When lives run on oil
ALEXANDRA FULLER is driving south from Jackson Hole toward Pinedale to visit the oil patch where 25-year-old Colton Bryant, fourth generation Wyoming oil worker and the subject of Fuller’s “The Legend of Colton H. Bryant” (Penguin Press: 204 pp., $23.95) worked and died. On Valentine’s Day night 2006, Bryant fell 26 feet from the catwalk around an oil well’s conductor pipe. She is listening to Neil Diamond singing “Forever in Blue Jeans,” one of Bryant’s favorite songs. “Who the hell listens to Neil Diamond?” Fuller asks, turning it up to hear the lyrics: “Money talks, but it can’t sing and dance.”
Money talks pretty loudly in this part of the country. In the past 10 years, oil and natural gas have been pumped out of the ground here at breakneck speed. Rigs that used to be 80 acres apart are now often less than five. Roads are lined with dead animals: mule deer, pronghorn sheep, antelope, all hit by trucks heading in and out of production areas around the clock. Communities have spread to accommodate workers, 60% of them from out of state. Groups of trailers, their windows covered in foil to keep out the light, throw a metallic glare across the Mad Max landscape.
It is not uncommon for a writer to be inhabited by her characters, but Fuller has quite a case. Bryant was a motor hand, employed by the Patterson-UTI Drilling Co. on the Mesa Oil Field, rig 455. Fuller never met him, but re-creating him has dragged her into a world of greed and power and destruction and beauty. Fuller, who is 38, married with three children, calls Bryant “the boy.” Not every night, but some nights, she leaves a space in her bed for him. It’s not the usual kind of love, but it’s one kind.
Fuller’s first book, “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” was a memoir of growing up in Rhodesia. Her next, “Scribbling the Cat,” evoked her travels with a Rhodesian ex-mercenary in Africa. “The Legend of Colton H. Bryant” is the leanest of the three. It is a book more channeled than written, sparse and beautiful.
“I feel like a whole different person did each of these books,” she says. If K, the soldier in “Scribbling the Cat,” bubbled up from the heart of darkness, Bryant is the flip side of the coin. “This boy got inside my soul,” Fuller acknowledges. “I felt embodied by him.”
Wyoming, the author’s home since 1994, reminds her of white Rhodesia, an association with pros and cons. The self-reliance and self-containment are familiar to Fuller, as are the often-cavalier attitudes toward safety and health. Even after Bryant died on a rig with questionable safety standards, his father, Bill, still works for the oil companies and is adamant in his loyalty. “Oil and gas put food on the table,” he told Fuller, who has heard many parents proclaim they’d rather have their boys die on oil rigs than in Iraq.
In 2004, Fuller wrote a piece for the New Yorker about the crystal methamphetamine epidemic in Wyoming’s Sublette County and its correlation with oil and natural gas production. After she read Bryant’s obituary, she called his parents, who agreed to speak with her.
“I had just had a baby,” Fuller says, “and I cried the whole way through the interview. Bill reminds me of my father.”
Fuller is not a huge fan of journalistic reserve. She pieced Bryant together using stories from friends and family, but love is the glue that holds all that together. His blue eyes; the time he sold rocks to make money. “The stories people told me were the stories I needed,” she says. Her goal was to fix a picture of Bryant, of his soul. “In Africa,” she says, “dead people talk to the living. This was the most spiritual thing I’ve ever written. It was as if Colton had lived for a book.”
Oil and gas companies have reported 89 industry-related deaths in Wyoming since 2000, a number that almost no one finds believable. “We keep throwing heartbeats at these rigs,” says John Fandeck, a local ranch hand who has worked for both the oil companies and Wyoming Game and Fish. “Young guys think working on a drilling rig is sexy, like being a test pilot.”
When someone dies in an industrial accident, the state produces a “fatality narrative.” Bryant’s fatality narrative is a pretty dry piece of work. Date and time of accident and notification are duly noted. Up in the right-hand corner, in a thin chicken scrawl, are the letters “Wyo.” These letters are the only evidence that a human being has even laid eyes on the document. Perhaps they were written by Fuller as she pored over documents and interviewed family members and otherwise pursued her deep need to understand the death of a young man she never met.
‘Didn’t want to get old’
BACK IN Pinedale, Fuller meets Bryant’s best friend, Jake for coffee. Jake (who is referred to in the book by only first name, possibly to protect him from retribution) works for the oil companies and is proud of what he does. He is convinced that Bryant knew his life would be short and that he was at least partially responsible for his own death because he was not wearing a safety harness. “Colton didn’t want to get old,” he says. “He lived every day as if it would be his last. Drilling wasn’t about money for him. It was about being like his dad.”
The fact that Bryant was not wearing a safety harness the night he fell is painful for everyone concerned. But his friends and family seem to understand. Harder to understand is the lack of a railing around the catwalk.
Jake remembers spending that Valentine’s Day evening at home with his wife and feeling that something wasn’t right. The couple heard the helicopters on the oil patch, got a call from a mutual friend and raced to the clinic in Pinedale, then to the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City, where Bryant died at 2:50 a.m.
“His death made me look at my own life, working 90 hours a week, missing so much of my life,” Jake says. Like most people in this business, he’s had brushes with death; sour gas, supervisors not paying attention. “It’s a way of life. Accidents are inevitable. Colton knew he was required to have fall protection, especially on an icy deck. There should have been handrails.”
According to Jake, Patterson-UTI’s bedside manner left much to be desired. The company’s representative appeared at the hospital, introduced himself and said, “I can’t believe it. I’ve been up twenty-four hours with another accident and now I got to deal with this bullshit.”
His request for a drug test was met with refusal. Bryant never drank or did drugs, but, Jake says, “if there’s one thing these companies are good at, it’s drug testing.” Jake has been tested nine times in the last year alone.
Jake says that what made him trust Fuller was her honesty. “I don’t know why I’m here,” she said when she first met him. “Something makes me want to write about your friend. Something greater than you and me.”
That something -- the devastation of the American West in the name of greed -- has led many Western writers toward activism. Annie Proulx, who lives in Wyoming, has just completed a commemoration of the state’s Red Desert, 6 million acres threatened by oil and gas developers, to accompany a book of photographs by Martin Stupich.
“Many tries for conservation by people who love the place have come and gone over the decades,” she writes, “defeated by the prevailing attitude of ‘show me the money,’ by the congressional cold shoulder, by lack of knowledge of what is in that high desert, by the complex mixture of politics and culture, and by the momentum of our times, inexorably propelled by shifting global histories, which, like massive continental plates, have thrust us into the present.”
And yet, says Terry Tempest Williams, who teaches at the University of Wyoming and has written for decades about the local landscape, there is a new sense of desperation on the part of oil executives and local politicians.
At a recent reading, a representative from state Sen. Kit Jennings’ office, wearing a belt buckle with an oil rig in bas-relief, told Williams he didn’t appreciate the way she talked about the “rape of the land,” and threatened to speak with University of Wyoming President Tom Buchanan. Several days later, Buchanan told her he’d received a call, but her job was not at risk.
Proulx and Williams are not the only writers who have felt compelled in the last decade to take a stand. Ther’s also Rick Bass, Pam Houston and John Nichols. In that time almost a quarter of the land in Wyoming -- some of it critical habitat -- has been leased to oil companies.
As for Fuller, she understands how difficult it is for people whose livelihoods are threatened to speak out. After Patterson-UTI offered Bryant’s family $7,000 in compensation, his mother, Kaylee, told them, “My son is worth more than $7,000.” In the end, though, the family took the money. “These are companies,” Fuller says, “that make over $6 million per well.”
That’s where the writers come in. “There’s only so much they can take away from us writers,” Fuller says. “Precisely because we’re not in it for the money.”
Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.