I couldn’t pull myself away from South Dakota early enough to make it to Yellowstone before night fall so I took a short detour to Billings, Montana. Outside the Black Hills in Wyoming, the hills slowly simmer in prairie sage and industry. There were a number of small oil drilling rigs tossing themselves with a catapult movement. In a steep, rocky valley stood an opening to a coal mine, a black dust coats the floor with the clean tracks of trucks traversing it. Shortly after I came across a pipeline stretching into the distance, single shining cylinders placed with the hope of burial.
Once I entered Montana, the landscape flattened out quite a bit and signs of civilization were sparse. An occasional group of antelope lingered in the powdery hills but otherwise the world seemed to be hibernating. I hadn’t anticipated that and as I was running dangerously low on gas I had to resort to tailgating a Uhaul to make the most of what I had until I could find a gas station.
I have a friend in Billings but she wasn’t available to go to dinner so I went out by myself after settling into my hotel room. I wanted to try buffalo but hadn’t had the chance earlier so I found a restaurant called “The Rex” just down the street from where I was staying that had a buffalo burger. It was a pretty nice place; I sat at the bar and asked the bartender for a local brew suggestion. He handed me a brown ale which went really well with the buffalo burger. I really enjoyed the buffalo despite my apprehension that bacon was added. I don’t like eating any part of pig usually but I understood its use here because on its own the buffalo would be extremely dry. It was worth getting past ingesting pig.
Sitting at the bar when you’re alone means that you are choosing not to isolate yourself at a table and that you’re interested in talking to strangers. I definitely got what I was asking for. After a few minutes of acquainting ourselves, “Tom the bartender from Billings, MT,” as the napkin would read, gave me his number and offered me a place to stay. He had a vacant apartment that had yet to be rented a few blocks away and he had just returned from his own 3800 mile road trip so he was feeling generous to a wary traveler. I already had a hotel room but we continued chatting and he suggested a few places near town that were worth seeing.
Eventually, I asked him about the native population as the Crow reservation is so close to Billings that I wondered how the two cultures interacted. He explained that the natives in the city had developed a poor reputation as being lazy drug-addicted drunks. He didn’t have any biases himself as far as skin color was concerned; his prejudice was based on particular evaluation of each individual regardless of race and whether they suffer from any obvious impairments. It just happens that the group of natives seen around the city tend to be those with impairments. He believes the natives are being destroyed by the government’s subsidies in the sense that they are creating an environment in which native populations have been brought to poverty with poor health care and poor internal economic structures, leading to rampant alcoholism, drug addiction and so forth.
After a little bit, Tom introduced me to a couple, presumably my age; the man was a city policeman with a background in sociology and a particular interest in Native American culture. He and his father worked on various reservations setting up health care facilities. Having experienced the culture from the reservation and the stubbornness of the natives to take any advice or help from a white man that wasn’t a handout, he agreed with Tom’s assessment.
We had a long conversation about the status of the natives in this area and it doesn’t seem that they are doing any better here than they are in South Dakota. He did say, however, that as far as blatant racism in the city is concerned that it is a product of a misrepresented culture and the negativity projected towards them is less about their race and more about their appearance as disheveled impaired panhandlers. So the group of natives the city sees is not an accurate representation of the whole native culture. When I posed the question of how an unimpaired respectable-appearing native would be treated in the city, the officer didn’t think the native would run into any trouble and if he or she did, it would be an exception. I don’t know how to compare this information to what occurs in Rapid City considering the point of view I received but I can say the officer was very well educated on the subject and was inclined to sympathize with the plight of the natives. Neither him nor Tom were abrasive.
On a lighter note, when Tom came by to check in on our conversation, we took a random break to talk about hot air balloons. It is at this point that I learned that hot air balloons have the right of way in Montana even at an international airport. That small fact was quite amusing. Apparently, they also don’t land very smoothly.
The police officer also mentioned how aggressive the urban population of white-tailed deer were in Billings. I laughed at what I thought was sarcastic fear but it was quite real. He said he had been attacked on three different occasions by a doe. This information turned out to be very useful the next day.