You Get Back On: Laughing in the Face of Death

There are many ways to die, and with winter arriving in Sublette County, I’ve begun my annual routine of dreading driving on snowy roads and venturing out into the frigid temperatures.

In New York, you read stories about someone getting run down by an out of control taxi cab, falling onto the subway tracks, getting crushed by a crane or even being stabbed or shot. Growing up there, you kind of brush those types of city-deaths off your shoulder and don’t even think about it. In Wyoming, though, the ways you can die were much more different than anything I had experienced before. Take for instance this conversation I had upon arriving in the Cowboy State:

Me: “So, how cold does it get here?”

Wyomingite: “Pretty cold. Last year we had a week where it was -30 degrees.”

Me: “What? That’s crazy.”

Wyomingite: “Sure is. When it’s that cold I don’t even go ice fishing.”

Me: “Ice fishing? Look, if it’s ever that cold just shoot me in the face.”

Wyomingite: “Why would I do that?” (Sarcasm doesn’t really translate too well.)

Me: “It was a joke. I mean, it seems like venturing out in that cold is asking to die.”

Wyomingite: “It can be.  Ralph went out in -40 degree weather to check on his horses during a blizzard and lost his way coming back to the house. He froze to death a couple hundred yards from his front door. They didn’t find him until next spring.”

Me: “…..”

Avalanches, running your car off the road, numerous animal attacks, falling trees, rogue hunters, getting lost in the wilderness; the list goes on and on. But in true cowboy fashion, you have to look death square in the face, realize you survived, laugh at it and get back on the horse. Here are some of the deadliest/funniest moments I’ve encountered while living in Wyoming and the lessons learned.

Running off the Road 

One day, I had to drive up to Jackson to interview some people about the annual Cutter Races (a longtime Jackson Hole tradition where men and women race down Broadway on chariot-style sleighs). It seemed easy enough. There was only one problem: driving through Hoback Canyon in the dead of winter in a Ford Focus without snow tires. Wintertime driving is probably my least favorite activity in Wyoming. Not only is my car ill equipped for such ventures, but the roads are horrendously steep, windy and covered in ice, both clear and black. Not to mention the Wyomingites driving 60 mph in monstrously large trucks during a blizzard, flashing their high beams at you, speeding past and kicking up additional snow that blinds you further. Things can go very bad, very quickly.

I was driving through the canyon, going, at most, 30 mph when I began a descent down a not-so-steep hill when I suddenly lost control. The car began to slide and drift into the oncoming lane of traffic. Not used to such things I did everything wrong; slammed the brakes and jerked the wheel. My Focus kept sliding down, down and down, spun around and I went ass-first into a snowbank. The second the car collided with the pile a semi blew past me. Had I left my house some 2 minutes later I would have hit him head-on.

What always gets me about a car crash is your music keeps playing. This time, it was Fleet Foxes; Come down from the mountain, you have been gone too long…. I sat in the car for a few minutes, dazed, shaking my head and wondering whether it would have been worth it to die for the Cutter Races. Then another realization, I was stuck, with no shovel and in a canyon where cell service is spotty at best. I got out. Looked at my car and began digging with my hands. Luckily, a kind gentleman pulled over, jumped out with shovel in hand and asked if I needed help. Clearly I did and we began digging. As we dug, two more cars came sliding down the hill in the exact same fashion as I had. I looked at the good samaritan and laughed, “Guess I’m not the only asshole on the road today.”

“Shit no,” he said.

We finished digging, shook hands and I was off. I did my research on how to properly drive when conditions are icy and learned to take my time and not worry about other drivers’ speed and told myself if I should ever see another stranger stranded in the snow I too would get out and offer whatever assistance I could.

Pesky Mule Deer 

This one didn’t happen to me, but I was involved.

I was sitting at home one night in the winter, thankful I didn’t have to be driving the 37 miles to Big Piney to cover the school board meeting when I got a frantic call from a frantic coworker.

FC: “Is Andy home?”

Me:  “No, I think he’s going to the school board meeting. Why?”

FC: “Because I think he was driving behind me and a deer ran onto the road and he swerved and his headlights disappeared.”

Me: “Well, did you pull over and make sure it was him, or at least see if the driver was OK?”

FC: “No. I have to get to the meeting.”

Journalism is journalism, be it in a metropolitan daily or a community weekly, and there was nothing that was going to stop my frantic coworker from being late. It was Andy in the car that went off the road, and he was fine. Later, I asked him about it.

Me: “Did you drive off the road tonight?”

Andy: “Yea, a stupid deer ran into the road. How did you know?”

Me: “A frantic coworker called me and thought it was you.”

Andy: “Yea, and she didn’t stop and when I got to the meeting she told me all the interesting stuff I had missed.”

Never rely on a reporter to stop and help you, especially when you work for the competing paper in town, but be aware of the conditions and always keep an eye out for stray wildlife.

Almost an Ice Cube

It was the perfect day to be ice fishing. The sun was out and its rays reflected off of the vast expanse of white and kept the temperature at a pleasant 15 degrees. My associate had already reeled in two fish and we were having a great time. As the afternoon waned, we decided to head home. He roared off on his snowmobile and I followed behind. But as I did, the photographer in me said I should take one parting shot. I stopped the sled, pulled out the camera, snapped and hit the gas to take off. Nothing. Hit the gas harder. Still nothing. Was I in neutral? Was the break on? No and no. What the hell? I looked down to see the sled was sinking into a slushy mixture of lake water and snow. The ice has broken, I thought. I’m sinking and I’m going to be an ice cube in a matter of seconds. There’s only one person out here and he’s already a half-mile away. I panicked and went to jump off the sled to run, but figured that will only make the crack bigger and sat frozen to the snowmachine. I had no idea what to do so I looked around and said to myself, “At least I’ll die somewhere pretty.”

My companion noticed me and sped back.

Companion: “What’s wrong?”

Me: “I think the ice is broken and I’m sinking.”

Companion: “What are you talking about? You’re just caught in some overflow.”

Overflow is when snow melts on top of a frozen body of water and is then covered by a fresh layer of snow. The slightest pressure can cause the underlying, liquid layer to seep through to the top and give the appearance the ice has cracked. Panic is never a good thing, and you should never fall behind the group, especially when you aren’t the best snowmobiler.

Getting Back On 

One of my main goals when I came out West was to not only learn how to ride a horse, but to become proficient at it. Within a month of arriving, I found myself atop one and totally unprepared to follow a cowboy veteran as he yelled “yawww” and disappeared into the sage. Trepidation was the word of the day as I kicked the horse and tried my best to follow suit, not look like an idiot and not die. It went OK, but sadly I did not get the chance to get back on an equine until about a year later. My friend Amber is a born and bred Pinedalian who has been around horses her entire life and who is so comfortable around them it’s almost terrifying. She’s ridden in rodeos, been a pony dancer in the local Rendezvous Pageant and only rides bareback. As we were saddling up, she brought out the horse she would be riding, one that hadn’t been ridden in quite some time, and said, “I hope you guys are ready to see me go airborne.” I thought to myself, why would you knowingly get on a horse that you knew was ready to buck you off?

Me: “So, what do you do if he sends you flying?”

A.: With a look of confusion “You get back on.”

She didn’t get bucked off that day and she was such a fantastic teacher I felt comfortable enough to get my horse into a lope. When we returned to the corral, the animal I had been so nervous to ride couldn’t get enough of me. He followed me around, nuzzled my shoulder and, in some unspoken way, told me “we’re friends now, but that doesn’t mean I won’t buck you off if you are doing something stupid.”

That warning came to fruition very recently. Since that second time on a horse, I’ve become pretty good at it, enough so that people are slightly shocked when they see me gallop by yelling at the top of my lungs. But, unlike a machine, a horse has a mind of its own and will sometimes be grouchy or moody and a bit of a nuisance to ride.

Amber and I went out riding again, but this time her dad came along. Now was my chance to show Jim how good I’ve become – even though I’m not a competitive person I still like to show people when I’ve accomplished a goal. We were heading back to the ranch and were riding the top of a ridge when I lagged behind and then kicked the horse. Everything was going great and felt right, then – and I have to add here that I was in a different saddle and the stirrups were much too short – the horse did a little hop and when I leaned back to absorb the shock, I realized the seat was too low for me. Quickly, I tried to lean into the hop and brace myself in the stirrups, but those were too short, also, and my feet slipped out.

With a total lack of control I flew out of the saddle and over the top of the horse’s head and landed right on my chest. It hurt. I mean, it really, really hurt. I stood up and Amber and Jim came over to me.

Jim: You know, that was looking really good until you went flying.

I laughed and dusted myself off.

Jim: Hey, do you still have the reigns in your hand?

I looked to my right hand and saw both reigns were securely in my fist.

Me: Yea, I guess I do.

Jim: Great job!

I laughed at the fact that even though I had done mostly everything wrong, I had still managed to do something right and that was a small victory. Even though I was in pain – I’m almost positive I cracked a rib – I got back on that stupid horse and continue to ride him. Even though I hate driving in the winter and have spun off the road, I continue to do it in hopes I get better. Even though frozen lakes or waterways give me the creeps, I keep venturing out, safely. And even though there a millions of ways to die no matter where you happen to be, the best defense you have against death is your brain, the kindness of others and a big, boisterous laugh. With those tools in hand the only other thing you need is the nerve to get back on.

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