June 17, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
Twelve hours before the Thomans’ lease expired at midnight, June 30 Mary Thoman and I, accompanied by her niece Karen Thoman from Riverton, loaded three saddle horses into a stock trailer and drove south along the meandering Green River to look for 43 yearlings that needed to be gathered and pushed up to the corrals for transshipment to their summer range on Ferentchaks’ ranch in the valley of the Hamsfork north of Kemmerer. Besides Karen, we had with us Mary’s younger sister Laurie–last year’s Miss Rodeo Wyoming and this summer’s Miss Wyoming Trucker, since she acquired a Class A motor-vehicle license authorizing her to operate a semi-tractor-trailer rig–to drive the truck back to the ranch. Always high-spirited, Laurie was particularly ebullient this afternoon in anticipation of a party 450 miles away in Greeley, Colorado, from which she was expected home in 48 hours to haul cattle.
We had a hard time spotting cows from the highway, but spied them after half an hour’s search bedded on a bluff downstream of a watergap in the bend of an oxbow in the river. Mary drove across a cattle guard and parked in the sagebrush where we unloaded the horses and bridled them, tucked the water bottles into the saddlebags, and set off at an extended trot on a flanking maneuver to jump the cattle from their beds and start them moving up the wide valley toward home. We counted 11 cows in the bunch. Karen and I left these to Mary and galloped away to the river, where 32 more head lay resting in the cool mud beside the shore. They heaved up at sight of us as four heavy-bodied pelicans lifted off the water and flapped upstream several hundred yards. Then they scattered into the desert, where we brought them together again and began pushing them in the direction of Mary and her animals. Being yearlings they moved along briskly, much faster than mature cattle. The horse did his work without much direction from me but with a good deal of restraint on account of the obvious pleasure he took in charging at full speed into the herd and busting it up like a champion pool player taking his turn at the break, so that I was soon eating all the dust I could get down, in spite of the lushness of the desert verdure.
At gathering time the previous June, the Green River Basin had already been burned a brittle brown by the roaring sun and the hot wind. Now it rippled in supple waves under a chilly breeze, shimmering green and spotted with vivid wildflowers. In the space between one roil of yellow dust and another I squinted ahead at the chromium peaks of the distant mountains gleaming against a wine-blue sky: a promise, a mystery, an ache. When we arrived with the yearlings at the corrals, Laurie had already gone for the semi. I sat my horse watching her back up to the chute and came close to being caught between two bulls charging backward and forward with their hornless heads wrapped around each other’s necks.
At dawn on the morning of the Fourth the temperature in town was just above freezing and a cold wind blew from the northwest under a mackerel sky. Snow filled in the high valleys between the peaks in the Wyoming Range and plugged the couloirs in the sheer rock faces; across the basin, snow clouds driven by the high-altitude winds ruptured themselves on the pointed granitic superstructure of the Wind River Mountains, which the resulting blizzards obliterated. I pulled onto the rodeo grounds as the grand entry parade was beginning and parked behind the announcer’s stand.
At the center of the arena Old Glory and the Buffalo Flag of Wyoming blew into the riders’ faces, and the girls held onto their hats with their left hands while “The Star-spangled Banner” was sung. I recognized Clyde Clark and his family standing 50 yards away and recalled that his son Brett was scheduled to ride today. Casey, the younger boy, also had aspired to be a bull rider before he watched a friend get stomped by a bull at the Pinedale Rendezvous several years ago. The bull had stepped on the rider’s face, caving in the one side and smashing the entire soft palate. This spectacle recurred to Casey each time he settled himself on a bull, until finally he gave up bull riding for good.
Brett rode well this afternoon, sticking it until the buzzer sounded, but two rides later a cowboy made a face plant and before he could roll away was winged by a back hoof in the calf of his right leg. He lay groaning in the sand until the clowns supported him out of the arena and settled him on the bottom step of the stairs going up to the announcer’s box, where he sat ashen-faced with his head thrown back while the medics were summoned. The medics stretched him on his back on the hard ground, sawed away the point of the compound fracture where the splintered bone protruded from the skin, and encased the leg in a clear plastic form before they Iifted him onto the gurney and stowed him in the back of the waiting ambulance.
I drove west out of town toward the mountains into the lowering sun, as the green hayfields gave way to pasture and the pasture yielded to the lavender sagebrush hills. In the parks that opened out between the aspen stands and in the dark pine forests, isolated campers huddled about their suppertime fires. The cold increased with the elevation, and for half a mile and some hundreds of vertical feet below the outlet from Middle Piney Lake the creek torrented among leafless willows. I left the truck at the water’s edge, stuck a pair of binoculars in my coat pocket, and set out around the lake along its southeastern shore. It was deserted save for two men sitting on boulders with fishing rods in their hands and a stringer of mackinaw in the liquid green ice lapping near their feet. Ten years ago over the Fourth a pair of liquored-up teenagers, mooning their girlfriends from a boat, capsized into the lake and died of shock before they could swim the 75 yards to shore.
Before I was halfway around the lake, I had seen all that I needed to see. Wyoming Peak was a triangular massif of unbroken snow and Baldy Mountain decorated by an impressive snow cornice extending 20 feet or more beyond the cliff edge; the great bowl in which Middle Piney Creek heads below the circumambient trail remained sheerly white, unbroken by patches of red talus. Seated on a piece of rock dampened by waves, I glassed the wintry landscape far above with precision, searching for signs of hope. So near, and yet so far. Wyoming Peak is my Kilimanjaro: my hope, my promise, my dream, never to be fulfilled in this world though I have climbed it several times and gazed upon the world from its summit.
I rose, tucked the glasses inside my shirt, and followed the trail back around the lake, overtaking the fishermen as they trudged slowly with their gear and catch whose brilliant colors were already fading in the dry mountain air.
“Which one is Wyoming Peak?” the shorter man asked, gesturing at the mountains behind us. “Can you see it from here?”
“No,” I told him, admiring the fish. “You can’t see it from here.”