Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Top Billings

We are parked at the Cabela's store in Billings, Montana (map). In addition to well marked extra long RV spaces, Cabela's provides a dump station, fresh water spigot, and even outdoor pet kennels and horse pens. In compliance with Billings ordinance, there is a tiny "No Overnight Parking" sign on one of the lamp posts (more on this in a moment), but asking at the store generally gets permission for one night.

We're here at Cabela's because we desperately needed the water before settling in for the night, and we are in Billings in general because we needed to make a Walmart stop, and Louise needed excellent cell coverage for a Red Cross conference call and web meeting last night. Not wanting to take a chance on spotty coverage along US-12, which would also have deferred our Walmart stop for another couple days, we decided to drop south to Billings on MT-3, making for a slightly longer driving day of just over three hours yesterday.

We had a very nice drive yesterday. From our digs in the Helena forest, we continued east over a low pass to US-89, where we left US-12 to instead head south a short ways before turning east again on MT-294. This short cut chopped six miles off our route, bypassing White Sulphur Springs and rejoining US-12 east of Martinsdale. Montana 294 follows the old grade of the Milwaukee Road, the very same rail line we crossed at the Beverly Bridge back in Washington, and we remained with the old roadbed all the way to Lavina, where we turned south on MT-3.

I confess I did not recognize the line at first. It was very clear we were following a long-abandoned rail grade, and I found it odd that along 294, in the middle of almost nowhere, there stood the also long-abandoned remains of an electric power station, a brick building with all the windows broken out, the aluminum scavenged, and only the wood and ceramic insulators still remaining. It sat between the old rail grade and the highway, and across the highway was a more modern substation. I did not think anything more of it other than that it was odd, but in hindsight I should have recognized it as being there to supply power to the rail line, which would have immediately identified it as the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, aka The Milwaukee Road.

I made this connection, of course, when we later rolled through the town of Harlowton, where right smack in the middle of town is the last of the Milwaukee's General Electric E57-B electric locomotives. Suddenly it all became clear. Long-time readers may know that I am a rail fan from way back in my youth, and even today we enjoy traveling by train. My mentor and teacher back then was Karl R. Zimmermann, who, in addition to being a teacher at my high school and faculty adviser to the railroad club, was also a well-published author in railroad circles. One of his books is the definitive photo-essay on the Milwaukee's electrified sections, The Milwaukee Road Under Wire (Quadrant Press). Published in 1973, about the time I met him, it predated the demise of electrification on the Milwaukee by just a year.

In any case the drive was very scenic and I could imagine just a bit what it must have been like to glide through this territory on the Olympian Hiawatha back in the heyday of first class rail travel. As we turned south at Lavina on MT-3 we began following a still active rail line, the BNSF, all the way to Acton. We turned off 3 at, ironically, Zimmerman Trail, which drops steeply from the rimrock into town. MT-3 itself would have been a gentler slope, but would have taken us into town a good bit east of the Walmart.

We got settled in at Walmart a good fifteen minutes ahead of Louise's web meeting, and I set to work removing the generator starting battery. Regular readers know that, since leaving Infinity eight years ago, we are on our third set of house batteries. We are also on our third set of chassis start batteries. This generator battery, however, was nearly the first thing I bought for Odyssey, and I wrote the installation date on the case: July, 2001. Eleven years is incredible service for a battery, an Everstart Maxx from Walmart (Everstart is Walmart's house label, made by Johnson Controls). Two of those years the battery sat forlorn on Infinity's shelf while the generator was on the sideline.

The generator start battery actually began acting up a few months ago. A couple of times while repriming the set I had to "jump start" the generator using the solenoid and momentary switch we installed for that purpose when we re-wired the generator. And for the last couple months it has taken the auto-start system two or three tries to get the unit running. I'm going to say the battery started acting up somewhere in Texas, and by Las Vegas I knew it needed to be replaced. However, anywhere in the south, or anywhere along the Pacific coast, is the wrong place to buy a car battery.

You would be tempted to think that a Brand-X Model 123 battery from National BigBoxStore would be the same from store to store, but this is often not true. Almost every make and model of battery, no matter whose label is on it, comes in two varieties, "Northern" (N) and "Southern" (S). N-style batteries are beefier, to stand up to hard starting conditions day after day in sub-zero temperatures. Usually, it is difficult for the end consumer to tell whether any given battery is an N or S. Big-box chain stores are also pretty tight-lipped about which stores get the N batteries, so it can be a challenge for those of us who live an itinerant lifestyle. That said, I am pretty certain that every battery sold in Montana is an N, whereas every battery sold in California is an S. If block heaters are common where you live, your local store probably sells N batteries.

And so it is that I waited until Montana to change the generator battery. The genny started right up after I installed it, and I get to check one more project off the list. I also picked up a few other items at the store while we were there. The whole project and shopping experience took about an hour -- getting the battery out and in was a tight squeeze and I had to fight with the decade-old hold-downs, clamps, and terminals. So imagine my surprise when I came back inside to find that Louise's web meeting, while nominally in progress now for an hour, still had not really started.

Apparently there was some technical glitch with the web meeting software or server. After fighting with it for over an hour, they gave up, and rescheduled the meeting for this evening. After making an extra effort to be in a good coverage area last night, we're going to leave tonight's coverage possibilities to chance, as we really need to get out of Billings. After the call ended, we stowed the dish and rolled over to Olive Garden for dinner, thus exiting the Walmart lot before our time limit expired.

Time limit? Indeed. I won't repeat it all here, because you can Google it, but back in the early part of last decade, there was a huge flap in the city of Billings regarding RV overnight parking at Walmart and similar locations. Not only is there a KOA campground in this town, but Billings is also home to KOA's corporate headquarters, and so perhaps unsurprisingly, the city council bowed to political pressure from campground operators and banned overnight parking anywhere in the city except licensed campgrounds, whether on private property or not. The RV community responded with a massive letter-writing campaign accompanied by a boycott, and ultimately the city fathers relented, modifying the ordinance to allow for an overnight safety stop, limited to ten hours.

Cabela's, of course, falls under the same provisions, but it is much less visible than Walmart, and we've been undisturbed since arriving here after dinner last night. But we won't push our luck, and will leave Billings today. I had planned to be in the Custer National Forest tonight, east of Ashland, but we learned today's high there will be 102°, compared with just 91° here. The heat wave is supposed to break tomorrow, so we'll slow down and try to stay just east of Billings tonight, which will hopefully also keep us in cell phone range for Louise's call.

We've been to Billings before, having already taken in most of what the city has to offer. In fact, this was our first "destination" stop after hitting the road. We were here to attend, of all things, the world premier of an opera. One of our dearest friends, Alva Henderson, was the composer, and then-chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and lifelong poet Dana Gioia was the librettist. The opera is entitled Nosferatu, after the 1922 silent film of the same name. As Alva was fond of saying, better to open in Billings while you're still alive than at The Met posthumously, and The Rimrock Opera company obliged. They still have a web page dedicated to the event.

It was a gala opening, and we drove Alva and his partner the few blocks from their hotel to the theater in Odyssey, dressed in our formalwear. The paint had just finished curing on the bus, and we got it washed and waxed here in town just for the occasion -- it has never since looked so nice. After the grand entrance, I parked the bus on the street around the corner and walked back to the theater for the performance.

That was at the end of October, 2004. It hardly seems possible that we have been on the road nearly eight years. We had to hustle here on I-90, because the paint shop ran into the first part of October finishing our painting, and we then returned to Infinity Coach for installation of the final hardware and interior fixtures. We left the shop with just a week to get to Billings in time to get ready for the opening.

By the last week in October, the KOA and every other transient campground in Billings is already closed for the season, and although the overnight parking ban was already in effect, things had not yet blown up into the all-out donnybrook that resulted in the council's reversal in 2006. Nevertheless we were able to park at the Walmarts in town for several nights while we were here (Cabela's was not here back then), leaving each morning for the hotel, theater, or other errands. With shiny paint and a fresh wax job, we got a lot of attention driving around Billings each day, including picking up and dropping off friends and family at the airport.

Our route for the next two days will repeat our tracks from back then, from here to Belle Fourche. After that, we'll try to again cover some new ground. First, though, we will roll over to the Holiday fuel station a few blocks from here for some $3.95 diesel, the lowest we'll see until central South Dakota.


  1. It was neat hearing about MT-3 again. I drove a 20' or 24' U-Haul with a car carrier behind up MT-3 from Billings to the Great Falls on the way from NC to Calgary, AB two summers ago. The run along the valley rim was enough to give me white knuckles for a few miles!

  2. Sean, We stayed at Cabela's last year going the other way. Nice overnighter. A couple of horse people stopped the same time we did and used the corral. Steve

  3. Are you familiar with the Golden Spike RV Rallies? You probably are, but if not you might check out the Travel by Chance blog. Link is on the Big Blogroll on my site...


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