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for people who care about the West

Aridity heads east; a geyser wakes up; activists young and old

Mishaps and mayhem from around the region.


UTAH: Signs of the times.
Greg Woodall

Like a scourge, increasing aridity is hurtling eastward across the land. According to a report from John Wesley Powell that was submitted to Congress 140 years ago, the vertical 100th meridian divided the humid Eastern United States from the dry Western plains. Powell called the boundary stark: Toward the east, “a luxuriant growth of grass,” but westward, “the ground becomes naked.” But now, that line is shifting 140 miles east to the 98th meridian, say scientists in a report issued by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Rising temperatures that increase soil evaporation are partly to blame, and shifts in wind patterns are causing less rain to fall. One result is that some farmers in the Midwest will no longer be able to grow moisture-loving corn. Climate scientist Richard Seager of Columbia University said only one other straight-line climate divide can be found on the globe — the one separating the Sahara Desert from the rest of Africa.


Forget oohing and ahhing at Old Faithful; the most exciting geyser in Yellowstone National Park is now Steamboat Geyser, its steamy plume the tallest in the world at up to 300 feet high. Steamboat is back on the job after waking up with a bang this spring, thrilling geophysicists who hope to learn more about what triggers its erratic eruptions. Dormant since 2014, Steamboat has surprised park watchers by erupting six times since mid-March, reports East Idaho News, and by the time the most recent blowup occurred June 4, winter snow had melted and some tourists were on hand to cheer the sudden spouting. Known as the hottest geyser in the park’s Norris Geyser Basin, Steamboat’s last three eruptions — just seven days apart — were the closest together on record, according to a log maintained by GeyserTimes.

At the same time Steamboat erupted June 4, a political storm blew through park headquarters, reports Mountain Journal: The superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, Dan Wenk, was demoted and forcibly reassigned to Washington, D.C. “It’s a hell of a way to be treated at the end of four decades spent trying to do my best for the Park Service and places like Yellowstone, but that’s how these guys are,” Wenk said, referring to the Interior Department under the leadership of Secretary Ryan Zinke. “Throughout my career, I’ve not encountered anything like this — ever.” Reporter Todd Wilkinson said the park superintendent’s difficulties with Zinke apparently involved Wenk’s understanding of the agency’s mission: Wenk, 66, believes that the core of the Park Service is “environmental protection.” Wenk will retire from his job at the end of August, never having “imagined leaving Yellowstone as an exile.”

Moriah Engdahl may only be 12, but after the 17 deaths at Parkland High School in Florida, she became fiercely determined to help stop gun violence, including combatting the high rate of suicides that account for almost two-thirds of gun deaths. She has (politely) taken on the school board of Campbell County, Wyoming, arguing against arming teachers, while at home she stands her ground against her gun-loving dad, Alan, an oil field worker who mocks his daughter’s politics at every opportunity. He told the Washington Post that he thought about grounding Moriah after she and nine other students walked out of school to march through downtown Gillette, demanding tighter gun laws, but then realized that “the rest of Wyoming is going to punish her for me.” Moriah’s advocacy of gun control in the Cowboy State definitely puts her in the minority: Wyoming has more guns per capita than any other state, and more than 80 percent of adults in Campbell County have firearms in their home. The feisty pre-teen, though, knows her own mind. Before ending gun violence became her passion, she’d begun questioning her divorced parents’ Christianity, decided to favor abortion rights, stopped eating meat, and also declared that she was a feminist. With some pride, her dad says, “(She’s) the mouthy, hard-headed one.” 


On the other end of the activist age spectrum, there’s Joe Doak, 96, who spends much of his free time — and often overnight — as a “vigil volunteer” at HopeWest Care Center in Grand Junction, Colorado. Doak said he realized that when it came to dying, he’d had a lot of experience, reports the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. He took care of his wife, Phyllis, for seven years until she died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2011. As a volunteer now for those who have outlived spouses or lack nearby relatives or friends, Doak’s job is to make sure that no one in hospice care dies alone. He sits by their bedside where he sings, prays and gently holds their hand, and when the end arrives, Doak said he finds himself “overwhelmed by the emotions that come with witnessing another person’s last breath on Earth.” He’s not sure at times if the dying person even knows that he’s there, but his aim is always to communicate love and offer comfort and hope: “I tell them the best is yet to come.”

Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column.
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