Monday, October 13, 1997

Snowfences


September 1, 1997
South Pass, Wyoming

There are places all over the world that pride themselves in great construction feats. The pyramids of Egypt or India’s Taj Mahal come to mind. In America, the skyscrapers of New York City and Nevada’s Hoover Dam top my list. Driving from Farson to Lander one day via South Pass, it dawned on me that Wyoming’s claim to construction fame lies in the miles and miles of snowfences shadowing its highways.

Perhaps you’re not familiar with the snowfence. It usually parallels a highway but not necessarily right along side of it. A snowfence line can be a hundred yards or so away and for that reason is often unnoticed. I suspect that some out-of-state observers have mistaken them for fences used to contain an oversized strain of cattle. However, most folks probably don’t give snowfences much thought as they cruise by at 65 mph. I imagine the typical Wyomingite sees them in the same light as an oversized boulder or lone cottonwood tree—just another forgotten reference point in the state’s desolate landscape.

Though idle in the summer months, these barriers work hard in the winter to keep the blowing snow from drifting over the highly-elevated byways in the Cowboy state. “Blowing” is the operative word here. It would take a great deal of snow to come straight down and overcome the Wyoming Highway Department’s efforts in keeping the roads clear. But, throw a typical Wyoming wind into the equation and all it takes is six inches of the white stuff and the road will disappear before the plow has time to turn around. Enter the snowfence. Its defiant profile stops the drifting snow, causing it to pile up next to the fence rather than along and over the highway.

On a lighter note, sometimes I can almost convince myself that snowfences are nothing more than a convoluted prank generated by the Wyoming Highway Department—poking fun at modern art. And if the truth be known, snowfences don’t make a damn bit of difference in keeping the snow off the highways.

I’ve pondered the life-expectancy of a snowfence. How many winters can you get out of a neglected snowfence before it starts letting the snow through? I would imagine that even in a state of dilapidation, its broken down heaps of wooden boards could still carry out a snowfence’s mission with a high degree of effectiveness.

Like sentinels, the snowfences are always there watching over the highways no matter what time of the year. And you can see a line of them from miles away. I’ve envisioned a day when I become lost in Wyoming’s high country; about the time I’m ready to expire, I spot the woven basket patterns of a snowfence and my state of surrender will be replaced with ecstasy knowing there is a highway nearby leading to my rescue.

Reminiscent of the apes gazing at the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was standing before a snowfence one day. I sensed harmony and beauty in its structure. Perhaps it doesn’t blend in completely with the landscape but its ongoing pattern has a certain quality that enhances one’s visual experience in the great vastness of Wyoming.

I recommend a visit to a line of snowfence. Yes, even touching one. Examine its construction closely. Consider the workers that travelled to these remote sections of highway in the summers and labored in the hot sun to build something that doesn’t kick in until the winter. Maybe it’s not as resilient as the Great Wall of China, but make the time to take in a ribbon of wood that follows the contour of the Wyoming landscape and tell me you’re not awestruck.

Sunday, March 02, 1997

Moving Forward, Looking Back


February 21, 1997
on the road to Billings, MT

My dad bought a brand new Ford station wagon in 1966. It had a 289 V-8 with a dark green body—sans the wood paneling down the side. Somewhere between the ages of six and ten, I remember riding in the back of the wagon, facing the rear window. I always liked riding in this fashion no matter where we were going. At first it was a little awkward in tight traffic or at a stop light because I was forced to look directly at the car behind us and its forward-facing passengers who couldn’t help but look at me. However, once I mastered a couple of silly faces, I didn’t even mind the stop lights and heavy traffic.

Often I pretended the car was a World War II bomber. As its tailgunner, I watched the world rush up and around my head and slowly disappear into the horizon’s infinity. But, no matter how carried away my imagination would get, I would eventually stretch out and fall asleep as the world continued to shoot by. Sleeping in the car was easy and became an enjoyable experience for me. I would venture to say that the best sleeping I’ve ever experienced was in the family wagon on long vacations out West.

Today I traveled to the city with a large group of students in a full-blown, Greyhound-like bus. This particular model has a row of seats in the rear facing backwards. I unconsciously selected one of these seats for the two-hour journey. I was astonished by the comfort I found in this location of the bus. Yes, it did remind me of my childhood, but my thoughts drifted far beyond the old ’66 Ford. I started searching for the source of my contentment. Why was I so comfortable in this particular orientation of travel—moving forward, looking back?

While muddling over my attraction for riding backwards, a sense of contentment came over me as we rambled down the road. I was reminded of romance as the whining resonance of the anterior-based engine became as intimate as a lover’s breathing. It didn’t take long to tune in to the delicate variations of frequency and pitch as the bus moved through its gears resulting in the slightest changes of velocity. After a while, the whine transformed into a lullaby—seducing the community of riders into a blanket of sleep.

It’s rather surreal to watch the world go by when you’re looking back. Here you don’t see anything coming—there’s no time for preparation—it just hits you. Without warning, a huge billboard demands your full attention, but slowly—even the obnoxious oversized advertisements blend into the landscape until it is reduced to a single point on the horizon. I’m reminded of how we sometimes fall in and out of love. We never see it coming but often we have plenty of time to watch it fade slowly and eventually out of our lives.

Most of us probably prefer to see something coming so we can prepare for its arrival—I guess this is why our eyes are mounted in the front of our head. However, living in a world that changes everyday with blinding speed, I suspect we have grown accustomed to things springing up on us out of nowhere. And it is only after the surprise attack that we have the luxury of watching its aftermath drift slowly out of our lives.

Tuesday, February 18, 1997

146,810.3


January 1997
Deaver, Wyoming

We bought the ’83 Honda Accord in 1990. Considering the amount of rust on the body, it’s safe to say the car had spent most of its time on the salted roads of Northeast Ohio. I don’t remember the final price, but the monthly payments were $105 for three years.

When it came to reliability, the yellowish-tan import never let us down; however, like most used cars, many of its more dispensable features were just that—dispensed. The air conditioner never worked due to an electrical short somewhere between the control panel and the A/C itself. And the cruise control was extremely temperamental, sometimes staying on for hours as we cruised down the interstate; other times, it would disengage after a mile or two—never activating again for the remainder of the trip. I would guess that both defects were attributed to coffee spilled on or near the dashboard by its former owners.

In ’91 the car was towed behind our pick-up as we moved to Flagstaff, Arizona—never to see salt again, though the rust continued to spread like a cancer without a cure. While in Flag, we photographed the salt-free import the day it turned over 100,000 miles—as if it had graduated from some institute of higher mileage.

Before another year had passed, we were on the move to Northwestern Wyoming and the Honda was riding piggy-back again. From Wyoming, the Accord made two trips back to Ohio and a side excursion to Tennessee. By this time original parts were being replaced on a regular basis.

We finally sold the car for $800 to our best friends’ daughter. Though I never expressed my true feelings, I felt reluctant to depart with the Accord. I pictured it as my second car and driving it into the next century. Two months after the sale, the Honda’s teenage owner lost control of it on a dirt road, causing the destruction of the entire front wheel drive and suspension. There was talk shortly after the accident of rebuilding and replacing the damaged parts; but in light of the vehicle’s age, a retired family mechanic suggested taking it off life support. Arrangements were made with a local junkyard to park the Honda one last time—in its final resting place—a junkyard outside of Deaver, Wyoming. There it has embarked on a journey toward extinction—a trip where tune-ups, oil changes or other maintenance-related work are no longer necessary. I wonder how long its identity will stay in tact as parts are stripped off and cannibalized for other ’83 Accords still in service? Perhaps one day it will be crushed like an aluminum can under a heavy foot, then shredded to bits, and finally used for re-bar soup.

Until it does meet the diabolical auto shredder, I’ll likely stop by for a visit on occasion to see how our old car is holding up to the turbulent Wyoming weather. And who knows, maybe Accords will someday be considered classics, like the early Mustangs, drawing me back to Deaver—to reclaim its tattered remains.