Jun 18, 2009

Telling Stories Short Nonfiction Contest Winners - part 2

Great writing can take you places, make you feel like you know how a place looks and feels on the other side of the earth. In this winning story, Zack Barnett takes us to a place few of us will ever see, to the edge of a Ukranian pit mine so large it can be seen from space. What does it look like? How does it feel? What lessons can it teach us? Read on.

A Pit Mine on a Spring Day

By Zack Barnett

How many times have you heard, “Hey, this weekend you and your wife want to go have a look at one of Europe's largest open pit iron ore mines?" That's not an invitation you're going get twice, if ever. After all, this is Ukrainian iron, the stuff they used to make the mythical curtain.

After this winter, an invitation to damn near anywhere would have sounded fascinating. For four months, the ice didn’t melt. It just turned browner by the day. Now, it was turning to brown slush and we were oozing our way into spring. An outing, even if it was to an open pit mine, sounded fantastic.

As newly arrived Peace Corps volunteers in the central Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih, we were up for anything to get us out of our dormitory apartment, which, with sheets of wrinkled red linoleum on the floors and walls of dusty chalk, had begun to feel like a prison.

Besides, like my friend Robert says, "You gotta recognize an opportunity when you see it." I think Robert was talking about a trip to Lake Powell or a raft trip the Colorado River.

But this, too, was an opportunity. Lena, a teacher from my school, and her husband picked us up like we were going on a picnic or something. We presented them with some pricy coffee and a box of chocolates, as is the Ukrainian custom. On our way to the mine we happened by Ukraine’s largest steel mill, which is no small potato in a country that produces more steel each year than all but a handful of countries in the world.

The signature aroma of the mill, maybe a mile from our apartment, lacks the subtlety of even a dime store perfume. My iron lungs will probably set off airport metal detectors when we get home from two years of sucking in the smell. An escape from that smell and the brown ice made this outing downright sublime, even if did take an hour or so of pothole slalom to reach the southern outskirts of our 80-mile-long city.

We pulled up to the pit mine's security gate, Lena’s husband got out and talked our way in. It wasn't unlike walking into a national park, only you don’t need to sweet talk the park service. Moments later we walked to the edge of a great chasm, a pockmark on the face of the Earth, like standing on the edge of a popped zit. A little horrifying, but still an amazing sight. The ecological irony wasn't lost on Lena, "Is it like the Grand Canyon?" she asked

Yes and no.

At almost 1,200 feet deep, 1.5 miles wide and almost two miles long, the seemingly bottomless man-made pit is a spectacle. Oxidized ore on one side even looks like Red Mountain in southern Colorado’s San Juans. Roads and rail lines spiral into the pit. Countless trucks ascend and descend. We stood on a small precipice overlooking the operation, not unlike an overlook at a national park. It truly was something to behold. I could have stayed all day watching the excavators dump raw ore into train cars to be hauled up a spiral of track to a giant conveyor belt pulling the ore from the depths to a processing plant, on its way to the giant, smelly mill.

It's one thing to breathe the air of an industrial city. It's another to watch the operations stir up the dust. They say our city boasts its own weather patterns because the five giant pits around town alter the temperatures so much they change the air pressure. They say the bottom of the pit can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.

This place is like an ant farm. From our viewpoint off-road haulers with tires taller than I am and elevating scrapers half a block long looked like nothing more than busy little insects gathering food on a crumby picnic blanket. The sheer size of the operation mesmerized.

Andre, Lena's husband, worked at the mine for three years after he finished university. His job was in explosives. Once a week miners drill holes into the bottom of the mine. Then they throw in a few thousand pounds of explosives and "boom" one the largest open pit iron ore mines in Europe gets a little bigger, loosening rock to be sorted and loaded into train cars.

It’s not too different from standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and reminding yourself that the little winding brown ribbon of Colorado River carved and is carving the Grand Canyon as you watch. I had to keep reminding myself I was watching similar work in progress as I stared into the pit.

Pits and mines like this made Kryvyi Rih an industrial jewel in the Soviet crown. Our region is one of a few on which the USSR relied on for steel production. Here, they mine and make it. What comes from the ground leaves the city as hardened pig iron. Blind, efficient resource extraction and production mark this town.

Locals say that during World War II, the Nazis took over the pit and processed the ore here before sending the steel, along with tons of the black Ukrainian top soil back to Germany. It is said that it took several years to rebuild the ore mining and steel-making operations after the German occupation ended.

Now, a company that owns one of the giant pits boasts that there is enough ore in the ground there for 60 more years. I'm still trying to figure out how a country that can oversee such an operation can't engineer a way to keep its teachers paid and its streets paved.

"We don't have a lot of museums or art in our city," said Andre. "But we do have a lot of mines."

After our visit to the open pit mine, we stopped by a store and bought the makings for a picnic: some fried meat, assorted mayonnaise salads, and a little beer – to kill the germs from stale mayo and meat – before heading out to a reservoir on the Ingulyets River.

"Extreme," smiled Andre as he negotiated his compact car over the lumps of what seemed to me to be an old Jeep track. What we found at the end of the road sent me reeling into a blue-collar Bruce Sprinsgsteen ballad.

There was a small pine forest with families throughout, playing soccer and picnicking. Meanwhile across the lake were the smokestacks, standing sentinel over the industrial empire. It felt like Gary, Indiana or somewhere in New Jersey, maybe.
Still, the day managed to wash the stink of winter from my brain. The frozen brown masses had finally melted from the sidewalk. Buds were coming and fresh blades of grass peaked out from the ground.

Even the vista of the open pit mine had been appealing. Never has fresh air or the smell of evergreen trees found a nicer home in my nose than that day. After a winter slogging through or balancing on the grime of the city sidewalk, a visit to the pit was just the quarry for my citified bones.

Even if it wasn’t the Grand Canyon.

(To see more of Zack Barnett's writing, visit http://zackbarnett.com/ )

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