Surveying for America – Pipeline

In the Spring of 1968, The University of Wyoming informed me that they were no longer interested in including me in their student body. After two years of hard partying, bad attitude, and a general lack of effort, my 1.4 grade average was considered well below “snuff” and I was shown the door.  Suddenly, I needed a job. A college friend told me that his father, who was a licensed Land Surveyor in Casper, had just gotten some pipeline and mining contracts and was hiring. I applied and was assigned to Mike Munkers’ crew.

Mike, a short, sturdily-built man with glasses and thinning hair, was given a thick pile of detailed USGS maps of the Wyoming countryside. Each of the maps had a red line drawn on it that ran generally from South to North. Starting on the first map which depicted an area near Guernsey, the route ran nearly 180 miles North to the oilfields near Gillette. This was to be the route of a new oil pipeline.

Over the next two months we put a line of pin flags – red plastic squares each attached to a thick piece of wire – in the ground, one every 100 feet over the course of what would be the pipeline. Mike kept a log of each day’s progress, noting not only how far we’d come, but the positive or negative degrees and minutes of inclination between each transit set up. The engineers back in Casper could then plot out an entire cross-section of the full 180 miles of pipe.

We would begin the day with Mike setting up the transit directly  over the last lath that Walt, the Lead Chain, had pounded into the ground the afternoon before. A lath is a rough piece of wood about three feet long that is sharpened at one end and has a strip of bright red plastic tied to the other. Walt was a tall and lanky kid with large, protruding ears. Mike said he looked like a cab coming down the street with both doors open. The “chain” was actually a flat steel tape with marks at the beginning and the end of it that were exactly 100 feet apart. In the past, chains were made of actual chains, with links, and when the tool modernized, the name did not.

Once the transit was set and leveled, Mike would sight the scope back at the previous lath usually about a quarter mile away. He would lock the instrument down so it couldn’t turn, then flop the scope over. Instead of looking back the way we had come, the scope was now looking along the exact same line at the way we would go.

Walt, with a hatchet and a new lath in one hand and the leather lanyard that was attached to the head of the chain in the other, would start walking.. I would stand next to the transit and when the end of the chain was getting close I would pick up the tail lanyard and hold it, which would stop Walt.  Walt would hold the tip of the hatchet handle at the zero mark and I would hold the end of the chain at the lath at the 100 foot mark. Mike, looking through the transit, would signal left or right until the hatchet handle was right on the cross hair. When Mike waved his arms, Walt dropped the hatchet and put a pin flag in the depression that was left in the ground.

I’d then drop the chain and start walking. Walt would turn and also start walking, the chain trailing along behind him. At the first pin flag I would pick up the tail lanyard and we’d repeat the process. When Mike could no longer see Walt’s hatchet, whether a hill had intervened or he was just too far away, he’d signal that it was time to pound in the lath. When the lath was sturdily in the ground and dead on the line, Walt and I would have fifteen or twenty minutes of down time while Mike loaded the transit into the four wheel drive truck, drove down the line of pin flags to the new lath, and set up the transit once again.

Walking across Wyoming turned out to be a pleasant way to spend a couple of Summer months. The Eastern side of the state is the Western edge of the Great Plains. There were no mountains to climb or rivers to cross, just undulating grassland and periodic areas of flat rock. In our first week, when we were loading up at the end of a day, Mike told us to hurry up get the equipment in the truck.

“There’s something here you’ve got to see,” he said  as we took off.

When he stopped the truck after a short drive he said, “Get out and take a look.”

We looked around, puzzled. “What?” we asked.

“Look at the ground.”

The ground was actually a flat sheet of rock with weeds growing out of the many cracks in it. Across this expanse two parallel grooves about three inches deep, five inches wide, and five feet apart  had been scored into the stone. They ran fairly straight from the Southeast to the Northwest.

“That, guys, is the Oregon Trail. When we came out here to figure out a starting point, Mr. Gilson showed it to me. Imagine thousands of wagon wheels with iron rims rolling over this rock one after the other.”

I stood between the timeworn ruts in the rock and looked both ways. And I wondered if I had lived more than a hundred years before and had had the chance to go, would I have done it? The almost unimaginable courage it must have taken to put everything you owned into a wagon and start walking West was, to me, nearly overwhelming.

Silent and humbled we drove back to our motel for the night.

A month later we had run our miles-long line of pin flags to just south of the Thunder Basin National Grasslands. Our muscles had adapted to walking 4 or 5 miles a day and we had learned how to work together efficiently so we were, consequently, a day or two ahead of schedule.

At breakfast Mike announced, “we’re going to take the day off today. The transit and some other equipment all need to be adjusted and cleaned. You guys can clean out the truck and wash it, then we’ll drive over to Bill and see my Dad.”

Neither Walt or I had any idea who Bill was or why Mike’s Father was hanging out with the man and Mike was being deliberately coy about it. We took a dirt road over to State 59 and turned north. Not long thereafter we saw a little general store off to the left and then a highway sign that said, “Bill” and we understood.

Mike introduced us to his father. Dean Munkers, like his son, was compact and sturdy, the only differences being 30 years, a pot belly, a beard, and a stained cowboy hat. He was not named Bill, but had bought the place from the son of the original Bill. That man, a WWI veteran and evidently a card-carrying misanthrope, had built himself a little place 40 miles from the nearest human being.

The Original Bill was happy in his solitude for a few years, then the State of Wyoming built a 113 mile-long dirt road from Douglas to Gillette that just happened to go right through his front yard. His first thought was to pull up stakes and move, but instead he built a general store, put in a gas pump, and put out an “Open” sign. Civilization quickly followed in the form of a wife, children, and a request from the State to name the place for the purposes of local mail distribution. He named it after himself.

Inside the general store, as well as the expected shelves stocked with grocery and hardware items, there was a case containing guns and ammo, a telephone booth, and a cash register counter where the owner sold cigarettes, candy, and gum.  Above the single US Post Office window hung a large, lettered sign.


Population      1

Mayor………………. Dean Munkers

Police Chief……….. Dean Munkers

Postmaster………… Dean Munkers

Drive carefully. The life you save may be Dean Munkers.

By the first week of August we were crossing the oilfields that surround Gillette. The beautiful, empty grasslands had given way to barren, low hills criss-crossed with bulldozed roads, oil derricks surrounded by mud wallows, and pump jacks everywhere looking like giant, metal insects bobbing their heads as they sucked the blood out of the ground.  To a wealthy oilman, I’m sure it looked like money and power, but to a penniless kid on the back end of an Engineer’s Chain, it was an ugly blight.

They say that in time the oil wells will all run dry, the machines will be torn down and sold for scrap, and the land will be left to slowly return to its natural state. But some wounds can never fully heal. I wonder sometimes if, a hundred years from now, our descendants  will look at those old scars and be moved like I was moved by the wagon tracks of the Oregon Trail Pioneers. Will they stand in awe of our grit, ingenuity, and perseverance? Or will there be some other emotion?