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After Thoughts 2005

Probing America: High Tech on Back Roads

Day Four Billings, Montana, to Gillette, Wyoming

June 27, 1992
To: Meg

Gillette, Wyoming. A place we never thought we would be. But fate and strategic planning have ominous influence. One concern is not to arrive in Chenoa earlier than the afternoon of July 2. Because we left a day or more early than need be, and then picked up a few miles in transit, we have a little luxury time to spend. One member of the party has designated two days in the Rapid City, South Dakota, area (another place which another member thought an impossible destination), but even so, as of the morning in Billings we were two days ahead of schedule. This meant a great detour to nowhere or two slow days getting to South Dakota. We choose the latter.

Sheridan, Wyoming 1887

Billings to Sheridan, Wyoming is about 100 miles. Most of it is on the Crow Reservation. Given our history of isolating native American reservation on piles of rock and sagebrush, the land looks surprisingly fertile. Dramatic rolling land and bright green. We got off I-90 to a twenty mile stretch of a two lane highway which followed along the Little Big Horn River. Earlier we ventured up to the Little Bighorn monument, but as we saw the number of cars there had second thoughts, and turned back to the freeway. Well, at least we were close. The houses on the reservation were generally stable looking and inviting. Much different than the conditions we saw on the Southwestern reservations. Ah, Indian reservations, what an idiotic concept. Mostly, one guesses, it provides good paying jobs for the white employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or whatever it is called these days.

Stalling, and looking for history, we turned off at Sheridan, Wyoming, population about 12,000. Modern history repeating itself once more: the old town, in a poor state of restoration, with the now ever present appendaged strip of one story retail stores. Lunch was good in a restored 1890 bank. One salad had 7 greens, the other had horseradish Sheridan! The restaurant occupied the full ground floor of the large stone building. Alger Street Café, it announced itself in large neon. The young man who greeted and seated us noted with some pride that he predicted we wanted non-smoking. He showed up minutes later announcing that he was supposed so be host today, but the cook quit this morning and so now he had been reassigned to waiting. The cause and effect connect was not all that clear but he rode with it.

Sheridan, Wyoming 1958

He apologized that one of the two soups had been changed from cream of chicken to chicken noodle. We agreed to the switch. He returned in two minutes, shoulders slumped, saying, sorry but they had switched back to chicken noodle. We liked him. Tall, slim, with the beginnings of a dark beard shadow, we asked if he had been in Sheridan long.

"About 18 months", he replied.

"Where were you before here?"

"Alliance, Nebraska."

"Why would you move from Alliance, Nebraska, to Sheridan, Wyoming?"

He responded matter of fact, "A step up. At least my mother thought so."

We turned off again at Buffalo, which is a community trying to play town. Buffalo is tranquil, if one can use that word about anything in Wyoming. Today, they were playing sidewalk sales (yes they have them on both sides of the main street). The potential customers were few. About half tourists, and half locals. One of the latter was overheard to say that many of his kind left town for the day being somewhat embarrassed over the commercialism of the promotion. Whether correct or not, it was clear that most of the merchants were at a loss as to how to connect with the people wandering about their store front tables. Eye contact was made for an instant and then they would disconnect without a bit of warning. But it was an informative visit, and we discussed in great depth our growing insight to the rural people of American.

Two hundred miles south-east of Billings on I-90 is Gillette. We had not heard of it, but it is hardly a drive from the Rapid City area, and lists a couple of Best Westerns, one being the Tower (non present) where we rest tonight. The city limit sign lists the population at 25,000, but our informant says it has slipped to about 15,000. She says the main thing here is coal mining. There are over 5 big mines in and around Gillette.

Bailey's Bar and Grill is located in the former U.S. Post Office. You have seen these oblong, two story, brick buildings in every town in American. The lobby in Bailey's remains untouched, and houses a display of photos of the early days of Gillette. Behind the postal windows, where the customers were never allowed, is now a large bar and considerable array of tables. Today we and people at another table were the only customers. They left 20 minutes after we arrived, and so Debbie had little to do but talk with us. She clearly enjoyed it.

Carol has the darkest black eyes, a pleasant moon face, and what seemed to be a painfully tight pony tail. She works at the bank days, and 4 shifts a week at Bailey's. Carol is from Pennsylvania, a small town there, and when she and Sean were married 8 years ago they moved to Gillette. John, her oldest child is 16 and a junior in high school, and Mindy, 12, were from a former marriage. Cody is 7 and Dean is 3. They live together in a double wide. A year ago they purchased 20 acres for $32,000 and are well on their way to building a 2400 foot home. Sean is employed by a construction company and his boss is supportive. Sean works every evening after work and Saturdays and Sundays on the house. He finished the foundation, has it framed and roofed, hired the wiring and plumbing done and is setting the fixtures. Sean asked Carol to come to the site tomorrow, Sunday, and sweep up the sawdust. "The ants are beginning to nest," he said.

From: Jane in Chicago
To: Meg
Date: June 26, 1992

I received your message this morning and thought, "What a trip." Then I realized that I was thinking of 'trip' in 60's terms, not in traveling terms. But, however you want to take it, "what a trip." I hauled out the Atlas and followed your progress. Keep this bits and bytes coming. I just downloaded day two and am looking forward to reading and responding. I've been having trouble getting on again.

Carol has no aspirations to move from Gillette. "Gillette is coming back. Walmart came in and gave us the competition we need, and the other merchants responded. Our school system is supposed to be one of the best in the nation, or so I understand. I really would like to teach elementary school, and if the community college extension would offer the courses, I'd take them."

She smiled seriously and said, "Gillette is not perfect, but at some point in life you decide where you are going to live and this is it for us."

One comment about last night in Billings that we did not get to report in last night's communique. We talked for about an hour with a Billings couple (who did not have tickets for the Garth Brooks concert) and they verified that Montana is definitely Perot Country. The other interesting tidbit that they gave us was that Ted Turner has purchased as much of Montana as he can afford and is turning his property from ranching to a wild game reserve. Thus, the bumper sticker FAMILIES FIRST: MONTANA IS NOT A ZOO has a political statement to make to Ted and Jane Fonda and others like them.

original material © 2005