December 9, 2005
Driving From Ucross to Sheridan in the Depths of an Owlish Darkness
By VERLYN KLINKENBORG
I can never quite get over how different the world looks at 3 a.m. It's the same old world, a few degrees colder though no darker than it was when I went to bed. But a squall blew through while I was asleep, and now the ground is covered with dry new snow. The car starts sluggishly. I sweep it off with a broom from the porch, clumsily, as if I had forgotten overnight which-handed I am. The tires squeal on the snow - it is 3 degrees - and I turn onto Highway 14, which will take me northwest from Ucross into Sheridan, Wyo., and to the interstate. The highway is a smooth white plain. There is one set of car tracks on it, heading the other direction.
Nearly everyone who drives this stretch of road keeps a watchful eye out for deer. The lower few miles are paved with red asphalt, and in daylight the ice patches on the highway look like pools of blood, reminders of how many deer die on this road. And in the miles into town I see dozens of deer tracks in the fresh snow, the traces of their crossings in just the past few hours. The tracks are all nearly perpendicular to the road. No dawdling for these deer, no deciding, like New Yorkers in a snowstorm, to wander down the middle of the road because there's snow on the ground. These deer know their business, whatever business it is that draws them across the highway.
I had driven down from Billings, Mont., three days earlier, just in time to catch the midafternoon dusk of a cloudy day. The cattle stood out against the snow-blown hills like inkblots. I'd never realized how perfectly a flock of sheep is camouflaged against snowy rangeland with the brown grasses still poking through.
Horses of every description, all of them looking strangely old and swaybacked in their winter coats, grazed in the brush. They are experts at finding that one break in the wind - a line of round bales, a billboard - and that one ray of sun. They stood there as if waiting for night to absorb them.
Sometimes the clouds thinned just enough to throw their blue light onto the dark brow along the hills to the southeast, like stained glass letting the sun through. I thought again what I often think when I come west at this time of year: that winters in the East and West are really two different kinds of beasts.
Winter where I live in New York seems to come out of the woods like a white wolverine, stealthy, barely visible till it is right upon you. But winter in Montana and Wyoming - especially on the Crow Reservation and the open ground east of Sheridan - is another creature altogether. It comes not on foot but on the wing, nothing as domestic as the wild turkeys in the stream bottoms or even the hawks along the telephone poles. It's something more feral still, able to set off a worry in you when you sense how limitless it is.
I had to put aside that worry at 3 a.m., driving into Sheridan. I hit a blinding squall of snow, and it was enough work just to concentrate on keeping to the middle of the road. Every ranch light seemed like hospitality itself. After a while, I could make out the lights of Sheridan, like a false dawn beyond the hills. One car went by me, coming from the other direction. I stopped for coffee in town, where the stoplights were flashing, and then took to the interstate.
The snow had let up, to just a fine drift of flakes out of the sky. And as I headed north, past Acme and Ranchester and Dayton, I kept seeing the same illusion. Every light in the distance - yard lights, headlights, the lights of the engine on a coal train coming my way - seemed to throw a focused reflection, a separate beam of light, straight up into the sky. Every pickup or semi seemed to be shining one headlight upward, and the farther away they were the clearer the illusion seemed. It was just light reflecting off the snowflakes, of course. But on this early winter morning, it seemed much stranger than that, as if I had blundered into a world where it made sense for traffic to trace its route along the underside of the clouds.
You get up at 3 a.m., and it seems as if it's going to be 3 a.m. forever. But the minutes slip away with the miles, if slowly, and soon it was 4 and 5 and 6, and I was getting close to Billings. The darkness barely let up, but by the time I got within sight of the city its lights had mingled with true dawn: just the backlit gray of a snowy winter morning, but enough, at last, to show me the fence lines and the windblown grasses above the snow again. And there, too, were the horses, back from wherever they go when the night absorbs them.
Dr. Klinkenborg, you rock.