Article adapted from The New Yorker originally written by Ian Frazier.
Rachael Van Horn, fifty-six years old, lives by herself in a two-bedroom house at the southeast corner of Rosston, Oklahoma. Although the town is on a two-lane highway that runs east and west across the Panhandle, it offers no services to travellers. Prairie surrounds it. Rachael’s fenced-in yard adjoins twenty acres of pasture she owns, in which she keeps four cattle: Raffi, a black-and-white steer with only one horn, and three Black Angus two-year-olds. Phoenix is the Angus bull, and Freya and Cow Polly are the cows. The steer and the three Angus may be the happiest livestock in Oklahoma. When Rachael comes to the fence, they run across the pasture and contend jealously to be next to her.
At the time of the fires that burned thousands of square miles of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas in 2017, Rachael already owned Raffi, who was then a small calf. Her pasture was spared, but cattle that had burned to death, or almost to death, dotted the prairie for miles around and bunched up against the remaining fences. Rachael sometimes wept as she drove by them. Most of the ones that survived were too far gone to save. When Rachael was out helping a neighbor shoot his injured animals, she saw three badly burned Angus calves that she thought might make it, and the rancher who owned them said that she could have them.
Rachael brought the calves to her place and bucket-fed them, called a vet to treat them, put salve on their burned foreheads and lips and on the stubs of their burned-off ears, and built a small wading pool that she filled with a saline solution and walked them through twice a day in order to soothe their burned feet. The pain they were in distressed her so much that she drove to Pueblo, Colorado, and bought liquid THC—marijuana extract—to give them. After they began taking the THC, she noticed that they got hungrier, started to eat more, and put on a lot of weight. The calves gradually got better. She spent endless hours doctoring them. She had been in Iraq for three years and was present at the mess-hall suicide bombing near Mosul on December 21, 2004, which killed twenty-five people. She was continuing to deal with her post-traumatic stress, and the calves became part of the process.
She did not brand any of them, or castrate the bull, because she did not want them to suffer any more pain. The three Angus and the steer are frolicsome animals, like imaginary cows in a children’s book or a cartoon. Rachael says that they will never be sold and will spend the rest of their lives in her pasture.
Rachael—it seems wrong to call her Van Horn, because she is now a celebrity in northwest Oklahoma, and everybody calls her Rachael—was born in Ipswich, England. Her father, a career Air Force pilot who flew F-15 jets in Vietnam, was stationed near Ipswich, and in many more places after that. Rachael can’t count the number of schools she attended between kindergarten and twelfth grade. She thinks it was about eight. Her father wanted her to join the Air Force and become an officer like him, but after the family moved to Edmond, Oklahoma, in the early nineteen-eighties, and Rachael enrolled in Central Oklahoma College, she instead joined the Army Reserves. The specialties she chose to train for were transport logistics and truck-engine repair.
She married and divorced three times. With her first husband, she had a daughter, Johnna, in 1987. (Johnna is now married and has a three-year-old daughter, Eva.) Outside of Reserve duty, Rachael worked at all kinds of jobs, from feedlot hand to veterinarian’s assistant to John Deere truck- and tractor-parts salesperson, but the job she kept returning to was newspaper reporter. Starting in the mid-nineties, she wrote for papers in Enid, Oklahoma, and Shreveport, Louisiana, where she moved with her second husband. Later, she was hired by a woman she knew from the Reserves who had become the editor of the Woodward News, in Oklahoma. She still contributes to that paper at least once a month.
Of medium height, Rachael is a gray-blond, green-eyed woman with even, white teeth and strong-looking arms and shoulders. Somehow, she appears different every time you see her; in fact, I’ve never known anyone with such a differing repertoire of looks, or personae. One of those is a severe military type she refers to as Sergeant Van Horn, with the accent on the “Van.” Her eyes change when she is Sergeant Van Horn, and become gimlet-like and fierce.
Being in the Reserves involved going through the same boot camp as regular recruits. During training at Fort Jackson, in South Carolina, a drill sergeant sexually assaulted her one evening when she was alone in a laundry room. He ran off when he heard somebody coming, but she saw who he was. She did not report the assault. Near the end of boot camp, when she was taking a proficiency test, she recognized him as the officer who was conducting it. With a gimlet look, she let him know she knew him. When she should have failed on a technicality, he passed her.
She served in the Reserves for twenty-one years and retired just before her unit was called up for duty in Iraq. By then, her daughter was about to go to Emory University, which costs upward of fifty-five thousand dollars a year. Because of her military experience, Rachael got an offer from Kellogg Brown & Root to work in Iraq as a civilian liaison for construction projects in the villages. She needed the hazard pay to help with the tuition, so she accepted. The job took her to Forward Operating Base Marez, by the Mosul airfield, where she was in charge of recreation, morale, and welfare. On the day of the bombing, a colleague asked her to come along with him to lunch, but she was with an Iraqi assistant who had not yet received security credentials. She told her colleague that she had to get the Iraqi “badged,” and went to the credentials office to do that. After waiting awhile with the Iraqi, she decided to run up to the mess hall and get them both some sandwiches. She had just opened the mess-hall door when the explosion occurred.
She remembers the blood on the uniforms, the female soldier with her arm blown off, and the constant repetition of call letters on her radio as the distress signals went out and people tried to find those who were missing. Immediately after the bombing, a wave of anger ran across the base, and the Iraqi assistant feared that he would be shot. She stayed with him and several other Iraqis all night, playing tic-tac-toe and drawing pictures, so that she could vouch for them. Later, she learned that the colleague who had asked her to lunch had been among those killed. The base held a memorial gathering for the victims, but she hardly had time to grieve, or even to take in what had occurred. She stuffed her feelings down and kept going.
Investigators thought at first that the explosion might have been from a mortar round fired outside the base. The discovery of fragments of a torso and of an explosives belt pointed to a suicide bombing. Apparently, the bomber had dressed in an Iraqi National Guard uniform and gained admittance to the mess hall with other Iraqi troops. Reports in Arab-language newspapers said that the bomber was not an Iraqi but a Saudi, of the large al-Ghamdi clan, three members of which took part in the September 11th attacks.
Rachael’s return from Iraq to Oklahoma didn’t happen all at once. “There is nothing—nothing!—as real as being in a war,” she said. “You come back and you feel guilty because nothing else is that real or that exciting.” Before her first return, she heard about a house and pasture for sale in Rosston for forty thousand dollars, and bought them sight unseen. She moved in and started writing for the Woodward paper again, but she became depressed, so she re-upped with Kellogg Brown & Root. As she was running with her morning cup of Turkish coffee down a street in Baghdad to dodge possible sniper fire, she realized that she now felt un-depressed, and actually great. She stayed for eight more months. On her re-return to Oklahoma, she settled into her house and took a different approach by beginning a new profession. Memories of the bombing made it difficult for her to be in crowded areas. Having people around bothered her, as did the mess-hall smell of fried chicken, as did enclosure of any kind. She wanted to work by herself and had always liked being outdoors. She was a good mechanic, could keep engines running, and did not mind a certain amount of physical danger. She decided to work in the oil field and become what is known as a pumper.
Western Oklahoma has been its own particular kind of oil patch for going on a hundred years. Small operators started it—men who got a few thousand dollars together, drilled a well, made money or didn’t, drilled another. There are wells out there that are older than Rachael and still produce a few barrels of crude or a few M.C.F.s (thousand cubic feet) of natural gas a day. Oil-and-gas infrastructure is so much a part of the land that it’s everywhere, like strands of mushroom mycelium symbiotically wound among tree roots. Gas-pipeline valves emerge abruptly from the prairie here and there, oil and heater-treater and wastewater tanks stand beside horizon-seeking lease roads, and wellheads with slowly rising and falling horse-head pumps, or with submersible electric pumps, or with no pumps at all, meet your eye randomly throughout the wide-open spaces. Almost every one of those wells, if it is in operation, must be checked every day, year in and year out, to make sure it’s running right, and when it’s not it must be fixed. The checking and maintenance is the job of pumpers.
Pumpers usually work alone, driving from well to well, tending anywhere from ten to forty or fifty wells a day. If they are employed by an oil-well company, they’re called company pumpers and receive a salary; if they’re not, they’re contract pumpers and are paid a certain amount per well. Contract pumpers can make more money, because if they’re skillful they can do more wells in a day.
Almost all pumpers are men, as is true in other oil-field jobs. A few women assist their pumper husbands; an even smaller number are contract pumpers working on their own. Rachael was lucky to know perhaps the greatest female pumper in western Oklahoma, Evelyn Dixon, whom she had met in a bar in the town of Laverne. The two had personal suffering in common. Rachael was working through her P.T.S.D., and Evelyn was mourning her husband, “a gorgeous backhoe operator” she met while working for a pipeline company, who dropped dead of an aneurysm, in 2005. Unexpectedly widowed, Evelyn had to find a way to hold on to their ranch all on her own. Pumping can pay a lot—a hundred and fifty thousand dollars plus, depending on circumstances, in a good year.
Evelyn had done some pumping already. By taking on a lot more wells, she soon achieved such success that she not only kept her ranch but added to it. Today, she is a contract pumper with all the work she wants. Her house, which she moved intact eight miles from Gate, Oklahoma, to its present location despite people telling her that a brick house would fall apart if you moved it, sits out of the wind in a little draw at the end of a long, sinuous red-dirt driveway. One morning, I had coffee with her and Rachael at her kitchen table before each went out to pump her wells.
“People think being a pumper is easy, it’s just readin’ gauges and writin’ on a clipboard,” Evelyn said. “They have no idea what we actually do. Women sometimes want me to take ’em out and teach ’em, and I generally say no. Or I give ’em an hour, tops—I know they’ll quit on me. But I made an exception for Rachael.”
“You needed me on a thirty-six-inch pipe wrench,” Rachael said.
“Yes, you did help me that first day. Rachael’s strong, and she’s a quick study. She’s the only woman I’ve showed the business to who’s stayed in it. It is a very hard business to break into. A whole lot of guys in the oil field are good ol’ boys who can be real jerks to women. My son works in Washington, D.C., and he tells me that as far as treatin’ women goes we are way behind the times out here. I used to get a lot of ‘Why, little lady, we wouldn’t want a woman to pump wells, it ain’t safe.’ ”
“At my first job as a company pumper, I had a guy ask me who I’d fucked to get hired,” Rachael said. “I told him, ‘Motherfucker, if I fucked anybody to get here, I’d be your fucking boss by now.’ ”
“There’s only two ways you can be in the oil field, if you’re a woman,” Evelyn said. “You’re either sweet and nice and sort of incompetent or you’re a total bitch. Let’s just say that I haven’t survived this long by being incompetent.”
“Guys will sabotage you, sneak out to your wells and mess with your gauges, kick open a valve and see if you’ll notice it.”
“And they want you to file a complaint. They would love for you to file a complaint. Then they can say, ‘See? What’d I tell you? That’s what happens when you let a woman in here.’ ”
“My first company job, I had to keep going back week after week before they would hire me,” Rachael said. “Then the only reason they did was I happened to see the head of the company in the lobby and he asked Personnel why they hadn’t given me a chance. I was rammed down their throats, basically.”
“They will hire an unqualified man over a qualified woman every time,” Evelyn said. “I was pumping some wells for Enron and a new guy they brought in said, ‘We’re gonna cut your pay, and if you don’t like it we’ll bring in a man who will do your job for half what you’re gettin’.’ I said, ‘You go right ahead. I’m nobody’s half-price pumper. You’ll find you get what you pay for.’ Pretty soon, he came around.”
“Now, some of the pumpers are helpful and great,” Rachael said. “We’ve had some good bosses, too. And they are right about it being a dangerous job. Pumpers get injured and killed out here all the time.”
“I was surprised, during the fires last year, none of my wells blew up when the flames went by them,” Evelyn said. “The cottonwood trees were burned black thirty feet up right next to the well site, but the well was fine. I mean, those well sites can blow sky high and burn to the ground. I had a well hit by lightning this year, and there was just nothin’ left of it. The tanks are fibreglass and they were totally incinerated, down to just the metal ring on the ground, and all the product that was inside burned with ’em. I looked at that and said, ‘Well, o-o-o-o-o-kay . . .’ ”
So, obviously, you stay away from the wells when there’s lightning in the area? I asked.
“No, but you try to get in and out as quick as you can,” Evelyn said.
“Whenever you’re around the wells, you’re careful,” Rachael said. “You don’t wear fabrics that can create static, and Evelyn and I will both tie our hair back so it doesn’t swing and maybe throw off a static spark.”
“We had a pumper who was tryin’ to jump-start a compressor and he didn’t let the gas disperse after he vented it, and there was a roof over the compressor where some of it had collected, and when he jumped the circuit that gas ignited and almost blew his face off. Luckily, his beard partly saved him.”
“A few years ago, a pumper was walking from his truck to a well, and a bull that happened to be in that pasture chased him down and killed him,” Rachael said.
“You gotta pay attention, always,” Evelyn said. “But I think a woman can actually do this job better than a man. I listen closely to the well, just sense what’s goin’ on with it. Sometimes you have to baby it along. But, no matter what I have to deal with, I love this job. I’m out there on my own schedule, with my truck, my dogs, my gun—I’m free. Beats waitressin’ any day.”
As Evelyn talked, she pulled a heavy insulated jumpsuit in a woodland-snow camo pattern over her shirt and jeans. She has lustrous brown hair, bangs, and a lined, weathered face; her eyes, behind auburn-rimmed glasses, were mischievous and cheery. “I could take a disability and live off that, a doctor told me. But he said that, if I did, ‘Of course, you couldn’t work.’ I told him, ‘Oh, no—I’m gonna work. I grew up on a farm, it’s the way I was raised.’ ”
The prairie in early December: now we were bouncing across it in a silver Toyota Tundra pickup that belonged to Rachael’s boss Greg Evans. He is a contract pumper with a lot of wells who was recovering from triple-bypass surgery, and she had agreed to pump some of them for him. Prairie grasses turn colors in the fall, like trees in New England. The broad patches of big bluestem had darkened as if marinated in red wine; other grasses seemed to have been bleached to the palest yellow, like sun-damaged hair. A brisk wind blew, and hawks teetered by on it. Rachael was wearing a purple sweatshirt, a brown cotton coat, brown Carhartt coveralls, an electric-green baseball cap, sunglasses, and large, brass-colored hoop earrings; her hair was tied back in a ponytail.
The pickup stepped wheel by wheel through the complicated red-dirt ruts or sped on improved county-road straightaways, tossing up gravel. At every intersection, Rachael slowed down, whether or not it had a stop sign or a yield sign. Pumpers making time to their next well race along these roads and sometimes crash into each other. On an average day, Rachael might drive two hundred and fifty miles. Today, she did not have so many wells that she needed to hurry. At fence gates, she sometimes had to get out to open their combination locks, or pull at a gatepost with all her strength to unhook the loop of wire holding it.
Each well occupied its own particular piece of ground. One was on a ridgetop with a view, another in a mini-canyon above a dry creek bed, another on table-flat bare-dirt prairie; one sat, islandlike, in the middle of a plowed field. As Rachael explained, each well also connected to a specific part of the rock formation five thousand or more feet below. Each had its own distinctive pressure, measured in the pounds per square inch exerted by the oil and natural gas rising within it. One well was at a hundred and ninety p.s.i., another at two hundred and twenty, and so on. In effect, the earth itself was driving the wells, usually with the help of the various pumps that were lifting the underground salt water from atop the oil and gas and allowing the oil and gas to rise.
Each well is a delicate balance of pressures. The oil goes into storage tanks and, from there, via tanker trucks, to bigger tanks or to refineries. The salt water takes a similar route and ends up in permanent underground disposal sites. But the gas, in its raw state, is basically ready to sell. It flows from the well into a pipeline connected to another pipeline, and eventually to the heater or the stove in your house. Meters measure the flow so that the well owner can be paid. The pipeline itself is at pressure. If the well’s p.s.i. happens to be less than the pipeline’s, the gas is run through a compressor so that it will go into the pipeline. Within the well bore are the tubing and the casing, the first inside the second. The tubing brings up the salt water and the oil, while most of the gas comes up through the casing. Either one of these can break, corrode, or get blocked by a salt deposit or paraffin; swerves in pressure are an early indication that something is wrong. Wells have redundant safety shutoffs and backups. Pumpers deal mainly with problem diagnosis, re-starting shutoffs, and keeping the pump motors and the compressor motors running.
As Rachael walked me through each well, I appreciated the Rube Goldberg-ness of it all. No two were the same. “The guys out here like to say that a well is like a woman, because each one needs to be handled differently,” Rachael said. She had been to these wells often, and sort of whispered each one, the way she would a horse. She put her hands on pipes, felt for hot spots, peered into gauges, cocked an ear for wrong sounds. She had me listen at a pipe where rising gas from a mile down hissed and echoed—all O.K. there. Each well had a name. A well called the Hieronymus, on a hill above an old homestead with a falling-down farmhouse, needed an expensive new part, but its production was small, so the owner had temporarily shut the well in. (When wells are taken out of service, they are “shut in,” not “shut down.”) Rachael looked at it with regret. Pumpers don’t like to see their wells shut in.
A well called the Neff was making a horrible racket. We could hear it shrieking above the cold wind as we got out of the truck. The horse-head pump had stopped. Rachael determined that it had cut off because the temperature of the outgoing gas was too high. She made an adjustment to the gas flow, ran over and punched some buttons on the pump controls, and got the machine moving again. As the pump motor re-started, the horse head lurched to its full twenty-foot height above her, like a waking Tyrannosaurus. The shrieking noise had come from the compressor, which shrieked differently with the new flow setting. Rachael listened for a while, then drove away. “I know that pump is going to cut out again,” she said. “I can’t understand why that gas is running so hot.”
With all her wells taken care of, and lunchtime come and gone, Rachael drove straight to her actual full-time job. A person of many hats, she is also the director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau for the city of Woodward. The job comes with a corner office at the city’s Conference Center and a staff of five. As director, she oversees events—the longhorn-cattle drive down Main Street that accompanies the Elks Rodeo; the Extreme Monster Truck Summer Nationals; the Twister Alley International Film Festival—and superintends civic functions and other types of gatherings at the Convention Center, trying to put the city on the map. That night was to be the Woodward Police Department’s annual Christmas ball.
Rachael still had her pumping clothes on. As she walked in, the police chief, who was carrying a pair of poinsettias, said, “Hey, Rachael! You look like you just came in off a deer stand.” She replied, “I just finished doin’ my wells.” Her staff, dressed in holiday whites and reds, was setting up banquet tables. In her coveralls and boots, she looked as if she might be there to jackhammer a few holes in the parking lot, not to oversee the centerpieces. She introduced me around, praising each staff member generously and individually. Later, I saw her dressed up for the ball, for which she wrote the award-citation speeches. She wore heels, a white blouse, black-and-white plaid pants, and a black blazer, with her long blond hair out of its ponytail.
I first met Rachael because of her newspaper pieces. I was in the Panhandle just after last year’s fires, and I read and admired what she wrote about them. Then I came across her column, “Pumper’s Corner,” which appears in a monthly insert, the Oilfield Outlook, in the Woodward paper. The insert, which is twenty pages or so, lists new well drillings, lease signings, and other information of interest mainly to the industry, but Rachael’s column jumps off the page. She describes her pumping adventures, and sometimes Evelyn’s, from a female pumper’s point of view, and she signs herself “Rachael Van Horn, a.k.a. The Wench with a Wrench.” One of her pieces mentioned that she lived in Rosston. Having no other contact info, I drove over one Saturday and looked her up. When she came out of her house, she was brushing her teeth. The arrival of a stranger at her door at nine-thirty in the morning did not faze her, and she continued to brush for a few minutes as we talked.
Later in the year, at an event in Oklahoma City, I happened to meet a woman named Linda Edmondson, who is the wife of Drew Edmondson. He is a Democrat and was running for governor of Oklahoma at the time. (In November, he lost to Kevin Stitt, a semimoderate Republican.)
Hearing of my interest in the Panhandle, Linda told me, “You must meet Rachael Van Horn!” I said I already had. Linda, who grew up in Woodward, still follows local issues and reads Rachael’s stories. The Woodward News, on its highest-circulation days, has a readership of thirty thousand, a not insignificant number in a market of that size; Woodward County and the counties that surround it have a combined population of about forty-five thousand. Perhaps even more people know about Rachael from her appearances on K-101 FM, a Woodward radio station with listeners across northwest Oklahoma. She is a regular on a popular morning talk-and-country-music program.
Starting in 2015, Rachael began to report in the News about a proposed amendment to the state constitution which was known as the Right to Farm Amendment. State Question 777 (its official name, usually shortened to S.Q. 777), which was set to come before voters in the fall of 2016, would have amended the constitution to prohibit legislation that interfered with any farming or ranching practice without proof that a “compelling state interest” was involved. The amendment would make the freedom to use all farming and ranching methods and technologies the same as the freedom of speech or religion, essentially transferring the power to regulate agricultural practices—such as, say, a hog farm polluting a public drinking-water source—from the legislature to the courts, where the advantage would be strongly on Big Agriculture’s side. Corporate livestock and poultry farms, the Cattlemen’s Association, and the Oklahoma Farm Bureau supported the amendment, while small farmers, environmentalists, Oklahoma’s Indian tribes, and the Humane Society opposed it.
Many states have right-to-farm laws, but only North Dakota and Missouri have right-to-farm constitutional amendments. Both were supported by groups that had received funding from the Koch brothers. The more Rachael looked into S.Q. 777 and its implications, the surer she was that it had to be stopped. She began to argue against it on the radio. Then, with no organizational backing, she spoke against it at Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, and town meetings across Oklahoma, often debating S.Q. 777 supporters. She paid for the travel herself and drove her own vehicle thousands of miles. For months, she devoted all her free time to this cause; the one-woman push exhausted her. When the election came in 2016, the amendment went down to defeat, fifty-eight per cent to forty-two per cent.
Drew Edmondson was then the head of the Oklahoma Stewardship Council, which also had campaigned against the amendment. When I asked him about Rachael, he said, “Well, as is the case with many things, my wife knew about her before I did. In the S.Q. 777 campaign, I don’t believe Rachael and I ever spoke on the same program, but I was aware of what she was doing. She took a very smart approach, which was to say that Oklahoma has been letting the legislature handle these kinds of agricultural issues for a hundred years, and we have done pretty well with that so far. People listened to her, because she is a rural person herself, from the western part of the state, and not an eastern-Oklahoma liberal. As it turned out, all our urban counties voted against the amendment, but a number of rural counties did, too. Woodward County and Garfield County, where Rachael campaigned the most, both voted no, and I think it was because of her.”
Rachael told me, “In the really conservative places, I asked them how they would like to wake up tomorrow and find a thousand-acre corporate marijuana farm next to their pasture and nothing they could do about it. The amendment’s supporters called that ‘fear tactics,’ but it was true.”
What with the cleanup after the Policemen’s Ball, Rachael did not get home until late. I was supposed to meet her soon after dawn the next morning. I made the fifty-minute drive from Woodward to Laverne in darkness that became a gray day. No trees in America are more beaten down than the cottonwood trees of the central plains, chastised by ice storm and fire and wind into postures of broken supplication. Their black, wracked branches emerged against the sky as the light came up. In Laverne, where Rachael planned to switch to Greg Evans’s truck again, a few small, lighted Christmas wreaths hung over Main Street. Cattle-hauling semis downshifted past; a school bus stopped at the railroad tracks, its red lights flashing. Rachael texted to say that she’d be late; eventually, she arrived, tired but ready. As we drove up to the first well, I remarked that we had visited this well yesterday. Rachael said, “Yes, that is the point. You check each well every day.”
A weak winter sun came through the clouds, and the red dust turned the truck a pale Easter-egg pink. Rachael talked about a well she had been pumping in Texas some years ago that became covered in ice during the hottest days of summer. Subzero carbon dioxide being forced into a nearby injection well had broken into her well underground and was coming up through the pipes and freezing the water vapor that condensed on them. She reported it, but none of her superiors paid attention. Pretty soon, ice-induced metal fatigue, plus the pressure of the carbon dioxide, caused a pipe on the well site to rupture, spewing oil and salt water and carbon dioxide thirty feet in the air. Finally taking notice, management told her it was not her fault.
Another time, she said, she was staying in a Winnebago near Perryton, Texas, where she was on call in case something went wrong with a battery—a central group of storage tanks—in the middle of the night. She received an alert on her phone at 2 a.m. saying that the compressor at the battery had quit. She got up and drove to it. Nearby, she saw a truck parked. Before leaving her vehicle, she called Evelyn on her cell phone and woke her up; in this lonesome spot, she wanted to be in constant contact with someone. On the battery’s control panel, she saw a readout indicating that the compressor had been shut off manually. Just then, a guy appeared out of the darkness and said, “I was hoping it would be you that showed up.”
She had brought a large wrench, which she held aloft. In touch with Evelyn all the while, she told the guy that he needed to stay where he was. (“I don’t let anybody close distance on me,” she says, in her Sergeant Van Horn voice.) She vaguely remembered the guy as someone who worked for the company that serviced the compressors. He said, “Aw, c’mon—don’t be that way.” She told him to get in his truck and leave. Later, she stopped seeing him around, and assumed that he had been fired.
“When I first started pumping, I had this idea that I was going to reform the oil field,” she said. “But I failed, just like we failed in Iraq. We keep going into these countries thinking we’re going to change them, and they change us, make us barbaric instead. But I keep trying anyway. My daughter’s husband is Ethiopian-American, so my granddaughter is half black. When I hear oil-field people using racial epithets, I tell them about my son-in-law and my granddaughter. I want them to know that they can’t assume anything, because most Oklahomans don’t have those ignorant opinions. I want people to know we’re more diverse out here than you might think.”
We stopped at the Neff well again, as planned. It was out again. Rachael checked the gas temperature, which was still high. By again reducing the flow, she got the temperature to go down enough that the pump re-started. The compressor still shrieked. Rachael thought and thought about the problem but could not figure it out.
As we headed for the last well of the day, she said, “You haven’t asked me about my personal life.” She told me that when she was in Texas she had met a guy who was a fellow-pumper. They got along, and later started seeing each other off and on, but he is a lot younger than she is. “Seems like the only guys who are interested in dating me are twenty, thirty years younger,” she said. “I tell them they’re just looking to avoid getting serious with anybody. Now, if they go out with someone their own age, that’s serious, and could have consequences of kids and family and so on. With me, the next thing they know I’ll be going around with a walker, and they’ll still be young and not interested in an old woman.
“So I’m basically single,” she went on, “and what really irritates me is when people assume that I must be a lesbian. It would be totally fine if I was, but I’m not. People think that Evelyn is, too, and she’s not, either. You can be a pumper, and do the kind of work that women don’t usually do, and still be attracted to guys. so get asked if I feel safe living alone. I answer that I have neighbors I can depend on, and my dog is a great watchdog, and if there’s one issue where I’m far to the right politically it’s guns. I know how to shoot, and I have a gun in every room in my house, including the bathroom.”
We took a lunch break at the Tiger Hut Café, in Laverne. A tableful of pumpers, all young guys, greeted Rachael warmly. “If you’re riding with her, you’re riding with the best,” one of them said to me. While we waited for our orders, Rachael kept thinking about the uncoöperative Neff well. She went outside and called Greg Evans and had a conversation about it. As soon as we finished eating, we drove back to the Neff. “I have to take one more look at this well,” she said. It had shut down again. She and Evans had decided to use a different tactic—to turn the flow up, flood the compressor with gas, and see if that cooled it. She went to the control box and prepared to reset the flow. “Would you mind standing over there on the other side of the fence?” she asked me. “I’m sure this will be fine, but just in case.”
She hit a button or two, there was a strong smell of gas, and the compressor lugged down and started to labor. Its shrieking dropped several octaves. Then she re-started the horse-head pump. The compressor kept going, now laboring less. She fine-tuned the flow, and the machine started to hum smoothly. “I think I finally got the flow right,” she said. “All it took was to flood it and then pinch it down just enough.” She sat in the truck with the window open. The compressor still hummed, and the pump motor continued its steady pop-pop-pop. After another few minutes of listening, she said, “Looks like we solved it. Yay, us!”
She drove up onto a ridgeline road, and a many-mile prairie vista opened out—low hills in waves, green fields of forage crops scattered with black specks of grazing cattle, and, on the horizon, long, faint lines of white wind turbines, like the protest signs of an approaching crowd. “Soon it will be real winter,” Rachael said. “That’s the hardest time of year to pump wells, because things constantly freeze. You’ve got valves to thaw out, fuel lines to de-ice. Plus, there’s less daylight to work with, and of course the weather’s generally bitter cold and windy, and the roads get so terrible that I wish I had a hovercraft.”
Once, out of the blue, I asked Rachael if she thought climate change was real. She said, “Well, of course!” and looked at me as if I were kidding. I had asked the question of other people on the plains; most said that they did not believe in it, and a few said they were withholding judgment. Rachael was the first to say that climate change was real. I laughed, because she took me by surprise. I then asked how she could square that belief with her job of removing fossil fuels from the ground. She thinks that the oil field here does a tolerable job of conserving what it pumps, that gas (its main product) burns more cleanly than other fuels, and that until we quit using fossil fuels we should be as careful with them as we can. From what I saw, the local wells are subdued, discrete markers in the landscape. That pumpers are checking on each one of them every day seems dutiful and conscientious—an act that helps to hold the world in place.
“I love the people I work with in my Convention and Visitors Bureau job,” Rachael said. “But pumping wells, working alone, is my meditation. Because there can be some danger, I’m completely present when I’m doing it, and that’s relaxing. I usually come in from pumping calmer than when I went out.
“Last winter, I got stuck in the snow at one of these wells out here, and I could not extricate myself. For a few minutes, I really got upset. But I called around and found someone to come and pull me out. Then I sat back, and on my phone I watched videos my daughter had sent of my granddaughter opening her Christmas presents. Eva, two years old, was just tearing into that wrapping paper. Up to my door handles in snow, in the middle of nowhere at the well site, I was undistracted by anything, and I was happy.”
Before heading back East, I went out one morning to look at some wells on my own, to see what I had learned. Along an empty stretch of paved road, I passed wheel ruts leading off to the right, toward a horse-head well in the distance. I pulled over, left my car by the cattle guard—there were no “Keep Out” signs—and walked the mile or so to the well. I had brought my sketchbook, and when I got there I sat on the ground and started drawing. Looking back along the track I had walked, I noticed a car coming toward me. Across the empty prairie, driving carefully in and out of the ruts, it approached with antlike slowness. As it got closer, I saw that it was the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. I stood up and started to walk toward it, to show compliance. Pretty soon, it pulled alongside.
The window rolled down. A crew-cut young officer—Trooper Chance Housted, according to his nametag—asked what I was doing. I said that I was drawing wells and showed him my sketchbook. He took this in without comment. Then I told him that I had been riding with a pumper named Rachael Van Horn.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “I know Rachael. I live down by Rosston not too far from her. She’s been pumping wells around here for a while.” He smiled. “Yeah, Rachael,” he said. “She is the real deal.” ♦