The summer I spent working for the Kankakee Valley rural electrical cooperative, the Midwest saw temperatures in the 90’s arrive in early May and last well into September. Rain was scarce and I watched the corn and soybeans struggle in parched rows as straight as the lines of power poles strung along the flat country roads. I was hired to follow every path a kilowatt might travel down those power lines and find every meter the company owned. Along the way I made detailed maps of every piece of equipment they used to deliver electricity, entering data into a handheld computer connected to a backpack GPS antenna that could have been a prop in a 60s space movie.
Some meters are mounted on barns, some are back in the woods, and some are just for lights on a billboard. My job was to collect accurate coordinates for all of them. That meant that my physical presence was required next to the rotting trailers, the pumps along irrigation ditches, and in backyards with very bad dogs. And so in this way I came to know the landscape of rural Indiana.
I had interviewed for the job in the lobby of a Hampton Inn in Gainesville, Florida. A man named Roland with a drawl and a goatee and hands like catcher’s mitts pulled out a laptop and asked me a total of three questions:
“Can you use a GPS?”
“Can you operate an ATV?”
“Do you have a Southwest Airlines rewards number? I’m booking your flight.”
And with that I was hired. I knew the company made maps of utilities, but I had no experience as a lineman, no idea how utilities work and no connection whatsoever to Indiana.
According to Roland, Indiana was but a stepping stone. The company had been contracted to map the entire state of Montana, and they had bought a fleet of new four-wheel drive pickups for the job that were just waiting for new employees like me. Visions of the West danced in my head, imagining the rooster tail of dust that would rise behind me as I raced across high lonesome prairie on a dirt road with soaring mountain peaks rising in the background. The job in Indiana was just for training purposes, six months at most, a short stopover before heading to the real rodeo out west. I was going to be turned loose on all those miles of mountains and rivers with a new truck. This was my chance to leave everything behind. Montana was a blank page for a new story, and surely in a state that big I couldn’t be supervised too closely. I’d do some mapping, but I’d do some fishing and some camping too. I gave Roland my Southwest Rewards number.
I flew into Midway, Chicago’s minor league airport. I was supposed to find a guy named Adam, who would take me to the motel where I was going to live, get me the keys to my truck, and train me to do whatever it was people did for this company. When I stepped out of the airport into the thoroughfare for arrivals I was shocked to discover that the air in Chicago felt even more uncomfortable than the air I had just left behind in Florida, a possibility that I had not considered. Garbled texts came in from Adam, I was nervous about missing him and failing my first test as an employee. Soon a pickup with the company logo came weaving aggressively through minivans and taxis. The driver was a trim little guy from Kentucky in wraparound sunglasses and a baseball cap that said “Seriously Addicted Deer Hunter” next to a cross-hairs.
We exchanged a few sentences on the drive, mostly about my flight and the traffic, but Adam seemed less interested in conversation than driving as fast and as close to the bumper in front of him as possible. He was not alone. In fact, it appeared this interest was shared by everybody driving on the expressway out of Chicago. The city skyline disappeared below the horizon behind us and the industrial wasteland of Northwestern Indiana passed on either side, refineries with their mazes of pipes and flares burning off gas, pockets of decrepit houses flanked by decaying old cars. At this point I probably thought Adam was a normal guy, or close to it. Later I would seriously question whether he might be a psychopath. In truth he was neither. He was from Kentucky.
My new home was a motel near Valparaiso, a northern Indiana town that shares a name but nothing else with a colorful city on the coast of Chile. I was in the Valparaiso where Orville Redenbacher is the hometown hero and they crown a Popcorn Queen every fall. The room was unremarkable but the AC unit was a force of nature, blasting out blessedly cold air and so much white noise the whole popcorn parade could have gone past my door undetected. A good thing, as my neighbors were mostly highway paving crews and the recently divorced, two categories of people not known for their serenity or sobriety.
The next day found me standing in a ditch next to a power pole as Adam forced one technical term after another upon me with much impatience. Taking a GPS point was easy enough, the hard part was recording every piece of inventory on the pole into the computer. Adam squinted at the tangle of metal and wires forty feet above us and rattled off what he saw. “C1-2 pole with aluminum epoxlators, a 25 KvA transformer serial number 19375, and a guy wire….”
I typed what I thought I heard into the boxes on the screen, then Adam took it from me and told me most of it was wrong. A diesel pickup pulled up and the driver slammed the accelerator to leave us in a cloud of sooty black smoke. Adam raised a middle finger high into the air without taking his eyes off the screen.
“See those numbers stamped into the wood of the pole?” he said. “Each pole has a stamp that tells you the length, class, and when it was made.’40-5-70′ means it’s 40 feet tall, it’s a class five, and 1970 was the year it quit being a tree and started being a pole. All of that goes into your GPS. Now tag it.” Each pole was to get an aluminum ID tag with a string of numbers. I pulled the heavy framing hammer from the loop on my newly issued tool belt along with a tag and some nails, held the tag against the wood and started tapping.
“What’s taking you so damn long?” he said, “hit it!”
So the next nail I swung at it hard and felt a sting as it ricocheted off the wood and back into my face. “Well,” I thought, “at least they gave me safety glasses.” Finally the tag was on there and I was done with my first pole. The next step was to follow the line from the transformer on the pole to the meter on nearest house.
The meter was in a fenced-off back yard, mounted on the back of the house, as they often are. “What about the fence?” I asked.
“Jump it,” he replied.
“But it’s private property, right?”
“The meter belongs to the company, and it’s your job to get it” he said. “Some people build an addition onto their house so the meter is on the inside. You need to get as close to it as you can.”
Jumping fences was not what I’d had in mind. Was the owner home? What would they think about a guy with a space antenna walking through their backyard?
“What do I do if there’s a guard dog?” I asked him.
“Well,” he said as if to imply the obviousness of the answer, “that’s what your hammer is for.”
I was beginning to get a feel for what might have been Adam’s defining feature: he lived for confrontation. This was why he was one of the company’s best guys. They could send him anywhere. He’d mapped all of Savannah, Georgia, by himself. Savannah is a city with fences you don’t want to jump and houses you don’t want to visit, a place where desperate poverty has smoldered for a long time. But every time he was threatened, every time an angry property owner screamed in his face, it made his day. In Adam’s view, work was boring, and confrontation made it fun.
For the next week I went out with Adam sun-up to sun-down and tried to keep up. I got better at driving nails, by the end of the week it only took me two swings with the hammer for each tag. I learned how to recognize regulators, fuses, and switches, and I learned when to suspect that there was another meter somewhere we needed to find because an underground power line kept going past the last house on the street. I found out the hard way that some fences are electrified and that the meanest dogs are the ones kept tied on the shortest ropes. I trespassed six ways from Sunday and saw Adam’s face light up whenever a pissed off redneck demanded to know what the hell was going on.
I was informed that training was over and that starting next week I would be mapping on my own. I was assigned to the farm country south of Kouts, Indiana. This broad swath of the Corn Belt was once The Great Kankakee Swamp, 5300 square miles of wetland left behind by the Wisconsin glacial episode, one of the largest marshes in North America. The Swamp Act of 1852 provided funds to begin the monumental task of digging ditches to drain the land and direct water into the Kankakee River, which was straightened from its meandering natural course and put into a new channel almost a hundred miles shorter. The water table dropped and the hardwoods like ash and tupelo were logged off. Soon little towns sprung up and people began to farm.
The next Monday I rose at dawn to load buckets of nails, tags, and Gatorade into my company pickup, a big old Chevy with an equally beat-up four-wheeler Yamaha ATV sitting in the bed. I checked the tie-downs until I was pretty sure the ATV was going to stay put (the truck’s tailgate was missing), then I pulled out of the motel parking lot, feeling keenly unsure of myself. I was headed to a circuit Adam had been mapping before I showed up, using the GPS to pick up where he left off. By the time I parked the truck, backed the ATV down the ramp off the rear end and rode it to the first pole, I had been loading and driving for almost two hours, but I still wasn’t on the clock. Mappers don’t start getting paid until they take their first GPS point. By then the sun was up and already hot enough to heat the creosote on the pole, and the smell of the toxic black wood preservative was sharp in my nose as I drove the nails through the tag. My tool belt heavy with hammer and nails, I climbed back on the ATV and made my way down the shoulder of the two-lane road to the next pole.
Soon I was out of sight of the truck, the power lines taking me left and right, through the quilt-work of roads and fields that I had only seen from above, out of the window of an airplane. I’d always wondered about who was down there in the patchwork, who was in these “flyover states,” oblivious to the people in the plane looking down at their lives from 30,000 feet. Now that I was there myself, I looked up to see if any planes were overhead, wondering who was now looking down at me.
The simplest power pole is the A-1, a single pole with one power line on top and one neutral line below it. I was following lines A-1’s that stretched for miles until they ended at an irrigation pump across a drainage ditch. The meter was usually mounted next to the pump, on the far side of the ditch. In order to reach it, I had to lower myself down into the dark water and wade across. I held the GPS high as the water rose up to my chest, carefully making my way across, trying not to think about what they spray on the fields that runs off into the water. I took a point for the meter, my skin covered in a soup of sunscreen, sweat, and agricultural runoff.
I saw faces pressed to the windows as I rode by on my ATV, faces framed by white hair, watching apprehensively. Where they once ditched the land, they now ditched the old folks. Rural America is greying, the young have moved away and left the old in little houses on little roads with too much space between. They watch the news, they hear about this or that scam, they are scared. They wonder if I am part of the vacuum cleaner scam and they press their faces to their windows as I ride by. They live on their land but it’s farmed by someone else, someone with the money for the satellite, guided tractor, the expensive spray equipment, the Roundup-ready GMO seeds.
As those first weeks passed, milkweed grew up along the ditches, in odd spots that happened to escape the herbicides, and soon monarch caterpillars appeared. They grew bigger by the day, munching away at the leaves with single-minded purpose, oblivious to the single-engine planes that swooped down to drop insecticides on the nearby fields. Clinging to life in the margins, their host plants swayed in the tailwinds of pickups roaring by on the nearby two-lane. If they could live long enough to emerge from their cocoons as adults, they would join others from every corner of North America and migrate south to the mountains of Mexico. The map was already in each of them, coded in their tiny heads.
I told them, “It’s not easy to migrate, little gordos! Even if you make it into your cocoons and emerge to beat your frail wings against the wind, how will you cross all those sprayed fields and highways? And who knows if those fir trees high in the Mexican Sierras will even be there if you make it?” But if they did find their places on those distant trees, packed in with millions of their kin, what connection they would feel! These caterpillars knew where they were going and where they belonged, which made them smarter than me. I’d worked other jobs in Texas, Washington State, and Florida, but connection had proved elusive, and I always moved on to the next place. I have no internal map to tell me which way to go. I have no forest I was made to find.
Each night I met Adam at his motel room to upload my data. His son had just learned to walk, stumbling joyfully around the room with boundless energy, and his wife spent all her time trying to keep the little wrecking ball under control. The first time I witnessed Adam with his family, I was dumbfounded. The guy I had been convinced was a psychopath was affectionate and gentle. It was so out of character I never really got used to it. Adam had payed off twenty thousand dollars in student loans in just two years of working for the company, racking up overtime, working 60 hour weeks. He was a machine. But with his family he was a pushover, soft as a teddy bear. His only hard rule was no sandwiches for dinner because he ate one every day for lunch.
I’d watch his face as he looked over my maps on his laptop, waiting for him to realize where I screwed up. “C’mon man!,” he’d say with palpable disgust. “You missed a damn open point! You were off on the wrong circuit for half the day!” I’d already know this, of course, but always hoped he might not notice my wayward trajectory, that maybe I’d get lucky and he’d ignore that part of the map. He always noticed.
Electricity comes in from the power plant on big transmission lines that lead to a substation. From the substation it goes in a big loop, a circuit. Each circuit was mapped separately, with long trails of single-phase poles coming off the three-phase loop until they ended at a grain silo, or back onto someone’s property, past the signs that read “Trespassers will be shot, survivors will be shot again.”
An “open point” is where the power on one side of a pole is on a different circuit than the power on the other side. While it looks like power is flowing over the pole, it actually stops there. Since the power coming from each substation is mapped as a separate and distinct circuit, we stopped mapping at the open points. But if I missed one, I might map on the wrong circuit for miles before I realized my mistake. Blowing past an open point meant that I was on a different circuit and I had confused two datasets. Because a circuit is a loop, if you map it correctly you will end up where you started. If I missed an open point, I would start to get the sneaking feeling I wasn’t headed back where I came from. Then I would notice the poles and lines getting bigger instead of smaller. I’d get hit with a sinking feeling. Adam would be pissed.
Mapping identical poles for hours, it was impossible to keep my mind from wandering. Sometimes I thought about a girl back home in Florida who loved me, and how hard it was that it wouldn’t work out between us, even though I loved her too. I’d think, “What if I could be tender? What if she loved herself more?” And just like that, I’d miss an open point and I’d have backtrack to find it. Life was full of moments like these, when I didn’t pay enough attention and wound up on some other map, without knowing exactly where I made a mistake.
There must have been a kind of voyeurism in being a meterman, years ago when the power company employees visited the meters every month to record how much electricity customers used. The meter readers slipped through the personal spaces of everyone on the grid, as the meter is usually mounted on the back side of the house. Checking behind the same houses on a monthly basis, the meter reader would surely come to know them, and notice how a house and its occupants changed over time.
Now the company can take a reading remotely from the headquarters, so people were surprised when I went to their meter to take a point with my GPS. Once, a mother caught sight of me through her window, walking to her meter in my hi-visibility vest with my GPS equipment. She ran out of the house, frantic and desperate. She begged me not to turn off the power, saying that she was a little late but that she’d called, she was going to pay, please don’t, please. I told her not to worry, that I was only there to make a computer map. She was confused, I tried to explain what I was doing to calm her down but none of the technical jargon I came up with seemed to help. I left her more ashamed than relieved.
A few weeks later I was at another property, taking a point at a meter. I was listening to music with headphones on, as I sometimes did to help the time pass, when I heard someone yelling “I’m armed! I’m armed!” Soon I was looking down the wrong end of a Glock .40, held by a very agitated man wearing a full tactical camouflage outfit. “REMC!” I shouted, “I’m from the power company!” For the next half hour he told me all the reasons why he can’t be fooled and repeatedly emphasized that I shouldn’t mess with him. Eventually he calmed down and allowed me to make a case for why he should believe that I was actually from the power company. I showed him my ID badge, let him take a peek at what was on the GPS screen, and showed him the tags that go on the poles. When I finally had him convinced that I wasn’t part of a surveillance operation bent on sending him to a FEMA death camp, he mentioned off-hand what he had been doing when I pulled up. He had been painting the trim on his house, wearing full military gear with a loaded gun strapped to his side.
The summer wore on and the corn got higher, if not healthier. Sometimes the power lines ran diagonally across the fields, so I had to walk through the rows of corn to get to the poles. Nothing comes close to a corn field in midsummer for sheer discomfort. Pushing past the sweaty leaves, I listened for the sound of small plane engines, worried that at any time a crop duster could come and catch me while I was in the corn. Like strange birds carrying messages from Dow Chemical and Monsanto, they visited nearly every field. I had no idea what would happen if I was caught underneath one when it let loose, but I knew it couldn’t be good.
Out tagging poles on a hot day, I saw an old woman out walking who did a little dance in the street when she saw me coming down the road on my four-wheeler. She must have been in her 80s or 90s, but she was in good spirits, and she smiled as the waves of heat rose around her. She was holding a bunch of Queen Anne’s lace in her hand. I stopped and said “Hi,” and she danced with the flowers a little more without saying anything back. I grinded along to the next power pole, smiling through the stinging sweat. She inspired me to try to enjoy the flowers between each pole a little more.
The day after I saw the old woman, I was mapping the next line of poles when I got a call from Adam. “You need to go back to your truck” he said, “there’s a bad line of storms on the radar.” I looked up and the sky was clear, and I thought it was odd for him to warn me about anything, but I welcomed any excuse to take a break and hopped on the ATV to start back. I couldn’t go too fast, with the damned thing pulling to the right and little pieces of rope flopping from the tires where the holes had been plugged. A few minutes later I saw a black wall of clouds. It must have been coming fast, because soon it was directly in front of me, and dust was rising off the fields and being sucked into it. I held the throttle open, my hat blew off and I let it go, and when I passed the old woman’s house I saw her face in the window. I wished I was inside so that I could protect her. Maybe I wished I was inside so she could protect me, as she had no doubt been through many of these storms. As soon as I threw myself into the truck, the rain and wind hit it and rocked it side to side.
The storm passed, and all the yards were littered with tree limbs and debris. When I finally came out of the truck and threw my leg back over the ATV, I saw it swing directly in front of a decent-sized snake. Like a cobra it had lifted itself off the ground, all puffed up and threatening. My heart leaped into my throat, and I cursed the backwoods trailer park resident that had let their pet cobra escape. As it turns out, local hog-nosed snakes do a similar routine. Still, the encounter renewed a strong urge to leave Indiana that had been steadily building since I had arrived.
The details of my promised transfer to Montana were getting murkier by the month. I couldn’t get a straight answer from the company about when they were going to send me west, and they didn’t let Adam know anything either. I started riding the South Shore train to Chicago, which felt like taking a spaceship to a different planet.
Every weekend the train took me through apocalyptic Gary, Indiana, to an underground station below the skyscrapers and tourists in Grant Park, Chicago. From there I went to loft parties and and talked to people who attended art school but did not seem to like it. Then it was Gary in reverse through the fog of a hangover as I rode back to the motel in Indiana. When the fall came and there was still no word about a transfer, I quit. I got a job in Chicago and set myself to forgetting about Indiana.
Like me, most people have decided they can’t do much for the cropland in the middle of the country. They have to make it where they can, and if the old folks are lonely and scared out there, that’s just the tragedy of aging. And if the land is soaked in chemicals and the topsoil flushed down the Mississippi, that’s just the price of food. Empty calories and empty land seem better than the threat of not having enough. Sometimes I think that if I really had courage, maybe I would move there and stay, where I could help the smiling old woman pick flowers. But I know I was just passing through, and that my loneliness is the price I pay for being born in this modern age, with so many doors through which to leave.
Tom Sentner is originally from Florida, but has lived and worked in Illinois, Texas, Montana, and Washington State, where he held many odd jobs like watching birds on cell phone towers, digging graves in a city cemetery, and counting horseshoe crabs at night. He currently works as a wilderness ranger in the Appalachian mountains.