It is 145 road miles from Belen to Gallup, New Mexico, a railroad town immediately east of the Arizona border on old Highway 66 and adjacent to the Ramah and Big Navajo Indian Reservations where my grandmother Williamson taught school early in the century, returning to Ohio after a semester or two when an amorous Navajo could not be discouraged from dogging her footsteps around town. Ninety-some years later I had a similarly unpleasant encounter m an Indian bar on the wrong side of the tracks in Gallup with a hairy Navajo who carried a knife in his boot, invited me to go deer-hunting with him, then stroking mv beard asked me to be his squaw. At least that is w hat Ernie Bulow, who is acquainted with the language, made out from his somewhat disordered communication—Ernie only a step or two behind me as we made a hurried exit by a side door. Ernie, the son of a teacher at a Navajo boarding school, was a teacher himself to Navajos before the federal bureaucrats, in their zeal to “Americanize” the students, forbade him to wear cowboy boots in the classroom. A critic, author, and book collector, he operates a bookstore from his old bungalow overlooking Gallup and the forested mesas surrounding the town. He makes a cameo appearance as the trader Don Williams in The Fool’s Progress by Edward Abbey, a longtime friend, and, after supplying Tony Hillerman for years with information pertaining to the Dineh, recently coauthored a book with him. I drove through town past the pawn shops and trading posts and stopped at a supermarket for a quart of orange juice. The Indian ahead of me on the checkout line was drunk enough to think he could fool the checkout girl into selling him a pint of blackberry brandy, which she confiscated instead.
Route 666—the Devil’s Highway—follows the Chuska Mountains north from Gallup until they begin to veer to the northwest: Tohatchi, Nachitti, Newcomb, Shiprock. Shiprock Peak, highmasted emblem of the European invaders who smashed up the Navajo way of life forever, was visible from 40 miles to the south; at the northern horizon the Colorado Rockies like a chain of icebergs floated miraculously beyond the desert’s reach. West of Shiprock on Highway 504 a tourist in a speeding sports car nearly took out a couple of Indian ponies grazing on the shoulder of the road, and vice versa. From this road in the vicinity of Teec Nos Pos the Four Corners area is viewed in its entirety, staked down by Ute Mountain at near center. At Bluff, Utah, I crossed the silt-laden San Juan River and had a 20-minute palaver, while I waited for the returning pilot car, with the Indian flagger who said it was the best job she had ever had. At Blanding again—all roads lead to Blanding—I stopped to fill both tanks before starting on the 125-mile run across the head of Lake Powell to Hanksville. Above the purple depths of Glen Canyon hazed with a golden light the Henry Mountains loomed across the river, backlit against the evening sun, their snows scarcely melted from the steeps above the dark precipitous forests; I watched them in the towing mirror as far as Hanksville, when they were finally obscured by the deepening dusk. Beyond Hanksville, a Mormon hamlet of not more than a few hundred souls, night came down at last and the grateful desert, bursting into the full bloom of spring, filled the darkness with a myriad of heavy perfumes like conflicting currents of air pouring through the open windows of the truck. The town of Green River when I reached it a few minutes before ten was sleepy with scent, and the office of the Motel 6 crowded with tourists wanting to know what the smell was.
I arrived home only a few hours after the five inches of snow that had fallen in Kemmerer that morning had melted. A cold wind blew, and the freshened snowpack on Sheep Mountain north of town was monolithic. The latest storm front hit as they were beginning to sheep-shear on Thoman Ranch, and Bill Thoman was hustling now to contract the itinerant shearers before they moved up to Montana. Owing to the coldest and wettest spring in a decade, the Forest Service had warned ranchers in the Bridger Valley that they might not be permitted to put their animals this year onto summer range in the Uinta Mountains, where the snowpack varied from 250 percent of normal to 500 percent, and backpackers arriving from the East and West coasts were discovering the Wind River Range to be impassable above 9,000 feet. In Wyoming, the absence of that most lovely of natural phenomena called spring is one of the worthwhile sacrifices we make for the relative nondevelopment of the state by lotus eaters from somewhere else. I called Clyde Clark to make an appointment to have the horses shod, but two weeks passed before we had a day suitable for doing it. Several years before when we shoed in wet weather, an unbroke gelding reared as I held his head, striking me in the chest with his knee as he went up and knocking me on my back in a couple of feet of mud and horse manure. Time arrested itself as he towered above me, a black Pegasus, and dropped back to earth in slow motion, his forelegs spreading in the final instant and his hooves planting themselves in the mud on either side of mv rigid chest. Shoeing horses in mudtime, as T.S. Eliot said of writing poetry, is a mug’s game. I therefore waited patiently for clement weather, passing the time by sorting gear and loading the horse-packs for the season: tents, tent-stakes, groundcloths, bedrolls, woolen pants, sweaters, and socks, hatchets, nylon rope, knives, map eases, 41. magnum rounds, fly spray, cooking utensils, canned deviled ham, canned smoked oysters, biodegradable soap, Jim Beam in plastic bottles, beer, fine Italian wines, a tape deck, recordings of Scott Joplin, Maria Callas, and J.S. Bach, the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse, and a few good oil paintings to hang in camp—only Boy Scouts are never really prepared. When at last we got a fine day, I met Clyde at the ranch and he went around two horses while I held the clippers, handed him the nails, and watched the fleecy clouds above and Truman Julian’s sheep below moving in opposite directions across the rolling sagebrush hills.
Twelve hours before the Thomans’ lease expired at midnight, June 30, Mary Thoman and I, accompanied by her niece Karen Thoman of Rivcrton, 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 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 take 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 due home in 48 hours to haul cattle. We had a hard time spotting cows from the highway, but after half an hour’s search we spied them 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 and Karen and I, leaving these to Mary, 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 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, and across the basin snow clouds driven by the high-altitude winds ruptured themselves on the 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 stompled 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: a spectacle that 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 lifted 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 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 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 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; Baldy Mountain was decorated by an impressive snow cornice extending 20 feet or more beyond the cliff edge; and the great bowl in which Middle Piney Creek heads below the circumambient trail was 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 sec it from here?” “No,” I told him, admiring the fish. “You can’t see it from here.”