The Old Broke Rancher Laments His Carbon Footprint

Old Broke Rancher Masthead
Cold road

A week or so ago, some temperature records were broken in Montana. Bozeman saw -43, Helena -35, Lincoln -49, and the wind-chill reached an astounding low of -72 in Malta. These record-cold temperatures from this Alberta Clipper reached all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The water in my toilet bowl froze, for goodness' sake.

One of my spies, wintering in Tucson to get away from just such eventualities as these, claimed they were considering lynch parties for owners of RV's with Alberta plates, thinking they may have brought this shit with them.  

At any rate, this storm was bad enough that it was given a name: "Elliott."

I knew they named hurricanes but was unaware they named blizzards. Sometimes I learn every day, even at my ripe old age. The officials declared a state of emergency in Georgia, where you have to assume everyone's peaches were freezing, so to speak.

It even got so bad that they did not run the out-of-town school busses in the Havre School District. 

Not exactly a snow day, mind you, just an inconvenient one me. School isn't cancelled, although I toyed with letting them have a day off, because how much can you learn when its so cold anyway? But it takes a really bad blizzard, one probably named Adolf, or Damien like that little kid in The Omen, to declare a snow day around here. I just had to drive the kids in to school, but I groaned and complained and shivered the whole way.

I console myself by thinking that it would have been even worse 20,000 or so years ago. First, there would be no roads, although I'd like to think that doesn't present too much of a challenge for Old Bess, the family truck. More daunting is the solid ice wall that covered most of northern Montana and Canada back then. In fact, they used to slide all over this fair continent like mega-sized hockey pucks, way down into places like Colorado, and even into Yosemite NP in California.

A mile-thick sheet of ice on top of and all over my little ranch could seriously dent the value of my deed, to say nothing about the reduction in its grazing value, I thought to myself once I get back from driving the kids home from school and pour myself another cup of coffee. Is that what was happening out there in the cold? Elliott had already dumped a foot, so why not a couple of thousand feet more? 

gas pump

I can't say that I'm much of a climate change guy, and I don't like to opine on things I don't know much about. Or maybe I do like it, but I only like it when I can reasonably appear as if I know what I'm talking about.

Now, I started to tally up the size of my "carbon footprint," a word that recently came into usage. Or fairly recently in the life of an old man like me, at any rate. Maybe I have some responsibility for the storm I was enduring, so let's add it all up.

I started out slowly in my pre-teens, mowing lawns as a kid, burning up to a gallon or so every time Ms. Fitzpatrick or Mr. O'Leary saw fit to give me two bits for the service. I graduated to a small motorcycle early on. Accounting for my paper route, I can assume I burned a couple of gallons a week in that endeavor.  

Eventually, however, it got much worse. I went to college in an old Volkswagen bug that averaged only 30 miles to a gallon, and I will admit to aimlessly cruising the drag and winking clumsily at pretty girls in other cars who probably thought I was suffering some facial tic. 

With a college degree in hand, I found the Burlington Northern railroad hiring. Now I got serious about burning fossil fuels. At first I drove a 70's Suburban hauling crews to trains. It was a guzzler at best and damn thirsty at the least, and I would bet on about 6-8 mpg. Trains were over a mile long and they ran 20 to 30 a day through my town. So yes I put away a little fuel. I ended up as a locomotive engineer. 

Five locomotives in full throttle pulling a coal train up a grade can use some serious fuel. I did that for 20 years. So that is an incalculable amount of carbon in itself, but add to that 250 or so trains a year over those years and then throw in 15,000 tons of coal to a train load, it begins to add up. 

It just can't get worse, you think, but you'd be wrong it can, and it does; 20 years is a short career, and my employe,r looking to man even more trains, offered me the job of training others. So I took a job at the technical training center and spread my vermin even further afield. 

I estimate that I trained about 1000 men and women over the time I was a teacher of Locomotive Engineers and who could presume to know how much fuel they all burned in total as a result.  As a finishing touch to my stupendous carbon footprint, my wife and I purchased the ranch. Between machines like tractors and trucks, which all use a little diesel, we have continued to burn. Our greatest sin, perhaps, is that we have produced some beef.


Cows fart, which apparently further contributes to global warming. If cow farts contribute, then it's a safe bet that mine do too, and so I add that as my final, shameful misdeed, climate-wise. My wife has told me that they're terrible to endure.

I say all this with genuine contrition, in case there is something to climate change. Hell, most scientists seem to agree there is, and as a man with a degree in the sciences (which did little for my career as a railroad man), I have to represent the home team by people a lot smarter than me say that humans are making it worse. Maybe so. If you've ever driven through LA, first, I'm sorry, and second, you know damn well it wouldn't be as hazy as it is if it were still just a bunch of orange groves and desert. But then, I wonder, if all of my cows are causing the warming, what about the 30 to 60 million bison that roamed the continent in the 19th century?  

Anyway, it's not given to me to understand such things. I'm but a simple man. All I can do is say that if I've caused any of this, I'm awfully sorry. I only took the jobs that were offered to me - if someone had asked me to be the fifth member of Crosby, Still, Nash, Shelton & Young, I would have done that instead. Except we probably would have been so successful that we would have taken private jets everywhere, like Elon Musk or (and I had to google someone else to come up with this name because I'm so old) Taylor Swift. And then that would have disastrous for the environment too. I still might end up second place to the country of China as a source of greenhouse gas, but still.

I should have moved to the woods and done the Unabomber thing, except for mailing bombs, naturally.

But what am I to do when what I do for a job, and most everything that I like to do for fun (except bloviate, of course), is supposedly bad for the environment?

And that, dear reader, is how I came to a New Years' resolution that should begin to address the issue. 

The next time the busses can't come to pick up the out-of-town kids, I'll either let them stay home, or they can walk to school themselves. 

Feeling lighter, I poured myself another cup of coffee and sat in front of the television. Quigley Down Under, one of my favorite movies, was on. As Quigley rode across the Australian outback, blasting nefarious cowboys and correcting the wrongs of British colonialism with his custom-made rifle, I found myself getting jealous of Tom Selleck's title character. 

Not only was he handsome and heroic, but his carbon footprint was probably nil. 

Some guys have all the luck. 


Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy.  Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV.  Hell, scratch that.  Enough to buy the whole RV.  

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