Friday, April 16, 2010


This morning I crossed my fingers (the pickiup has been making funny noises), used some laundry quarters to put a few gallons of gas in it, and drove the thirty miles to Cut Bank to get the kind of cat food Crackers likes. They didn’t have it. New manager. New assortments of stuff. Always change.

That’s not really why I drove to Cut Bank anyway. I just wanted to get out on the road in the most beautiful weather so far. The recent blizzard has plastered the stone walls and blades of the Rockies with white that translates into proper spring run-off for the fish and crocus. The Sweetgrass Hills were hidden in mist from the moisture now suffusing the air, unstirred by wind. By afternoon that will have gathered into thunderclouds and possible showers. Pale stubble and fallow stretches out on every side of this cyclorama of scenery, streaked with snow reflecting pale blue sky. One field is even beginning to green.

This north/south drive is a lesson in geology for those who know how to read it. In the distance is the Lewis & Clark Divide, the edge of the Missouri/Mississippi watershed that determined the 49th parallel would be the northern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. The whole area is streaked with streams gathered from the Rockies, each folded into its own coulee, steep inclines going down and then up -- the opposite of mountains, unseen until you drop into them.

This half-hour drive is a survey of wealth, almost all of it on the Blackfeet Reservation. At “ground level” are the irrigated alfalfa fields. Next up, the fat Charolais cattle with their bulky calves beside them. Then the nodding pumpjacks of the oil still found underground after all these years. Hard to see in the mist are the windmill turbines, as thick and tall as Oregon Doug firs, hundreds of them, barely turning this morning. The road is crossed and re-crossed by high tension power lines going somewhere. Don’t get too nosy about it.

I haven’t driven this way for a while but knew there was scheduled upgrading. So far that consists of a ribbon of asphalt in each lane, a gutter in the middle exposing the center line. It’s carelessly done with gaps and holes. Is this because it’s a sub-layer, because the machine was malfunctioning, because it’s “only the reservation,” or because it’s good enough for the real purpose of improving the road, which is not for the sake of locals but because there will soon be a huge transport of machinery meant for the Athabasca tar fields, far to the north in Alberta?

The machinery (I’m not sure where it originates -- Asia?) is expected to come on barges up the Columbia River to Lewiston in Idaho, then transfer to huge trucks (a typical semi-trailer is 72 feet long -- these are 162 feet long) which will follow highway 12 to Missoula, crossing Lolo Pass, then go up highway 200 through Lincoln, Augusta, Choteau, onto highway 44 that goes through Valier, north again through Cut Bank, crossing the border at Sweetgrass. I haven’t heard the town council talk about this except off-hand discussion about the blinker light where the road to Cut Bank turns north from 44. We can either ask them to take it down temporarily to let the big loads through (thirteen feet, six inches high, 24 feet wide) and then put it back up -- or maybe we don’t really NEED a blinker light out there. People don’t interpret it as a caution/slow down, making full stops instead. (And then there are always the knotheads who don’t even slow down.) Highway 44 and 89 from 44 to Browning have been under so much construction these past few years that it’s hard to guess what “normal” traffic flow might be.

The newspaper story is quite frank about meetings scheduled to “invite comment.” The loads MUST go through according to the law, they say, so long as any impacts are mitigated. The point of the comments is to turn up any “impacts” that the engineers missed. And head off lawsuits, no doubt. So far the most serious opposition is from Jim Hepburn who lives in Missoula and guides river trips on the Lochsa River along the highway and from Northern Rockies Rising Tide, which objects to the whole oil sands project on grounds that the release of ancient methane will contribute to climate change.

In my own case, the Athabasca tar sands have “impacted” me, as they say in their ugly vernacular way, though publishing. So many workers are making so much money so far north that Athabasca University was founded to give them a chance at education up there. It is not a campus university, but rather it is “virtual,” online, with some classes in rented spaces like the meeting rooms of banks or shopping centers. They also have a press, which is virtual, making books available online as well as bound. Edmonton, the nearest city I know, is a HUGE sophisticated city and the location of the University of Alberta Press where there is an Espresso machine that makes books on demand.

I sent my biography of Bob Scriver, “Bronze Inside and Out,” to the University of Calgary Press just before the head editor was fired. He was almost immediately rehired to run the new Athabasca University Press. The woman who acquired my book had a contract to find manuscripts about major Alberta figures. Bob qualified because of his relationship with the Glenbow Museum and because the Blackfeet (who are much of his subject matter) had a range far north into Alberta. This acquiring editor went north as well, but my manuscript stayed with the U of Calgary Press. Except that the original people called one dark night and asked me to cancel Calgary so as to go with Athabasca. They said Calgary had neither the skills nor the resources to properly develop my book. They were right. But it struck me as unethical to just dump one press for another. So I didn’t.

The Athabasca tar sands reach into my life from the deep geological past, changing the course of my writing career, changing the little town where I live, changing my grocery path, and possibly even changing the climate. The 200-plus loads will be on the road for a year, often traveling at night. The project belongs to Imperial Oil/Exxon. Uh-oh. Always change.

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