A few miles north of Rock Springs, Wyoming, a big interpretive sign is titled, Landscapes of Power. Yes, the landscapes are powerful: The massive piece of earth that seems just to have awakened and violently ripped itself out of the land up the Green River from Vernal, Utah; or the cloud enveloped Wind River range, rising up from the glowing Wyoming sage.
But today's drive took us through landscapes whence a different sort of power is derived -- mostly of the fossil fuel variety. Early this morning, HCN Executive Director Paul Larmer, Multimedia Reporter Jeff Chen and I headed out of Paonia, and paralleled the route of the train that hauls coal from the three massive underground coal mines up river. We passed through Grand Junction, where many a gas field service worker lives. To Rio Blanco County, where compressor stations pop up along a valley floor, not far from rock art panels, including a giant, red Kokopelli. On to Rangely, a town that owes its existence to fossil fuels. Chevron found oil here back in the thirties, and the place boomed after World War II -- it was incorporated in 1947. Today, pumpjacks dance their slow grind all over town, and, according to the checkout girl at the White River Market: "There's not much to do around here unless you're a drinker." Jeff, though, found a bull to ride, even with nothing to drink.
The landscapes of power don't dissipate. Vernal, Utah, at the heart of a big natural gas play, is surrounded by industrialization. In the Frachtech yard between town and the muddy brown Green River, huge space-age trucks sit shiny and green, ready to inject hydraulic fracturing material into the earth. Guys hose off their Halliburton trucks in monster-sized car washes. Motel parking lots hold a mixture of tourist's cars and the white pickup trucks ubiquitous in gas country. Just on the other side of town -- a surprise to us -- half a mountain had been scraped bare then reclaimed. This wasn't for energy, but fertilizer: The Simplot phosphate mine, which had transformed the landscape almost as dramatically as the much older, much slower geologic forces that had warped huge fields of rock nearby. Or as dramatically as Flaming Gorge Dam, which generates hydropower with the water of the Green River (we missed the daily tours, unfortunately, and got chided for stopping on the dam, a security threat).
Still, surprises and beauty await amidst the wreckage. Up on a high plateau south of Rock Springs, a pipeline scar is visible way off into the distance, yet that doesn't stop the light from seemingly seeping from the sage and the grass. Powerlines snake their way into the distance south of town, but raptors still dive for prairie dogs. Rock Springs itself, which appears from the Interstate to be no more than a glorified man camp, has its own surprises. Arts and crafts era homes line streets near downtown, where handsome buildings stand beautiful but abandoned -- a reminder of past booms and busts.
We continued north out of Rock Springs, past the Interstate-side truck stop detritus, up onto a sage-covered plain, into a sky ominous with dark clouds toward the Wind Rivers. Near a space filled with industrial equipment and trucks, we turned left, and headed into the Jonah Field, where a frenzy of drilling is happening. Stop the car here, and the background grinding hum is constant. In the distance, flares from the rigs, which pierce the horizon. Once rolling grassland, the machinery has taken over. And yet. Pronghorn still dance nimbly, watching closely over fawns. The evening light still merges with the Wyoming Range in the distance. This boom, too, will someday contract. These huge spaces that characterize the West, however, will persist.
Photos, from top: Equipment near the Jonah Field, Rangely accommodations, Rock Springs bank, and native pollinators at work on a non-native thistle on Douglas Pass.