Originally published January 21, 2021
A preamble, then we’ll amble: I’ve had what I consider to be four careers, and they’ve lain together haphazardly, overlapping in some ways and standing free in others. I was a newspaperman before I was a novelist, then I was both of those things together, then I ditched the newspaper life while I kept writing and started freelancing, then I became a particular kind of pipeline worker (1) while writing and freelancing, then I returned to journalism, this time on the digital side, while I kept writing and freelancing and occasionally pipelining.
I point all of this out not to build a résumé—there’s been quite enough of that, thank you—but instead to get at something I’ve realized about myself only in the past few years: I’m happier when I’m busy on several fronts. I’m less likely to be thrown by life’s intrusions, I feel more a part of the existence I’ve been granted, my energy level stays up, my mind remains limber.
It’s good to know yourself and your peculiarities. Beats the alternative, anyway.
When I left print journalism in 2013, it was entirely a function of opportunity and sloth. I was making more money writing fiction than I was building newspapers on the swing shift, and I had to work a lot more doggedly in the office for that lesser recompense. I granted myself a release and the gift of laziness.
But here’s the thing: After twenty-five years’ worth of having somewhere to be five nights a week, I quickly grew bored with all of my wonderful freedom. That’s when I became a pipeliner. And that’s where we’re going today: into the finer details of a job that gets done while its doer hides in plain sight.
As the pipeline flows, it’s a shade over 330 miles from a certain launch station in east-central Missouri to a certain receive valve in northeastern Oklahoma (2). That’s line flow. If you’re a pig tracker—and I was, and I am—you’re confined to surface roads, so the distance is considerably longer.
My first multi-day tracking job, back in 2015, covered this distance at the robust rate of three miles per hour. You can do the math, right? That’s 110 hours from the time the pig—the pipeline tool—is put into the system and sent downstream until it is received on the other end. Further math brings that 110 hours to four and a half days.
After a pig is launched, there must be twenty-four-hour coverage of its underground movements until it arrives at the receive valve. This is where the pig tracker comes in. This person drives to pre-determined places where the pipeline crosses the surface roads and, using an array of sensory tools, takes the measure of the pig’s progress—how fast it’s traveling, how long it took to cover the distance from the previous checkpoint to the current one, when it should arrive at the next crossing, and so on. On the crew I was on, we worked in two shifts, day (noon to midnight) and night (midnight to noon).
I worked nights that week. The experience struck me as an inversion of reality, casting me almost into a dreamlike state for the entirety of the week, rather like the one Alaska visitors sometimes experience when they travel there during the summer solstice (3). If not for an intricate series of alarms on my smartphone, I would have lost all sense of time (4). More than once, I lost touch with the day I was in, snoozing (or trying to) in the daylight hours and being active while the world around me slept. I explored frontiers of exhaustion I’ve not yet revisited, even as I’ve done dozens of jobs since.
I also tumbled irretrievably into love not just with the work—which isn’t terribly strenuous and is done easily enough if you can run a basic suite of software—but also with the intrinsic perks of it.
My friend and best man Jim Thomsen found his way into both fiction writing and freelancing at about the same time I did and, like me, made the transition after a long career in print journalism. We’ve had a lot to bond over during these years of our friendship, and of the many things he’s said that I agree with, this one stands out for its perspicacity: Writers have overdeveloped interior lives.
And let me tell you, pig tracking is an orgy of indulgence for someone who lives largely within the confines of his own thoughts.
First, there’s the silent solitude. It doesn’t begin and end. It begins, it endures, then it’s interrupted by a passage of the pig, then it’s engaged again, then it endures some more, then it’s interrupted again. And so on. On my first full night of this particular job, my partner and I had thirty passes, covering our twelve hours on shift, as we went leapfrogging down the line. That’s a lot of sitting around and waiting for the pig to pass by. That’s a whole lot of exploring your own notions about a whole lot of things.
Second, there’s the way the hours flow one into the next. “Night shift” is a bit of a misnomer, because by the time you join the line at midnight, night is already well along and cruising hard toward daybreak. When you’re alert—senses attenuated, your eyes adjusted to the darkness, your skin a prickle—at a time when most everything else slumbers, you notice a lot of things you might otherwise miss. How much noise you make just walking around in the dark (5). The rhythm of your own breathing. The spin of the earth, as the moon moves around you and then cedes to the sun. The migrations of nocturnal animals. The fullness of the sunrise, both the actual unveiling and those final minutes of darkness that trickle into it. How the hours beyond the dawn feel a little like they did after senior prom, when you’d stayed up for hours and emerged fuzzy-headed into the light. The only difference is that you’re wearing a yellow safety vest instead of a cummerbund.
I found a lot of latitude to go deep on the things that sat in my head. That time alone was a great gift, an opportunity to noodle out some story I was working on, to reconsider some past encounter, to perhaps even reach out in the wee hours and offer amends to someone with whom I was at loggerheads. My wife, then my girlfriend, and I were a year out from our wedding when that job occurred, living across the country from each other and working steadily toward merging our lives. I had a lot of time to envision the shape of the days that were coming our way.
Some people go deep into the backcountry to do their thinking. I’ve managed to find my solitude along fencelines in Missouri and Kansas and Oklahoma (6).
The worst part is the first couple of hours after a night shift ends. The principle of reporting to or disengaging from that kind of work goes something like this: Save the long drives for the daytime. So if your shift ends at noon, you have to calculate where the pig is going to be twelve hours on and go find a hotel room close to that spot, so you can quickly get back to it. It’s both art and science, anticipation merged with the variables of time, speed, and distance.
On that job, I slept in Marshall, Missouri, and Harrisonville, Missouri, and Iola, Kansas, and Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Every one of them was a long drive, fifty-plus miles, from where my shift ended. The sun is up, the day is in full, and you’re driving into it while trying to fight off exhaustion. You get headachy. You get to your hotel and maybe they’re not ready for you, because, you know, check-in is at 3 p.m., and that’s far too late—by then, you’ll want to be deep into the REMs. So you beg and you plead, and if you’re lucky, they’ll finally give you a room. You shower, then you eat wherever you can, because you really ought to eat something, and you do not want to turn on that TV, believe me, because you’ll never get all the way down into the best sleep if you do that. And sometimes you flip it on anyway and the news of the day gets the attention you should be giving to your pillow.
The most tired I’ve ever been, in the confines of a single day, happened about fifteen years ago, on a trip with my first wife before she became my first wife. We drove from Billings to Yellowstone National Park and all through it, then came on home. Fourteen hours, and I did all the driving, except the last thirty miles, when I told her, in all seriousness, that I could see dinosaurs running alongside the road. She rightly asked me to pull over so she could take the wheel.
I never saw dinosaurs on a pigging job, nor did I ever see bedsprings in the trees (7). The weariness swallows you in a different way out there. After the Yellowstone trip, I slept for one night and was subsequently fine. During a five-day pigging trip while on the night shift (8), your compromised sleep rolls over from one day to the next, and each round, you’re just a little more punchy. It’s a weird duality, though, because the sluggishness exists outside the job—I didn’t have the bandwidth for answering personal emails or undertaking complicated phone conversations, but in the narrow scope of tracking the pig, keeping the records, staying on top of where it was and where it would be, I felt ever sharp. It’s a strange thing to live in immediate clarity but to feel the mushiness and see the slow-motion unfolding of everything else just beyond your frame of vision.
And here’s a kick: I love the night shift. I vastly prefer it to the more normal cycle of the day shift. The dreamlike state beckons me, I think, because I come by it honestly. Away from the pipeline, I’d have to indulge in alcohol or some other powerful drug to feel the same sensation, and I’m not indulgent in those ways. Time and motion and the absence of light achieve the same state at a much lesser cost.
A new novel came out this year, my first solo effort since 2017. It’s titled And It Will Be a Beautiful Life, and at its center is a man named Max Wendt. He’s a pig tracker. It was probably inevitable that this sliver of my working life, something I initially undertook to fend off boredom, would find its way into fiction, but you’ll just have to trust me that I didn’t become a pig tracker so I could write about a pig tracker (9).
The great Larry Watson, interviewed in Montana Quarterly several issues back, said something that sent me into a fit of fervent nodding. “I write from memory, not observation,” he said. “Yet my memories are formed by observations, and then memory and imagination distort those observations into something useful for fiction and something that’s also truthful in its own way.”
Mr. Watson’s words are an eloquent cousin of a cruder equation I’ve often sketched out: memory + experience + imagination = fiction.
The memories and experiences (and distorted observations, as Mr. Watson points out) of being a pig tracker inform the character of Max Wendt. But my life on the pipeline is not his. More important, his life off the pipeline is not mine.
One of the great and worthwhile struggles of this existence is figuring out how to balance who we are and what we do and finding a way to stow the overlap. It’s hard to be good at what you do if it’s not also, at least to some extent, what you are. And yet, it’s so easy to lose yourself inside what you do to the point that you lose touch with who you are.
That, I think, is the central struggle of Max Wendt. He’s a pig tracker. It’s what he does and how he sees himself, and much to his consternation, it turns out to be not nearly enough.
I am not him, and he is not me, but I get it, man. I do.
(1) — Pig tracker. It doesn’t dazzle on a business card, which is OK, because not many pig trackers have business cards.
(2) — I don’t talk about the companies for which I do work, for obvious reasons. I will say, though, that the job of a pig tracker exists on the safety end of things, and even if you’re anti-pipeline, you ought to be glad someone is doing that work. The pipelines are out there. Do a Google image search for “U.S. pipeline map” and behold the tangle.
(3) — People mow their lawns at midnight. It’s wild.
(4) — The alarms are to ensure ongoing communication with the pipeline control system. You lose track of time out there. An alarm reminds you to call in and let the engineers know where you are.
(5) — And yet, there’s no fear. At least, I’ve never experienced it. I’ve been careful not to wake up folks in nearby farmhouses, and I’ve certainly been startled (a dog running loose, raccoon hunters tramping out of the woods, even a bear crashing through the brush), but I am not afraid of walking into the dark.
(6) — And Michigan and Ohio and New York and Illinois and Indiana and Minnesota and Wisconsin and North Dakota. I’ve been everywhere, man.
(7) — A musher I knew in Alaska, Tim Osmar, talked about seeing mattresses in the trees toward the end of the Iditarod one year. He needed some sleep.
(8) — The day shift, on the other hand, is a cinch. Easy to bag eight hours of sleep. Easy to take your breakfast at the usual time. Boring, if you ask me.
(9) — Who else are you going to believe? I’m the only one who knows.
Originally published January 12, 2021
In September 2019, my wife and I came to a decision we had been nearing at different speeds and while balancing factors that both aligned and diverged: We would put our house in Boothbay, Maine, up for sale and return to Billings, Montana, the city we had left in late May 2018. We’d had a short, but sufficient, tenure in Maine and found it wanting in terms of our day-to-day life. Or, perhaps, we were the lacking ones and simply didn’t have what it takes to live there contentedly.
Whatever the case, after several months of disharmony prompted by a move that just hadn’t worked out, we stood on common ground: We would end the Maine portion of our life together and haul ourselves and our pets and our stuff (and my father and his dog) back to Montana.
Let me cut to the chase here: It has been a good decision, the proper one. We are relieved to be back in the house in Montana that we couldn’t sell in the first half of 2018 (a house that now would be plucked up almost instantaneously for a price that would subsequently lock us out of the market; time is weird, and so are the unforeseen consequences of a pandemic). With so much in flux and uncertain—the arc of the coronavirus, when we might see loved ones again, the republic itself—we check in with each other from time to time: Is everything still good? Are we still OK with this decision we’ve made? The answers are yes, right down the line.
Nonetheless, my thoughts often do wind back fifteen months to that decision, and to the subsequent six-month interregnum between the listing and what eventually followed: the purchase contract and the closing and the loadout. I ponder how freeing it was to simply commit to a course of action, how calm we were after the decision was made, how we never got over-eager or frustrated as we waited for a buyer to fall in love with our little Cape house. And how, in a quite unlikely and unexpected way, I made my peace with Maine on the long fadeout.
This is about that last part, in particular.
I wrote about this for the Boothbay Register while we were still in Maine, so here’s the TL;DR version: The adoption of our miniature dachshund, Fretless, was followed shortly by my doctor’s admonition that I was approaching fifty and needed to exercise a good bit more than I had been. His final words on the subject: “Make Maine your playground. Take that dog with you.”
Never let it be said that I can’t obey orders. The Boothbay Region Land Trust is the steward for twenty-six preserves on the peninsula, and while Fretless and I didn’t get to all of them, we made frequent use of the ones nearest us. I fell deeply in love with this particular aspect of Maine, and while it alone was not enough to offset all of the factors compelling me (and us) back to Montana, the love was and is real and deep and true. Those coastal rivers are breathtaking. I was enchanted by how easily I could walk away from my car at a trailhead and disappear into a stillness and a silence that were not at all intimidating. I could hear my breath and my heartbeat and Fretless’ little steps in the woods. It hard-bonded us, making him my faithful companion and me his trusted doggie dad. At the outset of our relationship, we needed what those walks together gave us.
It’s different now, here in our part of Montana. The most easily accessible trail in our neighborhood is a concrete suburban path we can walk out our door and join. Or I can pitch Fretless into the car and take a short drive to Lake Elmo State Park, where there’s a manmade reservoir featuring a perfectly adequate, perfectly flat trail looping around the water. The prescribed exercise is good, and Fretless has no complaints, but that slip into the silence of my own head doesn’t really happen here. There’s more sky than scenery, an inversion of the Maine experience, and we’re never far away from the sight of houses and the sound of cars and the scents of an encroaching small city. It’s not lesser, necessarily. Just … different.
And when our walk is through, we return to the car and to our house and to the contentedness we’ve found here after nearly two years away. That part, certainly, is a considerable improvement.
So what’s the difference here? Why was one place home and the other wasn’t, and why did we have to leave to find this out?
As much as I wish I could, I don’t think I could tabulate it on a worksheet.
So much of what works or doesn’t work in our lives—I’m talking jobs, relationships, what we do, where we go, where we live—comes down to timing and current circumstance. Once we learn to account for the variable of timing, it’s easier to let go of the things that don’t happen the way they might if we had full control—or any control—over the essential details. It also neutralizes the hard sells of commerce and the trafficking of romantic tropes. You learn to appreciate circumstantial convergences. You also learn to discount the notion of magic when timing can adequately carry the explanation.
We moved to Maine and wanted to make it home. We had loved it from afar, and we had spent time there before the move, and we thought we and it would be a match. We were not. There were outside factors that augured against our really settling in. We’d had some income loss that was harder to replace there. My father, with whom I have a loving but often fraught relationship, came with us and moved into a basement apartment in the house we bought, and his presence in such proximity to us had a negative effect on the life we tried to live independent of him. We moved to a county that trended quite a bit older than we are, full of nice people who were insular and embedded into their own patterns. Maine was easy to move to and hard to become a part of, in our experience, but that, too, is a matter of timing. Does the picture come out differently if it had been just the two of us and we’d picked a house in Portland, where there are more people and more outlets for our interests? Perhaps. I don’t know. That time has passed.
Or maybe it’s coming around and we just can’t see it yet.
Or perhaps we’ll someday find a place we call home somewhere else. Long Island, where Elisa grew up. Texas, where I grew up. Virginia. North Carolina. North Dakota (that would be a surprise, but hey, whatever). Or perhaps, having taken our opportunity to return to Montana, we’re in the place where we’ll stay until we return to stardust. I would be more than OK with that.
Time will tell. One way or another.
A few weeks ago, as Fretless and I completed our lap around Lake Elmo, we approached a massive flock of Canada geese lazing on the shore. Fretless, the world’s most ironically named dog, one frightened of a melting pile of snow, strained just a little at the end of the leash, curious about these creatures he was encountering for the first time. He wasn’t threatening, yet the geese seemed to have a line, and we crossed it. They took briefly to the air in a mighty thumping of wings. They settled a few yards out in the water and scolded us for the intrusion.
It wasn’t quite the majesty Fretless and I often enjoyed in the last place we lived. But it would be unseemly to be anything less than grateful for our chance to go there and take in a sliver of a much more complete picture. I made our apologies to the ruffled geese, and we walked the short distance to the car, and we loaded up.
Five minutes later, we were home.
Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.