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Coal from where I came from

Jun 19, 2013 - By Chris Peck

You don't live down South without air conditioning, and there is no air conditioning without Wyoming coal.

At night, 1,000 miles from my hometown, I hear Wyoming coal.

The trains rumble through Memphis steady and continuous -- a heavy rain of rails and rolling stock.

Few people in Memphis connect those sounds and that place.

When you live in a city far away from Wyoming, a city where many people have never ventured across the Mississippi River Bridge to Arkansas, much less traversed a time zone or elevated to an alpine mountain climate, there is only a vague idea of Wyoming.

Dick Cheney. Right?

Oh, and somebody's uncle visited Yellowstone National Park. He liked it, but it was a long drive.

The men who painted my house couldn't find Wyoming on the map. I asked them.

But the BNSF coal trains find Memphis every week.

From the Black Thunder Mine, and the Rawhide and the Buckskin, they pick up the tons of rich, low-sulfur coal and ship it east and south to the power plants that make Memphis habitable in summer when the temperature hits 90 and the humidity follows.

You don't live in the South without air conditioning.

And there is no air conditioning without Wyoming coal.

So at night, in my air-conditioned bed, as the cicadas screech and the air hangs heavy with magnolia perfume, I hear the trains laboring slow with Wyoming coal.

And it reminds me of what it's like to be a cowboy in Memphis.

To be someone from another place. A drier landscape, a place without climbing vines, and creeping cottonmouths.

I'm content where I live now.

My children are nearby. I have a good job. And the idea of walking around outside in shorts on New Year's Day grows on you over the years.

But you never forget where you came from.

Even if the places you end up are good and fun and challenging in all the ways men believe they need to be challenged, you don't get the smell of sage out of your nostrils.

At night, you remember where you started out.

The stars so thick on the edge of Riverton that when you looked up it was more like a kid's drawing that God's creation.

The rolling thunder in the Wind River Mountains, flashing heat lightning in July but leaving the ground thirsting for what it would take to grow a tree.

You remember the dark. And the quiet. And the people.

It takes a special breed to thrive in Wyoming. Always has.

In Wyoming, you don't think twice about a 3-hour drive to see the relatives. Or think it unusual to listen to the Denver Broncos on satellite radio as you look out the passenger side window at the sight of pronghorn antelope near the perfectly paved roads -- paid for by coal revenues.

Yeah, it's mostly conservative, but also live and let live. It's small talk about how you advised your sons and nephews to check out whether they are hiring in the mines.

I visited the mines with my dad, Bob Peck, back when he was young and starting his newspaper. He decided readers and advertisers needed a mining edition. So every spring he packed us up and we drove hither and yon -- looking at the big tires on trucks, taking pictures of prospectors who bounced across the sagebrush hoping for jackpot, gaping to giant holes in the ground.

He liked all that, so I liked it all, too.

As a kid, you are convinced the world is like your hometown -- certain that everybody owns a pair of boots, a pickup and likes to watch and the Fremont County Fair Parade.

As a kid, I'd never heard of Memphis.

Elvis. Right?

And somebody went there for the Liberty Bowl football game.

Eventually, you learn your hometown is just a dot on the map.

Ditto for the other places you go in your quest for a career, a life and a journey.

Who hasn't stared at the ceiling late at night wondering how all the dots connect?

With hope and nostalgia, free of Alzheimer's yet not fully recalling, we are wired to never forget the place where we began.

I remember when I hear the Wyoming coal trains at night.

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Editor's note: Chris Peck recently retired as editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.

He is now associate editor of The Ranger.

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