“Bello, what’s an Orange Cloud and why should we not come in contact with one?” Things around us felt strange. Vast, open Thunder Basin Grasslands had suddenly shifted, turning our cross country road trip into a Lee Child novel. Jack Reacher would be thumbing a ride any second now. Except this was Wyoming, not 61 Hours.
We had come to the northeast corner of Wyoming to photograph a barren, beautiful stretch of land. Driving rain had other plans and kept us moving. After nearly an hour, we realized, we’d seen no one else. Only oil drills, cows and seemingly sporadic snow fences.
Like the first drop of rain, we spotted a pickup. One turned to many. Our new car, felt conspicuous. A sedan riding low, against a the tide of huge, dirty pickups. Mining? We guessed. That’s when I saw it, the Orange Cloud warning sign.
Had we taken a wrong turn?
No, we hadn’t. We were just deep into America’s least populated state, coming up on Black Thunder Mine. Like bleachers, black land stair stepped both sides of the road ahead.
Giant haul trucks weaved in and out of view. The worlds largest dragline excavator appeared monolithic working the world’s largest coal deposit. Our overactive imaginations turned us into Sean Connery and Ursula Andress in 1962’s Dr. No. “Dun, da, da, da, dun, dun, dun, dun, da, da, da, dun, dun, dun, DADA, dada.”
Enjoying the oddity of our road trip, we continued on to Wright, Wyoming. Population 1,852. Only later with research, I discovered those Orange Cloud warning signs were no laughing matter.
“Earth-shattering explosions are a fact of life in northeast Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Each week millions of pounds of explosives are detonated as the basin’s 17 open-pit mines rearrange thick layers of earth and extract the coal beneath. Sometimes blasting also creates clouds of nitrogen oxide gases.” Apparently “the orange color indicates a high concentration of nitrogen oxides, including nitrogen dioxide. When inhaled, nitrogen dioxide becomes nitric acid as it encounters moisture in the lungs. Exposure to the gas can cause respiratory problems, lung damage and even result in death. ” — High Country News ’99 Article
Thing is, with only 584,153 residents, you’re bound to have corners that are unknown, unexplored or unheard of, outside the state.
Parts of Wyoming are extremely remote. You can pass through them at 80mph chasing a cell signal. Parts are freakin’ beautiful. Yes, there are the obvious. Yellowstone and Gran Tetons National Parks bring in nearly 6 million tourists each year.
Yet there is a lot of space in between that’s worth more than a passing glance. Driving through felt like discovering a big secret, a coverup to corral the tourists and keep them away from this gently, rolling space.
That’s what I love most about road trips, learning more. Sure flying is faster but then those Orange Cloud and Buford, population 1 signs are hard to see.
Find out more about Powder River Basin and what determines Wyoming’s future.