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.
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.