Prairie Lights: A few more details for Outside readers


F. Jay Haynes, Haynes Collection, Montana Historical Society

Billings was really an outdoors town in 1894, when in fact there was hardly any indoors at all.

The profile of Billings written for Outside magazine, hailing this burg as the winner of the magazine’s Best Towns 2016 contest, covered a lot of ground in a short space.

The writer talked to some good people, hit many of the highlights and did a good job of telling Outside readers that Billings was a bit different from past Best Towns winners.


Ed Kemmick

He noted that housing prices are a lot lower here than in Bozeman and Missoula, that Billings is still an energy and agricultural center and that ours is a “scrappy” city. All true.

And yet, speaking from the perspective of someone who has been here more than 25 years, I couldn’t help feeling that there was also much that was missed, that people who’ve never been to Billings might need a little more information if they’re thinking of moving here. So, here’s what I would tell them, after they read the Outside piece:

Billings is a mixed-up town. It is the biggest city in the state, but it has long struggled over whether to think of itself as an actual city or an accidental conglomeration of 100,000 individuals.

It is a city with two good colleges, but Missoula and Bozeman have the “real” colleges, the ones with big campuses, thousands upon thousands of out-of-state students and football teams that give Montana the nearest thing to big-time professional sports.

We love our river parks, but the biggest one, Riverfront, is centered on an abandoned gravel pit and another, Coulson, used to be the city dump. The message is clear: we’ll give you parkland, but only after we’ve squeezed everything of economic value out of it.

The Yellowstone itself, which everyone loves to describe as the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states, can be a lot of fun, but as it flows through Billings it is a heavily riprapped industrial corridor. You’re welcome to swim in it, but watch out for car bodies, giant concrete slabs and disembowelment devices known as rebar.

As for the more traditional city parks, there are some damned fine ones, but city laws forbid you from walking your dog through them, even on a leash. No kidding.

And though this is a town where people are always lamenting how we lose our young people to other states, a substantial number of Billingsites were outraged when the city grudgingly allowed a disc golf course to be built in Pioneer Park. There were complaints of damage to trees, drinking in the park, rampant public urination and fears that law-abiding citizens might get bonked on the noggin by flying discs (invariably called “Frisbees” by opponents, naturally).

Really, though? I think a lot of people just didn’t like to see young people having so much fun, in the middle of the day no less, when they should have been flipping hamburgers, apparently.

Speaking of hamburgers, Outside magazine mentioned a couple of restaurants making fresh, fine meals with ingredients obtained locally. That’s true, too, and Billings now has seven or eight restaurants serving such food—almost all of them downtown.

But let’s not kid ourselves: This is still a town that absolutely loves its chain restaurants. On the Billings Gazette’s Facebook page, a recent story about the opening of a Five Guys burger joint had more than 2,000 likes, 840 shares and 360 comments. The opening of a Popeyes created a similar stir.

And Billings is in a state where people will drive for five hours to eat at an Olive Garden.

Did we mention our City Council? That august body defeated a nondiscrimination ordinance two years ago. As Mayor Tom Hanel explained, “I do not think Billings is ready at this time” to prohibit discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

So, if you’re an outdoors person, one of those young, well-off, entrepreneurial types who wants to come here and start a business, but your sexuality is not on the approved list, just hang on. We’ll let you know when we’re ready for you.

I don’t want to be too negative here, or to discourage people from considering a move to Billings, but I think it’s only fair that they know what they’re in for.

On the other hand, is it really much different in Bozeman or Missoula? They were considered outdoorsy towns long before anyone thought of elevating Billings to their ranks, but both cities, like Billings, have pockets of young, Columbia-clad craft-beer drinkers surrounded by much larger populations of Bud-swilling, Popeyes-eating “regular” folks.

The real difference is mostly in attitude. Missoula and Bozeman have been winning “best-town” and similar contests for so many years that locals have learned to disdain the attention, and to wish they could persuade outsiders, and Outside magazine, to just leave them alone.

We may reach that jaded state ourselves, one of these days. For now, though, I think it’s safe to say, we wallflowers here in Billings are enjoying all the attention.

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