December 28, 2019
Author: Chilton Williamson
Late in the afternoon of the day before the final day of elk season I parked the truck and trailer above Blue Jay Creek north of Krall’s ranch and rode into the mountains against a cold wind and the lowering sun.
In spite of having been kicked on the cannon bone in her off rear leg four weeks earlier the mare stepped out briskly, breasting Absaroka Ridge with enthusiasm. We carried with us only the tent, extra clothes, and canned food in the packs, my bedroll, the gallon canteen, and the rifle in its leather scabbard. My face was stiff from cold before we reached the first aspen stand, but within the trees the air was gray and still. Twice we had to detour around logs, and when we broke onto the treeless shoulder the wind barreling clown Clear Creek canyon struck us head-on with chilling force. Deflected from the western aspect of the ridge it tipped the mare sideways above the 50-degree slope, and I flattened myself over the bedroll and the mane to lower our center of resistance. Where the trail converged with the creek we came on a gut sack lying with the severed head of a cow elk, apparently undisturbed by bears. I dismounted anyway to look for sign before riding on up the draw to the forested saddle and taking the trail farther west toward Commissary Ridge. My plan to make Spruce Creek and fix camp by dark was thwarted by our late departure and before we reached the switchbacks and the long descent into Bear Hole Creek the sun was clown and the light fading fast. I built a fire a few feet off the trail in the shelter of tall pines and in its glare, and with the aid of a flashlight, pitched the tent and unpacked the cook pans. Starting to unsaddle the mare I recalled the difficulties in saddling up in the morning dark and loosened the latigo instead.
No lights showed at Krall’s in the valley far below, but the sky was thick with stars. I went for the bottle and had taken a couple of pulls of Jim Beam when the mare, snubbed to a small tree several yards away, pointed her muzzle at the darkness and stared. I walked over, placed my hand on her neck, and felt her tremble like a racehorse. A bear is said to have summered on Clear Creek this year. I built up the fire, spun a shell under the hammer of the single-action .41 Magnum revolver and belted on the holster, and stood by the mare while she traced with her nose the bear’s progress as it moved out of the timber, across the trail, and down the steep sidehill into the ravine to water. When she’d quit shaking I opened a can of beef stew and set it in a pot on the fire, taking care not to let the gravy burn and removing the pot from the fire before the stew grew redolent. I’d finished my lukewarm supper and cleaned the pot thoroughly with the end of a pine bough and boiling water when the horse began to back and stamp on the rope, and toss her head. I stood by her reassuringly again while, shuddering, she followed the bear scent from the bottom back to the crest of the timbered ridge. Then I snubbed her short for the night, put away the bottle, threw more logs on the fire, crawled inside the tent, and fell asleep in the leaping glow of the flames through the nylon panels.
At five, the new moon rode at center sky and the water in the canteen was frozen solid. I pulled on my boots and coat, slipped the rifle into the scabbard under the saddleskirt, and led the mare through the black forest down the trail toward Bear Hole, going step by step into daylight. In the bottom I mounted and rode on through the cold blue dusk to South Fork, where we spooked a large-bodied buck with a heavy rack that had been drinking from a pool behind a beaver clam. The tops of the sugarloaf hills within the basin went from pink to yellow, but nothing moved on the sage-brush slopes or among the standing pine trees and polished snags. At Spruce Creek I reined in and sat the mare, letting her graze while I turned in the saddle to survey the sidehills through binoculars. From a steep park directly behind and above us, a cow elk stared with forward ears. With her were two more cows and a couple of calves. At the edge of the park a set of hindquarters, heavy and bull-colored, protruded from behind a tree.
I dismounted, drew the rifle from the scabbard, and looked around. I took the daypack from the saddlehorn and placed it on a small sage bush while the cow continued to study us. I got on my belly behind the pack and laid the rifle across it. The range was between 700 and 800 yards, the vertical rise about 300 feet. The quarters shifted to reveal a deep bullish body and a dark shagged neck, but distance and the quality of the light made it impossible to discern antlers as the cows milled and the herd drifted toward the timber. The bull turned, exposing a double row of tines. I put the reticule two-and-a-half animal bodies above the heart-lung area, as in same instant a cow stepped directly behind him on her way into the trees. Then they were all gone, headed to bed down for the morning nap. I didn’t care. I had my elk already and was out scouting today for a friend.
We rode out of Bear Hole in a lashing wind under a sky no longer clear but streaming with frozen stratus clouds beneath pewter lenticulars haloed in yellow, stopping only to pack up camp on our way out. The snow began falling after dark, and at sunrise next day, the first of November, the mountains were starkly visible from town like a line of white tents on the horizon.
From the beginning of November well into December, the winter storms roll inland from the Pacific Northwest almost without pause, one trough following another so closely that it is often impossible to distinguish between them. The diving barometer foretells the appearance in the west of a dark shelf that expands, pales, and softens as it approaches like clouds of spun glass, blotting the landforms. Mountains, hills, and gulleys vanish, together with trees, houses, the highway, and blizzard posts. The wind shrieks, the snowflakes whirl compactly as activated grains of beach sand, and the cold drives with the force of an ice ax. When the storm moves out it leaves behind a landscape white and glaring as the Antarctic beneath an ozone sky, only the feathered tips of the tallest sagebrush showing above the snow. Winter in the Rocky Mountain West is the sole defense a brave country knows.
ln winter, when the only tourists are the skiers and ranchers have little to do but pitch hay from sleds and wagons to the stock and repair equipment, the sphere of human activity narrows to home improvement, enhancing family values, ice fishing, snow-machining, and schnapps-drinking, not necessarily in that order. Some years ago, Fred Chambers, feeling restless, contracted to have a water well drilled on the 40-acre parcel he had bought the previous fall on Twin Creek ten miles west of Kemmerer. Every day from November through March Fred drove out from town to sit in the cab of his truck on muddy, then frozen, ground, holding down his 40 acres like a brick on a spread of newspaper while he drank coffee, smoked filterless cigarettes, and waited for spring, with nothing better to look forward to in the meantime than my arrival late in the afternoon to help carry water to our several head of horses in the corrals. When we’d feel and watered the two of us sat until dark in Fred’s truck with a pair of binoculars on the seat between us and the rifles muzzle-down on the floor of the cab, while Fredl smoked and we conversed between taking shots at the cottontail rabbits as they emerged from the willows along Twin Creek.
Fred, an engineer prematurely retired on a disability pension after falling from the building smokestack of the Utah Power & Light plant south of town, is a native of Tennessee, though he’s lived in the West for most of his adult life. As a young man he had a car, a girl, and a still back in the woods in the eastern part of Tennessee. With the girl’s help, Fred would load the bottles onto the backseat of the car and throw a coat over them. Next, he adjusted the headlights downward from marks he’d made on the door of a barn until the angle of shine corrected for the angle of the car body tipped back on the chassis. Finally, Fred and the girl started out through the dark forest among lurking revenue agents. The girl, he explained, had two basic functions, the second of them being to heave the bottles out of the car at Fred’s command. One day his mother asked him, “Fred? Do you know a man by the name of Bill Tinker?” “Sure do.” “Well, he says it would be a good thing for you if he don’t see you around eastern Tennessee for a real long time.” So Fred told his parents, “It looks like it’s time for me to migrate,” and headed for northern Alabama. (The girl was claiming pregnancy anyway.) On account of Fred’s back and in the absence of a dog I acted as retriever, but Fred always supplied the hot coffee. We cleaned the rabbits in the truck, tossing the guts from the windows and picking out the fleas and snapping them away between thumb and forefinger. One afternoon, seeing a cow moose and calf in the willows, Fred discovered the need to learn how a moose reacts when you fire a shotgun into the air at a distance of 25 paces from her across a fence. He found out when she jumped the wire and went after him, and I knew how Ichabod Crane looked floundering uphill in two-and-a-half feet of snow brandishing an antique shotgun above his head.
When we’d finished breaking a couple of horses by riding them into snowdrifts and goading them to frantic attempts at bucking, Fred was bored and ready to spend $12,000 on a well. He hired a driller from Bridger Valley who dragged up a single-axle camper trailer beside the drilling rig for himself and his wife Laurie, his assistant Jim and Jim’s wife, Ruth, and two small boys to live in while they punched the well. Fred said the driller, whose name was Bob Stocks, was an Arapahoe and that they were all of them Indians, though Ruth was blonde and admitted to having been a Mormon, once. The trailer was ten feet by seven, with bunk beds at one end and a truck seat across the other, and, between them on the ruined linoleum floor, a gas stove and an electric heater to thaw the frozen truck and generator batteries. A length of wire holding the door shut slumped over the heater and burned the hand of anyone who went in or out of the trailer.
While Fred sat in his Stetson and his sheepskin coat drinking scalding coffee from a water glass the boys played cars in the top bunk and the women lounged in soiled thermal underwear as they smoked cigarettes and brewed hot tea with sugar on the stove. It was January and 45 below zero at night. The evening before, when the bottled gas ran out, the temperature in the trailer had dropped to 20 degrees. The trucks froze up, and Bob and Jim built fires of hay and wood beneath the engine blocks to thaw them. Work proceeded intermittently between freeze-ups. The men would drill for three days, then sit for two. Yesterday they reached 120 feet without hitting groundwater and halted to wait for Fred to instruct them. “She’s a bitch,” the driller told Fred.
Though he stopped short of recommending that they drill to artesian water at 300 feet, Bob told me privately, “There ain’t a thing else we can do.” Fred’s mood grew grimmer each day until, after three weeks, the well was at 212 feet when a cave-in occurred and Bob and Jim had to ream out 80-odd feet of clay. The trailer stood surrounded by a field of empty oil-cans and frozen twists of human excrement, and grease and oil had seeped into every corner of it. The floor was slippery with clay and melted snow. “I tell you what boy,” Bob Stocks told me, “I’m a fascist in a lot of things, but I’m against this goddamn police state we got here. I tell you boy, if I saw you poach a deer over there on that hill, I’d come over and hep you skin him out. You’re from Wyoming-you belong here! I hate them goddamn game wardens, dirty sonsabitches. Ever since them bastards has got to carry guns-I tell you boy, it’s illegal and unconstitutional when them bastards has a right to shoot you and you ain’t got the right to protect yourself. I tell you what: I believe in game protection, but the people-the people of Wyoming-can take care of her.” Together, Fred and I went out into the clear and open night where the moon laid a luminous shine over the land, the buttes and mesas glowing on the cobalt sky and the platinum valleys running smoothly to them as if on their own momentum.
By February, if not before, the mountains of October are a distant memory and summer an ephemeral dream. I try to recall the horseback ride into Gannett Peak in the Wind River Range last June: up the switch-backs from Torrey Lake south of Dubois to Arrow Mountain and across a seven-mile expanse of torrs and wildflowers; down into the deep forested canyon cut by Dinwoody Creek and along its rushing waters, jade-colored from their burden of glacial flour; past the oxbows and gravel bars strewn with the skeletons of flood-uprooted trees to the sweaty granitic base of the peak itself, mantled with glaciers fractured by ragged crevasses.
Time now to visit the Southwest again.
(This article appeared first in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.)