Lay of the Land: A series of essays on the spirit of Montana
I can’t remember when I first came to Billings, but the safe money would put it sometime in the first half of 1970, when I would have been mere weeks or months old. My parents lived in Casper, Wyo., at the time, and we had kin in Billings and Great Falls who were eager to meet me.
I do remember, with varying degrees of clarity, many of the subsequent trips: climbing through the Pictograph Caves as a youngster, when you could do that sort of thing; visits to my aunt and uncle’s place on Clark Avenue and, later, farther west off Broadwater; a long layover on a series of flights that carried me from Wolf Point, where my father was working, to Dallas/Fort Worth, where my mother waited to see me again after a summer’s absence; a family trip to Yellowstone when I was about to be a senior in high school; and my own drive here, in the first car I ever bought with my own money, when I was flush with cash at age 19 after some freelance work.
Those last two trips, notably, helped bring shape to a particular idea I had. I wanted to leave my suburban upbringing behind and live here on the northern plains. That I began formulating this idea at 17 but needed nearly 20 years to make it happen can be ascribed to the folly of youth and the serendipity of time. Long after I’d given up on the dream of living in Montana and had hitched my wagon to other stars, I found myself here at 36, settling down to pursue another dream. I wanted to write novels.
It surprised no one more than me when that happened, too. A further surprise: After a childhood spent largely in Texas and a working life that had played out in such places as Alaska, Kentucky, Ohio and California, I set my stories in Montana generally, and Billings specifically.
If I may quote the esteemed honcho of this website, “Maybe that’s presumptuous of me, in a state where so many people can trace their roots back to the first generation of European settlers, or the original inhabitants of this land.” (That’s Ed Kemmick, “The Big Sky, By and By,” a fine book that you should read if you haven’t already.)
I can live with presumptuous, so long as you permit me a few words in my defense.
First, the work is underlined with love. I was well fond of this place, my anchor set and a mortgage in my hand, before I learned what some others think of Billings. Before my first reading in Missoula, three or four folks approached me, asked where I lived and reacted to my answer with an upturned nose and an “Oh.” Nice place, Missoula, but I wouldn’t want to live there.
Second, my affections run east. Part of this, I’m sure, stems from the fact that in my initial years here I traveled north and east on Interstate 94 far more often than I trekked west on I-90. My former in-laws lived in Fairview, Miles City is a dandy place to meet up for lunch, and I doubt I’ve ever seen anything more magnificent in this state than a winter sun casting a glow on the badlands near Terry.
Third, I know what I don’t know. In one way or another, the Billings I scrape at puts me in my rightful place as an outsider, and that position comes through in the stories. Consider Edward Stanton, the middle-aged Aspergian at the center of “600 Hours of Edward” and “Edward Adrift,” who doesn’t know where or how he fits in. Or the broken-down boxer at the center of my new novel, “The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter,” who grew up here but still yearns for comfort and belonging. I’ve built a home here, but I don’t know the place the way some of my dear friends do. When I can, I keep my mouth shut and listen to the wisdom and memories of dyed-in-the-wool Billings folks.
I’ve been here for eight years, and I feel the same now as I did when I drove into town on June 19, 2006, with a U-Haul trailer in tow and carrying the weight of 36 years spent on other patches of dirt. I was lucky to get here at all. So let’s get on with it. I’ve wasted enough time.
Craig Lancaster has two Billings events related to the launch of his new novel, “The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter.” On Saturday, Nov. 1, he’ll be reading from the book at the Billings Public Library. That event starts at 2 p.m., and refreshments will be served. On Nov. 7, the launch party for the book will be held at Harper & Madison, 3115 10th Ave. N. in Billings, starting at 7 p.m. There will be food and drinks, plus music from John and Ed Kemmick. The public is invited. Visit him at Craig-Lancaster.com or on Twitter at @AuthorLancaster.