Morning coffee brewing, embers warming the woodstove, her husband, Dick Bilodeau, stretching out in yoga poses on the living room floor before heading into the high mountain sunshine to feed the horses. For just a moment, Deb Thomas's life looks serene, idyllic, as peaceful as she intended. That was the plan, anyway: to move back to Clark, Wyoming, near the Montana coal- mining town where she was raised, to buy some land and build a house far away from the Arizona heat and resort hospitality work that had consumed her for years. Her son, Quinn, would grow up seeing more elk and coyotes than cars or people, more snowy peaks than big-box stores or drive-through windows. Dick would make furniture or take on whatever contracting jobs his sore back would allow. And Deb? She'd work in her sister's Yellowstone souvenir store nearby or manage a restaurant, like she always had, but one with a more rural crowd. It was a dream of simplicity, unburdened space, and personal freedom. "We thought we'd ride horses," says Thomas, 59, "fish in the creek, and hike the trails."
For five years, Deb, Dick, and Quinn, 6 years old when the family moved in 1994, settled into their deep-country lifestyle. "We were laid-back," Thomas says. Clark sits at the foot of the Beartooth range on a high desert plain, where the wind whips hard and the sun shines bright. There's no town to speak of, just a few hundred quiet-seeking residents scattered widely across 193 square miles of rocky bluffs and rolling pastures. Deb and Dick's plot of land is situated along a rising stretch of the Line Creek Valley. If they look farther up their road, they see snowcapped summits. If they look back down, it's all waves of sagebrush and flatlands, until, finally, more mountains jut up in the distance. The family moved into a trailer that had been left on the property. "We were just getting ready to build our house," says Thomas, her frameless glasses perched on the bridge of her nose, her long gray hair swept back into a ponytail. She's not operating from a place of nostalgia. Her demeanor is calm, resolute, as she recounts the events that transformed her expectations of rural living—and, ultimately, her life.
Their house was supposed to be a straw-bale job. Dick had researched its construction and was ready to build in the summer of 1999 when the trucks started pulling through. As on any unpaved country road, the occasional pickup kicked up dust as it passed. But this was different. Thomas watched as 18-wheelers hauling machinery and drilling materials churned clouds of dirt into the otherwise pristine air. "Up to 100 trucks a day," she says. They stopped just beyond her horse pasture and carved a flat expanse out of the side of a hill with their bulldozers.
Propelled by Clark's heavy winds (Thomas had covered her trailer's roof with tires to keep it from blowing away), all that bulldozed dirt flew fast and furious off the development site. "Everything was covered with this cruddy film," Thomas recalls. Then, a drilling rig went up, blighting Thomas's alpine views. In building a two-acre base for drilling called the Bennett Creek pad, Enre—a Texas-based energy company—not only erected a towering metal structure 200 feet from Thomas's property, they also rerouted a natural mountain drainage into her pasture, she says. The four horses there had been a longtime dream; she'd had some as a kid in Montana and wanted to give Quinn that same experience. Now her animals were in the path of runoff from the pad. "Every time it stormed," says Thomas, "we'd have to move them to another part of the property where they'd be safe."
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