Vacations in Billings: A Refreshing Family Adventure


“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” St. Augustine wrote this now popular travel quote before the fall of the Roman Empire, which I’m sure most people would casually recognize as true. However, a poignant experience can reinforce a concept you’ve heard often and make its meaning very apparent. This happened to me when I recently visited Billings, Montana.

As a traditional American in the post-pandemic world, it’s easy to lose hope in our country and our fellow citizens. I have spent my entire life in California, the recognized liberal capital of the country, if not the world. Although one reads about conservative meccas like Florida and Texas, I wondered how different people really could be due to the global influence of social media and the internet. I was surprised when I first visited Montana in November 2022 for Thanksgiving week.

A view from the rimrocks overlooking downtown Billings, Montanta. (Courtesy of Visit Billings)

My sister became an intern with San Diego Ballet at eighteen in September 2022. After years of training, she had finally become a professional ballerina! However, the challenge that came with it was more than memorizing choreography and attending daily classes. SD Ballet tours annually with their production of “The Nutcracker,” and they asked Rebekah to tour this year. Although the tour usually lasts two weeks, this year it was scheduled for three and a half weeks, including thirteen shows in six cities in four states. It would be Rebekah’s first time away from home, and it soon proved to be as hard on the rest of the family at home, our parents and me, as it was on the young ballerina. Before she left, however, we swore to join her wherever she was for Thanksgiving. So, the day before the holidays, we flew to Billings, Montana.

Our accommodation

My whole life, my family has spent Thanksgiving at home, with my mom cooking a turkey and usually my grandmother being our only guest. This year, however, was going to be different. Like the first year since my grandmother died and the first fall in our new home, this holiday season was meant to be different. I was happy when Rebekah’s tour gave us an excuse to make the vacation a totally new experience. We could have stayed in a hotel in Billings, but we decided to make it a real adventure by renting a cabin on Airbnb. To get the full Northwest experience, we booked the Calamity Jane Horse Cache Cabin, which is situated about twenty miles outside of Billings at Molt. After all, why not go all the way and live the full Thanksgiving experience? We booked our flight, started packing our warmest clothes, and asked the host to have a turkey for us.

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View south of the Calamity Jane property facing the Beartooth mountain range. (Courtesy of David and Keri Langford)

The owner of the Calamity Jane Cache met us near the Chief Joseph Monument, several miles from Billings. From the rental listing, we understood that the drive to the chalet could be difficult, especially in the winter, so we made sure to rent an AWD vehicle. As owner David described the steep ascent of slippery rocks along sheer cliffs, I was so glad I had it! The dirt road turned out to be a rough off-road adventure that we had to repeat ourselves several times during the stay, but it wasn’t as scary as David’s warning led me to believe. Knowing we’re from Southern California, the longtime Montanan probably figured we lived in a suburban community fifteen miles from the beach. In August 2022, he would be right, but before moving to Fallbrook in northern San Diego County, we lived for 13 years in a century-old rustic log home at a hill station called Idyllwild. It doesn’t get Montana’s heavy snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures, but it does have steep roads that become icy on freezing nights after the occasional blizzard. My dad’s years of driving the twisty, steep highway up the 6,000ft Idyllwild helped him navigate the road with confidence.

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“Calamity” Jane (Martha Jane Burke née Canary), circa 1890. American frontier, born in Missouri, raised in Montana. Served as a US Army scout, express pony rider, gold digger, team driver. Buried next to her friend, Wild Bill Hickok, in Deadwood. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Our home in Montana for nearly a week was situated on a vast plateau, surrounded by views of rocky cliffs, dotted with pine trees rising majestically above frozen valleys through which a single road winds. The property is on a plateau of several dozen hectares, offering a 360 degree view and total isolation. The house itself is a two bedroom log cabin built in the 1970’s with a historic design. The property is named after “Calamity” Jane Canary, a famous Old West horsewoman, who once owned it. In fact, she used the remote land to keep the horses she had stolen until she could sell them. An antique horse corral near the house is a tribute to the property’s past purpose, although it seemed large enough to hold stolen elephants! Calamity herself didn’t build the cabin we stayed in, but a storage shed nearby is believed to have been built from the logs used in her original home on the property. Another historical figure who frequented the area was Chief Joseph, a famous Nez Perce military leader who carved his name into a rocky cliff on the property.

Our activities

After Thanksgiving, the San Diego Ballet rehearsed with dancers from local studios and the Billings Symphony, giving us time to explore downtown. After exploring the local shops, we had lunch at Bernie’s Restauranta retro restaurant on the ground floor of the historic North Hotel. I tasted blueberries for the first time and enjoyed simple American cuisine with fresh local ingredients and reasonable prices. I found it refreshing to see them putting up Christmas decorations the day after Thanksgiving, according to the old tradition, instead of decorating the halls before Halloween!

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Bernie’s Diner in Billings, Montanta. (Courtesy of Visit Billings)

That evening we went to Holiday nights at ZooMontanathe opening night of an elaborate Christmas light show in the zoo grounds that lasted two years. Visit Billing, the local chamber of commerce, provided lots of useful information and planning assistance, including securing tickets for this popular new event. Fortunately, the weather was mild and clear this weekend, so throngs of people visited the zoo after dark to gaze at the millions of lights in intricate formations, drink hot chocolate from the refreshment kiosk, do roast marshmallows over a fire outside a private S’more. hut, take pictures with Santa Claus, and take a ride in a tractor-drawn cart! It was a really fun and wholesome community event and a delightful opportunity to see traditional families enjoying simple pleasures together.

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The Alberta Bair Theater in Billings, Montanta. (Courtesy of Visit Billings)

The focus of the trip was seeing Rebekah dance in “The Nutcracker”, so we attended all three shows on Alberta Bair Theater. It is a large performance space and a beautiful auditorium. On Saturday evening, between two performances of “The Nutcracker”, we dined at the TEN, the gastronomic restaurant of the Hôtel du Nord. The cuisine was as deliciously refined as I expected from the sophisticated setting, and the attentive service made it a truly elegant experience. Before Sunday morning, we spent the rainy morning exploring the historic moss mansion, an ornate estate built in 1903 by contractor Preston Boyd Moss. The self-guided tour through the three-story mansion is both a history lesson and a pleasant diversion. Carefully preserved and restored possessions that belonged to the Moss family provide a fascinating insight into how upper-class Westerners lived at the turn of the century, which has earned the museum Tripadvisor Ranking as Billings’ main attraction.

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The TEN restaurant at the Northern Hotel in Billings, Montana. (Courtesy of Visit Billings)

My findings

As soon as we arrived in Billings, I knew we weren’t in California anymore. It wasn’t just the hardened snow on the ground or the crisp air. While shopping for Thanksgiving at Albertson’s, I noticed strangers looking me in the eye and smiling at me. My retro style makes me stand out anywhere, but the people of Montana offered warm, friendly smiles and nods instead of the puzzled, blank stares I often get from curious strangers in California. This hospitable spirit was also evident in the restaurant servers, where the service was slower than what we are used to receiving in the Golden State, but the people were much friendlier.

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The Babcock Theater in Billings, Montana. (Courtesy of Visit Billings)

Throughout our stay in Billings, I enjoyed seeing families enjoying activities together. It was especially nice to see polite, well-behaved young children at “The Nutcracker”, having real experiences instead of being glued to electronic devices. I was shocked at how many people dressed very formally to see the ballet at all three shows. The men wore suits and the women wore fancy dresses! I’ve found that audiences in California and even New York tend to be very laid back at opera and ballet, with the exception of very young girls, who always like to wear little frilly dresses. Could it be that conservatives still understand the importance of wearing your best clothes when you attend a special performance?

I really enjoyed my visit to Billings, Montana. During our week-long stay, we only scratched the surface of what this welcoming community has to offer. If you want to visit a beautiful town full of warm, traditional people, I highly recommend Billings. It may just restore your faith in the average American citizen and give you some hope for the future of our country!

The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Epoch Times.

Tiffany Brannan

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