Basin, Montana: A Brief Visit into the Twilight Zone

Basin Montana, a visit into the Twilight Zone? I first noticed Basin on my way to Helena (from Anaconda) in December. Basin is located about 30 miles North of Butte on the sparsely traveled I-15. A billboard for the Silver Saddle Cafe (breakfast all day!) caught my eye, and I could see signs of a main street just west of the interstate.

I did not exit to Basin on that particular day, but I made a “mental note” to explore Basin when I had more time. Now that winter has ended (sortof), I have time to explore this region. Recently, I elected to explore Basin and check out breakfast at the Silver Saddle Cafe following my daily swim and soak at Fairmont Hot Springs.

Silver Saddle Cafe in “downtown” Basin, Montana

Basin is a small town with a population of about 250. Aside from the Silver Saddle who provides a good breakfast at prices you would have seen years ago, Basin is one of two towns in this region that feature “Health Mines.”

Health Mines

When I exited the highway, even though I was hungry, I turned in the opposite direction from the cafe. I was intrigued to investigate an RV park called the Merry Widow. The Merry Widow is located just east of the interstate, moments from “downtown” Basin. The name caught my attention so the spirit of exploration was upon me! Upon entry into the RV park, another sign did as well.

The sign invited visitors to proceed to the campground office to register for their health mine visit. Further, the sign indicated that it was RADON GAS that was the “secret sauce” in their health mine that made it worth visiting. As soon as I saw this, I KNEW there was a story here!

Note: Photos of the Merry Widow campground and mine can be found on their website (linked above.)

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Radon Gas

My personal and professional background includes the teaching of chemistry and living next to Montclair, NJ as well for many years. The relevance will become apparent as you continue reading.

Radon is a noble gas with atomic number 86. What this means is Radon is largely an unreactive element and forms compounds only “reluctantly.” So, radon when it occurs in nature, is often found as an element and not bonded to other elements. It is also a large (high atomic number) element, and like its high atomic number “cousins” lead, uranium, plutonium and the like, its atoms are largely unstable. In laymen’s terms, Radon is a radioactive gas.

Radon gas is also heavier than air. When you breathe it in, it does not readily leave your lungs.

Having lived near Montclair, I knew that the bedrock (granite) there contained radon. Local regulations required inspections for it when a home was purchased and if found, extensive and expensive mitigation had to take place to remove it. Why? Studies have shown that radon exposure is tied to increased incidence of lung cancer, especially among smokers.

Thinking this through, it makes sense as it is “common wisdom” to believe that radiation exposure is generally not good for any of us.

Radon Health Mine Claims

Digging deeper, I learned that Basin and nearby Boulder (Montana) are home to four health mines. Each receives visitors who suffer from arthritis, respiratory and other conditions who firmly believe that spending time in a health mine has helped relieve them of their symptoms!

In fact, each mine experiences visitors who return year after year for a “tune-up” after the (apparently or perceived beneficial) effects of their prior visit wear off. The health mines suggest unsupervised exposure to radon in the mine for a total of 32 hours over a period of 10-11 days. In fact, the Merry Widow according to their website sells packages (RV stay plus sessions in the mine) for that length of time.

The Merry Widow has RV sites you can stay in, or you can rent a site that already has an RV on it daily or for the week plus they suggest for your “treatment.”

I did locate an article posted on the NIH website that discusses, in as non-judgemental a way as possible, various aspects of the “Health Mine” industry.

Upon reviewing the Merry Widow website, in addition to radon gas, the cave (mine) offers running radioactive water which guests are welcome to soak in. The cave is about 60F year-round and I suspect the water is a bit cooler than that.

Ultimately, visitors are both inhaling radioactive radon and absorbing it through their skin as they soak in cold water.

Are these “health mines” SAFE? My Take…

I read this National Library of Medicine report with great interest. It confirmed much of what I already knew about radon and radioactivity. In the report, the author, who is an anthropologist with Cal State, reports that the EPA considers radon to be a potential carcinogen. Further, there is no safe level of exposure indicated. This suggests that any exposure to radon can be detrimental to human health.

I must state that even though I have near zero confidence in any of the “three letter agencies” after the atrocities of the past 4 years, I believe the EPA’s stance on radon is not controversial and is well accepted by medical experts worldwide. Further, a correlation between radon exposure (over time) and cancer has been established.

The author points out that the EPA has established a maximum allowable level of in home radon exposure of 4pCi/L (4 picocuries per liter), with 2pCi/L as a goal if attainable. In 1991, radon levels in the four mines was measured to be upwards of 1300 pCi/L. The numbers speak for themselves!

HOWEVER… There are many reports that Radon exposure DOES help…

Many of the mine visitors DO report symptomatic relief when they expose themselves to “radon therapy.” As many of these visitors are seeking relief from arthritis, many are likely of an advanced age. Further, as noted earlier, many return year after year to the mines.

My take: Knowing that cancer is not something that (typically) develops overnight, perhaps if their discomfort is sufficient and age is advanced, exposure to radon gas is worth the risk. In other words, if radon gas exposure *could* eventually result in the onset of cancer, it would likely take years and the relief an elderly person would experience from the “treatments” may be worth the tradeoff.

It goes without saying (and it is pointed out in the article referenced earlier as well) that as no medical agency (like the AMA) accepts radiation therapy as a legitimate treatment, no insurance company will cover the cost of the “treatments.”

Those suffering from arthritis and other long term pain producing conditions are often prescribed pharmaceutical drugs, most of which have their own (long list of) side effects.

Speaking for myself, I’m age 65 and am generally pain free. I do have a (short-term) issue in my knee (from a skiing incident this past winter) that *could* potentially benefit from radon exposure, but I do not believe it is worth the risk.

Silver Saddle Cafe… Breakfast was good!

The Silver Saddle Cafe DOES do a good breakfast. Further as I noted earlier, their menu resembled diners of years past, not reflecting the inflated prices many eateries are displaying these days. With the rising cost of food, I honestly don’t know how they do it!

An RV stay in Basin?

The Merry Widow is open to all RV travelers, regardless of whether they plan to partake in “radon treatments.” The Silver Saddle is the only restaurant in town. Boulder, 10 miles north on I-15 has about triple the population and there are a few places to eat there.

Verizon wifi worked well throughout both communities. Basin is definitely a quiet place to stay for a few days. Butte is 30 miles south and Helena is 40 miles to the north. There appears to be good hiking in the area and I’d bet there’s good fishing as well.

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