Bad Advice Wednesday: Extract Raw Materials!

categories: Cocktail Hour


             Yesterday I flew from North Carolina over the Rockies and my new favorite city, Salt Lake.  The snow cover in the mountains was weak, which might spell bad news for next summer’s fires, but visually it was stunning as we crossed from Colorado into Utah.  I stared down at alternating streaks of white snow and red sandstone—that red which always does something to me inside, something good—with rivers, first the White and then the Green, carving snake-like through the landscape.  A three hour drive east from Salt Lake and here I am back in Vernal, the town where I spent some time this summer and where I flew the path marked on the map to your right.  (Thanks to Ecoflight for the flight and Steve and Ray of SUWA for the map.)

            This summer I charged into town, hit the Dinosaur Brew Haus, met a few river rafters and frackers and anti-frackers all in one night.  Part of my working method is essentially this: A man walked into a bar.  The young whippersnapper over at might have criticized me for drinking too much in my pages but, be that as it may, I find drinking beer with the locals an essential part of taking the temperature of a place. Coffee helps, too, and the next morning I talked to everybody I could at my hotel, at the diner where I ate, and at the Chamber of Commerce.  My plan is usually to have no plan.  As with writing, I make a lot of lists, and then I throw them out and just trust my instincts.  Today’s bad advice is not to do as I do but to evolve your own method of going to a place and learning about it.  These places, I keep telling my students, tend to be a lot more interesting, and certainly more surprising, than our own minds. You don’t need to use beer as your social lubricant: maybe sipping green tea and being a wallflower, eavesdropping, is what works for you. But get out there into the world. 

            Of course I am not just here to visit, not just a tourist.  I am here to make something out of my visit.  The visit then is raw material, and my job, much like the oil workers I am interviewing, is to extract raw material. My tools are slightly different than theirs: journal, micorcassete recorder, camera, a sometimes unreliable brain. Here in Vernal I am actually double dipping: I am writing a story on fracking for OnEarth magazine (due Decemeber 10th—yikes!) and also gathering notes for a chapter on boomers and stickers for Properly Wild, my Abbey-Stegner book.  So like my fellow workers (I can hear them right now through the walls of my Econolodge room, getting up and heading out to their trucks right now) I sleep less and work harder while I’m on the job. It’s tiring but fun, lots of adrenaline pumping.  Last night I returned to the Dinosaur Brew Haus, and, tired from fourteen hours of travel and a little let down that the guy I was supposed to interview couldn’t meet that night, I decided to have a quick dinner and crash. But that was before a guy named Rich came in.  Rich is a former ski instructor who now works in the oil fields both driving rigs and instructing workers how to drive ATVS.  We talked for a long time, mostly he talked and I listened while deciding that it would be okay afterr all to order one or two Hop Risings IPAs, and by the time he was done I had learned not just a decent chunk of his life story but the fact that tomorrow–today that is–is his day off.  And so it turns out that Rich and I are going to meet in about three hours so that we can show me how to drive an ATV.  I’ve been critical of the machines so the least I can do is try to understand the appeal.  In short: more raw material.

       Below I’ll paste some material from the summer I happen to have on my computer.  I’m sure I’ll send up using it all in one way or another:




























  1. Rahul Dave writes:

    Nice piece! (Sorry for the lack of comments recently…been in India). Isnt it obvious to the person you are talking to (like in this case) that you are a green leftie? (:-)) Or do you hide that? Do you find that people open up despite political leanings?

    In bars in Cambridge, MA I get the usually reserved New Englanders to open up by professing republican leanings….:-)

    • dave writes:

      Welcome back. Thought you had left us forever! Nope, I admit and joke about my leftiness and now point to Ryan Lambert, the conservative but environmental character in Tarball.

      • Rahul Dave writes:

        No ways! I enjoy this site too much :-). And eagerly await the next book…

        Still in India, until early Jan. The environmental situation is an utter disaster here, everything sacrificed on the altar of GDP growth. The social justice situation even worse, making me feel like joining Maoists fighting to save their forests from bauxite mining… I think, Abbey might approve.

        You must be one hell of a good listener!

  2. john lane writes:

    I just realized looking at yr notes that I don’t ever take notes when I’m in the field. I’m always writing complete sentences, writing “the narrative” even as I take notes. Good insight for me!

  3. Michelle Gluch writes:

    Dear Dave,

    I don’t know which whippersnapper gave you a bad time about your drinking but “taking the temperature” of a place is essential to a good story. I also employ this temp taking method. The social lubricant often eases the nerves of the local too, making him/her more talkative and comfortable. I’m glad to see that you are covering this issue. I can’t wait to read the article. And, if you have time I highly recommend Dinosaur National Monument–great fuel too.