Editors’ Note: Sometimes you have to resort to fiction to get a true handle on just how thoroughly the American West is being trashed by the mining, logging and oil companies. These days most grotesque feeding frenzy is going on in the Tongue River basin, a once beautiful and biologically rich stretch of high desert on the Wyoming This imperilled landscape is now being torn up by big oil. It’s a battle described with rage and wit by JOHN HOLT in this excerpt from his novel The Hunted, which is a better sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang than Abbey’s own Hayduke Lives!. –AC/JSC
When you give a hungry man a license
To do most whatever that he please
He’ll lead you to the point of desperation
And then he’ll want to drive you to your knees
She said “Drive On, Driver”
By Danny O’Keefe
A pair of Dark Star trucks lurched over the rough ground on Elmer Yoter’s ranch. The new rigs were painted glossy black with the company’s logo, a bright yellow bolt of lightning along the doors, the words ‘Dark Star Consortium’ done in bright red beneath the yellow. The men in the trucks were out to begin surveying the land in preparation for strip-mining the coal sometime next year. Seismic studies of the fifty-odd sections of land holding the mineral had been completed two years ago. The four Dark Star employees had detailed maps showing where the seams of coal were, how far beneath surface, how thick the layers were. Exploratory drilling had indicated that it was anywhere from twelve to thirty-seven feet and close to the surface. They had other maps showing how deep the ground water beneath the surface ran and where it pooled into a large underground lake. Potentially the low-sulfur bituminous reserves could exceed a billion tons, enough to power the country for years. Dark Star had already reaped hundreds of millions of dollars from its holdings a few miles to the west over by McCoy, but these were beginning to play out and the company was preparing for the future. Trains pulling miles of cars were loaded with the black rock each day. Then they would haul their loads off to electrical generation plants at places like Colstrip and Gillette, Wyoming. Power facilities with enormous appetites.
The mining left huge holes in the earth covering thousands of acres. All of the reclamation effort and technology in the world could not put the land back together again. Topsoil, tons of fertilizer and oceans of piped-in water temporarily turned some of the ravaged land into an artificially green oasis, that looked more like a Palm Springs golf course than the high plains. The easily duped eastern media bought the con, flashed stories of how low impact strip-mining was these days, a sustainable and environmentally benign source of energy; and of course the antelope and deer and elk loved the verdant grasslands, not to mention the piles of grain the company dumped all over the plastic scene. The phony place was a veritable delicatessen for the game, but most locals refused to hunt there saying it would be like “Like shooting deer at Disneyland.” And once the company stopped spreading fertilizer and water on the soil, which they did as soon as the press lost interest in the story after about fifteen or twenty minutes, everything died, turned into a wasteland.
In the coming months the survey party would map out the coal seams and haul roads to the proposed rail line along the Workman River, which was expected to be ram-rodded through the Montana Legislature, a hodgepodge collection of mostly-bought-off political hacks. The line would be completed in as little as twelve months of blasting, grading and degradation to the river corridor. Spread some money, make some threats, a little blackmail, the usual stuff.
The two trucks slowed as the terrain grew still more severe and distorted. More than 2,000 acres of earth was faded shades of ochre and vermilion, jagged, heaved into abrupt hillocks that were fractured and broken. The sky was a bleak, burning white. Even in spring this part of Yoter’s ranch felt unnaturally hot. A surreal vision of unmoving turmoil. Small clumps of desiccated sage and withered cactus dotted the landscape. Scattered about the lifeless landscape were groups of barren Ponderosa, thirty, forty foot skeletons of sun-bleached, gray wood. Their scraggly limbs thrust out like the arms of monstrous skeletons. Some of the trees, roots burned or rotted, had fallen over, and were lying on top of each other, trunks cracked, branches shattered. The juniper trees, thick and dark green with dusty-blue berries elsewhere on the plateau, were nothing but brittle sticks, emaciated to the point where the always-wind found nothing to play with. Even in a gale the lifeless forms scarcely moved. Dead gray four-foot-tall stands of Russian thistle shuddered in the breeze like detoxing drunks. Recent spring rains had drenched the area. Still, this land was parched, baked bone-dry. Everywhere the men looked plumes of dirty white smoke issued from vents and narrow cracks in the land.
“Goddamned place looks like hell,” said a surveyor in one rig. “How in the name of Jesus can we haul our equipment in here? The damn ground will collapse. And as soon as we open up the topsoil, the rush of oxygen will set some of these underground fires off like a bomb.”
“Don’t sweat it,” said the driver, himself an engineer and geologist who’d worked this country for close to twenty years. “We’ll pump enough water to put out Hiroshima. And the ground is hard enough to support our rigs. Held up okay when the test-drilling crews came out awhile back.”
“Great plan, if you had the water,” muttered the other, who was new to this part of the country. Appalachian destruction had been his beat up until this month.
“We do,” and the driver pointed down Mad Woman Draw, a brushy defile that twisted and turned between Yoter’s and Graves’ place. “Owner of that land (pointing toward the Graves’ property) has a spring on his land that’s fed by a fair-sized aquifer. We’ll tap that and pipe the water over this way. Run the line along the haul road from here over along the creek and down to the Workman when the new rail line is completed.”
“What if the owner won’t sell the water?” asked the engineer as he lit a cheap cigar, blowing smoke that washed across the dusty dashboard and up the windshield. “These crazy cowboys out here hang on to what they’ve got most of the time. Damn land means more than money. Even when they’re dead broke and starving.”
“The owner’s Joe Graves, and he doesn’t have a say in any of this. The dumb bastard,” said the driver. “From what I hear, his old man sold the mineral rights and took that little secret to his grave.”
The two in the truck exchanged a knowing look. Property rights and lives meant nothing to companies like Dark Star when billions of dollars were at stake. The cost of a hit on a man these days was only a few grand. Life was cheap. Coal was worth more than people to Dark Star.
“All of this looks the same to me. One piece of dry, worthless dirt pretty much like the next. Why here and not over there?” said the man from Appalachia pointing to a large sandstone cliff rising above a large, grassy bench in the distance.
The truck’s driver looked at his companion and said “Why in the hell do they send me these dumb shits from back east? You don’t know squat about the West.”
And they continued to bounce across the parched land that covered the Fort Union formation which breaks into three main sections – Tulluck, Lebo and Workman River,. The coal in these parts is largely folded under layers of sandstone that formed when an old sea dried up millions of years ago, and it’s down pretty damn deep. For now the company is taking the easy pickings near the top. Geologists determined that there is over fifty billion tons in the region. Dark Star has all the time in the world. It can out-wait and out-the ranchers forever. Hard working people who cling for dear life to the romantic notion that this land is their heritage and their life. To Dark Star it’s just dirt and rock and lots of money. Without the coal and oil it would be worthless to the company. Nothing but nothing.
The other shrugged and looked out the window seeing a shriveled carcass of a mule deer, skin drain tight across the ribs, stomach torn open.
The driver checked the side mirrors to see where the other truck was. He slammed on the brakes. Five-hundred yards behind, the front end of the other black crew cab was axle deep in the ground. Smoke was billowing all around the rig and the two occupants had begun spraying fire extinguishers over the hood. The two in the first truck leaped out and ran back to their co-workers but by the time they reached the foundered truck, the machine was ablaze, all four tires burning. Clouds of oily black smoke poured across the cooking land. The four men backed away just before the burning truck’s dual gas tanks exploded sending pieces of truck skyward and rocketing along at ground level. A chunk of door whistled toward them like a missile, slicing the eastern surveyor’s legs cleanly just below the knees. The man tumbled backward screaming, blood spurting from the stumps. Then a large ripping noise, like something was savagely pulling the earth apart, hammered through the air and the ground tore open at their feet. The whole place shook violently, heaving in all directions at once. The three who were not hurt instinctively fled for their lives leaving their wounded co-worker thrashing. They ran, stumbled, crawled through and over cactus and unyielding sage, getting back up and running from the expanding crack in the plateau, running until their lungs felt like they were going to explode. When they stopped, having out-distanced the tear in the cooked ground, they looked back. Geysers of smoke, flame and sparks spewed into the air along a quarter-mile-long, wide gash. The roar of the released energy was deafening. Burning pieces of cactus and whole flaming sage plants shot hundreds of feet in the air before plummeting back to earth in a barrage of scorching stone and burning plants. The mangled man and the remains of the incinerated truck were gone.
Thousands of feet overhead five turkey vultures soared casually on six-foot wingspans describing large, lazy circles above the smoldering countryside.
JOHN HOLT is the author of numerous books, including the gripping novel Hunted, and Coyote Nowhere: In Search of America’s Lost Frontier. He lives in Livingston, Montana and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org