When the Pipe Bomb Blows

In the strip-mined West, a teenager delights in destruction

| November / December 2007

I was hooked the first time my friends and I built a pipe bomb and set it off under a rural night sky. I was sold on the art of making bombs. As a teenager, I obsessed over their alchemy, over the spell of unleashing them. How they could shudder the earth and widen the sky. Their power, to me, was undeniable. To lord over something so destructive was to see my work transform matter and rearrange physical space so that it was, at once, wholly foreign and strangely familiar.

But that person, that boy, whose attention was singularly fixed on making bombs, is alien to me now. When I look back, I find myself both alarmed and gratified by his audacity, both surprised and not surprised that he could take to something that destructive so naturally.

If you live through it, you will always remember your first bomb. I recall mine this way: It is March 1987 and four of us pile into a Chevy pickup. Darren, a wiry senior, in his usual uniform: cowboy boots, jeans, letter jacket. L.D., a quiet, if not smug, offensive lineman. He sits shotgun, leaving Shane and me—freshmen—in the middle. As teens, we generally have little to do but drag our main street in Soda Springs, Idaho. But this night is different.

While Monsanto and other incendiary mines emit plumes of smoke and fire from furnace stacks, the town is asleep. The wind is ragged in the treetops. We sip cold beers and notice that ours is the only car out (save the occasional semi that blows through to Wyoming). I look over. The bomb rests in L.D.’s lap. The thick green fuse is coiled around its steely skin.

We head north of town, toward the silica quarry. We pass Monsanto, Kerr-McGee, Agrium, and a handful of other mining operations scattered among grain fields. Out here, farms abut mines. Years later I would spend a long time considering that kind of Western collision. But tonight it is all tapestry. The black ribbon of highway cuts through fields and patches of snow.

At the quarry, mounds of processed sand rise like pyramids. The surrounding hillside is exposed and stripped of vegetation, its insides spilling onto the ground. Darren parks the Chevy near a bulldozer and a front-end loader, and switches off the truck. We sit for a minute and then get out. The air smells good. It smells like diesel. It smells like work.