CASPER, WYOMING – How does a 1-million-ton pile of Wyoming “earth” end up on a clearing in Georgia?
The pictures in today’s postcard reveal the answer…
Spotted by a Reader
Greetings from the county park in the mountains outside Casper… our campsite for the night.
We’re paying $10 a night for a primitive site.
A man approached us just now at our campsite.
“Are you Tom Dyson?” He asked.
He was driving an SUV. I figured he was the park ranger coming to cross check us against his campground registry. “Yes,” I said.
I was wrong.
“I read your Postcards,” he said. “We were just driving past. I recognized your pop-up camper from your pictures. We had to stop and say ‘hi!’”
Into the Unknown
Two years ago, my family and I cast off into The Unknown. We emptied our apartments, left our jobs, pulled the kids from their normal routines, and hit the road with nothing but a suitcase and our passports.
We’ve made a complete circle of the planet, visiting places like India, Africa, China, and Japan. Now, we’re doing an in-depth tour of America, our “home” land.
We’ve been sharing our exploits – first on social media and then via these Postcards – since the beginning.
Once, in India, an Instagram follower wrote to us and told us they’d spotted us getting out of a cab. Another time, in Rwanda, an Instagram follower wrote to us and told us they’d been on the same airplane as we were.
This evening marked the first time in our travels we’ve actually been approached by someone who follows us online.
We invited Bill and his wife to join us at our camp for a bit, but they said they were running late for something and had to go.
“What an amazing coincidence,” I told him. “I’m so glad you stopped by. I can’t wait to share this in tomorrow’s postcard!”
First Piece of the Puzzle
We’re currently in Wyoming. Today we explored Wyoming’s coal producing region, the Powder River Basin.
First, we went to the Eagle Butte coal mine, just outside Gillette, Wyoming. Here we are watching giant dump trucks haul hundreds of tons of coal out of the pit…
Dump trucks haul coal out of the pit
Penny at the mine
Then we went to watch coal trains on their way to the big cities of the South and the East Coast.
The section of track we chose is used by both BNSF Railway (the largest freight railroad network in North America) and Union Pacific. It’s called the Joint Line.
They built this line in the ’70s as a single track. As volumes have grown, they’ve added extra tracks. This section now has four tracks!
Here we are, just outside the Antelope Mine…
With Miles and Dusty outside the Antelope Mine
Coal trains on their way to the big cities
The Answer to Our Question
Back to the question at the top of this postcard…
Southern Company’s Plant Scherer, in Georgia, is the largest coal-fired power plant in the western hemisphere.
Every year, Plant Scherer burns 12 million tons of coal. In a clearing beside the power plant, Southern Co. keeps a one-million-ton reserve, known locally as “the Pile.”
Plant Scherer’s coal comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.
BNSF Railway uses 36 coal trains to service Plant Scherer. These 36 trains spend their entire existence traveling the 1,800 miles from the rail loop in Powder River to another loop at the Georgia plant.
The round-trip takes about 10 days. They call the route between Powder River and the eastern cities “the conveyor belt.”
Plant Scherer has the most efficient unloading operation in the country. A loaded coal train weighs 23,000 tons and stretches almost two miles.
The train pulls onto a trestle at 3 mph. Compressed air opens bay doors in the floors of the coal cars and the coal drops onto a mound below the trestle. Unloading a train takes 30 minutes.
Plant Scherer burns through the coal from one train in less than eight hours. Every year, Plant Scherer burns through 1,300 coal trains – 2,000 miles of coal cars.
Before 1970, the Powder River Basin was a beautiful grassland stretching for hundreds of miles.
Geologists knew immense coal deposits lay buried underneath. But the coal in Wyoming produced 30% less heat than Appalachian coal, so no one cared.
In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act. It required power plants to burn low-sulfur coal. Wyoming coal has one-fifth of the sulfur as Appalachian coal.
Suddenly, every power plant in the country wanted to fire its furnaces with Wyoming coal. Today, 63 coal trains haul 1.5 million tons of coal from the Powder River Basin every day.
(Even at this rate, there’s still enough coal there to last another 200 years.)
So what does the future look like for the Powder River Basin?
Here’s a clue: Plant Scherer owns 12,000 acres of vacant land around its existing plant. It’s earmarked for expansion.
– Tom Dyson
P.S. I got the details in this postcard from John McPhee’s book, Uncommon Carriers. There’s a chapter on the “conveyor belt.”
P.P.S. If you ever spot us in public, please say “hi.” We’d be delighted to meet you.
A reader asks about gold premiums… others share their own Mt. Rushmore experiences… and suggest another monument close by…
Reader question: How much of a premium over the price of gold should I expect to have to pay for an ounce gold coin? I don’t know if I’m paying too much at one retailer compared to others. Some make you buy 10 coins at a time.
Tom’s response: Do not pay more than 4% over the pure gold content for a gold coin. Remember, some 1 oz gold coins aren’t pure gold. Pre-1933 $20 gold pieces, for example, weigh an ounce but only contain 94% gold, so you have to take that into account when figuring out the premium you’re paying over pure gold value.
Reader comment: I, too, was unimpressed with Mt. Rushmore a few years ago. If you really want to be impressed, take a tour of the Crazy Horse Mountain nearby. They are carving THE ENTIRE MOUNTAIN. It is so much larger than Rushmore, it’s unbelievable. They’ve been working on it for (I think) 50 years and it will take another 30- or 40-odd years to complete it. It will wow you.
Reader comment: You may have already done this, but if you get a chance, stop by the Crazy Horse Monument – nearby Mt. Rushmore. The two projects display the difference between a government project where people are just doing a job, and a private project where people are living their dream. The contrast is quite amazing. Mt. Rushmore definitely doesn’t live up to its hype. The Crazy Horse monument – despite not being finished yet – is quite awesome.
Reader comment: So disappointed in your reaction to Mt. Rushmore! I hope you did not portray it to the kids. My children all were moved by it and loved it. Americans did a lot of unfair things, but are not perfect, like anyone else. But they have done a lot of good and courageous things as well. These great leaders are awe-inspiring. Their carving is unbelievable in technical ability. The man was a genius.
We also went to Crazy Horse each time we were there and paid money to see and to support his carving becoming reality. The great Indian chiefs were awe-inspiring as well with wise quotes. I understand the carving is much closer to being done now. If you cannot be inspired by Mt. Rushmore, I do not see how anything would inspire you.
The carving is not connected to what was done to get gold. Many of these things are in the past and need to be moved on from. It seems there are those that would tear down America now, and are using the past as an excuse to cause trouble. America is not – and never will be – perfect. But it is still where the whole world wants to be. We need to pull together and reject those who would defile our country and name.
Reader comment: The last time I was at Rushmore, I took a trip west with a friend. We drove from Minneapolis to Yellowstone by way of Rushmore and returned over the mountains from Yellowstone to Red Lodge and Billings… a grand trip. I was intrigued by Borglum’s workshop and put off by the fact that the Native American tragedies were pushed aside. We need to remember our history and we need to make sure that greed does not drive us.
Unfortunately, I believe self interest and greed are driving the nation to the detriment of our people, and with rampant disregard for rule of law and the Constitution, and our civil and human rights. These things have supported our economy and its free markets, our encouragement of investing and entrepreneurship, and applaud our being able to be part of those opportunities. I fear we are off course and those options are being usurped. The possibility of confiscation is all too real. Thanks for making your reader and others aware.
Reader comment: Hello Tom and Kate, I really enjoy reading your Postcards and seeing photos of the family. Sorry to hear you found Mt. Rushmore “underwhelming.” I’m glad you were honest about the experience. I’ve never been there but would like to visit the place “one of these days,” and the progress of the Crazy Horse monument as well.
Reader comment: Greetings Tom. I disagree with your dark sentiments about Mt. Rushmore and the “stolen lands.” The native Americans were a conquered people from the time when conquering and taking had been de rigueur for centuries. The worst thing we did to them was give them any land for reservations, as this prevented them from assimilating into the great nation of America, only to devolve into the mess many tribes live in now.
Reader comment: Sorry you found your experience underwhelming. I first visited there in the 1960’s with my grandparents and was awestruck. I took my wife there for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in 2011. We went to the park ranger’s presentation at night, with the carvings aglow. And even my wife, who is from Holland, was in tears. I encourage you to take as many park ranger tours as you can when visiting national parks; they are enlightening, historical, and give a whole different perspective of what you are experiencing. Don’t be a two-hour “tourist,” but spend time learning about what you and your family are experiencing. You may never be back! Enjoy your Postcards.
Tom’s response: Unfortunately, due to COVID, all of the national park visitor centers are closed. You can still enter the park, but you can’t go into the buildings.
Reader comment: Tom, hope you had clear skies for your overnight in the Badlands. It remains one of the best locations in the 48 for stargazing. The entire Black Hills used to be the same, but over the past 30 years, the growing light pollution from Rapid City has diminished that.
The Badlands are the most beautiful (because of the light angles) near sunrise and sunset, but the total lack of artificial light at night provides an unforgettable experience. As I come across the state, heading for our summer place near Custer, I sometimes time my arrival at the Badlands for midnight, and just watch the stars and sleep in the vehicle. The sky panorama is, in my opinion, a fully adequate explanation for why pre-scientific humanoids had to invent the concept of gods. Our family has had property in the Custer area for nearly 80 years. A great vacation area and a choice “bolthole” destination.
Reader comment: Have enjoyed your tales of family travel. Some of your foreign destinations were where we lived/traveled/worked. I cannot say that our kids fully appreciated those experiences at the time, but now, as productive adults, they are much the better for it, being more open-minded, thoughtful, and accepting of other cultures and lifestyles. They are appreciative of what they have and where they live.
For several decades, I have practiced some elements of your current investment strategy and I am pleased to note that it is once again becoming most fruitful. My problem has mainly been being able to bail out of bubble conditions soon enough. Your “all-in” (actually “all-out”) strategy certainly does take care of that issue!!
Reader comment: Tom, I greatly enjoy your Postcards. As a point of information, geographical descriptive designations in the U.S. often do not correspond to geographic reality. The “Midwest” is actually the “Mideast” on the map. The “South” doesn’t include Texas, which is just “Texas.” California is the extreme southwest of the continental U.S., but it’s not part of the “Southwest.” Go figure.
However, the Badlands of South Dakota may seem like the “Northwest” to you, but it’s not. The “Northwest,” to those of us who live here, consists of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. You have only come a little over halfway to the west coast so far. Best wishes on the remainder of your trip.
Reader comment: Tom, and family: Greetings. I’m following your journey and your gold (and silver) strategy with 90% of my Roth account in those two minerals. You are now entering what was once the domain of the Mountain Men, beaver pelt trappers in the years 1820-40. Some fortunes made there which, after the crash in fashion of beaver top hats, morphed into Oregon Trail scouts, and eventually vast deposits of silver.
I suspect from your comments to date that this era will not be to your liking, since a lot of Native Americans suffered under the influx of trappers and eventually pioneers. However, a balanced viewer needs to read up on the Blackfeet and Gros Ventre tribes who terrorized everyone, including all adjacent tribes. And they murdered their share of white trappers, too. Even the Sioux kept their distance from the Blackfeet.
Tom’s response: Thanks for all of your messages! Please keep writing us at [email protected].