Billings, Montana should be a hardworking petroleum-and-cattle town.
There were gun shops, old west casinos, auto services, the oil refinery (we’d started passing oil wells near the state line), and cattle yards by the train tracks. There is also a little downtown core with a Wells Fargo tower and office buildings surrounding a block or so of hip dining establishments, called (groan) The Hub. That name must be code for “sent in by the FinTech Overlords.” They have earmarked Montana for their own. Their scouts must be like the Starbucks location scouts back in the late 90s. “Quaint old buildings? Check. Lovely scenery? Check. Walkable core? Check. Status outdoor pursuits? Check. Okay! Bring in the ironic vintage shops, designer booze, and get to innovating!” I kinda miss the Dakotas already.
But, of course I couldn’t buy the proper oil for Janet’s finicky engine in the Dakotas (nor proper coffee for me), and had planned my route around finding a reasonable alternative. As I topped her off with synthetic oil in Bowdle, South Dakota, the acrid smell of low-quality beef frying wafted across the lot. The gas station cafe was already full of the retired local men, having their Saturday morning confab. That was no-nonsense. It is not pretty.
Doing 501 miles in a day sort of looks like this. I will say I immediately got a different feeling in the North Dakota towns–rather more rectitude, if you will. You are welcomed with strict threats for not complying with speed limits. The sharp-edged, bare look of things said they are disciplined and clean. Unlike South Dakota?
Upon entering Montana, things began looking nicer–and there was sagebrush. Back in The West! The first town, at I-90, was Miles City. Already spiffier, more up-to-date looking than the Dakotas. Friendly people at the gas station, no masks. I asked an older woman if Billings would be big enough to have a full-sized supermarket, and she said “It’s HUGE! It’s one of the biggest cities in Montana!” So that was good.
The familiar western look, more prosperous, freedom-loving. Perfect! My research department kindly fact-checked the current mask laws in Montana, me having learned the hard way in Iowa. She sent info on the newly signed SB 257. It invalidates local mask mandates and other virus-related public health measures that counties and cities have adopted in the wake of the media pandemic. Zero health department mandates allowed! And yet.
In the Billings Albertson’s supermarket, a disheartening number of people chose to wear masks. All the workers did. But the checker was not wearing a mask, and I wanted to compliment him on so exercising his freedom of choice. He was a jocular, tall and chubby young man, who said that Albertson’s lets them go mask free if they are fully vaccinated. Oh. I mentioned the new law meant to shield businesses from government overreach. He said, well they do business in lots of states, and I said yes, and they have to abide by the laws of each of those states. The little guy bagging groceries, and wearing a mask, was nodding and emitting muffled sounds of agreement with me. The checker said “Well I’m not worried about it.” Under the beauty lies a void of volition and common sense. The West.
Who was it said that people will love their servitude?