Something looked off when I landed at Denver International Airport this past August. It had been about four years since my last visit, and I couldn’t immediately put my finger on what was up. I bought a coffee, glanced at the ‘Denver Post,’ and wandered out into the main terminal, with its silly bedouin design, the domed white ceiling looking as flimsy and tarplike as ever. It wasn’t until I was outside, riding in the shuttle bus to my rental car, that it struck me what had changed: The Rocky Mountains had vanished.
“Oh, yeah,” the shuttle-bus driver confirmed. “We haven’t been able to see them from the airport for about a month.” Colorado had been experiencing its hottest summer on record. In Denver, temperatures would hit 90 degrees or higher on 73 days, shattering the previous record of 61 days set in 2000. (The summer average over the past 30 years has been only 33 days.) Haze from the heat, along with lingering smoke from the wildfires that had been ravaging much of the West – including the 18,000-acre Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs – had conspired to erase metropolitan Denver’s spectacular horizon. If you squinted and the light was just right, you could make out faint outlines of the Rockies’ Front Range, looking like a tentative art-school etching, begun and then inexplicably abandoned.
Record-breaking heat waves, a fire season run amok, sustained levels of drought unseen since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s: Throughout the summer of 2012, the weather came on like a grudge, as spiteful and relentless as an Old Testament plague. It was the hottest July ever in the United States, and the third-hottest summer in the history of the country. By September, 7 million acres had burned across the U.S.: 600,000 acres in Nevada; 144,000 in Idaho; 650,000 in Montana. The record for worst fire year in U.S. history had only just been set in 2006 (9.8 million acres burned), but it’s likely that 2012 will surpass that number. In July, in Guthrie, Oklahoma, thermometers hit 114 degrees, breaking the previous record set in 1896. By August, 63 percent of the country was experiencing drought conditions, drying up wells across the Midwest. On a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, feral horses started dropping dead; horse-rescue organizations around the country couldn’t handle the spike in business. Down in Texas, where the previous summer’s drought had prompted an unprecedented cattle drive north – thinning the state’s 5-million-head herd by 12 percent – an unusually mild winter (even by Texas standards) had allowed plague-carrying mosquitoes to survive and flourish, resulting in an outbreak of West Nile virus that killed at least 77 people.
In Alamogordo, New Mexico, Bonito Lake, which provided water for the city, was declared a FEMA disaster site after being polluted with more than 40 feet of ash and silt from the Little Bear fire, “the odor of charred trees and rotting fish permeat[ing] the air,” according to a July news report. Rivers in New Mexico and Colorado turned black from ash runoff, so threatening the endangered Gila trout that environmentalists had to transport the fish to hatcheries after stunning them with electric shocks.
The governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency in July after 25 people died from heat-related causes; by August, 93 percent of the state was considered in “extreme” drought, battering corn growers and cattle ranchers. On a single day in July, the Department of Agriculture declared a state of emergency in more than a thousand counties in 26 states, the largest such designation in the history of the USDA. In an op-ed in the ‘New York Times’, a trio of scientists, noting that the Northern Hemisphere had just celebrated its “327th consecutive month in which the temperature exceeded the 20th-century average,” warned of the possibility of a decades-long “megadrought” that would fundamentally change the American West. “Climate model projections,” they wrote, “suggest that what we consider today to be an episode of severe drought might even be classified as a period of abnormal wetness [italics mine] by the end of the century.”
National temperature maps began to resemble nasty scabs: the bloodiest reds in the center, turning various bruised shades of purple and pink as the color indexing radiated outward, becoming fleshiest at the coastal fringes. My mother called from Michigan right before my Colorado trip. A neighbor up in the Thumb had just rung her to say the fish in their pond, which is about 40 feet across, had all died. Apparently the heat got them, too.
A cliché began to circulate when people spoke of the extreme weather plaguing much of the United States: It might be a “new normal,” sober commentators warned. Where had this term come from? Its popularity seemed yoked to its widespread malaise-era U.S. applicability, from unemployment numbers and outsourced jobs to shrunken pensions and austerity-hobbled local governments. Get used to the new normal, fuckers – it’s going to suck! The new normal never seemed to refer to anything remotely desirable (delicious new ice cream flavors, say, or an unexplained barrage of suggestive text messages from Norah Jones) and now had extended its reach to the very elements: fire and drought and triple-digit heat waves. I wondered how the citizens of the West would adapt. Would they calmly dig in their boots like the pioneers of yore? Or had they already started bugging out?
And would this new normal mean life out there might revert to the “old normal” – which, not so very long ago, before irrigation techniques and the widespread damming of rivers, prior to air-conditioning and Wal-Mart and overnight FedEx deliveries, had made the West incredibly inhospitable to all but the hardiest of human inhabitants? For so long, the West existed as a sort of heroic painting symbolizing the core aspects of American myth: Manifest Destiny, “frontier spirit,” Yankee ingenuity, bullheaded never-say-die Reaganesque optimism. This persisted even after historians complicated simplistic early portraits of the West by giving voice to Native Americans and others. Now, though, at a time when our confidence was already deeply rattled on a geopolitical and macroeconomic scale, the frontier itself – this thing we thought we’d conquered – seemed to be rearing its head, like an animal roused from hibernation.
It seemed like a good time for a road trip.
Colorado: The Rockies Meet the Suburbs
The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), one of the top climate laboratories in the world, is headquartered in Boulder, Colorado.Its spectacular Mesa Lab, modeled in part after Stonehenge by the architect I.M. Pei, looms in the foothills of the Rockies, the blocky, sand-colored towers looking like three-dimensional puzzle pieces cryptically arranged by ancient alien visitors. Just past a deer-crossing sign on the road leading to the Mesa Lab, an obviously newer sign reads danger: HIGH FIRE RISK.
“In the U.S., the last 12 months have been, by far, the warmest on record,” Kevin Trenberth, the head of NCAR’s Climate Analysis Section, tells me over lunch. “All of the Dust Bowl-era records from the 1930s have finally been vanquished.” The last one to go was the July record: July of 1936 had been the country’s warmest until 2012.
Trenberth is a trim New Zealander in his sixties. He’s been living in the Boulder area for 28 years and very much looks the part, sporting cargo shorts and hiking sneakers as office attire. Trenberth spends his days synthesizing reams of climate data, and he says the evidence is stark. Earlier in the summer, he told the ‘PBS NewsHour,’ “You look out the window and you see climate change in action.” He wasn’t referring to individual weather events or naturally varying meteorological patterns, but rather to the sheer scale of the extremes. Offering a personal anecdote, Trenberth notes that a week or so before my visit, he’d been hiking around the Maroon Bells, a pair of peaks near Aspen, and, disturbingly, found no snow at all. “The heat from the sun was just coming down and heating the ground,” he says. “Normally it would be, first, partly reflected by the snow, and second, all of the water – the melt from the snow – would be keeping things wet, and the heat from the sun would go into evaporating moisture. So there was nowhere for the heat to go other than to raise temperatures. These conditions set the stage throughout the Southwest for heat waves to develop, and the consequences have been wildfires.”
Back in his cluttered office, Trenberth takes a seat in front of a wall of bookshelves groaning with scholarly journals. “I’m quite alarmed,” Trenberth says, “mainly because when it comes to reducing emissions – to cutting down on the fundamental cause of the problem – there’s been no progress since 2009.” He connects this lack of progress to the massive pushback and disinformation campaign that followed Al Gore’s 2006 film ‘An Inconvenient Truth‘ and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report, the largest and most detailed climate study ever undertaken, which called global warming “unequivocal.” Trenberth was one of the lead authors of the IPCC report, and he and the IPCC shared a Nobel Peace Prize that year with Gore.
In the past, despite an overwhelming consensus on the reality of climate change, scientists were reluctant to forensically link any single short-term climactic variation – a particular heat wave or series of hurricanes – directly to warming trends. Weather patterns, after all, vary naturally, which is why things like the Dust Bowl could happen in Al Gore’s father’s time, long before greenhouse gases had become a threat. But the accrual of harrowing data has begun to eat away the science community’s circumspection. This summer, a paper in the ‘Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society’ co-authored by climate scientists from the U.S. and the U.K. stated that “scientific thinking on this issue has moved on, and now it is widely accepted that attribution statements about individual weather or climate events are possible.” In other words, the fact that all of the crazy weather you’ve been noticing the past few years happens to have been predicted by every credible climate-change model is not just a wild coincidence. The authors use a baseball analogy: If a player begins taking steroids and suddenly his number of home runs skyrockets by an average of 20 percent each season, it might remain impossible to say that any one particular home run was the sole result of the doping – other factors, such as the player’s skill, the opposing pitcher, or the layout of a particular stadium, would of course come into play. But one could say that, because of the presence of the steroids, that particular hit was 20 percent more likely to occur.
Likewise with climate science. Droughts, heat waves, flooding, and tornadoes will always occur, but their frequency and severity are what makes climate change impossible to ignore. As one example, the authors cite the 2011 Texas drought, the worst single-year drought in the state’s recorded history. While it was happening, meteorologists generally pointed to La Niña, a naturally occurring weather phenomenon over the Pacific Ocean that can affect rainfall worldwide. But in 2012, a statistical analysis by the authors of the BAMS report concluded that the Texas drought was 20 times more likely to occur today than during a comparable La Niña year in the 1960s, when greenhouse gases were much lower.
A shy, slightly awkward speaker, Trenberth rarely made eye contact during our nearly two-hour conversation, often staring down past his silver mustache at his folded hands, looking pensive, or as if he might suddenly launch into desperate prayer. He says there’s little reason to realistically believe that the total warming of the globe will remain below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F), the target set by the Copenhagen Accord – which has been described as “the bottomest of bottom lines.”
“You continue to have some hope,” he says. “But in order to address this internationally, the U.S. has to be a leader, and Congress has been absolutely hopeless on this whole issue. The environmental groups have hardly any money in comparison to the deniers.” Trenberth’s voice takes on a piquant edge for the first time during our conversation. “The vested interests are very clear in this game, and they’re spending tens of millions of dollars every year,” he concludes. “And most of them are on the denial side.”
After leaving Trenberth, I drive to my second appointment of the day, which happens to be in Colorado Springs. If Boulder, 40 minutes north of Denver, remains the state’s liberal enclave (college town, home of the Naropa Institute, a kite store, and numerous jam-band-flyered kiosks), Colorado Springs, an hour and a half south of Denver, feels like Boulder’s parallel-universe opposite world (bastion of conservative politics, home of Focus on the Family and the U.S. Air Force Academy, the place where the Taxpayer Bill of Rights was created, and, as one local political-science professor told ‘Bloomberg News,’ the “Tea Party before Tea Party was cool”). In 2009, Colorado Springs voters rejected the notion of raising property taxes, which had fallen 41 percent since 1990, to make up for revenue lost during the economic downturn, and so the city became a model of the new austerity, de-commissioning one-third of its streetlights, slashing the number of cops and firefighters, auctioning off both of its police helicopters, and halting maintenance of city parks. When the Waldo Canyon wildfire erupted in late June, jumping containment lines and flying down the slopes of the mountains at 65 mph, critics wondered if some of the destruction (and a rash of post-fire burglaries in the evacuation zone) might have been prevented by a properly staffed public-safety department. Police chief Pete Carey vigorously rejects this charge, describing the fire to me as a “once-in-a-lifetime catastrophic event.”
But when I bring up the shortage of officers during a tour of the decimated neighborhoods with Sgt. Mark DeVorss, a Colorado Springs native and 24-year veteran of the police force, he treats the conclusion as self-evident. “The department was already short on officers before the economy tanked,” he tells me. “And we lost 50 or 60 more since then.” DeVorss has a mild, kindly deportment and wears his pants high on his waist. He drives me out past the Garden of the Gods, a majestic 240-acre park of rock formations that looks like something out of a Road Runner cartoon, to the “upper-upper-middle-class” suburbs (DeVorss’ words) that burned. Luckily, the CSPD had evacuated most residents before the fire spread. A sharp wind had caught everyone off guard, speeding the burn along four hours’ worth of projected checkpoints in only 40 minutes. Chief Carey was holding an outdoor press conference when he noticed all of the cameras swing away from him and toward the direction of the mountain, at which point he recalls thinking, “Oh, this can’t be good.”
Wildfires have become more dangerous not only because they are bigger and burn longer, but also because we’ve come to live differently. While the West of legend meant wide-open spaces and lonely homesteads, in reality, many aspects of today’s West have become fairly indistinguishable from the rest of the country, particularly when it comes to the growth of cities and the attendant suburban sprawl that encroaches upon forests and exposes more and more homes and civilians to wildfire risk.
The Colorado Springs subdivisions destroyed by this year’s fires once offered spectacular views. “America the Beautiful” was written by Katharine Lee Bates, a vacationing Wellesley professor, from the summit of nearby Pikes Peak. But now many of the trees lining the purple mountain majesties are black and fossilized, like a haunted forest from a children’s book. And of course the houses where upper-upper-middle-class folk once enjoyed those views while sitting at their breakfast nooks are mostly gone. DeVorss steers his police SUV along the gently curving lanes wending their way through formerly picturesque developments with names like Mountain Shadows. Often all that’s left of the houses are the foundations, and occasionally an erect brick chimney standing embarrassingly exposed. Amid the piles of ash and rubble, I spot a stack of folding chairs fused together, a metal fan, what looks like a refrigerator turned on its side, or maybe a stove. I see a set of stairs going nowhere: The rest of the house is gone. Cars left in driveways look blown open like firecrackers.
DeVorss squints at another melted, carlike object. “Looks like a Mustang,” he says. He points out a home where an elderly couple who refused to evacuate both died. (They eventually attempted to flee, but their electric garage door wouldn’t open.)
DeVorss doesn’t remember many fires growing up. He says blizzards were always the bigger issue. Chief Carey, who moved out from Philadelphia in the Eighties, agrees, recalling the “hellacious” winters of those early years. During especially gnarly storms, soldiers from Fort Carson would transport snowbound officers in their all-terrain vehicles.
In the lobby of a hotel in downtown Colorado Springs, I meet Tim Leigh, a garrulous real estate broker and member of the city council. I’d reached out to Leigh because he’s originally from Grand Forks, North Dakota, a city nearly wiped out by a flood in 1997. As with the Waldo Canyon fire, the flood had been precipitated by extreme weather events, but when I bring up climate change, Leigh grins broadly and asks, “First of all, do you believe in Area 51, aliens? Have you studied that stuff?” I confess that I have not. “My point is, when you say, ‘Is it global warming? Is it the end of the Earth?’ you might as well ask, ‘Are there aliens in Area 51?’ I’m not sure about that. I just read a report within the last week, and when you look at the data, at the actual temperatures, you can make a pretty compelling argument that we’re not in a warming trend. We’re in a cooling trend with an aberrant warm spot. But the long-term trend is generally down. That’s really hard to get your arms around. I get that we’re in a hot cycle, and I also get that we’re dry, and viscerally, you want to say, ‘Fuck yeah, it’s hot out!’ But the data doesn’t trend that way, so do you believe the data or do you believe something else, just because your lawn is dry?”
I wish I could secretly Skype this conversation to Trenberth and make his head explode. But instead I nod impassively. Leigh does not deny that the long-range weather forecast for Colorado is continuous drought, and acknowledges that the water levels in the local reservoir are down about 45 percent, enough to get the city through another year, though after that, Leigh concedes, they’ll have to think about buying water.
A waitress places a bowl of wasabi peas in front of us. Leigh grabs a handful, tastes one, makes a face, returns the rest to the bowl. He says he’s going to tell me something people would probably kill him for saying: To a certain extent, he looks on the fire as an opportunity. The residents whose homes were destroyed would collect insurance money and get brand-new houses, while the Colorado Springs economy, which was devastated when the housing bubble burst, would receive a boost. “It’s unfortunate, because you’re drawing insurance proceeds from other parts of the country,” Leigh says, “but that money is coming here, and it’s employing local contractors, local laborers who need work, selling construction materials, all those folks who have to restock their houses. You hate to say it, but the tragedy creates a financial boon, to a certain extent.”
Leigh understands that a long-term drought will change life in the West. “Politically, what I tell everyone in this town is that we might have to build a moat around this city and become somewhat isolationist,” he says. “You have to interplay with the global economy. But, really, you work to protect your constituents, the local people, your neighbors, that kind of stuff. That’s a horrible model! But I don’t know what else you do. We can sit here and have four glasses of wine and really talk deep. I think aliens landed at Area 51. I think they’re causing this.”
It’s worth noting that Leigh is willing to allow people to cross the moat on special occasions: By late June, for example, the ‘New York Times’ had reported that more than half of the federal firefighting resources had been sent to the state of Colorado.
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.
The next morning, I drive to the Torrington Livestock Markets, the largest cattle auction house in the state. The Torrington Livestock Market has been slammed all summer with ranchers desperately trying to sell off parts (or the entirety) of herds they simply cannot afford to feed.
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.
Montana: A Dry River Runs Through It
Montana, one of our most beautiful states, is even more striking when you come via Yellowstone, simply because of the number of green trees. In Missoula, I get lunch with Tim O’Leary, a friend of a friend who now owns one of the most popular microbreweries in town, Kettlehouse. Before he began making beer, O’Leary studied environmental science and worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, not far from the Mesa Lab. He uses 100 percent local barley (along with ingredients like pelletized industrial hemp, for his Olde Bongwater Hemp Porter), though he says it’s been harder in recent years for farmers in Montana to make a living growing crops, that they’ve been selling off their land to people he calls “gentlemen ranchers” – wealthy folk from the coasts looking for vacation properties.
After lunch, O’Leary drives me back to his brewery, where I’ve left my car. It’s about 90 degrees. “Ten years ago, on a day like today, I’d have the A/C on,” he says, “but I’ve gotten more heat tolerant.” We pass over the Clark Fork River, which cuts through town. “There’s the effin’ ‘River that Runs Through It,'” O’Leary says drily. He’s referring, of course, to the Norman Maclean short story (and, later, Robert Redford movie) about fly-fishing, set in Missoula, where Maclean grew up. In college, O’Leary himself used to lead fishing and rafting tours. “The Clark is an interesting story,” he says. “Way back when, you’d dam a river for business reasons: to float logs or to generate power. Now they dam it to make the whitewater better, so people can recreate.” I don’t believe I’ve heard “recreate” used as a verb before, but in Montana, where tourism is such a crucial part of the local economy, it makes sense: Extreme weather could have a severe economic impact here. By late August, air quality had gotten so bad in parts of Montana, thanks to wildfire smoke, that the state recommended people “limit prolonged exertion outdoors,” according to an article in the ‘Missoulian,’ and high school football teams began moving their practices indoors. Fishing restrictions were also placed on rivers and streams throughout Montana because of the heat. (When water temperatures reach 73 degrees or higher for three consecutive days, fish are far less likely to survive being caught and released.) “Even business Republicans understand,” O’Leary says, “Montana is about blue skies and clean water.”
Later that evening, I wander along the banks of the Clark, stopping at a marker indicating where Lewis and Clark once crashed their raft, because the water was so rough. Tonight it’s very placid. Some people lazily tube, others fish. Kids dive off a bridge, ignoring signs warning them not to dive off the bridge. I was expecting to see the corpses of boiled fish. Instead, a fat beaver swims by, mocking my unsavory journalistic appetite for bad news.
The next morning, I fly out to Sacramento, where, a couple of hours north, the wildfires now cover 28,000 acres, and Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency.
On the plane, I thought again about how the “new” West might begin to resemble the classic version, at least when it came to upping the barrier of entry. But what would the “end” of the West even mean at this point? The end of rampant overdevelopment in places like Nevada? The final nail in the coffin of “authentic” Western life, the sort embodied in ranchers like Russell Bell? A permanent-enough change in the natural world, drying enough creeks and reservoirs to return certain areas to desert, scorching other places with so much heat and fire they become essentially unlivable? The West has been such an important part of the American mystique for so long that the changes that might occur would certainly affect our collective psyche. For so long, we’ve had this vast place that was so much more than just a place: It was a tangible display of our country’s bounty and near-boundlessness, a living symbol (in its very harshness) of our national character (our people brave enough to tame badlands and carve out desert oases, murderous enough to nearly wipe out an entire race), a trophy of an epic conquest. If that place becomes exhausted, or spoiled, or simply too unfriendly a landscape, well….what, exactly, will we have lost?
I consider this question as I drive to Redding, California. I pass orchards, rice fields, farms, a billboard reading LOOK OUT CONGRESS! THE PEOPLE ARE COMING NOV. 7. The air in Redding, when I walk outside my hotel the morning after my arrival, feels thick and staticky, and though it’s a hot, sunny day, a hazy scrim has been drawn over the sky, polluting the blue so it’s more the color of a stepped-on eggshell, or a fading, grayish bruise. I can smell the smoke in the air, even though the fires are burning about 45 minutes away. It was 99 degrees in Sacramento yesterday. The woman sitting next to me on the plane told me that wasn’t so hot for August.
More than 2,000 firefighters have been mobilized from all over the state. My hotel is packed with them, as is every restaurant I visit. (“One thing about these fires,” a firefighter tells me, “they boost the local economy!”) As I drive toward the base camp – it’s actually the fairgrounds of a little town called Red Bluff – I see a couple of helicopters parked on the grassy shoulder of the freeway. The birds flying in the haze look confused, but that might just be my projecting. How would I know what a confused bird flies like?
Funnily enough, the firefighter assigned to show me around, Shawn Sternick, lives in Missoula. He knows who Tim O’Leary is, and loves his beer, and just got through making an annual rafting and camping trek on the Clark River with some buddies, which they refer to as their Lewis and Clark Trip. Sternick works in Los Angeles, though. He grew up in Orange County, but his wife is from Montana, and they wanted to raise their kids somewhere less hectic than L.A. Because firefighters must be on call at the firehouse 24-7, Sternick’s schedule (5 days on, 13 days off) allows for such a commute, and he says he’s not alone: Other guys in his firehouse commute as far as Idaho and Tennessee. “A lot of us can’t afford to live in L.A.,” he says.
Budget cuts have also hit California hard. One fire chief, coming off the front lines, where his men had been hiking up the side of a mountain (while wearing heavy fire gear) to lay thousands of feet of hose, explains that his team of 15 would have been 20 in prior years. Sternick says he and his colleagues have had pay cuts and lost vacation days. By far the best bang for the California taxpayers’ (literal!) buck are the men in orange pants and ankle bracelets I spot near the fairgrounds’ tent city, prepping food for the mess hall: prison inmates, who get paid “something like a dollar a day,” according to Sternick. “They do some of the hardest work – on the front line, cutting brush. It looks good for the parole board, so they all want to do it. We’re not really supposed to talk to them.”
The Ponderosa fire in Lassen National Forest, finally contained, came close to destroying several towns, traveling seven miles in one night. Sternick drives me up to the front line, on top of a ridge. We pass hilly, yellow-grassed terrain dotted with short, gnarled trees and volcanic rock. As we approach the ridge, I see smoke pouring from the top of a not-so-distant mountain. It looks like a smoldering volcano we should be driving away from. Helicopters hauling buckets of retardant (a kind of reddish slime) fly over our heads to douse the fire.
At the ridge, I see an entire slope of freshly charred mountain. “We call that ‘clean,'” Sternick explains. Meaning, there’s nothing left to burn, so no risk of a fire restarting. (Firefighters comb the area, making sure every stick is cold, even cutting into tree stumps and roots, which can sometimes hide red-hot coals.) Another part of the ridge still has some living vegetation left. “We call that ‘dirty,'” Sternick goes on. “We like it when the fire burns everything, so there’s no chance of reignition.”
The next morning, I drive up to another fire site, about an hour and a half north, to meet up with some smokejumpers. But by this point, there’s not much else for me to learn. On my way home, I cut through a little valley, and the smoke is so thick, it’s like mist. I switch my A/C to air-circulating mode, suddenly paranoid about choking or passing out. Then I pass a field of cows, chewing on grass, looking just fine. This makes me feel better. Then I begin to wonder if maybe the cows have powerful cow lungs, better equipped to breathe this stuff – who knows? – and I begin to panic again.
But less than before. You get used to these things.