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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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