New story out – Notes From the Apocalypse: a Journey Through an American Sacrifice Zone

Earlier this week, FeverDream Magazine published a story and photography that I’m really proud of: Notes From the Apocalypse: a Journey Through an American Sacrifice Zone. The magazine did an excellent job with the images and the layout and I couldn’t be more pleased.

“Notes From the Apocalypse” was inspired by a road-trip through the Bakken Oil Patch in western North Dakota documenting the epidemic of oilfield flaring and talking to the amazing members of Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights (POWER) for my job at a regional nonprofit. We’d heard about the flaring and the harms to health that it causes, including asthma and other respiratory disease including something called “the Bakken cough” that afflict both oilfield workers and residents. (The chemicals and volatile organic compounds [VOCs] that come up with the methane also definitively cause cancer but haven’t been studied enough to definitively be linked to cancer on the reservation. Cancer rates are higher there, but that can be said of every reservation throughout the U.S.) From space, the light from flaring mimics cities like Minneapolis-Saint Paul and Chicago in the middle of sparsely populated prairie. Seeing it from the ground was still shocking. Thousands of towers of flame licked the sky in every direction out to the horizon.

Drawing on my travel-writing background, I wondered how a travelogue through this largely ignored landscape would read. The photos I’d collected certainly added to the ambiance. Like every travel story, however, it was speaking to the locals that really drove home the scope of the oil industry’s impacts on communities that had very little say in what was happening to them. What came out of the project was something more literary than I’d expected.

I gave a reading of an early version of the story as a part of The Reading Series at Rocky Mountain College. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did. There’s an interview printed after the story, if you’re interested in even more background on the project.

Fracking cover-up continues groundwater contamination disaster in Pavillion, Wyoming

How tumult over a draft EPA report on fracking-related water contamination has given Wyoming a pass on fixing groundwater polluted by traditional gas drilling.

Note: This story originally appeared in the Living with Oil and Gas project which features “stories of people whose lives are impacted by oil and gas development.” The situation has yet to be resolved, leaving several Pavillion, Wyoming, families without drinking water. Currently, another freshwater pollution disaster looms as the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has moved to exempt the freshwater Madison Aquifer from protected status in order to allow Aethon Energy to inject millions of gallons of untreated wastewater from the Moneta Divide oil and gas field into it.

Sue Spencer, a hydrogeologist based in Laramie, Wyoming, looks down from a sandy bluff on a two-football-field-sized swath of cleared land that designates a capped natural gas well. Two men in unmarked blue coveralls and white hard-hats stand near the edge of the site. She has no idea whether this is one of the wells that’s been contaminating the East Pavillion, Wyo. water supply, or if it’s just a well that’s been under-performing. She has no way of knowing whether simply capping the well will stop methane from leaking into the groundwater aquifer, or not.

“The people that were there sampling wouldn’t even speak to us,” Spencer said. “There’s this veil of secrecy about everything they do.”

Secrecy comes standard in the oil and gas industry. It’s enabled by state and federal policies that allow companies to hide details around hydraulic fracturing. For the residents of Pavillion, the culture of concealment around fracking makes a bad situation much worse.

Hydrogeologist Sue Spencer standing near a natural gas facility in the East Pavillion Gasfield, Pavillion, WY.

“Back in 2013, Jeff Locker (a Pavillion-area farmer) showed up at our office in Laramie with three giant boxes full of documents and water quality data reports, and he wanted us to help him figure out what was going on with his well, “ Spencer said. “He’d been having problems with his well since 1992 [but] nobody was listening to him.”

Locker had his water tested in the late 1980’s when he financed his ranch. The tests indicated he had high-quality water. Four years later, his water quality degraded by a factor of 10.

The degradation of water quality falls in line with a surge in gas development in the Pavillion gas field throughout the 1990’s. Then, in the 2000’s, the density of wells went from one well per 160 acres to four. Currently, the Pavillion gas field has 169 wells.


Sign up for the newsletter and receive new stories, sneak peaks at new projects, book recommendations, and more.

Those wells are drilled into the Wind River Formation, a complicated sequence of sandstones and channel deposits that are layered on top of each other. The formation is about 3,500 feet thick. Without an impermeable layer to stop gas migration between the gas production zone and the drinking water aquifers, gas wells need to be constructed in a way to protect shallow groundwater wells. Well casings must be filled with concrete down below the bottom of the deepest possible water supply. Any gaps between the casing and drill bore allows gas to move freely up the open casing and out into the water-bearing layers, contaminating not only those layers, but all of the layers above as it makes its way to the surface.

According to a study done by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission on gas wells in the Pavillion area, 52% of the 169 wells have incomplete casings. Any number of those wells may be leaking methane into groundwater aquifers like the one the Locker family uses for drinking water. And without more complete scientific study, there’s no way to tell how much contamination is happening.

A complicating factor came in 2011 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft report that found benzene and other chemicals used in the fracking process in a 700-foot-deep freshwater aquifer far above gas-production depth. The draft report, which was never released as a final version, was the first documented evidence of fracking-related water contamination.

“The oil industry went nuts,” Spencer said. “It was right as the gas boom was starting, and [the oil lobby] was just like, ‘you can’t say that groundwater was impacted by the fracking industry.’”

Amid the backlash, the EPA  caved to pressure from Encana and the state of Wyoming, allowing the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to take over the investigation. Under DEQ, the contamination investigation was reduced to a palatability study. No new monitoring wells have been drilled, and the state of Wyoming is pushing EPA to plug their two monitoring wells. Without more monitoring, the complicated hydrogeology of the Wind River Formation can’t be fully understood, including what the real cause of the contamination of Pavillion residents’ drinking water.

This graphic shows how stray methane gas travels up incomplete drill casings and spreads into groundwater used for drinking and livestock. This contamination causes bacterial blooms and other effects that make the water undrinkable. Graphic courtesy of Sue Spencer.

“The science is just pathetic,” Spencer said of the way DEQ has begun using samples from drinking water wells, instead of drilling scientific monitoring wells. “It just died at the mere mention of fracking, which isn’t as much of the problem as these improperly constructed gas wells.”

While not admitting that there’s a problem, Encana, the gas company that owns the wells, has been delivering water to some of the affected farmers and ranchers. This duplicity shields them from having to find a real solution, such as simply drilling a new municipal water well a few miles outside of the gas field and pumping water in. This type of solution isn’t unprecedented, nor is it particularly expensive in the scope of Wyoming water projects. Unfortunately, in the efforts to cover up the fracking contamination, Wyoming has enabled the industry to avoid fixing problems it’s caused through bad practices, and left residents without clean water.

“As a geologist, it’s really frustrating to see how it’s played out” Spencer said. “It’s clear to me that the reason that not much is happening here is political pressure. Everyone in Wyoming knows that groundwater is probably our most important resource. To let this go on for 10 or 15 years and these people still have no water except for a few bottles delivered once a week is just not right.”

Covering the Water Protectors standing up against the Line 3 tar sands pipeline

On June 7th, 2021, hundreds of Water Protectors gathered at the headwaters of the Mississippi River and marched to a bridge near where Enbridge Energy planned to drill under the river to route their one-million-barrel-a-day Line 3 tar-sands pipeline. I covered the Treaty People Gathering, an assembly of Water Protectors meant to kick off a summer of actions against the Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline, and cowrote articles for Esperanza Project and the Western Organization of Resource Councils‘ blog. 

Mississippi River

Once completed, this new Line 3 will replace Enbridge’s previous Line 3, but with a new route that would endanger the Mississippi River, the United States’ largest watershed, in two crossings as well as other 200 other bodies of water and 75 miles of sensitive wetlands. We can expect spills from the new Line 3, if Enbridge’s past performance is an indicator. One of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history was a 1.7 million gallon oil spill from Enbridge’s original Line 3 near Grand Rapids, Minn. 

Line 3’s route threatens hundreds of miles of streams, lakes and wetlands that the Anishinaabe people have lived on and harvested food from for centuries. This fight isn’t just about water quality, it revolves around tribal sovereignty and treaty rights being further eroded by federal and state governments. The 1855 Treaty between the Chippewa of the Mississippi and the United States government protects the resources used by Anishinaabe peoples, including medicines, fish, animals, and the manoomin (wild rice) a crop that’s an integral part of daily Anishinaabe life. According to the treaty, these resources must be held in trust both inside and outside of Anishinaabe reservation borders. Because tar-sands oil sinks when released into water, it’s impossible to clean up in wetlands. Even a small spill from the pipeline could destroy those resources and their treaty-protected way of life. 

Read the Esperanza Project article here.

water protectors chalking a sign on the bridge

Water Protectors came from around the country to make a statement about supporting treaty rights, Indigenous sovereignty, and protecting clean water. Here, they’re chalking a sign on the bridge crossing the Mississippi River just a few hundred feet from where Enbridge plans to drill under the river.

The demonstration was peaceful and filled with prayer and song from dozens of different tribes and nations as well as non-native participants showing solidarity.

Stop Line 3 chalk mural

The finished work of art generated by the Water Protectors urging the Biden administration to honor the treaties and his commitment to end fossil fuel dependance and end Line 3 construction.

The End of Bike

The iconic magazine that inspired me to live a more adventurous life goes to the great bathroom magazine rack in the sky.

A few months ago, I received a plain, white postcard in the mail informing me that “as of October 1, 2020, Bike Magazine had ceased publication.” The card went on to tell me that they were “pleased” to inform me that the remainder of my subscription would be filled with Men’s Journal. Not Powder* or any of the other adventure sports rags that American Media LLC owns. Men’s Journal.

Ignoring their assumption that I’m a cis-male for a moment, (the number of women and gender-non-conforming people hitting the trails has exploded in the last few years), losing Bike felt like losing a friend.

I’d read and enjoyed a lot of mountain biking magazines early in my cycling life. But, I became a life-long Bike subscriber after I picked up the September 2001 issue from the bike shop I was working at. What sold me was a fiery column by Mike Ferrentino about America’s culture of consumption-at-all-costs and the destruction of what’s actually important, whether it’s our outdoor spaces, or our health (mental and physical). 

I still have that issue. 

Continue reading “The End of Bike”

Writing About my Hometown

Image courtesy of USDA NRCS.

About a decade ago, I moved from Maine to Montana. Not one of those famous towns like Bozeman and Missoula which have been featured in big-budget movies or the glossy pages of adventure magazines. No, I moved back to my industrial hometown of Billings. The thing most people seem to remember after they’ve driven past at seventy-plus miles-per-hour (usually toward one of those picture-perfect towns) is the smoke-belching, fire-breathing refineries. There are three of them right along the interstate. To be honest, that’s mostly what I remembered, too.

Billings had changed a lot—mostly, for the better—since I’d left. So much so that when it came time for me to start a new novel project, I didn’t know how to write about it. I felt like a stranger in the Magic City.

Continue reading “Writing About my Hometown”

Exploring Small-Scale Multi-Generational Farming for Homegrown Stories

My interview with the Nash family took me out on the farm and into one of my favorite fields: independent agriculture.

Building a Farm for the Next Generation

Rusty, but functioning, antique tractors and a modern solar array frame Tom Tschida as he describes the unlikely way he became a rancher. “I’d been away working for a long time when [my parents] bought this place and started building it up. A few years ago I decided to quit my job and move back home,” Tom says of moving back to Montana to help his parents, Jerry and Carol Nash, run Nash Farms. After years of building a career as a photographer in Southern California, Tom found himself missing Montana. “I wanted to be around family. I wanted to be working with animals. I wanted to be playing in the dirt. So I came back to do all of that. It’s been great.” Continue reading…


Sign up for the newsletter and receive new stories, sneak peaks at new projects, book recommendations, and more.

7 incredible winter experiences in Montana’s Yellowstone Country

My latest article out from Matador Network: 7 incredible experiences in Montana’s Yellowstone Country.

There are so many winter experiences you can have in Yellowstone country, it was hard to narrow it down to just seven. I had a great time writing about the places I enjoy in this area. And researching this piece reminded me how many places I still have to hit.

I’m getting the feeling that this winter is going to be epic. Enjoy!


Sign up for the newsletter and receive new stories, sneak peaks at new projects, book recommendations, and more.

Lonely Montana Backroad

This road leading from the tiny town of Molt to the even tinier town of Rapelje offers views of five of Montana’s most spectacular mountain ranges. In addition to the Crazy Mountains, shown here, one can see the Pryor, Beartooth, Snowy, and Little Belt Ranges.

rural montana road, mountains, eastern montana
The wide open country of eastern Montana reveals miles of rolling, grassy hills, and snow-capped mountains in the distance.

This road is just one of hundreds of Montana backroads. At first glance, these dirt roads look incredibly boring. Long, straight stretches between dilapidated towns with nothing but dirt for miles. As you begin to notice the details, however, you can start to piece together what life is like way out in the frontier. You may see a pickup truck spreading a giant bale of hay out for a hundred or so cattle. You’ll almost certainly see a weathered barn falling apart. And if you pull your car over to the side of the road to get some pictures, you’re likely to see a rancher pull up just to make sure you’re ok.

montana fence, ranch,
Every turn on an eastern Montana dirt road offers surprises to the traveler. Sometimes, the reveal is a forty-mile vista across prairie to the slopes of mountains. Sometimes it’s just the little details like the grain of a weathered fence post.

Bonus points to anyone who can tell me why there are boots on those fence posts (a common sight in Eastern Montana ranch country).

Clouds Settling on Beartooth Pass

The Beartooth Mountains have always been inspiring, whether as a call to adventure, or the spark to create. This trip was both.

bear tooth pass, highway 212, red lodge montana
From the top of the pass, the fog I had been driving through morphed into clouds in the valley. The clouds moved in and out of the valley like ocean waves, covering the tower below and then exposing it again.

beartooth pass, highway 212, red lodge, montana, landscape, travel
The clouds gave the landscape a feeling of constant motion. Each moment, the scene would change revealing some new surprise.


Finding Inspiration on the Road to (and from) the Wild and Scenic Film Fest

I TRY TO SPEND as much time on the road as possible, whether it’s going across the state to see family, or crossing state lines on an epic trek. There are a lot of reasons I’m attracted to long-distance travel. One of the best is that no matter what I might be worrying about, there’s nothing I can do about it while driving. This allows me to let go of a lot of stresses that I carry with me. It’s the letting go of the everyday that allows stories to come to me.

I’ve been toying with the idea of posting ideas that hit me on the road on my twitter feed with some kind of an #dailyidea hashtag. That didn’t happen when I went to the Wild and Scenic Film Festival last week, but I did want to share some of the places that served as inspiration while I was off gallivanting.

1. Nevada

On the road through Nevada. This is the first time I've been on this road. Who knew Nevada was so beautiful?
On the road through Nevada. This is the first time I’ve been on this road. Who knew Nevada was so beautiful?

I’d never been on this highway before. Long and wide-open, Nevada has a sense of the Old West that competes with Montana’s. The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was held in Elko a few days after I passed through. I’m already working on a screenplay set in the old west (kind of a departure for me), but I found myself thinking about famous cowboys and outlaws while driving through this wild landscape. As the dry landscape rolled by, my brain began constructing a bio-pic about Doc Holiday, the sickly dentist who fought along-side the Earp brothers at the OK Corral.

2. South Yuba River, Nevada City, California

I did get out to explore the South Yuba River on a trail that reminds me of an enchanted fantasy tale.
I did get out to explore the South Yuba River on a trail that reminds me of an enchanted fantasy tale.

I’m not sure who could walk this trail along the South Yuba River, and not be transported to another world. Soft ground beneath the feet muffle footfalls into silence. Trees seem to bend in overhead making a magical corridor. Then the trees part to reveal an almost other-worldly green river. This “enchanted” place inspired the film festival that I’m here to be a part of. Almost any magical story could be set here.

And, yes, the South Yuba River really does really look like this.
And, yes, the South Yuba River really does really look like this.

3. Ocean Park Motel, San Francisco, California

San Francisco's first Motel. Imagine what kind of stories could come out of this place.
San Francisco’s first Motel. Imagine what kind of stories could come out of this place.

I hadn’t intended on continuing all the way to the coast when I started out on this trip, but that’s the great thing about travel: Sometimes you just end up places. And this Motel (San Francisco’s 1st) is a destination all its own. Ocean Park opened in 1937, and has been no stranger to drama over the years. According to the newspaper article reprinted by the motel, “In its early years the Ocean Park attracted the ‘hot sheets’ trade…” aka “trysting lovers”. I’m sure that each room could tell true stories that would make any plot I came up with seem bland. But that didn’t stop me from imagining a noir detective uncovering an insidious plot hatched in room #7 (or, perhaps, being uncovered by a gorgeous femme fatale.)