Over the last few weeks, I’ve taken more than a dozen pictures of the same view. In each photograph the sky is a different color, the clouds a different shape. The butte in the foreground and the mountains behind trade places of importance depending on the reach of the shadows that grace them.
Still, the photograph I like best is the one I look at almost every night — the one of the llama I call Thumper, gazing out across that view as if he owns it. I snapped the shot soon after his herd mates and I moved here desperate for simple food and shelter, grateful beyond belief for the added bonus of breathtaking beauty if we looked in the right direction.
I photograph that scene over and over again, because soon the power company will be erecting a power line across the entire length of it. A power line to bring convenient electricity to the oil wells sprouting up around me.
Turn, turn, turn — a song to mark my generation, my spinning search for view, the dizzying flight of never ending change. Seeking purpose, grounding, contentment. Seeking strength, courage, commitment. Forever seeking love. I’m tireless in my seeking, and so often successful in moments of finding these things. But it’s the continuous grind of change I don’t manage well. The way life pushes back against every personal step of advancement is the great threat to my perpetual hope for a soft and permanent landing.
When I first came back to North Park, only able to afford the lease on rich pastureland for the animals I live with by settling myself in an ancient trailer in the middle of a junkyard, the filth, debris and general lack of material comfort pushed me to my limit of tolerance. Then, a month later, the drillers and frackers came to put an oil well less than a mile from my bedroom window. I was sure the earth-raping process and the resulting toxic flame burning with the same eternal intensity of an Olympic torch, would be the end of me.
Somehow I survived the fossil fuel neighbor, mouse infestations, barn renovations, drought, advanced cancer, the 35°, then 40°, then 48° below zero temperatures, the summer wildfires licking at North Park’s peaks. I stepped up and slid down and strengthened my climbing muscles. The Park, its inhabitants, and I, fell in love again. Hope returned to my vocabulary and my existence.
Then came Halliburton. The mega monster of the energy industry. The same company that for decades denied it was poisoning workers with asbestos, then settled out of court 30 years later. The same company that, under the direction of Dick Cheney, failed to report key accounting procedure changes in order to mislead investors regarding profit margins. The same company that recently pleaded guilty to destruction of critical evidence related to the death of workers on the oil rig that spewed the largest accidental oil spill in history into the ocean. That Halliburton came to North Park this year.
The sandy slopes of my personal life climb now slip along the oily back of a corporate giant. First to the south, then the west, then the north and soon the east, new oil wells have come. Bigger, deeper, louder, more powerful, because they are being created by Halliburton. Thumper’s view, my view, is dotted with the yellow of burning gas, the gray and tan of oil tanks, the white lines of plastic water pipes that run for miles between newly fracked wells. Now I not only live in a junkyard, I live in the middle of an oil field.
It’s hard not to panic. Harder to be able to sleep. What internal process can make this work for me? What’s my job as an individual and as a citizen of the world? Casting around for answers, my options range from ignore it to cut my losses and run.
Talking about the expanding oil fields of North Park with the people here is like navigating a minefield of need and naïvete. It doesn’t help for me to argue with the cashier at the Conoco station over her joy at Halliburton’s arrival because “we need something here.” It’s a relief to share stories of betrayal with my hairdressing, ranching friend down the road, but it doesn’t stop the sound of drilling or the blight and pollution on the landscape.
Most hazardous of all are my conversations with the people who own the land I live on, who are part of my family of choice, who saved my life and that of my animals when we were all homeless. They want to believe in energy production as salvation. They need to believe it. They rant over the fact that no oil has been found on their land, that no royalty payments will be coming their way any time soon. Then they startle at the sight of blinding lights flooding the Park at night and ask me what’s happening there.
But mostly, narcissistically, pathetically, the pain and worry I feel is all about me. What message is this bringing me? That beauty is tenuous? That perfection of place will forever elude me? That I am a rock, I am an island and the tides are rising all around me? The personal drama of my responses increases with each new drilling tower erected in my line of sight.
Worse than the drama, it’s the darkness of powerlessness that makes it hard for me to breathe at times. What can I do about Halliburton and the truth of what it stands for? The activist blood in my veins is as limited as the oil they are forcing out of tiny crevices in the stone beneath North Park’s surface. I will fight their arrogance by trying to stop the leasing of public lands and stealing what they don’t gain legal access to, but I’m not one of the naïve here — I know there’s little hope of stopping any of it.
Wallowing in one of those funks the other night, I brought homemade cookies to share with Gene and Sharon after checking the llamas grazing on the mountainside of their family ranch. I didn’t want to talk about the oil wells, to argue or complain. I just wanted to sit and listen to old stories of North Park for a while, to be transported back to a time I imagined was simple and pure.
Getting stories from these two people is easy — ask one question and out comes a history book, a biography, a memoir. That night, over hot tea and chocolate chip cookies, Gene and Sharon talked about the feldspar mines up in King’s Canyon that were incredibly valuable during World War II and brought so many people to the Park that they built a trailer court to house them — the one that still stands today at the edge of town although the mines are closed. They talked about the coal mines on the Park’s west side, that once fed a town but then burst into flame and destroyed everything but the schoolhouse and continued to burn for years. Which led them veering off path to talk about all the wonderful one-room schoolhouses that educated them and the other isolated children in North Park until consolidation became the popular thing and everyone had to be bussed into town for school.
They talked and talked and talked, and I listened. I listened and looked carefully at these people I love. They aren’t young. They aren’t wealthy. They don’t travel far from home. Town is 30 miles away and the nearest fully functioning grocery store is 60 miles away. They live where they grew up, in a place they know very well is special. They can talk for hours at a time about all the changes they’ve seen and lived through, very few of which were changes for the better.
I began to listen even more carefully — not for the content of their tales, but for a hint of how they survived those changes. Very slowly, it came to me. The obvious. They survived by living and creating and loving in spite of it all. Even now, elders of this far flung community, they welcome each day with resolve and purpose. In his 80’s, his body agonized by arthritis, his eyesight and hearing all but gone, Gene is spending late summer putting up hay on the neighboring ranch of his childhood. Sharon is close in age to her husband. Her beautiful artistry with quilting needle and sewing machine have been put to rest by the gnarling, twisted turns her fingers have taken. Yet she’s overseeing the construction of the home she’s dreamed of all her life – the one that will be attached to the one she and Gene live in now — the tiny, sinking log structure built in the late 1800s when her family ranch grew from a collection of failed homesteading attempts around them.
Maybe this is where I find it, the strength, courage and commitment I seek. Maybe I find it in the quiet longevity, the opinionated determination of these two ranchers at the base of Spicer peak who no longer raise cattle but fix fencing and watch over my llamas and never once show disdain for my lifestyle nor resentment over the changes in their own.
the cabin at Wade’s Ranch, being readied for expansion