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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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… 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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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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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.

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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.

Water, water everywhere

On my third day of walking west to east across Susquehanna County toward the town of Dimock, known for early gas drilling and a case of 18 water wells contaminated by it, in 2009, I followed a gravel road downhill into a hollow. There, on the left, a wide creek flowed through the forest.

The presence of that particular creek is notable to make a broader point: This wooded terrain at the northern edge of Pennsylvania is among the wettest I have ever seen. (One more wet, perhaps: The Amazon, upstream of Manaus.) In the Endless Mountains of Susquehanna County, water defines the landscape. Springs lead to marshes to creeks to rivers. Nearly every cleared farm seems to have, somewhere in a field, a pond, once for cattle to drink, now for sitting next to on a summer evening.

A recently built tank holds 15 million gallons of fresh water that will be used to frack gas wells near Little Meadows, Pennsylvania

People have been noticing for a long time the defining impact that water has in this landscape. As one example, some excerpts from “History of Susquehanna County,” written by Emily Blackman and published in 1873:

• ‘Little Meadows, a locality so named to distinguish it from the marsh mentioned above [Big Meadows], is two and a half miles lower on the Apolacon Creek, across which, at this point, the beavers once built a dam…’

• Apolacon Township: ‘It took its name from the creek which is the principal drain of the township. Bear Swamp, not far from the head of the creek, is one of several marshes, almost amounting to lakes, within the boundaries of Apolacon.’

A pond near Meshoppen Creek
• ‘With the exception of the outlet of Elk Lake and near tributaries, (Dimock) township is wholly drained by the Meshoppen, or Mawshapi, in Indian language, signifying cord or reed stream.’

• A cabin built in Dimock in 1802 ‘stood in a beautiful valley, nearly surrounded by hills, beside a brook of pure water which ran through, and gave name to the valley…’