Category Archives: John McPhee

Weird Wyoming

Along with having the entire atmosphere pass through the state in any 24 hour period, Wyoming has some other attributes along with the wind.  I like Wyoming for its diversity and the fact it doesn’t have too many people.  The diversity also extends to the geology. Prairie in the east, Devil’s Tower and the beautiful country around there to some of the most spectacular alpine country anywhere, even if the mountains are lower than ours in Colorado.  Oh, and Yellowstone, our first National Park.

Wyoming Geology

I especially like the deserts, like the Great Divide Basin, aka the Red Desert, a depression rimmed by the Continental Divide.   Yellowstone is the largest and most dangerous volcano in the country.  There is coal, iron ore, oil and gas, uranium, and trona, to name a few.  Those resources are a double edged sword, leading to a boom and bust economy.  Ranching just soldiers along,  but it is a hard way to make a living.

A good portion of the economy comes from Greens (Coloradans, known for their green license plates).  It’s the topography that draws me.  Rivers flowing north, through mountain ranges, fed by hot springs.  A range of hills known as the gas hills, where methane comes out of the ground.  Mountain ranges running north and south as God intended, but the Snowy Range runs east-west and is the boundary between the ancient island arcs known as Colorado and the much more ancient Wyoming Craton.

The Wyoming Craton has some of the oldest rocks in North America, sharing the antiquity with the Canadian Shield.  Ages vary but are around 2.6 to 2.8 billion years old.  The oldest rocks in Colorado are around 1.7 billion years old and arrived as an island arc smashing into Wyoming, much as Indonesia and the Philippines are headed to Asia.

Wyoming has had a lot of activity down deep, shoving mountains up and sliding them around.  That pushing and shoving means areas where oil and gas get concentrated in the bends and corners, thus all the oil patch work there.  There is a lot of coal. The Union Pacific got its coal right near the tracks, and there is a tremendous amount of coal in the Powder River basin.  Coal is out of favor now, so Gillette is hurting, people leaving.

The reason Wyoming got famous is for two reasons, unruly Indians and the livestock business.  There was a lot of Indian fighting in the middle of the nineteenth century, what with the Oregon Trail crossing the region.  When the Indians were whipped, all that empty country became Home to cattle and sheep.  The livestock people still hold most of the political power – they also have oil and gas leases, so they aren’t very environment friendly.  Lots of cowboy legends came out of the place.

My favorite things are the rivers running through mountain ranges.  The textbook example are the Wind and Bighorn rivers.  They got their names because early explorers didn’t realize they are the same stream bisected by the Hot Springs Mountains.  The Bighorn flows south through Thermopolis and its hot springs and roses into a beautiful narrow canyon.  The Wind River flows out of the canyon.  The river was there, the mountains came up, and the river (rivers?) stayed in the same place, cutting the canyon as the uplift occurred.

Do I need to say the Wind River is aptly named?  Years ago in Colorado Springs I met a bicyclist doing a ride across the country.  He came across Wyoming.  He looked at me and in awe said,  “The Wind”.  He rode into the wind all across the state.  Another time I was driving from Laramie to Fort Collins after dark. It was Christmas time and the ground blizzard was in full song. I saw a VW bus along the road near Tie Siding. In conditions like that, you stop.  The occupant was from Australia and said “I’ve never encountered weather like this.”  It was around zero with 50 mph wind.  The VW had quit, probably a frozen gas line, and his wife got a ride into town to get help.  Shock and awe.  I just laughed and saw he was OK.  You know about the Wyoming Wind Gauge.  It’s a length of heavy chain hanging from a post.

Jackalope,, Wyoming State Animal

There is usually a Jackalope colony nearby.

There are three books I recommend:

Rising From the Plains, John McPhee; Roadside Guide to Wyoming Geology; and Wyoming Geologic Highway Map

John McPhee

John McPhee is my favorite writer.  He writes nonfiction for the New Yorker and has done so for fifty years.  He writes about whatever he wants to.  Alaska, the Pine Barrens, oranges, geology, transportation, and people.  Always, a topic is people.  He decides on a subject and searches out people engaged in his topic and weaves them into the narrative.

I read his stuff because of his subject matter (he has written extensively about geology).  He also has a warm and engaging style, his readers all fall in love with him.  The subject matter is always interesting, often because the people he seeks out are so colorful.

In Rising From the Plains, about Wyoming geology, McPhee found David Love, a USGS geologist from Laramie.  Gone now, Dr. Love was a renowned field geologist, focusing on Wyoming.  His  family is an integral part of Wyoming history.  His father started and ran a sheep outfit on Muskrat Creek in the Gas Hills, one of the most remote places in the lower forty eight.

The way McPhee portrays the man, his career, and Wyoming history makes one of the best books I have ever reread.  And reread, and give away.  If you have even the slightest interest in geology, read the book.  Rising From the Plains is a standalone book, and is part of Annals of the Former World, a collection of long pieces about geology mostly along I-80, skipping over the midwestern mud.  North America has fascinating geology and Annals gives a good overview.

Another book I like is The Control of Nature.  If you want to modify what nature produces, you get politicians to adopt the policy, then hire engineers to figure out what to do, then design the solution.  Sometimes they are asked to do the impossible, like keeping the eroding San Gabriel mountains from filling the Los Angeles Basin or control the lower Mississippi River.  Ask an engineer if something can be done and their answer is always “Yes.”  They make their money building stuff.  They may need lots of money, all the better.  Many of their projects fail at some time.  Don’t move to Morgan City, Louisiana.

McPhee has a wide range of interests.  He takes his storytelling skills to The Swiss army, to Loch Ness, to the Illinois River, California earthquake country, Alaska, and my least favorite book about a fish called shad. I read the book, but I still don’t care about the clammy, bony, tasteless things.  Not biased, though.

He is well into his eighties, and now writes mostly about writing.  His method is a complex blend of research, note taking, and building a structure to hold the piece together.  He is a real structure freak.  I have an idea, think about it a bit, and rip something out, editing as I go.  Of course he is producing around 50,000 words.  I do 500 to a thousand.  I have a structure as well, as I also learned how make outlines.  I tend to adapt the Army way: tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.  I like to introduce the subject, amplify it, then add my personal take.

Unlike McPhee, I tend to drift off topic into a rant or something mostly unrelated, but I like it.  “Oh look, a squirrel!”  Have I mentioned I have ADD?  I sometimes tend to bullshit; McPhee does not.  He has his extensive research and those wonderful New Yorker fact checkers.  I have my broken brain and Google.

Other McPhee assets are his sense of humor and his feel for dialect.  He is easy to read.