Where the Drill Rigs and the Antelope Play
by Peter Shelton
Feb 25, 2009 | 884 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print

I had just settled in to my room at the Half Moon Lodge when a roughneck came out of the room next door and started his pickup. He sat there for a minute then went back inside his door, leaving the diesel to idle.

It was cold in Pinedale, Wyo., but not seriously cold, about 15 degrees as the sun set behind the Wyoming Range to the west. I was excited because I was going to ski White Pine for the first time the next day. I had met the owner, a real-life Marlboro Man, at meetings of the American Avalanche Association. He used to be the artillery guy at Alta, and now he was ranching and running White Pine, tucked into the Wind Rivers east of town, up against the highest mountains in the state.

“Come ski sometime,” Stuart Thompson had said at one of those meetings. “You’ll like it. It’s kind of like Alta was 30, 40 years ago.”

I’d picked the Half Moon at random from the Pinedale web page and felt I’d been rewarded by the authenticity gods when the laconic voice on the other end of the phone told me his name was Shane, that a room would run me $60, and that Stuart Thompson’s wife had been his art teacher in middle school. Shane, of course, is the classic Alan Ladd western that was so spectacularly framed by Jackson Hole not much more than an hour’s drive to the north.

You could tell the Half Moon used to be a trophy trout and elk antler kind of place, its sign a mammoth tree-ring slice above the office door. But now I could barely maneuver my car through the oversized pickups in the lot, gas company logos on their doors. The one idling in front of my Room 15 (I’d had to park around the corner) was backed in, its bumper and exhaust pipe not four feet from the window.

Not a problem, I thought. He’ll be out of here soon. But he didn’t leave. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Twenty-five. The fumes were starting to suffocate my little single-pane space. So, I went outside, reached into the cab and turned the key off, knowing a conversation with the owner might very well ensue.

Stuart and Mary Thompson have mixed feelings about the oil and gas boom that has taken over their town and the valley of the upper Green River. I had seen the rigs, scores of them, along the Pinedale anticline driving up. We could see them from the top of the ski lifts, too, stretching south into the distance toward Rock Springs.

“We used to have the most pristine air,” Stuart said. “The clearest air you ever saw.” Now a poison brown haze flows out from the wells and the trucks and the flares and the compressors, tinting an otherwise winter-white landscape of grassland and sage.

The boom has brought instant wealth to Pinedale. Shell and Encana and the others pay good wages, though it appeared from my quick, license-plate scan that many of the roughnecks were from Texas. State severance taxes have built a new multi-million-dollar pool and rec center, and paid to expand the library. New subdivisions sprout in treeless meadows on the outskirts. Suddenly flush, the University of Wyoming is daring to imagine itself a top-flight western college.

But the wealth hasn’t trickled up to the ski hill. White Pine goes back to 1938-39, the same year Alta opened. It too was a community effort, led by the Forest Service, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the local pharmacist. The pharmacist’s daughter skied the true-north 1,000 vertical feet well enough to make the 1968 U.S. Olympic team.

There are two modern quad chairs now, a handsome day lodge, lots of rollicking natural-snow terrain, FIS-sanctioned freestyle jumps and moguls. But not many skiers. Stuart filled in the obvious: with so many gas workers renting motel rooms in town, there were very few hot beds left over for visiting sliders.

And there is the wage problem. “If I was a local guy, why would I work up here for eight dollars an hour, when I could get $18 or $20 driving truck for the energy companies? The rec center is a nice amenity, but the reality is it competes against us, especially with the kids, who in the past would have come up to our programs.”

Mary Thompson took a more generous view, noting the shiny-new Hummers and Dodge Rams in the ski-area parking lot. She chose, I guess, not to focus on the social ills identified with the boom: the methamphetamine, the increased violence, the attitude. The attitude that says: I like my cab nice and warm before I get in it, company’s buyin’ the fuel, and I don’t care what you think, hippie motherfucker.

That’s what I was paranoid about. So when the guy finally reappeared, I went out to meet him, to try and head off any repercussions. “I figured it was you,” he said, eyeing me up and down.

“Sorry,” I countered. “The fumes were getting to be too much.”

He looked pissed. “This is a diesel. Diesels need to warm up.”

“For thirty minutes?” I shrugged, and walked back in my door. He sat there idling for another five minutes to ram home his point, before slowly pulling away.

It turned out the night noises never stopped in Pinedale, the cough and knock of diesel engines, as gas-field workers in no apparent rush readied themselves to get out and stick it to foreign oil.
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