AN EXTRACTION ECONOMY

Stanley and I walked down the road, a slow slog by the old dog, and ¾ of a mile away a big freight train came down the tracks just as we were about to cross.

It wasn’t mile-long, like the trains bearing cars loaded with black coal crisscrossing Wyoming, but it was long enough. Stanley, who once had to be restrained on the leash from the loud noise of the locomotive, was perfectly at ease because he’s fully deaf, while I did what I usually do after waving to the engineer, I read the names off the cars: Westervelt, Canadian, CSX, Nebraska, NAHX, CCX, WWUX, Central Vermont, Procor, etc.

It’s not uncommon for me to read off some 20 names and ponder the mystery of a freight car hooked at a depot somewhere out west, traveling with others of its kind for thousands of miles before being unhooked at another depot somewhere in the south and continuing its travels with a new gang of cars before arriving at some unknown destination. Together they’re so loud and formidable, while in the end each goes its own way.

I hear the roar of freight trains every day and night even after Amtrak left our rails and chose to do its one daily train south and one train north on parallel tracks running through South Deerfield. I always wish we were living in the small white house that’s right next to the tracks, separated only by a hedge of bushes.

This morning I remembered two things. When I turned 60 Bernie took me to New Orleans. Knowing how much I loved trains, he reserved a sleeping car onboard Amtrak. We boarded the train in Springfield, Massachusetts, in mid-morning and arrived into New Orleans, Louisiana, at 11:30 the next night, some 38 hours later. The sleeping car was somewhat drab, with a bad smell in the bathroom and a bed half falling off its hinges, while the food was surprisingly good. But the real thing was outdoors, the many states going past our window, farms and trees, waving children, long glimpses of different eco-zones.

I also remembered my brother’s words after he drove from New York to Washington, DC a month ago: I forget what a big country this is.

I saw this in Wyoming, with its enormous blue skies canopying only half a million people. I imagined their families there years ago, the women giving birth alone, the men maintaining miles of fence posts, both knowing they’ll probably get sick, old, and die with no doctor or preacher around.

Their descendants have independence in their bones. Accustomed to a big space, many expect to do it all alone with no one to ask for help. The space, the solitude, the self-reliance are embedded in our culture, in our imagination. Those of us reared on Westerns and the frontier believe in some corner of our minds that they are the real thing, the real Americans, not the rest of us crowded in small urban places.

“Economy is zooming,” said the lovely man at the Bunkhouse Motel in Guernsey, Wyoming. “We ship everything out, coal, oil, natural gas, you name it we’ve got it. We also got lots of windmills,” he added kindly, taking note that we were from Massachusetts.

Lots and lots of jobs in Wyoming, lots of jobs in an extraction economy. Not working out a good balance, but digging, frakking, and extracting. The big rocks overlooking the train tracks looked on inscrutably and the trains roared by, many, many miles of coal. What would happen to any relationship in which you take and take and take, and don’t give back?