Arthritist sufferers, others say Basin radon mine has helped when medications haven't
BASIN -- Sitting in a mine shaft where the air is cold, the walls drip water and ionized radiation seeps from the rock doesn't sound like a perfect vacation getaway, but it does, at least, sound interesting.
Those attractions -- and for many they are just that -- have given a defunct gold mine hidden in the hills above this old town its claim to fame. Here, just 25 miles south of Helena, hormesis is a common word and radon is smiled upon as a way to boost the body's immune system, fending off colds, curing migraine headaches and, some believe, arthritis.
I'd driven by the Merry Widow Health Mine a dozen times and not once had I stopped. But last week on a rather hot summer day, I saw a strange red arrow pointing toward the hills. The hooks had been set; I had to find out what the mine was all about.
Staffing the office outside the mine this day is Elizabeth Kelly, a former college student-turned Basin resident who provides visitors a favorable first impression. Kelly, a Minnesota blonde who holds a long-lasting interest in alternative medicine, has worked at the Merry Widow the past three seasons.
During that time, watching people arrive with a limp and leave with a smile, Kelly has come to believe in the mine's ability to cure chronic aches and pains.
"I studied naturopathic medicine in college and there was nothing in my studies that referred to radon as a therapy," Kelly said. "It's been interesting to see ionizing radiation used as a treatment."
In the mine's early days, accessing the tunnel required a strenuous hike up the mountain -- an obvious challenge for those afflicted with arthritis and asthma. Still, the stricken came, making the climb in hopes of sampling the mine's healing powers. Now, a dusty road allows visitors to drive and park within feet of tunnel entrance, leaving the longest hike into the shaft itself.
And so the clients come. They swing wide the creaky tunnel door like miners heading off to work. A tangled Virginia creeper twists around the entrance while a spigot of spring water runs nearby.
Kelly watches the tourists come and go. She passes towels across the counter of the shop and makes small talk with strangers from around the word. More times than not, she sits and reads whatever piques her interest and stares longingly upon the green Montana summer.
The slow pace of Basin and the mine's easy atmosphere provide Kelly time to think.
"The main reason people have so many health problems is due to environmental toxins," she explained. "Some people have far more success with this than they do with pharmaceuticals. It's such a different thing, but most people don't know anything about rock medication."
Today, at least, the maladies come in all shapes and sizes, from swollen feet to arthritis.
"I have nerve damage in my legs," Norma Bigley confessed on her way out of the tunnel. "I didn't think this would work. But after four to five weeks of it, you start feeling better."
Bigley isn't alone in her miraculous recovery. Paul Miller and Lyle Noelting, who have traveled cross-country with their wives to soak up the mine's therapeutic air, both said they don't get colds anymore. They've been coming here for six years and feel, as one of them said, strong as a bull.
Then there's Dorretta and Bernie Prussing from Seattle. Dorretta became a true believer in the early 1990s after brining her mother to the Merry Widow to cure her swollen legs. Those visits paid of for Dorretta as well; she can see better than ever and no longer needs her bifocals to read.
Dorretta steps from the cave and shields her eyes from the bright light of day. When she finds out I'm something of a Merry Widow virgin, she's eager to tell me her cave-dwelling secrets.
"It's such a cheap and nice vacation," she began. "So many different farmers from the provinces in Canada come here. They talk about their experiences. There's even a testimonial book in there."
My own trip to the Merry Widow, initiated by curiosity, quickly turns into a mission of discovery. A book of testimonials? It sounds like an infomercial with paid actors lauding a crazy product, like a bun burner or some gel promising to re-grow hair.
"It worked for me," they always say, or, "I can't believe the results."
"Go on in," Kelly urges me, coaxing me. "The testimonials are in the back of the mine on a shelf. They go back a long ways. Your camera will work just fine in there."
A couple pushes a man in a wheelchair from the cave entrance. After they pass, I pull the door wide and step inside. The cold air has a smell of its own. It's a cave smell, one of dirt and perpetual dampness. The air itself is thick, almost humid, and the walls wrap around in an iron-orange hue lit only by the bulbs hanging above. A trickle of orange water runs down a gutter near the floor. Heavy metals, I think.
The mine has always attracted attention. Last year, National Geographic Magazine featured the Merry Widow in text and several full-color photos. The article hangs framed in Kelly's office. Over the years, the mine has also appeared in Life, the New Yorker, Forbes and Fortune magazines.
Everything about Basin seems to draw attention. Set in a deep mountain valley, the town is home to the Montana Artist's Refuge, a pottery shop, a one-room bar, and a smattering of residents who know when someone new arrives in town. The dogs run down Main Street freely and a river moves clear and cold through the heart of town.
In the 1880s the community served as the hub of several gold and silver mines operating in the surrounding mountains. When the Atomic Age arrived, the rich hills yielded uranium. Mines like the Merry Widow, along with Basin's other health mines, including the Free Enterprise and the Earth Angel, now emit radon gas -- an inert material that occurs naturally from the decay of uranium and its byproducts, radium and radon.
Inside the Merry Widow's shaft, radon levels do exceed federal safety standards, or what's permitted in a home by as much as 175 times. But health officials say it's safe, as long as users limit their sessions inside the cave to 40 hours per year. Visitors claim that limited exposure does what standard medications cannot by offering relief from chronic pain and remission from disease.
Dwayne Knutzen, the mine's owner, has grown accustomed to the questions. Does it really work, they ask? Can it cure the aches and pains? Knutzen himself is a believer.
"Low doses of radiation will stimulate your immune system. It does wonders," he says.
Some researchers even say that radon gas stimulates the pituitary gland, producing health-giving hormones and natural steroids.
When Knutzen began researching the mine for purchase five years ago, finding literature on ionizing radiation as a therapy was a challenge. Now the literature is widely available. It's what helps the mine draw people from around the world looking for a drug-free cure to what ails them.
"You read all about arthritis drugs -- one day they're supposedly good for you and the next day the FDA is taking them off the market," Knutzen said. "People are getting tired of taking drugs."
The International Hormesis Society might agree with Knutzen. The organization works to promote and expand the scientific understanding of low-dose ionizing radiation as a therapy. The word hormesis itself, coined in 1943 by two scientists working with oak bark, is used to describe any beneficial effect that's induced by low doses of an agent that would be lethal if taken in high doses.
The Merry Widow cuts deep into the mountain, completing a slight turn that goes on for 500 feet. Inside the tunnel the temperature holds steady at a comfortable, if not cool, 60-degrees. In here it's quiet, but venture deeper and the stir of voices resonate from the shaft. It's up there, up ahead, that the book of testimonials awaits.
Lexi Bardin and her dog, Mitzi, soak up the invigorating air in a side room marked the "Doggie Den." A single red bulb sets the mood, illuminating the chamber in a strange planetary light. The little dog shifts energetically on a bench peppered with paw prints. Bardin herself relaxes under the light as if soaking in a hot tub. But the air is anything but warm and Bardin sits wrapped in a light jacket.
"Yesterday my feet seemed to have been swelling," Bardin said, turning away from the light. "I soaked them in that cold water for a while and came out feeling like a rose."
Like most who find their way to the health mine, Bardin heard about the destination from a friend. The mine has attracted visitors seeking homeopathic cures since the 1950s. Bardin has been making the trip for years.
"Someone told us about it," she said. "I feel a lot better whenever I come."
Stories on how radon mines like this one emerged as a tool for pain relief differ. One tells how an arthritic woman from California arrived in Basin to visit her husband, a uranium miner. She joined him underground each day for lunch and began to feel better. She talked and word of a magical cure spread, piquing the interested of Life magazine. Once the story went public, the secret was out and people came.
The chatter from the tunnel grows louder. There's another room, a smaller room, where one man sits alone playing cards. Around another bend and the pattern of clothing emerges from the stone-cold walls. People sit on seats pulled from old school buses. Some drink water, some talk, and some sit in silence. Everyone, it seems, is in good sprits.
I'm drawn to the sound of running water, nearly forgetting about the book of testimonials located nearby. The tunnel grows narrow, stopping at a plank that extends over a pool. A woman dips a bucket into the water and carries it back to her seat.
The conversations are lively. One circle talks about brown recluse spider bites and how the Merry Widow air healed their infection. Another man gives details of his friend's auto accident and subsequent hip injury. After a summer at the mine, the man said, his friend was cured.
A shelf sits against the tunnel and is lined with magazines -- items to pass the time for those who would rather read than talk. Several binders stand out from the rest. The testimonials are locked inside in plastic sleeves. Some are typed while others come hand-written. Some date back to the early 1990s -- back a long ways, Kelly had told me.
"I am now able to work a full day without fatigue," one man wrote. "My high blood pressure has been relieved. I am 73 years old."
Another man from Manitoba added his own experience, writing, "My wife has not had any asthma problems since we left the mine. That's wonderful news when you know she was using three medications four times a day and hasn't used any since we left the mine."
I take the book in my hands and find a seat by the pool of water. The conversations around me dim in volume as I dive into the words -- the testimonials -- written by people who have found relief from their suffering. Their lives come into focus, the before and after, like pictures of change.
"A close family friend of mine told me of his great success from visits to the Merry Widow Health Mine," one man wrote. "He had arthritis and joint problems from an industrial accident. After visits to the mine, he said that his breathing and lung power had also increased. He had not even expected that."
Ionizing radiation occurs when a single particle carries enough energy to ionize an atom -- completely removing an electron from its orbit. I think of invisible energy seeping from the rock; protons and electrons changing orbit, losing energy, gaining energy. I think of particles penetrating skin to interact with human cells as I sit 500 feet underground in a cave filled with people I have never seen -- people I will never see again.