Posted by: Cody Coyote | April 23, 2013



Apologies to Charlie Russell, but it is an appropos illustration . Back in winter  late 2009 when the Tea Party Movement took off nationwide after Obama took office in the riptide of the financial meltdown that had begun in September 2008 , a local group of teabaggers  also sprung up. At their first rally held at the bandshell in the city park in Cody on April 15 ” Tax Day ” that year, maybe 500 unique individuals attended. Flags were flying everywhere; six guns were openly strapped to hips ; speaker after speaker railed against Obama and “ Big Gubbamint” ; literature and propaganda fluttered about. One lone protestor, a very brave beautiful young woman named Dominque Cole, stood before them with anti-Tea Party signs.  No harm came to her  that cold day in 2009.
This year, her dissent was not needed. The Big Horn Basin Tea Party held a rally on April 19 , 2013, at the same bandshell in the same city park in Cody.  Almost nobody came After you deducted the five or so media reps there, and subtracted the 30 or so known Tea Party core group, there were maybe five members of the Public-at-large  who drifted through. Here’s a photo of the ” noon rush “


We might conclude that enthusiasm for the tea party movement around Cody has waned somewhat.
This year, the Big Horn Basin Tea Party has taken up the cause of Cindy Hill, the disgraced and demoted Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction who has the honor of being the exclusive target of a serious piece of legislation before the Statehouse last January. Senate File 104—known colloquially as the ” Hill Bill “ was written to   diminish her job description down from being the executive manager of Wyoming’s entire K-12 school system to being just a sitting perfunctory head with almost no actual duties. She was not removed from office, since she was duly elected by the people  to her post.  However, the goals and objectives and funding of the Wyoming education system is determined by law. That means legislators.  the SF 104 ” Hill Bill ” was written to take back those responsibilities from Mr. Hill , who was deemed by the Legislature to be failing in her job performance and was obstructing any attempt to rectify that . The Legislature had repeatedly asked Hill to do a few chores, and she either abrogated those or just plain screwed them up. In a word, or two , she was almost certainly guilty of either  misfeasance or incompetence. Whichever or both , she was not cooperating.  You know it’s bad when they start calling a piece of controversial legislation after you …
Why the Legislature did not go thru a formal Impeachment process, have a trial in the Wyoming Senate, and dismiss her outright is a fair question. That could have been done over the noon hour in Cheyenne during the last Lej session. Instead, they took the long way around with her, retaining her in office but totally dissembling and reconstructing her department in such a way to prevent her from running it , for the most part.

In hindsight, they should have impeached the b_tch.
Cindy Hill addressing the Cody tea party rally  April 19…for all of three minutes.

Cindy Hill is a Tea Party Darling. She’s their girl. In fact , one of the two prime organizers of the Big Horn Basin Tea Party is a slick lawyer with a funny voice from the bean-and-beet fields of Emblem over in Big Horn County a half hour’s drive by BMW sedan from Cody. The BMW 335i sedan whose license plate reads ” SU4U “…i.e. Sue for you . His name is Rob DiLorenzo and he is Cindy Hill’s attorney . Hill filed a lawsuit against Governor Matt Mead for signing SF-104. something she claims he knew better than to do since Matt used to be a U.S. Attorney before he took up the family business of running Wyoming from the Governor’s Mansion in Cheyenne. ( His grandfather was  the late Cliff Hansen , who was both Wyoming’s Governor and a US Senator ).
Your reporter may have his lawsuits crossed here since DiLorenzo has also filed a Libel suit against some Wyoming legislators who recently issued a ” White Paper ” explaining to depth why they felt SF-104 was necessary , to expand on the superficialiaties percieved in press accounts of same. Hill thru her attorney DiLorenzo feel that white paper is libelous., but when asked by your reporter if he had a specific list of allegations about what exactly in said paper ain’t truthful, DiLorenzo could not or would not produce it on paper, preferring to use his trademark verbal  blather response.
Speaking of White Paper, here is a photo of the petition currently being circulated by the BHB teabaggers to qualify a statewide referendum to annull SF-104 by direct vote of the voters .


It will require the gathering and certifying of something like 35,000 voters before it can be placed on the ballot. Judging from the turnout at the Cody teabagger fete, they are not likely going to get there in anyone’s lifetime who’s reading this. An hour and a half into the rally , they had all of two signatures. Everybody else there had already signed.

This grand scheme to keep Cindy Hill on the job and fully restore her duties  to run the state school system as she damn well sees fit without obstruction from the Good Old Boys in the legislature will probably be as successful as Bob Berry’s write-in campaign to defeat Cody’s own Hank Coe for the State Senate seat hereabouts in the November election , after Berry lost to Coe in the Republican primary last August. Coe is the chairman of the Senate education committee and not on Cindy Hill’s Christmas Card mailing list. He led the initiative to get SF-104 passed, which both houses of the Republican-dominated Wyoming Lej did handily.  Was it mentioned that Cindy Hill is a Republican ?  The Good Old Boys of the G.O.P. did not have her back , except to paint a huge red target on it perhaps. Not that they needed a target anymore than a besotted Scotsman needs a target to blast fish in a barrel.
By the mathematical principle of commutation, therefore, the Tea Party does not like Hank Coe, for what they percieve he did to their darling Cindy.
DiLorenzo blathering. He keeps his teeth sharp, too.

If DiLorenzo is the brains of the outfit,  then Bob Berry  is the ring leader of the Big Horn Basin Tea Party. Or maybe the Ringmaster,, since the BHBTP more resembles the Ring-a-ling Brothers Barnum Bunkum and Bailingwire  Circus than a productive political cabal. Especially the part of the circus that is a Clown Act. The Big Horn Basin Tea Party is a clown act still looking for their lost circus… which apparently left town sometime this last winter without telling them. [ Hint: look in Sarasota Florida. That’s where circuses spend the  winter , we hear ]
Bob ” Tex ” Berry and wife Robin.

Berry is apparently contemplating a run against incumbent Cody house representative Sam Krone in 2014. Here we go again. The Tea Party folk will go out of their way to tell you they are not a political party . Except when they are. They run as Republicans, walk like Republicans, quack like Republicans, and even take over local Republican committees. But they are teabaggers in duck’s clothing. Quack!
All Krone has to do to get reelected is pretty much stay sober. It would be helpful if he was seen less at the Silver Dollar Bar and more at other oases or  upscale venues. Your reporter has been to enough political rodeos to know the rough stock events cannot be predicted, therefore he does not wager upon them . Anything can happen at a rodeo. or an election. They are somewhat less scripted than circuses. The voters of Park County will be asked once again if Bob Berry is their man , their preferred representative, their peerless  Bull Duck.
“Fool me once, shame on you . Fool me twice, shame on me. “ the saying goes.  Methinks the 2014 election in Park County Wyoming will be one long duck hunt.
The Bottom Line:  reading the tea leaves after last week’s rally , it is pretty safe to say the Big Horn Basin Tea Party has withered. It is no longer relevant. Everybody for a hundred miles around seems to realize that , except them.  They are nothing if not delusional.

Who wants to live in Boston in the year 1773 anyway ?

Posted by: Cody Coyote | April 12, 2013


April 11 , 2013


A strange thing happened on the way to the  City of Cody Master Plan public forum…

It’s time to sandbag the teabaggers.  If not by Cody Coyote, then who ?

The dubious rabble of Cody Wyoming and Big Horn County  teabaggers have gone on the offensive here of late. They mistakenly beleive they are still relevant and have broad support in northwest Wyoming. The Primary Election of August 2012 taught them little, and the General Election come November taught them nothing at all, as they summarily got their gluteus maximi soundly pulped.

On April 10,  2013  the Tea Party  crashed the party that was a public meeting called by the City of Cody , attended by the Mayor and President of the Council , a quorum of city councilmen , the Planning & Zoning board, City Planner, and planning assistant. It was City business in an open forum to explain, discuss, and take public comment on the Cody Master Plan , attended by a robust crowd of citizens numbering north of 100.  Several members of the local cabal of teabaggers appeared, some of whom were not residents of the city of Cody , some not even from Park County.  They came with an agenda, or two, and usurped the business and purpose of the Master Plan meeting .  To Wit: the Tea Party attempted to mutate the hometown  garden variety Cody Master Plan process into a demonization of the ” Agenda 21 “  global domination conspiracy  . Further, they had the unmitigated gall to circulate a petition to gather signatures for a statewide referendum  to repeal a piece of legislation passed in the Wyoming Legislature this past winter that they take umbrage at. That Legislation—known as Senate File 104 or colloquially as the ” Hill Bill “  effectively demoted the duties of Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill ( hence the moniker ) and repurpose the goals of the state Ed department.

REFERENCE:- here is a link to the Legislature’s own ” White Paper” which explains in full detail why  SF104 was needed, and why Cindy Hill was demoted by her own party by an overwhelming majority of the Wyoming statehouse, which is 85 percent Republican, after being given months of latitude to change her modality, forthwith.

Cindy Hill is a Tea Party darling. A case could be made that although she was unqualified to serve as state school department head and this was well known by the electorate beforehand , she got elected for two distressing reasons: she had that tiny ” – R ” after her name , and she had some frothing tea party voter support. Cindy is their girl; their hope; their maidenhead on the bow of the tea party barge sailing into the cold rough seas of Cheyenne to reform the capitol to reflect Tea Party ideology . As was said, the teabaggers of Cody , Park and Big Horn County still think they are relevant and a political force to be reckoned with.

Unfortunately , that is somewhat true, but not because the teabaggers are in fact a relevant political force hereabouts, but instead due to Politics abhorring a vaccuum.  Incredulously , about three weeks ago the teabaggers took over the Park County Republican Party central committee.  A malaise of mainstream GOP  who took themselves for granted, an appalling apathy within the local GOP ranks  actually willing to do party work and develop issues, combined with some general dysfunctionality  and infighting in the Park County  GOP these past two years   created a perfect Storm where the Teabaggers were swept into power. Gravity and suction are relevant- forces to be reckoned with.

ANALOGY: Think hard brown turds flowing down the sworling vortex in the bottom of your porcelain stool after pumping the handle, and you will have a good analogy of how this GOP perversion actually  happened. Excrement happens…that we all know. It’s not that the Tea Party deserved the reins of the Republican draught horses and hay wagon so much as the real Republicans in this long standing GOP bastion took themselves for granted  and simply didn’t show up  in sufficient  numbers to stand and be counted.  There are about 11,000 registered Republican voters in Park County Wyoming, four times the number of  registered Democrats. It is presumed the bulk of the GOP base were homing watching the NCAA basketball  tourney or dining at the country club instead of taking care of political party business on a Saturday night in March in upper Wyoming , because a few dozen teabaggers sacked them . The cabal of disgruntled faux patriots wrapped in the American flag and flailing a tattered US Constitution in grey skies are now running the Park County Republican apparatus. We  all know what they say about lunatics being in charge of the asylum. It really does happen…

Back to the Cody Master Plan Meeting  last Wednesday night at the Cody Clubroom , standing room only . The teabaggers were accosting people— quietly so, but accosting them nevertheless— one among them working the crowd to garner certifiable  voter signatures for the petition to repeal the SF-104 ” Hill Bill ”  while the rest were generally sowing discontent amid the crowd , asserting that this community Master Plan gathering was just a revolving gear and shaft  in the global  Agenda 21 planetary transmission or something.


City Planner Todd Stowell explains the nuances of the Cody Master Plan to citizens.

You can read the draft of the City of Cody Master Plan here: PDF file ; 24 mb )

The ” Hill Bill” petition  muster  as a sidebar was wholly inappropriate to the goals and intent of the meeting. If not outright illegal given that the venue was official City business at a public forum with a defined purpose, it certainly was immoral or unethical to interrupt people trying to plan the future of their community with a petition advancing a dubious Tea Party agenda. Stated colloquially , the attempt to gather these kinds of signatures at this  kind of meeting was  at crosspurposes to the evening’s stated agenda . It was completely off in the weeds. If genuinely concerned attendees  thought they were going to a citywide public gathering to work thru the crucial Cody planning process at the Cody Clubroom April 10, they were also attending a Tea Party circle jerk. It’s no fun when the jerks have you surrounded.

The petitioner  stopped short of getting in people’s faces –  present company excluded .   But he was very assertive  about  working the whole room. The Petitioner came up to him and began his schpiël without either  immediately recognizing the other , but your reporter immediately deduced what was going down. This guy was working the crowd at crosspurposes to a City planning forum.  One glance at the petition made it abundantly clear what was happening here, and it had nothing to do with City of Cody Master Planning in a community atmosphere. It reeked of local Tea Party.

Having observed them in action for four years now, even attending some of their ad hoc meetings and events , and following news accounts of others, a pattern has emerged. Outside their own gaggle the  local teabaggers are nothing if not  a very disrespectful lot . They claim to represent ” pure” Constitutional democracy while holding up the Philadephia Experiment of 1789 as their example , claiming to restore freedoms and libterties to all.  But truth be told , when the talk turns to actions it seems to be a partial truth in  To be Tea Party is to agree to a  specific doctrinal thesis of their own , exclusively , no differently so than the ideologies of the other parties  given form. Far from inclusive and universal , to be contrarian to that and you will recieve their wrath. Their way or the highway.  TIme and time again from the locales to the national stages the Tea Party has been seen and documented going from a standing start of ” Liberty and Freedom ”  to a rush of hate speech and divisiveness without passing thru moderation or  compromise. It happened in Cody in late March – they bullied their way to wrenching control of the Park County GOP  pulpit by subverting the process. Those who attended that ill-fated county GOP caucus three weeks earlier agreed the ‘baggers were just such an unruly disrepectful pushy bunch . They had a mob mentality according to some present.

Given that political thoroughfares run in both directions  there was some precedent for calling them out on this despicable behavior , vis-a-vis. Your reporter has always been of a proactive mind to give as good as he gets.  When presented with an off-topic petition at a City planning meeting by an identified teabagger directed at a superfluous agenda , he detected that subversion of process and those teabagger tactics.

The teabagger Petitioner  was an ex-Cody police officer, Vince Vanata . He departed the Cody PD under a cloud … Vanata was finally fired by the City of Cody for reasons along the lines of ” conduct unbecoming an officer ” after several known public incidents, and probably a few more incidents that remained behind the blue walls of internal affairs at the Cop Shop .  Vanata was warned, but still went over the line once too often.


Vince Vanata gets signatures for the petition not related to City planning.

It is widely rumoured in Cody that Vanata had a grudge against the Publisher-Editor of the local newspaper  whose pulp semiweekly dutifully reported his transgressions as proper news material, rightfully so. One morning Vanata pulled the editor over for speeding in a school zone, which was almost certainly justified given that the editor was and remains a known leadfoot with a long rapsheet of speeding violations.  This routine traffic stop seems to have escalated to another higher level, however, and the editor pushed back.  Not long after Vanata’s knees were rashed on the Chief’s carpet, and some time further down the road he was off the force. A wrongful firing lawsuit was intimated , filed, then went off the public screen The author has no direct knowledge of any of that except to say Vanata was not hired back.  That was about three years ago.

Suffice to say that when this author responded to Vanata for panhandling a petition at the planning meeting this week, he honestly had no idea who he was talking to at first , having not knowingly seen Vanata in  many many Moon ( a good thing ). But here he was,  face to face. And Vanata’s face looked ten years older, had grown a whole new chin, was stubbled and had an overall mean look to it. A step back and it was obvious he’d gained considerable weight in those off years.  It was some time later before his identity was brought to light, and frankly startling to learn, though the author had no problem stereotyping this guy as ‘ typical teabagger ‘ right off the bat.  ( To be fair,  Vanata probably had some of the same subliminal physical impressions of your reporter , who is also no longer a svelte virile middle aged adult with only one chin . )


Vanata attempts to brush off author by raising his hand in threatening manner

The disgraced demoted discharged cop Vanata had re-emerged as a local teabagger.   It honestly felt good to get in his face —and your reporter  most certainly did—- to chastise him for abusing the democratic process by usurping the City Master Plan meeting by turning it into a tea party civics mosh. There was no physicality… no contact between Vanata and the reporter , just words an dueling cameras…a Nikon CP 5100 going mano-y-mano with Vanata’s smartphone one eyed wonder.  Flashes  exchanged fire. [ Please note that the Petitioner approached the Reporter first and foremost, not the other way around .]

Vanata demanded that his photo quit being taken. The measured response to his stubbled face was ” No way , so long as you are carrying that petition around in here”. Vanata was reminded this was  a public meeting in a public hall in the presence of more than two people and the Photographer was not harassing him at all when accused by Vanata as such .  Rather that in the realm of photojournalism and under the protection of the Constitution and state laws ,  actionable photography is allowed without restraint. It’s a tenent of journalism , Vince. First Amendment made tangible. Yer reading it now.

Several folks nearby witnessed all this.


Cody City Councilman Stan Wolz and Vince Vanata

At this point,  the two parted and your reporter sought out the Mayor and informed Her Dimness some guy was working the tables to collect signatures for a non-City related political  petition. The Mayor seemed shocked at this. But did nothing. The three Councilmen present were similarly advised of the petitioning interference with their public discourse , as were several other folks including the local radio station News Director , David Koch of KODI-AM who was taking interviews during the Master Plan session. Koch attempted to get Vanata on the record.  The enterprising radio reporter has been a thorn in the side of the local Tea Party movement by telling the truth about them. They hate that.  Koch was also a catalyst in the statewide journalistic  statewide that brought the whole sordid Cindy Hill situation into the spotlight, because he is not afraid to ask tough questions.


Radio reporter David Koch attempts to get Vince Vanata on record

As far as your reporter knows , Vanata was not told to cease and desist the petitioning, but maybe should have been. After getting no response from City officialdom on a request to escort Vanata to the lobby or outside the building to do his petitioning away from the actual meeting room, your reporter left the hall at 8:10 pm, somewhat disappointed  in both the lack of dealing with the overt tea Party incursion into the meeting, and the meeting itself which had become an exercise in chaos theory. Your reporter arrived home at 8 :15 pm and settled in for a nice episode of NOVA on PBS.

Also attending this Master Plan meeting from the tea party cabal was archdeacon and Keeper of the Tea  Bob “Tex” Berry and his sidekick  Bob Ruckman , who is himself a real piece of reactionary political work by way of a political circus he ran in Las Vegas Nevada before coming back to Cody to be the local tea party’s henchman and strategist. Their recent biographical actualities woujld be good compost for a modern tale of political fiction based loosely on reality, or vice versa. These two guys are straight out of a Tom Robbins- Ed Abbey- Tom Wolfe novella not worth writing. Giving both more credit than either  deserve or have earned since helping churn the Cody teabaggers into a collective , both above and below boards , Ruckman and Berry were also  quietly working the room  and confronting the City staffers. The  ‘ baggers have previously descended on City Hall staff on at least one surreal occasion to express their concerns with some vigor, as is allowed. At least they did not bring any livestock with them , or wore sidearms , it was reported.

I wished I knew more about the gentleman apparently named ‘Paul’ (?)  who was canvassing the room on behalf of the teabaggers with a sidearm strapped to his hip and a GoPro video camera to document this alleged Agenda 21 hive. Several other obvious teabaggers and their wives were present  to stir the trough. Any tome the local tea aprtiers choose to coagulate at a local civic function or a fete of their own doing, readers should attend for the entertainment value if nothing else ( there is nothing else ). It is good street theater;  audible mime. Costumery.


Bob Ruckman, center, and Bob ” Tex” Berry , right, with City staffer Utana Dye while ex-City Councilman Lowell Anderson looks on.

Everybody around Cody and Park County knows Bob ” Tex ” Berry too well — his legacy from last year’s demented Republican primary race for state senate from Park  County , and the even more demented write-in campaign he ran after losing that primary to Hank Coe, who was a chief sponsor of the aforementioned SF-104  Hill Bill.   Berry almost pulled off the upset of the decade by nearly defeating the apathetic Coe in the primary last August in a race with a slim 113 vote spread. By the time the General election came around  , Coe had cowboyed up and actually had to campaign  and do some gladhanding, which does not come natural to Prince Henry . He  whipped Tex hands down by a 3-to-1 margin in the rematch .  Not a fair fight since Berry had one arm tied behind his back in running a write-in campaign with strict voter rules about that , which is never easy.  Your reporter cannot recall where that has ever worked in a statewide race, only in very minor races closer to the dog pound or  contested elections for cemetary district and such.  Coe has served in the Park County Courthouse for 8 years and the Wyoming statehouse for 22 years. This was Berry’s first run at anything important this far north of the Pecos.  The takeaway lesson here might be ‘ Never overestimate the intelligence of the Wyoming voting public ‘.

Berry is nothing if not 6 foot 1 inch of sour grapes with a San Antonio drawl. It’s wafting in the Cody wind that Berry’s next thrust into local politics is a run against incumbent Sam Krone for the State House seat in 2014. Berry says Krone is ” too liberal ” , which is  laughable, since  Krone is a hardwood orthodox conservative Republican .  But by Berry’s yardstick  your reporter must be a thermonuclear flaming liberal communist socialist Afro-American Jewish homosexual Anti-Christ set on global domination  , and an advocate of strong community planning.  Some of that is true: the last  six words. Berry lives a hundred yards away from this reporter.  We almost never talk.

Turns out Vince  Vanata had the gall to phone his old friends at the Cody PD dispatch center  at 9:09 PM according to police rolling logs, and claimed he had been harassed  and wanted to make a Complaint, which he apparently did. I’m sure they w ere glad to ehar from him. That was phoned in  nearly an hour after the author left the meeting and was long gone, and some 20 minutes after the meeting itself had broken up. Perhaps this was done after consulting the brains of the outfit, Ruckman and Berry .

An officer responded, got some names,  and spent the next day ( Thursday April 11) taking statements from attendees. As of this writing, noon Friday , April 12, no uniformed officer of the Cody PD has contacted your reporter but has been diligently investigating the circumstances of Vanata’s percieved harassment. The applicable statute regarding Harassment is written so broadly and vaguely that nearly anything can be construed to be a harassment for legal purposes.  If you can stretch a condom to cover a fire hydrant, you can probably foist a harassment complaint as far as the Municipal Court stoop .  Just not sure that Vince can stretch this one out very far.

It’s been a full day and then some…a great deal of the officer’s valuable time and expense to the City constabulary could have been saved if he’d only contacted this reporter early on for his perspective and a look at the photos. Vanata has no case. He of all persons should know that streets and political channels and coyote trails run both ways.

Having noted that , it’s worth saying that Teabaggers are nothing if not paranoid and delusional.  Exhibit A.

Remember this if nothing else:  Everything in Wyoming is political, except politics , which is personal.  ( A statement attributed to Al Simpson’s brother Pete that could not be more true…)

SIDEBAR: Here’s the unbelievable aspect.  The teabaggers were also “documenting ”  the City of Cody officials in attendance in an attempt to prove they are part of the vast global conspiracy known to the Paranoid Right  as ” Agenda 21 “.  Yup—the Cody-Big Horn Basin Tea Party was there to prove that your sweet but dim Mayor and her Merry Men of average Joe Citizen councilmen and serfs are actually frontline soldiers in the world domination conspiracy of Agenda 21. The local teabaggers are certain of this. Or as a politically astute friend of mine who was a beat reporter around here for years succinctly put it , ” establishing bicycle paths in Cody is the first step in confiscating your pickup truck …”.

I just thought you should know all this ( he says, mentally glaring at apathetic Republicans who allowed the teabaggers to swoop in and squat  and squawk like a pack of Crows )

This is a field report , then , on two political phenomenon. The first is the City of Cody Master Plan  process, which seems to be opaque and chaotic outside the City Hall bureaucracy proper. It’s more like a Groundhog Day movie, not a new frontier or a long needed policy direction change. Same process, just different faces. Inefficient at best . Besides, when has a sitting City Council ever followed their own playbook  around here ?

The other is the alarming success of the Tea Party activists in spite of them having a deficit of democracy and a dearth of decency , which when coupled with their desire to regress the entire nation back to horse and buggy days pre-19th century and eliminate the federal government in doing so, is downright dangerous. Yes, the people may be of a national political mood to fix everything from City Hall to the US Capitol and therefore be ripe for change via the ballot box, but the Tea Party is not the answer. Rather , it exacerbates the problem , exponentially if given their head. America is broken. The Tea Party is not the crusader and champion that will save it.   Except in their own minds. And what a scary place those minds must be, if l’il ole Cody ‘s town hall  is a staging area for the vast Agenda 21 global domination conspiracy, and the log cabins and aluminum housing of the unincorporated Wyoming sagebrush steppes are the new Concords and Lexingtons of an American Re-Revolution.   Not !  The Tea Party is h-u-g-e  in Emblem just across the Big Horn County line, by the way.

Two dysfunctional  political processes scrumming head to head do not make for a rightful democratic process.

This is your reporter’s takeaway from the Cody master Planning meeting of April 10. We the People of Cody have a lot more work to do in planning our community’s long term growth and development , and that future had better not include any of the faux patriot  wingnuts from the local Tea Party.  Think global…act local.  Read those tea leaves, then toss them into the Stinkingwater River where they belong.

AGENDA 21 in action

Bottom Line:  The community needs to keep an eye on these teabagging yahoos going forward , and quit letting them get away with this disruptive disrespectful divisive crap. Otherwise, we all get what we deserve.

Hint, hint.

-Dewey Vanderhoff

April 12, 2013


Posted by: Cody Coyote | July 1, 2010

SHAKEDOWN STREET The Chief Joseph Scenic Haul Road

heavy load on Chief Joe

A scenic drive if there ever was ...

The saloons in  Cooke City Montana are literally wallpapered with old mining company stock certificates . If they could speak , those filigreed paper masterpieces would tell a sordid story of company after company going broke since the first specks of  gold were found by four fur trappers moonlighting as prospectors in 1869.  The following year, a prospective golddigger named Jack Crandall and his partner were making their way through the upper Clarks Fork  River country of Wyoming Territory , drawn to the rumor of that new Montana goldstrike  as inexorably as horseflies are drawn to a mule’s rump. A Blackfoot war party bushwhacked  the two , killing them and impaling their heads on their pickaxes as a warning to all future prospectors. The future prospectors didn’t get the memo.  Jack Crandall is remembered to these days by having the huge west fork of the Clarks Fork named for him. At least he has something to show for his hardscrabble ways and brutal demise.  Many hundreds of prospectors and the mining moguls were drawn  to the rump of Mount Republic and Henderson Mountain and Scotch Bonnet Peak and the infamous Crown Butte . Most  are long forgotten , The most populous neighborhood in Cooke City is the cemetary, its lodgers leaving behind the wooden wreckage and rusting iron spoils of their “Gold Too Far” dreams accumulated for fourteen decades.  And of course all that future wallpaper.

Over 5000 pounds of gold were shipped from Cooke City  from 1870 through 1955, worth  about $ 80 million  at today’s price . It seems  like a lot of money , but it’s roughly the sum that passes through the Cody Wyoming’s  Wal-Mart Supercenter as gross receipts in about 500 day’s time.
The world’s largest retailer has something that Cooke City mining ventures never had: good transportation. Wal-Mart can move tons of product to market with its fleets of semi-trucks over modern roads. While it’s hard work , it’s taken for granted the stuff will arrive in a timely  efficient cost effective manner. On the other hand , up in Cooke City it was lack of transportation that kept profitability over the horizon. It was a cruel twist of geology and geography that the Lower 48’s most lustrous lodes of gold were buried in a place so difficult to get to and from. The New World Mining District above Cooke City has at least a billion dollars in precious metal sequestered  in the convoluted mountains, surrounded by the fossil evidence of attempts to extract it and ship it to the outside world. The stark black and white photos  nailed in front of the varnished wallpaper show images of grim men in heavy clothes, ramshackle buildings, and Victorian steampunk mining contraptions of pig iron. What they don’t show are narrow gauge railways. This was Cooke City Montana c. 1890 , not Cripple Creek Colorado or  the high Sierra gold rush venues. Cooke City was at the edge of the known universe.
 These days , it’s still a long ways from anywhere. It’s the most isolated village in the big state of  Montana, population maybe 150  and reachable only through Wyoming. Weather permitting.

GratefulDead gold LP

The actual Gold Record given to the Grateful Dead band for their 1978 LP " Shakedown Street " is now on the wall of the Miner's Saloon in downtown Cooke City. Go figure.

An ironic example of  the foregone Gold Era can be seen today  in Cooke City on the wall of the Miner’s Saloon. There in the most unlikely of settings behind  glass in a framed shadowbox  wired with motion sensors  is the bona fide Gold Record awarded to the legendary Grateful Dead  Band for their 1978 LP album “ Shakedown Street “.  The irony of that is not lost; the band known for its smiling skeleton iconography and acid folk rock. The ghosts of the gold mines are laughing their rumps off these days.  Acid flows freely through the fringe of Cooke City. There still be shakedowns , indeed. The Tomb Raiders and Highway Robbers are coming.
The gold business in Cooke City has in recent years morphed from  extracting particles of precious metal from ore to extracting plastic from the wallets of rumpled tourists.  There must be gold in them there burgers and beer. Your correspondent delivered $ 31 coin of the realm  for two of each at the cafe across Shakedown Street ( US Hwy 212) . The tourist trap next door sells cheap jewelry and trinkets of Black Hills Gold imported from South Dakota  right alongside the t-shirts and little plastic grizzly bears imported from China.

If you had asked  before April Fool’s day this year if  gold mining would ever be done again in Cooke  City ,  the gentrified yuppie knocking back a four dollar  bottle of  Moose Drool would have responded  something like “No, not to my knowledge . The government bought out all the old mines and claims when Bill Clinton  ran off Noranda  “.
Across the creek from the Cooke City Cemetary at the site of the defunct McLaren Brothers mill , the skeletons of the sordid gold mining legacy days are being exhumed .  Some would call it  state sanctioned graverobbing.

What , pray tell , does any of this have to do with Wyoming?


Hint:  4,000 heavy haul trucks  .

No less an entity than the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is revving up the latest attempt to transport Cooke City gold to the outside world at a profit. There’s always been money to be made in graverobbing, digging up remains  to purloin the gold .     On  May 5 this year,  the Montana DEQ working through its Mine Waste Cleanup Bureau – Abandoned Mines Section awarded a $ 21 million contract to accomplish what the mega-rich Canadian-based  multinational  mineral corporation Noranda could not do in the 1990’s, nor the mining ventures of the 1890’s. They want to send thousands of heavy truckloads of gold-bearing rock from  Cooke City to a smelter hundreds of miles away with every hope of recovering enough shiny yellow metal to cover the costs, pay for the trip, and maybe even flocculate a little profit.  Recall that Noranda’s  huge Crown Butte-New World Mine proposal ended in a $ 64 million buyout by the federal government, of which half was to go towards complete reclamation of the New World mining district, now ongoing. In 1996 President Bill Clinton stood on a hill above  Soda Butte Creek just inside Yellowstone to celebrate Noranda being handed their rump , resulting from  surgical strikes of  Clean Water Act  regulations to Noranda’s Achilles heel.  Clinton came, he spoke, we listened, and all went home thinking the uttermost end of gold mining in Cooke City had come , a victory for the forces of altruistic environmentalism over the amoral greed of industry.
Not quite.

The cleanup of the Crown Butte-Noranda holdings is ongoing , and does not come into this narrative. But somehow the orphan stepchild of Cooke City’s mining legacy— the old 30 acre McLaren mill site abutting the city limits of Cooke City but abandoned since 1955—was not part of the federal New World buyout and reclamation deal.  The McLaren tailings site  lies south of the highway and straddles Soda Butte Creek, slowly poisoning it with a half million tons of acidifying mine waste. Noranda never wanted the McLaren ; never acquired it. Like tens of thousands of abandoned mines scattered about the West, the McLaren mill site is a toxic asset, forsaken  when their owners simply walked away without fear of penalty , as they were allowed to do under the egregious  l’aissez  faire provisions of the federal 1872 Mining Act  .  With no other party willing to step up, the Montana DEQ took it upon themselves to clean up the  McLaren and  put Soda Butte Creek into detox. The Forest Service owned  the McLaren  by default, and it took six years for Montana DEQ acting through the US Department of Justice to get clear title to it, including mineral rights.  ( Only the Forest Service could take six years to unload a toxic asset to a willing buyer). Then and only then could an engineered plan for reclaiming the McLaren and restoring Soda Butte Creek be advanced.

And it’s a very good workable plan—with one huge caveat.
It pimps the crown jewel of Wyoming’s scenic highway system without remorse or recompense. Wyoming’s  Chief Joseph Scenic Highway is about to become Montana’s  extended yellow brick road haul route . Shakedown Street , indeed.

An oblique 3D view in Google Earth looking slightly east of north towards the high Beartooth and Stillwater Ranges with Cooke City and the adjacent McLaren mill tailings site in context with the New World Mining district. ( Click image for larger view)

Nobody in their right mind could be against Montana DEQ’s $ 20 million project to clean up the McLaren pits  and restore Soda Butte Creek ,  both noble and worthy endeavours. Soda Butte Creek is s-o-o-o-o  polluted by the McLaren’s 30 acres of mine excrement  straddling it, in some places fifty feet deep behind a shaky dam; a repository of  acid mine waste as  the stuff is known.  Mixed with oxygen from the atmosphere and hydrogen in running water, the McLaren tailings have generated high concentrations of sulfuric acid  turning  the streambed a bright  orange precipitate, killing everything in the aquatic food chain from single celled organisms up to Trout , for miles downstream.  All the way into Yellowstone Park actually, whose boundary is four miles down the road from Cooke City.  Soda Butte Creek is one of the largest tributaries of the long Lamar River which in turn feeds the mighty Yellowstone River .


Work has already begun on reclaiming the McLaren mill tailings site and restoring Soda Butte creek to full biological health.

Montana DEQ is keystoning the McLaren cleanup project by proclaiming the genius of using some of the mine tailings themselves to pay for hauling away the undesired  ‘excess’ material .     But does the end justify the means ?  Those “means” are dispatching a fleet of 10-axle heavy tandem belly dump trucks  on a 318 mile  haul one way from Cooke City to the Golden Sunlight Mine smelter at Whitehall, Montana near the mecca of Montana mining, Butte. Through Wyoming.

haul route

The planned haul route from Cooke City , Montana out and around to Whitehall , Montana , a 318 mile trip one way with the 47 miles Chief Joseph Highway in Wyoming being the crucial connector. It's the yellow segment at the lower right. Yellowstone Park is at lower center ; Cody is located near the lower right corner. ( Google Earth image - click image for larger view )

Montana DEQ wants to haul  13 to 30 percent of  the massive McLaren mine waste to Whitehall, requiring an estimated  1500 to 3600 outbound  truckloads  to do it , and presumably the same number  deadheading back.  Nobody knows how many trucks, honestly. The trucks would begin running after spring thaw  next year , grinding gears all through the summer and early autumn   till the weather turns cold and  the elk and  seasonal people migrate to winter range  , around the first of October.

This is a good place to mention that Montana is planning to “ recycle” between $ 24 million and $ 30 million in used gold  from the McLaren . After all, the state motto of Montana is “ Oro y Plata “ , Spanish for ‘gold and silver’. They don’t call Montana ‘The Treasure State’ for naught.

Hardrock mining is as much in the Montana  political genome as domestic bovines herded by horsemen with big hats are the double helix of Wyoming .


The Montana state seal... a shovel, a pickaxe, a plow , and the motto "Gold and silver"

If all goes well  and the price of gold stays north of  say, $ 1100 a Troy ounce, a second year of hauling will follow in summer 2012  After all, there’s a whopping 1/10th of an ounce of gold per ton of the choicer McLaren leavings, which by gold industry standards is said to be positively plush with the stuff , a testament  to on-site  mining technology being  so crude 80 years ago that it left a snootful of gold in every ton of mill tailings. From the heap of   500,000 tons of mill tailings in the McLaren site, Montana DEQ wants to haul away between 68,000 and 148,000 tons of it  for the latent gold.
The only viable route for transshipping anything heavier than a  mule from Cooke City to the outside world is through Wyoming.  More to the point, Montana DEQ’s giddy venture into Cooke City’s accursed gold legacy requires appropriating Wyoming State Highway 296 ,  the magnificent  passageway better known as the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway .


The Chief Joseph Scenic Highway wasn't exactly designed to handle heavy truck traffic when upgrading the old gravel road was begun in the mid-1960's , taking 31 years to complete. Case in point: an unbroken 7 mile No Passing zone on the west side of Dead Indian Hill. The highway is a secondary road, somewhat narrower and less robust than primary highways. Montana DEQ considers the Chief Joe to be a freely available public haul road for their needs, even though it's wholly in Wyoming

The Chief Joe is 47 miles of sidewinder  highway with steep grades and sharp switchbacks whose profile transcends 3000 vertical feet, but has only two brief stretches of level straightaway , one down near its eastern juncture and the other not far from Jack Crandall’s memorial marker. It was never designed as a haul road. It is in fact a medium duty , somewhat narrow , “ collector” route , a secondary highway whose ongoing upkeep and repairs costs are entirely borne by the State of Wyoming. It’s primarily  a tourist corridor for the nearly 200,000 vehicles that use it annually , and assured access for the 200 or so yearround residents of Sunlight Basin, Crandall, and the upper Clarks Fork River . It took  31 years in six legs to  upgrade the Chief Joe from a gravel road to a fully fledged paved route beginning in 1964 and dedicated in 1995 just as Noranda was coming to a full boil . If replicated today  the highway would cost in the vicinity  of $ 150 million  to build anew. Wyoming’s official state highway map shows not less than 15 Scenic Highways or Scenic Byways. The Chief Joe  was the first of these , and remains the crown jewel.

The Chief Joseph Scenic  begins 16 miles north of Cody , forking  west from  the more robust Wyoming Hwy 120 North primary  that  runs the flat boring badlands of the Absaroka Front on its way to the Big Box Stores in Billings . The Chief Joe takes a bearing diagonally across Sunlight , Crandall, and Clarks Fork  to join at the hip  with  the King of all scenic highways, the Beartooth All American Road, 16 miles east of Cooke City. The Beartooth Highway , which veteran CBS news personality and road reporter Charles Kuralt forever etched in travel annals as the most beautiful highway in America ,  is also mostly in Wyoming  much to Montana’s chagrin . In Wyoming, tourism is gold, and the Beartooth and Chief Joe  Scenic Highways are mother lodes of that precious commodity. Wyoming has no choice in sharing the Beartooth road. It begins and ends in Montana, and was the only highway constructed under the 1930 National Parks Approach Act. It is the western terminus of US Hwy 212 , which begins  in humility somewhere in exurban Minnesota and heads across South Dakota without distinction .Thanks to interstate commerce provisions and the fact the Wyoming State Highway 296- the Chief Joe road – is  a public thoroughfare, Wyoming has surprisingly few options in controlling the traffic over it.  Even though it’s a state road.  It’s like City Hall  building  the public sidewalk in front of your home but requiring you to maintain it ,  i. e. shovel the snow , while everyone can use it  as common byway. (You retain the liability, too .  Grrr….)

There are three routes in or out of Cooke City. West through Yellowstone Park  is the Lamar Valley road, open year round even in the throes of those famous 40 Below Winters, and Cooke City’s lifeline  since the county seat of Park County , Montana is  100 miles thataway up in Livingston .  Even though Yellowstone Park would be the prime beneficiary of the restoration of Soda Butte Creek, and the work is being done by a government, using the Lamar Valley road to transport heavy trucks outbound is not an option , administratively or physically . The Lamar Valley Cut-Off  was considered as a haul route , including  the option of escorted nighttime convoys of trucks. While it would also knock over 100 miles off the slog to Whitehall ,  heavy trucks would quickly destroy the fragile (substandard) Park Service blacktop.

The route northeasterly of Cooke City is the aforementioned Beartooth Highway ascending  up and over the granitic massifs  lofting almost  3,000 feet higher than the crest of the Chief Joe across two alpine summits before a hellbound descent into Red Lodge. Not even Zeus himself besotted  on blue mushroom ambrosia would   consider  driving a heavy truck pulling  two belly dump trailers on a wickedly serpentine road  up to 10,940 feet and back to the Late Pleistocene , and do this  four thousand times .  To wit:


SUMMER SOLSTICE (2004) on the Beartooth Highway ©

That leaves trucking the  Chief Joseph Scenic Highway  by default. But there are definitely issues  with that route.  Beginning with the fact that Montana DEQ officials didn’t bother to contact anyone in Wyoming with the revelation they were doing this ‘Chief Joseph Scenic Haul Road’  scheme until March 27 , mostly an afterthought well after the bids were opened on  February 18 , but before the  contract was awarded on May 5.
That error of omission— whether due to arrogance innot extending a professional courtesy , an overt attempt to mask that part of the plan till after it was a done deal  , or simply a  bureaucratic faux pas — is a huge sore point in Wyoming circles. DEQ planners did research Wyoming highway regulations and load limits on line , and a Montana DEQ  engineer did an internal transportation compliance report with respect to the Chief Joseph Highway , but that was not vetted with the Wyoming  Department of Transportation ( Wy-Dot) either by legal requirement or as a professional courtesy.  Strike 1.

Never mind that a mandatory  on-site walk thru of the McLaren  project  was required of all prospective contractors back in October 2009 which presented the offsite hauling alternative without a heads up to Wyoming. Strike 2. Never mind that the initial planning to clean up the McLaren went back to the year 2002. Ball 1.  Never mind that the full project cannot proceed without the use of a Wyoming state highway.  Ball 2. When it came time to roll up the sleeves and go to work , Wyoming  Department of Transportation  (Wy-DOT) and other state officials were not in the Big Loop.

They were for all practical purposes blindsided.

Strike 3, a curve ball  that cut the low outside corner. The first any WY-DOT person heard about this project was no earlier than March 27  according to their phone/e-mail  records, said Wy-DOT District Engineer Shelby Carlson  from her office in Basin , a time frame echoed by her boss Del McOmie the Chief Engineer down in Cheyenne. Calls to other Wy-DOT personnel and the Chairman of the Wy-DOT Commission , appointee  Charlie Monk of Lovell , confirmed  the same in short order before they had any time to get their stories straight.  It’s true. Nobody in Wyoming had heard about this. Really.

How many trucks ? Hauling what ? When ?  Why?  Or as the Law in these parts , Park County Wyoming Sheriff Scott Steward , put it succinctly when he was lightly briefed about this on June 14 , “ I knew nothing about this till now. What a freaking mess this is going to be…”.  
  This might be a good spot  to note that the Director of the whole of Wyoming Department of Transportation  , John Cox, came up through the ranks  not in the traditional blue collar asphalt and reflector post channels but in starch collar Smokey-hatted law enforcement channels — 28 years including seven years managing the Wyoming Highway Patrol, the guns and badge agency who actually pulls over big trucks to enforce  things like weight, brakes, lights, log books, and sundry other DOT regulations.

By late June, the communication channels between Montana DEQ  and Wy-DOT were much more open , with rumors of a peace pipe going around. That is good and well, but  Wyoming leaders said off the record there were real “trust issues”  and those will shade the relationship until a haul plan is presented from Montana DEQ (or more likely the contractor doing the hauling) , and that plan is vetted by Wy-DOT  where the rubber meets the road. No upfront offers of road mitigation are on the table, however.

[ If there is a consolation here, it’s that Montana DEQ was no more ready for being called to answer for  appropriating a Wyoming highway into their plans without telling Wyoming , than Wyoming was in having their own highway rustled out from under their noses… ]

Park County Wyoming’s concerns are a lot like the Groundhog Day’ movie. It’s all coming around again. The county’s leaders wrestled with the Noranda-Crown Butte project in the early 90’s because nearly all the negative  impacts from the $ 600 million New World mine were going to fall in Wyoming while all the positives such as money and employment and tax revenue were staying in Montana . Park County had deep concerns about public safety ,  hazardous materials , fuel spills, emergency first responders , increased costs across the board for everything from law enforcement  to social services being foisted onto their county backs  from an industrial  project in another state.    The mantra used by environmentalists back during the Battle of Noranda is maybe more pertinent today than it was then : “ Montana gets the gold, Wyoming gets the shaft “ .  Before it was over even the most conservative Republican pro-business anti-enviro elected leader in Park County Wyoming  ( basically , that’s all of them )  was chanting the mantra.

For Jill and Bill , it's Groundhog Day again. The Park County Commissioners have been in this movie before. Siggins was on the board of Commissioners and Brewer the County Sheriff back in the 1990's when Noranda-Crown Butte was all the rage. Park County officials are getting up to speed about the Montana DEQ's plans , with a sense of dejá vu.

The new Chief Joseph Scenic Haul Road scheme went public in a news release from Montana DEQ on June 2nd , if you read between the lines . Your correspondent realized right away there is only one road outta there, and it’s not in Montana.  Montana DEQ sorta blew by that factoid. Amid the  gilded rhetoric  of the release was the following  paragraph: “We expect this plan to be as good as gold” , said Richard Opper, Director of Montana DEQ. “We’re recycling the gold left behind in tailings from old milling done 80 years ago. This is another example of Governor Schweitzer’s restoration economy and its a demonstration of Montana ingenuity at its best.”
Former Park County WY Sheriff back during the Noranda-Crown Butte  debates , and now a Park County Commissioner , and a pragmatic Republican conservative, Bill Brewer said of Schweitzer’s restoraton economy “ He’s just jealous of Wyoming  and sticking it to us”. An armchair professor of geopolitics sitting in his office at the Miner’s Saloon in Cooke City might expound on that .  Consider it an ingenious and restorative  ‘gotcha’ by the Schweitzer administration for Wyoming not putting enough water in the Big Horn River in recent years to support Montana’s other gold industry— bluewater fly fishing—  or putting too much salty water into the Powder River flowing into Montana from Wyoming’s coalbed methane fields, or other petty statesmen’s quibbles. But we digress…

At a public information meeting in Cooke City on June 8 to discuss the project , Montana DEQ spearhead Tom Henderson, PhD. kept emphasizing the point  that even though the original McLaren reclamation plan c. mid-2008 was  designed to leave ALL the tailings on site in a newly built lined repository, engineers were mighty uncomfortable with the slim chance a major seismic event  or Biblical-class  deluge might possibly  rupture the repository and re-create the Soda Butte acidification scenario all over again . “US Geologic Survey people provided some disturbing data.  We are right up against the design limits for the seismic threshhold ,” Henderson kept driving at. The DEQ engineering solution was to haul away enough of the McLaren tailings — a minimum of  13 percent , but more would be desireable  —to better buttress  the new repository . When finished six years from now it should be able to withstand a big earthquake.  It’s not hard to see where  Montana  officials are coming from here. The memory of August 17 , 1959 at Hebgen Lake a hundred miles west of the McLaren is burned into Montana’s frontal lobes. A magnitude 7.2 quake rolled through the Madison Valley just before midnight, rearranging the mountain topography  dramatically , and there was significant loss of life and property. That grace does not disallow  skepticism, however.

Oh by the way, was it mentioned Montana actually makes  money hauling away the McLaren ‘excess’  to that smelter 318 miles away—if gold stays at $ 1200 an ounce, that is ?
Wyoming political powerhouse , State  Representative Pat Childers (R- Cody) is “all over”  the McLaren haul plan since the trucks will be grinding gears through his House district. He has his own wry thoughts on seismicity being the Montana DEQ’s principal engineering driver , to wit:  “ If they have a magnitude 7 earthquake in Cooke City,  a sloshing tailings site will be the least of their worries. “   Childers, a  former government affairs liaison for  Marathon Oil’s  regional office in Cody , and a pillar of the local Wise Use Movement back in the late 80’s and 90’s , is like  many coming late to the McLaren debutante ball. Shaker and mover  Childers  is now fully engaged , all the way to the Wyoming Governor’s office. Other northwest Wyoming politicos are getting up to speed as well. Childers  remains highly skeptical about Montana DEQ doing the bulk  haulout strictly to take the engineering and seismic  high ground, and not instead to make some money for a cash strapped state. It’s the old metaphor of the cart and the horse. (Ore cart and mule; same same. ) Which of the two is in front ?
The Wyoming Legislature meets this coming winter , a few months before haul season.

For those of you keeping score at home, the  baseline 6  year McLaren reclamation project is funded with a total of $ 24 million in cyclical grants from the Denver regional Office of Surface Mining through its Abandoned Mine Lands fund . Federal AML fees are collected nationwide at all manner of minesites but  principally the big coal mines , then plowed back into cleaning up old  minesites nationwide.  Wyoming pays way more into AML than it can ever hope for in  rebates , so much so that  a  Cody public-private consortium snared  a million dollars in AML funds five years ago to landscape an old sand and gravel pit that probably produced only a few tens of thousands of dollars of aggregate in its day ;  a nice bone tossed back. This atypical but definitely creative use of AML funds sculpted  a fine new hillside park adjacent to its public Rec Center and the Public Library-college outreach complex.
However, the typical work of AML  funds is less glitzy more gritty. The American West is littered with tens of thousands of old polluting hardrock mines that were forsaken . The McLaren is one of the more egregious examples since it is literally a few yards out the back door of Cooke City businesses on the east side of Shakedown Street, buttressing Soda Butte Creek which traces its base.  From the centerline of US 212 on Cooke’s main drag , you can throw a rock over the top of the outdoor cappuccino tables and hit the McLaren. For all the resort town’s rustic charms , don’t drink  from that orange creek or play in it.


Soda Butte Creek is bright orange from acid mine drainage, and it's right out the back door of businesses and lodging establishments on the east side of Cooke City's main drag. The creek is the city limit; the McLaren pit abuts it.

For this  gift , thank the  General Mining Act of 1872,  signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant two months after he signed the act  creating  Yellowstone Park. The 1872 Mining Act  is still the law of the land today, despite repeated attempts in Congress to reform it . Which is why the McLaren millsite has despoiled  Soda Butte Creek continually since  ~1929. Newer state and federal  environmental protection laws  have largely annulled the 1872 General Mining Act’s  awful environmental loophole for any new mining developments , but Grandfather’s old adits and pits still lurk . Too many old hardrock mines cost far more to clean up than the net worth of the precious metal they extracted. That is almost certainly the case with the McLaren. The  $ 21 million in AML funds   to reclaim and repose it is equivalent to a quarter of the value of all the gold that left Cooke City since 1870.


Work on the McLaren reclamation began in early June. Excavations immediately turned up some fossils of Cooke City mining legacy, such as these old timbers and iron skeletons

The addition to the project  of hauling the ~60,000 tons of  “excess”  tailings  is supposed  be self-funding.   Piggybacking this 13 percent paydirt  on top of the tailings stabilization was entirely Montana DEQ Director Richard Opper’s call.  He apparently added the offsite  hauling  in summer of  2008 when gold was selling for $ 975 an ounce.  Two months later, it was back down to $ 725 an ounce in the aftershocks of the September 15 major earthquake on  Wall Street   . By late February of ‘09 , gold had reversed its fall and climbed above the $ 1000 per ounce threshold , after the  Big Bank rescue plans  and economic stimulus funds  were ramping up .  There remains  the  suspicion that the holistics of this McLaren project are using the federal AML funds as a first stage booster to propel the state’s gold payload to orbit , or Planet Helena.
In a real sense, this is really two projects now with a fuzzy  boundary between them: the Base Mclaren project as bid, plus  Alternative 2 adding the offsite schlep. Opper is having to fend off allegations that  Montana DEQ is in the gold business to make money , given the relative gift of the McLaren site and gold selling at $ 1262 per ounce as of this writing. Opper wrote Childers that he “ would be thrilled if the revenues from the sale of the gold covered…the haul costs” He goes on to say “ at current prices, gold sales would come close to covering those  additional costs. At $ 1000 per ounce, we would lose $ 16 per ton of material we haul to Golden Sunlight “ , this from the guy who was quoted by his own agency PR desk saying  the McLaren plan was “good as gold”.
It appears from the minutiae of Bid Schedules that it costs about $ 8 – 9.00 per ton unit cost to move the tailings around at the site , engineering on the fly  but leaving them all on site . However, those materials  excavated and hauled to Whitehall escalate the unit cost by eightfold , to  somewhere hear  $ 69.00 per ton. At the stated concentration of old gold in the McLaren leavings of 1/10th ounce per ton, that’s $ 126 per ton gross. The smelter takes a 10 percent contractural refining fee,  $ 12.60 , which leaves a raw net of $ 113.40 in net  gold per ton. Debiting the contractor fee of $ 69.00  puts a positive yield  of $ 44.00 per ton…somewhere. Opper’s e-mail to Childers cited ” additional project costs” as  negating profitability, but a careful sifting of the highly detailed Mclaren plans and bid schedules does not reveal anything of those additonal costs. Not to your correspondent’s eyes, anyway.
The current Chairman of the Park County WY Commission , Jill Shockley-Siggins of rural Cody , was on the same board back in the early 90’s for the Noranda debates  and has a speaking role in the 2010 remake of “Groundhog Day II : Going for the Gold”. To her mind, “ this reclamation is mining” . Siggins grouses that she’s happy that federal funds make it such a deal for Montana DEQ to do this.  In the same breath she complains that the federal BLM who sold Park County the property for its landfill won’t allow the County to sell away the perfectly good bentonite currently being excavated there for the landfill improvement project. “ The same BLM won’t let us to sell our own bentonite to the plant in Lovell (WY)  that wants it , will come get it, and will keep local people employed. They say we  have to stockpile the stuff, cover it with dirt, and grow grass on it .“  Ah, the nuances of modern minerals management  and State-Federal intercourse.

Opper et al may be genuinely concerned about losing a few dollars a ton if the price of gold starts to drop or even tank, which wouldn’t be the first time by a damsite. His name is all over the paperwork as the responsible Montana person… the Chief Operating Officer of Schweitzer Gold Recovery and Restoration Inc who signed off on it all ,  if you are of a cynical nature. But Wyoming has its premium  value road to protect , in times of shrinking state budgets and skyrocketing costs of materials like  roadmix , asphalt , and fuel. It’s getting downright pricey to fix roads of late. Even so , much of the value of  the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway cannot be quantified or expressed in dollar values at all. Ever try to get a receipt for selling a ‘ million dollar view’?  What is the worth of  an emotional epiphany when a  flatlander experiences the rapture of near infinite vistas from the Chief Joe overlook for the first time ?
How do you put a price on being the 23rd car in line behind a big truck grinding up Dead Indian Hill at 18 mph , where  there is an unbroken double  yellow  stripe from the bottom of the mountain to the top…nearly 8 miles of “No Passing” ?

Gate admission at Yellowstone…$ 20.00
Burgers  and beverages for the family in Cooke City…  $ 37.00
Being a half hour late for the Cody Nite Rodeo because you were stuck in gridlock truck traffic out in the boondocks … Priceless.


Windshield vista of a tandem belly dump heavy truck on the Chief Joe in June of this year. This is the approximate configuration of heavy haulers planned for the McLaren schlep.

Since the Chief Joe is a public highway and interstate commerce clauses supersede state law, there’s  next to nothing Wy-DOT can do to shake down the trucks of Montana DEQ , unless and until actual road damage occurs or tangible public safety situations arise. Wyoming and especially Wy-DOT can and maybe should take the high ground by ignoring the payload  the trucks will be carrying. It  doesn’t matter if the McLaren belly dumps are loaded with scrap iron ,  chicken feathers , or gold-bearing rock. What does matter is the weight of those trucks, the trip numbers , adherence to the rules of the road, and the moving dynamic of the hauling schedule. Ninety thousand pounds of truck pushing on asphalt softened  by hot July sun on a  hairpin curve is one  , for instance.
Your correspondent spent some time with an industrial contractor and heavy hauler in Cody to learn more about this project  from the trucking side . Roger Koontz, longtime owner and manager of Harris Trucking , an industrial construction , materials, and  trucking firm was born and raised in Cody and knows both the Chief Joe road and the mechanics of his  industry well. When asked what he thought about the job of trucking  the McLaren mine waste loads out over the Chief Joe , said without blinking “ that’s a contract  I’d like to  have. It’s a good road…but those trucks will tear it up.”
The prime contractor for the McLaren reclamation project and hauling is Knife River,  an engineering and construction conglomerate headquartered in Bismarck N.D. and a division of Montana Dakota Utilities Resources, Inc. with field operations in major western cities, including Billings and Casper. By all accounts, Knife River is an excellent choice for the job. This narrative casts no shade on Knife River. A better contractor for the tasks at hand could not easily or affordably be  utilized. ( Knife River  also does paving and highway work, hint hint.)
Wy-DOT’s options for managing the Wyoming component  of the McLaren project are according to  Shelby Carlson limited to lowering  speed limit and reducing the weight of the trucks.  But that’s a Catch -22 . It  would  result in more truckloads  moving that much slower in a tourism corridor that may be populated by impatient drivers , or drivers not experienced in the nuances of mountain driving . Knife River will  responsible for weighing their loads, and truck scales will be installed at the McLaren. The trucks dispatched can expect to be closely monitored by the Wyoming Highway Patrol , who can accurately weigh  truck wheels with portable blanket scales carried in the trunks of their cars.  All of this is basically S.O.P.  , only more of it.  Carlson also plans to send tech crews to the Chief Joe next spring to fully assess the condition of the road , test the pavement using a variety of crafts including sensor trucks, to derive an engineering “ snapshot” of its condition .  She said Wy-DOT has already  identified some specific areas of concern out there along the mileposts. The Wy-DOT Supervisor who dispatches the crews from the Cody office is retiring at the end of the June  and no replacement has been named, so raw field intel from the Wy-DOT work crews was not available in the vaccuum.
What Wy-DOT  cannot do is charge a toll, collect a “ Haul Tax” or a “ Freight Fee” , or invade Montana. Heavy haul contractors  like Harris Trucking and Knife River  will be the first to tell you the various fees for permits of oversize overweight loads—even if forthcoming—don’t come anywhere near the restitution cost for road damage. Local published court dockets in Park County aren’t exactly brimming with opulent fines for DOT trucker violations, and those miniscule amount of fines cannot be plowed back to the road repair budget of the highway segment the  violations were written up in  anyway . The costs of any inordinate repairs to the Chief Joseph are in thrall to the Wyoming state budget allocations and federal funding, which in recent years has been as much as $ 250 million under where Wy-DOT expected it to be. ( Del McOmie quoted in Casper Star Tribune , late 2005)
Here’s an astonishing statistic from a National Academy of Sciences study: a semi truck and trailer of legal weight , 80,000 lbs. GVW in this case,   has more impact on the road surface than 9600 passenger cars. That’s not a typo. One Semi equals Nine Thousand Six Hundred Passenger Cars in road damage.


One semi truck does more damage to the Chief Joseph roadbed than 9600 passenger cars. The Montana DEQ McLaren project would send between 1500 and 3600 heavy trucks out over the Chief Joe from Cooke City. Those same trucks would make return trips, so double that number, roughly.

Wyoming collects the second lowest Fuel Tax of any state at 14 cents per gallon. Only Alaska’s fuel tax is lower, at 8 cents.  But even an increase of ten more cents per gallon to match surrounding states would only bring in maybe $ 45 million to Wy-DOT’s coffers. A dark secret of the highway maintenance industry is how much less Fuel Tax  revenue is actually being collected these days as cars and  trucks get more fuel efficient and drive further  on less gasoline… the Prius Effect.
One-shot federal stimulus funds aside, every state in the Union is seeing alarming  shortfalls in its state and federal  highway maintenance funding  , while prices for materials keep climbing steeply.  It hits Wyoming harder than most states to have those federal highway funds curtailed, since the state has so few residents yet so many miles of highways to accomodate them. Wyoming is so spacious you have to drive all day to get anywhere, it seems.  More and more maintenance  funding is being deferred. Wy-DOT  managers cannot be happy to see a surge in heavy truck usage on state highways like the Chief Joseph . Areas of intense mineral energy development like the the Powder River Basin  and southwest Wyoming are really ripping through  Wy-DOT program budgets. Opinions about this Perfect Storm of debilitating  highway funding factors at Wy-DOT  are  being deferred, too, at least publically.
As world-class gorgeous  as it is , terraced   into the Absaroka mountains of Sunlight Basin, Crandall, and the rim of  Wyoming’s Wild and Scenic Clarks Fork River gorge at the foot of the stupendous granite of the Beartooths, the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway  is after all open for business and intertstate commerce every day of the year.  Weather permitting. Those million dollar views that travelers swoon over do not contribute directly to Wy-DOT’s  shrinking bottom line. The effects on the Chief Joe’s  repair and maintenance regimen  from McLaren are unknowns going forward . Wyoming roads are empirically designed for 50-year lifespans. The upper stretch of the Chief Joe is 46 years old.
It’s always Groundhog Day at the highway department.


A more pedestrian user group of Chief Joseph Highway patrons, somewhat closer to the original intent of the highway design specs...

So there’s no doubt this McLaren project presents a much different face to Wyoming than it does to Montana. Both states would agree that cleaning up the old polluting mill site and restoring Soda Butte Creek is a worthy goal.  Wyoming is already uncomplainingly supporting the McLaren project  because  the necessary heavy equipment and materiale for the site work is being  trucked  over the Chief Joe, business as usual, right alongside local cement trucks and piggybacked trackhoes, weekly food service semis from Billings , and the increasingly rare logging trucks . The McLaren project  began moving dirt for site prep in early June .  Wy-DOT’s traffic counter system  says 185,000 vehicles per year drive the Chief Joe, and as many as 14,000 of those are commercial trucks weighing more than 26,000lbs. GVW. ( That seems like an inordinant number of existing trucks to this writer , however ). Nearly all the use of the Chief Joe occurs between late May and early November, the same interval when the McLaren hauling will necessarily happen. What’s unusual is  the addition of thousands of heavy trucks in one ‘spike’ .  It’s several  orders of magnitude above  the norm for the Chief Joe.
The bottom line is it  all comes down to the price of gold. Honestly. If anyone tells you he knows what gold will be selling for next June, call him a fool to his face  and  walk away. One gold broker can make a solid  case for gold selling higher and higher for the forseeable. The infamous spike in gold prices in January 1980  when gold briefly hit $ 850 U.S. per ounce was due as much as anything to events in Iran  , the Middle East  and Afghanistan  being invaded  the month before , plus  global economic uncertainty  and currency churn  ( sound familiar ? ). Following that speculative reasoning , the spike price of gold in today’s dollars should already be way north of $ 2500.00 adjusted for inflation.
A second equally learned gold trader will tell you that as the same U.S. Dollar regains its strength in the global economy , as it appears to be doing now after the Bush-Cheney  administration purposely let the dollar go weak abroad to bolster American manufacturing exports,  the price of gold will necessarily fall. Gold and the Dollar are on common  teeter totter. As one goes up, the other goes down . That broker’s reasoning  would tell you gold might just as easily be back around $ 750 an ounce this time next year.  Gold is as gold does. It’s price is determined by speculation , a flawed human trait.


The Inevitable PowerPoint Presentation. Tom Henderson of Montana DEQ at the Cooke City Fire Hall, June 8. About forty people attended this informational meeting , mostly industry and agency reps . It was conducted a week after the project began after eight years of planning. Only three folks from Wyoming seemed to be there. The public input process for the McLaren project was scant.

In the same vein, your correspondent  attended the June 8 public information gathering at the Cooke City Fire Hall attended by 40 people , mostly a powwow Round Dance of  agency and industry folks associated with the project. The question was lobbed to  drumbeater Tom Henderson , PhD,  the Montana DEQ  mine reclamation specialist who’s overseeing the McLaren project , but was actually intended for the Montana cabal present .
Facetiously , but not  without a sharp point: “  From Wyoming’s point of view , it would be a whole lot better if you kept all your waste rock on site instead of trucking so much of it out over the Chief Joseph.  That way if we went to war with Brazil or somebody 150 years from now and really needed some gold, we’d know exactly where to go get  it. Could you possibly consider creating a Strategic Gold Reserve instead ? “
That sucked most of the air out of the room.


The issues surrounding the use Wyoming's Chief Joseph Scenic Highway as a Montana haul road are far from being as black and white as these two equines... shades of grey, tints of gold.

There is one fundamental difference between Montana and Wyoming in their modern culture and politics grubstakes . Montana government  allows and even encourages gambling.  A casino on every corner is the norm these days in The Treasure State.  Wyoming  government does not gamble.  The Treasure State  DEQ is converting  Governor Brian  Schweitzer’s  purported “ restoration economy and Montana ingenuity at its best “ into a long shot that says gold will stay higher , not lower. In fact, they’re betting it will.

Fine. But it is this correspondent’s considered opinion after weighing all these arguments pro and con  as carefully as the backroom broker assays dearly departed Grandmas’s gold dental work so cavalierly salvaged as “ used gold “ for “ recycling”, it appears it would be in the best interests of both Montana and Wyoming to leave all of the McLaren spoil on site, not just 87 percent of it. The Smart Money , because in the end it’s not wise to bet against either History or Mother Nature.


I have  five  overriding questions about this project  that I wasn’t able to resolve. The Montana Governor’s office sorta gagged me after I asked a few too many questions of Montana DEQ officials.

1.  Since this plan was developed by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality , where s the Environmental Assessment or similar  analysis  regarding the hauling , or even the project itself ?  The engineering is great . What about the environmentals and socioeconomics?

2. The main McLaren cleanup is being done with federal Office of Surface Mining  grants ( Abandoned Mine Lands money ). The additional hauling and smelting appears to be a distinctly State-run auxilliary project . What do the Feds think about that   ?

3.  Would Montana DEQ be willing to have its books openly audited for this project , coming and going , in the interests of transparency ? ( The requisite Follow The Money question  )

4. Why in an old mining region covering 24 square miles could Montana DEQ not find a few acres of suitable land to move  the desired amount of McLaren tailings to build a safer repository at Soda Butte Creek ?  Montana DEQ apparently acquired SOME land adjacent to the McLaren for expanded storage  from the Gallatin Forest, via the US Department of Justice.  But not enough to do all the offsite storage of mine waste ?  Was this because the Forest Service doesn’t play well with others ( very likely ) , even though THEY would benefit from a cleaner Soda Butte Creek more than Yellowstone Park downstream ?  Did Montana DEQ press hard enough to acquire  a few acres of federal property  for a second small lined repository nearby , one that could be landscaped and reintegrated into the forest environment  (e.g. like an Appalachian mountaintop mine) ? Will it require federal top-down legislation to force the Gallatin National Forest  and/or the Trust for Public Lands who recently acquired the balance of the old mining claims in the New World to revisit offering a few acres of suitable nearby ground for a small secondary repository away from the creek for that ” excess”  mine waste ?

5. Did Gold Fever cloud  Montana DEQ’s judgment ? The multinational mineral giant Noranda took its leave  from an estimated $ 650 million in gold it was developing in the New World mining district , after being reimbursed  by the federal government for its upfront costs. The same feds are willing to pay to reclaim the orphaned McLaren millsite for Montana separately through existing mine reclamation programs , but the state of Montana still can’t take its eyes off the prospect of $ 24 million in shiny yellow metal ?

The price of Gold is entirely a human abstract concept. It has no correlation in the natural world. The object of the McLaren mine millsite cleanup is to remove the groundwater from under the tailings, lower the ph value of the acidic mine waste rock material , and restructure it all by geoengineering into a newer safer repository capable of withstanding the forces of nature, pretty much right where it sits now, complementing the mine reclamation of the larger New World sites up the mountain. That’s it. No more , no less .

Yet the Montana DEQ has been blinded by the glare of gold, apparently.  The McLaren site has legally not been ” withdrawn” from mineral development like the Noranda-Crown Butte New World sites.  The Mclaren is still subject to the Old Rules, for now . At $ 1200 or more per ounce of gold, Montana DEQ  is salivating at the prospect of hauling a fair amount of it off to a smelter for the money it will make, without any thought aforehand about Wyoming incurring expense and degradation of its own resources  ( until your correspondent fired a few shots across the bow, anyway . ) .  At some street value near $ 1000 ounce , there’s no profit in secondhand gold to be made , so all the  mine waste stays there  across from the  Cooke City cemetary and those thousands of heavy trucks don’t caravan across Wyoming’s prettiest highway, the Shakedown Road . The era of hardrock precious metal mining will be over for Cooke City, finally . Which is the  ultimate, unstated goal here. We finally get to lock the gate and close the books . The mountains begin to heal.

So I guess my  overarching  question is: What exactly are the ethics of a state agency “Going for the Gold” when they don’t really have to haul any  of it away at all  ?


Local legend in Cooke City says that when Chief Joseph led his people through the early Cooke City mining ventures in 1877 with the US 7th Cavalry pursuing him, the Nex Perce burned the mills and made off with the gold and silver bullion. It's probably not true, but it's a good story nevertheless. The History of the Cooke City mining ventures does not favor Montana DEQ's haul plan...lack of affordable transportation sucked all the profit out of the New World Mining District for 80 years. The two dimensional brazed metal sculpture shown here on the crest of the Chief Joseph highway at the overlook has some symbology beyond its superficiality. The gold coin is at the approximate location of Cooke city

The great Lakota Sioux tribal shaman Black Elk said  it over a hundred years ago and his words are not tarnished . Gold is “ the yellow metal that makes white men crazy “.


Researched and written in June 2010.  This essay was originally written for WyoFile, the online media site for Wyoming issues, but at 7200 words came in about five times over the word limit assigned. I’m publishing  the full  version here  with photos.  Even this version is 3,000  words short of a load.  It’s still rough , but informative nevertheless. I seem  to have lost the ability to write essay length journalistic articles. Damn computers….

On a personal note, my earliest memories of the Great Outdoors are from  the Chief Joseph region of northwest Wyoming…Bald Ridge, Sunlight, Crandall, Clarks Fork.   Our family homestead cabin  was near the summit of Dead Indian Hill, now the Northwest College field station , and we spent countless hours at Everett and Juanita Wallace’s  Few Acres Ranch up near the junction of the Chief Joe and Beartooth highways,  which seemed like a home away from home.  The world of natural history and mountain living in  my youth was the Golden Triangle between Cody , Cooke City, and Red Lodge Montana.          – dewey

© 2010 Dewey Vanderhoff . All Rights Reserved

Posted by: Cody Coyote | May 11, 2010

Ode to a Comet

A mention in one of those ” Today In History ” features got me reminiscing about all things Comet Halley.  That , and the annual occurrence of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower in late April and early May, whose tiny meteroids are remnants of Comet Halley’s tailfeathers . A hundred years ago on May 10, 1910, the celebrated Comet Halley made its most notable close approach to Earth , a sojourn forever tied to the legacy of one Mark Twain , who said in his biography published the year before:  “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together. ” .  Twain , self described Freak of Nature in fact died peacefully the day after Halley’s 1910 perihelion , being the closest approach to the Sun and the manner in which cometary orbits are pegged. Twenty days later on May 10, the Earth passed thru the tail of the outbound comet. People panicked; pills and remedies were sold by the unscrupulous ; mass hysteria ensued. Methinks Twain had the last laugh on that one, were anyone listening.

Not that Mark Twain had any sovereign right to Halley’s comet. The cosmic apparition has left its mark all over recorded human history , from ancient Babylon to modern times. It’s appearances are tied to the legacies of ancient Chinese chronicles, the Talmud , Ancient Persian and Ehtiopian empires , Pre-Columbian American rock art , and it  has played dramatic walk-on roles nearly every time it reappeared , in the exploits of notables such as Ghenghis Khan, William the Conqueror, and more than a few Popes. You can see Halley’s hairy star woven into the Bayeaux tapestries at the relocated Cloisters abbey on the northern tip of Manhattan island NYC.

Fast forwarding to 1986 , Halley returned  to the inner solar system as it does every 76 years, give or take. Unfortunately , the best known comet of all time, the “Old Faithful Geyser of the Heavens“, was a disappointment to most of humanity. Celestial mechanics did not favor Earthlings…it was heralded as the one of the worst apparitions of its 3,000 year  recorded history . In spring 1986 , Halley was on the far side of the Sun at perihelion and was best seen from Southern Hemisphere skies if it was to be seen at all.  Folks in Wyoming hardly had a chance of seeing the comet from its northern latitudes. Viewers had to be at least as far south as Tucson  to get a decent aspect on the fickle comet.  A small flotilla of spacecraft were launched to  observe and photograph Halley up close … Europe’s Giotto , Japan’s Suisei and Sagikake, and Soviet Russia’s pair of Vega probes . But curiously no American probes were launched, for space shuttle Challenger was destined to carry an astronomical observatory designed for Halley to observe it from low earth orbit instead , a case of pride overwhelming pragmatism in hypeing the space shuttle as a space science platform over much more capable robotic explorers . Unfortunately , Challenger never made it to a place where it could have a fine platform for viewing Comet Halley and the heavens above.

I did.

Comet and Church closeup

I claim to this day some 24 years later that I , Dewey Vanderhoff of Cody Wyoming , had the very best view of Comet Halley by any mere mortal on the entire planet.  By design no less. Swear to it

This of course requires some explanation. Let me start by saying the above photo was taken from the bottom of a vast bowled valley of volcanic  lava that is nearly solid black under a 360 degree skyline of burnt out cinder cones. Punctuated by sparse vegetation only, Paricutin’s lava field is  utterly desolate;  at night utterly dark without so much as one watt of light pollution . Not even a peasant’s campfire to be had for many miles . Maybe a stray Firefly or two , but pitch black  for the most part.   Note if you will how much darker the foreground is than the allegedly dark Night Sky , which is positively luminous compared to the sprawling vulcanism beneath it.  This central Michoacan state in southern Mexico in the volcanic belt that has over 900 identified volcanic cinder cones  and 1400 volcanic vents. Some of those cones are still alive , or were just recently. One in particular….

Paricutin. A brand new never before seen volcano that appeared suddenly in a cornfield in 1943 and erupted for 9 years. Mark Twain may have been born under a cometary appearance. My own birthdate in 1951 came in the closing months of Volcan Paricutin’s  stupendous apparition.  The cinder cone of Paricutin is silent today  and will never erupt again , no longer to spew out high fountains of fire , eject volcanic bombs ,and  issue rivers of glowing lava for miles around. The volcano is about 4 miles south of the tall church spire in this photo, and therein lies the greater tale, one I’m sure Twain would’ve visited firsthand had he the opportunity. For upstart Paricutin  put on an tremendous show for years.

It appeared during World War II  and thus did not get the attention it deserved, which was diverted to Italy’s Mt. Vesuvius above Naples which captured the world press when it added some spectacular backdrop to the Allies’ invasion of Italy in 1944.  My father Rex  wasn’t easily scared. After all he piloted the Allies’  most dangerous warplane, the B-26 Marauder 5-man fighter-bomber  , a/k/a/ Widowmaker . The Marauder was the only warplane that went from blueprint to battlefield without passing thru “test flight” .  It had some ” issues”.  But Rex could handle it.  He could drive anything, and fly most things of the time. What he had issues with was making bombing runs over Italy with Nazi antiaircraft flak to port, and Vesuvius ash and volcanic bombs to starboard, and some of both dead ahead.  Vesuvius eventually subsided, but Paricutin was just getting going half a world away in the highlands of south central Mexico.

The Tarascan Indians of Michoacan have long lived with volcanoes, but  nothing like what Paricutin threw at them in 1943  appears in the annals. Paricutin’s eruption  had an element to it that immediately evokes  Biblical Wrath of God symbology.  The volcano took out a towering Catholic cathedral with a vengeance; with a surreality  that is seldom matched. If those medieval Popes had the Fear of God placed in them by Comet Halley , t’s a shame they didn’t have a volcano sacking the temple to help realign their belief system.

There once was a Michoacan village of 18,000 Tarascan Indians named San Juan Parangaricutiro. It had one of Mexico’s most magnificent Romanesque cathedrals dating to the late 1600’s , classically exhibiting the twin towers,  Byzantine design elements, semi-circular arches and truely massive stone walls and a vaulted roof. When Paricutin erupted 4 miles away  from the cathedral and began its march across the valley floor,  the residents took some spiritual refuge in their sanctuary , praying. The priests and Monsignors of Michoacan certainly earned their bread trying to console the Tarascan faithful, but those prayers went unanswered. The volcano sent out a torrent of lava aimed directly at the church, crawling across the valley floor like a slow motion tsunami of inexorable incandescent molten stone. There was no way to stop it or divert it, not when it’s 20 to 50 feet thick  and measured in millions of tons. Eventually , the natives had to flee, but because this was happening in relative slow motion nobody died. The lava came at the church relentlessly , as if guided by some unseen hand, and surrounded it. The massive cathedral was jolted from its foundations, picked up, twisted and turned and tilted. The roof caved in . Lava flowed thru the windows. One of the two towers was toppled. The tower still standing now leans like the tower of Pisa, hardened forever in a footing of solid black cinder, Hades’ own concrete. All the lesser buildings of San Juan Parangaricutiro and surrounds  vanished, completely consumed by the fires of Hell itself. Talk about a Scorched Earth Policy. The Romanesque cathedral survived only because it , too, was made of stone.  The volcano had no intention of destroying it, only subjugating it, usurping it. In one of the great surrealities of humankind history or an awesome display of a wicked sense of divine humour, this  onslaught of lava suddenly quit only about 150 yards past the cathedral  after travelling 4.5 miles crosscountry.  The lava only went far enough to destroy the cathedral and surround it. Then it subsided. When you stand before this remarkable scene , you cannot help but wonder if destroying that Catholic cathedral was the prime directive for this devilish volcano. (I do not use that adjective lightly) . A small and somewhat decrepit altar is maintained in the cathedral’s congregation hall above where the once lavish altar must’ve stood, but it’s plastic flowers and modest porcelain Jesus are lost in the bigger picture. The religious symbology and geophysical actuality of Paricutin’s wrath offer much to ponder.

Having said all that , it sounds like a perfect place to observe a notable comet some 42 years later, dontcha think ? . Remember the most important thing: the landscape is a solid black bowl about 50 km across with no light pollution.  In other words, Damn Dark. You can see the center of the Milky Way galaxy from there. It’s only 30,000 light years yonder

Halley Church Galaxy

That’s what I thought when I began planning my Great Mexican Comet Chase some three years earlier. I knew about this  amazing ravaged cathedral and had seen photos.  I had long planned a trek to Mexico to view Comet Halley , fully aware the Tropics offered the best viewing of Halley as a landscape.  One of my hobbies is creating photographs of astronomical scenes blending  earthly landscapes and night sky phenomena. I call these “ Starscapes“.  The appearance of Comet Halley was  irresistible as a venue. Wyoming wouldn’t provide much . I had already spent ten years making winter treks to Mexico and Central America and knew the culture and logistics of Latin America well enough . Those prior trips had been formed around the notion of Archaeoastronomy.  I’d already spent many moonlit nights in the ruins of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico, Monte Alban in Oaxaca  and the magnificent stone pyramids of Tikal in the jungle of Guatemala, photographing starfields in synch with megalithic ruined cities of Mesoamerican cultures. While I initially planned to make the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan the principal destination of the Halley trak, the ruined church or Michoacan slowly took over my planning. It was calling me.

I spent a year converting a Chevy half ton truck to a safari vehicle  and outfitting it into living quarters complete with a photo darkroom. I acquired a Meade 4″ Schmidt-Cassegrainian telescope  and fit it with an astronomical clock drive. My friend who was handy with a welder and grinder fabricated an adjustable equatorial mounting wedge from some engine alternator brackets , in order to couple the heavy telescope to a surplus land surveyor’s wooden tripod ( as sturdy as they come, but also quite heavy ). And finally , a 3-axis camera mount  to piggyback a Nikon to the top of the telescope itself. All that and a portable 12-volt deep cycle battery to run the telescope drive and a 400,000 candlepower handheld spotlight. Nothing to it at all.

In fact , the only hard part of this whole pan was figuring out how to get the Starship Boobyprise, as I had christened my safari truck , down close enough to the cathedral to schlepp all this stuff  to a suitable photo vantage near the cathedral. After all, that church was located inside a 20 foot thick sea of treacherous volcanic cinder with edges as sharp as knives. Actually driving my truck to a staging area less than a quarter mile away from the cathedral was a genuine once in a lifetime adventure. I was prepared to abandon the truck down there on the front porch of Hell if it came to that. But finding a local Tarascan Indian to show me the way down there was the tough part.  It required a rather substantial bribe of pesos and tequila.   I had already paid another local guide the day before to hike me down to the church from the village of Angahuan up on the rim of the Valley of Volcanoes. Once down there I spotted a faint 2-track road near the ruined church , but had no idea where it came from or even if it could be driven the long ways down and around from Angahuan.  The local guides have a pact to not give out that information. They’re a somehwhat hostile bunch on a good day , till the money comes out anwyway. Hence the bribe to the town barracho  (drunkard) not party to the pact , but easily tempted. He was full blood Tarascan and spoke about as much Spanish as I did , so we got along great. Tequila and mota are great communication tools.  He navigated me down to the Engulfed Cathedral, which was in and of itself a friggin’ miracle.  Many times on that momentous drive I wondered if I would be able to drive back UP the wretched goat trail of a road filled with soft volcanic sand. Once parked and my guide discharged with full honors, and quite drunk, it took me about four hours to do some horizontal mountaineering to schlepp all my gear and sleeping stuff out onto the lavafield and get it set up before nightfall.

Here’s an image of me on the lava ledge  behind the remaining tower of the cathedral, with Volcano Paricutin ,in the distance. My Tarascan guide Silvestro took the photo during the initial reconnoitor.


Creating the nocturnal starscape  comet photos was an exercise in precise photography , mechanical astronomy, and  contortionist Yoga. First , the telescope had to be calibrated to True Celestial North in order to faithfully track the rotating sky , which moves a full degree of arc every four minutes’ time.  That I did early in the evening before getting some sleep, or trying to. The time exposures themselves required me to work in darkness or with only red lighting, to avoid ruining my night vision. I had to manually guide the telescope for 25- 30 minutes each exposure , using a small electrical control box  and peering thru the telescope to keep a guide star centered on the illuminated crosshairs. I’d had a lot of practice at this, but it’s never quite the same each time.  Then I had to pick up the handheld Brinkmann spotlight with its own red filter, and “paint” the cathedral with the beam , giving each area of the church about 3 seconds’ length of exposure to the spotlight beam. It took about 30 seconds to paint the church, and I was appalled at the amount of extraneous light leaking out of the spotlight to light up the foreground, but that turned out to be a plus, actually.  Then I would halt the exposure, get the crosshairs back on the guide star, independently recompose the camera for the next scene, clamp it, and start a new time exposure. My trusty Nikon F2A camera with either a wide angle lens or 55mm macro normal lens were used . I used Kodak 400 speed color negative film. I would only add that between the time Comet Halley rose tail-first over the horizon at 2:30 AM and the coming dawn wiped out the night sky by 4:30 AM or so , I was able to take only four exposures of 30 minutes using the tracking telecope.  I was downright sore from hunkering over the camera and telescope for basically two hours straight on a precarious lava ledge , contorted.  Three years of planning and work  for four exposures. But they achieved the desired results.

Halley Photo Base

Comet Halley -Engulfed Cathedral Photo Setup

Once I finally saw my handiwork two months later, submitting the images to National Geographic Magazine seemed the thing to do.  The photo editor, Bruce McElfresh , was ecstatic. The magazine had long been planning a story on Comet Halley , and he said I had a double truck ( 2-page photo)  and one other shot in the preliminary layout for the December issue. But a funny thing happened on the way to sainthood. This guy named Ballard discovered the sunken ruins of the H.M.S. Titanic , and the December issue of the magazine mas subsumed by the Titanic.  The comet underwhelmed, the sunken luxury liner overwhelmed. Comet Halley had been a disappointment  to most folks ( but not me) , and the Geographic decided reluctantly to trim the Halley article and go with only the photos they themselves had commissioned and paid for. The photo most resembling mine was from some guy who dug a pit under one of the Easter Island stone heads and took a shot nearly straight up the face of the statue with Halley overhead on angel wings. Ho hum. No Engulfed Cathedral with strong religious overtones , astounding cosmology , and stupendous geology to be had there…

The downside to this is I did not  publish the Halley pix in the interim between June and December. I didn’t want to jinx my chances. Besides, National Geo had the original films most of that time . I had only the precious glossy prints I had made before sending them away to Washington.  To this date, my incredible Comet Halley-Engulfed Cathedral photographs  that span 30,000 light years of space and time , have yet to be published.   I could’ve put them in the astronomy magazines that I regularly contributed to , for free or small money . I believe them  to be worth much more, so I never published them .  Sold a few prints ( hint, hint )

This blog entry is the only instance of public publication of the Halley and ruined church series,  so far.  I would love to be able to read Mark Twain’s account of all this. ” A Wyoming Agnostic resurrects the Engulfed Cathedral  of Mexico“.

I freely admit borrowing the term Engulfed Cathedral from the French composer Claude Debussy, who wrote a 3 minute Prelude piano piece of the same name , later arranged for orchestra. Recommended listening…it is a truely stellar piece. Oddly enough , it was also published one hundred years ago , in 1910. The Twain met. Will the serendipity never end ?  I hope not.

Perhaps I’ll get around to blogging about the rest of this 11,000 mile trek to chase Comet Halley across Mesoamerica some day. An overland journey  from wintery Wyoming to the Yucatan Peninsula and the shores of the tropical Caribbean and back again is rich with tales .  If the Holy Roman Catholic goon squads don’t lynch me first  for disparaging their  engulfed cathedral…

Posted by: Cody Coyote | May 10, 2010

Goggle Earth blackout ! Cody disappeared

I don’t know about you , but perhaps I have grown way too dependent on Google and its cornucopia of digital services.  I say this because one of my keystone Google apps has suddenly —and quite literally —gone dark. At least below 10,000 feet.  The amazing Google Earth application that uses high resolution satellite images combined with spaceborne radar elevation data and a host of standard mapping tools  to allow us all to fly anywhere on Earth has somehow thrown Cody Wyoming into darkness. Utterly black darkness. If you have Google Earth  ( you should; it’s free) you can see for yourself.  Just navigate to a point above Cody  in 3D Terrain mode ( 44.5 latitude , – 109.2 longitude , or search by name)  , where you can see the whole town from east to west , thus and so :

Cody WY sat view full

This is the GoogleEarth view of Cody from an Eye Altitude of 30,000 feet looking straight down.  The yellow map tack is my studio location at 15th and Beck Avenue near downtown. The airport is at lower right, Wal-mart is the ittle white rectangle at the left. This image was taken by the satellite last July 9, 2009.

Now , zoom in. Fly down to an Eye Altitude of about 8200 feet, and this is what you see.  I turned on Streets  so you have some bearings:

PlanetCody - fade to black

That , ladies and gentleman is the Big Problem.

Google has blacked out Cody below a certain altitude. Pretty much just Cody , too, although this same issue occurs out across the Badlands of the Big Horn Basin in sporadic instances. ( 38 miles ESE of Cody and 17 miles SW of Greybull  near the pueblo of Otto is another zone of darkness. There’s also an abundance of  really weird purple sagebrush out there, too, but that’s for another day. This Blackout  does not occur to Powell or Ralston or Greybull or any other nearby community.  Just around Cody. This happened maybe 5-6 weeks ago, in late March or so. The entire town of Cody and immediate surrounds come under this Black Shadow where the underlying satellite imagery fades to black. I cannot explain Why ; just What.

Even weirder, you need only go a couple miles west of Cody and the problem goes away . Like up in the Shoshone Canyon, 4 miles from my studio. There you will find the boundary between where normal satellite imagery and the blackout is very sharply defined. You can even see some symptoms of the imagery breaking down , fracturing into polygons or fractals.  Here’s the view looking down on the high bridge in the middle of Shoshone Canyon:

Cody Blackout-fracture boundary

The left side of this image is normal . The right side is descending into darkness at an Eye Altitude of  9365 feet. Look at the disintegration to the upper right of the bridge. Bizarreness.

Whatever is causing this problem , it’s with Google. I’ve verified this is not a Mac or PC issue, nor is it related to internet service providers be they cable or DSL. It’s agnostic to the User and wholly the blame of Google’s imagery or its servers.  Trust me, they have been notified of the problem . I have spent hours on the blogs and Google Earth forums , and have concluded these sorts of blackouts are  extremely rare. They are in fact unheard of where high resolution imagery recently existed at all. Except for Cody Wyoming.

By using Google Earth’s time travel feature, you can revert to an earlier imagery base of Cody and the problem goes away. The previous satellite image of Cody was taken in July of 2006 , some 4 years ago. It’s fine . ( See below ).  The blackout only occurs with the newer image swath done last summer.  Here’s that previous imagery from summer 2006. The astute among you will notice immediately that Canal Park up by the Rec Center ( at bottom of image) was still barren of grass and foliage :

Planet Cody in summer 2006

This Cody Blackout situation is very annoying to me. I use Google Earth a lot. I was looking forward to the new satellite imagery  to keep track of changes and progress in my hometown, at street level with good resolution. New construction , new subdivisions, developments, better Street View, generally just up to date imagery. Now I guess we wait for Google to fix this. Don’t hold your breath. At least I didn’t link in the Rolling Stones’ classic  rumba “Paint It Black” to help underscore this wretched mess.  But I could have…

There are really only two possible explanations for the Blackout. The first , and most likely , is a data processing glitch. Most folk have no idea how complicated it is to merge so many streams of disparate data into one coherent tight image  that agrees with itself . It’s a Modern Miracle we have this capability at all, on your very own personal computer desktop. Just a few years ago this kind of integrated satellite and field data would’ve been highly classified stuff  invoking National Security issues if used or abused, and brought the spooks   ‘a running . Today, I can peer into North Korea , Cuba , Area 51 , Meeteetse , and pretty much everywhere else without so much as a wince. So much planet out there; so little time.  ( By the way , Google Earth also can take you to the Moon and Mars . Now that‘s armchair travel!)

For those of you who exhibit some paranoia, the second explanation is more sinister Cody is being intentionally CENSOREDBig Dick Cheney used to get away with this sort of behavior, by fiat , when he was the Veep. He had his residence in  Washington D.C. at Number One Observatory Circle on the grounds of the vaunted US Naval Observatory overlooking Massachusetts Avenue  totally blurred out of Google Earth. His mansion disappeared. So did his somewhat more modest digs on the banks of the Snake River west of Jackson , Wyoming, his official residence for official purposes ( buying those really cheap Wyoming resident fishing licenses). Dunno about his Casper house or his new mansion on the eastern shore of Maryland, nor do I care.

I sincerely doubt that anyone in Cody has the political clout to demand Google obliterate the imagery below 10,000 feet.  Not even Al Simpson. Do we have a world class tyrant or geopolitical scapegoat living in Cody under the Witness Protection Program ? How the hell would I know.  I’m just a citizen scientist griping about my favorite magical earth resources application going Ga-Ga. It’s insulting to me that it’s happened right here, right now— my own home town  that’s gone over to the Dark side .


Yes, I have grown too dependent on Google and its wonderful magic stuff. I’m only asking  the gods of Silicon Valley to shed some light on this, literally and figuratively.

I can’t spy on my neighbors like I used to.

Posted by: Cody Coyote | April 20, 2010

April 20 : Earth Day and Spaceflight, too

There are Gods of aeronautics and astronautics that favor the common people in isolated places like Wyoming who make offerings.  The pantheon heard my call this week and the heavens parted. The space shuttle Discovery flew directly over Cody at 6:48 -MDT  this morning on its way home to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida from a 15-day voyage to the International Space Station. Shuttles usually return over the Pacific Ocean , crossing Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba before landing, mainly to avoid population centers , in case they come home in pieces, as did Columbia in February 2003. On certain rare occasions, NASA will send them home over the American heartland instead, arcing diagonally across the Lower 48 states from the Pacific Northwest across the Great Plains  and the Deep South. That has only happened three times that I can recall, the last being in November 2007.  Today , after some angst across two full days  due to an extended mission and rainy weather in Florida , everything aligned for Discovery to blaze across northwest Wyoming just after sunrise.  California and Florida  clans maybe be used to seeing  the Great White Spacebirds coming home to roost, but for us in Wyoming it’s like spotting a pink Whooping Crane or a Unicorn.

But you had to be quick with  the eyeballs, and know exactly when and where to look. Discovery was in view for maybe 10-12 seconds’ time. It was invisible on approach and vanished very quickly once it passed almost directly over Cody . There was no contrail or any kind of aeronautic plumage. It was only visible for the few seconds that the shuttle’s bottom fuselage ( the black tiled bottom and wings ) were pointed back at us…  the shuttle comes in with it’s nose 40 degrees up, almost the same angle as your hand out in front of you of you start to fall.  Discovery was flying at Mach 22 some 30 miles high over Cody , nose up, the thin atmosphere piling up in front of the black tiles creating a forward envelope of super-hot super-bright plasma with an orange tinge.  Still, a shuttle 45 miles away is very small. It’s no bigger than a Boeing 737.  You don’t actually see the spacecraft, you see the plasma cocoon it’s wrapped in, which fortunately is as bright as an arc welder’s bead.

My friend Andy Frazier actually got a photo of Discovery . We were observing from one of our favorite astronomical road camps out at the Sagebrush Hoppers public RC Model Airplane field three miles north of Cody, which has an excellent all-sky view and Heart Mountain on the north skyline .  Andy’s wingshot photo  is nothing stellar, but it is what it is— presented herein in its  full glory.

andy shuttle pic

Me myself and I, the alleged professional photographer, got nothing. I realize now I should’ve shot a short video clip with my point and shoot Nikon , instead of trying to hit the big bird on the fly with the  Nikon D80 digital skeetshooter. By the time I had spotted the shuttle and was ready to  shoot, it went into stealth mode. Gone as quick as it came. We never saw it coming, and it was providence alone that allowed me to catch it out of the corner ( or top , actually ) of my eye.  Our consolation prize was a delightful sonic boom a little less that 4 minutes later…enough of a boom that you could actually feel it. About a minute and ten seconds after the shuttle passed over us, it was already out east of Denver , barnstorming the good folks of Nebraska, Kansas, and Arkansas, scaring the children and the chickens. Yo ! Those shuttle sonic booms grow in intensity as the shuttle drops into lower thicker air and gets closer to Terra Firma and the trailer parks, but  intentional sonic booms over populated areas are outlawed these days for anything other than spacecraft and maybe spyplanes.

A shame…when I was a kid, there were local flyboys who had been issued government warplanes , and they always made it a point to buzz their hometowns .Impromptu FortheHellofit  one man air show in their F-102 Voodoo or F-104 Starfighter.  One of these jet jocks lived in Lovell and repeatedly gave a great big ‘Howdy Do’ on burners at Mach 1+ when he could, like the time he came through Shoshone Canyon over Cody heading for New Mormonia up there in Big Horn County. I was about 8 years old. I miss those carefree days , the “Duck and cover” drills and Cold War surrealism . But I digress.

ISS pass-annotatedTook this short time exposure last week, of the Space Station and Space Shuttle docked passing overhead before dawn near Ursa Major, the Big Dipper.

What made Earth Day’s performance by the space shuttle possible was the cancellation of several previous landing attempts. Two on Monday , and the first attempt on Tuesday when fog and rain permeated the Cape Canaveral area. They fight controllers deferred Discovery for one more lap around the Earth, hoping the morning sun would burn off the clouds in Florida . It did.  Otherwise, the shuttle would’ve very likely landed in California at Edwards Air Force Base that same orbit , or the one after. NASA doesn’t like going that route because it adds ten days and $ 1.5 million to a shuttle’s turnaround  for its next flight to fly  it “home”  from California on the back of the giant 747 NASA uses for just that purpose.  It was serendipity  or that small animal I ceremoniously eviscerated before dawn that brought Discovery over Wyoming today.  The next time it flies, it may be the very last shuttle flight ever, this coming September, unless the program is extended.

The last flight of a space shuttle, ever.  After 129  launches and 127 landings in 29 years, only three more missions are on the manifest. It made this viewing opportunity over Wyoming all the more precious, and worth getting up early for.


I do have one question for NASA. Discovery was granted an extra day in orbit after the original landing slot on Sunday was cancelled due to that fickle Florida weather ( pagans down there simply are NOT meeting their quota of sacrificed live chickens !).  This mission had 4 men —and three rather attractive women on board, an African-American, an Anglo, and a very cute Japanese lady astronaut.  What exactly do they do on those R & R days  in orbit, in zero gravity ?  I have to ask.  Research ?

Postscript:  Not only is it Earth Day , it’s also time for the annual Lyrid Meteor Shower, the so-called “ April Fireballs”.  If you should happen to be out before dawn after the Moon has set on April 20 and 21.

Here’s a couple of Earth Day pix  that came thru the Nikons this past week :

My backyard Daffoldils bloomed out early this year, before April 10. I can’t really recall seeing bumblebees  this soon , either. Photo taken April 15.


And my hobby birds have arrived for the Summer.  The flock of adult male Turkey Vultures  (Cathartes aura) have done their Reverse Snowbird thing   and taken up residence in the trees at 11th Street  and Canyon Avenue.  I started observing these birds 11 years ago there.  The same birds return to the same trees every summer.  I was pleasantly surprised to see the full complement of vultures already roosting on April 16.

It is definitely an early Spring in Cody Coyote Country.

Posted by: Cody Coyote | April 12, 2010


image: space station pass-April 12Photo: Dewey Vanderhoff/Planet Cody ©

The Space Age is by most reckoning is barely 52 years old. The first shot heard round the world was of course Sputnik , launched in October of 1957. To my mind, the real age of space exploration began on this date, April 12, in the year 1961 when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin took Vostok 1 for a hop around the planet , and lived to tell about it. The day that Man left the cradle. On the same date twenty years later, the first true  spaceship left for orbit, the space shuttle Columbia on its maiden voyage, April 12 of 1981. Those two milestone events are why I call April 12 World Space Day.

This morning provided a stellar opportunity ( pun intended) to recall those manned spaceflight touchstones. At 5:17 AM a bright object suddenly appeared alongside the bright star Arcturus in the dark predawn skies westerly above Cody , Wyoming.  It was the International Space Station joined at the hip with space shuttle Discovery ( Columbia’s second sibling) leaving the Earth’s shadow for orbital sunrise. The incandescent golden object was brighter than anything in the sky– indeed all but the Sun, Moon , and planet Venus at magnitude-3.3  proximate due to having acres of gold metallic mirror-like solar panels. More importantly , the fast moving light was carrying 13 humans from several nations , including four women astronauts , within its 400 tons of hardware and not less than three fully functional manned spacecraft moored to the docks 215 miles above Earth. The photo above is testament.

With any luck , next Monday morning  the space shuttle Discovery will pass within visible range of Wyoming on its way home to Florida. Just after sunrise Cody time on Monday  April 19, the astute and well placed observer may actually  see Discovery zooming thru the atmosphere in an incandescent cocoon of plasma with a long contrail. This has only occured once before in the 132 missions of the Space Shuttle, a re-entry visible across the American heartland at dawn.  Most returning shuttles approach Florida from the southwest over the South Pacific then the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, to avoid the possibility of scattering debris over populated areas should another shuttle break up on reentry , as did Columbia.  I saw a shuttle returning home from the Russian MIR space station in the mid-1990’s over Wyoming. It was in a bright pinkish-orange fireball trailing a light blue contrail , followed a few minutes later by a muffled sonic boom. At the time I was out in Oregon Basin east of town  , and that shuttle was reentering back west of me, probably more directly over Cody , passing thru broken clouds. It was an astounding sight— Not to be missed! Besides which  there will likely be no more opportunities to observe this NW—>SE  reentry across Mid-America in the few remaining shuttle fights, after the current Discovery mission.

Weather permitting, I would suggest being out east of Cody about 14 miles at Eagle Pass , where the American flag flies on the promontory 1/4 mile south of the highway where it cuts thru the low ridge.  The view to the east is boundless and uncluttered from north to south , across the Badlands.   It would be peachy to have a few interested folks  there to provide a nice ” Americana” foreground for photos of this space spectacle  ( just don’t park right at the flagpole, please ! ).  Let’s have a breakfast gathering to honor our international space programs and the return of the most experieinced well traveled space shuttle in the fleet. The traditional Earth Day is the following day, April 20, this year being its 40th anniversary.

NASA won’t publish the final reentry timeline and ground track maps of Discovery’s coming  transcontinental US reentry  until two days before landing. Maybe this Friday afternoon we’ll know the details if the bureaucrats are well motivated ( yeah, right) , but more likely it will be sometime Saturday  before we have an accurate idea of Discovery’s visbility to viewers.   You can follow the mission developments  and learn  the landing details quickly by  browsing to  and navigating to Mission Status Center for real time updates and NASA video . ( The SF Now homepage also has a link for the Landing info  in its lefthand sidebar.)

For my part, I’ll defer my personal celebration of Space Day 2010 for another week till I ( hopefully ) see Discovery skillfully torching thru the morning sky above Wyoming. That will give time to more fully reflect  on Yuri Gagarin  , Columbia‘s first and last flights , the death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov of Soyuz 1 in 1967, the three cosmonauts of Soyuz 11 who died  on reentry in 1971, and of course the Challenger shuttle crew in 1986. More importantly will be the revelations of how far we have come in manned space fight since leaving the cradle just 49 years ago . We even made it to the next world out there, our own Moon , six times. More importantly all the crew made it back. Amazing  what we can accomplish when we put our minds to it :  Man on the Moon only 66 years after the Wright Brothers flew a wood and canvas contraption a whopping 112 feet at Kitty Hawk , rising no higher than a man’s top hat.  Where will we be 66 years from now?

– More later in the week !


(p.s.  This is my first Blog post ever. I  gots  lots to learn…)