Will the West Survive?
Credit: John Moore / Getty Images
Wyoming: The Cattlemen's Last Stand

One of the most resilient symbols of the West has been the cowboy, and I began to wonder how he'd been holding up in the heat. Again, of course, by this late date, the myth of the cowboy was largely that: myth, preserved, Renaissance Faire-style, on the rodeo circuit and on 'City Slickers'-style dude ranches. Actual working ranches in states like Wyoming have been in decline for decades, much like the family farm in the Midwest.

That said, according to figures by the Wyoming Beef Council, the state still raised 1.3 million head of cattle per year – or 2.3 cows per human Wyoming citizen. Russell Bell, the former president of the Independent Cattleman's Association, laid out the dire math plaguing ranchers in this era of extreme weather. Bell raised cattle and sheep in Gillette, Wyoming, but his grazing land, where the grass normally hit 14 inches, never topped four inches in 2012. At this point, a rancher had to make a decision: He could put his cattle on hay or feed – the price of which had skyrocketed, again, thanks to the drought – or he could begin selling off cattle early (less fattened, for a cheaper price). An extended drought would put many of the small ranchers out of business.

As I make the drive north from Colorado into Wyoming, Highway 25 cuts through brittle, yellowed pastureland stretched on either side of the narrow, lonely road like the pelts of dead animals, eventually meeting the preposterously massive sky at the horizon. After Cheyenne, I spot cows here and there, and in the distance, windmills. Wyoming, one of our flattest states, has the best wind in the country, and certain entrepreneurial-minded, forward-thinking types have been talking about transforming the state into the Saudi Arabia of wind energy, or something like that, buying up ranches and erecting those stark, modernist windmills that could appear either soothing or ominous, depending on one's mood. The problem is, Wyoming has already long been the Saudi Arabia of coal, a $1.2-billion-a-year industry that produces (by far) the largest amount in the United States. Wind proponents have charged that the state, controlled by mining, oil, and gas interests, has intentionally stymied wind-farm development with taxes and regulations.

My ultimate destination is Douglas, an old ranching town (pop. 6,000) sitting about dead center and on the eastern edge of the perfect rectangle that is Wyoming. Every August, Douglas hosts the Wyoming State Fair, and the coal industry is one of the prime sponsors. The Cloud Peak Energy booth features a giant black chunk of coal that you can touch and oversize photographs of coal-laden dump trucks. I tell the woman behind the counter that I'm writing a story on how extreme weather might change life in the West and ask if the drought is affecting mining operations. I wonder if she thinks I'm messing with her, but she frowns and considers the question before saying no, she doesn't think so. Her partner, a young guy with spiky gelled hair, added, "We're digging into the soil, not trying to grow anything. But the heat probably makes it harder for the miners?" I said that made sense.

Peabody Energy had an entire tent, with children's games and a flatscreen television showing a video about the benefits of coal power. "Want to answer a question?" one of the Peabody ladies asks me. Consulting a sheet of paper, she says, "Let's see....no, that one's too easy. OK. 'Peabody ships coal to other countries: true or false?'"

I say true.

"You're right!" says her coworker, who is wearing a COAL JOBS cap, adding, "And 39 states!" She tells me I can choose from an assortment of Peabody knapsack-totes as a prize and asks what I'm doing at the fair. When I tell her about my story, she swats at the air and insists, "It hasn't been that hot!" She asks me where I live and then pulls out a map shading states by how much they spend on energy. "Places with coal always have lower costs," she insists. "You're in New York – see, that's much higher." She shakes her head sadly. "People say coal is dirty, but they have ulterior motives. Some people want energy to be expensive. I don't think that's good for America. I want to build things here."

By the time the rodeo begins, I'm freezing. Though the clerk at my hotel told me it had been in the nineties "since June 1," by the time I arrived in Douglas, the temperature, in a serious blow to my preconceived narrative, had plummeted. For some reason, the cowboys are all wearing pink shirts. I wonder if it's an elaborate 'Brokeback Mountain' joke. Then the announcer explains the theme of tonight's rodeo: "Tough Enough to Wear Pink," some kind of breast-cancer-awareness thing. They release a bull that's been painted entirely pink. I continue to shiver. The special guests of the evening, a group of Canadian Mounties riding some of the largest horses I've ever seen, perform an elaborate synchronized dressage routine. I remember how a friend back in New York, an environmental scientist at Columbia University, had told me that climate change would end up shifting the Midwestern American "breadbasket" northward, to Canadian provinces like Saskatchewan. Suddenly, the once easily parodied Mounties take on the sinister aspects of a show of force by a conquering army, taunting my demoralized, vanquished people with their totalitarian precision.