- An Optimistic Engineer
They depart in the early morning hours in a rainstorm, and as they drive north the sheets of falling water turn to windblown snow. The client leads in an SUV with a couple of his employees; Jake follows in his own SUV, Reggie beside him. Despite the weather, the client presses the speed limit, 75 mph in Colorado, 80 mph in Wyoming. Two hours. Three hours. "We're going to die," Jake says, repeatedly. "We're going to die in flames and snow." The wipers labor, and the tires carry forward on the icy lanes as if floating. In the passenger seat, Reggie sleeps. Reggie is hard of hearing. It is late May; five days ago it was 90 degrees.
Despite the specter of imminent death, it is a long drive, and Jake's thoughts stray to other depressing topics. When they finish their work today, they will spend the night in Gillette. Jake's ex-wife, Deb, is from Gillette, her father a welder and rodeo cowboy, but she moved to Denver the moment she finished high school, and she always said she loathed the wind, dust, and emptiness of Wyoming. Then, as soon as she and Jake were divorced, she moved back to Gillette. Jake notes gloomily that it would be a terrible mistake to go see her. Fiascos will ensue. Yet, of course, while he's in Gillette, he will try to see her. It's doom. But maybe she can help him with the boys. Maybe there's some tiny chance.
Reggie in the passenger seat wakes and tells a story about a compressor station that he helped design years ago, which later caught fire. "Of course, a fire starts, they just get everyone out, close the block valves, and let the place burn to the ground! Wasn't my fault, thank God! Bad relief valve!" Due to his difficulty hearing, Reggie speaks as if yelling to someone in another room.
The snow turns back to rain. Perhaps they won't die after all. And maybe it doesn't matter anyway, Jake thinks, since every day is either a slow death or a fast death. That's the only real choice. He tells Reggie—because it's necessary during this trip, and he wants to get it out of the way—that he'll probably have to shut down the office next week and file for bankruptcy. "You've said that a hundred times!" Reggie says. [End Page 18]
This time it's absolutely true, but Jake doesn't say that. Instead he says, "The thing everyone forgets about the boy who cried wolf is that eventually the wolf did come and eat everything up."
At a gas station, they meet several men who work for the Arroyo Pipeline Company. In a convoy of SUVs, they pass over a cattle guard and proceed by gravel backroads and two-tracks into the rolling empty expanse of prairie. Eventually, they arrive at a complex of machinery on a large square of gravel. Massive engines power reciprocating compressors interconnected by steel pipes with huge vessels half buried in the earth and a 25-foot flare stack flaming at the top with a continuous ripping sound. The machines here pull natural gas from wellheads, knock out some of the liquids that come with the gas, and then push the gas on to other facilities for more cleanup, more compression, and finally to factories, power plants, homes, and kitchen stovetops.
Jake has spent a lot of time in places like this, and still it seems a miracle that it all doesn't blow up and kill him. Who knows when the relief valves were last tested? The operators mention that these engines have more than 100,000 operating hours each. They mention "deferred maintenance."
The client draws Jake away from the others. The client's name is Samuel, and Jake worked with him years ago, when they were young engineers, designing and building natural gas liquids terminals in the Four Corners area. He wants to know what Jake thinks. "What are you hoping I'll think?" Jake asks.
"I think it looks fine," Samuel...