August 2006


This may be our last post for a week or so – please contain your disappointment – as we’re not sure what kind of access we’ll have in the Yasawas, the archipelago northwest of Fiji’s main island and our first destination. We’re anxious, nervous, excited … and eager to finally get started. Hopefully the next time you hear from us it will be to report something cool and interesting … but probably it will be just another blast of purple prose and half-baked political theories. Who can say?

We rented the Spruce Mountain Fire Tower west of Laramie for the night, joined by my friend Dustin and his son, Taylor, and Taylor’s friend, Austin. Also my brother Andrew and his girlfriend, Alison. Cheap digs: $40 a night. And we had the good fortune to have some inclement weather.

Buffeted by winds, pelted by hail and rain, enveloped by fog – what a night. And we still got to see a pristine sunrise from 100 feet in the air over Medicine Bow. Otherwise nothing but rolling hills and coniferous forest and, directly to the west, Rob Roy Reservoir, one of Laramie’s lifelines. The water level, as usual, is down: we see the dead ring of earth running all along the water’s edge: a line of brown between the sterling blue and rich verdant green.

Overhead, rolling battalions of cumulus clouds; below, looking over the edge of the tower rail, piles and cairns and rubble of rocks, the foundation of Spruce Mountain.

In the morning we discover a bear has overturned the garbage cans in the picnic area at the base of the tower.

University of Wyoming students are starting to trickle in, all blank stares and slack jaws. So we absconded to the hills, a little place between here and Cheyenne called Vedauwoo. Check out our pictures (at right, soon I hope): you can see why this is a holy site for Native Americans. Park anywhere and plunge in and don’t worry about trails, maps, compasses: the huge pillow-shaped Sherman granite formations provide easy landmarks.

Mama, can this really be the end?

–B. Dylan

We were resting in The Virginian, the only customers in the bar, watching a doomsday program on CNN about peak oil and what will happen when it has incontrovertibly arrived. Outside it was about 88 degrees and impossibly sunny; inside was dark, cool, comfortable. We had a good distance left to drive to get back to Laramie but were in no hurry: we ordered sandwiches and cold drinks.

The waitress left. The only other person in the bar was a disheveled, nondescript old man with slick gray hair and a full mustache. He sat in a corner drinking coffee, alternately watching the TV and us – the kind of character, a staple of rural Wyoming watering holes, who initiates conversation with strangers no matter how reluctant, or even hostile, they seem.

He inevitably turned to us.

“Do you folks know the abiotic theory of the origin of oil?”

“Uh, can’t say I do,” I mumbled; Lisa shook her head. We knew there was no way out of having to talk to this guy, as our chicken sandwiches were yet to arrive. But of all the ways to open a conversation, this was maybe the last we anticipated.

Riley proceeded to explain, in careful detail, about the abiotic theory, and soon he had our complete attention. He clearly knew what he was talking about. As he spoke he gesticulated mildly with long, pale hands and shuffled his feet under the table, scraping the well worn wooden floor with a pair of construction boots that had a new shine to them, into each of which had been stuffed a khaki pant leg.

Riley worked all his life in oil fields and on oil pipeline projects in Alaska, Montana and Wyoming. A few years ago, working on a project in northwestern Wyoming, he began to wonder for the first time where all the oil was going. He never found out.

“But that one question led to two more, and those led to four more, and so on,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot of reading ever since.”

The floodgates opened for Riley, and the Internet gave him all the resources he needed to pursue his various investigations. Now, years later, he espouses some very enlightened views of corporate power, government propaganda and modes of control; he finds himself questioning sources of information, really becoming a critical observer of the methods used by this government and its underwriters to disseminate misinformation, control and manipulate media, and punish and marginalize dissent.

He sounds, frankly, like a Radical in the best anti-authoritarian, quintessentially American sense, and it was encouraging to find him in the rough.  I suggested he read Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, a reference he gladly noted. I suspect he’s poring through it right now. He recommended Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and we’re adding that one to our list.

Having just come from Casper Mountain where we spent much of an evening and the following day talking with our friend D—– about the oil industry, with which he is tangentially aligned, and about the folly of Bush’s War and other political topics du jour, we came away from our brief visit to the heart of the West’s heartland with the distinct impression that people are starting to wake up to what’s going on in this country. They are asking questions and they’re not satisfied with the non-answers government, and in particular the current ruling party, provides. This isn’t commentary: it’s an observable truth.

It isn’t my design to make this blog a political tool, but after spending six years in and around Washington, D.C. and at various points feeling dismayed by the awareness level in other parts of the country, I’m delighted to detect a change in the wind.

I suppose we have the Internet to thank. Its full impact is, perhaps, starting to be felt in even the most isolated corners of the nation.

(Speaking of wind, Medicine Bow, Wyoming, where the Virginian is located, is also home to one of the first successful wind energy projects in the country. . .another source of hope in this dusty little outpost in the Wyoming outback.)

  

OK, before I tell the VERY INTERESTING story of our recent stopover in Medicine Bow, a town of about 200 souls where I once covered the senior prom as a fledgling reporter (between visits to both local watering holes), I want to remind everyone that the cultural event of the year — and perhaps the century — is still going on at your nearby theater. I just can’t get enough of the premise of this movie. Go see it and tell me how great it is (that means you, Josh Yeagley).

Tomorrow (Wednesday), we’ll have the long-anticipated tale of Riley and his surprisingly forward-thinking philosophy of energy usage, as well as his somewhat scientifically suspect theory of the abiotic origin of the world’s oil supply. Riley works at The Virginian, named after the famous locale in the eponymous Owen Wister novel, where they make a killer martini. Plus we’re going up to the Snowy Range with Lisa’s dad in the morning, not coincidentally to the very spot where, more than six years ago now, we were so happily wed. As I tell Lisa frequently, it’s six years but it feels more like 16. (I say it with a great deal of charm, though, which is why I’m still alive.) Plenty of photos will no doubt follow.

It was raining when we left Laramie, the first decent rain they’d had here in weeks. We headed north through the town of Medicine Bow, toward Casper, and the rain followed.

But we outran it and sunny skies welcomed us to east-central Wyoming. In Casper we met D—–, a colleague, and began a long, hard quest to locate and purchase three inner tubes for a “planned” float trip down the North Platte.

I say “planned” because the idea was not original or in any way dangerous but the execution suffered from an acute case of collective stupidity. We assumed finding inner tubes would be no problem. But WalMart had nothing. Target had nothing. The local sporting goods store had nothing besides some expensive dirigible that motorboats pull behind them. Somewhere else we found a kind of floating couch — on the box, in soft focus, lounged a big-haired, scantily clad model, dressed all in white, a kind of floating goddess figure — that resembled something a Bond girl might be introduced reposing on.

None of this would do. Finally D—– had the bright common-sense idea to go to a tire outlet, where they were only too happy to accommodate us for $17 a tube. They even inflated them for us. Perhaps too much, it turned out.

On to the river. The North Platte runs through the town of Casper, Wyoming’s second city, bisecting a former Superfund site that has been transformed into a golf course and park. A bike/hike path follows the river, cutting through the kind of anonymous brown vegetation that when uprooted supplies the West with tumbleweeds. In a couple places the river speeds up enough to offer mild whitewater; on the eve of our big trip, however, we thought to avoid the kind of ironic calamity that makes for the best news reports, and portaged past the more rapid sections.

(D—– had no such qualms and cruised face-first through all the hot spots, getting nothing worse than a face full of water.)

The Platte is actually a very smooth, green river, deep and broad, and cold even in August. Kayakers were everywhere; some punk kids even did a little waterboarding against the stream in the roughest places. We had less control: inner tubes, as I discovered (this was my first float: I prefer canoes), resist most efforts at navigation. I’m not sure if our tubes’ state — inflated to capacity, tight as drums — made this worse or better.

This story is starting to bog down in the details, so to speak, so I’ll cut to the drama. After about two miles — and after we’d passed through the most difficult spots — D—– and I moved momentarily to the riverbank to wait for a lagging Lisa, who was caught in an eddy upstream. As I caught his arm and swung into the bank, my overinflated tube hit a protruding stick at, apparently, exactly the wrong angle. And suddenly I was swimming in the Platte.

Given my recent watercraft follies, I should have expected this. So should anyone present at our disastrous farewell canoe trip on the Potomac. But even overlooking that miserable afternoon, going back years to when we lived in Wyoming, one particularly bad event should have given me a lifetime of pause when it comes to moving waters.

Back then (I think it was 1999) I had the unfortunate honor to be the first of my river guide friend’s passengers to be ejected midstream into a Class 2 rapid on the Upper Colorado. Now, Class 2 doesn’t sound so bad. But see how you feel about it from the middle of the river, bouncing off rocks and unable to get your head above water. At any rate it was that experience that taught me I can indeed swim, swiftly and surely and to rival any Olympian, when the situation demands.

The situation on the North Platte did not demand it, despite the shock of the explosion. So perhaps because my life was not in danger, my emergency faculties failed to ignite, and my self-respect suffered the consequences. Oh well.

D—– and Lisa finished the float (a disgruntled fast food employee earned some negative karma by throwing a milkshake at her from a bridge, narrowly missing), and I walked the remaining distance, occasionally cross country, disrupting the repose of several jack rabbits and hobos.

It was soon after, immediately following the ceremonial post-float drinks, that the weather we’d left in Laramie caught up with us.

If you’ve never seen a Western dust storm, I have disappointing news: We didn’t take any photos. We were too busy avoiding blindness. A great yellow cloud descended on Casper and its environs (Casprawl), whipped into a frenzy by a howling wind, thicker than fog and painful as needles on the skin. A layer of grime resisted our windshield wipers; then the rain hit and the sand turned to mud. Visibility turned to nil.

We decided then to climb Casper Mountain.

Not climb it, really, but drive up it — no treat regardless. It was at this time, unbeknownst to us, that lightning struck the far side of the mountain and ignited what became, the next day, one of the worst fires in years to hit the area. By the time the conflagration was mostly contained this week, it had claimed seven cabins and some 11,800 acres of forest, and displaced hundreds of residents and campers.

We saw nothing of it. Next day the sun was shining, and after a cowboy breakfast we headed home to Laramie — but not without one more detour.

The Laramie Daily Boomerang, the estimable rag for which I once worked, has no Monday edition. So this morning I grabbed the only other Wyoming daily available in Laramie, the statewide Casper Star-Tribune.

I was pleased to note that the fire on Casper Mountain that began during our stay last week has been 85 percent contained, and all roads and domiciles are now accessible.

Then I turned to the bottom of the page and got a good, (un)healthy reminder of Wyoming prejudice.

Here’s the lead of a story titled “Unlikely Environmentalists,” lashed together “From staff and wire reports”:

“Gary Amerine doesn’t look like an environmentalist.

“He doesn’t wear Birkenstocks, tie-dye shirts or a peace sign tied around his neck with a length of hemp rope. …”

So that’s what environmentalists look like, is it? As this story appears anonymously it’s hard not to ascribe its childish views to the entire staff of the Star-Tribune; fortunately for them, I know better. I even know a couple of them: but I do not know their management since Lee Enterprises swooped down from Montana and took over operations. Perhaps if I’d been reading the Star-Trib lo these many years I wouldn’t be taken aback by this sort of thing.

Gibbon, mocking prejudice, once said: “I like to detect those who detest in a barbarian what they admire in a Greek.” This little instance captures an unfortunate and widespread mindset in this our least-populated state. It surpasses prejudice, betraying an infantile view such that a child, raised and limited in ignorant conditions, might reflexively expectorate.

And if you detect that I’m calling childish the views of much of this state — painting with the broadest of brushes — you are right. I have enough experience with Wyoming, our nation’s foremost and willingest mineral colony, to make such judgments, and make them with a degree of authority.

Yet there’s hope, always, that this kind of thing is on the way out, the exception now and not the norm. For one thing they have a popular Democratic governor here who is about to be re-elected. In the same newspaper an editorial ran that four times — including once in the headline — used the word “lie” to refer to a GOP ad campaign against Dave Freudenthal.

And that’s a bold, right (left?) thinking act. They need some more of that medicine aound these parts.

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