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We Travel There: Jim’s Best of Billings Interview

We Travel There Interviews CEO Jim Markel

We Travel There with Host Lee Huffman

This interview is available in Podcast format at the We Travel There website. We Travel There Podcasts help you travel like a local by interviewing guests from around the world. Uncover the hidden gems of their city. Find out the best things to do, places to eat and drink, and the most fun things to do from a local point of view.

In this episode Jim and Lee talked about the Burn the Point Car show, the gorgeous scenery along the Beartooth Highway, and the Montana State Fair. Learn about three amazing experiences you can enjoy visiting Billings, and so much more.

INTERVIEW WITH JIM MARKEL, CEO RED OXX MANUFACTURING

Lee Huffman: Hey Jim, welcome to the show.

Jim Markel: Thanks Lee, good to be here.

Lee: I met you a couple years ago at a conference called TBEX. Red Oxx had a table at the Billings convention center. I wanted to have you on the show to educate listeners about Billings, Montana.

Jim: Yes, it’s one of those cities that a lot of people don’t think about right out here in flyover country, so that’s a unique proposition. I’d say we have about 100 thousand some odd people. We’re 650 miles from every major city: Salt Lake, Denver, Minneapolis. It’s this interesting little hub of activity out here in the high plains.

JIM, BILLINGS, AND RED OXX

Lee: So what’s your connection to Billings?

Jim: Well not much. After completing my service in the military I decided to come up here and go to school and start a business and a life. One place was as good as the next. Having grown up in a military family and never living anywhere more than about 18 months. The first connection I thought about when I first came here was "it was a step back in time, like it was 30 years in the past".

After living in California and all the big cities along the coast: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Idaho, I felt there was opportunity here. The pace of life was different. It was very interesting. Like almost going back in time.

Lee: I’m sure the city’s grown tremendously over the years that you’ve lived there. What’s kept you there over that time?

WHY LIVE IN BILLINGS?

Jim: My business has kept me here. Then I’ve learned to embrace the four seasons. I never thought I would live away from the ocean, but the prairie has an allure all itself. It’s like a sea of grass. The weather here can be brutal, but it can also be beautiful. I’ve just learned to embrace the changes and go with it. Adapt my life to live. If it’s hot out, I’ve got flip flops and a tank top. If it’s cold out I got the best boots and cold weather gear money can buy. (Laughs)

Lee: It’s kinda like they say, you take the good with the bad and try to enjoy it all, right?

Jim: Yeah, of course I have a passport, so when it gets to be too bad I just get on an airplane to go somewhere.

BEST TIME OF YEAR FOR THE BEST BILLINGS WEATHER

Lee: What’s the weather like throughout the year? I know from looking at the news that sometimes it gets some negative numbers in the winter time. If someone’s going to plan on visiting, what time do you generally recommend?

Jim: If you’re a winter sports person come after Christmas. If your a summertime person come after July first because we get a lot of our moisture in June, so it can be rainy. I’ve even seen it snow in the middle of June. I always say it’s a safe bet if you come after the first of July, I can guarantee sunshine and warm weather and very long days.

We’re up north here. So the towards the peak on the equinox it’ll be 9:30 at night before the sun goes down. You can still see the after glow almost until 10:00. The sun comes up at 4:30 so you can have some really long days of adventure.

Lee: If you’re trying to maximize your vacation days that’s the one way to do it for sure.

Jim: Yeah, I get a little manic when it’s like that. I was up this morning at five. I’m not a morning person at all, but the sun’s up, I had some coffee, came to work. Kind of… have at it early.

It’s weird when winter comes on. You slow down a little bit. Of course the sun sets at four in the afternoon and doesn’t come up till ten. Those are the days we go to Red Lodge and we go skiing and snowboarding. I snowboard and my wife skis.

Lee: I’m a snowboarder myself. I’ve always been afraid of skis, that my legs are gonna go in opposite directions. It’s going to hurt!

Jim: Yeah, you gotta save your knees. (Laughs)

BEST FESTIVALS IN AND NEAR BILLINGS

Lee: For sure. In anticipation of our conversation I went to visitbillings.com. Also at the Visitors Bureau there at Tbex I saw some really fun festivals. What are some of your favorites?

Magic City Blues Festival - Photo by Visit Billings
Magic City Blues Festival – Photo by Visit Billings.

Jim: The Strawberry Festival is a yearly occurrence. Magic City Blues Fest, a friend of mine promotes that. From my approach that’s some great music at the Blues Festival.

Also, there’s music around the region. There’s a Red Ants Pants Music Festival up in White Sulphur Springs which they hold in a cow pasture in the middle of nowhere. It’s kind of a destination festival. That one I believe sold out this year to over 13,000 people. That’s the biggie.

I think for the whole state we think nothing of driving all over here. We’ve got wide open roads and a high speed limit. Billings is such a good jumping off point for a lot of different things to do in Montana.

HOT RODS AND CLASSIC CARS

Lee: A couple ones I saw that were really interesting to me was Burn The Point. I guess it’s like a classic car show that happens every year?

Jim: Yeah that’s right. They do a street dance on a Friday night. I’ve gone to watch the cars. You can’t believe the number of cars, like hot rod cars, that people in this town have. We don’t have a rust problem like you do anywhere where the moisture and humidity is high, so there are magnificent examples of vintage vehicles.

Burn the Point Car Show - Photo by Visit Billings
Burn the Point Car Show – Photo by Visit Billings.

COWPOKE AND COWPENS

Lee: The Montana State Fair is there as well, correct?

Jim: Correct, that’s just a few blocks from here. I can look out my office window to the fairgrounds. One of my favorite things, of course, is all the 4H kids. They come from all over Montana. They live in some pretty remote locations, especially eastern Montana where these farms can be a "small" wheat farm. Here, an average wheat farm will be 10,000 acres. I know it’s hard for a lot of people wrap their head around. You know they have a couple kids there that’ll be raising cows or pigs and chickens. I really dig going down to check it out.

Lee: That’s so cool. It seems like there’s pride in raising those animals from babies. I like seeing that work and that kind of dedication over the long term.

Jim: Yeah, then they sell the animals. They’re able to raise money. These kids are really independent. They have checking accounts at ten years old. I think it’s a good thing – 4H. It’s good for their upbringing.

You don’t have to be a cowboy, but it certainly brings up the cowboys to that event. I would go and look at the equipment though I couldn’t tell you what any of that stuff does. It looks like a tractor, but it does so much more than just pull a plow.

Montana State Fair - Photo by Visit Billings
Montana State Fair – Photo by Visit Billings

EASY ACCESS AIRPORT

Lee: Let’s take a step back. You talked earlier that Montana’s flyover country. A lot of people who are working like waving as we fly over. If you were gonna come to Billings, do we just fly into the airport there? What’s the best airport to fly into if you’re coming from where I used to live in Nashville, or where I now live in California?

Jim: We have direct flights from California into Billings now. And of course Bozeman. It’s about two hours away so it really depends. You’ll end up routing through Denver or Salt Lake or Minneapolis. That’s typically how you have to take that extra leg.

Although recently they’ve started having direct flights from Dallas which I thought was interesting. You can fly directly from Billings to Dallas and back. That’s a new flight. Billings is a good jumping off point because we have a big population base. A lot of rental cars are available here because of our population. You can rent SUVs and larger vehicles as well.

Lee: Do most of the airlines fly in there or is it just a handful?

Jim: I think it’s about six or seven airlines now. Sky West was the big one. We like flying with them. United… yeah, there’s quite a little hustle – bustle going on up there. I was picking up my cousin last weekend and there were four large planes landing right around midnight. Wow look at this? It’s like a big city time! There’s a bunch of delays going on. Other airlines haven’t quite spun up to their normal efficiencies so traveling can be a little challenging right now.

HOW TO GET AROUND BILLINGS

Lee: I remember the airport itself is really small. Once you arrive there, in order to get into downtown to get see some attractions and restaurants, do you rent a car or just take an Uber around? Because when I was there I just took an Uber. Is it better to rent a car?

Jim: If you’re just gonna do Billings you could get away with the Uber here and there, especially if you’re gonna stick to the downtown area. But it’s a rather sprawling town and it’s grown quite a bit in the last 25 years. I would say rent a car. The nice thing about when you arrive, let’s just say you got in late and you have a hotel booked, you could be in your hotel room after you got off the plane in 10 minutes.

The airport is up on the Rim Rocks up above the town. We’re down in a valley with the planes coming in to land. As they approach Billings they fly over the downtown and then the cliffs rise up about 4,500 feet. That approach is really cool. The pilots love it. At that airport they literally drop you off at the hill and then you’re right within a mile of downtown Billings. It’s really neat. I live down right below the airport, though you don’t hear the planes too much, but getting to the airport, and getting out of town, and arriving back is nice.

TAKE A WALK ON THE BREWERY SIDE

Lee: I remember once you got into the downtown area it is very easy to walk around. We did the Billings Brew Trail and visited a bunch of different breweries. It was super simple and easy to walk around and hit a couple different restaurants.

Jim: We’ve seen quite the renaissance of our downtown with these brewpubs. If craft beer is your thing Billings has quite a selection. There’s probably four of them off the top of my head, like UberBrew. Montana Brewing Company, Thirsty Street and Last Chance Pub and Cider Mill.

Lee: Last Chance Cider, they were tasty.

Jim: They’ve got a great restaurant as well. A lot of these places have restaurants associated with them. UberBrewery especially. I like their German Sausage Sandwich. It’s one of my guilty pleasures.

Lee: When I was on the trail I had the Tri-tip Sandwich to kind of absorb some of the beers right? (Laughs) The next day I went back there because it was so good. I had to go back in and try it again.

Jim: I’ve done that before, that’s funny. (Laughs)

WANT STEAK WITH YOUR BREW?

And then there’s another restaurant that was around the corner there, like an older vintage steak house we went to.

Jim: Yeah, the Buffalo Block. Originally it was another company, they sold it and then they re-branded it, invested a bunch of money into it. It’s been a iconic steakhouse. There’s Jakes as well. That’s a downtown steakhouse. It’s pretty much the same. They took the Rex and remodeled it. They went to town! Jakes has these dry-rubbed huge steaks. They’re the two main steak houses in Billings. Then of course we’ve got other ones more of chain-style out on the west end.

Jakes and Walkers are institutions that have been here forever. Walkers has moved a couple times. They like to reinvent themselves. They are not afraid to rip the whole place apart and start over about every 10 years. I’ve watched that company do great through the years. I’ve always enjoyed going there.

Lee: There’s lots of cattle around so I’m sure they have access to just superb steak?

Jim: Yeah, that’s something that’s changed recently. The ranchers and farmers are finding a way to get right to the chefs directly. Miller Ranch is the one that comes to mind out in Absarokee. They’ve been around about 100 years. The ranch is running their own processing plant and under contract. They’re able to buy brisket right from Miller Ranch. That’s really a unique change, it never leaves the state. It’s not going through Chicago to be fattened up. I’d say short-cutting the model a lot. U.S. consumer-direct stuff happening in the restaurant industry.

Lee: What are some of the things we should be doing for in the town attractions there? It’s known as a "Trailhead" to some of the National Parks that are nearby?

Jim: Right, there’s a lot to do in town. We have a nice art museum here. I’ve toured the YAM a few times and been very inspired by some of the artists that they bring through.

SHOP TILL YOU DROP

We also have some great outdoor gear. My friends come visit me and the first thing they want to do is they want to hit Scheels or one of the other farm and ranch stores like Shiptons Big R and TSC, sportsman’s stuff. You don’t have these places in California. My friends come visit and they’re saying "I’ve never seen this stuff before". They’ll hit our stores and load up on some gear. No sales tax! You know that’s always nice.

BEST PLACES TO RECREATE

Of course we’re within a few miles to get to the Bighorn River, which is to the south. It’s a Blue Ribbon trout stream. You can float and fly fish. The Bighorn canyon up above where there’s some magnificent boating and spectacular slot-wall canyons with 600 to 800 foot high cliffs. I mean it’s insane!

You go to the to the west a little bit and you got the Beartooth Absaroka Wilderness which is where Red Lodge sits on the edge. That’s a little mountain ski town. The wilderness area which I’ve done lots of solo backpacking. If you want to get away from it all you can disappear up into the mountains. There’s amazing trout streams up there for fishing.

Beartooth Pass - Photo by Visit Billings
Beartooth Pass – Photo by Visit Billings

When I was a lot younger I would just take my dog and my backpack and my fly rod gear and go up into the mountains for the weekend. Bring a couple cans of beans, catch trout, camp out. That sort of thing. Then they forced us into established campgrounds like KOA, and all that. You could do that sort of adventure, too.

BICYCLING BILLINGS

Closer to town we’ve got some awesome trail systems now that we didn’t have back in the day. I’ve watched that progress. Bike lanes now.

I like to ride my bicycle around town. I’m kind of more of a towny king of guy so I like to ride my beach cruiser. It’s nice and flat through the downtown corridor. Some people like to Mountain Bike but it’s not my thing. There’s a little bit of something for everybody. We have some great bicycle shops here. A lot of trails and access to a lot of outdoor stuff.

If you don’t like the outdoors you may not care for Montana because a lot of our life revolves around being outside and doing things. I guess some younger generations like to play video games a lot, but that’s never been my thing. (laughs). I tire of that sort of interaction rather quickly.

KOA – CAMP LOCAL

Lee: Sure, my kids are all about the iPad right about now. They’re six and ten so they don’t really know much different. When you mentioned the KOA, we just went to a KOA campground this weekend. I heard that actually KOA was started there in Billings, right?

Jim: Yes. KOA number one is actually just two miles from my office. It’s right over by the Yellowstone river. Their corporate offices are downtown. They’ve been doing a lot of expansion in the last year or two. They’re definitely changing the experience with KOA with more built stuff, like cabins. This is an on-the-move company. Been around for over 50 years. They’re international. That’s a cool brand. I’ve stayed at a lot of KOAs throughout my life.

Lee: My friends through the last year obviously have not been flying so they got their trailers and they’re out there. Just hit all the different KOA campgrounds. I’m not that adventurous yet to where I’m gonna invest in it, but I stayed at the KOA campground just a couple hours away from here. It was it was nice that there’s a variety of cabins to choose from. The bathrooms are actually clean and upgraded. It’s not like you walking someplace a little sketchy you know? (Laughs)

Jim: We’ve all stayed at a few of those through the years. Sometimes you’re out of the high desert Nevada somewhere or the backside of Idaho and you’ll just pull in somewhere going, "I’m so tired, I just want to park". Yeah, I’ve camped at a few of those in my life. I’ll say there’s one thing for KOA, a good hot shower. I’d almost give an arm and a leg for one after you’ve been on the road for a while.

Lee: That’s true. Maybe some people that are listening aren’t interested in staying at the KOA or a campground type thing. What are some of the hotels you might recommend if you’re staying in the downtown area? From what I saw there was the usual brands like Marriott and Radisson and those types, but what are some more boutique or local type hotels?

NOT INTO CAMPING? – TRY A HOTEL

Jim: We have one that’s been around forever and a day. It’s the Northern Hotel. It was getting a little long in the tooth as they say. Some local guys purchased it and they put 20 or 30 million into it I think? It is nice. All high tech now. It’s right downtown. A block from Jake’s. They have a restaurant called TEN down on the lower deck, it’s fine dining. It’s a nice hotel now. Locally owned as I say. That’s the one that comes to mind. Before they remodeled I would’ve been like, nay, you know? Now? Yeah! At one point people have lived there.

Back in the day there was some people that literally lived at the hotels. A wealthy heiress was living there. You go down to the bar and she was quite the character. She funded the local hospital and a big endowment, like in the theater. She’d buy a Bourbon and tell stories. Her name was Alberta Bair, as in the Alberta Bair Theater. She lived to be almost a 100 years old. Literally lived at the hotel. The original assisted living facility. (laughs)

It’s one of the things you dream of instead of going to assisted living. I would live on a cruise liner, live in a hotel, something like that. I think you get way better service than some places.

BEST HOTEL FOR KIDS

Lee: Yes, definitely a thought, right? (laughs) There were the ones that seem appealing for my kids, for sure. I guess there’s something called The Reef? I saw it was the largest indoor waterpark in Montana?

Jim: That’s out on the west end. I went to a wedding out there once. It has a big pool indoors lit up at night. That’s one of the ones where some of the people with kids love that place.

Lee: I know they would go crazy over it. Sometimes if you’re not happy as a parent, to be going there just see the looks on their faces. That’s what it’s all about!

Jim: We all love the water. That’s closer to the other side of town which is near Zoo Montana. You can have access to that. There’s a big shopping area, car dealerships, and RVs, you name it.

BILLINGS RAILROAD HISTORY

It’s what I like to call a little California out there because the development that changed from the 1880s when they built Billings. See, Billings was a railroad town. The downtown quarter was all mapped out by the railroad in 1883. The lots were 25 feet wide by 140 feet. That’s the standard best parcel. They call those a shotgun-style lot – long and skinny.

That’s why when you go to Montana Avenue all the buildings are narrow and long. Montana Avenue faces the west end, but then you move through the grid why are all the lots kind of the same? They laid it all out in a grid, then surveyed it all out. Then the railroad parceled out the town.

Frederick Billings started Billings, Montana. He was president of the railroad. Train tracks run right through the center of downtown. We still have a very active rail yard and rail system here. Hello? The Railyard (now called Carter’s)! That’s another place where you can go get beer and it’s sitting right along the old part of downtown. It’s an old warehouse converted into a brewpub.

THE LAST BEST MEAL

It’s time for the final countdown. If somebody only had time for one meal when they visit Billings, where should they go and what should they eat?

Jim: Wow, that’s always a tough question. For fast dining what I love is the Burger Dive. They’ve won many national competitions. Now the owners are judges of these big burger competitions. They’re just incredible. It’s a cute little place in one of these tiny little buildings downtown that’s 25 feet wide by 140 feet deep. It’s another one of the places I really love to go to. They’re very creative with their hamburgers.

Lee: Do you have a favorite burger there?

Jim: Yeah, I get the Garlic Burger with Mushroom and Cheese and then some hot sauce on that sucker. It’s really good. They’ll do stuff like huckleberry. Huckleberries are Montana berries. They’ll make a huckleberry dressing. Brad is a very creative chef. He knows his business.

REMEMBERING THE MEMORABLE

Lee: Obviously you’ve lived in Billings for quite a while seeing the transformation of it all, what’s your most memorable story living there?

Jim: I would say one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had in Billings is discovering the natural beauty of the Yellowstone valley. The way the light moves across the rims at a certain time of the year. Just understanding the pace of life here after being on the run my whole life. It’s really become home.

Lee: I love the way that feeling is. Speaking of happy feelings, what’s the best happy hour in Billings?

Jim: Thirsty Street Brewing Company. That seems to be the spot. It’s another one of those right down the road from all the other brewpubs. They got a good little spot for music out in the parking lot. Sometimes you go down there and you’ll see quite the crowd.

BEST BILLINGS PIZZA

Lee: That sounds fun. I remember seeing that one on the Brew Trail. I always check out the local pizza spot. What’s the best place for pepperoni pizza in Billings?

Jim: I’m a little biased. I have a pizza oven in my yard. A wood fired pizza oven that we can throw pretty good pizza. For commercial pizza I would say Bullman’s Pizza out on the west end. They do a wood fired as well.

What’s Jim’s Best Travel Tip?

Lee: You do a lot of traveling internationally so I know you have a lot of great travel tips. What’s one of your favorites?

Jim: My favorite travel tip is basically travel with one bag. The more you have to haul with you the tougher it is. It would one carry-on bag. While everybody’s fighting at the turnstile for their luggage you’re out the door in the first Uber and gone. You’re halfway to town by the time they got their bags.

ABOUT RED OXX

Lee: Jim can you tell me a little about who you are what you do and definitely about Red Oxx bags?

Jim: In my early life I was a parachute rigger in the Marine Corps. After I left the military I started a company called Red Oxx Manufacturing. Red Oxx manufactures probably the most durable travel bags ever built. We saw those direct-to-consumer ideas early with the online dot coms. That’s kind of our thing. I’ve bucked the trend early on by using the Internet. I wanted to have that relationship with people directly. We’ve done that. As they say the rest is history. Customers all over the world. We manufacture gear right here in Billings, Montana. The UPS and FedEx guy comes and takes it away. It has been what I’ve done basically my whole adult life now for over 30 years.

WHY CHOSE RED OXX TRAVEL GEAR?

Lee: I remember seeing the bags when I was there in Billings and they’re very attractive. I saw they were very tough. My friends grabbed some while they were there. They love traveling with them.

Jim: Getting into the whole travel thing with with my lifestyle, whether I’m out on the road traveling or just going to the Farmers Market on Saturday, a lot of the products were created were around an active lifestyle. If you’re on-the-go all the time you don’t want to be let down. I try to build things in a way that it’s mil-spec for the civilian market, so double tough, lifetime warranty, that sort of thing. Built tough in a way that it won’t break on the other side of the planet.

I’m hard on gear. I travel a lot. Sometimes I’m just rough with my stuff. Throw it in the back of the truck, into the boat, into a plane. I don’t have time to baby something, just wanna go, go, go.

Farmer's Market - Photo by Visit Billings
Farmer’s Market – Photo by Visit Billings

Lee: I couldn’t agree more. Jim, I really appreciate your coming on the show, it’s been fun! We look forward to seeing you when we travel to Billings.

Jim: I’ll give anyone a tour of the factory, offer some tips after some new restaurants open up, orother places to go. I’d be happy to share.

Lee: That sounds awesome. Thank you so much. We had such a great time in Billings there a few years ago. If you enjoyed this podcast please share with the friends.

Red Oxx and Jim Markel would like to thank Lee Hoffman and We Travel There for this interview. Transcript provided and edited by the Minister of Information for D.O.R.A. (Department Of Redoxx Affairs).