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Between the tides

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

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…

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.

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…

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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