Day 18: Medora, ND to Billings, MT

Getting back into writing after being away from it for a while is like making yourself go to the gym after a spell of slackitude. You know it’ll be great once you get a routine going, but your brain keeps offering (often absurd) alternatives to initiating the routine. Our light switches are looking kind of grimy—how about I wipe them all down? This bag full of shoes still hasn’t been unpacked, and I should actually do a full assessment and reorganization of summer and winter shoes. Oh yeah, and I should finally read this article about why people are drawn to luxury items; it’s been hanging out in a tab all week. Wouldn’t it feel good to close that tab?

At the beginning of the trip I was looking forward to keeping a blog, because it’s been one of my main pleasures during the bike trips. I didn’t predict how different this experience would be. The drives were much longer, and most of my stops had more things to do than your typical rural Texan town, so the hours I’d normally spend writing were generally spoken for, either with driving or work or exploring. Not writing was the right thing to do, ultimately, even if it was a stressful decision to make.

Anyway, I’m here now, back on the trip elliptical. Hello.

***

Wednesday, September 16

I woke up early after a comfortable sleep and headed down to the restaurant, where the hostess seated me in the same cozy corner as I’d been the night before. Over a greasy egg sandwich I read the paper and worked on a crossword. My horoscope for the day read: “Inject some excitement into your itinerary. Facing new challenges will put you in contact with people who have similar tastes and desires. You can achieve a fresh perspective if you get out and take action.” Will do, horoscope.

18-01

Food: 5.5/10

18-02

The only one I wasn’t sure about was 21 down, “Burglar’s ‘key.'” LOID turned out to be right; it’s short for celluloid.

About half an hour after leaving Medora, I crossed into my next new state: Montana. It was my most anticipated state; I expected this stretch to be the pinnacle of my solo experience.

To commemorate my arrival I made up a song called “You Made It to Montana.”

The day’s drive was longish, more than four hours, and I decided to break it up by stopping in Makoshika State Park, which offered more badlands for marveling and contemplation.

18-03

Such as these.

18-04

This sign is like a metaphor for life, you know?

A little beyond the area in the photo above, the road becomes gravelly and inclines almost comically steeply. Signs warn RVs not to attempt the climb. But I started driving up it because there I was.

Almost immediately I realized I’d made a mistake. The hill was cliff-edged, slippery, and so sharply sloped that I couldn’t get out of first gear. Fear rose in my throat. Backing down a big twisty hill was not a safe option, and driving all the way up and over seemed equally risky. But just as I was on the point of pep-talking myself through the scariest drive of my life, a pull-off appeared, seemingly for the express purpose of letting people back out of their foolishness. The pull-off was dicey, too, with sharp drop-offs on three sides, just barely enough room for a three-point turn, and the risk of a car heading down the winding hill not spotting me until it was too late. With slow, cautious movements I brought Mickey and me back to safety.

18-05

Back on level ground. Good clouds that day, huh.

The rest of the drive to Billings was beautiful. Montana looks like drawings of the seven days of creation from religion textbooks of my youth: lush, rolling hills, mountains with perfect little lakes next to them, trees interspersed just so, all for maximal visual pleasure. It is beautiful, and then it keeps being beautiful. You find it hard to believe that such beauty could stretch for such an expanse. And then you start getting used to it, the way you get used to people in New York City looking like models.

Arriving in Billings was a bit jarring after such scenery; the city feels rough around the edges, a little scrappy and grungy. But I also got the sense of flowers sprouting through the cracks, a potency not yet widely felt, but present.

I checked in to the Northern Hotel, an older building refurbished in the boutique mode, and overtipped the valet and bellhop because I only had two ten dollar bills. (How is tipping going to work when no one uses cash anymore? Maybe we should all just stop.)

It was just after five o’clock and I hadn’t eaten lunch. I looked up restaurants and predictably picked the Fieldhouse, a “hip, modern eatery serving American specialties such as burgers & small plates, plus beers & wine.”

It was mostly empty. I sat at the bar. A pretty blonde server—I can’t remember her name, so let’s call her Julie—asked me where I was coming from, and I told her about the trip and asked her for recommendations in Billings. She told me about a good cocktail place and an independent movie house and a hiking spot a short drive away. Then a bartender named Ted joined in and asked me if I liked beer. He had recently completed a tour of all of Montana’s breweries. His friends publish a local magazine and were planning to write about his trip in a forthcoming issue. He gave me a couple of issues and went to fetch his trip journal. Amusingly, the bulk of his notes were just names of beers and their ABVs—nothing about quality, which would be my main concern—with sporadic mentions of whether a brewery offered musical performances or food. (If you’re wondering, Ted was not interested in me. He only had eyes for Julie. She was very cute and sweet; you’d have a crush on her, too. I still do.)

Both of them loved living in Billings. Julie moved there from Chicago and said she feels like the pace of life is just right, that the city has a lot going on but hasn’t been discovered (and, she implied, ruined) by rich people. She talked about Bozeman, a smaller but more glamorous city a bit farther west, and how, while it’s lovely, it’s full of Hollywood people on vacation. Billings has a different, rawer, and to her, better energy.

This was the first time on the trip that I felt like I’d met people I could relate to, people who had similar tastes and desires, you might say. Our conversation wasn’t especially deep or substantial, but Julie’s and Ted’s friendliness and openness struck me. For the next few days I would fantasize about what it might be like to live in Billings.

18-07

My food at the Fieldhouse was sort of weird. I decided to get the special, an inventive paella-like pasta dish that didn’t quite gel. It didn’t matter, though. I left with a fresh perspective.

18-08

Subway Sandwiches, Billings, MT

18-09

I swear I saw this same train again in Nebraska, weeks later

Hotel Art of the Day

18-artColumbine #2
Steven Meyers
X-ray photograph, ~8″ x 12″
Northern Hotel, Billings, MT

Hotel Art Score

7/10. I guess I knew x-ray photography was a thing—I definitely feel like I’ve seen this kind of photo before, somewhere—but it’s not something I encounter with regularity. So this wins points for novelty. It was in the bathroom. I remember looking at it more than I did most other hotel pieces. It drew me in, even though I don’t particularly like it.

Art Art Score

7/10. The x-ray technique yields an image that’s both graceful and clinical. It feels balletic and delicate, cold and otherworldly, and I like that tension. The tint detracts from it, though; I prefer the starker black and white version. And as I said above, I don’t exactly like it. But it has a certain power.

5 Comments

  • MRB

    Hello! Very pleasant to be back on the road and back on the elliptical with you!
    I love the photo of the Billings Subway. Hopperesque.

  • Brian

    I’m glad you’ve picked up the blogs again – Billings, MT sounds like a really neat place!

  • Emma B

    Hooray! Glad to back on the blog-trip with you!
    (And of course it all reads slightly differently to me, now that I experienced a bit of it with you!)

    I really want to hear how “You Made It to Montana” goes.

    • Beth

      I’ll be interested to hear more about how it reads differently. And I’ll sing the Montana song for you over Hanukkah!

  • Laura

    Yay! You’re back!

    The xray flower freaks me out.

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