The New Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg

Our map of Montana clearly had an X marking the town of Philipsburg. Neither one of us had looked at this old creased map in a while or even remember putting that mark on it. Philipsburg sparked a memory. We had never visited the town before but instead a memory of a poem about a mining town written by the poet Richard Hugo came to mind.


So just as in the poem, we went to Philipsburg on a whim but it was on a Tuesday. We arrived to Philipsburg in the late afternoon after driving up and over Lolo Pass then through Missoula’s traffic, but not until a quick stop in Drummond for a soft serve vanilla ice cream cone at the local drive-thru. We had booked a room at the Broadway Hotel, and in this small town the proprietor simply left the key to the room in an envelope taped to the main door since she knew she’d be gone when we arrived.
The town of around 800 people is built in a small valley with the town at the bottom. We toured the town, walking up and down the streets while the locals quietly kept to themselves. The town dogs were friendly and ran loose while making their rounds as they probably do every evening. We chatted with the nice girl that served our dinner. She was a college student from Missoula and loved Shakespeare. After dinner we stopped to gaze up at the local jail while one of the officers smoked a cigarette in the doorway. Even though a noose was visible through the very top glass window of the jail that looks out at the mountains to the south, we liked the new degrees of gray in Philipsburg.


Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg. Written by Richard Hugo
You might come here Sunday on a whim.   
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss   
you had was years ago. You walk these streets   
laid out by the insane, past hotels   
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try   
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.   
Only churches are kept up. The jail   
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner   
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.
The principal supporting business now   
is rage. Hatred of the various grays   
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,   
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls   
who leave each year for Butte. One good   
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.   
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,   
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat   
or two stacks high above the town,   
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse   
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.
Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?   
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium   
and scorn sufficient to support a town,   
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze   
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?
Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty   
when the jail was built, still laughs   
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,   
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.   
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.   
The car that brought you here still runs.   
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver   
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

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