On the Wind

With a hiss of sun-struck snow blasting my windshield, I crest the pass. Crunching, bottoming out, I miss the wide view of the Absaroka Mountains, fishtail through drifts lined like ribs, battering truck ruts too wide for my car. I’m almost there. A mountain of black coke dust lies dormant, smooth as any wind-crested snowdrift. The road clears, widens, and I slip to a stop, watching snow trickle across the road ahead.

I remember when I met the owner of these mountain pastures. It was a cool, late-summer afternoon. I was the hippie girl who lived in the shack up the road and who kept an eye on the summer cow-calve pairs. I was wandering alone, trespassing, on his land. He rolled down the window of his idling diesel one-ton, rested his elbow there, and looked straight at me. “Kinky,” he said. It was a full minute before I realized it was his name. That was years ago. I don’t live in the shack any more, but this is where I come when I need to.

I crawl from my little car into a wind-ripped silence of snow and sun. I don two sweaters, hat, and scarf—the usual. Last of all, the old cross-country skis, with their indelible memories of companionship; makes me want to say “we” when I ski on them. I haven’t waxed them in ten years. Scars from gravel, barbed wire, sagebrush give me grip.

My legs remember how to climb through a fence with skis on, but I’m not so limber now. My gaiter catches, and I balance on that bad leg, recently repaired knee. It holds. I head toward a straight slash in the contoured hill: the old Turkey Tracks railroad bed. Once lined with coal-mining towns, now overgrown and hidden, though the towns re-emerge with ghostly, suburban faces.

I slip over the rise onto the track and am out of the wind. I could ski in shirtsleeves here. My skis point down a brief slant, and I am struck with the annual amazement. I know how to do this! At the bottom a creek has gouged away the old track, and I turn up into a hidden valley, wind behind me. Within a quarter mile I am in the wilds. Skiing is hard. The deep snow has neither blown thinner nor iced over to carry my weight, and I am not in shape for this any more. Every step breaks through then lifts the heaviness. I work through a swath of animal tracks among the willows. Too deep to tell what made them, satisfied it’s a group. It’s the solitary animals—moose, bear, cougar—that worry me. I keep skiing, up.

I pass a grey homestead tumbling toward the creek, its outhouse door flung wide, a single massive ponderosa pine above it. I crawl through another fence, breathing hard. Then a sound behind me. I turn, automatically expecting my old white dog snoofing under the snow. The image of his long-dead face, his laughing, ice-crusted jowls is sharp, but I am alone. Not even a dog along. I should have told someone where I was going. Still, I can’t shake the sense of "we." The hills themselves seem smiling, comfortable. But mostly, it’s the familiar voices in my mind: imaginary conversations with homesteaders, miners, other trespassers. Thoughts and non-thoughts pass through like the wind.

I ski onto a small mound, and the snow gives way, dumping me into a willow bush. By the time I struggle out, I feel tired. Time to head back. The downhill slog into the wind is not inviting. The homestead looks forlorn from above. I tie my scarf over my face, adjust it to cover my right ear. Four dark, thick-coated deer watch from across the draw as I start down, cutting a new trail, a shortcut back.

Then I cross an old snowmobile track, and turn onto it. Easy skiing, a stable base of wind-swept ice buffered with arched minidrifts. I throw my steps forward until the steep pitch takes me. Even with the wind howling in my face, I am flying, faster than I like on uncertain knees. A maverick gust from behind carries me like a sail, faster still. Far away, up ahead, Chimney Rock shimmers, whipped with a sunburst of ice. Just as I think, “I love this,” I skip off the icy trail and pitch into deep snow, face first. Skis, poles, arms, legs flounder in the heavy powder. Then I burst out, laughing. Cold, wet, exhausted, but whole.

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-Liz Mickelson