1970. When I was about five, my parents and I moved to the house where I spent most of my childhood on Zimmerman Trail in Billings, Montana. Zimmerman Trail was one of only two routes from the top of the Rimrocks-a 500-foot-tall sandstone cliff on the northern edge of Billings. The road weaved its way down the Rimrocks with several switchbacks along the top third, a long straight-away along the face of the Rimrocks for the middle third, then a sharp 90-degree turn to another straight-away down the final third into the western end of Billings.
Not only were the Rimrocks a geographic northern border to Billings, but Zimmerman Trail formed an artificial western border to the city when I grew up. Initially our house faced a deserted field on the outskirts of town with bare dirt, overgrown wheatgrass, and occasional tumbleweeds. As the sun set, it recreated an idealized scene from a Western movie about frontier life.
Our house was the second house from the bottom of Zimmerman Trail, with three more houses further uphill until the rise became too steep for buildings and before the road turned from heading north to east along the face of the Rimrocks. Viewed from the sky, Zimmerman Trail would look like a giant snake winding through homes at the tail to a long straight highway perpendicular to the head Perhaps this was appropriate as hikers often came across snakes, including occassionally the dreaded rattlesnakes, that made the dry sandstone of the Rimrocks their home. While striking, the two-dimensional satellite view of Zimmerman Trail loses the third-dimension of a sharp incline as the trail climbs 500 feet.
Our front yard had a tall tree to the north of our driveway. The driveway itself was a long, uphill shot from our garage to Zimmerman Trail. This led not only to requiring my parents (and eventually me when I started driving as a teenager) to back the car into a highway multiple times a day, but also required many hours of arduous snow shoveling each winter. During particularly heavy snowfalls, Zimmerman Trail was closed with big metal gates chained shut at the base of the road. On those days, the only way to the top of the Rimrocks was about 5 miles away to the east, leading from downtown Billings to Billings Logan Airport that sat atop the Rimrocks. But that road was a straight, gentle incline-not nearly as dramatic as the switchbacks of Zimmerman Trail.
1983. At 17, I left Billings to go to college in Minnesota. My new friends, from New York, Minnesota, and North Carolina, laughed when I told them I grew up on a “trail.” They all grew up on roads with more sophisticated names-“avenues,” “ways,” “lanes,” and “streets.” The word “trail” seemed to represent the small town Western nature of Billings, contradicting the worldly impression I wanted to impart. So I began the process of leaving home by trying to repress the rich character of the street on which I grew up.
Instead, I started a new “Zimmerman” trail as I became increasingly immersed in the music of Bob Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman. I not only bought and became familiar with all of Dylan’s records and CDs, but went backwards into his blues and folk influences (buying John Lee Hooker, Blind Willie McTell, and Woody Guthrie recordings) and forward into those influenced by Dylan (buying music by Bruce Springsteen and Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie). If anyone asked me about Zimmerman, the trail I would discuss would be Dylan and his influences rather than my hometown road.
1890’s. Originally, Zimmerman Trail was not a commuter route making a short cut for residents in western Billings residents to get to the airport or downtown Billings, but a sheep herder’s trail. A shepherd named Joseph Zimmerman carved the trail as a route to take his flock from the valley to the top of the Rimrocks for grazing in the summer. Later, stagecoaches pulled by straining horses would escort wealthier businessmen and cargo to the top of the Rimrocks for picnics and excursions.
1970s. Many of my childhood memories revolve around the unique road where I grew up. I recall spend hours watching through the windows in my living room as cars’ headlights worked their way up or down the face of the Rims along Zimmerman Trail. A couple of times a year we would see a full house being moved on a truck trailer-bed along the Rimrocks-a nearly surreal site to see a house inching its way up the face of the sandstone cliff. I often tried hiking to the top of the Rimrocks, but never made it all the way up as the Rims became a sheer cliff barrier along its top third. I even learned to cross-country ski along the base of the Rimrocks.
One memorable story of life at the base of the Rimrocks was when my first-grade classmate found a rattlesnake in his backyard. Recalling pictures in books of men staking snakes with pitchforks, he got a small kitchen fork from his house and, as he attempted to stick the snake with the fork, he was bitten. He was hospitalized with the poisonous venom but recovered. As a child, the story seemed heroic and only as an adult did I realize the childish idiocy of the event.
Other more serious tragedies occurred along Zimmerman Trail, too. In the mid 1970’s, a drunk teenage driver maneuvered the switchbacks at the top, sped down the initial straightaway, but failed to slow for the final sharp turn. The car rolled end over end multiple times before ending in our neighbor’s yard just minutes after my young friends had been playing ball at the very same spot. We heard the scraping metal as the erratic spinning of headlights went through our kitchen. As my parents called the ambulance, other drivers pulled the driver from the car. He had broken his neck and became a quadriplegic, never to walk again.
As a more pleasant memory, my goal through much of my childhood was to ride my bike to the top of Zimmerman Trail. I often rode the lower section, where the incline was gentler and my endurance could be sustained. But only once, at about 15 years, a friend and I attempted to ride the entire length of Zimmerman Trail. I labored up the last half, with even my more athletic friend tiring at the top. While I was less fit and drained during the last few hundred feet, I refused to turn around until I touched the stop sign at the very top of Zimmerman Trail. By then, my friend had already started coasting back downhill, and I exultantly caught up going downhill faster than I had ever ridden a bike before or since.
2001. As an adult, having long ago moved to the Eastern United States, I finally had the opportunity to take my wife and young children to my hometown. I had left home when I was in college, and since then my mother had also left Billings so I had few reasons to return to Montana. But a family vacation to Yellowstone National Park gave my family the excuse to return. Arriving in Billings after the long cross-country drive, I drove to the top of the Rimrocks from downtown Billings, stopping to show my family my favorite view of Billings as seen from the top of the Rimrocks. Continuing west along the highway at the top of the Rims, I came to the top of Zimmerman Trail and began heading down. I was amazed that I could recall the bends and rock formations that I had not seen for nearly fifteen years. We made our way down the switchbacks and finally came to my childhood house near the bottom of the Trail. As the clichéd story always tell, the house seemed smaller than I had remembered, the big tree in the front yard not as gigantic as I had told my kids, and the empty field across the street filled with a new housing development.
Despite the disappointment of the house having apparently shrunk over the years, two events from that trip reminded me of the uniqueness of my childhood street. First, visiting a family friend, he asked my kids if they wanted to climb to the top of the Rimrocks. They didn’t appreciate that this was something I had not successfully done as a child-only making it to the top by bicycle along Zimmerman Trail once and hiking partially up many times before being thwarted by the cliffs. But my friend knew a hiking trail that went to the top, and my family and I made the hike for the first time. My kids couldn’t fully appreciate the pleasure for me since it took me more than 35 years to accomplish the hike when they had done it on their very first evening in Billings.
The second event occurred as we were leaving Billings, heading to the interstate and stopping at a fast food restaurant for a quick lunch before starting on the long drive back east. To my surprise, this fast food restaurant had historic local photos on its walls. The one that struck me the most was a photo of a stagecoach in the 1890’s going uphill and pulled by a team of horses. The legend indicated that indeed it was a historic photo of Zimmerman Trail.
2007. In a nostalgic mood, sitting in my home in Maryland where I have lived for even longer than I had lived as a child in Montana, I did a Google search for Zimmerman Trail. Two pictures, separated by centuries, reminded my of my childhood road. The first was an image from Google Earth showing the satellite view of Zimmerman Trail, the distinctive snake-like road winding its way through Billings.
The second was the stagecoach climbing Zimmerman Trail in the 1890s that I had seen in the fast food restaurant in Montana a few years below. Looking at the two pictures that were taken centuries apart, I realized that even as an adult I could not mentally visualize the direction North without imagining the Rimrocks in my mind’s eye.
To get my bearings, even thousands of miles from Zimmerman Trail, I had to imagine looking out of my childhood house up Zimmerman Trail to the Rimrocks to orient myself to North. While I had one time in college been embarrassed to be born on a “trail,” I realized that forever the Rimrocks and Zimmerman Trail would define north for me.