The heavy wooden door of the Merry Widow mine shaft creaked open and Heather Scott stepped through it and into another world. Here, it's a world where her pain is gone, where the brutal swelling of her arthritis abides for a time ... where the pain of glaucoma in her eyes subsides. Scott, who drove to the mine in Basin, Montana, from Calgary, moved slowly down the wet path of the mine shaft, her mother, Peggy, walking behind her. Inside the former gold and silver mine it's a dark, damp place, where water drips from the walls, and a long line of light bulbs provides the only illumination. We pass a cubby hole with an eery red light, where people sit with their ailing pets, and move toward the end of the 450-foot tunnel, where a long row of benches faces each other. For Heather Scott, who suffers from arthritis as well as her glaucoma, a few hours a day in the radon mine helps ease her pain. Scott drives to the Merry Widow mine once a year to sit and breathe the radon-infused air. She sits in the mine for 10 to 11 days each summer for three hours a day, in one-hour increments. "The first time I came here I was pretty much dragged against my will," Heather said. "Hearing the stories and meeting the different people who come to the mine, I thought they were full of it. "Then halfway through my treatment I went on a hike for the first time of my life, and with relatively no pain. "The only thing different was being in here. That's what kept me coming back. It kept helping with the pain."
Heather uses mine water to bathe her eyes, and she said it relieves the soreness and dryness caused by the glaucoma. She has had immediate results that lasted six to 10 months, but she's also had results that take three or four months to appear. The radon exposure eliminated her headaches as well, and her flexibility increased. "I was running out of here by the end of my first treatment," Heather said. "I don't run." Her mother, Peggy, accompanies Heather, though she doesn't suffer from any chronic illnesses. Sitting at a table and shuffling a deck of cards, the pair had come for their second treatment of the day during a visit in July. "I drink the water, and it cleans the toxins out of your system," Peggy Scott said, laying out a game of Solitaire. It's been an absolute miracle for my daughter." Heather combined her radon treatments with herbal remedies and she said she had so much relief "that I completely stopped my prescription drugs," she said. That lasted about seven years before she had to go back on prescription medications. The Merry Widow Health Mine is one of several old mines around Basin, Montana, where gold and silver was once mined, and while mining has stopped, people still visit the mines here for their health effects, which come by exposure to radon gas. About 2,000 people visit the Merry Widow Mine each year, according to general manager Elizabeth Kelly. Most of the clientele is over 50 and tends to have arthritis as their primary ailment, though there are people with cancer and cataracts. "They're frustrated with mainstream medicine and the ill effects of pharmaceutical drugs," Kelly said. The Merry Widow closed as a gold and silver mine and opened as a radon mine in 1952. It is owned by a Seattle investor who plans to add amenities like lodging, Kelly said. There is no lodging at the mine, but there is a large campground next to the Boulder River where many clients stay in tents or Rvs. The other lodging is the tiny town of Basin, just across the highway from the Merry Widow Mine. From an economic standpoint, the mines are about all that Basin has going for it. Set in a narrow valley between two tall mountain walls, Basin is merely a shell of its former self, a town that once sat in the center of a thriving mining industry between Butte and Helena. Now the single main street through the town of Basin is quiet, except for a few four-wheelers zipping by on their way to the surrounding mountains. There's the expected bar, several dozen broken-down houses littered with junk and a volunteer fire station. The town "park" is a tiny spot of grass and a picnic table sandwiched between two brick buildings. The Montana Artist Refuge program, in a two-story building on main street, gives artists from around the world a quiet place to work. Basin's gold and silver mining stopped decades ago, but new life was breathed into the Merry Widow Mine when it was discovered that the radon gas in the air of the mine could help people with their ailments, from arthritis to gout to cancer. Whether it works depends on whom you ask: pessimists say it's only a placebo effect that nudges people toward feeling better, and some scientists say any level of exposure to radiation is dangerous. But proponents of low-level radiation exposure say it enhances your body's immune system and this immune response can affect your body's overall health in a positive way. It takes two to three weeks for the autoimmune increase to kick in, so for sicknesses like flu or colds, which run their course in that amount of time, radon exposure might not be beneficial. However, the mine does see clients who come once a year for preventive medicine, Kelly said. Kind of like a flu shot that you breathe in. Radon treatment has been used in Europe, Russia and Japan for over 200 years, Kelly said. "This is not a new concept," she said. Radon exposure stimulates the endocrine gland, which helps with pain relief and reduction of swelling, Kelly said. And, taken in low doses, it can diminish cancer cell growth, she said. Radon-222 is a radioactive gas released during the natural decay of thorium and uranium, which are naturally occurring elements in the earth. Residential radon exposure is considered the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Radon-222 decays into radioactive elements, two of which - polonium-218 and polonium-214 - emit alpha particles, which the EPA says are highly effective in damaging lung tissues. Radon gas is measured in picocuries per liter. Natural levels of radon in the environment average about 0.4 picocuries per liter of air, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that indoor air contain no more than 4 picocuries of radon per liter. The radon level in the Merry Widow Mine is around 1,300 picocuries per liter of air. People who enter the mine figure the reward is worth any health risk. Prior to entering the mine you can breathe into a geiger counter, one of those space-aged contraptions with a box and a microphone. Before going into the mine, the counter reveals normal levels of radon in your breath. But after an hour in the mine, the geiger counter twitches rapidly with a "click click click" as it reads your radon levels. Scary stuff to a healthy person, but for people who want healing at any cost it's a welcome dose. Often it helps them get away from using prescription drugs. "You walk out of here into the sunshine, and you feel like you're alive for the first time," Heather Scott says. Walking into the 450-foot long tunnel of the Merry Widow, your shoes squeak on the moist rug laid along the length of the tunnel. With a yearly constant temperature around 60 degrees, it's chilly and cold water runs down the walls in rivulets. Visitors drink the water or soak in it. One man splashed water in his eyes, saying it gave him relief from his cataracts. Halfway down the shaft of the Merry Widow is the "Doggie Den," where people bring their pets (they're not allowed in the other areas where humans congregate.). Heather Scott has a cat that suffers from hip dysplasia, and she brings her pet to the den for frequent visits. "I brought him in once a day, and by the end of the day, he can walk without limping," she said. Next to the 12-foot by 12-foot Doggie Den is a shallow rock basin where clients can bathe in the ice-cold water fed from a hose.Under the eery glow of a red lamp, Heather Scott settles her 300-pound frame in this rock basin to bathe, pulling the plastic shower curtain for privacy. The moist, copper-colored walls of the mine shaft are covered with signatures and graffiti. People who have come here have found healing and they scribble sayings about their experience. "Jesus Cares" says one. At the end of the mine shaft is a small cave, big enough for a card table, where people gather to talk, play cards, dominoes, or read. Benches line the walls nearby, allowing about 20 people to occupy the mine at one time, not counting the Doggie Den down the way. People like Heather Scott and her mother, who have been coming to the Merry Widow Health Mine for years, develop close personal friendships with others during their stays, coming back year after year to share stories and catch up on each other's lives. Some people - like those with terminal illnesses - never make it back. Heather and Peggy Scott hadn't been to the mine in a few years, but returned this year eagerly. "Oh, we're a long way from home," Peggy Scott said in her Canadian accent. "It felt like the car had wings, almost like it wanted to come all by itself."