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Best of Catherine Poe

Gaming Guru

 

Montana: Big Sky Country

28 December 2001

The sky stretches over the vast landscape like an azure awning. This is the Big Sky Country that A.B. Guthrie wrote about. From my room atop the Sheraton Billings Hotel, I have a ringside seat at one of the best shows anywhere, a Western sunset.

By the time the last streaks of purple and gold exit behind the Rimrocks, only stars remain, more stars than I have ever imagined possible. Some are so distant that you know you are looking into the center of the universe; others so close that you think you could reach out and harvest a handful.

Here in Montana the land is also as endless as the sky. The nearest town may be 100 miles away. It is this isolation that draws people here to escape other people. Hollywood celebrities gobble up retreats, driving up prices. Ted Turner's zillion acre Flying D Ranch is just outside Billings, one of the many he's buying across the West, hoping to connect them as one boundless wilderness so the buffalo can once more roam free.

Billings itself has a long history dating back to the days before the whites came, when the Yellowstone Valley was the migration route of buffalo. Legend has it that to appease their gods and halt the plague of smallpox brought by the whites, the Crow Indians once rode off the 400 foot high Rimrocks at what is now called Sacrifice Cliff. And just down the road stand Pompey's Pillar, named by Lewis and Clark in 1806, for Sacajawea's baby son.

Later in 1823, Billings was the campsite of 29 trappers from the American Fur Co. who were ambushed by 400 Blackfeet who stole the pelts and traded them to London. When the Northern Railroad moved west in 1882, it built the town of Billings, naming it after its president, Frederick Billings, and in five months it grew from a handful of citizens and one building to 2,000 people and 250 buildings.

Razing the Old West

Now, 119 years later, the little city of Billings numbers more than 81,000 people and umpteen buildings. But here is the sad part. Like so many cities and towns in the West, Billings doesn't honor its past. In its rush to join the 21st Century, the city fathers and mothers have razed the old and raised instead utilitarian buildings that look outdated within a decade, not realizing that these modern facades lack character, charm, and civilization. They are only blocks of concrete boredom. One of the few places in town that will give you a taste of old Billings is Montana Street down by the old Northern Depot.

When I lived in Billings eons ago, this was the rough part of town, and when you got off the train, you departed the area as fast as possible. Back then saloons still had spittoons and Billy the Kid would have felt right at home. Here "desperadoes" lurked -- Crow, cowboy, criminals, town drunks, reporters on a binge, and nary a tourist in sight.

Today it has been rehabilitated. Cafes brew cappuccino where saloons once stood. Art galleries and antique shops now occupy former flop houses and brothels. Fortunately the wonderful old buildings of another time remain, reminding us that this city does have a history.

One of the best places to sample this history and see one of the most beautiful collections of Indian art work, old and new, is the Far West gallery. The owner is a treasure trove of information, having once been a park ranger. Ask him anything from what strategic mistakes Custer made to the best place to fish in Yellowstone Park and he'll know the answer.

One of America's great parks is only around 200 miles away and Billings calls itself the gateway to Yellowstone. Of course, those 200 miles are as the crow flies. By car on mountainous switchbacks, it's more than a five-hour drive, albeit scenic hours. However, it is worth the trip, but plan to stay in Yellowstone Park or just outside to make your outing worthwhile.

Closer to your Billings base is the Little Big Horn Battlefield (406-638-2465), where General Armstrong Custer and his 210 men met death and defeat. About an hour away, just off Highway 90, heading south to Wyoming and through desolate pasture land, the drive will give you a sense of just how immense this country is. Anyone from the East is always amazed at the amount of space still left in America and is a bit cowed by the emptiness of it all.

Custer's Last Day

You can drive yourself through the Battlefield ($3 admission per car; $9.95 for audiotape), but if you do you will miss a lot. While I am not big on boarding tour buses ($6), this is one time I recommend you do, especially if you are lucky enough to hear the guide I had, a wise and witty young man from the Crow Agency.

While the Crows had six scouts riding with Custer and were enemies of the Cheyenne and Lakota (Sioux), who routed Custer, my guide was able to give a balanced view of what happened and remind us that while the Indians won the battle, they lost war. Their victory spurred the Federal Government to crush the Indians and drive them onto reservations. Within six years, the Indian nations were vanquished.

Standing where the 210 men of the 7th Cavalry died on what is now called Custer Hill, I could imagine the terror of those men as 1,600 warriors swarmed the hill, unleashing volley after volley of arrows, five to fifteen a minute. Through the guide's eyes, we saw again how General Custer stood on the knoll, looking down into the Little Bighorn Valley, and misjudged the size of the Indian village below him. It was the largest gathering of Plains Indians that any white had ever seen, 8000 men, women and children. And down there was the great strategist, Chief Sitting Bull, and the fearless warrior, Crazy Horse. The rest is history.

Back in Billings, you might want to stop at the Moss Mansion (406-256-5100) to see how the other half lived -- not the cowhand, but the gentry. A massive, red sandstone structure, the Moss Mansion was the family home until 1984 so the furnishings are original to the turn-of-the-century. And for a donation only, the Western Heritage Center (406-256-6804) is a must see for anyone wanting more information on the history and culture of the Yellowstone River area. Another big plus is that it is housed in one of the few remaining grand old buildings from 1900, the original public library.

Still haven't gotten your full quota of the West? Then head up Chief Black Otter Trail along the Rimrocks. Not only will you get spectacular views, but you will find Boot Hill and the grave of the man who brought back the news of the Custer massacre, Muggins Taylor. Just off the Trail you'll come upon the Range Rider of the Yellowstone, a cowboy and his horse, frozen in bronze. The model was William S. Hart, the cowboy silent film star.

Land of Contrasts

If you want to experience a stark contrast to the Wild West, head to the Yellowstone Art Museum (www.yellowstoneartmuseum.com), where contemporary art will chase away any sentimental Western depictions of a lone wolf baying at the moon. This is modern art with a big M. Some of it is abstract, done by both Native Americans and whites, and some of it is even recognizable. Whatever the exhibit, for the $3 admission, you can experience the kind of art you'd expect to see at New York's MOMA (Museum of Modern Art).

By this time you're probably tired, thirsty, and more than just a bit hungry. Don't worry, this is no cowpoke town. There are dozens of places to sleep and eat. However, when I was there, the Wing Dings (50 plus motorcycle crowd) were in town, 15,000 strong, and had taken every available room in Billings. I snagged one of the last, the Governor's Suite ($200) in the Sheraton Billings Hotel, which meant two huge rooms, two baths and a kitchenette. The average double room's tariff is $100.

At nearly 20 stories, the Sheraton is the tallest building in town, but unfortunately it suffers generic architecture. You could be in Chicago or Denver. For about the same price, the Radisson Northern Hotel (406-245-5121) has a wonderful Western lobby, although its rooms are contemporary ordinary. Plus, the Northern Hotel has a Victorian restaurant, the Golden Belle (406-245-2232) that would have made Frederick Billings feel at home. Porterhouse steaks, hand-cut, are the specialty, but they also feature coconut battered shrimp, and even a Monte Cristo sandwich, so your tab could run you $27 or $6.

For a 1930s Western feel, you may want to join the rest of Billings at Jake's (406-259-9375), but be warned, getting into this place on a Friday is nearly impossible. Steaks, chicken, homemade desserts, and even vegetarian specialties will set you back anywhere from $13 to $26 a person. However, I didn't find dinner to be Billings' strong suit. I was more impressed by breakfast.

Food is Fuel

For six dollars, you can pig out on a cinnamon roll the size of a purse, eggs, biscuits and sausage, gravy, juice, and watery coffee. Forget the coffee, just eat your heart out and remember food is fuel. This breakfast will keep you going until sundown. My favorite spot was Stella's Kitchen and Bakery on 29th Street. Within two days I was a regular and being greeted like an old timer by the waitress.

If you want to combine gaming and eating, Billings has many places to fit your style since gambling is everywhere, often cropping up where you least expect it. One place that you might to try is 4 B's Restaurant and Prime Time Casino (406-652-4646), where lunch or dinner won't cost you much more than $8.

The fact that it is close to many of the motels from Comfort Inn to C'Om Inn down by I-90 makes it a good fit for many travelers. Otherwise, if you are looking for action, just meander the streets of Billings. Right next to a florist or antique shop, you'll come across a black-windowed establishment that touts itself as the best live poker in town. There are dozens.

Other storefronts sport only machines of poker out front, but a round of table games in the back. They definitely have a seedy feel and unless you are an inveterate gambler, you might find these places less than attractive.

Out at the Crow Reservation, a large, white casino sits just down the road from the Battlefield, the Little Big Horn Casino (406-638-4444). But an empty parking lot and unsavory characters lolling out front kept me moving on. The casino serves no liquor, only ice cream, and its range of gaming includes video poker, video keno, bingo, quarter slots, and poker.

At the end of the day, head back up to the Rimrocks and watch the city lights twinkle under the night sky.

Then look east and west and south, where Billings stops and the land begins, where the dark swallows the land whole. You will see where civilization continues to creep forward and you hope not too fast.

Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.
Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.