Day 19: Billings, MT

Thursday, September 17

I woke with a Christmas Day flutter in my chest: in a few hours I was going to ride a horse for the first time.

Everyone I told about my impending first-ever horse ride seemed, to me, less excited than they should be. “Sounds fun!” or “Nice!” did not feel like appropriate responses, despite the exclamation points. I always wanted to say it again to help them understand: “No, but come on, I’m going to ride a horse!” The right thing to say/text would have been, “Whoa! Haha, get it, whoa? Anyway that is so amazing, I envy you so much, have an amazing time!! Take lots of pictures, I can’t wait to see them!”

The one person who responded the way I hoped was a client I had a phone call with that morning. I blabbered at length about the beauty of Montana and how excited I was to ride a horse and she very patiently played along. (The word “amazing” is used much more often in client relationships than in real friendships because in business people are often trying a little too hard to to be agreeable.)

Breakfast was at a restaurant connected to the hotel called Bernie’s Diner:


It was cute enough, and the food was fine enough, and here is a picture of it:


A complete breakfast.

Then I hung out in the room working until it was time to leave. Or actually until half an hour before it was time to leave. The ranch was less than fifteen minutes away, but just in case Google was super wrong about how long it would take to drive those eight miles, I thought I’d give myself some extra time. But I really was way too early, so I stopped to get gas, then semi-on-purpose made a wrong turn so that I’d have to backtrack a bit because I didn’t want to look dumb getting there forty-five minutes before I was due.

Instead I got there twenty-five minutes before I was due, and it turned out to be fine, because the one other person riding that day was already there. She was Germany and her name was Jutte (pronounced you-tuh).

I made a very pathetic attempt to speak to Jutte and her husband in German, telling them that my sister-in-law is also from Germany. The husband nodded and smiled at me pityingly, and Jutte remained silent, I assumed in critical judgement of my ineptitude. Jutte was a serious rider of horses and was about to be disappointed with her experience.

I, meanwhile, was about to get exactly what I came for: a pleasant ride on a gentle horse.

Theresa, who runs the tours, is about my age and grew up on the ranch. She and her neighbor Meg acted as our guides. Meg is a former rodeo performer who reminded me of Melissa McCarthy’s character in Bridesmaids. (Aside: This oral history of McCarthy’s performance is pretty good.) Meg also had some German language knowledge. She confidently said a few intermediate-level sentences to Jutte, then mentioned she’d studied German in high school (about twenty years before I did) and hadn’t spoken it since so she was a little rusty (#humblebrag #deutschbag).

My horse was a tolerant soul named Banjo, and with the help of a small staircase I hoisted myself onto his saddle. Theresa showed me how to direct him and stop him and make him go. I practiced it for a couple minutes, sensing Jutte’s increasing impatience. Then we headed out on a two-hour trek around the ranch.


Finally wearing the cowboy boots I bought in El Paso for vaguely cowboy-style activities

Theresa struck me as good-natured, thoughtful, and open. I really liked her. We chatted about life in Billings versus Brooklyn, about cost of living and conveniences and compromises you make in choosing where to live. She didn’t think she’d like being in constrained city spaces, having grown up on 700 acres of land. I told her she should at least visit some time because nothing else is like it. She’d recently been to Ireland, and hearing her talk about it, about the warmth of the people and groups of all ages singing together in pubs, made me want to go back. In my fantasies about moving to Billings, she and I would meet up after work and she’d tell me funny stories about her dating life. Having an amiable conversation while ambling along on a lazy horse is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.




Meg looking for an owl we thought we’d seen in the distance


With Banjo during a little break


Note the cliff edge in the above image. In my old age I’ve become afraid of heights, always worried that I will throw myself over a cliff because it’s so not the thing I’m supposed to do. Theresa assured me that Banjo was not suicidal, and I believed her, but every time we came to a cliff I hung back about ten feet, just to make extra sure I wouldn’t do something idiotic.

About midway through the ride, Theresa asked Jutte how she was doing and Jutte said, “Eh. It’s slower than I expected.” Theresa sympathized and said that most of the people who ride the trail are beginners with little or no experience, so it’s not always as fun for people who know what they’re doing.

Occasionally Banjo would break out of a stroll and into a trot for no reason, and those were my favorite moments. I’d started to forget I was riding a horse because I barely had to do anything other than sit. But when a horse trots, you notice. I learned how to adjust my posture to minimize the bouncing and started feeling like a natural.


After the ride ended, Theresa let me feed apples to both of our horses while Meg took Jutte out to another area of the ranch so she could run her horse around a bit. I petted the horses and felt love for them, and for Montana and for life.

It was just about time for dinner by the time I got back to Billings. It had also started to rain. I walked over to Lilac, the restaurant that Ted, the bartender from the day before, had recommended. On my walk a woman passed me and angrily yelled, “Nice umbrella!” It’s a very run-of-the-mill umbrella, so I figured she was commenting on my having an umbrella. She didn’t have one, and she looked a little impoverished. I briefly considered giving mine to her, but there was no obvious place to get a new umbrella, and I told myself I didn’t owe her the umbrella just because she seemed poor and upset.

Ted had mentioned that he would be a server at Lilac that night, and indeed he was. I asked him to recommend a beer and he brought me over one of his favorites, a saison. We chatted a little about what I’d done that day and I trumpeted the ranch where I’d had my horse experience.

I sat at a table rather than the bar so I could spread out and write questions for Steve, my next guest. Pretty soon I noticed that the sixty-ish couple at the table next to me were carrying on a self-conscious conversation, and I supposed they thought I was listening. I wouldn’t have been except that it seemed like they, or at least the woman, wanted me to. How could you tell, Beth? I’m sensitive to stuff like this, and I’ve been guilty of it myself. It’s not so much about what’s said as about how it’s said. When you think you have an audience you start to perform.

Anyway, eventually the guy got up to go to the bathroom and I decided to ask the woman where they were from. They live in Athens, Georgia but they met in New York City years ago. They were both lovely, interesting people. We talked about our respective travels for a while and ended up exchanging email addresses.


Some kind of really good pork thing


Delicious bread pudding

I was planning to check out the cocktail bar Julie had recommended the night before. But just as I was leaving Ted asked me if I’d gotten my card back. I asked him what he meant, and he said I’d left my credit card at the Fieldhouse the night before. Yikes. Good thing he remembered.

So I had my nightcap at the Fieldhouse, feeling I owed it to them for keeping my card safe. Everyone was friendly, but Julie wasn’t there, and I felt a little bummed not to be trying out a new place. I went to bed wishing I had one more day in Billings so that I could see more of the city. Maybe I’ll go back someday.

Hotel Art of the Day

19-artCurious Horses in Snow
Cynthia Baldauf
Photograph, 18″ x 12″
Northern Hotel, Billings, MT

Hotel Art Score

5/10. Could this really have been the best shot from this photo session? The framing is too tight and the horses partially visible in the background are distracting. It just feels like one of the proofs you’d X out. This image is currently being sold on for three credits.

Art Art Score

3/10. Is that too generous or too harsh? I can’t tell.