How the West was lost


One of the funny things about living in Minnesota is the fascination that the locals have with the weather. Maybe it’s a holdover from the days when Scandinavian farmers huddled in sod huts on the open prairie, and one surprise snowstorm could spell death. Whatever the reason, the local weather coverage probably draws the highest ratings of any show in town. In some ways weather is the original reality TV show, and it has made our weathermen, and women, err… I mean meteorologists, into celebrities. Lately our local weather glitterati have been pounding the drum about the impending spring flooding that will surely result in biblical devastation, the likes of which have not been witnessed since the days of Noah. Watch the news long enough, and you get impression that nature is trying to kill us all.

As an armchair meteorologist myself, I am predicting continued hype through April, followed by hand wringing, and sand bagging, and finally relief as the angel of death passes over us once again. Cynicism is an art form, and I am an artist. Whatever this spring holds, it will never match the great floods of 1993, when it seemed for a few months like the entire Midwest was going to be washed down the Mississippi and deposited as an island off the coast of Louisiana. It was my first summer in Minnesota, and set a benchmark which has probably done much to make me immune to the predictions of a pending deluge.

I have spoken at length about my drifting around the United States as a field service engineer, following graduation from Clarkson, but I have yet to tell the story of how I came to be here in Minnesota. And that my friends, like all my tales involves a bit of beer, a lot of fate, and a pretty girl.

As I have mentioned before, I was working out of our Denver office, covering the Western United States, and loving the adventure that had become my life when a call from my boss Charlie, had sent me to Minnesota in the depth of winter 1992 to manage an outage inspection up on the Iron Range. One of my best friends from Batavia was attending Grad School at the U of M at the time, so I flew in on a Friday to spend the weekend with him before heading up to the range. As fate would have it, I would wind up meeting the future Mrs. 20 Prospect that weekend. But that is a story I have already told. It is what comes after that fateful meeting that I am going to share now.

When I first heard from Mrs. 20 Prospect that evening in Denver I could not have predicted the course of events that would follow. I was in the Denver office just for a few days between projects, before heading back out on the road. It was early March by then, and the Spring outage season was about to kick into high gear. I had been booked to head to Rock Springs, Wyoming shortly to oversee some inspection and repairs on a boiler at the Potash Mine in Green River. As Western towns go, Rock Springs is about as wild a place as you can find. It sides astride Interstate 80 in the open range land of Southwestern Wyoming, as is a center for the local energy and mining industry that is based upon the Coal, Oil, and Natural Gas deposits in the region. These extractive industries pull in a lot of blue-collar labor, and results in a local population liberally dotted with folks from out of state, there to make their money as wildcatter’s, welders, and construction workers. Among the field service engineers of ABB Combustion Engineering, Rock Springs was notorious for being one of the most god forsaken places in the West, a stopping place where most veteran field guys had performed at least one tour of duty during the long term construction project at the Jim Bridger Power Station.

Outside Rock Springs, WY - Photo copyright "p.m.s." @ http://www.flickr.com/photos/18162270@N00/2579214976/

But those wild days were already a memory by the time I rolled into town. Aside from the semi-annual visit to the mine out at Green River, we didn’t have much work going on in the area. Knowing that I would be in town for a couple of weeks, I set up house in a Comfort Inn that had little efficiency apartments for weekly rental. It was a bit of a luxury to have a kitchen, and living area in addition to the typical hotel bed. I noticed upon check-in, that there was an awful lot of pickup trucks in the parking lot. And I soon came to realize that the hotel was pretty much a boarding house for the local transient labor force.

Rock Springs, WY - Photocopyright "Son of the Griz" @ http://www.flickr.com/photos/sonofthegriz/772418728/

It wasn’t the worst place I had ever stayed in, but it was one of the wildest. The shouting, and drunken arguments in the parking lot in the middle of the night, the window rattling screams of passion emanating from the couple in the apartment next door, and the ever present howling, icy Wyoming winds made it a place to remember. After about 3 nights, I decided it would be best if I ate a quick dinner in the local Subway, and made it back to my room by sundown lest I be caught in the crossfire.

It was from that squalid little apartment in Rock Springs, that Mrs. 20 Prospect and I began our long distance phone relationship. It seemed odd at the time to leave work and hurry back to my room to talk on the phone to someone I had met a month before and spoken with for about 2 hours, but it was the highlight of my life at the time. The alternative was a sketchy night out in a dodgy western town. Not something I had to courage to attempt alone and unarmed.

Those phone calls were almost like phone interviews. Questions, and answers, sharing each others story, getting to know each other a little better. As I said before, the night we met ended quickly, and I felt like there was a lot of potential in the short time we’d spent together, but we didn’t really have a chance to get to know each other. We were pretty much strangers when we started talking on the phone.

The weeks passed quickly by. After Rock Springs, I returned to Denver before heading up to Colstrip, Montana for another few weeks of work. Our calls continued, but I didn’t know when, if ever, we’d see each other again. I also wondered how patient she would be, before she lost interest in this strange guy, with a strange life, somewhere out West in a strange place. Either she saw something promising in me, or she was really desperate, but she continued to humor me. Finally, by the end of April, outage season was winding down, and my schedule was freeing up.

I can remember my long ride back to Denver. I took the back roads down through the Big Horn mountains in Wyoming, to see Devils Tower. After a brief stopover in Rapid City, SD, I drove through the black hills and into Nebraska. By the time I rolled up alongside the front range, the snows were gone, the sun was out, and I was driving in short sleeves with the windows of my Jeep rolled down to let in the air. Farmers were burning the grasses along the ditch banks, and the rising smoke lent a gorgeous orange hue to the setting sun.

Sunset sky over Carhenge - Alliance, NE - Photo copyright Roger Edwards @ http://www.stormeyes.org/tornado/SkyPix/carhgsst.htm

My schedule was clear at last. A few days in the office to finish writing reports, and I would have some time to myself. I called her up, and asked if I could come out for a weekend to visit. And so that Friday I rolled out of Denver heading east, across the interminable length of the Platte River valley, over the rolling hills of Western Iowa, and up through the moonscape of plowed fields north of Des Moines until I arrived in Minneapolis 18 hours later. We spent a few brief days together, before I had to turn around and head back across the plains. Two weeks later, I did it again.

Now commuting between Denver and Minneapolis to date a girl was a bit ridiculous, even for me. But such was the power of her charms. Luckily, I managed to talk my way onto a performance testing project in Lawrence, Kansas. Work had slowed down considerably, and Charlie was looking to farm us out anywhere he could to get some overhead off of his books. The performance testing group back in Connecticut was looking for additional help, as the coming Clean Air Act legislation was leading Utilities to spend some money to figure out just how much pollution they were pumping into the atmosphere after all.

After a brief sojourn to Connecticut to train, I was in Lawrence working with my old friend Cathy from Nekoosa days, enjoying the summer weather, and the college town life of beautiful Lawrence. I was also enjoying being a mere 9 hour drive from Minneapolis. And so the summer passed, trips out east for various meetings, followed by time in the K.C. area, plotting my next trip to Minnesota. In between we managed to have Mrs. 20 Prospect come to Colorado to visit me for the weekend.

By Autumn when the outage season was beginning, I was back in the Southwest. A month long project in Laughlin, NV to be followed by another in Springerville, Arizona. After that I had a week vacation planned to spend some time with Mrs. 20 P. But then it happened, as it usually happened. Plans changed. There was an emergency need for another engineer on a big project at the TVA plant in Gallatin, Tennessee. It would last into Winter, and require working 6-7 days per week. It also meant I would have to cancel my plans. I was not happy. Changes like this on a moment’s notice were part of the job requirements of being a field service engineer. Our lives belonged to the company, and we were supposedly compensated more financially to make up for it. I had no ability to refuse, but it didn’t stop me from trying.

I called Charlie, and told him how fed up I was with the travel, and threatened to walk. It was fall of 1992, and I had been living out of a hotel room since June of 1990. I had had enough. I wanted an apartment in a place to call home, and I wanted it now. In retrospect, I was acting like a Diva, and by all rights he should have called my bluff. To his everlasting credit he didn’t. We worked out a deal where I would report to Tennessee and work there for the duration of the project, and when it was done he would allow me to move to Minnesota, and rent an apartment there. The deal was worked out under the guise of being close to a future long term project that was planned for a plan in Becker, Minnesota in spring of 1994. It was a stretch, but Charlie was able to sell it to his superiors as a way to improve our business with Minnesota Power, and Northern States Power, by having someone in the area that would be available on short notice.

TVA Plant at Gallatin, TN - Photo copyright "Mike_tn" @ http://www.flickr.com/photos/beginasyouare/2214804233/

I’d like to say I was able to maintain a proper level of professionalism during my time in Tennessee. I did not. I sulked and pouted like a spoiled brat. It was the last place on Earth I wanted to be. Long days in the dreary gray Tennessee winter trying to work with the criminals and reprobates of Fluor Daniel’s construction group was not my idea of a good time. The project was under immense pressure to deliver, and had been behind long before I arrived on site, and would be long after I left.

In November, Mrs. 20 Prospect made a trip to N.Y. to meet my family over Thanksgiving. Oddly enough, this failed to frighten her away. In late December she came to Tennessee to visit. In January 1993 my assignment / sentence in Tennessee came to an end. Charlie was true to his word, and I took a week of vacation and started driving North. Up through Kentucky, past Paducah, across the Ohio River, and up the length of Illinois the Jeep rolled, my spirits lifting with each mile. I felt excited, and anxious to get there, and make it real before Charlie changed his mind. I ran into a snowstorm in Springfield, and the last 60 miles into Rockford was a white knuckle drive in the dark of night, straining to make out the taillights of the car in front of me, and stay out of the ditch. I spent the night in Rockford, and slept the sleep of the dead.

Morning dawned clear and cold, the sun shining down on the frozen prairie. Stepping out into the biting cold, the world felt cleaner and fresher than it had since I left the West. I could hardly believe it. In 24 hours I would be in Minnesota, looking for an apartment. My first apartment. Settling in for the first time since I left Potsdam behind an eternity ago. I was in the North Country again, and the future had never seemed so bright. I didn’t know what would become of me and the future Mrs. 20 Prospect, but I knew at last that my homelessness wouldn’t stand between us anymore. The future wasn’t guaranteed, and it wouldn’t be easy. Relationships never are.

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2 thoughts on “How the West was lost

  1. Pingback: Colorado Rocky Mountain High « 20 Prospect

  2. Pingback: Sunflower « 20 Prospect

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