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Oil field wife adjusts to remote life

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — Her dream was to learn Chinese, move to China and live in a secluded house with a gorgeous view of the Great Wall.

Well, Stephanie Thomas mastered the language and is living in virtual isolation, but her view doesn’t quite live up to one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It’s of a propane pipeline in the middle of the desert between Carlsbad and Hobbs in a location unrecognized by a GPS or the U.S. Postal Service.

Wife of Transwestern Pipeline technician and station operator Matthew Thomas, Stephanie spends her days at home – one of two houses on the company’s property – with their baby, four pets and the occasional tarantula for company.

It’s a quiet and peaceful existence with the machinery and nearby highway serving as background noise, she said, but one without much human interaction until the weekly weekend trek to Carlsbad to check their P.O. box and do some grocery shopping.

It gets lonely sometimes, Thomas said, even for a hermit at heart. After growing up on the Indiana countryside – where she still had neighbors – she joined the U.S. Navy and got used to the tight quarters of military barracks and bases teeming with people.

Matthew and Stephanie Thomas met in Monterey, Calif., in Chinese language school when they were both in the Navy. When Stephanie was transferred to Hawaii as a translator, Matthew requested the same move, and the two eloped the day he got off the plane in March 2008.

The couple finished their active duty assignments – Stephanie will end her two-year stint in the Navy Reserve this year – and moved to Roswell to be closer to family where Matthew decided to try his hand in the oil and gas industry. He landed a job with Transwestern Pipeline in December.

Best friends by choice and, one could say, lack of many more people to pick from, the Thomases are still adjusting to life as parents and as an oil and gas family.

At a little over 3 months old, baby Alastair seems to be enjoying life in this world with his adorable gurgles and easy-going personality.

He’s daddy’s boy through and through, but has enough smiles and cuddles to share with his mom during the day as they wait for their beloved husband and father to get home.

One day last month, Thomas was not expecting the greeting she got from her husband after a long day of work. “You were almost rich! I almost died today!” This was not a funny joke to her, she said, especially with an infant on hand.

Matthew Thomas’ typical day involves driving between 50 and 500 miles as he inspects the 184 miles of pipeline his company is accountable for in Southeast New Mexico. His job is generally 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and they get free company housing – but their family pays a steep price: As one of two on-site employees, Thomas is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But Matthew Thomas likes his job, he said, despite his own admission that it can get dangerous at times – like the day he came home and surprised his wife with that unusual declaration.

A pipeline had started leaking and could have sparked had his crew not shut it down in time.

“Any type of rupture can blow an arm off,” he said. “There’s bad stuff that happens.”

Still new to the career, he hasn’t personally seen anything quite that dramatic, but he’s heard his father, a veteran of the industry, tell plenty of stories.

But the dangerous aspect of her husband’s job isn’t something she likes to think about.

“I just prefer to be blissfully unaware. The potential is devastatingly awful if anything did go wrong, but they have so many safeguards.” And it’s part of her husband’s job to make sure those safeguards are abided by.

Because of her military background, Thomas was able to draw some parallels between the life of a military wife and that of an oil and gas industry wife.

“I didn’t have the typical military wife experience because one, I was also in (the military), and two, Matthew didn’t deploy and he was never on ship duty when we were together,” Thomas said. “I would imagine though that dependent spouses would tell you it’s extremely similar, with being gone for long periods of time with limited communication in a high risk area.”

And while Matthew Thomas has endured quite the career change – from working special security in the military to maintaining pipelines – he has continued to serve his countrymen by protecting them from harm on the oilfield and providing them with the comforts, such as propane gas heat, of living in America.

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