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It takes a lot of patience

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Allene Stovall told me she'd be driving from her house in town to the old family farm to check her cows that evening, so when I first walked up to the abandoned property – two barns, a house, a wooden tool shed, and an old mud-brick stable – it was just me, and the hot late afternoon sun, and Thunder, a 4-year-old dog. Thunder was sprawled in the shade and barked once, stood up, then lay right back down to sleep. I took it as a welcome. An hour of warm breeze in a patch of shade of my own, and then Allene drove up the farm road in a beat up blue truck with tools all over the cab. Allene, who celebrated her 83rd birthday in January, normally drives a newer truck but needed this for its lift. She cleared a place for me on the bench seat, and we drove north on a dirt road, heading first to check some irrigation lines. One line was leaking, so Allene threw the truck into park, grabbed a wrench, and whacked the lid. We looked out across the flat brown field at the wind turbines running north. Allene has four on her land, and likes them. Brings in a little money. But the energy company wanted to burn the old house she'd grown up in a few miles away to run electric lines over the area, and that, she told me, was hard to watch. Allene turned the truck west along the edge of her 640-acre section, then south to see the calves. The sun was falling fast, then, and Allene drove on, stopping in the center of the section above a slope that ran to a creek. Calves and cows idled, except for one, giving birth. The calf was halfway out but stuck. A young man hopped off an ATV to give a tug. The cow, spooked or just wanting nature to run its course, rose and bucked, the calf going for a wild ride before sliding out completely, hard onto the earth. It took two men on ATVs to coax the cow back to her calf. But after 30 uncertain minutes, the mother had come around, licking the newborn, and then nudging it upright to nurse. Allene pointed at a small pond, created by a dam built by her father decades before. She looked back at the newest calf, wobbling, and said of keeping cattle, "It takes a lot of patience." #texas #wind #travel #journalism #instaessay #unh808

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The answer, my friend, is …

Sorry for the predictable headline. I get punchy out there walking. But the ¬†point is…

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Before I lay on my back beneath the blades of this turbine spinning in the wind, I had spoken with an 87-year-old writer and rancher named Delbert Trew, who works land 30 miles to the east. Our conversation took me back, as Delbert described windmills in the 1930s with 6-volt chargers that brought electricity to the plains. Said Delbert, "If the wind blowed, we got to listen to the radio that night." But a decade later rural power lines meant windmills were again mostly just drawing water from beneath the ground, if even that, and the Texas panhandle, too, progressed on coal and gas burned in distant power plants. Now we know that consuming so much carbon comes at a toll, and with the wind still blowing, things are beginning to come full circle. This time, though, the turbines stand 80 meters high, equivalent to a 24-story building, to catch the best breeze. After a long day of walking, I thought about pitching my tent beneath the blades. But the whomp, whomp, whomp felt too primal for such proximity, and what if a bolt broke loose? A wind energy expert had explained to me that in the panhandle the wind often blows fiercest 80 meters off the ground at 2 or 3 in the morning. So as I slept in a cotton field safely between two turbines I woke to hear the whomp echoing in the night. I looked from my tent to see red lights on hundreds of other turbines blinking into the distance, like buoyed boats at anchor on the sea. But a full moon also lit the sky, recalling a moment 12 hours before when I'd watched Sandhill cranes migrate north. They floated a half-mile or more above the turbines, beating wings and shifting course on the currents. The cranes are a prehistoric species, similar in many ways to fossils of ancestors millions of years old. Now here we are down on the ground trying to capture those currents to move us forward. Not so different from the cranes, up there riding the wind, like they always do. #travel #journalism #wind #energy #texas #plains #coal #gas #instaessay #unh808

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Seems I was meant to be walking

There have been times, during the two years and hundreds of miles walked far from home as part of this project, that I have wondered: What am I doing? Why am I shouldering a 45-pound pack, picking up my walking stick, and wandering off into the unknown? Plenty of answers to that, of course, but a big one came courtesy of a 20-ton farm machine just before I was to begin walking in Texas wind country.

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It was a quiet Monday in Groom, Texas, population 563, and I was only a quarter mile or so from the grain elevator where I planned to leave the rental car and begin walking across the prairie. The streets were empty, except for the big machine rolling down Business Route 40. A Terragator, I later learned it is called. Who knew? But there it was, steaming west on the real Old Route 66, so I idled at the stop sign to let it pass by. A contraption that weighs 13 tons, even when empty of its load of fertilizer for the fields, as the Terragator does, is an odd thing to see on a town street. Its dimensions make it seem out of place anywhere but above a big expanse of brown pasture, and even there. // It took me a moment to realize, then, what was happening, as that big front wheel began to swivel in my direction and the Terragator swung into a wide turn, the arc of its journey accelerating into my lane. You can swipe the photo above to see what that wheel – which measures nearly six feet tall – does when it hits the front of a Hyundai Accent. In the moment before impact, I'd had an internal conversation that ran something like: "Weird, looks like that big thing's turning this … whoa … whoa… coming right this … what the fuck!" I recall my hand grabbing the gear stick and throwing the car into reverse. I don't know if it got there, or if I slammed my foot on the gas, because just like that the Terragator was over the hood and only because of the angle of its impact am I able to sit here, hours later, and type this, uninjured. The weight of that big wheel popped the little Hyundai back a few feet, and soon the young farmer and I were standing on the side of the road, waiting for a state trooper to write the farmer's words on his report: "I just didn't see him." // Will, from A-1 Wrecker Service – "We don't want your arms and legs, just your tows!" – gave me a lift to the only motel in Groom. I told the woman behind the counter that tomorrow I would continue on to White Deer and Panhandle, a journey of nearly 50 miles. How will you get there without a car, she asked. "I'll just walk," I said. She tilted her head: "Oh?" #travel #writing #unh808

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Traveling again through Turtle Island

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Every few minutes, after the automated train arrives, the escalators heading down are thick with people in a moment of insulated transit. Moving alone and together through a world of our creation. In one batch of passengers, three in a line: a man in a blue tracksuit jacket, white earbuds dangling to an iPhone, which he keyed with two thumbs; a middle-aged woman in custodial shirt with a mid-distance stare; and, just a step behind, a businessman in gray suit and soft green tie, checking his nails as he stood on the stair. I joined the procession, having just arrived in Dallas from a four-hour flight. The woman next to me had been excited to visit her grandkids, who live in a 6,500-square-foot house. She makes the trip from Boston four times a year. I was carrying on to Amarillo, so as she headed to baggage claim I had shuffled through the sliding doors of the train for a ride from Terminal C to Terminal B. Ever moving without any effort. // Behind me in New Hampshire, single-digit temperatures would soon brace the maple trees outside my home. Up ahead I would walk across prairie fields beneath turbines taller than 25 story buildings, the blades turning in the late winter wind. The energy they capture gets fed into a power line and shipped back toward Dallas, where the shuttling never stops. // On my second flight, suspended one mile above the earth and bound for Amarillo, I was numb to dimensions of time and place. I shifted in my seat. A father and son sat behind me. The jet descended through clouds and banked above Palo Duro Canyon, making its final approach. The land beneath was soon flat pasture and strip mall, a blur of brown earth and neon bright. The plane glided low past the big box hotels and the Bell Helicopter assembly plant. The wings bobbed as the wheels waited to touch pavement. The boy, his face pressed tight against the plastic window for the view, did not turn his head, but said to his father, or himself, "some toy airplanes can fly higher than this."#travel #writing #instaessay #texas #energy #fuelwalk #unh808

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Time turning at the edge

Idle ideas looking out to sea…

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The turbines sit on a bluff up above the ever-shifting sea. The blue tarp – what's that? Some kind of protection against time? But that keeps turning. So the tarp is tired and torn, the turbines exposed at rest. // The company that put them in the ocean to try to harness the power of the tides learned a lot. But they needed more work. Not quite the right materials. Not ready to mass produce. So, more tinkering with new ideas. And the old turbines sit on shore, almost forgotten, like lobster traps pulled for the season, or a boat up on stilts, its engine uncovered. Who knows if the turbines, or others after them, will descend again into the currents. // This place at the edge of America is quiet, and it can feel like nothing is happening here. That idleness can be a tonic. But of course even Eastport is moving forward, and it needs energy, and we need energy. Clean energy. So we look out at the tides, those big swings of 18 to 24 vertical feet of water, two times a day, everyday, in and out – unbridled energy doing its thing. And you think, wow, it's a dream, right, those turbines, if we just put them back down there, if we just found the right mix of materials, the right performance, the right price per kilowatt… That's what it is, right? We want to replace what we've got. It will take big solutions and lots of little ideas. But how do you compete with oil, coal, and gas – oof – with the whole big superstructure all around the world, always digging, digging, and everyone – everyone – already paying for that constant comfort. //So we look out at the tides and think, 'that's just a dream.' Oh, but to dream is the idea, to gaze out and wonder if that wouldn't work one day, if that couldn't be just one thing, moving us closer to natural rhythms. #maine #tides #energy #fuel #travel #journalism #future #instaessay

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Piloting the tides

Going out to sea to help a ship come in to port. A serendipitous encounter while walking the tidal coves of Eastport.

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It was 8:08 a.m. and Captain Bob Peacock and four other men were untying Zeporah, a pilot boat, at the dock in Deep Cove, on the back side of the island. The men were there precisely at that time because it was four hours before 12:08 p.m., the ideal target time at which Peacock, who has piloted more than a thousand ships into Eastport, hoped to maneuver Star Lima, a 670-foot-long ship flying the Norwegian flag, alongside the port. The ship would pick up thousands of pounds of wood pulp and sail the next day for Savona, Italy. // I didn't know any of this at 8:08 a.m. when I happened out to Deep Cove to look at the sea and saw the crew climbing aboard Zeporah. I had been in touch with Peacock before arriving in town and when I walked down the steps to the dock and introduced myself, he said, "want to go for a ride?" // Soon we were motoring around the south end of Eastport toward Campobello Island. James Smith, at the wheel, picked up the radio: "Fundy Traffic. This is Eastport pilot boat. We are entering Canadian waters." Peacock, who would be climbing aboard the Star Lima with two cadets, sat behind Smith. He looked at the ebb tide rushing past Windmill Point. It travels 4 knots per hour in one direction and then, just past the point, 3 kph in the other. That morning, as the tide rushed out to sea, the water level around Eastport would drop more than 18 feet. "We plan everything by the tides," Peacock told me. Smith steered Zeporah past East Quoddy Lighthouse and into the open water of the Bay of Fundy. A mile or two away, Star Lima was steaming at 12 knots per hour toward the rendez-vous point. Peacock grabbed the radio and told the Star Lima captain to hold his course. "We are dead ahead of you," Peacock said. Star Lima slowed to 8.5 knots and Smith swung Zeporah around to come parallel to the ship. The current coming off the hull of Star Lima danced on the surface and deep below. Smith worked the throttles as Peacock and the cadets went to the starboard side, where they would climb onto the Jacob's Ladder hanging down Star Lima's hull. "When I first started doing this," Smith said, "my knees would shake." #maine #tides #travel #journalism #fuelwalk

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On moving along

An encounter on the trail …

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"Oh, I'd love to do what you're doing right now." That's what Frank said when he saw me walking past his yard with my pack and walking stick. "I've got a canoe, and I've always wanted to go, just me and my dog, and paddle." "Where to," I asked. "Everywhere." But before that reverie, Frank told me it was his birthday. "How old?" I asked. "Guess," he said. I looked at his lean and nimble frame, the sparkle in his eyes, and said, "81." He smiled: "83. Born November 18, 1932. When I was a kid, we didn't even have electricity. Just kerosene lamps, and an outhouse. So we've come pretty far, I guess." When I passed by his yard, Frank was out raking some soil into a ditch to smooth out his lawn, which was tidily mowed. "You're on the reservation now," he said, referring to the tribal land on Pleasant Point. Frank's lawn has an intimate view down a tidal creek, a tempting place to linger. But Frank has done a lot of going himself, from six years in the service, to 44 years at a chemical company in Massachusetts, and a lot of walking of his own along the way. He hiked Zion National Park from the back end, and trails all through Colorado's Rockies. "A lot of people move along so fast they don't know where they are," Frank told me. "I try to look around." His favorite place, one that has drawn him back six times, is the Grand Canyon. "I celebrated my 80th birthday there." He talked about camping on the open ground down in the canyon, "looking up at the stars turning." Frank has gout in his legs now, and his wandering days are winding down. He just gave away his three pairs of cross country skies. "It was either that or look at them all winter." So he talked more about another trip out to the desert, when the cacti burst into bloom one morning. "I got lucky," Frank said, his voice quieting at the memory. "I stood there and looked out at all that beauty." #travel #journalism #maine #instaessay #fuelwalk

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Between the tides

A short version of a very long story, as seen from the river’s edge…

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It's kind of a disorienting picture, two sides meeting suddenly. On the right, brochures for the St. Croix Island visitor's center. On the left, in the distant middle of the river: the island. // One lens on the history of humans is the continual quest for resources. Always seeking more, to keep things alive for now, and expanding in the future. In 1604 – before Jamestown, before Plymouth – French explorers sailed up the river. They met the local Passamaquoddy people and decided to winter on the island. // It turned out to be an epically hard season, with the river frozen over in October. Trapped with dwindling supplies, 35 of 79 men died. The Passamaquoddy, sheltered at inland winter camps along rivers and lakes, returned in spring with game and more. The explorers moved on. But they had seen the woods and waterways and decided they held a bounty too tempting not to consume. What happened after they and others returned, of course, is history. #fuelwalk #travel #journalism #maine #tides #energy #maybe

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To the sea we go?

A moment moving downstream…

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There's a cycle, of course. It evaporates. Falls from the sky. Then makes its way to the sea to do it all over again. It's good sometimes to stop and stare at just a moment in the journey. Energy in action. // That's one reason harnessing river currents has made hydro power such an important source of energy for centuries. New England rivers are riddled with dams – some working, others in ruins – that powered mills and the early days of electricity. And out west, the Hoover, Grand Coulee and other dams tower in proportion. But damming river currents can cause problems – from cutting off fish migration routes to altering the wider ecosystem. Not a lot of talk about expanding river dams anytime soon. // But what about harnessing the water's power as it stalls in the cycle, lingering in the ocean? There, at land's edge, the ebb and flow moves currents that are clean. Energy untapped. Not a lot of talk about tidal power, either. But it seems something worth considering in a world that needs to cut its use of oil, gas, and coal, and fast. There are a few big efforts at damming bays, but those too come with big impacts. The question is how to tap the tides more deftly. That means caring again about the natural cycle. And stopping to study that rise and fall that happens twice a day, as reliable as the moon in the sky above. #water #power #travel #journalism #energy #maybe #tides

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Spinning in time

A small story of the past and future from a forgotten bit of riverbank in Calais, Maine.

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Alex's earliest memory as a boy in Germany: his great-grandfather asked him to sit on a board and hold it still for cutting. Then his great-grandfather taught him how to sharpen the saw. And it's been like that ever since, Alex figuring out how things work: as a sculptor, designer, teacher. // On the day that I met him at the eastern edge of Maine, I heard him tell friends about fixing his truck, and patching his roof, and hauling out his 25-foot sailboat, which he often sails alone for days at a time on the ceaseless currents where the St. Croix River runs into Passamaquoddy Bay, for the winter. That afternoon, I followed Alex down a steep hillside thick with brown bushes. Alex turned around and descended the rockiest part of the hillside backwards. His balance isn't so good anymore. We crossed some train tracks along the river and wandered toward the ruins of an old power-generating station. Alex was marveling about the differential pressure that the water-driven turbines used to create energy in the 1930s. // Now the hulking iron turbines have rusted in the earth and leaves around the dam building. When Alex stopped to show me one, he said that a lot of the old metal – turbines and shafts and supports – had been removed since his last visit to the ruins three years ago. He suspected that people motivated by higher scrap prices had hauled it off. // I asked Alex what he thought about modern efforts to harness the power of Passamaquoddy Bay, downstream from the abandoned turbines. "There is an enormous energy – 24 feet of tide twice a day," Alex said. He thought that recent efforts were a bit before their time. Speculative, but with the potential to lead to something more. "Theoretically," Alex said, "it should work." #fuelwalk #maine #energy #tidalpower #travel #journalism #maybe

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Next steps

Sometimes, to find a new way forward, it helps to go to the edge. A quiet place. Where things move slow and, it can seem, little is happening. Slow down, too. That’s the idea now, as I walk along the eastern edge of Maine in November.

  
It’s known as Down East, and a lot of time it’s the coastline that people think about. But follow the St. Croix River upstream, and it’s a watery world, too. Forests are thick with lakes and bogs, streams and puddles. The St. Croix itself is a force, currents rushing toward the sea, where they meet, twic a day, the incoming tides — some of the highest and most powerful in the world. So during the days ahead I will pick up the old stick that I’ve had as a companion since North Dakota, and I’ll walk along the water’s edge, following the flow.

The comfort of thunder and lightning

Final thoughts of coal country…

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Walking Coal Country. 7 of 7 // I'm back home now, sitting in a soft arm chair, coffee at my side, feet up on a low table. But I think often of this tree, the end of my walk through the Wyoming prairie. What you can't see in this picture is the heat. It was just after noon when I turned south from the Black Thunder Coal Mine and walked the last dirt road to the Little Thunder Reservoir. The temperature was in the low 80s, and the beating sun made me struggle those last steps. The tree was the first I had seen in 17 miles, since I set out early that morning from a ranch yard planted with towering cottonwoods. I dropped my pack and sat in the shade. It was not a full shade, as the olive tree's oval leaves turned and the branches bent in a steady breeze, but it was enough. That afternoon, the soft sky turned black as night, as unusually severe thunderstorms swept in with 50 mile per hour winds. I climbed inside my tent and braced against the ground as the gusts yanked at the nylon walls and hail punched the roof. Rounds of lightning directly overhead reached toward the prairie, and I was not sure in those moments: Would I survive? But that tent, too, was shelter enough. So I sit here now, back in my comfortable house, "Of Monsters and Men" playing over the Sonos, and I wonder about the scale of our consumption. I can no longer see the gaping coal pits in the prairie and the bulldozers digging them deeper. I can no longer feel the strain and shudder of the trains that carry that coal off to electricity plants across America. But I also no longer feel the earth beneath my back, nor the strength of the sun. And I wonder about what is lost as we harvest evermore fuel to insulate ourselves from the natural world. Are we more secure in our comfort? Perhaps. More alive? No. #travel #journalism #walking #coal #instaessay #wyoming #life #energy #powderriver #fuel #future

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Empty chair, #2

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Walking Coal Country. 6 of 7 // Another empty chair, but this also occupied not too long before I took this picture. This time the sitter was matriarch of a ranching family. "You're going to get horseshoe butt," her daughter told her as she took a seat. She had quite a view in front of her. A white wooden fence framed a green lawn shaded by towering cottonwoods. A rare oasis in the grasslands coal country of northeast Wyoming. "I just love it here," the older woman said more than once, during lulls in a conversation buffeted by late afternoon breeze. The chair had been welded shoe by shoe by the woman's grandson, who at end of day was still out in his truck checking oil wells. So the woman sat with her daughter and me. The two women had been out working heifers, but neither seemed to want to talk much of the coal mines nearby. And that was fine by me. The story there is obvious enough, as the mines blast valleys from pasture, claiming more surface for the rock beneath. I'd already talked to one rancher who said some of his calves got ill after grazing alongside the mines. And I could see for myself how the prairie was more about energy for distant markets than life on the range. So the women and I talked about the 11-year-old cattle dog who still works and the guinea hens that eat insects in the grass and sound the alarm when a snake slithers in. The older woman's husband was in town at the dentist, getting replacements for some teeth he'd knocked out. The year before, he rolled an ATV while herding cattle and punctured a lung. It's tough country. There in the shade, the older woman rocked in the horseshoe chair and told a story she'd heard: When the ranch was homesteaded more than a century before, a woman carried seven pails of water each day from nearby School Creek to water the young cottonwoods. "She must have loved those trees," the rocking woman told me. Sixteen cottonwoods now climb 50 feet and higher. The woman offered me a spot on the lawn to camp for the night. Later, a midnight downpour battered the nylon tent walls. I could hear the cottonwood branches bending high overhead. #travel #journalism #walking #instaessay

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Empty chair, #1

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Walking Coal Country. 5 of 7 // "Do you want to come inside and cool off?" That's what the woman asked the moment I showed up at the guard shack of a coal mine. It was just past noon and 86 degrees, already the hottest day of the year. The sun hung high in a clear sky. The woman was standing out back having a smoke, and she stubbed out her cigarette and led the way in. "Grab that chair," she said, pointing into a side room with lockers, "and roll it in here by mine." I did. She took a small styrofoam cup from a stack and held it out: "Help yourself to water." I drank three cups and we talked about my kids and her granddaughter, about the walk I was making and the years she spent shuttling engineers and conductors to and from idling coal trains. Now she minds the gate of the mine's main entrance – 12 hour shifts, three and four days a week, depending. As we talked, a steady stream of visitors pulled up to the window. One guy with a face caked in dirt from spray-washing excavators. Another here for a meeting. A tractor-trailer delivering something for down in one of the active areas. A pickup carrying a guy to fix the Internet. Each time, the woman slid open the window and traded a joke or laugh for information – company, name, reason for visit. I had already walked 11 miles that morning. She told me to settle in and wait out the heat of the day. So I leaned to the cooler and refilled my cup. She took out a computer tablet and played Candy Crush. I wrote some notes and idled in an air-conditioned daze. She told me about a plan the U.S government has to institute marshall law in seven states starting July 15. "You can't believe everything you read on the Internet," she told me. "But this…" We sat in silence for a while, then talked about the drive she makes to visit her mother, who is 93, but lives alone two hours away. A little before 2 o'clock, she spun from her chair and turned to go outside again. "Time for another cigarette," she said. "You can stay here and rest." #walking #wyoming #travel #journalism #instaessay

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All aboard

A story from day four walking Wyoming coal country.

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Walking Coal Country. 4 of 7 // Those little dark specks in the sky above the train cars are swallows. They build mud nests under the bridge I was standing on. They don't mind the trains passing 24 hours a day, but a person is something unusual and sends them to swooping and squeaking in complaint. I'd stopped to look down into these idle trains, two of them waiting to load coal at the Antelope Coal Mine, the other soon to roll off toward an electricity plant somewhere in America. It's an elaborate system of precise timing, teams of engineers boarding the big diesel engines to pilot the trains to and fro. Crews make the switch south of here in the town of Bill, but also in depots across the United States. The goal of coal mine and train company and power plant alike is to keep them rolling nearly all the time. So idle moments like these, before and after a train passes through the loadout – a hydraulic chute dispensing 100 or so tons of coal into each car, depending on customized computer calculations as the train rolls through – are a moment to consider the system. Each train pulls between 100 and 150 cars. Each day, roughly 75 trains are loaded and roll away from the 12 open-pit mines around Gillette. We are a hungry and demanding people. So before long the trains lurch toward movement, the couplings click from one car to the next in a cascade of sound, and the iron rails sing beneath the pressure. The diesel engines grind and bellow at the effort. But with gaining speed, the engines hum and the coal cars quiet into a playful rhythm, so sure they are that we will keep welcoming their arrival, or at least be unaware of it. #walking #wyoming #coal #travel #journalism #instaessay

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Thanks for reading.

… and the deer and the antelope play

Catching up here at Fuel Walk with a story from day three walking Wyoming coal country.

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Walking Coal Country. 3 of 7 // This Antelope was gone long before I came along. Down in a ditch, ten or twelve feet off of County Road 37 – the "Antelope Coal Mine Road" it's also called – I had to stand and wonder. Had it been there for six months? Six years? Unlikely, given a bit of the hide still attached. Anyway, that was on my first day walking, and since it's pretty much been me and the antelope. I'm traveling a road that weaves between two huge open-pit mines – the Antelope Coal Mine, operated by Cloud Peak Energy, and the North Antelope Rochelle Mine, operated by Peabody Energy. Traffic to and from moves fast and in bursts between shifts. None stopped and I marched along, stick in hand. During my first two days, I didn't speak to a single person. // This morning, as I started walking from a pasture for a 15-mile day, I heard what sounded like a quick bark, or a cough, over my right shoulder. A hundred yards away an antelope stood and stared at me. I told him that I didn't even know he was there, and I complimented him on his antlers. He bolted, body holding steady above the ground as his legs pinwheeled in a clip at once fast and awkward. // There are several other coal mines north and south, and they eat up the earth pretty thoroughly, with wanderers like me and the antelope restricted to certain roadways. Yesterday, as I followed CR 37 between two pits, another antelope ran ahead, stopping every few hundred feet to look back at me. We were in a narrow corridor. After ten or fifteen minutes, a pasture opened to the west. The antelope crossed the road but stopped in the left lane to look at me one last time. Then he leapt the barb wire fence in what I think must have been an easy jump. // Before I left camp this morning, I heard a honking overhead. A lone Canada Goose, the first I'd seen in Wyoming, made a wide arc over the pasture where I'd slept. He circled once, then twice, his honk loud and unrelenting. In a way, we both were lost, me down below, him up above, in this place long dominated by machines. #travel #walking #wyoming #coal #instaessay

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Thanks for reading.

Avoid contact

I’ve always planned for this walk through Wyoming coal country to be more solitary than those I took last summer through oil and gas country. During the first two days, I met no one. More a chance to watch and wonder at the scale and substance of the nation’s largest open-pit coal mines.

On this walk, I’m also changing a bit the way I share dispatches as I walk. I’m posting more to Instagram than WordPress, as I like the integrated format of a single photo partnered with text. So I’m sharing the #instaessays, as they’re called, here. This is number two of a series.

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Walking Coal Country. 2 of 7 // I don't know for sure, but I think out there in the distance above the coal cars that is a 240-ton dump truck. Could be bigger. They go as heavy as 400 tons, apparently. Either way, a lot of rock and dirt came pouring out of it right after I took this picture. The truck's exhaust strained with black smoke, the bed lifted, and the pile of earth sprayed and slid down the slope below it. It took less than two minutes for that truck to appear on the horizon, dump the dirt, and drive off. Then came another truck, and another. It was going on before I walked up the road, and as I continued on. Unseen beyond is all the digging and dozing that filled those trucks. The coal in Wyoming can be hundreds of feet beneath the surface. So the mine companies create roving Grand Canyons, digging and filling as the opening exposes more coal. // The earth does not always move willingly. As I arrived at a pasture this afternoon to make camp, I heard a warning siren sound in the open-pit mine to the east. A brief pause, then an explosion, as more rock was blasted loose. A dense plume climbed into the air. Locals had described these chemical blasts as orange in color. But as it rose tight above the mine, it was brown. There was a steady north wind, and the plume started shape-shifting, thinning as it climbed. Eventually its edges did begin to tint orange. And so it went, brown and orange and ever-spreading, drifting for more than an hour among the soft white clouds. #travel #walking #coal #wyoming #earth #instaessay

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Thanks for following along.

Out of my element?

A story from the first day walking, posted on my Instagram account…

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Walking Coal Country. 1 of 7 // About 1:30 this afternoon the road ended, and I picked up this game trail. Tough to see, but look bottom center. Then follow it up the middle of the photo, deeper into the draw. That's what I did. The draw ran straight north, and I'd been angling more to the west. I was walking cross country through the Thunder Basin National Grasslands, heading toward two of the world's largest open-pit coal mines. I had several miles to go. For the first couple of hours there had been a network of ranch roads, each narrower than the next. Then the last ended, leaving me to go the way of the antelope and the prairie cottontail. Those are the two animals I saw most of back in the draw. Still, I was scared at first. I always get that way in the days leading up to these walks. On the one hand, everywhere I go can be traveled easily enough. 'Sure,' locals say, when I ask if my plan is doable. But nobody walks these places anymore. Me: 'Are there mountain lions in that area?' Local rancher: 'Not likely. But you never can know.' Ranchers ride in trucks and on ATVs and, sometimes, horseback. The coal miners stick to company roads. So I found myself down in the draw alone and unsure. The ridges on each side rose 50 feet and more, and I lost my certainty of direction as I followed the trail. Out of my element, I thought. And that was true. But I also was in my element. In our element: the natural world we so rarely have to navigate. After 30 minutes or so, I crested a rise and found another two-track road. I followed it, but it soon ended. I spotted another game trail nearby, and walked on. #travel #walking #instaessay

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About to climb out of the tent and start another day of walking. Sixty degrees and full sun. Meadowlarks calling. Coal trains rolling. But the ground feels so good.

Again, to the source…

This time last year, I set out on an uncertain project: walking across the Bakken oil field in the prairie of North Dakota. I was searching for stories about how our energy appetite changes people and places so often unseen. I found a lot. I shared some on this blog and elsewhere.

I was hooked on this odyssey: moving close to the earth to consider how we live in the natural world today. So I walked on last August, across the Marcellus Shale country of New York and Pennsylvania. Scroll down for dispatches of encounters and anecdotes on the ground during those first two journeys.

It’s time to walk again. Tomorrow, I head on foot into the coal country of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. The 12 mines here produce 40 percent of the coal in America. 

Here is a coal train headed to market yesterday afternoon.

I arrived in Wyoming two days ago and have been sorting my route as I wait out weather that shifts between sun and rain. This is the sky one hour after the coal train rolled by.

 

The forecast has cleared just in time, so stay tuned for updates over the days ahead. I may post less frequently, as coverage is spotty. But I’ll catch up when back, if needed.

Thanks for reading.

Sounds of the Prairie: Cows and gas flares

It’s getting into autumn in New England, and I’ve been spending a lot of time lately revisiting my walk last May through the Bakken oil field in the prairie of North Dakota. I kept a lot of notes, but also took photos and audio of things encountered along the way. I’ve been writing these past days about a Saturday morning spent with several local families who had gathered to brand more than 300 calves. Listen in as the cowboys separated cows from calves early that morning.

 

The oil field has settled over this land of ranching and farming, bringing new sounds. There is relatively little pipeline infrastructure in McKenzie County, so natural gas that comes up with oil from the wells is flared off. Hundreds such flares light the night sky and burn in the bright of day.

 

I also had a chance this summer to sit down and talk about the North Dakota walk with Virginia Prescott, host of NHPR’s Word of Mouth program. You can listen to that conversation over at Word of Mouth.