle this weekend to handle a few things at the house, traveling alone and visiting only our empty house and nowhere else. I'll do the same when I go back to Seattle in two weeks to finish up loose ends, and then we'll be ready to have movers haul all of our remaining furniture and possessions to our Butte storage locker. We won't need to ever meet the movers in person, and we can leave everything in the storage locker for a few days before bringing anything to our home.

The AirBnB where we're currently isolating. It's small, funky, and perfect for our needs. We're getting groceries from the local Safeway via Instacart delivery – they leave them inside that enclosed front porch.
The morning after we arrived, the dogs and I hiked to the top of Big M Hill overlooking Butte. We never saw another hiker on the hill.
A photo of Big M Hill taken from the back porch of our AirBnB on the afternoon of Saturday 4/11. After a high in the 60s on Friday, light snow fell Saturday and the Saturday night low was 10F. Typical spring weather in Butte.
An early morning walk near Berkeley Pit.

As I mentioned earlier, it's easy to stay far away from other people around here. We've already figured out several dog walking options on the outskirts of town where we've not yet come within a hundred yards of another person, and we plan to keep it that way.

Main Street, 9PM Saturday night. One of the things we were looking forward to in Butte is all the bars we've enjoyed visiting here, including Metals, the famous M&M, Silver Dollar Saloon, and others. It's going to be a while until we can do that, and I imagine some of them won't survive the lockdown, but we're ready to support them when we can.

I've been impressed with how seriously people are taking the lockdown here. Butte residents take pride in their toughness and resilience, and this town has survived some amazing ups and downs over the last 140 years. If you're interested in that history, a great place to start is Kathleen McLaughlin's blog post When Butte wouldn't shut down, about lessons learned from the 1918 pandemic.