Wherever we drive in Montana, we can count on the scenery changing every hour or so. The short dry grasses and rocky hills of the high desert suddenly give way to huge farms, which in turn stop at a canyon's edge where conifer forests begin. Many of the small ponds and creeks are dry, perhaps dryer than usual, but there are several lakes and large rivers and irrigation projects.
After the Bunnock episode we have become much more skeptical of local attractions, so when we learned we had missed the Paddlefish season we first thought that was a joke. But apparently in the Missouri River system (Texas up through Eastern Montana and North Dakota, here and there) are paddlefish, a prehistoric, plankton eating, freshwater fish related to sharks, which can grow to 200 pounds. They are supposed to be older than dinosaurs. Its beak is shaped like a paddle, which it uses to stir up the plankton in the river water. The legal limit for fishing for paddlefish is one per person per season and Overview of Billings the season is in June. Up in Glendive they sell the paddlefish caviar to gourmet stores (though we've never seen paddlefish caviar for sale.)
Throughout the state there are casinos. The tiniest town will have one enterprise: a combined gas station/cafe/casino. Larger towns, like Billings, may have several dozen casinos, each attached to an eating or drinking location and containing perhaps twenty slot machines. We haven't seen a casino which doesn't serve food, so that may be a particular feature of Montana law. And we haven't seen a large Nevada-style casino, so that may be another feature. Between the saloons and casinos, Montana projects the image of a hard drinking, hard gambling state.
Montana is also home to a vast number of drive-through espresso stands. Somehow it's hard to imagine a cowboy sipping a French Vanilla Toffee Latte Special. But the espresso stands are certainly popular at all times of day. Perhaps not coincidentally, we haven't spotted a single Starbucks store.
The Western Heritage Museum in Billings is located in the Parmly Billings Library and contains an excellent collection of artifacts and stories of pioneer days in the area, including a large collection of oral history videos. Frederick Billings, President of the Northern Pacific Railroad, was responsible for the original growth of Billings. The Billings family, however, were Vermonters, owning a large farm in Woodstock. They sent young Parmly out to Montana one summer, after he had had entirely too much fun at Amherst College. Parmly Billings was one of many sons of rich easterners sent west to Boot Hill shape up by working on a ranch. Unfortunately, he died of kidney disease at the age of 25 in Chicago while on his way back to Vermont. The library, a grand Victorian-era stone building now housing the museum, was given in Parmly's memory by his brother.
If the Range Rider Museum in Miles City was a good old-fashioned museum bursting with old stuff, then the Western Heritage Museum shows the touch of a well-trained museum director, who raised grant money and involved the community in the exhibits. Most compelling were the videotaped recollections of local life by old timers. The exhibits were well explained, interactive, and focused on Billings History. There was a special traveling exhibit put together by the museum in Woodstock, Vermont, comparing Parmly's life in Vermont and Montana.
Just north of downtown Billings is a steep hill several hundred feet high. On top is the airport, named for Mr. Logan, but they had to call it Billings Logan International Airport; the other name was already taken. Also on top is a scenic drive which goes past the grave of Yellowstone Kelly, an old-time scout, and the small boot hill. The original wooden grave markers had long since disappeared, so the city fathers had made up new wooden crosses to mark the graves.
Billings is a big city by Montana standards; with 81,000 people, it's bigger than Helena, the state capital. There's a fairgrounds, and a branch campus of Montana State University, and two large oil refineries. In the mall there was a large exhibit about the Yellowstone River, which splits off the Missouri and goes through Billings up to Yellowstone National Park.