Kaycee, WY, population 263 as of the 2010 census, is considered a village, while Billings, MT, population 109,059 as of 2013 is properly described as a city. The two differ in virtually every conceivable measure and detail. Growing up in a small, Wyoming village with a population of 270 was a different experience than my children are being raised with in the largest city in Montana.

I had to refresh my memory of proper settlement hierarchy vernacular to feel like I was beginning this piece appropriately.

I don’t know how I feel about the relationship between how and where I was raised and who I am now, and how those same attributes — method and location, affect my boys’ experience of their own youth. At their ages, 8 and 11, my brother I had been loosed upon our hometown on our bicycles for some time. We’d be gone all day — frequently. We’d play basketball at the park and the school. We’d swim in the river. We’d buy ice cream at the Meat Market. We’d ride our bicycles all over town.

Completely unsupervised for hours on end.

What would happen? What could happen? Everyone in the town knows everyone else, literally. Hell, fully half the town is related to one another via a second cousin or marriage. The citizens don’t drive like they’re in a hurry to get anywhere. I’m aware of a single murder in the Southern Johnson County area in the past 50 years, and it was actually 20 miles to the East and involved a husband and wife, not some deviant stranger hunting little kids.

Occasionally, a couple residents might get high — on the devil’s lettuce, marijuana. The rural, cattle ranching, sheep-herding population enjoy their drink, but kids on bicycles riding while the sun remains in the sky are safe in their traffic.

This doesn’t describe Billings. Drugs and violence are rampant. It may be overused and trite to say that not a week goes by without a shooting or murder, but that is probably accurate. The downtown area is littered with the homeless. Drunken driving is rampant and the traffic is moving much, much faster than in Kaycee. We don’t know our neighbors very well, let alone anyone living more than a few houses away. The chief of police, in a press briefing, advised us that Billings is known for its high-quality meth.

Visit Billings, we have high-quality methamphetamines!

We exist at the intersection of I-90 and I-94. Cars driven by people we don’t know fly past our house at twice the posted 25 mph speed limit. The family across the street lost half of their street-facing backyard fence when an out-of-control teenager drove into it with their car. Billings is a big city with very real big-city problems.

I hate to be a helicopter parent, and I think we’re doing our best, but Billings is very different than Kaycee or Buffalo. We’re forced to adapt and their experience of youth aberrs from the utilization of our own upbringings as examplars. It wouldn’t work. It would probably be dangerous both physically for the boys and legally for Trish and I as parents. At the same time I grow irritated when they can’t/won’t go find something to do on their own, I instinctively limit their options in this regard out of fear for their safety.

We live three houses from a Billings city park. Several summers ago, we’d allowed them to go to the park on their own and a neighbor. actually knocked on our door while they were there to warn us about perverts and weirdos living near us, and to say that she’d previously seen someone watching kids at the park.

Great.

How do you balance the upbringing of a functional, autonomous adult via exposure to situations they have to navigate on their own, with a childhood protected from murderers, kidnappers and perverts? I wish it were easy. I really, really do.

Trish was raised on a ranch 12 miles south of Buffalo, WY on the Middle Fork of Crazy Woman Creek. The nearest neighbor she wasn’t biologically related to was around two miles away. They could fish for trout 50 yards from their front door. People didn’t knock on their door unless they were invited.

Trish took market swine and bum lambs to the Johnson County Fair as part of the Billy Creek 4H club, and I took market lambs with Barnum 4H. We walked Buffalo’s main street with our 4H club floats each August. Our fathers taught us how to safely shoot pistols and rifles. They took us on camping adventures that sometimes involved (in my case) Gordy accidentally cutting the brake line on the Nissan while executing an ill-advised 180-degree turn on a 4-wheel drive road high in the Bighorn Mountains. We’d ride in the back of our father’s pickup trucks, driver and passengers confident of their safety.

I hadn’t worn a bicycle or motorcycle helmet until I took mountain biking as a phys ed elective at Sheridan College when I was 20 and the school required their use. It bears note that my life was later saved by a bicycle helmet and I’ve developed some pretty strong opinions about their use.

I don’t know if my boys have ever ridden in the back of a pickup. We’ve been camping, but the benign, campground-style kind. They’ve shot guns — though mostly with the same men who taught Trish and I to do same. We live inside Billings city limits, and cloven-hoofed animals aren’t legal — nor is our .24 acre lot sufficient to raise them anyway. The boys have to stay relatively near the house without Trish or my supervision. Our house exists in a relatively quiet 10–20 block subdivision within Billings, framed by Broadwater, 19th St, 24th and West High School. Each of these streets have daily traffic volume equal to Kaycee’s monthly (annual?) total traffic volume. Easily. Each year several children are hit by drivers along Broadwater’s length.

Trish and I were both raised near state highways in Wyoming, though both instances were wide open, with clear eyesight and nothing but grass on either side of the highway. Anything human-sized, even small-human sized, sticks out and so long as the small human is cognizant of their surroundings, on any level whatsoever, can avoid interacting with the automobile.

I don’t feel that way about our surroundings in Billings. The cars drive faster on Broadwater than they do on the Sussex Highway outside my parents’ front door. The buildings are closer. There are more distractions and ways for a small person to blend and disappear into the background beside the busy streets.

Duncan will have more wrestling experience when he enters middle school than I had when I graduated high school. Kaycee didn’t have any real wrestling offerings until junior high, defined as sixth grade in Kaycee. Rivers began wrestling when he was… 4? 5? He’s already been doing it for years now. He’s a seasoned pro.

Both boys have participated in little kid cross country to some extent, Duncan officially and Rivers as the little brother tag along. Duncan plays viola in the school orchestra. I don’t know if orchestra is an option in Johnson County, let alone in elementary school.

Duncan will be tall enough to touch the pedals in the cars soon and I’ll have to find an excuse to head to the country where he can practice. I could drive a stick shift years before I was legal, as could Trish. It is almost impossible to find a stick shift anymore, so I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to teach them that one.

This may sound ridiculous, but everything about raising my children is different than I remember from being one. Everything seems busier. We’re always running from one thing to another. The threats seem so present and real. Billings could swallow each of our hometowns many times over. The crime is more violent and the people don’t know each other. I’ve been unable to find a documented murder in Johnson County since the year 2000, though neighboring Sheridan County, with 17.8k residents, has had 5 since the turn of the century. Total. Billings averages around 10 murders per year. Johnson County Wyoming has a population of ~8,600, while West High School, 3 blocks as the crow flies from our house in Billings, has an enrollment of over 1,800. Our nearest high school has 1/5 as many people as the entire county Trish and I grew up in — 4,275 square miles of it.

It would be so much easier to raise children where you were raised. Is this wrong? Do I perceive this incorrectly? As raising kids WHEN you were raised isn’t immediately possible, at least raising them WHERE you were raised would seem to lessen the learning curve, wouldn’t it? There are so many things about Billings that we have to learn alongside them and we both rely on the adult interpretation to ensure we’re getting it right.

Except I still REALLY don’t feel like an adult.

Thankfully, Trish is on hand to raise us all.

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