Converse County, Wyoming

  • Posted: January 7, 2021
  • Category: Blog
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Hidden in the interstices of the media’s wall of mendacity and bluster erected around the holiday was a bland blurb announcing “Bureau of Land Management published a final environmental review for a large oil and gas project proposed in Converse County (Wyoming)”. I have a spot, sometimes hard, sometimes soft, in my heart for Converse County, as well as its northern sister, Campbell County.

Both are examples, the very epitome if you will, of windswept prairie, the adjective, “windswept” accounting for the hard part of my heart. I grew up in Western Nebraska, another thinly populated prairie that could be described as “windswept”. The very real reason I make the Front Range of Colorado my adopted home, in spite of its urban pretensions to coastal relevance, is its lack of that adjective.

But the soft part of my heart comes from the very special part of my life spent in Converse/Campbell Counties during my working career. It was my rare privilege to grow a company from the ground up to a point where the reality of the Peter Principle became too obvious to ignore. The prairie of Eastern Wyoming was a very large part of that company’s early years. Over the course of the company’s thirteen years, we surveyed, engineered and/or managed thousands of pipeline miles along with tens of thousands of compression horsepower on that windswept prairie.

Douglas, WY, home of the infamous jackalope, is the urban center of Converse County. Gillette, Wy, the urban center of Campbell County missed out on the tourism potential of the jackalope but its Chamber of Commerce puts up signs proclaiming Gillette to be “The Energy Capital of the World”. Stiffening their claim is the significant fraction of his fortune that Warren Buffett owes to this area.

I spent many nights at the Best Western in both Douglas and Gillette, as well as hosted or attended many a construction meeting in their conference room. I am here to say that in that place and time Best Western was both a franchise name and good advice to the traveler. I cultivated my appreciation of small town diners in both places though McDonalds provided a often used alternative. The two towns are as similar as twin sisters and a close cousin to the town I grew up around back in Western Nebraska.

I carry so many memories from my years in this windswept prairie. That stretch of I-25 between Cheyenne and Douglas gave the term, “windswept prairie”, meaning. While I can’t say it was common to see semi-trailer trucks or campers blown sideways off the road, it was not unusual either.

I put so many miles on rental SUV’s from our local Enterprise Rent-A-Car traveling up and down Highway 59, the road connecting Douglas and Gillette. Halfway between them was the mighty metropolis of Bill, WY – a sometimes open, sometimes not snack shack which, along with a charmingly rustic post office, was the entire town. And then one day, the yellow iron appeared and a large industrial complex swiftly took shape. Union Pacific Railroad had taken it upon themselves to site a large operations and maintenance facility in Bill, WY. I can only imagine the property taxes to be reasonable?

From September to May, Highway 59 could be a tense drive after sunset. The shoulder of the asphalt road, not particularly wide, was the place for deer and other wildlife to bed down. The road’s asphalt shoulder retains the heat from the sun, making a comfortable resting place for the local residents. One’s headlight reflects a seemingly unending line of eyes in the darkness going down the road.

There are two paved roads going north out of Douglas, Hwy 59 and another less traveled, Hwy. 93. Hwy 93 is an example of the windswept prairie’s idiosyncrasy, a road going seemingly nowhere. But some ten miles up this road was the site of one of the company’s first projects, a Solar Taurus mainline compressor station. You may laugh, but among the cognoscenti, gas turbine centrifugal compressor engineering is where the big boys hang out. Driving north on Hwy 93, I felt we had arrived.

Just a stone throw beyond the compressor station on Hwy 93 was the site of Ft. Fetterman. Ft. Fetterman was a remote US Army outpost, the assembly point in 1876 for Gen. George Crooks two expeditions against the Northern Tribes. While Lt. Col George Custer led the 7th Cavalry to his demise at the Little Big Horn from his base at Ft. Abraham Lincoln (Bismarck, ND), Gen George Crook was leading a much larger force against those same tribes beginning where we were now welding pipe and pouring concrete.

Hwy. 93 follows the route Gen. Crook and his men took from Ft. Laramie to their jumping off point at Ft. Fetterman. Instead of the compressor building rising now, the windswept prairie had been disturbed 125 years earlier by the passage of thousands of men and animals on their way to embarrassing dustups of little consequence some few hundred miles to the north on the Rosebud and Powder River.

As I walked around the compressor construction site built on the edge of the Hwy 93 right-of-way, it took only a smidgeon of imagination to see the long columns of the 2nd & 3rd Cavalry Regiments, to sympathize with the weary trudge of the 4th Infantry Regiment, to hear the shouting and braying of the mule trains, to smell the dust raised from this passage of men and animals.

Gillette was the site of the company’s first attempt to create and man a regional office, a first floor suite of rooms on Main Street in a retail/office storefront struggling in a losing battle against the entropy of time and an indifferent landlord. Finding people to man such an office was a mix of serendipity, necessity and the ability to turn a blind eye.

But as we repeatedly learned, finding someone to manage, or more importantly lead, a remote office is the key. Small and remote offices, close to the action and the customer’s operations, thrive with good leadership but with anything less become black holes for cash and customer good will.

A year or so into the effort, I thought we had found Prince Charming, a well seasoned engineer/project manager with a long history in NE Wyoming. At first everything went well. The office hummed and clients were pleased. And then early one morning in my Denver office, the receptionist transferred a call  – “a rancher up in Wyoming wants to talk to the boss”. No day starts well with a call from someone wanting to “talk to the boss”. With a sigh of self pity, I picked up the phone and heard the unmistakable voice of the prototypical Wyoming rancher, the self-assured and measured tones of a man comfortable with any situation – picture Sam Elliott.

We exchanged names and pleasantries before this gentleman stated his purpose. Repeating from a memory twenty years past, the gist of his message was –

“I understand Tom ******* is the manager of your office up here in Gillette. I want to tell you that if he doesn’t stop stalking my wife, I am gonna shoot him. Fair warning.”

And with that, he said his goodbye and hung up. I was too dumbfounded to do anything other than look into space. To my admitted relief, there was no need to confront our manager as he was nowhere to be found. To this day, I don’t know what happened to him, perhaps the rancher made good on his threat? As it transpired, our office did not outlive that incident by any meaningful amount of time.

Sometimes to vary the routine I would take Hwy 85 north from Cheyenne instead of I-25. Following some minor roads, I could hit I-90 at Sundance, WY – one of Wyoming’s charming backwaters and along with Moorcroft, personal favorites. Driving west on I-90 from Sundance to Gillette, I sometimes stopped at the Vore Buffalo Jump, right alongside the highway. The Vore Buffalo Jump is a natural sinkhole, some 40 feet deep and 200 feet wide. The Indians would stampede buffalo herds in such a way that they would run into the sinkhole. Maybe not the Costco meat department, but a big improvement over more traditional methods.

Two pipeline river crossings in Converse County stick in my memory. The Cheyenne River is that misnomer common to the Wyoming Plains, a river without visible water. Fools that we were, it was our intention to simply trench across this modest dry wash with the risible name. To our surprise, the dry wash opened onto an unsuspected underworld of fine sand that gave a chastened pipeline trenching crew an expensive education in the vagaries of pipeline construction on the windswept plains.

Backhoes covered by sand pouring in from the sides faster than they could dig themselves out was the Cheyenne River’s opening hand. Pouring further earthmoving equipment into the breach, armored columns of yellow iron hurled against an unyielding defense in a test of brute force against the tenacious resistance of a bottomless sand pit. Thereafter, whenever we crossed the Cheyenne River, we drilled it – lesson learned.

The North Platte River crossing was different in that the North Platte actually has water in it. It has been my experience that the construction of every pipeline is haunted by a particular “endangered species”, the bane of the pipeline construction budget as well as the life blood of the local “wildlife biologist” community. As you might suspect, “endangered species” are the raison d’etre of wildlife biologists everywhere.

At our North Platte River crossing, we were doing a straightforward drilled crossing which requires only a small setup area on both sides of the river. The “endangered species” du jour was the Kangaroo Rat. The Kangaroo Rat is an otherwise innocuous rodent indistinguishable from the rodents making a mess in my attic, except for its hind legs resembling a kangaroo’s, allowing it to leap rather than scurry.

We had played our familiar part in the kabuki theater rituals of pipeline permitting and the area for our drill rig setup had been cleared by properly credentialed “wildlife biologists” – No Kangaroo Rats Here.

The pipeline crossing was itself unexceptional, being done on time without problems and for the budgeted amount of money. Well, that being said, perhaps it was an exceptional piece of work. But I was out there on the final day of the drill and as I was walking back to my Enterprise SUV one of the inspectors motioned to me a few feet over. At my feet lay a small rodent, the unfortunate victim of someone’s vehicle tire. While I am not a credentialed “wildlife biologist”,  the kangaroo-like hind legs were clearly visible.  “Ooops!”

Returning to that bland blurb in the media’s wall of mendacity and bluster. While the media prattles in thoughtless ignorance, it remains the source of most people’s understanding. The blurb announced the Bureau of Land Management’s issuance of a final environmental review, six years in the making, on a drilling program allowing for 5,000 oil/gas wells on 1.5 million acres of “windswept prairie”, over the next ten years, the land being owned by a combination of federal government, State of Wyoming and private land owners,

This project will create thousands of jobs, provide tax revenues to the federal and state coffers in tens of billions of dollars, as well as contributing to the energy security of the United States. As events of the past decades have shown, perhaps nothing contributes more to world peace than US energy security. A very important addendum is that  I think that the people of Converse and Campbell Counties, along with their governments, are very much in favor of this development.

But other than a few lines sketching out the scope, by far the major part of the news items to be found were focused on lengthy quotes from “wildlife biologists” wringing their hands over the threat to “sage grouse” leks. I leave you to do your own research on “leks”. I don’t know what happened to their earlier concerns over Kangaroo Rats, but I do know that many “wildlife biologists” will be assured of employment for years to come responding to “public” comments on the environmental review noted in the holiday blurb.

But home was the Front Range of Colorado and every trip to Eastern Wyoming ended on I-25 coming south out of Cheyenne. I was always very glad to be going home to my family. I still occasionally travel that same I-25 corridor between Cheyenne and the Front Range. But now on that road, usually somewhere just coming down off that windswept prairie plain back into the Land of the Adorables, I think“Maybe this is just a small taste of what East Germans felt coming back from the West through Checkpoint Charlie”. I really do hate the wind.

One Response to “Converse County, Wyoming”

  1. Jeff Esbenshade says:

    We went to Yellowstone 2nd week of this past Sept. I like reading the newspaper. I
    read local Wyo papers. Many of the stories tell first time in 135 years NO drill
    rigs working in the state. With West Texas crude over $50.00 maybe Wyo can return
    to the oil fields and help state balance their budget.

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