We are traveling again today, this time by car. We’re going to Billings, Montana. I grew up there. Towns are like minds – they can be narrow confines or exciting adventures.
Boulder, Colorado is an exciting adventure. Billings, for me, was a narrow confine. (Also, all of the interstate accesses to Billings are ugly. The town itself so not bad, but it strikes travelers as refineries and truck stops.)
Billings is a hot and dusty prairie town, close to mountains but part of that semi-desert region called Eastern Montana, about 12 inches of rainfall yearly. Like all home towns, we don’t appreciate what they really are until they are in our rear view mirrors.
The times I have visited there since leaving I’ve been surprised at how little activity there is after hours, and how scattered it is. The downtown area is lifeless, and its center of gravity has moved west, but no one seems to know where.
Billings is not an aesthetically pleasing place to the outside eye. New neighborhoods sprouted up, and all of old Billings is not much more than old houses spliced with long straight roads to get to new Billings. Out there on the west end is brand new infrastructure with roundabouts at most intersections, new shopping malls and planned housing, parks and commercial islands.
It’s all predictable, even boring. I used to drive out in the corn fields west of town looking for birds or passing the time. Out there you will find lots of … corn. East of town is more corn, but more varied geography – some hills, cliffs, viewpoints, streams. East of town are farms and cows, west of town are feedlots and gravel pits.
Overlooking Billings are the Rimrocks – a long cliff-like feature that extends perhaps forty miles west or more. A local geologist told me that the theory was that it was the remnants of a Fire Island-type sand reef where retreating waves built it up in the ancient sea beds. I’ll take his word for it. On top of the rims is riverbed gravel, so it was once a streambed for the Yellowstone River. The importance of the rims in community life is a long stretch overlooking the city where kids can park and drink beer and grope each other while adults pretend they are at the sock hop. That is the city’s Blueball Lane.
Before someone chimes in and tells me of the city’s rich culture, music, and intellectual life, I ‘ll concede the point. There are two colleges there, large medical facilities, three refineries in the region, and all of that requires smart and well-educated people to run it. There’s an NPR outlet that is NPRish to the hilt, playing classical music all day and Car Talk and Wait Wait on weekends just to keep people aware it even exists. Yellowstone Public Radio offers all of the news that the other news outlets offer, identical news in fact, but somehow they think they are better at it. Never did get that.
In 2000, my last general election there before moving up the road to Bozeman, Billings turned out 2,144 votes, 3.73% of those who bothered, for Ralph Nader. That turned a few heads. WTF? Billings?
I did that. I went door-to-door for weeks collecting signatures to get him on the ballot. …[redacted by my editor]… I walked house-to-house evenings with the petitions. It was relaxing, satisfying, better than watching TV. I collected maybe 2,000 signatures during that time.
Here’s what I think happened, at least with the ones who didn’t think the petition was for Rob Natelson* (it is Billings, after all): people were vaguely aware of a Ralph Nader, a consumer protection guy, the Corvair and Pinto and all of that, and maybe even heard he was running for president. There was scant news coverage, but after signing the petition they were alerted to his existence. Once keyed in, they began to pay attention. He wasn’t radical, and the things he said sounded more like New Deal or New Frontier than The Internationale.
Bush and Gore were doing their best to drive people into staying home. Nader was something new, perhaps something old. Those who signed the petitions were probably the bulk of those who voted for him, including the Natelson faction.
I did that. We, the local Greens, also staged a publicity stunt: We got together one Saturday and went along a highway atop the rims and cleaned up all of the litter. We had a big sign that said “Clean Up Politics – Vote Nader!” That got a little TV time, which is the primary way people know politics. We did that.
Anyway, ten-hour drive, and evenings in a place where you can drop a quarter on the pavement at night and then hear it bounce. I’m not saying that you can’t go home again. You can. But why?
*Natelson was a statewide phenomenon, the regional Randian and well-known throughout the area. Last I heard he had moved to Golden, Colorado.