Photo credit: Shelby Brakken
Carl Weston knew something was wrong when the kids started lighting the lemonade on fire. This was in the late ’80s in southwestern Colorado, a rural place dotted with sagebrush, fence posts, and increasingly, oil and gas wells. After companies nearby started drilling for natural gas, methane seeped out of the ground and into Weston’s drinking water. Other people in the area had water that looked like milk and fizzed like Alka-Seltzer. One activist referred to the entire county as a “natural sacrifice area.”
When I met them in 1999, I was a new reporter, repeating questions I'd learned from a This American Life
comic book on how to be a journalist. I lived in rural Colorado then, in a town that hadn’t yet been drilled with oil and gas wells but was rife with questionable air and water: the insecticide malathion was regularly sprayed on the orchards near my house, the coal mines loomed on the hills above town. Weston and his neighbors were the first people I ever interviewed about what it was like to live with oil and gas wells for neighbors. But they weren’t the last.
Twenty years and hundreds of such interviews later, I’ve built a career reporting for national magazines about rural America. Not only about the land but also about the people who live there: the undocumented farm workers, the tribal citizens, the descendants of homesteaders, and those who have come to extract its resources or to live near wild places. Dozens of times, I’ve visited small towns that are pockmarked with wells, whose denizens say they have lost control of their land, their air, and their water.
Simply writing about my fears did nothing to prevent them from becoming real.
There was the woman in Alabama who told me, I drink bottled water but I can’t breathe bottled air
. There was the retired nurse who developed headaches and constant nausea and insomnia after a company began drilling scores of wells near her home. There was the man in Colorado who after 30 years of living on the same property, started to notice tumors on the faces of the finches who fed at his bird feeder. There was the grandmother who was hospitalized for two days after a tank associated with a gas well exploded 800 feet from her front porch.
Notice the construction of these sentences. Notice everything we don’t know about how these people feel, or what they do despite their fear. The stories of these people landed in magazines articles and tried to do what journalism does: report the facts of their suffering, describe the economics of oil and gas development, synthesize the scientific research, explain how complex federal policies impact the folks on the ground. But there are limitations to the nut graph, to the word count, to the deadline.
To explore what happens off the page, to tell a more complicated, deeper story of what happens to us when we lose control, not only of our land but of ourselves and the people that we love, I decided to write a novel. That book is Kickdown
The novel is set in rural Colorado in a town beset with gas development; it drops the reader into the lives of three people whose ability to control their circumstances is unraveling despite their best efforts. When Jackie Dunbar's father dies, she takes a leave from medical school and goes back to the family cattle ranch in Colorado to set affairs in order. But what she finds derails her: The Dunbar ranch is bankrupt, her sister is having a nervous breakdown, and the oil and gas industry has changed the landscape of this small western town both literally and figuratively, tempting her to sell a gas lease to save the family land. There is fencing to be repaired and calves to be born, and no one — except Jackie herself — to take control. But then a gas well explodes in the neighboring ranch, and the fallout sets off a chain of events that will strain trust, sever old relationships, and ignite new ones.
When I am at a dinner party and someone asks me what the book is about, I usually tell them: feelings. It’s a novel after all. And it attempts to do what is rare in a magazine piece, get after the emotional landscape. In Kickdown
, there is sisterhood and grief and grit and love. But what I rarely admit in those conversations: this book isn’t only an effort to break the boundaries set by journalism, or to explore what happens when other people lose power. It has also been an effort to exert control over my own life.
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When I sat down to write Kickdown
, I was pregnant with my first child and living far from the rural West in Portland, OR. I missed aridity and big sky and small towns where it takes an hour to pick up your mail at the post office because it would be impolite not to talk to one's neighbors. But being pregnant, I wanted to stop traveling as much as I had been. Reporting for me meant jumping on a plane every six weeks, or driving hours on isolated two-lane roads. It also meant setting my personal life aside to meet tight deadlines (because they are always tight). I thought novel writing would be easier; something I could be more in charge of.
In some ways this proved true. I didn’t have to go anywhere but the deep corners of my own mind. I could be immersed in the rural landscape without leaving my house. My deadlines were self-imposed and easy to ignore in the face of a sick kid or a bleary-eyed day.
And yet writing a novel filled me with self-doubt, often for weeks. My fear of failure and my actual failure broke my heart. At times, I was so distracted by my book that I wasn’t paying attention to my baby, not noticing his fleeting babyhood. And while I tried to use the book to process my own fears of unpredictable things, life found me.
One of the characters in Kickdown
struggles with a series of miscarriages. While trying to get pregnant for the second time, years after I had written those scenes, I had two miscarriages. From the first draft, the book has always opened with two sisters returning to their family’s ranch after their Dad’s sudden death from cancer. Somewhere in the third or fourth rewrite, my own dad was diagnosed with cancer. All three main characters in the novel have become strangers to themselves, their old answers have failed them; as a new mother, in a haze of breastfeeding and sleep deprivation, I similarly feared that I had lost the map to any known future. Simply writing about my fears did nothing to prevent them from becoming real.
I thought I could write a book and decide what happened to my characters; I saw myself as a grand puppet master. Even that idea crumbled. It was not something that I as a skeptical reporter could have anticipated: that along the way the characters became real to me. I had to listen to them, to pay attention to how they might respond to their lives, before I could finish the book.
It’s been seven years since I finished the first draft of Kickdown
; yet life for those who live near oil and gas wells remains fraught with hardship. I’m back to reporting again and in June I traveled on assignment to the Navajo Nation. There I met with a group of people who say their water is now yellow some days, that the air that used to be sweet is now stinky, that they worry about their grandchildren’s health. I listened and took notes. I breathed their air and got an immediate headache. Then I left. At home in Portland, my family nearby, clean water pouring from the tap, I tried to write an article that did what novels do: make the reader feel something, though I am not sure I succeeded. It is too easy for those of us who still believe that we are in control of where and how we live, who live in urban places removed from the landscape that feeds and powers us, to read about the threads of the world beyond view and then, simply, put down the article, or shut the book.
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, an award-winning journalist, has been writing about the rural West for nearly 20 years. Her journalism, for which she has won the Hillman Prize and an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship, has appeared in such publications as Mother Jones, High Country News, The Nation
, and Salon.com. Kickdown
, shortlisted for the PEN/Bellwether Prize, is her first novel. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two young sons.