3,000 miles to Paonia


At about midnight last Sunday, the hacking and swearing and puking outside my tent that had gone on for two hours ended with a hysterical man screaming into a starless night, “White power! White power! White power!” His shouts shocked my nerves like a rusty bucket of ticks thrown against my chest. An indecisive moment had led me to Lucerne Point on the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming. I had arrived at dusk and never got a clean look at the neighboring campers -- an oversight I now realized was a terrible mistake. Armed with bear spray, I discreetly collapsed my tent, loaded it into the High Country News company car and drove quietly away. So ended my first day of reporting for HCN’s first annual travel issue. Ah yes. Welcome to the West -- I was officially out of the office.

When rambling through this region, you might aim for one of our many tourist hubs -- Moab, say, or Aspen. But there’s much more to this country than recreation. Before landing at Flaming Gorge, I had sliced through a microcosm of important Western issues in just a few hours of driving back highways through places most people don’t seek out. It only takes paying attention to earn some worthwhile knowledge.

Things first got interesting when I left the Interstate to take Highway 139 north from Fruita, Colo. Farm fields were scattered here and there among the scrubby desert landscape. The road rose quickly from the valley into the high woodland. From the top of Douglas Pass, I surveyed the switchbacks I had just ascended. They looked exhausted. On the other side of the pass was an area known as the Douglas Creek Conservation District. Here, a consortium of interests -- ranching, energy, tourism and government -- try collaborating on conservation and natural resource issues. They practice prescriptive grazing and weed control in this desert landscape, and plant tree seedlings and amend stream beds to prevent soil erosion. I couldn’t tell if their efforts mattered all that much. I’m sure there were birds in the area, but I never saw one. Even the road kill disappeared. And the deserted grazing land looked less than fertile.

This was the same area that Chief Douglas, leader of the Nunpartca band of the White River Utes, once made his home. Hoards of fur trappers poured through here during the 19th century. Once the beaver were gone, the river cut deep arroyos through the valley. The military cleared Douglas and the Utes from the area and set them on a reservation after, in March September 1878, they killed an army major, an Indian agent and 16 other men who tried to force them to become farmers. On the roadside, rock outcroppings painted with pictographs stuck out from the desert buttes. The history of past people felt very close.

Today, this western side of Rio Blanco County, a land of chalky sandstone and pink hills spotted with sage and saltbush, is dominated by oil and gas giant Encana Corporation. Ghostly, freshly-shaved sheep wobbled around horizontal pipes, electrical poles, machines and industrial equipment. Businesses like concrete plants and pipe yards geared toward energy production and drilling seemed to rule the local economy. The people seem to have whole-heartedly embraced the industry. In Rangely, I saw a pump jack in somebody’s front yard.

Highway 40 brought me into Utah at about five o’clock. It took me through so much brown and red and orange sandstone that the greenery of the town of Jensen boggled my eyes when I drove into it. The Green River, tumbling down from Flaming Gorge, saturated the crop fields around town. Water drains from those through underground pipes that funnel it into the Stewart Lake Waterfowl Management Area. Remediation took place in the late ‘90s to remove selenium contamination from the underground pipes, and it appears the efforts have worked (PDF).

Then, I drove north on 191 through Vernal, where roadside signs point out geologic and natural history features found within the rocks: “Bizarre sharks and phosphate,” read one sign. Residents of Vernal recently protested the development of new phosphate mining leases in the area. Phosphate is used in fertilizer, toothpaste and soda. Residents worry operations will harm their sole water source, Ashley Spring, and blasting could desecrate Fremont Indian petroglyphs.

Higher into the Ashley National Forest, I tooled around the woods above Flaming Gorge before settling for that restless night of sleep. Despite the disturbances the night before, the reservoir looked beautiful in the morning from the dirt road I’d parked on. Great, flat-faced cliffs stood up from the water wearing magnificent blushes, violet and gold.

I traveled north on HWY 530 to Green River, Wyo. where I parked at a truck stop to charge my camera battery. There were only brief windows in time when a train wasn’t powering by -- carrying coal, carrying automobiles, carrying chemicals. Union Pacific recently invested $24 million dollars on a new rail yard just 20 miles west of here. The loads were likely more diverse in part because coal production is down this year thanks to the warm winter, new regulations and cheap natural gas prices. There’s a fight brewing in the port towns of Washington, Oregon and California over proposed terminals to export coal to Asia now that the U.S. demand has dropped. Residents there don’t want the accompanying air pollution.

So it was that, at a truck stop on the southern plains of Wyoming, I watched the interface of the global market -- an ever-growing influence here -- chug by. There were still nearly seven days to go and I had only scratched the surface. Every piece of ground has a different story in this landscape of warring and converging interests, drought, colonization and recolonization, pollution, redemption and the wacked-out extremists I love to read about but hate to camp near. Stay tuned for our June travel issue. It’ll be an enlightening expedition.

Neil LaRubbio is a High Country News intern. Photos are provided by him.

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