Prairie Lights: This is Billings, in one paragraph


Inspired by Orhan Pamuk, who wrote a four-page, one-paragraph tribute to his native city of Istanbul, I thought it might be interesting to write something similar about Billings, though not quite so long.

I thought I would write of how the city looks from the airport on a winter day, the valley full of bare trees and a hundred chimneys, vents and stacks belching smoke and steam; of the Rims brooding over our margins, reminders of a history older than ancient; of the Yellowstone River, bruised, abused and riprapped but still wild; of temperatures so high in the midst of droughts so long that each languid day seems to last a week, and you lie on your bed at night and dream of that air-conditioner that you should have bought last winter, when it was cheap; of rains that do finally come and drop in half an hour all the water that farmers wish they had over a month; of lightning strikes so close that even in your house you swear your hair is standing up on end, electrified; of winters when February is as balmy as June; of other winters when each piercingly cold day brings still more snow and you feel full of life but still wish maybe you were in Hawaii, or even Arizona; of springs when finally the world has colors besides gray or brown, the best of which is an emerald green; of those days in late September and on into October when it seems that if the world were any more beautiful you couldn’t stand it; of a man wearing a down jacket, a wool cap and heavy gloves, even though the thermometer, early in spring, is hovering close to 65; of a high schooler walking to Senior in January, at 15 below, in gym shorts, a T-shirt, tennis shoes and no socks, as if there were a stove in his bulging backpack; of a man in a wheelchair on a Montana Avenue sidewalk, completely cocooned by a mountain of sleeping bags and blankets, only his feet and wheels hinting at what lies beneath; of people standing on curbs, listlessly waving signs advertising the world’s longest going-out-business sale; of the man on Grand Avenue in his fifth or sixth year of playing a guitar that is not really a guitar, advertising pizza that is not really pizza; of the old veteran on 24th Street, soliciting money, over a series of years, so he could get back to Kansas; of the crowds of smokers, once seen only near the high schools, now gathered, puffing and shifting from foot to foot, outside every bar in town; of all the ditches and canals snaking through the city, full to the brim of the most precious commodity in our high-desert town; of the never-sleeping trains, rocking back and forth as they trundle through from east to west and west to east, reminding us of how much it takes to keep this thing we call civilization running; of the fellow with four or five dogs living in a two-story wagon that he pulls up and down the streets every blessed day of the year; of businessmen with phones pressed to their ears as they, too, walk the downtown streets, shaking their heads “no” before the panhandlers have even had a chance to make their pitch; of a succession of nicknames and slogans dreamed up by the boosters-that-be, but we still can’t quite communicate what makes us tick; of a river of cars flowing through city center in the morning and afternoon, carrying commuters from sprawl to sprawl; of Pioneer Park swarming with kids on Saturday Live; of the midway at MontanaFair, an electric amalgam of color and light and sugar and grease; of the country music royalty packing the MetraPark arena, where monster trucks roar the following night, succeeded by broncos and bulls, waterskiing squirrels and tractors the size of a house; of the sweet, sharp smell of roasting sugar beets; of the beets themselves heaped in mountains outside the sugar plant; of the flocks of turkeys who strut about looking simultaneously at ease and desperately in search of a way out; of the rabbits that seem to multiply like rabbits and sit in a thousand patches of grass like living lawn ornaments; of the deeply rutted side streets packed with the snow of seven or eight storms; of the abandoned gravel pits that take on the appearance of World War I battlegrounds; of the cracked-voice karaoke crooners at the Crystal Lounge, trying to read the lyrics through a haze of cheap vodka; of the prickly pear cactus and their blooms of translucent yellow; of the magpies and meadowlarks, the trickster birds and the sweetest singers; of the blizzards of cottonwood fluff on a sultry hot afternoon; of the seventh-inning stretch at Dehler Park; of the cars jamming narrow residential streets for blocks around for a big game at Daylis Stadium; of the Beartooth Mountains, white with snow on a 100-degree day, shimmering in the distance; of the downtown, once the object of pity, now jammed with shoppers and diners and vegetable buyers and ice-cream eaters and women in heels and tattoos listening to live music in the middle of the street; of all the history that brought us to this, the gunslingers and cowboys, the calamitous Janes and the worn-out shepherds, the gandy dancers and oilmen, the refinery workers and the hoers of beets, the ditch riders and street preachers, the teachers and dance-hall gals, the drivers of beer wagons and menders of boots, the cribs and punch boards, the late-night diners and the let-loose nightclubs, the riders of horses and watchers of parades, the men and women of the nations who were here before this nation was born, the whole crazy bunch, and us.

Well, that was fun, and I see why Mr. Pamuk went on for four pages. Once you start, it’s hard to quit, and even if I had gone on twice or four times as long, I imagine every reader would have a long list of unforgivable omissions.

There’s always the comment section.

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