Sheep Mountain like a fallen tombstone lay on the horizon under a sky thickening with gray cloud ribbons and white lenticulars. It was too cold for snow yet, and rain had not fallen for weeks in the mountains. The wind raised small storms of dust on the pale surface of the clay road and whirled the last yellow leaves from the brushy aspen stands. Past the washboard last spring’s ruts, still fixed in the hard clay, shunted the front end of the truck left, right, then back to center again. The trailer followed, fishtailing in clouds of the fine dust. From the cattle guard at the top of the rise south of Commissary Ranches the twin red triangles of Baldy Mountain and Wyoming Peak 50 miles north appeared, waiting for snow.
At Fontenelle Creek I parked the rig on a bench south of the crossing above the beaver-dammed floodplain, saddled the mare, and strapped on the pack and the rifle in its leather scabbard. Red fire winked in the early dusk from camps sheltered by aspen groves across Pomeroy Basin as we followed the wooded switchbacks down to the crossing, where we turned up the right bank of Fontenelle to Bear Trap Creek. The cloud cover extended itself beyond the frontal ridge as it thickened and lowered above the mountains, and now the air felt gentle and soft, full of treachery. I kicked the mare up to a trot as we ascended along Bear Trap, then let her keep her own pace on the steeps. We reached camp with only enough light to raise the tent by, and gather wood. The night was warm as in summer, but starless. Following supper I worked gathering more of the dry wood and carrying it in under shelter of the limber pines and afterward sat late beside the fire drinking whiskey, while the mare grazed. Deep in the night I woke to the sound of a quiet rain on the rain fly, which changed as I listened from a liquid pelt to a frozen scrape. When I woke again a half hour before dawn a foot of new snow lay on the ground beyond the shelter of the trees. The mare nickered as I emerged from the tent, and I gave her a measure of sweet grain from the pack. The snow went on falling and the air was colder now, behind the warm front that had preceded the storm. I dropped a compass into the pocket of my orange coat, lifted the rifle from the pine snag where it hung by the leather sling, and walked off into the silence of the gray muffled woods and the snow coming straight down between the dark pine trees.
Three hundred yards out from camp I came on the tracks of a cow elk and calf, made within the last five minutes. I stepped over them and walked on through the woods under Indian Ridge. The snow had silenced the uproar of dead leaves on the dry forest floor, now a half-inch of purple mud beneath six inches of wet snow. Mud mixed with snow filled in between the lugs of my boot soles, but the going was all right as long as I was on the level. I walked on slowly through the lightening woods, cradling the rifle in my left arm and stopping every 20 or 30 feet to stare between the trees and across small openings, until I reached the steep gorge where Roaring Fork cuts down from the ridge behind. Then I turned and started back die way I had come, only keeping a little downhill. I was halfway to camp already when I saw the fresh track of a big bull ahead in the snow.
The bull had been moving uphill at a walk from the ravine. Taking care not to step in his prints I followed him for 150 yards to where he had intersected my own, coming from camp. Here he had stopped, stiffened, turned, and headed toward the ravine again at a trot, his ungulate hoofs biting into the wet clay and scattering particles like drops of blood across the white snow. It was dark in the ravine where the firs closed up into thick forest. I hesitated, and started downhill with the gun on my shoulder, lifting one mud-laden boot after the other over the slippery logs.
The bull kept ahead by several hundred yards, never allowing me to sight him, although I caught his strong bullish scent occasionally when the wind came just right. I followed him through the deep woods and into the darker gorge where, among the milling tracks of the herd, I lost him for a time before picking up the trail again, going back uphill. I shifted the heavy rifle to the opposite shoulder and began climbing out. The bootsoles were balled with snow and mud, and each time I set the up-slope foot and pressed down it slid back several inches in the wet clay. Before I reached the bench, although my wind held out, my legs were weak and aching. The tracks crossed the bench to the base of Indian Ridge and started up the cliff face, diagonally across the talus to the high rim above. By taking the mare I could cross by the horse trail a half-mile south, then ride north and pick up the track again on the forested western slope.
About the time I returned to camp the snow changed to a gray penetrating rain. I built up a fire from the supply of dry wood and considered, drinking fresh boiled coffee while raindrops hissed in the flames. Then I rose from beside the fire and got to work. In less than an hour the camp was struck and loaded and we were on our way down to Pomeroy Basin, the mare sliding behind me in the mud as I led from the knot at the end of the lead rope.
Rain fell all the time we were coming out of the mountains, and it was falling even harder in the basin. Mixing with the Indian Summer dust, the water had dropped the bottom out of the road, where the mare struggled heavily. I pulled the pack down, threw it in the truck bed, and unhooked the trailer from the pickup, while she stood miserably in the rain. Then I mounted again and rode back the way we had come to Fontenelle Creek, where we crossed by the ford and rode on across country to Kovaches’ camp, where they were eating a late dinner inside the canvas army tent with a fire going in the woodstove. Someone gave me something hot to eat, and Jerry took the mare from me, saying that he had plenty of feed to keep her with his horses until the road set up, or dried out. I drew the saddle off and stowed the tack behind the tent, and Jerry’s son Todd drove me back to the truck in his Jeep, across the ford.
The truck lost traction on the first grade going south, and I got out to chain up. Lying on my back in mud I chained all four tires, and got up in the cab again looking like a survivor from Burnside’s Mud March. Mud slathered the Indian blanket upholstery and balled on the floor mat beneath the pedals. At the top of the hill I got out again to check the fastenings, when another truck coming north turned out alongside in the sagebrush. It was a party of Search and Rescue, looking for a woman who had been missing from her camp for nearly 24 hours. The rescuers were in high spirits, amused to recognize me in my chrysalis of mud. It had taken four hours to drive the 45 miles from Kemmerer, and mud was caked so thick in the wheel wells that the tires had barely room enough to turn.
I worked in town for two days before returning up country, taking one of the Land Cruisers with me this time. The road was set up pretty well except for the deepest holes, where the trailer would not have made it through. I fixed camp at an edge of forest above the creek, and that evening it rained again. Rain soaked the kindling that lay about in the woods and leaked through the peeled waterproofing on the old nylon tent. I ate cold antelope sandwiches with whiskey for supper, and spread a woolen blanket on the tent floor beneath the sleeping bag. By morning the rain had stopped, a muffled silence in the cold darkness. I left camp 90 minutes before first light, carrying the rifle on my shoulder and a flashlight in one hand, across Bear Trap and up the steepening trail through the dripping woods. The snow was mostly gone, washed away and evaporated except for a few pale patches off in the dark beyond the focused beam of the electric light. Already my woolen pants were caked with mud, and my feet felt encased in anvils. Nothing that was solid was left in this dark world, nothing real, nothing supportive, nothing to hold to, nor brace with, nor against. Movement was self-defeating, struggle impossible, as in a nightmare in which flight is running in place and breathing smotheration. Attempting to will myself out of the dream, I could not awake. So I kept climbing, out of the lifting darkness into the pale hopeless drear of the gathering light that suffused the soaked woods where the elk had withdrawn to the nearly impenetrable depths of the black timber, mythical creatures as mysterious and elusive as the hippogriff. Arrived finally at the steeps I pocketed the flashlight, took hold of the slender aspen trunks on either side of the trail, and pulled myself upward, hand over hand through the mud.
I hunted all day in intermittent rain under a lowering sky, through canyons and along the clouded scarps of ridges where water vapor crawled among the wind-stunted trees, stopping often to rest my legs and sometimes kindle a brief fire from the dead branches I smeared with petroleum vaseline, and toward evening began the sliding unbalanced descent to camp down the jellied mountainside. A horse trailer had jackknifed on the switchbacks above Fontenelle, and three men in yellow rain slickers were attempting to lead the resisting horses out through the narrow space at the end of the trailer where the door was jammed hard against the cutbank. In camp the tent sagged against the poles, and the fire pit enclosed a pool of ashes. Inside the tent was damp, but the wet had failed to penetrate the bedroll. I sat on it with my feet outside to remove the shapeless boots, and brought them reluctantly into the tent. A couple of antelope sandwiches were left in the daypack. I drank most of what remained of the whiskey while I ate them and found strength enough to remove the wool pants and sweater and get inside the mummy bag, which seemed like more than I could ever need or wish for throughout eternity.
When I returned to the mountains a week later the road was stiff as a frozen corpse, and the iron fir trees pointed against the snowfields. I left the Land Cruiser at the crossing and started along the trail, hardened in the contortions of its last agony. A powdery snow filled the hollows and scrapes, and I had to climb hard to stay warm through the fine blowing snow. The mare was safe at home, but I carried in my wallet an unfilled elk tag, valid for eight hours more of daylight. The last hunting camp had been pulled out of Pomeroy Basin several days before, and I was alone in the snowy mountains, with only my rifle and the staring unseen elk for company.
The knotted trail turned my ankles as I climbed, halting often to rest the pain of my lungs, seared by the Arctic cold, and eat some jerky. The snow deepened on the ground as the elevation increased and the falling snow flew thicker, driven by winds coming across Indian Ridge. Turning back to look down canyon I saw my tracks behind me, filling in with snow and drifting over. At the hogback swale east of the ridge the fresh powder reached my knees, breaking imperceptibly against the woolen leggings as I pushed on into the woods lying between the swale and the whitened cliff. I walked a long way through the woods where the snow in places barely penetrated the black canopy of the forest without finding elk, or sign of elk.
A brace of pine grouse exploded from the snow and flew into a tree at my approach. I built a fire under their roost and sat beside it on a log, watching the ragged flames evaporate the snowflakes, and the birds with their cocked heads and round eyes, staring down at me. It was white and still and perfect in the forest, miles above the binding red morass of the two-week season. After a while, when I felt warm again, I scuffed snow over the remains of the fire with the side of my boot, reached the rifle from a tree branch, and told the birds goodbye before starring out through the woods to the open park, where a snowy twilight was already coming.
As I traversed the brushy sidehill below the hogback the snow clouds tore apart and the disc of the sun burned through, wan and wobbly as if by some miracle it had become unfixed in the pale sky. Light broke suddenly against the hill, and a form appeared like a spirit upon the top of the ridge, directly below the sun. The bull raised his head as I brought the rifle up until the back points of the rack scraped the croup, and the shag of his throat was exposed. I found the heart in the crosshairs and moved up a foot above the backbone, but then I did not shoot. This was neither the time nor the place for blood, even less the driving wedge of gunshot into the absolute beauty and peace of the wilderness. Instead I lowered the gun and stripped the magazine of shells, and when I finished the light had vanished from the hill, and the bull with it. Pocketing the shells I shouldered the rifle once more, and stepped off downhill into the gathering dusk.
This article first appeared in the January 1997 issue.