The Redneck Pastoral (Part 2)
November 15, 2014
NOTE: This is part 2 of an essay called “The Redneck Pastoral” I read at the English Association for Pennsylvania State Universities Conference at California University of Pennsylvania this past October. This excerpt comes from chapter 6 of my book manuscript called Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone: Teaching, Writing, and Living above the Marcellus Shale.
“You ready to go back to the fire, Gabriel?” Eric asked.
“Yeah,” Gabe said. Eric fired up the Ranger, put it in gear, and pressed the accelerator. The engine whined, the tires spun, kicking up snow and ice, and the Ranger moved forward about an inch. Eric slammed it in reverse and tried to back up. Same result. He tried to go forward and backward a few more times. We moved maybe two inches. He stopped and put the engine in neutral. “Well, goddamn it, I think we’re stuck.”
“Let me push,” I said. “Gabe, you stay here. Hold on tight.” I jumped out, waded through two feet of snow to the rear, told Eric to “hit it,” and pushed for all I was worth. Snow and ice bounced off my chest and legs. The Ranger revved, tires spinning. Didn’t budge.
“Eric!” I yelled, competing with the revving engine. He let up on the accelerator. “Let me jump in the bed and rock it while you floor it.” I climbed in the bed, grabbed the roll bar, braced my feet against the sides, and said, “Go!” Eric floored the Ranger again while I yarded from side to side on the roll bar. The Ranger rocked as snow and ice slapped against the sides and underbody. No luck. “Stop, man!” I yelled. “We’re stuck good.” I started laughing. Gabe sat silently in the front seat, hands wrapped around the bar on the dash. Eric stared down at the steering wheel for a moment, shut off the engine, then hopped out of the cab and started clearing snow from under the Ranger with his arms. I jumped out of the bed to help. Gabe hopped out and watched. I said, “Whaddya think, buddy?” He shrugged. Once again, we heard the drill rig’s implacable grinding and roaring.
After a few minutes of digging, we saw we were hosed in two ways. First, Eric had stopped the Ranger in a swale, which meant the snow was deeper here than in the rest of the field and that the snow sat on ice which had frozen in the bottom. The Ranger cut its way down into the ice just like a drill bit cutting into the earth, settling the underbody on packed snow. We were stuck good. I laughed again when I saw the chained tires sunk four inches or so into the ice. It looked like we had four flats. Eric said, “Reckon we should go get Rick’s tractor.” I volunteered to walk with Gabe back to the fire pit and tell Rick. Eric said he’d stay with the Ranger. He grabbed a beer from Rick’s cooler, opened it, took a swallow, set it down in the cab, and commenced to digging again. When Gabe and I looked back from the top of the field, we could see his crouched figure, snow flying, like a dog digging after a groundhog.
As we walked into the woods, I heard the poppoppop of Rick’s tractor headed our way. Since we’d been gone so long, Rick figured that we were stuck. He drove out of the woods toward us, stopped, and idled down the engine. I told him where Eric was, and Gabe and I slogged on to the fire pit. A few minutes later, we walked up on Tom, Sheila, and Francis standing around the fire and filled them in on the night’s shenanigans so far. Gabe grabbed a root beer and a bag of chips. I stood at the fire for a few minutes, until Francis and I decided to walk back down to see if we could help. I made sure Gabe was warm and well supplied with kid beer and food, and that Sheila and Tom would stay with him until I got back. Francis and I set off for what became a comedy of errors.
We were slipping down the hill toward the finger of forest separating the fields and lamenting the booze we weren’t consuming when I noticed three separate sets of lights below us: the Ranger, the tractor, and the drill rig. “Oh, shit,” I said, “Rick got the tractor stuck.” Sure enough, when we walked through the woods to the ditch that bordered the field above the Ranger, Rick stood beside his tractor, cursing. I saw that the rear blade he used for moving snow had caught one side of the ditch as he drove through it, stranding the rear tires an inch or two off the ground. He couldn’t raise the blade any further and the tires couldn’t get traction. He was stuck good. I laughed, and turned to Francis, “This is turning hilarious.”
Things moved from hilarious to absurd. We tried to push the tractor out. Dumb. Eventually, we freed the tractor when Rick detached the blade by pounding the pins out with an anchor shackle. Rick drove down to the Ranger, pulled it out, and got the tractor stuck again. Eric buried the Ranger in another swale trying to get back to the tractor. We dug snow from around it and pushed it out. Then Eric pulled the tractor out. Both pieces of equipment freed, Francis and I jumped on the Ranger, Eric high-tailed it out to Ikes Road, and motored back to the fire pit via dirt roads, arriving about 3 a.m. I must have burned more calories digging in and walking through the snow than I do on a fifty-mile bike ride. Since I hadn’t tasted any beer or bourbon in several hours, I told Gabe we’d be heading home soon. Around the fire, we recounted our heroic deeds to watch $100 bills shooting out of the ground one more time, laughing at the absurdity of it. Gabe and I left the fire around 4:00 a.m.
I thought Gabe might go to sleep on the way home, but he told stories from the fire all the way, each punctuated by his belly laugh. We crept into the house, trying not to wake anyone up. I hustled him off to bed and fell into bed myself, smelling of smoke and thinking that was ridiculous. The Redneck Pastoral. Awesome.
I woke up thinking about coffee and the rig towering above our shenanigans in the field. How the rig represented something huge, an energy and technology revolution, while we, a small group of partiers wallowing in the snow at its base represented what . . . the community? The place? We were apart from the industry, yet also somehow a part of it. In the light of day, the well pad seemed simultaneously too close and too far away, a single rig and a symbol for a vast system. The rig drew us to it with the promise of seeing $100 bills shooting out of the ground, even though it stood impersonal and impenetrable while we tried to free our machines. If it hadn’t been there, we would have stayed around the fire, I would have drunk more bourbon, and Gabe and I would have slept in the Man Hut. The rig gave me a sense that we were being watched, even though we were on private property and doing nothing wrong. We were stuck in the industry the same way we were stuck in the snow, but we couldn’t dig ourselves out. We were having our fun, celebrating a memorable birthday, but that rig left its stamp on the proceedings.
I ground coffee beans and thought about those lovers in Ridley Scott’s Titanic. Our adventure in the field reminded me of the unlikely affair Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s characters’ have in the midst of a massive tragedy-in-waiting. They were living their lives when the ship hit the iceberg. At Eric’s party, we were living our lives in the midst of a huge drama playing itself out around us over hundreds of square miles. Perhaps, depending on which way the drill bit pointed, even right below us. We could have been wrestling with stuck machines directly above a drill bore. Or the drill bit could have been chewing its way along under the fire pit. Scott’s lovers’ story takes place against the historical backdrop of a disaster and, while the lovers and the movie goers see their story as central, it’s dwarfed by the larger story of the hubris that sank the ship. Thinking back over the previous night, I saw my life as very small compared to the industry. Thankfully, we wouldn’t hit an actual iceberg, but who knew when something irreversible might happen, like a polluted water well. That night’s craziness a short walk from the well pad drew in stark relief the extent to which my family and I were acting in our daily dramas while the industry chugged around us and beneath us, carrying us into an uncertain future. That’s part of the problem with the industry. We know where they are, but we don’t know where they are going.