At 5:30 a.m. the Maverick gas station in Douglas is packed with white trucks headed to the rigs and mines of the Powder River Basin.

At 5:30 a.m. the Maverick gas station in Douglas is packed with white trucks headed to the rigs and mines of the Powder River Basin.

The woman behind the cash register rests her left elbow on the counter and perches her head on the palm. Her eyes are barely open as she takes my cash and says, “Have a nice day.”

She seems apathetic to her job’s importance. She helps power the people who extract the fuel the rest of the world needs to function. But her job is little more than a hindrance to her sleep cycle. I tell her to get some rest as I walk out the door.

The younger men grip Red Bull, Monster and other highly caffeinated cold drinks as they pile in their trucks. The older men sip coffee. Sausage-egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwiches are in some hands. Beef jerky and snacks in others.

The sun has yet to shine. Night-shift workers are still on the job. Day-shift workers are in commute to the treasure troves of natural resources underground in the region.

With a red flannel shirt and a pair of borrowed steel-toe boots, I sip a small coffee and turn onto Highway 59. It’s known as the Coal Miner 500 by those who use it regularly. I drive slowly and am passed frequently. I am looking at the morning sky and the glows illuminating from rigs along the highway.

I am scheduled to spend the 12-hour work day alongside a miner and a company spokesman at a pit in Cloud Peak Energy’s Antelope Mine.

As the coal cars scoot by on the train tracks near Bill, between Douglas and Wright, I eagerly await seeing the other side of the process — the extraction.

When I arrive at the mine’s gatehouse, Cloud Peak spokesman Rick Curtsinger is there to greet me.

We shake hands. He says we will have a mine safety crash course before entering the pit.

I pass a sign at the mine’s entrance reporting the number of days since a lost-time injury was reported to the Mine Safety and Health Administration — a salient reminder to all employees about the absence of invincibility on the job site. It had been 35 days since the last report.

Cloud Peak hasn’t had a fatality since it was formed in 2009. Rio Tinto, the company that owned the mine prior to Cloud Peak, had a workplace fatality in 2006 at the Spring Creek Mine. There was a death on Aug. 16 at Arch Coal’s Black Thunder mine, and on Aug. 28 a contractor died at Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle Mine.

Curtsinger and I enter the Cloud Peak facilities; the crews are conducting their morning safety briefing. The man with whom I will spend the next 12 hours, Ken Brogdon, is all ears.

The meeting ends, and I introduced myself to Brogdon, an electric mining shovel operator who’s been with Cloud Peak for 11 years.

“Do you get seasick?” he asks after our introduction.

I tell him I will be fine. He leaves the room to hop on a shuttle bus that will take him into the heart of the mine and the $30 million, 68-feet tall and 47-feet wide machine he operates.

Curtsinger and I then meet John Reyes, a 30-plus-year veteran with Cloud Peak who is now the senior trainer with the company.

Reyes becomes giddy when he talks about workplace training at the Antelope Mine. He has a 176-page PowerPoint presentation used to indoctrinate new employees along with simulators, handbooks and on-the-job training.

“We tell our employees they’re empowered by safety,” Reyes says. “We can shut down anything to make sure they know what they’re doing.”

Reyes gives Curtsinger and I hard hats, gloves and glasses. He calls a truck to pick us up and take us to a pit.

When I hop in the white work truck, the driver asks, in an incredulous tone, why I want to spend 12 hours with a shovel operator.

“For an outsider,” I say, “it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

He is the third person who asks why I want to go to the mine.

The driver drops us off. Brogdon is walking alongside the 38-feet long, 11-feet tall tracks that are the wheels of the mammoth, black and yellow machine. Standing next to the right track, Brogdon appears like a tiger cub next to a towering zebra.

“The size of the equipment is what surprises everyone at first,” he says.

Before we walk up the nearly 30 feet worth of steps to the control room, Brogdon shows us the shovel’s bucket, which is known as a dipper.

Brogdon is tasked with scooping the layers of sandstone, siltstone and claystone blown away by electric blasts to uncover coal. The dipper acts like an ice cream scoop, where the bottom can lock in and out of place. It can eat up about 120 tons of material per swoop. When Brogdon swipes a dipper full of material, he hoists it above a hauling truck, presses a button and lets it drop. Three 99-metric-ton scoops is one truckload.

Brogdon is from a dairy farm in a “small town on the Nebraska-Wyoming border that nobody’s heard of.”

He tells everyone he’s from Torrington.

He lives 20 miles south of Gillette and carpools to work every day.

He’s 33 years old with three kids and a wife. His dream is to own more property. He has a small hobby farm where he raises a few cows and grows hay.

“It gives the kids an opportunity to learn the responsibilities of farm life,” he says.

He’s medium height and stocky, with a goatee. On his helmet is an NRA sticker. He just likes to shoot, he says, but doesn’t care for Second Amendment politics.

He’s a veteran of the Marine Corps. His time in service gave him a valuable life lesson that applies to his job today.

“Stick to the task at hand and get it done,” he says.

Brogdon’s job is monotonous but not mindless.

When he climbs the ladder to enter the control room, his feet don’t touch earth until he’s done with his shift more than 11 hours later.

We are more than 130 feet below ground level. A coal shovel loads trucks on one end of the open pit. Brogdon clears the other end.

He is in charge of four hauling trucks and a bulldozer at his side of the pit. While Brogdon digs and scoops into the side of the pit’s walls, a bulldozer standing on top of the pit moves more dirt down into the pit floor. Brogdon picks it up with the shovel and dumps it into the hauler. The debris is used to fill the pit during reclamation.

Brogdon creates more than 240 loads throughout the day. His body is constantly moving for nearly 12 hours even though he is sitting in a chair.

When he fills the dipper, he must turn the machine — which sits on a vertically rotating axis — to dump the material into the haulers.

At three dippers per load, he averages about 1,440 lateral turns that span somewhere between 45 and 90 degrees per each load.

The tracks of the machine also send Brogdon’s body in motion. When they move — even in a short distance — the sensation is like an earthquake’s tremors.

The machine sits on top of a thin layer of dirt resting above a coal bed. When the machine moves, the unforgiving, bituminous roadway sends the giant machine into gyrations.

The machine’s endless movement is vertiginous for a first-timer. I brace myself as if I am on a sailboat during a nor’easter.

Fatigue is one of the biggest safety concerns in the mine, and the constant spinning and bumping is a part of the daily toll to which bodies become accustomed. Even a seasoned operator isn’t impervious to the effects. The physical strain along with the nonstop demand to clear the mine adds up over the course of 12 hours.

Brogdon wears a baseball cap when he’s operating the machine. The words “Safety: A Way of Life” are embroidered on the back.

Brogdon doesn’t consume energy drinks, coffee or soda on the job. When it’s time for lunch, he doesn’t leave the machine or pull out a brown bag. All he has is an apple pie turnover. Lunch makes him tired.

“When you start to feel tired, you stop, get out, walk around on the deck and clear yourself,” he says.

When Brogdon communicates with his team over the radio, they often crack jokes about one another.

Everyone calls him Donkey Boy.

He calls another one Ricky Bobby.

He was Ricky Bobby long before the movie “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” Brogden says.

After lunch, there are less wisecracks.

“They must all be tired after eating lunch,” Brogdon says.

Brogdon is always alone on his shift. He goes four days on from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Then he goes four days off, returning to perform 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shifts. The 4 a.m. hour on night shifts is the worst, he says.

“The more you stare at the clock, the slower it gets,” he says.

The chair used to operate the machine has two joysticks to move the dipper and the body of the machine. He’s eager to admit that he has a massage chair.

“I am in the lap of luxury,” he says.

The unit is also pressurized to keep out coal dust and is air conditioned. There’s a microwave oven and satellite radio. Brogdon listens to country music softly. He likes the old outlaws, but can’t stand the newer, pop genre.

“I was out here before satellite,” he says with a laugh. “You wanna talk about miserable. It was a great addition.”

Curtsinger says the radio was a move to help keep operators alert. In the days before satellite radio, AM and FM stations couldn’t be transmitted to the bottom of a pit.

Every hour Brogdon has one question for me and Cursinger: “Are you bored yet?”

After the fifth or sixth time he asks, I know why the other mine employees had asked why I wanted to spend the day with Brogdon. It’s an isolated, repetitive and long day at work — but somebody has to do it.

“(Coal) is the lifeblood of Wyoming,” Brogdon says. “It’s the heartbeat. A lot of folks are betting on it.”

When Brogdon’s shift ends, a bus comes to the base of the pit to pick him up and drop him off at the company parking lot. As he leaves, his replacement is heading into the pit — ready to work a 12-hour shift.

Curtsinger and I part ways after Brogdon’s shift. I make my way back toward Douglas. I am exhausted even though I had barely exerted any physical energy all day. I sat in a mine shovel. I sat in my car. I stop at a Subway and devour a sandwich.

When I take a shower, I feel my body swaying back and forth. The feeling is known as the illness of disembarkation — a swaying sensation that continues after a body is no longer in motion. It happens to people after they are on cruises.

I wonder if Brogdon ever has the same after-effects. I quickly eschew the idea. As captain of his machine, he is a man with his sea legs.