November 3, 2013
Author: Chilton Williamson
Excerpt from The Hundredth Meridian
White sky, white snow. In the foreground a fenceline: three strands of barbed-wire stretched taut between crooked posts cut from a juniper forest growing along the sandstone hogback, the bottom strand running in and out of low drifts of scalloped snow. The brushy tips of sagebrush vibrating on a stiff wind above the snowglaze, the brown bunchgrass, purple willows marking the drainage where a creek runs beneath a lid of semi-transparent ice, the black water breaking through in places where moss and tiny waterplants show green. A moose and her calf, blackened and misshapen, browsing half-concealed in the willow and greasewood; farther along the fence the frozen carcass of a doe antelope hanging by the heels of the top wire she failed to clear. A pair of bald eagles perched in a windpolished snag, waiting for a semi to hit a crossing deer. In the middle distance the dark shapes of cattle pointed in the same direction with their muzzles down, grazing the knolls where the wind has swept the ground bare of snow; at the horizon a black timbered ridge patched and runneled with white, blurred by snow like sifting flour. There actually are people in the world who dislike this scene.
Four inches of ice to break on the watering trough this morning. It’s constructed of corrugated iron, the ice forming along the inside curve and growing toward the middle in an oval, everthickening ledge that resists loosening under blows from an iron pike with a snake-shaped heads. The horses are eating snow, which they shouldn’t do, but how do you keep a horse from eating snow when he’s pastured on a couple of acres of it? They look like yaks with their grown-out coats but move differently, tossing their heads and kicking up their heels as we converge on the wooden crib where I throw down a third of a 110-pound bale of Elk Mountain hay, the best grass grown in Wyoming, rich in proteins and vitamins. You buy cheaper stuff, your horses can process hay all day and still post a calorie deficit over a 24-hour period. The wind out of the northwest cuts beneath my hatbrim like a machete and sends scarves of gray snow twisting across the highway into town.
My friend Rhonda, her six-year-old daughter Micaela, and Australian sheep dog are leaving this morning for Manahattan Beach, California, to spend Christmas with their family. Posted on my computer are the phone numbers for the Wyoming Department of Transporation and the Wyoming Highway Patrol. Both report dry roads and favorable weather along Interstate 80 from Rawlins west to Salt Lake City; between Laramie and Rawlins, a distance of 98 miles over the redoubtable Elk Mountain pass, expect snow, blowing snow, high winds, slick roads.
“Remember: drive SLOWLY, breathe on the accelerator, use your left pinky on the steering wheel, brake with the middle toe of your right foot, and keep your headlights and flasher on.”
“I’ll be all RIGHT. If it gets too bad I’ll pull off the road and stop.”
“Rhonda, it’s a hundred miles between towns. You’re from California, you have no idea how bad it can get out here.”
“Stop it, you’re making me nervous. I drive eighty-five miles an hour in eight lanes of traffic all the time.”
In my fifty-two-and-a-half years I’ve never managed to tell a woman anything.
Seasonal stories in the press of college students reported lost in the Rocky Mountains. The weather was mild when they started their hike, so they had on jeans, a light shirt and jacket, Nikes, Adidases, or just plain tennis shoes. Where do kids grow up these days? When I came out West twenty years ago I wasn’t so dumb, having read in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books her terrifying accounts of three-day blizards closing within minutes, farmers losing their way between the barn and the house, wandering off into the white-out prairie to freeze stiff as a dried codfish. (I spent years looking over my shoulder in the Wyoming mountains in elk season, expecting to be sandbagged by a South Dakota storm.)
Around Whiskey Mountain south of Dubois the Bighorn sheep are coming down, crossing from one drainage to the next across the mountain’s tawny shoulder: three, five, nine, a dozen, twenty-some of them appearing over the ridge, spidery black shapes plunging downhill at a trot into the next creek bottom. For practice, I put the glasses on them to check for length of horn: Your friendly game warden will issue you a citation for taking a ram as little as one-eighth of one inch short of full curl, and you’re shooting at two to three hundred yards. At Torrey Lake the deer are browsing the sagebrush beside the dirt road, one of them a fat four-point buck with an agreeable expression and a notable curiosity about us. “If I had my gun along, his d–k would be in the dirt!” My friend Jack Mootz speaking from our oilpatch days, twenty years ago: I can still hear–and feel–the blast of his .264 magnum going off beside me on the front seat of the old GMC Jimmy we took hunting with us back then. Today I park at the turnaround at the head of the road and Norma and I hike the Bomber Lake trail a couple of miles upstream, following the creek as it plunges over the piled-up pink granite. To our left, a thousand feet above, the shoulder of the mountain is being scoured by a sixty-mile-an-hour wind sweeping the snow from the open park and the trail we traversed horseback as far as Gannett Peak, 23 or 25 miles back in on the Continental Divide, four or five summers ago. The funneling wind is what remains of a winter storm ravaging western Wyoming as far as the Wind River River Range, which stops it in its tracks abruptly as a twelve-gauge shotgun halts a grizzly bear: Here in the valley of the Wind River–known to the as Indians the Warm Valley–the day is springlike, as if the year were playing itself backward like a tape recorder in reverse.
It’s an illusion, of course; the year winding down to the dreaded “holidays,” which are to holiness what Disneyland is to Bethlehem. Maxed-out credit cards and nonreligious seasonal ones, jazzed-up carols, interfaith prayers, angels that look like Barbie with wings, Alfred E. Newman dressed like Santa Claus, celebrities at the White House (at your and expense and mine), Madeleine Albright in the Middle East, cheese balls and rose wine, double-parked UPS and Federal Express trucks, the ghost of Dickens’ past (Scrooge resurrected as Ronald Reagan), computers with bows on them, lines, lines, lines–of people, of cars.. Next year I think I’ll rediscover an old Christian dispensation by invading some church and declaring sanctuary there, huddled among dying poinsettias. Christmas cards from old girlfriends you don’t want to hear from, silence from those you do..The old year winding down, and now Y2K upon us. What’s in a number? 2000 is just another digital adjustment, like the odometer on your car turning over. If, on the other hand, it produces the meltdown of the global computer network, that would really be something to celebrate–so would the collapse of the stock market. (Afterward, we could all get back to the business of living again.)
As late as my middle forties I used to be depressed by the onset of winter, experiencing it as a rehearsal for old age and death. That made as much sense as the columnist who declared July to be the cruelest month after it had to be inscribed on John F. Kennedy Jr.’s tombstone. A few years later, winter, like death, seems to have lost its sting–some of it, anyway. Every season, like every year, is a life-cycle unto itself: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. January is as young as July, September old as December. Snow-skiing and water-skiing are equally appropriate to the young and those who feel young; short days as vital as long ones. In addition to which, the inevitability of death means only that there is work yet to be done, and work is something better than youth, it is life itself. It took years for me to refuse the pain of mortal loss I felt every fall at oiling saddlery, cleaning guns, organizing camp gear, and packing everything away until spring. Now, I feel instead a release: into the world of making and reading books, listening to music and learning new scores–undisturbed by other possibilities, the awareness that I should (or could) be somewhere doing something strenous, adventurous ..dangerous. It’s enough instead just to work for six months, and work well. (And ski crosscountry. And ride a horse bareback across the snowy plain, trusting to the fiery barrel and rough coat between your knees to keep you warm. Hunt cottontail rabbits on snowshoes with a .22, rifle or revolver. And flirt with pretty women apres ski when the lifts are closing, and the bar is filling up.)
Schubert put all of life into Die Winterreise, not just snow, ice, darkness, and despair; so, in his December Songs inspired by the Schubert opus and written for the incomparable chanteuse Andrea Marcovicci, does Maury Yeston. With nothing much to do outside on a subzero day but pull hay bales down from the hayrick and break the ice in the trough, I lie for hours on the sofa listening to Marcovicci’s poise-perfect performance, appreciating her flawless vocal technique and superb interpretive craftsmanship, relishing the purity of her voice, by turns girlish and womanly, lighthearted and tragic. She’s doing a stand tonight at the Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, which is where I am right now: seated at a table up front under the piano, in black tie to match her black velvet dress, drinking champagne and smoking a cigar (trooper that she is, she can sing above the smoke), Jim Tate and Tony Outhwaite with me in their penguin suits, and thirty-six longstem red roses (a dozen from each of us) beneath the table for presentation after the performance. And outside the elegant room where we sit enthralled, New York in December: a night sky stained red by city lights, the tracks of taxies in the snowy streets, a blonde in a fur coat and hat standing at the iron gates in front of 21 while her escort pays the cab fare. What is she singing now? “But of course, /It was only a dream..” But a good dream–a great one, in fact.
The road not taken. Better off out here in Wyoming after all, where the most priceless luxury the modern world has to offer–solitude–is common as sagebrush and bentonite. (At a price, of course: Even the priceless carries a tag attached to it.) South of Casper, the route between Dubois and Laramie crosses the Shirley Basin and the Shirley Mountains on its way to the town of Medicine Bow (population 350) for a distance of 71 miles. In wintertime, these are not relaxing ones. East of Bear Mountain the ground blizzards begin, pushed by winds up to 70 miles an hour funneling northeast through a ventura opening to the high plateau. The road disappears in blowing snow though the sky remains blue above; barely in time I make out a car off the road where it failed to make the grade ahead. A Subaru wagon, and beside it a tall figure dressed in blue and a blue woolen cap on its head, waving its arms like a military signalman.
“Are you a mechanic?” the figure shouts as I draw alongside. He has the hood up, so the engine compartment is filling rapidly with snow.
“Only when it comes to horses. You can’t work on a car out here in this weather. Get in and I’ll give you a ride as far as Laramie.”
He’s a student at the university of Wyoming, returning from a visit to his grandparents in Thermopolis.
“What happened to your car?” I ask, gearing down from fourth gear to third as the truck enters a curve. (On ice, you’re safer when the engine does the braking instead of the peddle.)
“I have no idea. I couldn’t get power on the hill and then the engine died and all the idiot lights went on. I had plenty of oil and gas, though.”
The fuel line frozen, most likely–something I warned Rhonda against. A student of post-industrial technology, my passenger appears to have little if any familiarity with the industrial-age variety. That’s all right, I’m neither service station repairman nor rocket scientist myself. He’s lucky I happened to come along, though.
So you’re going back to cold country, they said, shaking their heads uncomprehendingly, when I departed Nuevo Mexico last summer with a song in my heart. Well, yes. And why not? Winter builds character and promotes the healthful consumption of alcohol and fine wines. Also solitude, character-building not being high on Americans’ personal agenda these days. And peace. What, finally, is the secret to life, if not wanting for yourself only what no one else wants at all? The saints have always grasped that fact intuitively. Why should it be so tough for us sinners to figure out?