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.
November 15, 2014
NOTE: Back in October, I presented an excerpt from Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone: Teaching, Writing, and Living above the Marcellus Shale at the English Association of Pennsylvania State Universities Conference at California University of Pennsylvania. Now, I’m working to get a copyedit-ready manuscript to Texas A&M Press by December 1. The book is scheduled to appear in fall 2015. Anyway, thought I’d share the excerpt in two parts. This is part one.
About 6 p.m. on January 29, 2011, Gabe and I loaded the Corolla with chips, root beer, a case of Yuengling, a fifth of Maker’s Mark, and warm clothes and headed through a snow storm to the Old Man’s house. It was his sixtieth birthday.
Snow fell thick as I backed out of the garage and steered down the driveway. Fifteen minutes later, we spun up the Old Man’s driveway past the sign that states “Hey, asshole, this ain’t your fucking land. Go away now or you’ll be mistaken for a large, annoying squirrel,” and parked beside his truck.
Gabe and I grabbed our supplies out of the car and slogged through eighteen degree temps and eighteen inches of snow past Eric’s Man Hut to the old logging road that led a quarter mile down toward the sugar shack. We slipped through the woods toward the flicker of the fire on the trees until we heard Eric pontificating about some adventure from his past. We rounded the corner of the sugar shack to Eric’s “Well, look here! Hey, Gabriel! How you doing?”
“Good,” Gabe said. “Happy birthday.”
I put down the Yuengling and showed Gabe where he could put his chips and kid beers in the sugar shack, a ten by ten unfinished room with a big overhang on one side. A couple of old restaurant chairs and scattered newspapers made up the décor. As we headed back outside, I said, “If you get cold, you can come in here, OK?” He nodded, root beer in hand, and led me past the stainless steel vats back to the fire about twenty feet away. Split ash burned brightly in the brick fire pit. On the open side of the pit, three logs stood on end, serving as seats. Split firewood was stacked all around us, some on pallets, some stacked in rows taller than my six foot, three inch frame. Eric, Tom, Sheila, Francis, and Rick, Eric’s neighbor, had stomped the snow down around the fire. Gabe took a seat on a log. I wondered how long he would last in the snow and cold.
Since I hadn’t seen Rick in a few months, I walked over and stuck out my hand. “How ya doin’?”
“Good, good,” he replied. Rick’s a huge guy with a big beard who carries a cooler of Milwaukee’s Best in his Polaris Ranger and a .357 in his back pocket. We chatted a minute before I spied a case of Arrogant Bastard stuck in the snow on the other side of the fire, the Maker’s Mark buried beside it. I picked up the Yuengling and carried it to the pile. Setting it down, I opened the case, pulled out a beer, and asked if anyone needed one. Hearing no takers, I opened the beer, shoved it down in the snow on top of some firewood, and grabbed the bourbon. I opened the bottle, said “Here’s to the Old Man!” and took a pull.
“The Old Man!” the others exclaimed. I passed the bottle to Eric, who took a swallow and passed it around. The bottle circled the fire, only Gabe and Sheila abstaining. When Francis passed it back to me, I capped the bottle and shoved it back into the snow. Then we settled into some beer drinking and bullshitting about bikes and bike races as the temperature and the snow continued to fall.
As we stood around the fire recounting tales of epic rides and giving each other shit, gas workers drilled the Vandergrift 290 5H well about 1500’ away as the crow flies. I knew they were drilling because I had ridden my bike past the well on Ikes Road several times. And Eric kept me updated. This night, the well pad seemed miles away in the dark and cold and the flurry of words around the fire. Almost another world. One flurry: Eric told us how he always goes to Rochester on his birthday and test drives a $180,000 RV just to, as he called it, “tease the salesman.” The conversation drifted away from the RV test drive story like smoke from the fire, then circled back when Eric said, “I love teasing those guys on my birthday. You’ve gotta try it sometime. I love fucking with them.”
The fire burned low. Eric said, “I hope we can find some wood.” The line became one refrain to our circuitous conversation about bike rides, making maple syrup, drinking moonshine, and growing up in Tioga County. Francis piled more wood on the fire. The ash caught quickly and pushed the cold back a little. Finally, the drill rig made an appearance when Rick turned to Gabriel. “Gabe,” he asked, “you want to ride over and see $100 bills shooting out of the ground?” Gabe looked at me. Rick’s 4×4 Ranger sat behind us, the fire glinting off the dull green paint and plexiglass windshield partially covering the cockpit. No doors. Cooler in the bed. Knowing he wanted to ride the Ranger in the snow, not see the gas well, I said, “You want to?” Gabe nodded.
“Let’s go then.” We set down our beers and walked to the Ranger. Rick fired it up and drove us through swirling snow along an old logging road to a field where corn grew in summer. We skirted the field, catching a glimpse of the drill rig lights through the trees, before Rick turned down hill, wove through some trees, dropped through a ditch, and crawled across another field through deep, super-fine snow. Ablaze in lights, the blue and white rig stood about two hundred yards away. Rick stopped the Ranger and killed the engine. The roar of powerful engines filtered through the air toward us. “See, Gabe?” Rick asked. “Hundred dollar bills shooting out of the ground.”
Jutting ninety feet into the air, the rig was impressive. Tank trailers, generators, compressors, and trucks clustered around the rig. An American flag whipped and popped from the pole on top. A grinding roar permeated the night, dulled somewhat by the snow falling and blanketing the ground. As I looked at the rig, Dickens’ Coketown popped into my head. I looked closely for Stephen Blackpool walking the pad, but I couldn’t see him. Rick no doubt saw money “shooting out of the ground.” Who knows what Gabe saw? We sat there another minute looking at the rig, snow swirling between the rig and the Ranger, listening to the bit chew into the earth. I wondered whether the guys working the rig saw us. Rick asked Gabe if he was ready to go back to the fire. “Yeah,” Gabe replied, and off we went, spinning back up the hill to a fire pit that struck me as a scaled-down version of a well pad where we engaged in that age-old ritual of gathering around a source of burning energy, conversing and trying to stay warm.
Eric, Gabe, and I jumped back in the Ranger about 12:30 a.m. Eric eased out of the fire pit’s light, the Ranger’s headlights lighting the tracks from previous forays. He puttered along the tracks, eased across the field into the woods, and dropped down through the drainage ditch into the faint glare of the drill rig, his instincts and experience handling equipment overpowering the booze flowing in his veins. He said, “Look at those $100 bills shooting out of the ground, Gabriel!” Then, as the field flattened, he floored it.
The Ranger bucked and fishtailed through the snow. Gabe laughed at first, until the snow sprayed between the windshield and the hood, hitting him in the face. In protest, he pulled his knit hat down over his face. I laughed and yelled over the engine, “What’s the matter, buddy?” Eric glanced down to see Gabe’s cap pulled down over his face and slowed the Ranger to a stop near where Rick, Gabe, and I had stopped before. “Did that bother you, Gabe?”
“Going fast doesn’t,” Gabe said. “The snow hitting my face does.”
“Ok,” Eric said. “We’ll stop.” He pointed at the rig. “Look at those $100 bills shooting out of the ground.”
We sat there for a minute, and I wondered how Eric felt about the rig, considering some of those bills ended up in his bank account. My guess from conversations we’d had around fire rings and on bike rides was that he was torn. His father had leased his property before he gave the property to his kids, so in some ways Eric had no choice. Eric has a soft spot for nature, and he worries about climate change. He’d watched the gas workers closely when they crossed his property and fought with them to re-route pipeline around a small wetland. He appreciated the lease money and I guessed from the references to $100 bills shooting out of the ground, he looked forward to the royalties. But he also knew that he had lost something in return for the windfall, perhaps mostly peace of mind. I sensed a twinge of bitterness each time he talked about the industry, and I sometimes saw outright rage.
This night, Eric seemed giddy at the promise of the money from the drilling, maybe the only time I’ve seen him in that state of mind, and I didn’t blame him. He’d served in Vietnam, worked his entire life in construction and the trucking industry, and since losing his driving job, he worked seasonally for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Physically, he’s beat up, though he can tolerate more pain than anyone I know.
If anybody deserved a natural gas windfall to ease stress, it was Eric. Yet the promise of gas industry money did not always seem to outweigh the costs. But on this night, nobody gave a shit. We just watched $100 bills shoot out of the ground and repeated stories we had all heard before, and loved.
See next post for part 2.