Friday, March 6, 2009

Billings MT

Landing on a snowy night in Billings Montana, I wondered if the Montana of memory would be waiting for me in the cold light of day, or if I had just made the whole thing up over time. Tomorrow would tell, and by the time I had checked in to my hotel and pulled my boots off, I found myself taking a 12 story look at a sleeping town, feeling far from home and missing the warm smile that for the next 11 days would have to be imagined at the other end of a telephone. Bill Withers was right, I thought; ain't no sunshine when she's gone.

The hotel was a stone's throw from the town's birthplace - the Billings Stockyard, established by Frederick Billings, then president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and as I drifted off into a well overdue sleep, my last memory was of a lonesome whistle riding the frigid dark, and the low rumble of boxcars past my window.

Morning, and somewhere on these snow covered streets, i figured there must be a place to eat. Seeing as this was new terrain for me, I decided to take the scenic route, and soak up what I could. One thing came back to me from my previous Montana experience - the friendly locals. People say hello on the street with a natural ease. I had grown up in a small own where this was once the norm, but seems to have vanished with the new breed, but here in Montana, it's still part of a person's day.

Eventually I found myself in Mc Cormick's cafe, chowing down on an omelette made with the freshest ingredients I think I've ever tasted, in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere of locals and travelers. I was reminded of William Least Heat Moon's observation that a diner can be gauged by the amount of calendars hanging on the wall - a good one having upwards of four, a bad one only one if that.

But in the thirty years since he made that observation, I guess a lot has changed, and although there wasn't a calendar in sight, I couldn't have asked for a better respite from the blowing snow.

Montana knows what it is and is completely comfortable in it's own skin. I felt no sense of striving - just doing. It seems, to me at least, that people tend to their work, and say hi to each other along the way - maybe a testament to the state's rural and ranching past or not. I don't know .

Before the show, I waited in my hotel, and scanned from my window the now thawing streets, and saw that Billings is a flat grid surrounded on all sides by steep bluffs, an industrial town with the outskirts dotted with generic chain stores, and downtown supporting local businesses old and new. After leaving Billings in the rear view mirror, I'm left with the confidence that wherever I am when I think of Billings, Billings is just working ahead, and ready to say hi whenever I get back.

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