The auctions take place in a miniature arena: basically, stadium seating overlooking a cattle pen. The place is so old-school, there is still a pair of phone booths in the seated section, dating from the days when people called in bids on land lines. Down in the sawdust-covered pit, two wranglers stand beside protective metal railings, working the button-operated swing gates on either end of the bull pens. The one on the left punches his button, and the object of the bidding wanders out onto the stage like a Miss America contestant. After (literally) a few seconds, the guy on the right presses his own button, opening the second set of doors, through which he shoos the animal with what appears to be a giant flyswatter.
"How you doing?" one cowboy near me asks another.
"Droughty," his friend says.
Only about 20 men, a mix of buyers and sellers, are spread out in the aging stadium seating, but the cattle stream through all morning, nonstop. An old-fashioned scoreboard displays stats like weight and price per hundred pounds. You can distinguish the bidders from the sellers because the bidders are mostly slumped back in their seats, looking deeply uninterested. To bid, they make the tiniest, barely discernible motions with their heads or fingers. Some of them jot notes on scorecards, like they're serious baseball fans or horse gamblers. The faint, sweet stink of manure permeates the entire building. Almost everyone is wearing some kind of hat, but there's a divide, roughly even, between caps and proper cowboy hats. The auctioneer has been doing that gibberishy, hyperaccented auctioneer thing, where the only words you can make out are numbers, and they jump out at you the same way as when a person speaking a foreign language you don't understand suddenly says "iPhone" or "Brad Pitt."
An obese man wearing cut-off denim shorts and a black tank top that barely covers the awesomeness of his girth enters the arena and takes a seat on the steps. The auctioneer spots the man and interrupts his rap with a greeting.
"Mr. Cress, you're up early! Did you come from your morning workout?"
The big man grins and says, "Yup. I went or my run and then played some basketball."
In the cafeteria adjoining the arena, I join the man (Bob Cress) as he tucks into a massive country breakfast (some kind of smothered meat over fried eggs and potatoes). When I ask how things are going this year, Cress says, "Bad. I've seen 10,000 cows coming through this sell barn in one week. There's no grass – it never did come alive. I got some good old pasture, so we're hanging in there." Cress ranches in La Grange, 40 minutes south of Torrington, on 65 acres he hasn't irrigated in a month. He wasn't selling today; he just stopped by to see what the market was like. He was planning on selling 140 calves the following month. "I'd figured, I got a well, so, shit, I can keep this hay wet," he tells me. "But the water evaporates before it hits the ground. It's gotten up to 110 degrees. Yeah, it sucks."
I hear identical stories from buyers and sellers all morning. A kindly older cowboy in a white hat says if things don't improve by next year he'll have to "liquidate the factory," explaining, "That's what we call the cows. I've lived here all my life. Never saw nothing like this. When you're in agriculture, there's always hope. But if this doesn't change, there just won't be no cattle here. People will have to figure out something else to do." His son had landed a job at one of the wind farms, repairing the big turbines. But when I mention climate change, he just smiles and says, "Oh, that's something Al Gore started. I'm not an Al Gore fan."
By this point in my reporting, I'd been on the road for a solid week, and Kevin Trenberth was basically the last person I met who, when asked, unequivocally believed greenhouse gases were causing global climate change. I hadn't been going out of my way to look for obvious cranks who'd make for a good story or confirm my coastal liberal stereotypes: This attitude was conventional wisdom in these parts. And in fairness, the defensiveness of these local deniers made a sort of contextual sense. Getting one's head around the hugeness of climate change, and what needs to be done to combat it, is an overwhelming proposition even for someone far removed from its front lines. Now consider how exponentially compounded the difficulty of such changes become when they're all tied up in history and culture and livelihood, when your great-grandfather ranched on the land you're ranching now, or your whole family has been employed by one of the coal or oil companies for generations, and suddenly you've got some outsider coming along and telling you not only that everything you've been doing needs to stop, but that it's also been destroying the planet. Taking offense, hunkering down, even engaging in Fox News–abetted magical thinking is not exactly the craziest of responses.
Regardless of belief in causality, the ways in which these ranchers adapt to the changing West are worth studying, because they know the land better than anyone. One rancher I meet (who actually pulls out his own copy of the Constitution during our conversation and makes a joke about how the document's authors were smart men who raised animals, not "community organizers") tells me about how he's been genetically breeding cattle to "do more on less" – culling the more inefficient members of the herd so his new breed requires less feed and thus becomes more drought resistant.
Down in the pen, the cows work the catwalk in a variety of styles. Some scamper nervously, like amateur singers shoved onto a stage from behind a curtain and blinking in front of an audience for the first time. The bulls tend to strut and flare their nostrils angrily; a giant black one won't leave the pen until the prodders whack it repeatedly on the side with their swatters. Some exhibit sudden bursts of anger, back-kicking the metal doors. I like when the bulls mess with the swatters. As the bulls exit, their giant balls shake at us from between their legs like angry fists.
"This is the real American West, the last of it," Russell Bell tells me back at the state fair, where the Independent Cattlemen's Association has set up a tent. "This is it. We still tip our hats to ladies." He sounds worried that it's disappearing. "The last drought this big was in 1934. That lasted seven years and drove the farmers to the cities. If this goes for a few years, you could end up with starvation." Bell spoke in a quiet voice with a slightly melodious accent, so even when he was predicting apocalyptic events – mass destruction of family farms and ranches, a violently disrupted food chain – there was a gentle quality to what he was saying.
We're sitting in folding chairs in the back of the tent, near a beautifully restored 1922 Model T with a FOR SALE sign propped on the running board. The sign, with its Home Depot font, looks anachronistic on the old Ford. "Hey, squirt!" Bell suddenly yells, spotting a little kid climbing onto the vehicle. "Don't hang on it." The Model T, it turns out, belonged to Bell's father, who liked to restore old cars. Bell hates to sell it, but he needs the money. "I'm trying to get $12,000," he says, "but probably the first guy who comes along and gives me $10,000 is gonna own it."
Yellowstone: An Imperiled Icon
En route to Yellowstone National Park, I pass through Casper, an ugly oil town, and pull over to check out a dried-up creek: It's all rocks and weeds now, the latter so brittle they crunch like insects under my sneakers. After leaving Torrington, I'd stopped by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Philip K. Dick-sounding name they'd come up with for the government bureau in charge of monitoring and doling out the extremely scarce water supplies in places like semi-arid eastern Wyoming. The friendly BOR chief told me about area conservation efforts, and how, especially during periods of drought, a farmer with junior water rights would threaten inspectors ("Don't you touch my head gate!") or actually steal water from his neighbors. An Environmental Protection Agency report says more than 30 states expect water shortages next year, including Oklahoma, where state officials, according to Reuters, are looking to "encourage increased processing of undrinkable 'brackish' water."
As I drive westward across Wyoming, the horizon is flat and endless, right up to the distant mountains. At one point, a train runs alongside me, loaded up with coal. I wind up on one of those two-lane desert highways that always figure in road-trip movies, and then I realize I've neglected to fill up the tank of my SUV. Just as I've shut off the A/C and started to panic, a roadside gas station appears like a mirage. A handwritten sign in the window of the gas station warns: "This place is Gaurded [sic] by the Honorable Mr. 'Colt.'"
I see cows biding their time in fields so yellow and dry they look like nuclear test sites. I see a fishing store called Lip Ripper Bait and Tackle. In Thermopolis, the lady in the coffee shop tells me they had to cancel this year's Fourth of July fireworks on account of fire risk. I've started carrying my stuff around in the Peabody Energy knapsack I won at the state fair, in hopes of blending in with the climate deniers, but for some reason, I foolishly chose an almost Day-Glo lime-green bag, so the cowboys still give me funny looks.
I make it as far as Cody, a town on the edge of Yellowstone, named for William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, one of the West's most tireless (and financially savvy) mythologists. Cody is one of those uniquely American towns that's both an authentic place of historical interest and a hypermediated Epcot (or in this case, Frontierland) version of that place – like Yellowstone itself, where the epic, unspoiled nature and roaming packs of buffalo preserve an approximation of the "wilderness" part of the West that hadn't otherwise survived our invasion.
I stay in the Irma Hotel, which was once owned by Buffalo Bill. The gorgeous bar and dining hall has an enormous chandelier made from antlers and all manner of mounted game. Out on the porch, tourists and locals have gathered to drink and watch the nightly fake gunfight, the verisimilitude of which is sort of ruined by the silver Ford Focus parked right in our line of vision. A fat biker with a long white beard knotted into a single tight braid spots a boy in a U.S. Army cap and asks, "You going into the military, young man?" The kid says he's thinking about it, and the biker advises him to join the Air Force. "It's the easiest," he says. "And you can fly planes. You can fly the president."
"I wouldn't want to fly this president," one of the biker's buddies mutters.
A third chimes in: "I would – right into a mountain."
I ask the biker standing closest to me, a handsome, sunburned guy with a goatee, if he's from Cody. He says he moved out six years ago from St. Louis, and that he works for an oil company in North Dakota, repairing the wells. I ask about this summer's weather, and he chuckles and says, "Almost makes you believe in global warming, huh?" One of the side effects of climate change has been the migration north of bark beetles, which can now survive the less harsh winters of states like Wyoming and Montana, and which have wreaked havoc in places like Yellowstone, where they've killed acres of forest. "But even the beetles are leaving now," my new friend points out. "No more trees to eat."
The next morning, as I drive into the park, I audibly gasp at the sheer scale of the dead forest around me. Once the bark beetles have killed a tree, it dries out and becomes, essentially, kindling, a phenomenon which has contributed to the frequency and severity of recent wildfires. I pull over and wander around a so-called "ghost forest" of dead trees – normally forest-green Douglas firs gone a spooky, antediluvian gray. The trees tower six stories or so, their pine needles clumped together, drooping like Spanish moss. No one else is around. The only sound is the insectoid hum emanating from these yellow flying bugs, which also have the ability to make insanely loud clicking noises, like someone knocking a couple of sticks together. One of the bugs buzzes my head, and I duck crazily and wave my arms.
Driving on, I come to a cluster of parked vehicles and a surreal scene: tourists photographing an elk grazing amid an entirely burned wasteland. Since 1997, bark beetles have destroyed more than 40 million acres of Western forest; the U.S. Forest Service estimates that over the next decade, 100,000 dead trees will topple daily thanks to the beetle infestation.
Because of all the dead trees, no campfires were allowed in Yellowstone this summer. People sat around their tents wearing headlamps, or just told each other stories in the dark.