Sunday, May 2, 2010

Goin' Up the Country

I love Chicago . . . I really do.  But sometimes you have to leave the city in order to appreciate it that much more when you return.

So it was that we packed our bags and headed out to Gillette, Wyoming for a few days this past week.  Jill had a speaking engagement there for a number of Wyoming parks and recreation folks, and I came along for the ride.

It's kind of intimidating for a guy like me to head to a place that has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate just once in the past 60 years.  I'm not a wacko liberal nut, but I call Chicago home -- and we don't really do the Republican thing around here.

My concern was unfounded.  In Wyoming I discovered a place that goes a long way (and everywhere in Wyoming is a long way from everywhere else) toward making the U.S.of A. the place that it is.

Wyoming folks look you in the eye when they shake your hand.  And they shake your hand firmly, all of them, men and women.

They like to stand in the doorway, leaning against the door frame with one hand in their jeans pocket, and talk quietly.  They laugh often . . . and heartily.

They're fine with getting out the rifle to shoot rabbits in the backyard in order to protect their gardens.  They don't get in long conversations about Constitutional rights and such.  The rifle and the bow and arrow are accepted as a part of the life they live.

Wyoming is a place where the buffalo still roam.  We saw a herd of them not far out of Gillette at the Durham Buffalo Ranch, which has 2,500 purebred American Bison with 1,100 breeder cows.  You look at these awkwardly arranged beasts minding their own business amid the buttes, and you get a real idea of what the high plains must have once been. 

 Photo courtesty of Durham Ranch (

Family is important out there.  Folks tend to stay where they were born, so there is a constant stream of phone calls from sons and daughters, and assorted groups of grandkids coming and going, lots of hugs, lots of taking off and putting on small pairs of sneakers.

We had some time to take in the countryside and thanks to our hosts, Dave and Wendy, we saw them in fine style.

First, we drove out to Devil's Tower, dedicated by Old Teddy Roosevelt himself as the nation's first national monument.  Whether it was by volcanic eruption or sub-strata intrusion (I don't know if there is such a thing, but I love the sound of it), nature created a landmark perfect for taking pictures.

Bartholomew Photo

It's not so high or wide that you can't get the whole thing in the lens when standing at the base.  And it's magnificent enough to show its majesty in the puny confines of a photo frame, especially when you note the size of the climbers in the shadows of the rock face.

Bartholomew Photo

And it's perfectly framed by Ponderosa pines, allowing any nimrod with a digital camera to produce photos that could run in National Geographic

Yeah, in Chicago we have John Root's Monadnock Building, which is what we call monolithic, but we don't have anything like the Bear's Tipi, the base of which is ringed with prayer cloths, on which climbers voluntarily suspend activity in June to honor the sacred ceremonies.

We walked around the base of the monolith in the sunshine and clean air of a mile-high spring day.  The spirits of the place were working.  I'd be leaving prayer cloths, too, if I could feel this young every few weeks.

Inspired, we drove back to Gillette and opened up a bottle of good wine.

The next day the Dave and Wendy's son-in-law dropped by with his three-year-old son in a hard hat.  Shane works in the largest surface coal mine in the country, and he came by on his day off to show us around the office.

Shane, our guide, talks about his pride in the work he does

We got out of the car at the headquarters of one of the world's largest surface coal mine, an operation that provides eight percent of the country's coal, loading up 25 miles of railroad cars every single day.  You figure one hopper full of coal runs about 100 tons, and you quickly realize this place works a lot of coal.

With Shane at the wheel we made our way around the operation.  I'm used to the noise of the el and the screaming of the sirens headed to St. Joe's next door.  I walk through canyons made by tall buildings almost every day.

I have never, ever seen anything this big, a place where everything is giant-sized.  Over a hundred trucks were at work, each one six times the size of our van.  Replace one tire on one of these monsters, and you've spent 40,000 bucks.

A haul truck in action (Bartholomew photo)

Two dispatchers back at headquarters sit at a bank of computer screens and follow everything that is going on, right down to the smallest detail.  They know at any one time how many tons of rock the excavators are moving each minute, which trucks need gas, how much coal is being crushed and delivered to the various storage facilities.  They even know who is riding the brakes or mashing the gears on the big rigs.

Another 200 tons (Bartholomew Photo)

Without too many details, we found ourselves parked to the side of the largest dragline excavator in the world, a 50-million dollar machine the size of a Lake Forest mansion that can move 200 tons of rock in one pass.  

The dragline works 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, back and forth, over 400 tons of rock moving every minute.  It never stops.  But it stopped for us.  When I found out that we were actually going to climb up into the thing, I became a little kid again.

Being in that cab for the five minutes or so that we watched was unlike anything I have ever seen or done.  The operation was so smooth, so quiet.  The operator had a deft hand.  He put the bucket right where he wanted it, at the precise angle he wanted it, without a pause.  

Revealing a coal seam, 200 tons at a time (Bartholomew Photo)

A giant bite of earth and rock.  A smooth lift-and-pivot to the right, the dump beginning before the arc of the giant machine's arm reached its limit, finishing just at the moment it could go no farther.  A return without pause to the starting point, where the process was repeated over again.

 A coal seam is mined (Bartholomew Photo)

Then, after ten minutes or so, the klaxons sounded, the monster machine halted, and we made our way down two flights of stairs to the ground.  Our descent was, I am sure, monitored back in headquarters, where it was certainly noted that whatever was going on out on the big dragline had cost the company 3,000 tons of shifted stone. 

Impressed beyond words, we made the long drive back to Gillette and opened a bottle of good wine.

Before we knew it, the time came to leave, and when we woke up on the morning of April 30, it was snowing.  At the airport our plane had to be deiced twice before the pilot felt that he could take off.

It wasn't a long trip, but Wyoming impressed the heck out of me, along with its people.  What a country that can hold the Great Plains and the Great Lakes in its heart and still have room for so much more.


Kristen said...

sounds like an amazing all-around experience. Love the photos!

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