Thursday, March 31, 2011


In my first summer of college, I did what most students do that first summer and went to the student employment center. I noticed a job advertisement requiring the ability to ride a motorcycle. "Must be able to ride a motorcycle," it said. Now, outside the rarified world of professional motor sports, I was not too aware of many jobs that would pay anyone to ride a motorcycle. This seemed a job that was, if not impossible, at least highly improbable -- rarified in its own way. I read the advert again. And then again. The words did not change. Amazingly, no one else seemed to note this employment nugget. I pulled the notice and ran.

"Must be able to ride a motorcycle." I had never ridden a motorcycle. But mutually supporting conditions of youth and idiocy convinced me I would be "able" to. In theory. I could ride a bicycle. I had a friend who had a motorcycle. I could drive a stick. Shit, dude, put it all together in your head and you're good to go. I called. Didn't know anything about geology, but sure as shit could I ride. I lied. How hard can it be?  Cerebral synthesis of disparate knowledge and abilities would surely be sufficient, if not for complete mastery, then at least to keep from falling over. At the interview, I met the fellow new recruits and, after introductions and pleasantries, we all went out back to ride "the motorcycle." All of these guys looked like they could ride a motorcycle. Good grief. I was the only one who did not appear to belong to a biker gang. Now what?  Well, just give it a go. I know it in theory. And we all know how well that usually works out.  Fortunately at the time, I did not have much experience with how knowing only theory does or does not "work out."  I could get the clutch thing, I knew I could.

Sweet blessed providence. The subject motorcycle brought out was an odd, undersized 75cc Honda enduro-bike. Clutchless. As in, no clutch. Automatic. Sweet heaven above, this was going to be easy.  And it was.  No problem.  It was really just like riding a bicycle, only easier. I found the weight helped control. Got the job and it was off to the grain-belted steppe of southeast Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan.  Soil sampling is what we were doing.  This small exploration company had developed and patented some technique for analyzing hydrocarbon content in surface soil in order to determine likely deposits -- usually gas -- down below.  Apparently successful and amazingly benign.  Except for us.  We were not benign at all.  And it would soon become apparent just why these small motorcycles were chosen for the task.

We were two teams of three men; one crew boss and two riders. Originally, a notion of the job was that the crew positions would rotate.  Once a rider, always a rider though, for the prospect of sitting in and driving a truck all day long paled next to the glee of bombing around on a motorcycle unfettered by road or law all day long. Be the chief? You mean be the guy who sits in a hot truck on a dusty road, swatting flies, while you guys are bombing around out there? The teams were fixed on day one and with no argument. The riders went out on a gridded survey, running east-west lines on section, half section and quarter section boundaries.  Along the lines, we would collect soil samples every fifth or sometimes every half a mile. At every sample site, we were supposed get off the motor, walk some ten feet away to take the sample, then back. Over and over again. Hours on end. It took no more than a few samples under protocol before drudgery set in, each rider independently arriving at one common, inevitable conclusion: "fuck this."

First and many hand experience suggested that sampling protocol was not followed. Like I said, I might have made the trudge a few times, and just as the rest of humanity is wont, succumbed to the overwhelming temptations of unwitnessed laze: who the hell is gonna know if I get off or do not get off this motorcycle and walk ten feet and take the goddamned soil sample over there? Look at where I am! The barely and the bees and me. No one, that's who.  Was I invested in the results of these tests? Not that I was aw ... uh, no. Mostly, like lazy human assholes would do, we gave into our lazy uninvested human side and just leaned over on the running bike, scooped some dirt, and then blasted off to the next poop scoop, yippee kiyay-in' all the way. In a survey drill down, the grid would be every tenth of a mile. It's silly riding a tenth of mile, more time scooping than moving. No time for yipee kiyay-in' and no speed. Dense grids were not enjoyed by any but those smelling gas.

The teams coordinated deploy and the four riders were dispatched.  And dispatched we were, from all sense of decorum, probity, or consideration.  We were, after all, ripping through fields on motorcycles!  Woo hoo! We tore through fields, dutifully scooping dirt into labeled paper bags on the 0.20 mile, or the 0.50 mile, or the hated tenther matrix.  We hauled our motorcycles under barbed wire fences, slung them over wooden fences, knocked fences over, terrorized cattle, pulled up posts, ripped through newly planted fields, farmers yowling behind us as we holy-shitted our way the hell out of there. The crew bosses were supposed to be out getting permission or warning people or something.  Don't think they did much of that, though. For awhile, we surveyed open pasture, prairie seas of steaming cow shit that are quaintly known as "crown land" in Canada, zooming around cattle and cow pies in various stages of extroverted remediation.  Occasionally, I would take a sample right next to a big wet turd, even plunk a little in there, wondering if that would cause some sort of statistical outlier in the data, get the petro-boys in the lab all wound up.  Got your hydrocarbons, right here sir!  It was early and half-formed fucking with the petroleum industry, though I was not consciously aware that that was what I was doing at the time.  Mostly, I was just being a jackass, albeit with some minor bent toward scientific curiosity about the possible measurement effects of localized volatile organic matter on the hydrocarbon contents of surface soil sampling.  Something like that.  Mostly though, it was just jackass. I feel certain the lab had determined the jackass scale factor. Somebody may have even written a paper: "Measurement Effects of Localized Volatile Organic Matter on the Hydrocarbon Content of Surface Soil and Empirical Determination of the Jackass Scale Factor."

During one of the many dusty sojourns through and around the crops and cows of southern Alberta, picking up dirt, I stumbled upon the remnants of what was likely once a thriving prairie hamlet.  Two elevators appeared to grow out of the surrounding grain.  Near long abandoned rails, the elevators, still in apparent good shape, stood alone. As was standard, the side of the old elevators carried identifying labels: ALBERTA WHEAT POOL BINDLOSS. Bindloss. I wondered what Bindloss might have been like decades ago; a bustling, thriving wheat belt prairie town. There was no apparent reason why such a town and facilities would be abandoned.  Forces unseen. That name has been stuck in my head, has haunted me really, ever since.  Perhaps because it was such a stark image of a bright, sunny, serene doom, an oddly appropriate name: bind the loss, tie it off, walk away.

There were other little places like Bindloss scattered across the landscape, and gridding our way around the fields and pastures, we stumbled upon other notable derelicts: the charming Piapot.  For some time, the two teams were holed up in the then dirt road town of Shaunavon, Sask. It was like living in Dodge, except with trucks. And no petticoats. Fortunately, the awesome job of bombing around on motorcycles in the lovely prairie summer and getting paid for it kept us out of Shaunavon for most of the day.

For five months we literally scoured the lands of the southern Canadian prairie. It was by the end of those summer days, late August, that the job was winding down. At this time of year, the crops are high and dry and ripe, and we were zipping through the last few lines of the final grid. As we happily motored and thrashed our way through the very dry barley, ripe grain and chaff would fly off, hit the motors.  Some of the barley would pop, and popping barley smells surprisingly like popping corn. This, along with combustion exhaust, warm tire rubber, and human sweat, all combined to render an aromatic cocoon not unlike what certain colourful similes might term a "popcorn fart." Indeed, a motorcycle in a ripened barely field may be the only place outside the human gut where such an odor has been successfully synthesized. We bombed through, traces of wild thrashing amidst a vast plain of unwavering golden barley, popcorn fart wafting from our wake. Once in awhile barley stalks and grains and all that barley hair would get stuck on the motor and catch fire. That is an attention grabber. Motorcycles and popcorn and fire in the fields.  We were lucky we didn't set crops ablaze. This would not have sat well with the locals.

But no wildfires commenced. Finished, we all pulled in and parked with the trucks.  On some nameless gravel road somewhere north of Swift Current, we loaded the bikes and sat down on the side of that nameless road and had a beer, or some other, larger number. The gloaming of that last simmering day was a soft and subtle affair between land and sky, a long slow breath of burnt orange.

Which is a very long introduction to why a recent local Texas story perked my attentions.  Texans are rightly fearful of their water supply should the planned extension of the Keystone XL pipeline go through to Port Arthur, Tx.  This pipeline pops up on the business pages, and Energy & Capital Newsletters, on the ball Canadian outfits, but mostly, no one knows of this.  Except the locals who are, or will be, directly impacted.

Like the Keystone pipeline, the planned Keystone XL will carry tar sands oil also from Hardisty, Alberta, but more directly to Steele City, Ks. and thence through Oklahoma and Texas. The Keystone XL line will pipe corrosive bitumen tar sands oil through the United States and is being brought to your locality by the good folks at Bechtel, who are always looking out for what's in America's best energy interest.  No one wants this pipeline to leak. At all. Which means that some are arguing no pipeline. At all.  Texans are starting to stir, and landowners in Oklahoma are challenging the expropriations for the pipeline. Nebraska, too, is concerned, as the pipeline route will span the Ogallala aquifer, a water source for eight surrounding states. The record on pipeline leaks and ruptures is long.  But the Keystone pipeline has already been built, and runs from Hardisty, Ab., to Kansas and Illinois.  Local protests may pop up, but for the most part the pipeline looks like a done deal.  Who knows, though? Protest is in the air these days, despite the usual howling from the business pages about "dumb opposition" to the pipeline.  For it's part, TransCanada offers website visitors testimonials in praise of the wonders of the coming pipeline, testimonials written by the likes of the American Petroleum Institute and various trucking associations.

But regular folk don't trust oil industry executives for the most part.  Not sure why that is, but they don't.  And so what is obviously lacking from TransCanada's sample of testimonials, however, are some salt-of-the-earth letters from salt-of-the-earth folk expressing joy and happiness at the prospects of the Keystone XL pipeline, something along these lines.
Thank you, TransCanada and Bechtel.
Thank you for bringing the warm and friendly technology of oil pipelines to my district and even right next to my house.  I can hardly wait.  Especially for the winter.  I've heard tell that animals will gather near the pipeline to enjoy the ambient warmth provided by the hot, flowing oil.  If this is true, well, this is just great.  Not only will the animals get to enjoy the warmth of the pipeline in the winter, this bounty will be brought directly to me, and without the annoying hassle of heading out into the woods to shoot them.  With the advent of the Keystone XL pipeline, I will soon be able to sit on my porch and mow down wildlife with unbridled abandon, and with all of my many guns.  I am looking forward to this immensely.
Keep up the good work, Bechtel and TransCanada!
Some Dumbass
Like that.  Hell, I'll even volunteer to write more of these for TransCanada.

In looking at a large scale map of the entire pipeline route, I started to take curious about the part of the route through the southwest section of Saskatchewan, it looking close to those old motorized dirt picking grounds.  The TransCanada website ("In business to deliver") kindly provides some nice maps of the Keystone XL pipeline route, and rather detailed and specific they are.

Bindloss is right on the line, "Bindloss South PS" the map says.  Piapot's on there too.  "Piapot PS".  Past Piapot, the pipeline is due to churn and pour its noxious sludge, our dark and blasted energy, right past Shaunavon, Saskatchewan. Serene abandonment will soon be abolished. Canadian tar sands, Middle East turmoil, and the American market have put Bindloss back on the map.


  1. Thanks for sharing details of that chapter of your life. I'll be sending this around to friends and family. The letter to TransCanada and Bechtel - priceless.