A Failure in Billings


Montana was supposed to offer everything that the urban megalopolis east coast was not—big sky and big country, cowboys and cattle. Montana is the fourth largest state in the union, but has a population of just over a million. Montana ranks 48th in population density. This was a state that very recently had a speed limit of “prudent” to allow for more speedy travel between the state’s few populated areas—Missoula, Billings, and Helena.

Billings is the largest city in Montana, but small by comparison, perhaps 100 thousand people with a modest state university in town. Think of a “county seat”—the city in a small county that houses the county courthouse, a smattering of mom and pop shops, and the requisite Anytown, America row of fast food, big box stores and gas pumps. The state was hosting my work team for a meeting of state and county officials and decided to keep things on very low budget, renting out a Holiday Inn on the south side of town–the Anytown–for the event.

I had only been at this quasi-consulting gig for about six months, and Billings was the first of my “technical assistance” work “products” (oh, the banal language of government and corporate Newspeak) under our program. The goal was to fly in, help the state’s project team make a strategic plan worthy of the governor’s and legislature’s time, and get out of there. Despite that narrow mission, I was convinced that I would be able to try to find a bit of Billings’ charm and explore the environs. After all, this was Big Sky country. Beyond the buttes lie the Beartooth Mountain range, and Yellowstone to the south. To the southeast was Cody, the site of Custer’s Last Stand. I debated renting a car for a little excursion on my own time, but my team lead didn’t seem interested, or perhaps felt that any side trip would be an abuse of company time.

Company time, what a phrase. In our tech-heavy world, the concept of company time has become muddled. Once upon a time, you clocked in, you clocked out and you went home. Companies assign laptops and cell phones in the name of productivity, but in fact, the gadgets are a leash. They put the worker on call, 24/7. In my estimation, my office is in my pocket now. If I take a phone call while overlooking the Battle of Little Bighorn or even in my hotel bathtub that is my prerogative.

When I first started posting some photos from my work travels on facebook, my high school nemesis, my “Lex Luthor,” commented that my side-trips are a violation of “portal to portal” rules. In labor law, portal to portal laws try to protect the employer from time theft and liability. For example, if an employee takes a smoke break, is that his time or the company’s time? If an employee breaks his leg on the way to work, can the employee claim workman’s compensation? In my case, if your employer is sending you on work travel, do they own your time, from wheels up to your return to home?

The last case is not so clear cut. An employer that sends you on the road needs to care for your basic needs. You get a good flight, taxi, hotel, and reimbursement for food. I can’t pack my lunch and dinner for travel, nor can I see my family at the end of the work day. My work day has to end at some point, and the time thereafter, whether on travel or not, is my own. Some employers might have a policy describing in detail what time they own when you are on business travel. Mine did not. The inference was, we worked a 35 hour work week, whether at home or on travel. In those moments, off the clock, I maximize the experience that has been presented before me—a travel opportunity. And every town has something worth experiencing, from Boston to yes, even Billings.

Or so I thought. We land at Billings airport, a solitary terminal with a high school chow line in lieu of McDonalds and Starbucks.  The airport was situated on a butte—a rather high hill in the Piedmont of the mountain ranges to the west and east. After a considerable wait, a cab, perhaps the only cab in Billings, shuttled us to the Holiday Inn.

Being a city slicker, I expected a few more sidewalks in Billings, but they were scarce. This was a driving town, not a walking town it seemed. Hungry, and looking for a local flavor, I couldn’t find anything that did seem like goop. My colleague, whom I’ll call Tex, eyeballing for similar discriminating options, looked over at me in the cab with a shared, mutual woe.

“There’s a Cracker Barrel,” Tex said despairingly.

“Seriously, a Cracker Barrel? Is that it?”

After weighing our options with the hotel staff, we ambled across the concrete expanse for the Cracker Barrel. Billings sits in a bowl of sorts, surrounded by the buttes on all sides, with high and defiant chain restaurant signs puncturing the Big Sky.

A chain restaurant can be an indulgence from time to time. After all, the whole reason that chains even exist is to offer the traveler a familiar flavor while on the road. This used to be touted as a good thing, but I could never see the value or comfort in eating the same burger in every town in America. Certainly there are local pleasures to be had, but not at this moment. Given how long we waited for our initial cab from the airport, necessity won over peculiarity.

The weather was gloomy, bone chilling cold. I opted for the chicken and dumplings, hoping for some comfort. The waitress brought out the plate, and there before me was what I first suspected to be avant-garde art. White chicken breast, atop a mound of bleached white flour dumplings with a white gravy. On a white plate. This was minimalist. Performance Art. I am not sure that Warhol could top the banality. A sprig of parsley would have been too liberal, too effete for this plate. However, salt is white, and the dish sorely required it. I did upset the balance by adding black pepper, but this only tricked my vision into thinking I was seeing in black and white. The dish was perhaps the most unappetizing thing to behold after a five-hour flight, but for a soul running only on coffee fumes, the meal would do.

Tex didn’t fare much better, his steak a grisly grey. Tex is more of an Austin Texan rather than an Amarillo Texan. Whole Foods over Wal-Mart.  I knew Tex wasn’t taking this well. Facing days of similar rubbery fare at the Holiday Inn, we had to come up with some other strategy, and to salvage Billings from the annals of travel perdition.

We asked the hotel desk where the best restaurant in Billings could be found. Bringing our east coast swagger and high cost of living into this very remotest of places, we figured we could swing the Billings high life.

Tex wasted no time here. “The Rex? Book it. For tomorrow evening.”

Of course, the restaurant was not in such demand to require a reservation—our party had the run of the place. Now, here was a menu that I thought Big Sky worthy and challenged the east coast pocketbook. Smoked BBQ,  certified Angus, Big Sky Brewery microbeer–all for about $40 a head.


Billings did let up some of its charm, but I had to hunt for it. The Holiday Inn did have a shuttle evidently, though the driver was not supposed to make runs into town, only the airport. He offered, and we tipped happily. (Travel note—hotel shuttle drivers will do that sort of thing if they are not too backed up with pick-ups. Make the tip worth their while). I asked the shuttle driver to drop me downtown, as I had to find a good coffee before my head exploded. I stumbled over the Rock Creek Coffee Roasters, a modest independent roaster in the “downtown.”  I have more often than not had great coffee at independent coffee shops, especially those that are roasting in small batches. Most coffee-addled humans will reach for the familiarity of the Green Mermaid’s burnt brews, myself included. Another chain offering universal comfort to the travel weary. If you do drink that much coffee, especially the ‘bucky’s variety, you will instantly notice the enlightened state of your taste buds as you imbibe an small batch, medium roast espresso. It is the difference between Franzia and Bourdeaux, or McDonand’s and caviar.

After coffee, I walked downtown, taking in the window shopping and poking my head into several Indian shops, where the proprietors sold hand-made jewelry, leather ware and baskets from off the reservation. As this would be the closest that I would get to the Little Bighorn, I took a look around. Indian crafts is tax-free in Montana, and that only encouraged my shopping, picking up some small baskets woven by the Crow tribe.

Indian baskets, good coffee, and the dinner at The Rex the night before, I was able to set some memories of the place before I was recalled to the “porthole” to finish my official business in Montana. Had I had a few more days, and a better start, I would have discovered the Yellowstone art gallery, the Montana and Yellowstone Valley Breweries, and a multitude of more local options in Montana’s first city. Instead, an early failure set the tone.

In the emergency management business, FEMA likes to take every crisis as a learning opportunity. Mistakes are evaluated, wounds opened and egos are bruised. FEMA will issue a “lessons learned” report, owning up to their mistakes and making plans for future disasters. In the case of Billings, the lessons learned are manifold:

  • Don’t judge any city by its “Anytown, USA” expanse of strip malls and McBurgerBell establishments–ask the locals what is good in town.
  • Rent a car–especially if there is no public transportation.
  • Don’t hesistate–if you have a moment on the trip, take it.
  • Do your homework before you travel—a Google search about the best local experience in your destination will save you from digesting a plate of white goop.

Photo credit: the@w00d / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA


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