'Tis the Season

Chinook Winter

Subzero cold fights a warm wind in Dec. 1997.

By From the December 1997 issue

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From our December 1997 issue.

Cody, Wyoming

To write about the weather, you have to be where the weather's interesting, or preferably lethal. Here winter has been punctuated in a cadence of blizzard, dead cold, wild chinook — at twenty below, thin ribbons of smoke from chimneys and exhaust pipes rise upward for what seems a hundred yards or more, finally fading into the cobalt sky. Tires rolling on the frosty pavement make a sound like ripping Velcro, and at night you can just about hear the firmament throbbing. It is the paradox of the frozen: cold brings quiet, yet in the quiet you hear everything. In Wyoming, madmen hear the stars.

After a subzero blizzard froze the battery in my senescent Honda, I had it replaced; then, a few days later, the fuel pump went too, making me a familiar roadside figure for a while, my thumb out hoping for a ride. Usually it would be a male retiree, topped off in a cowboy hat and driving a pickup with a cab bigger than the room I write in. Each time they insisted on taking me to my exact destination, all the while talking politics and current events. A couple of these gentlemen picked me up more than once, and invariably they'd get around to asking, "When you gonna git your outfit fixed?"

Not in time, as it turned out: Christmas Day brought another eighteen inches of snow. This time my friend Joe rescued me, while his wife held down the fort at home and kept early-rising children away from the presents. Off we went to round up stranded in-laws, crashing through drifts in his big truck and following country roads that hadn't seen the plow and were awash in scalloped waves of white.

The big snowstorms bring antelope crowding into the sheltered draws. When the draws drift over the poor things drown. Other times the antelope entangle themselves in fencelines hidden beneath the layers of snow. Stuck together in the barbed wire they become a buffet for coyotes, who arrive from out of nowhere. If the pronghorn is unlucky, it will escape bloody and only maimed, and will be followed. The lucky ones die of exhaustion and exposure right there on the wire, before the coyotes get close.

The chinook—in Salish it means "snow-eater"—is both friend and enemy. "Warm as milk," as Wallace Stegner put it, the chinook can erase a foot or more of snow overnight. The hard ice at dusk will be nothing but slush and mud by morning. Yet any time wind —no matter how balmy—blows for three or four days at 4o to 6o miles an hour, it tends to get on your nerves. Open the car door and it threatens to fly off. You are constantly leaning forward. My front storm door bangs all night as if being pounded on by a violent drunk. The air is full of debris, and anything light travels: hats abruptly leave heads. Pastel plastic grocery bags decorate the branches of gaunt cottonwoods. The morning paper catches an updraft, and instead of landing on the steps, grazes the roof on the way to the backyard.

On the undulating prairie east of Cody, the typical winter day has some wind, either of the cold or mild variety. In cold the sky is milky, especially before snow. The white wafer sun sports a halo, and nearby hills are veiled in pogonip. Your vaporous breath trails sideways in the wind. Shadows of clouds the size of towns drift over the gray sage. But for the faint rumble of a semi on the distant highway, and a few dirt roads built by the Bureau of Land Management, the landscape is virtually the same as it was in the nineteenth century.

From Bridger Butte, high and flat and overlooking the vast sagebrush expanse, I can see for miles, in every direction, all the mountain ranges that ring the Big Horn Basin. The Big Horns run north-south, with Cloud Peak a massive jag in the middle. The Pryors fill the northeast corner, their piney draws home to sturdy wild horses, arrowheads and fossils, and their canyons decorated with ancient petroglyphs. In the northwest is the eternally snowy Beartooth Plateau, a forty mile wall ten thousand feet high. The southwest shows the Absarokas and the sharkback Carter Range. Completing the turn in the south are the low, lonely and roadless Owl Creeks, way down by Thermopolis and the Wind River. To circumnavigate the three hundred miles of Basin by car would take the better part of a day.

In spring the chinook becomes a caressing warmth signaling new grass and the tiny green flags that are the first leaves on the cottonwoods. My neighbor, an older man retired but for his small horse boarding operation, putters in the big pasture in his overalls and old white straw cowboy hat. He shovels loose clods in the irrigation dishes, and cleans out the winter's detritus. Last winter he burned the ten acres, spending a rare, calm sunny day shepherding the low fronts of fire across the ground with a steel rake and the garden hose never far from reach. At the end of the day there was charred, smoldering ground, and at night—under a full moon—a luminescent blue fog that hung just above the ground until a breeze shredded and dispersed it.

Sometime after the beginning of May, when the freezes seem safely over, the water department opens the gate of its reservoir, and mountain snowmelt circulates into Cody like a blood transfusion. Miles of canals feed the residential ditches their share of the frothy, brown runoff. The water rushes down the 29th Street gully like a rowdy trout stream, feeding the side ditches along the way and flooding my neighbor's burned pasture. Within days the grass comes on like hair on a shaved head. A few more after that, and my neighbor will free his four horses, who spend the summer roaming. One steed is familiar, and his little horse brain might remember that last summer I fed him handfuls of small peeled carrots. We meet at the fenceline to review old times. His heavy black head bobs and wags. I playfully slap his soft snout to tease him, and then back up as he tries to retaliate. The cottonwoods bordering the west side of the pasture sizzle and sway in the breeze. Winter is over this year. The world is buzzing and alive.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.