January 12, 2013
On a recent cold and sunny day, I pedaled the Mocha Stout, my singlespeed, up Ore Bed Rd., out for a casual spin. As I pedaled up a climb, I spied a shiny Miller Lite can in the ditch beside the road. Unlike most beer cans I pass, this one looked like it had been tossed there about a minute ago, the can crisp and clean, glinting in the sunshine. I thought: Who was the bastard that threw that out? Then I thought: I am a bastard who has flung beer cans from cars—well, trucks—in the past. So I’m guilty, too. (Now that I’ve matured enough to drive without drinking, I don’t fling cans anymore. Southern habits die hard.) But I’ve noticed that the older I get, the less tolerant I am of beer cans on the side of the road. I’ve always despised all other sorts of litter—I carry twice as much trash out of the woods as I carry in. My buddies and I used to drag garbage bags through Grindstaff Caves in Tennessee in order to clean out the trash. We usually brought out twice as many beer cans as we took in. All empty, of course.
I pedaled on up the hill, thinking about beer cans, staring at the gravel road in front of me, dodging potholes and wondering: why do I see beer cans and not the roads? Why do beer cans strike me as out of place, unnatural, while roads meld into the landscape? Both are unnatural, that is, both were put there by people with some sort of purpose in mind, be it tossing the evidence or traveling from point A to point beer store. What’s interesting to me here is the way that I don’t question the presence of the road, don’t see it for the disturbance that it is, yet an empty beer can strikes me as litter now that I’m not the one tossing it out. I see beer cans as pollution, but not the road. Both beer can and road change the landscape; both can be removed. Both alter the way we see a place. What gives?
(I encountered a similar phenomenon when I worked construction: smokers don’t see cigarette butts as trash. While a job superintendent, I was mystified by guys who would pick up every speck of trash, every single nail when we cleaned up a job site—except cigarette butts. The roads are my butts, I reckon.)
Not surprisingly, for me, this is partly a language issue. We see signs that say “No Littering” and “No Dumping” planted by the roads, which turns our attention toward the litter alongside the swath of asphalt or concrete or gravel that cuts through the mountains or across the plains. Road signs direct our attention differently: “55 mph”; “Bridge Ices Before Road”; “School Zone”; “Ore Bed Rd”; “Charleston Township”; “Lane Ends Merge Left”; “Pipeline Rd 7.” Such signs are designed to help us move, heading toward our destinations while avoiding all the other people heading toward theirs. Road signs don’t say “No Driving” or “No Road Building.,” though some do say “Stop.” Although roads change the landscape much more than beer cans, roads are seen as acceptable, necessary, as a price we pay for living in this car-centric world. We aestheticize them in ads and abstract them in maps. Taken together, these signs create what I call the rhetoric of the road: Go somewhere. The medium of the road is its message.
I appreciate roads for the way they get me to and from wherever I am going and enable me to ride my bike all over the countryside witnessing all kinds of cool things while physically experiencing the landscape itself. But there’s something wrong when a beer can on the side of the road bothers me more than the road itself. It’s as if the road has become an aesthetic part of the landscape—not something to carry the machine into the garden, but a part of the garden itself. Like Gandalf the Grey, I believe in the importance of the little things, but my tendency to lose sight of the road while staring at a beer can disturbs me. It’s too comfortable.
The problem here is that, as we get more familiar with something, more comfortable with it, we begin to see it as a given or a sort of truth. Research has shown that people who hear a false statement repeated enough times begin to believe it. I believe there’s a similar process at work in physical experiences. When I teach mountain biking, I have to ratchet my ride expectations waaaay down. A ride that may take me 70 minutes will take my class 150 minutes. A trail that seems like a sidewalk to me will appear full of hazards to my students. Part of the issue is that I see only what I need to see to keep my bike on the trail while my students see a confusion of trees, roots, rocks, hills, creeks, and mud, most of which will not affect them unless they pedal off the trail. Which they are more likely to do than I am. The reason I see what I see is because I’m comfortable. We see beer cans beside the road only so often, but we see the road all the time.
Of course comfort can bite us. I crashed my bike in November 2011, breaking my collar bone, three ribs, and knocking myself unconscious. I blame the crash on being distracted by the gas industry, work, and other shit that goes along with living a busy life. But I’ve realized now that I wouldn’t have been comfortable enough to let my attention wander so far away on a route I didn’t know well. I was looking at the road, but not seeing it. If bikes have a cruise control, I was on it and thinking about stuff other than what was in front of me. Bike, meet pothole. Jimmy, slam road. Being comfortable holds consequences.
I resist the urge to get comfortable with, to become acclimated to, the damage that occurs around me from drilling for gas. Like with roads, this is difficult. The comfort doesn’t come from being satisfied with the process or the politics of drilling. If anything, I’m getting more pissed. (Case in point: William Bennett advocating for opening more state and federal land to drilling. I missed the tale in Bennett’s book about the virtue of giving public land to private companies.) I’ve seen the industry of drilling every day now for several years, and while I still get angry, I’m becoming comfortable with it. I see a pad go in, a flurry of activity to drill and frack it, and then it becomes a few Christmas trees among a graded field, ready for the deer to reclaim. Flooding Tioga and the surrounding counties with the stuff of gas drilling is undoubtedly part of the industry’s rhetoric—bombard the community, the landscape, with drill rigs and trucks until we get used to them. Until we get comfortable. Until the industry’s presence becomes a kind of truth. We’re like the proverbial frogs in the gradually heating pot of water. A myth, I know, but there’s wisdom in it.
Not long ago, I imagined a drill pad going in between our house and the house east of here. The lot between the houses is roughly ten acres, well pads require “only” five—why not? I could hear the clatter of the dozer carving out the pad; the rattle of dump trucks hauling in gravel and other materials; the beep of the semis backing the various rig structures into place; the thrum of the cranes as they lifted the rig; the grind of the drill bit as it bored through the aquifer toward the Marcellus; the roar of the frack. I could see the tank trailers parked around the pad, like beer cans scattered around a campfire. I imagined what I might do to track the progress and make myself a pain-in-the-ass, like recording the hoopla via a 24-hour well pad cam. I imagined what it would be like to sleep through the drilling and whether my kids would be able to do it. I imagined the arguments Lilace and I would have—yelled over the frackin’ fracking noise—about whether to stay at a friend’s or what a brilliant move it was buying this house the country.
That has to be what the industry wants—people imagining pads on undeveloped land. I’m a guy who almost never imagines building anything in any sort of undeveloped place. (A small cabin in the piñon pine forest on the west side of Owens River Gorge near Bishop, California, would be cool. All that sweet rock climbing right there. . . .) I always prefer the trees or the dunes or whatever nature builds. That I can imagine a well pad going in freaks me out. It means I’m getting more comfortable than I want to be, a comfort bred from nothing more than familiarity.