The wind roared all night, darkness in furious motion that yet held solidly in place.  It was still gusting hard when Harlan Edmonds’ Dodge pickup pulled into the drive beside the house at ten in the morning and stopped behind my Ford standing with the tailgate fastened in place against a full load.  I braced the rifle muzzles against the bell casing inside the cab and placed the ammunition boxes beneath them on the floor and the .41 magnum revolver on the Indian blanket covering the bench seat.  Behind the Dodge’s wide relucent windshield Harlan was grinning indistinctly but broadly with the Australian sheepdog seated upright and panting on the seat beside him.  Everyone loves going into deer camp.  The deer, the bucks especially, in southeastern Wyoming have become pretty scarce in recent years, and I’d proposed to Harlan that we try hunting the southwestern part of the state, north of Kemmerer, where I lived for nearly 20 years.  I went round to the driver’s side, and Harlan put his window down.

“I’ll keep my phone on but let’s get off in Rock Springs at the Elk Street exit.”

“See you there then.”

The century-old cottonwoods in Laramie’s Tree District make a moderately effective windbreak, but on Interstate 80 the full force of a 40-mph headwind out of the high sagebrush plains to the west struck with full force.  The Rocky Mountain West—all of it—is a windswept region that has become more so in the four decades I’ve lived in Wyoming, the last ten years especially.  Out here the wind blows virtually all day now with the exception of an hour’s calm in the morning and often throughout the night, until recently almost an unheard-of thing.  Horse-backers, horses, fly-casters, long-range shooters, prairie fowl, and women who visit hairdressers all hate wind—wind at least at the velocity we’re experiencing these days—since keeping a Stetson in place, casting a fly accurately, shooting flat above 100 yards, and wearing your hair in any other style than short, lank, or straight, have become serious challenges.  Fifty-five miles from Laramie to Elk Mountain, 41 from there to Rawlins, and 115 more on to Rock Springs: headwinds the entire distance like a giant’s hand raised against high-profile pickup trucks, buffeting the sleekest, most aerodynamic sedans and wiping lightweight vehicles off the road beneath a heedless sun-rinsed October sky blown with shining cloud fragments driving across dry oceanic expanses of desert, crazed by canyons and waterless meanders going nowhere and punctuated by gnomic landforms, textured in its vegetated parts like brushed velvet, and stained in shades of ochre and orange and buff and green and red and purple, living colors it draws from the brilliance of the sky in whose absence it subsides into a vast, motionless, and lifeless monochrome, a blank and sour shade of dun.  This landscape was created, and is being further formed, by moisture and drought, frost and heat, expansion and contraction, by erosion following brief violent rains and lasting snows—and by wind.  Geological history must have sped up appreciably recently.

From a point on the interstate almost exactly equidistant between Rawlins and Rock Springs the southeastern end of the Wind River Range at South Pass is just visible, brilliant today with early snow above the desolate sagebrush hills.  At Rock Springs I refueled the Ford at the Phillips station on Elk Street while Harlan exercised the dog on a strip of green grass near the pumps.  The station sits across the street from the old Silver Dollar Bar where Ed Cantrell, the city’s public-safety director, shot and killed his own undercover agent (in fact, a double-agent) Mike Rosa, formerly of the Bronx, in the back seat of a city patrol car on July 15, 1978.  The case became national news after Mike Wallace devoted a segment of 60 Minutes to it and formed a lurid episode in the history of the drilling boom in the Overthrust Belt in southwest Wyoming that brought me to Kemmerer in 1979.  When Cantrell was tried on a first-degree-murder charge in Pinedale the following November I was present at the trial, in which he was defended by the noted trial attorney Gerry Spence of Jackson Hole who secured a verdict of Not Guilty after the jury had deliberated for two and a half hours.

From Rock Springs we continued on the interstate through Green River to the hamlet of Granger, and from there northwest to Kemmerer, following the valley of the Hams Fork River past my godparents’ lower ranch.  Bill and Nancy Peternal have been dead for two decades, and the whiteface cattle Bill used to run in the river bottom are gone now, replaced by acres of vigorously nodding grasshoppers and natural-gas tanks painted clay-colored for a pleasing environmental effect he would not have found convincing.  I have not learned how their two children disposed of the property after their deaths.  Farrell was ordained a priest by John Paul II in St. Peter’s Basilica and has lived in Lithuania for 30 years.  I remember as clearly as if it were yesterday helping Kelly, wet with the slime of the afterbirth, pull calves here, while the Peternals’ sheepherder Whitey held her infant child against the long white beard that reached as far as his knees.

When I moved to Kemmerer in July of 1979 the place was a boomtown.  Its population, combined with that of Diamondville and Frontier immediately south and north of it, was about 5,000 people insofar as they could be counted in the demographic confusion, half of them employed in the Overthrust Belt.  Entire families occupied single motel rooms separated by walls that did not quite reach the ceilings, new apartment buildings had been hastily constructed to accommodate other ones, and new trailer parks established on freshly bulldozed ground.  Gunfire was common at night in and around the Regency Apartments where I took a flat, and the bars downtown were crowded 20 hours a day with twisted-off roughnecks waiting for some driller unexpectedly short a hand to show up in his crew car on the way out to the rig and offer them a job and a ride there.  The Frontier Saloon and Restaurant, owned by an educated, sophisticated, world-traveled, and worldly Glaswegian—a refrigerator engineer by training—was doing a land-office business with the affluent oil-field trash, lacking high-school diplomas but able to afford prime rib and filet mignon every night on wages of $25 an hour.  Today, Scotty is six or seven years dead, having closed out his business a quarter-century ago after the boom collapsed and gone to Venezuela to work as an engineer with Williams Brothers, which required its employees to keep a loaded .357 in the glove compartment of their field trucks; the Frontier Saloon is now a bed-and-breakfast for the tourists traveling north to the Yellowstone.  The Stock Exchange and Star Bars, where the local cowboys and coal miners from the Peabody Mine outside town and the Aussie sheepherders used to mix, often violently, with the roughnecks, are also long gone.  The coal mine on which the town was founded in 1897 is no longer profitable, and on its way out.  Most of the stores about the Triangle are closed up, among them Palmer’s Drugstore, where Jack Mootz, my driller on Manning Rig 30, and I bought our guns, and the Safeway has been purchased and repurchased by several grocery chains since then.  J.C. Penney’s house when he managed his Mother Store in town does remain, small but well-maintained still, behind its neat picket fence.  Such is life, as it has ever been, in the boom-and-bust West.

Harlan and I made a few last-minute purchases and refueled at the old 189 Liquor Store, operating now under another name and presumably different ownership, and stopped by the local BLM office before leaving town.  Here, a polite and lonely agent gave us the unwelcome news.  Last winter’s pattern of hard freezes alternating with extreme thaws had formed ice sheets across the deer herds’ winter habitat out on the desert east of Oyster Ridge, preventing them from breaking through to their browse and resulting in a die-off of more than 50 percent.  As we rattled and shook along the washboard going up Pomeroy Basin, past the subdivision of modest ranchettes scattered among the sagebrush flats and along the eastern flank of Sheep Mountain darkened by gathering clouds, thin sheets of dust raced across the road, and a violent wind lashed and tossed the purple leafless willows in the creek bottoms.  At the hairpin we drove across Fontenelle Creek where South Fork Creek joins it, crossed the Forest Service boundary at Bluejay Creek, and made camp off a two-track in a clearing in a thick grove of young aspen trees, scattered with the damp, golden leaves and spotted with dry cowpies.  I parked parallel with the Dodge, and Harlan and I stepped down and stood together facing Absaroka Ridge, and upcanyon through the gap South Fork has cut in it.  The visor of his cap vibrated above his eyes, and the wind swirled under the brim of my stained and ancient Stetson, lifting it off my ears.

“In Fontenelle, I always camped inside the canyon mouths.  Not in a wind like this though.  I don’t understand.  The first two weeks in October are always still and warm this side of the state.”

“The bucks aren’t coming out in weather like this.”

“Maybe the wind will drop at sundown.”


I erected the three-man tent close against the little trees for shelter.  We dug out someone’s old firepit and rebuilt the ring of stones around it against the wind.  Then Harlan took an ax to a down tree, and we got a fire going while the wind raged on through South Fork gap.  We heated our supper over the coals and drank a bottle of red wine.  Finally, we shouldered the rifles and walked cautiously out together from the trees and onto the sagebrush shoulder between Fontenelle and Bluejay overlooking the wide willow bottom through which Fontenelle Creek meanders.  Across the valley the pink sagebrush flank of Mahogany Ridge glowed in the twilight like champagne below its thin crowning forest of the strange small dark crooked trees.  We took cover a few yards apart and sat to wait and watch with the rifles across our knees.  Maybe in the morning, we silently agreed on the hike back to camp in the darkness a couple of hours later.

We drank whiskey beside the fire while the wind thrashed the low flames and then retired, Harlan and the sheepdog to the camper shell fitted into the Dodge’s bed and I to the tent and my old sleeping bag rated for twenty below zero, not removing the long underwear, woolen pants, fisherman’s sweater, and woolen cap I had on.  At seven the sun was still hidden behind Mahogany Ridge, and one sixteenth of an inch of frost glistened on the interior walls of the tent.  A three-man tent needs at least one woman to keep a man warm at twelve degrees Fahrenheit.  Harlan locked the sheepdog into the truck, and together we stole quietly out of camp at first light without breakfast or coffee, scanning the steep hogback across the road as we went for movement or some animal part—often how you see them first.  Twenty minutes later we were high up on the hogback a quarter-mile apart, heaving ourselves upward from one rock outcrop to the next toward our agreed meeting place at the summit and struggling to keep the rifle barrels free of the rocks and underbrush.  The sun rose all at once above Mahogany Ridge as if it had been squeezed, a sudden globe of blood-red fire, amazing and violent, like a new universe being born.  Just before I reached the top of the hogback, hand over hand with the rifle on my shoulder pulling me backward, I heard a dull distant report from far below in the floodplane.  It was the first sign I’d had of the presence of anyone else in the neighborhood.

“There’s a camp farther along the road a mile or so,” Harlan observed when we met up five minutes later.

“See anything?”

“No.  I heard the shot.”

“There’s always some idiot around who thinks he saw a deer.”

We walked out the ridge going north and returned south again, keeping 100 vertical yards apart and pausing to glass the sharp rugged slopes and the tree edges.  In camp we built a fire, boiled coffee, and heated breakfast while Harlan let the dog run free and the wind got up to blow woodsmoke in our faces.  Afterward, we hung about camp most of the day, chopping and gathering wood and talking politics.  Harlan and his wife, Amy, have served terms in the Wyoming State legislature, and both are columnists for various state newspapers.  For a conservative state, Wyoming has some awfully liberal politicians, a great many of them Republicans.  The newspapers, edited and written by failed liberal journalists from the coasts, are worse still.  The so-called Equality State is part of modern America, after all.

In late afternoon the wind was still racing, and Harlan picked up a weather forecast on the truck radio.  In Kemmerer the weatherman was predicting snow the next day.  Snow up Fontenelle at this time of the year can be trouble.  Members of a hunting camp I belonged to got ambushed by a blizzard years ago and had to shovel out in caravan ten miles to the forest boundary, each man taking his turn working point.  It took them two and a half days in bitter cold to do it.

“This country was always full of deer,” I explained, “and no wind so early in October.  Depending on what the day looks like at sunup, I vote we strike camp and head over to Elk Mountain southwest of town.  There’s always been good bucks there, all wide-open sagebrush country with quakies, totally different from this place.”  I was beginning to feel it was all my fault somehow.

We made the evening hunt again, hunkered down for two hours above Fontenelle.  By careful glassing I spotted two deer, both does, going to water a half-mile downstream.  The wind was still up but the evening was glorious, skies of furrowed gold and purple shading to a smoky blue in the east behind Mahogany Ridge.  At dark we had no carcass to field-dress before sitting down to a hot fire and whiskey, and a kill was becoming secondary in my mind anyway.  Fontenelle Creek is among those places on earth most dear to me.  Others are Lavender Canyon in southeastern Utah and Nine Mile Canyon in the central part of that state.  It’s always the country that matters most, not the hunt.  Or should be.

The wind was already severe when we rose in the morning and a wide cover of frozen gray cloud extended from Absaroka to Mahogany Ridge where the lifting sun burned dimly, a lemon-pale wafer behind the vapor.  Before we had coffee boiling in the pit, isolated snowflakes were floating on the air like winter seeds, and the sun had vanished.  I thought of the caravan on its Napoleonic two-day retreat through the heavy snow to the forest boundary and of my own trek out some years later, when I’d been compelled to ride one horse through the creek while leading the other and leave both at Kovach’s hunting camp, where Joe turned them into the seasonal corral with his own animals and drove me back across the ford to my rig.  I unhitched the trailer, chained up all around, drove out 50 miles through a foot of mud, and reached Kemmerer five hours later.  Now Harlan and I eyed each other.

“Let’s go try around Elk Mountain,” he said.

“It used to be good hunting,” I assured him to encourage both of us, not really believing what I was inferring.

From Kemmerer we drove west on U.S. 30 to Twin Creek and turned south on the county road.  In the years when I’d kept horses at Fred Chambers’s little spread—a house trailer, a small haybarn, a three-sided windbreak for our animals, and the small corral I’d helped Fred build—it had been one of three or four in the valley.  Now there were a dozen or more ranchettes—scarcely a question of urban sprawl, but nobody likes to see progress.  And there were more and unfamiliar clay roads, and new barb-wire fences strung, and sagging makeshift wire gates imposed across the cattle guards.  Ten miles south the lion-colored bulk of Elk Mountain tilted against a wan blue sky as the washboard rounded a shoulder of canyon, and we came up hard against another cattle guard, a fence, and a gate to which a final fatal sign was affixed.  PRIVATE ROAD KEEP OUT it said.  We stopped just short of it, and Harlan climbed down from the Dodge and walked forward to me.

“This was always a county road.”  I took my Wyoming Atlas and Gazetteer from the seat to show him.  “Even if this place has become an inholding, the owner has no right to deny access across it.”  I opened the door and stepped down onto the road beside him as an evil swirl of wind reached inside the cab and sucked a pile of loose topo maps into the road.  We raced to retrieve them, and as I bent another gust swept the Stetson from my head and sent it wheeling across the road into the borrow pit.

“The deer aren’t getting up in this weather,” Harlan said flatly.

“No they’re not.”

“Suppose we go back to town.”

“Kemmerer—or Laramie-Cheyenne?”

We both knew the answer to that one.

But first I wished to drive by 1025 Beech Avenue, my home for 12 years on the Lincoln Courthouse square facing east across the Hams Fork to Oyster Ridge.  On the first pass, I didn’t recognize the place.  The 75-foot blue spruce that had stood by the front steps had been cut down, and in the once unbuilt-on lot on the south side of the property someone had erected a machine shed that could have housed an earth mover brought from the mine.  The house was well kept and well painted, the new storm windows all around were tight and up-to-date, but it wasn’t my house anymore.  As Kemmerer was no longer my town.  Most or all my old friends had died or moved away—like the deer, and the good weather.  I thought of the books I’d written in my tight cellar study and the game I’d hung in the ridiculous little 1920’s garage and butchered on the kitchen table, and the dinner parties we’d hosted.  The best years of my life had been spent here, and I wished I hadn’t stopped by.  It had been a stupid thing to do.  They say you can’t go home again, but that isn’t quite true.  You can go home, but it’s a changed home, just as everything else in life is changed.  Being natural that makes sense, of course.  But it doesn’t make reality less painful.  It just makes it more bearable.

The wind raced and raged all the 290 miles back to Laramie—a tailwind now, not a head one.  That was welcome, anyway.  It saved us a small fortune in gasoline and diesel fuel.