Writing About my Hometown

Billings Montana

Image courtesy of USDA NRCS.

About a decade ago, I moved from Maine to Montana. Not one of those famous towns like Bozeman and Missoula which have been featured in big-budget movies or the glossy pages of adventure magazines. No, I moved back to my industrial hometown of Billings. The thing most people seem to remember after they’ve driven past at seventy-plus miles-per-hour (usually toward one of those picture-perfect towns) is the smoke-belching, fire-breathing refineries. There are three of them right along the interstate. To be honest, that’s mostly what I remembered, too.

Billings had changed a lot—mostly, for the better—since I’d left. So much so that when it came time for me to start a new novel project, I didn’t know how to write about it. I felt like a stranger in the Magic City.

It didn’t take long to realize that the gritty story I was trying to tell fit better into the Billings of my past. I picked 1994, the year that I graduated from high school. 

Billings had changed a lot—mostly, for the better—since I’d left. So much so that when it came time for me to start a new novel project, I didn’t know how to write about it. I felt like a stranger in the Magic City.

It’s not that there isn’t crime in 2020. There’s plenty, and I’m sure that’ll be the subject of future stories. But Billings in the 1990s was trying to recover from a punishing recession in the 1980s and the bottoming-out of both the agriculture and fossil fuel markets. Similar to today, in fact, but without the massive medical complex that keeps the city’s economy stable. As the rest of the country began to boom, unemployment in Billings was still high, its drug abuse rampant, and hope was in pretty short supply. Crime wasn’t. Unlike today’s downtown of boutique coffee shops and craft breweries, the blocks from Minnesota Ave. to 6th Ave. felt eerily empty. Cops didn’t sit around busting people for speeding, like they might in other cities of our size. They spent frenetic shifts running from call to call (something that hasn’t changed, from what I hear.) Some residents were terrified that hardened gangs were moving in from LA bringing machine guns and crack cocaine. I remember hearing about drive-by shootings and had a childhood acquaintance whose house exploded from a meth lab gone wrong. I never met an actual gang member (not one from LA, at least) and all the machine guns I saw were owned by middle-aged white guys.

It was a dynamic time when Billings was coming to terms with its transition from a prairie town into a full-blown city. There was more than enough to keep my main character, a young, inexperienced crime and courts reporter, very busy. 90s Billings seemed perfect for storytelling. 

I’m hoping that this series will transport the Magic City’s new transplants back to a time when the ground didn’t seem as stable under our feet. A time when it felt like every other light post was burned out and large swaths of darkness flooded the streets. When a fine layer of dust seemed to coat everything to the point that the high-plains wind couldn’t blow it off. Also a time when the city stood up to neo-nazis and said in one voice “not in our town.” And for those who’ve been here all along, I hope these stories bring you as much nostalgia as they did me.

Published by ericwarren

Writer, photographer and filmmaker telling stories about the mountain west, esp. Montana, northern Wyoming and the greater Yellowstone Region.

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