Thursday, April 10, 2008

Working the Dust Bowl

I apologize for the lack of writing as of late. Free time has recently taken a back seat to some out-of-town work in southeastern Colorado. According to my resume, I’m an environmental geologist, dealing mostly with subsurface investigations and cleanups regarding underground fuel storage tanks (USTs – glamorous, I know). My client for the last seven-plus years has been the U.S. Army at Fort Carson, and I currently manage their UST program, serving as a liaison between the Army and The State of Colorado. Occasionally the job affords me short bursts of fieldwork. I (mostly) look forward to such excuses to ditch the corporate atmosphere, go a day without a shave or a shower, and relive those times as a fresh-faced field technician. Fort Carson manages a rather large training area in southeastern Colorado named Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site (PCMS), where up to 10,000 troops can be employed to simulate full-scale military exercises. The site is also the subject of some regional controversy, as the Army is looking to expand the current size of 237,000 acres to over 650,000 acres. This would include the small cattle town of Hoehne and practically the entire southeastern corner of the state. State Highway 350, which follows the Santa Fe Trail, connecting La Junta and Trinidad, is littered with signs defiantly proclaiming ‘Not 4 Sale to the ARMY’. Whenever fieldwork is required at PCMS, I usually drive from my home in Conifer to Fort Carson and pick up a military vehicle that takes me the rest of the way. Some might consider this a luxury until they sit behind the wheel of a desert tan 1986 Chevy Custom Deluxe pickup. The Army refers to these as Commercial Utility Cargo Vehicles or CUCVs, and have slowly phased them out in favor of the more beefy Humvees. The truck is so loud that I wear earplugs whenever I plan on going more than five miles. At 55 MPH (or whatever speed I’m traveling – the speedometer starts bouncing erratically above 60) the diesel engine winds up so high that you expect it to drop into another gear. It never does. But these things are literally scratch-proof, and you can wash out the cab with a hose. Yet I feel a bit uneasy pushing this moving target through the tumbleweeds of ‘Not-4-Sale-to-the-Army’ land, and I pray that the beast doesn’t die en route.

Two-and-a-half hours later I’ve arrived at PCMS, where a small fraction of the total acreage is occupied by buildings and a full-time civilian staff. My ‘site’ is located just outside of this cantonment area, a stone’s throw east of Hwy 350. Shutting off the CUCV, I usually sit for a few seconds to equilibrate, and the fingers of nature slowly begin to take hold. PCMS lies in the middle of prairie land, home of many species of native and migratory birds, including loggerhead shrikes, meadowlarks, and red-winged blackbirds (wintering in a wetland nearby). A red-tailed hawk patrols the area and several pronghorn graze nearby. The weather out there is very mild this time of year, with very little precipitation. However, a couple days into my last stint, the wind was brutally strong, and one intense microburst liberated an unbound 100-page report from the dash of my truck, scattering the document for hundreds of yards. Another time, I sensed the shadow of the resident hawk soaring overhead, only to discover that it was an empty Safeway bag.

Work days at PCMS are long, sometimes extending into the double-shift range, leaving little opportunity for play. But occasionally I have time to visit a couple sites on the fringes of the property, bounded on the east by the Purgatoire River. One such site is the former pipeline booster station town of Piñon Canyon, for which the installation was named. Among what remains of this mysterious place are the sidewalks leading to dwellings long since removed. A wooden water tower hovers over the pipeworks now void of any oil, and the chainlink backstop in an overgrown baseball field will likely never contain another wild pitch. A dozen or so ranch properties were annexed by the Army when PCMS was incorporated in 1983. A few of the homes were converted into lodging for teams of archaeologists periodically cataloguing Purgatoire Canyon’s vast prehistorical resources. Older buildings have been carefully preserved or restored as evident in some of these photos.

The day soon disappears and I’m rattling my way back to Trinidad, passing through the tenuously-populated towns of Tyrone and Model. Many properties along Hwy 350 are comprised of an adobe structure next to a 1920’s pyramid roof structure next to an inhabited double-wide, as if each successive generation looked at its parents’ house, said ‘eh’, and did their own thing. At the end of the job, I’m likely headed north to the sleepy town of Rocky Ford before pointing west toward Pueblo. Either route home entails a few hours of mental recompression and the promise of a return trip. In fact, I'm headed back in the morning.

Tyrone, Colorado - Population: Ewe

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