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The comfort of thunder and lightning

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

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

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.

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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… and the deer and the antelope play

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

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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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.

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

A photo posted by Tom Haines (@twhaines) on

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Out of my element?

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

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 then 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

A photo posted by Tom Haines (@twhaines) on

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.

(Seems the photo may not be loading with the text in mobile version. You can find it at ‘twhaines’ on Instagram. Thanks.)


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