Las Vegas Sun

November 21, 2014

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Columnist Tom Gorman: On the chilling experiences of Las Vegas residents whose first stop on the way to work is Fairbanks

Tom Gorman's column runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (702) 259-2310.

Some folks complain about their commute. They wince at the thought of Summerlin Parkway, the 95 and the Spaghetti Bowl at rush hour.

But consider the commutes some of your neighbors have.

Al Risener left his office just before noon on Thursday and hoped to be pulling into his garage around 6:30 this morning.

Risener lives on the west side of town, near Charleston Boulevard and Buffalo Drive. On Thursday, he was heading home from Pump Station #4 -- on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, 475 miles north of Fairbanks.

I guarantee he won't be complaining about the weather today. Was it a little brisk when you picked up the paper this morning? On Thursday, when Al walked out the door to grab a flight from Galbraith Lake Airport to Fairbanks, it was 20 degrees below zero -- before accounting for the wind-chill factor.

Al is one of a handful of Las Vegas Valley residents who work on the 800-mile pipeline that delivers crude oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.

During the winter, it doesn't get much lighter outside the pump station midday than the faux-dusk inside the Venetian's Canal Shops or the Forum Shops at Caesars. You're lucky if there's enough sunshine to create a shadow. And it can be 100 degrees colder in the pristine, rugged wilderness of the Brooks Range, north of the Arctic Circle, than it is here.

"We certainly live and work in two extremes," Al said by phone Thursday, just before grabbing a good book for the long flight home.

On the job, he and the others live in college-like dorms at pump stations or other pipeline facilities. They work 12-hour days for two weeks, as mechanical engineers, technicians and controllers who do things like repair pumps, install new ones and manage oil flow.

And then they're off for two weeks.

During the summer, many pipeline workers stay in Alaska on their days off to fish and hunt. In the winter, they fly home. Depending on the location of their work outposts, they can be airborne for as long as 7 1/2 hours, plus layovers in Fairbanks and Anchorage.

Al, who is 62, has worked on the pipeline since its inception 30 years ago. He and his wife lived in Alaska for 15 years, then moved to Albuquerque before relocating to Las Vegas five years ago to, uh, shorten his commute.

Locals are amazed when they learn where Al works. "People can't believe I commute that far," he said. "But we love Las Vegas -- the heat, the dry air." They spend much of their time hiking and exploring the desert.

Brad Stevens, who started on the pipeline at 19 and who's now 50, said Alaska and Nevada have a lot in common: most of each state is owned by the government, neither has a state income tax, each has primarily one industry (oil and gambling, respectively), and each is under-populated with just two primary population centers (Fairbanks and Anchorage, and Reno and Las Vegas).

Brad said there's nothing especially romantic about his job -- but he loves drawing a six-figure income while, because of vacation, working only about five months a year. When he's home at Summerlin, he golfs, rides his motorcycles or heads to Orange County, where he grew up, to go surfing.

Others enjoy Las Vegas because its cacophony contrasts with Alaska's quiet solitude.

"We don't gamble, but we love the Strip," said Howdice Brown, 58, who lives in Henderson. "We love the attractions, the sights and just watching all the people."

Al Abreu feels the same. Al, who's 60 and is another 30-year pipeline veteran, moved to northwest Las Vegas four years ago from Delta Junction, 100 miles south of Fairbanks.

"Our two children live in Alaska, and we're seeing them more, now that we've moved to Las Vegas, than we did when we lived in Delta Junction because there's nothing to do there," he said. "The big excitement came when Wal-Mart opened in Fairbanks."

In Las Vegas, "we love the heat, the lights, the excitement, the people," he said.

If I have a favorite among the Las Vegans who work on the pipeline, it's Luann Still, who is 49 in Alaska -- but lives the life of a 21-year-old here.

At work, Luann is a mechanical engineer who oversees the installation of new pumps and the jet engines that power them. For years, she lived in Anchorage, but five years ago "it occurred to me I didn't need to put up with that."

She was familiar with Las Vegas because of vacations, and decided to move to Henderson.

Around here, you might find her wrapped in red leather, riding her bright red Honda sports bike to Goodsprings or the Valley of Fire, or maybe she'll be dining at Picasso, tucked inside a little Dolce and Gabbana cocktail dress. Think black, mini, silk and Spandex. She'll do big hair and strut in a pair of 4-inch, pointy stilletos.

It may sound a little over the top, but don't forget what she does for a living. At work she wears steel-toed, high-top work boots that weigh six pounds, thermal underwear, thick pants, a flannel shirt, a 10-pound, knee-length parka and a fleece-lined hard hat.

And if she lives by one philosophy, it's that what she wears in Anchorage stays in Anchorage.

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