Spring Creek Pass
here was no work in Sanctuary after Labor Day, once all the Texans had left.The town had 278 people and one main street, and in the fall and winter, as far as jobs went, there was the True Value of Sanctuary hardware store, the Mane Event horse-hair jewelry shop, the Fat Brown Trout sporting-goods store, the Big Bucking Deal saddlery, the Funky Fox Cafe (owned by Belinda Funk and Rebecca Fox), the Conoco gas station, the Hi-Ho Silver gift shop (specializing in Sasquatch memorabilia, and open only when its owner, Mabelle, was sober enough to stand), the Stumble Inn Motel and Bar, and the Sanctuary National Bank–none of which employed more than two people, and none of which needed help.
So the summer before last, three months after he had moved there, and tired of waiting tables at the Sanctuary Hotel (“Your Sanctuary in Sanctuary”), Flynn had seen the writing on the wall. Figuring his Master’s in English should count for something, he had visited all four colleges within a two hundred mile radius and landed a part-time job teaching at the satellite campus of Mesa State College in Montrose, a two-and-a-half hour drive. In the second week of his first semester, he had missed a class because of a snowstorm, so he’d driven up to Grand Junction and traded in his Honda for the cheapest car he could get with four-wheel drive.
By now, his second year at the job, he had established a routine. He left his girlfriend Casey’s ranch every Tuesday morning at 5 a.m., got to Montrose between 7:30 and 7:45, ordered the sourdough French toast or huevos rancheros atJane’s Kitchen, taught two sections of Basic Writing and one ofIntro to Lit, ate dinner atTaco Bell or Burger King, and spent the night at the department chairman’s house. On Wednesday morning he hiked Black Canyon or fly fished the Gunnison; in the evening he taught a class for adults, Literature of the American West, then met some of his friends afterwards for a beer at Silver Jack’s. On Thursday he taught three classes again, gassed up, and headed home.
It was snowing when he had gone to bed, so Flynn had set the alarm for 4 a.m., a halfhour earlier than usual. He had ground his coffee and put out his clothes the night before. At 3:55 he clicked off the alarm before it came on, and lifted himself out of bed without waking Casey or Sage, the 110-pound Newfoundland that slept between them. He shuffled into the kitchen and peeked out the door window at the thermometer, illuminated by the porch light: it was minus two.
It was November 15, and winter hadn’t officially begun, but to Flynn it had already been going on too long. Sanctuary was at nine thousand feet, tucked into a curl of the Divide, in what millions of years ago, Casey had told him, was the mouth of an enormous volcano. The air was thin, and it started getting cold at night in mid-August. Casey’s property, which she had bought when her first novel, At the River’s Edge, had become a bestseller, began ten miles outside town near the Rio Grande, and stretched east over a hundred acres of pasture to the base of a jagged mountain. There was nothing to block the wind, no insulation from the cold.
Wearing his flannel boxers, a long-sleeve T-shirt, and Sorels, Flynn stepped out to his car through the halffoot offresh snow that had fallen overnight. The clouds had cleared, and the moon lit up the mountainside to the north. He could see the juniper bushes a mile away.
Cielo whinpied to him from the stable. When he had first moved to the ranch, Casey had taught him how to ride on the skittish Arabian; she rode Stoney, the bigger, more reliable quarter horse. On Sunday
Flynn had taken Cielo across the pasture and up the mountain, beyond the animal trails all the way up to the ridge, where he had stopped to feel the cold air in his lungs and look at the view. From up there, Casey’s ranch was just one of many pretty places in southwestern Colorado. There were certainly others, he had thought, where he could make his home.
He started up his Sidekick, put the heater on full blast, directed it onto the frozen, snow-covered windshield, and got out. He took a deep breath, relaxed his body, and stopped shivering. Some snow had slipped into his boots and the ice drops were chilling his feet, but he smiled as he paused for a moment and looked up. Mercury sparkled at the western horizon, and the Milky Way was milky, a fat brushstroke across the sky. To the southwest was the two-thirds moon, so bright you could see the darkened ridges of its craters. To the southeast, Jupiter. A few nights ago he had looked through Casey’s telescope and seen Jupiter’s moons-three of them on one side, three on the other. Sanctuary.
About a year ago, five months after he had moved in with Casey, the planets had been aligned. He had seen all eight of them with his naked eye at 4 a.m., in a neat row across the sky. He had walked into his morning class four hours later, still reeling from it. ” I saw Neptune,” he had gushed to his students. “I saw Pluto.” Now the stars and planets seemed to have exploded into disarray. He felt the insides of his nostrils freeze.
Back inside, Flynn showered in steaming water while the coffee brewed.
He dressed in the living room, then put on his hiking boots, poured the coffee into a travel mug, ripped off a banana, grabbed his duffel bag and backpack, turned up the heat in the house, and trudged out to the car, now looking to the eastern sky. The Leonids were due, and Casey had told him to look for them in the middle of Leo, just before dawn. He stood for a minute, watching, until he saw an isolated streak directly above him that snapped his head up; then, a minute later, another to the south-but none on the eastern horizon, where the meteor shower would be.
The night before he had made the trip for the first time in August last year, Flynn had sat at the kitchen table, tracing the route to Montrose on the Colorado page of Casey’s Rand McNally. It looked plain, traversing some barren land across the state. He’d take 149 out of Sanctuary north to Gunnison, turn west onto 50, and follow that all the way to Montrose. ” It’s pretty,” Casey had told him. “Keep your eyes open.” She leaned over his shoulder and pointed to a crooked gray line. “And be sure to take this shortcut right here.”
That next morning, during his drive, he had been stunned by the emptiness of the land, by the blackness of the night, by the depth of silence in the air. He had arrived at his new job open-mouthed and unaware of time.
He had met Casey when she was in Chicago on a reading tour for her second book, Like Walking on a Glacier, a collection of essays. Standing in the back of the crowded bookstore, he had watched her read. She had a confident voice, and hair the color of sandstone. As she was signing books, he had approached her and asked her out. In the months following, every time Flynn had flown from Chicago to visit her at the ranch, he had felt himself awaken. Finally, with her encouragement, he had quit his job at North Central College, packed up his old Accord, and driven out to Colorado to live with her.
Flynn stopped to secure the gate at the end of Casey’s driveway, then drove slowly along Rio Grande Road, feeling the fresh snow under his tires. Two miles from the ranch, he saw some familiar lumps in the snow ahead of him: a herd of elk, lying belly down. He slowed to a halt and watched as the one right in front ofhim and a few dozen others roused themselves from their naps, then loped, then thundered away, some frightened, some sluggish, most just indifferent or a little annoyed. Flynn was grateful for the moon, like an enormous headlight in the sky. I t made driving in the middle of the night like driving on a cloudy afternoon. The week after next he’d be without its aid both coming and going. Maybe by then he wouldn’t have to make the trip.
He drove alongside the Rio Grande, which wound south through South Fork, west to Alamosa, and then down and wide through New Mexico,Texas, and into the Gulf. But around here it was no bigger than a creek, so narrow you could jump across it in spots. It was already frozen over, the fresh snow blanketing the icy surface, hooded humps where boulders rose above water level. Back on March 20th, Casey and Flynn had walked over to the river and dropped heavy rocks from the bridge, breaking through the surface of the ice to reveal the clear water flowing underneath. Mter a winter of over three hundred inches of snowfall and more on the way, she had been anxious for spring to come.
At the end of Rio Grande Road, Flynn eased left onto 149, a winding two-lane highway that would be empty of vehicles this time of night. He would probably not encounter any traffic at all until he hit Highway 50, about an hour and a half away.
He drove past the Rio Grande Reservoir and settled in. There was nothing to do but drive, and look, and think. There was no radio station; no place to stop and get gas or coffee; no place to go if you got into trouble; no place to get away from yourself. On the seat next to him were a few cassettes-the Stay-AwakeTape, the Keep-AwakeTape, and the Wake-Up! Tape-with songs like Tom Petty’s “You Wreck Me,” Springsteen’s “Human Touch,” and “Angels of the Silences” by the Counting Crows. But most trips he just left them on the seat, next to the pens and notepads he used to plan for his classes or to write down any good ideas. On the way back last week he had scribbled, “Ask C ifI can bring her atlas to school,” since he was teaching the Odyssey and wanted to show his students where it all took place; “Use C’s lavender soap to catch packrat in barn,” which, after cheese, peanut butter, and Tootsie Rolls, was finally what worked; and “Cut hole for stovepipe in NW corner of shed”-which he had been fixing up to use as a study, but which Casey now wanted as a writing studio. Folded up under the passenger seat were the Montrose Da£ly Press classifieds with one-bedroom apartments circled.
The road curved out of the valley and began to climb two thousand feet to the first of three mountain passes, Spring Creek.The Oleo Ranch stretched out to the right, but otherwise only pines and aspens lined the road. Flynn knew that on this stretch he was riding up and over the Divide. He could make out the shadowed peak of Mount Baldy to the right, and knew that San Luis Peak, a fourteener, was behind it, and another, Redcloud, to his left. Clear Creek on one side flowed west to the Pacific, but right across the road Spring Creek flowed east, ending up in the Atlantic. So much seemed to hang in the balance, and yet it was nothing; it was simple.
Flynn saw the sign for Spring Creek Pass, 10,901 feet, and knew he was on the border of Mineral and Hinsdale Counties,just a few miles from the ascent up Slumgullion Mountain. This stretch was often the last one to be plowed. Sometimes, after a big storm would hit, the plow trucks from Lake City would spend all day going over and back Slumgullion, and wouldn’t get to Spring Creek until the next day. Flynn felt the car shudder. It was always windy here, on top of the Divide, and snowdrifts piled quick and deep across the road.
He slowed to a halt as he saw a bull elk off to the side, a dark figure lit up by the wash of moonlight. Seven points. Flynn saw its shadow on the snow behind it. The elk stood still, watching him. A few weeks ago on this drive a cow elk almost as big as this one had bounded up from a drop-off near here and tried to stop, but skidded on the icy road, her hooves splayed out, sliding on her belly and slamming her head into the corner of Flynn’s car. The Sidekick wasn’t damaged, and neither was the elk-she scrambled up, shook her head and trotted away-but Flynn felt that he had received a warning.
He nodded to the bull elk, then shifted into first, and then second, watching the high roadside reflectors as he moved forward. They were there for the plows. When the road was under fresh snowfall there was no other way to determine where was road and where was field. Flynn knew that the snow would deepen up Slumgullion, but that his car, with its high wheel base, would make it up, and that he would encounter no other vehicle on the way. So long as it didn’t get above his fender he’d be all right. On the way up Slumgullion, the ascent would be gradual, not dangerous. On the northwest side, however, the descent was angled and steep, a succession of switchbacks that at every turn brought you to the edge of a cliff, with no guardrails. Flynn called this stretch Slumgullion Slalom. There were five half-hour phases of his trip, and he had names for each: Elk Alarm, Slumgullion Slalom, Deer Dodge, Rabbit Roulette, and Cerro Suicide.
On the way up Slumgullion, Flynn lost the moonlight as a cloud hovered above him, and the landscape was reduced to the snow in front of his headlights. In a soft silence he drove up the mountain. There was nothing but the hum of his car and the churning sound of his wheels over the snow.
On a left curve that ducked under a projecting cliff face, the car lost traction, the back end jolting to the right and corning to a stop a few feet from the edge of the cliff. Flynn had been careless, forgetting that it was always slippery on that curve, and had driven right into the snow-covered patch of ice on the left side of the road. He sat still in the driver’s seat. There were still no tire tracks ahead of him, but here it was easy to tell where the road was, since the snow stretched out flat between the pines on the left and the drop-off on the right. His headlights lit up a long trail of cat prints, bobcat or lynx.
Flynn dropped into four-wheel low, easing the clutch up and the gas pedal down; but the back end slid a little more. His back tire was now near the edge, a drop of two thousand feet. He got out of the car. ~now was falling, large flakes that alighted on the branches of pine, on the bouldered sides of the mountain, on his thick, curly hair. Flynn knew that this was how some people had died, their cars falling soundlessly over the edge, and that he was sleepy, and should think clearly, even though he was relatively safe. He looked down at his feet and realized he had forgotten to bring his Sorels.
He kicked at his tires, which were nearly bald, the snow caking onto them instead of in the tread. He put on his gloves, opened the back door, took his canvas jacket from his bag, and wedged it under the tire that was sliding. He knew he shouldn’t be driving with these tires, and over the weekend he had meant to get some new ones, but he just didn’t have enough cash. It was an issue with them: Casey was getting checks in the mail for thousands of dollars, but he was in over his head in debt.When he had moved to Colorado, Casey hadn’t wanted him to get a full-time job. It’s full-time taking care of this place, she had said. She’d buy all the groceries and pay the mortgage, she told him, if he covered gas and electric and took care of the horses and property. But his teaching job brought in only eleven hundred a month, enough for him to make payments on his car and to pay for gas, insurance, school loans, and other bills. By the end of the month, he was buying his meals in Montrose with change he had stolen from Casey’s jar.
Before he got back in the car, he cleaned off the wiper blades, digging out the snow and chipping off the ice.
He pushed gently on the gas, eased up and over the jacket and out to the middle of the road. Then he stopped, went outside to retrieve his coat, and got back in, throwing it on the floor by the heater. It was wet and dirty now, but he wouldn’t need it in Montrose; he’d clean it when he came back. He edged forward, continuing on his way up Slumgullion, letting the snow create traction. The flakes fell fat and heavy on the windshield.
Cresting Slumgullion Summit at 11,361 feet, Flynn noticed the flakes easing up a bit, no longer kaleidoscoping his windshield as he drove. On his way down the north side of the mountain, the car moved like a drunken skier from switchback to switchback, veering left and right, but the flakes continued to lighten. Flynn dropped down to second and took it slow. He could see that there was less and less snow on the road, until, toward the bottom, after the eighth and ninth switchbacks, it was just a dusting. By the time he edged into Lake City, the roads were almost bare, and only a few flakes were falling.
At 5:30 in the morning, Lake City was still asleep except for one pick-up pulling out behind him and a snowplow warming up in a driveway. The town was only a little bigger than Sanctuary. Casey had told him that many years ago a part of the mountain had broken off and descended into the valley, blocking up a creek to forge a sparkling lake that attracted settlers and miners. But the cliffs surrounding the town were so high, the valley so narrow, that in the winter it began to get dark around 1 :30. Mter the end of a mining boom at the turn of the century, the population settled in around three hundred and had stayed there ever since.
It took Flynn about a minute at twenty-five miles per hour to enter and exit Lake City, with his window rolled down to wake himself up.
He passed the Lake City Cafe, where he and Casey had eaten breakfast burritos one morning the summer before last. They had driven over Red Mountain Pass to Silverton after that, where they had walked through town holding hands. At one shop Casey had bought him a Hopi silver key chain engraved with a bear. My sign, she had told him. He reached down to it now as he drove, running his thumb over the sharp edges. He passed the Texaco station, which wouldn’t be open for another hour. He passed a row of houses, converted miners’ shacks mostly, some, he could tell by the smell of the air, with fires still going inside.
After that, he followed the bends of 149 along the Gunnison River north toward Gunnison. This was the beginning of Deer Dodge. They were everywhere. At first Flynn saw just their eyes, but after a while the moon came out again, hovering over the western horizon, so he could see their bodies and would not hit them. They leaped over barbed-wire fences, huddled in the woods, drank at the river, ran across the road. Flynn focused, his eyes sweeping left and right, sipping his coffee as he drove.
When he lost the moon again, Flynn slowed down, and the headlights behind him edged closer. Flynn considered letting the truck pass, so it could take the lead and act as a buffer between the deer and his car. Then, as he saw his frrst on-coming vehicle of the ciay-a bread delivery van, headed for the Texaco station-a small deer darted out from the right. There was nothing Flynn could do. The deer’s head cracked the right headlight as the van drove by going the other way.
Flynn pulled over.The truck behind him stopped as well. Flynn heard the truck door slam as he walked over to see about the deer. Together they stood and looked at it. It had two stubs on its head, its first antlers.
“You okay?” the man said. Silhouetted by his headlights, he looked tall and broad chested; Flynn saw blond backlit curls at the top of his head, and sharp eyes that glinted in the red glow of the Sidekick’s tail lights. Flynn nodded.The deer was stone dead.The life had gone from it in an instant. In the light of the truck’s headlights, Flynn noticed flakes falling on its open eyes.
Back in his car, he looked in the rearview mirror, waiting to see if the man wanted to go first, but after he saw that the truck wasn’t moving, he pulled back out onto the road. The truck pulled out then too, but stopped and went slowly in reverse, the headlights distancing as Flynn accelerated. It took him a minute to figure out that the man had just picked up his dinner.
Mter Deer Dodge came Rabbit Roulette, on the cutoff from 149 north of Lake City to Highway 50 by Blue Mesa Reservoir. Now that the serious snow had started, Flynn knew he would soon be unable to take this shortcut, which went northwest but was not plowed in winter. Instead he’d have to continue on 149 as it bent northeast to its intersection with 50. But for now, it would still be passable.
Flynn turned onto the road, which was barren at the southeast end and dotted by a few trailers on the north end where some Indians lived. Along the way, the road edged a mesa, a stretch of road so bare and uninhabited that it gave Flynn the clearest view of the stars at night and of the Uncompahgres by day. Here,jackrabbits darted freely. As Flynn drove by, they scurried left and right, off the road and then suddenly back into harm’s way, sometimes more quickly than he could react. The only way to guarantee a rabbit wouldn’t be killed was to slow down, which made the cutoff worthless; you might as well stay on 149. So Flynn drove fast enough to justifY the shortcut, but slow enough to give the rabbits a shot.
Three miles into the cutoff, he got out of the car, dumped out the cold remains of his coffee, and pissed onto the road. To the west, the moon was setting behind the mountains. He looked east, for the Leonids, but the snow cloud over Slumgullion blocked his view. In the distance he heard the manic yips of coyotes, but then all fell silent. The only sound was of his urine hitting the hard earth, and of his own shallow breathing. At Casey’s ranch, this time of night, the silence was so thin you could hear electricity running through the wires. Here, not even that.
The flTSt of the rabbits scurried out in front of the car. The brown hare had blotches of white already, and would soon be completely white. Flynn tapped the brakes and swerved, avoiding it as it scattered first away from the car, then suddenly back in its path. It was hard for him to see things coming from his right side now, missing that headlight. They moved along together like this, in spurts and swerves, Flynn and the hare, until he fmally slowed to a near stop and let the rabbit find its way off the road.
The second darted out in front of the car, then sped ahead of the front tire in a zigzag. Flynn followed the rabbit for a tenth of a mile before it scampered off the road.The third jumped straight out into his path, and somehow avoided the tires; Flynn felt mildly disappointed when it made it to the other side.
The landscape around him was changing its hue, lightening behind him with a yellow glow, in front of him a dark blue. To the northwest, where he was headed, a meteor streaked long and silent, disappearing before it met the horizon. Flynn stared at the spot, hoping for another, when he saw a flash of brown from the snow-covered brush, and felt a thump under his tire.
He got out of the car. All the times he had made this drive, he had always won the rabbit roulette-or rather, the rabbits had won. He had managed to ilvoid them all. He walked back to where the rabbit lay. Its backside was crushed, but its front paws were scurrying in the dirt, its head jerking. Flynn looked up, seeing the Pleiades overhead, and the stars still missing from a patch back to the southeast, where Slumgullion stood. The rest of the sky was clear. Flynn knew that the dark cloud would probably hover over the summit until daylight, and would then dissipate right there. A self-made storm. On the trip back, the snow on Slumgullion might be gone, but soon there would be a snowstorm every week, and he’d be lucky to miss them on Tuesdays orThursdays. He’d rather just stay in Montrose. Flynn planted the heel of his boot onto one of the rabbit’s ears, then shifted his weight onto the steel-toed end, feeling the crunch of its head under his foot.
Every time Flynn drove over Blue Mesa Reservoir, it looked different. The blue water of the Gunnison was halted by a dam and ringed with parched brown mesas, and its hue seemed to change with the altering light. He saw it as a broad patch of darkness to his right, the mesas around it corniced by the rising sun, the water’s surface shimmering silver. During his first summer in Colorado, Flynn and Casey had sat by the water’s edge one afternoon on their way back from Gunnison. They sliced chunks of Asiago cheese with Casey’s Swiss Army knife and stuffed them into torn-off pieces of freshly baked bread, washing it all down with mineral water.
Out on the reservoir, a solitary man was stepping out onto the new ice, pulling a small wagon behind him. The ice couldn’t be thick enough; Flynn knew that it had only just started to form, and the middle was still unfrozen. But the man looked peaceful and confident. He must know what he’s doing, Flynn thought. He must have an intimate relationship with the lake. He must enjoy his own company.
Flynn headed toward Cerro Mesa, the fmalleg of his trip. It followed a long, uphill straightaway that stretched for several miles, plateaued at the top of a mesa, and then plummeted down in a series of twists and turns that flattened out through Cimarron and then snaked up to Cerro’s Summit. Flynn didn’t look forward to this stretch, for unlike Slumgullion, Cerro brought company: trucks for which Highway 50 provided the only route to points west and east. In more than one snowstorm here Flynn had turned uphill on a switchback and met an eighteen-wheeler churning down the other way. When the road iced up -there was nowhere to pull over-on one side, the slope, on the other, empty air.Your only choice was to forge ahead.
It had rained and was now snowing on Cerro, the road glazed with ice. Flynn took it slow, adjusting to the dawn and to the presence of traffic. As he rounded one curve, a truck rumbled by the other way, its tires grinding down the slick surface without a problem. After that, the road straightened out, ran steep downhill, and then doubled back to the right at the bottom, a hairpin curve that demanded fifteen miles per hour and a stiff clutch. It bent sharply left after that, and on that turn Flynn felt a drag on his tires, so he looked for a shoulder and pulled off. He put on his gloves as he got out, and saw that his left rear tire was low, almost flat, probably from the sharp rocks on the cutoff.
All last year and for the first two months of this semester, nothing had happened on his drives to and from Montrose. But lately, something had gone wrong every trip. There was the elk incident three weeks ago. Then a week later, he had run out of gas a few miles from school and had to hitch to a station in Montrose. On his way back to Sanctuary two days later, he had spun out of control on an ice patch and nearly slid right off the edge of Cerro Mesa. The first car that had come by had stopped, and a couple of snowboarders helped pull him out of the ditch. Then there was the dead deer back in Lake City, and now this.
He bundled up his coat and set about changing the tire. Short on cash and his credit card maxed out, he knew he’d have to make the trip back with one headlight and no spare. He couldjust stay in Montrose, of course, but Casey wouldn’t much like that. Last February, when he knew of a fierce storm brewing to the southeast, Flynn had called from Montrose to tell her he would stay there overnight and start back the next morning. When she had responded with a frigid silence, he had hung up and driven through the blizzard, arriving home exhausted and frazzled at two in the morning. She had pretended to sleep as he got into bed on the other side of Sage, then had awakened him at seven with a hot cup of coffee and a list of projects: clean out Cielo’s stall; fix Stoney’s gate; dump, clean, and refill the water trough. ” It’s nice to have you home,” she had said.
After he changed the flat, Flynn glanced at the car clock and figured he could still make it in time for his first class. He told himself to be careful, to take it slow. In the future, maybe he would wake up at a normal time on Tuesdays and walk to work in the morning sun. On Thursday evenings he could watch Frasier and join his friends for pizza. He could spend weekends fishing in Black Canyon.
He continued up and over Cerro Summit; then, when the road cleared up and the sun came out, he pulled over and switched the wheel hubs from Lock to Free.
He finished the drive cruising downhill to 5800 feet, pulling into Montrose at 8:25, five minutes before his class started-just enough time to change his shoes and wash the dirt from his hands. In the Grand Valley of western Colorado, every day was sunny. On this Tuesday, according to the radio, the high temperature would be in the mid seventies. He parked the car in the faculty lot, got out, and stretched his legs. He could feel the warm air already beginning to soften the chill of the morning.
Early Wednesday morning, while hiking down a trail in Black Canyon, Flynn saw some mountain goats gathered on the riverbank, looking back toward the ridge. Flynn followed their gaze and saw a young goat, not far from him, standing still on a rock. Flynn hesitated, and then moved toward the nervous animal, stepping in slow motion until he was within a few feet. He had bent over and reached out his arm, almost touching its head, when the goat finally darted down to join his family.
When Flynn found his favorite fishing spot, past the old miner’s shack by a bend in the river, he sat on a big rock, took his topo map out of his backpack, and located some of the pretty towns nearby where he could live: Paonia, Crawford, Hotchkiss, Ridgway.
He spent the morning casting flies, feeling the cold of the water wrap around his legs. For a while he watched a screaming hawk above him, flying in large loops down toward the river and up to its nest in a tree jutting out the canyon wall.
In the afternoon, now in his hiking boots at the top of a ridge, he saw, over the mountains to the east, two planes, one pulling the other across the pale blue sky. He watched as the lead plane released the towline and tailed away to the left as the glider behind it curved right. The glider arched around and up, catching the thermal like an eagle, on his own now and doing fine.
Thursday was unusually warm, even for Montrose. Flynn had taught his afternoon class outside on the grass. As he walked out to the parking lot to begin his trip home, he looked to see if there was any weather ahead of him. It looked all clear. Across the road was an aspen grove, the leaves still hanging on, most of them dark yellow and unevenly fringed with brown. It looked as if a thousand butterflies had perched at the ends of all the branches, fluttering their wings in the breeze. Back at Casey’s ranch, the aspens had long been bare. When Flynn had come out of his building at 4:30, it was still warm, and the sun was low in the west. Between gassing up the car and picking up two double-cheeseburgers for t\vo dollars, he saw storm clouds over the mountains to the east; so he changed the setting on his wheel hubs, then took off his shoes and put on his hiking boots. He knew he’d run right into it on the way, but you never knew how bad it would be until you got there. Once he had run into some heavy snow over Cerro Mesa and stayed overnight at a trailer motel in Cimmaron, arriving home Friday morning to find not a trace of snow there and a pouting Casey. Another week, Flynn had heard that it was all clear, but then hit a snowstorm on Slumgullion so severe that he couldn’t see where he was going; he had to turn around halfway up and spend the night in his car in Lake City. Slumgullion Pass was never officially closed; people just figured that only locals drove over it, and locals knew enough to get home by dark and weren’t so stupid to attempt that drive during a storm. The plows started up at 6 a.m.
By the time he left Montrose, the bank sign showed sixty-four degrees. A half hour later, he had driven up into a blizzard. On Cerro, a few pick-ups and eighteen-wheelers were rumbling and sliding their way up and down Highway 50. Everyone else had turned back or pulled over to chain up.
The snow ended abruptly on the eastern side, though, and after a few miles of dry road, Flynn knew the cutoff would be passable. He sailed over the straightaway through Cimmaron, passed Blue Mesa Reservoir, its dark blue surface sparkling like diamonds in the low light, and turned right onto the cutoff, the dirt road spattered here and there with patches of snow. Flynn slowed to avoid the sharp rocks, as he had no spare. The shadow of a large bird passed over the hood of his car to the sage and juniper bushes on the right, and he craned his neck, expecting to catch sight of the rusty tail of a hawk. Instead he saw the spattered black and white of an immature bald, its long wings already steady and strong.
The sky began to darken quickly as the sun dipped toward setting. Flynn felt rattled from the drive over Cerro and knew Slumgullion might be worse. But he was in a vehicle with heat and plenty of gas, so there was really no danger. If he got a flat, he could just sleep in the car and hitch the next day. He turned the radio on, then turned it off. He flipped on his headlight. He turned the radio on again and slipped in a tape, one that Casey had made for him, with songs by Patty Larkin, Paula Cole, and Catie Curtis. He popped it out after only a few notes. He tapped the steering wheel and scratched at his head. He looked at his eyes, reflecting back at him in the dusky light of the sunset. They were dark and brooding. The sky behind him, over Montrose, was streaked with pink and purple clouds. Soon it would turn a stellar blue, the mesas and mountains cast into black silhouette. The sky ahead of him, to the east, looked dark and menacmg. The firSt rabbit scampered out and Flynn accelerated, narrowly avoiding it as it darted toward his car. Flynn remembered the first time he had seen the rabbits, when cross-country skiing with Casey at 11,000 feet in the Wemenuche Wilderness during his first visit to Colorado. He had felt great affection for them; they were so fast and wild. Now he saw them as simply prey, animals put on earth so others could eat them. They spent every day of their lives scared.
The second rabbit bounded from the sagebrush ahead of him, making it to the other side before Flynn reached it. He now figured it was just the luck of the draw. He would continue toward Lake City, driving straight and true, and if a rabbit got under his wheel, so be it. He was guessing that Slumgullion would be in snow, and that the later he got there, the more snow he’d find under his wheels. He couldn’t slow down for every damn rabbit that got in his way.
The third rabbit was unlucky. It darted out and ran ahead of Flynn’s car, angled off the road, then right back into it. Flynn drove directly over it, feeling the small bump twice under his right tires.
The fourth met the same fate, scurrying out from the left, racing ahead for a straight stretch, then breaking right instead of left. Flynn knew more than felt that it hadn’t made it to the other side. The fifth was spared by a hop off the road at the last second, but the sixth was crushed as it came out of the brush, behind the front tire but in front of the rear. The seventh and eighth made it back off-road safely, but the ninth was clipped by a tire. Flynn knew it might not be dead, but he left it to the coyotes. He drove straight ahead, staring at the rising moon cloaked by dark clouds.
The tenth rabbit jumped out a mile before the cutoff ended at 149. It ran ahead of the right tire for a while, then angled toward the middle of the road and continued its harried sprint. Flynn slowed slightly, to keep it just ahead of him. Then, as the rabbit veered off to the right, he accelerated and turned the wheel, running over the rabbit just as it reached the safety of the brush alongside the road. The car thudded over some small bushes before Flynn wrestled it back onto the cutoff. “Fucking rabbits,” he said.
On the stretch of 149 from the cutoff to Lake City, Flynn lost the low moonlight, so he knew that a storm was ahead. He had to be careful now, with only one headlight. He saw deer eyes off to the side. They too were prey. They too slowed his forward progress.
Lake City looked like a winter wonderland, a month too soon. More than a foot of fresh snow had fallen, and Flynn grimly drove through town in the tire tracks of others who had come before him and were now safe inside. Off to the right, he saw the road that led up to the restaurant he had taken Casey to last Valentine’s Day, run by a chef who had studied in France. Casey had ordered the most expensive items on the menu-escargot dumplings, roast lamb, profitteroles-and picked out a hundred-dollar bottle of wine. As the chef came out afterwards to compliment her on her selection, the waiter brought back Flynn’s credit card, shaking his head. By the time they had left, another foot of snow had fallen, but they made it over Slumgullion in Casey’s Forerunner, both of them silent.
Flynn lost the tracks for good at the edge of town and the beginning of the ascent up Slumgullion. With one hand on the stick shift he drove up the switchbacks, dreading what he might see on the other side. The snow was falling in piles all around him. If it got too high, he’d be stuck. He had no money for a motel; he’d have to stay the night in his car again, with the heat on. Already the snow was up close to the front fender.
As he continued to climb toward the summit, Flynn was plunged into darkness. At first, he feared that his one remaining headlight had gone out. But then he realized that the snow was higher than the grill of his car. He was plowing.
In the deep darkness of the mountain, the color of the snow-on the road, up the side of the mountain, in the heavy, bottomless air to his left-had altered. What had been an enchanting white in the glow of the moon was now a ghastly gray.
When he stopped the car to get out, the bottom of his door pushed out into snow. He changed his mind and closed it. He gripped the wheel and nudged the gas pedal forward, plowing ahead, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. This was insane, he knew. He could easily drive right off the cliff. But turning around would be tricky.
Last March, in a storm like this one, he and Casey had gotten stuck in Pagosa Springs, a mountain town southwest of Sanctuary. Four feet of snow had fallen in one day and they were stranded there, the highway closed, for two nights. They had spent the first day sitting in the hot springs and trudging to the bakery in town, the snow still falling. They had spent the second day calling Road Conditions, trying to find out when the highway would re-open, until Casey decided they’d take the southern route through New Mexico, four hours out of their way, to make it home.
He made it up to the summit by continuing to plow his way through the darkness, through the snow, and was relieved to find things a little better up there.As the road leveled offhe saw some light on the snow in front of him, so he got out of his car, felt his feet sink deep into the snow with each high step, and brushed off his headlight. It was only up to the bumper now.
He blasted the heater, directed it onto his wet boots, and continued his drive down the south side ofSlumgullion.The snow was lower still on this side, and it was smoother going than it had been on Cerro. A foot or two of fresh snow with no other vehicles was nothing compared to trucks on ice. The snowpacks on the side acted as a guardrail, and the snow on the road hugged his tires as he made his way down the gradual slopes and broad switchbacks.
Casey would be sitting on the couch about now, watching the Weather Channel. She could do that for hours. Sage would be on the couch with her. She was content to be by herself, so long as someone was coming home.
If I keep going, Flynn thought, past the turn-off to the ranch, I’d be in New Mexico before midnight. And tomorrow it would be warm. From Slumgullion to Spring Creek, the snow was streaked across the road but mostly sparse, the pavement even visible in some spots. But a tremendous wind now shook the car. On Spring Creek Pass the wind could get so strong that on the way home a week earlier it had pushed his car across the icy road, just shoved it sideways and turned it around, facing him back the way he had come.
Just beyond the pass, and several miles south of the Oleo Ranch, the road was relatively clear, but it was snowing sideways- a harsh, icy snow-and 149 was slashed with drifts. Like enormous yardline markers on a narrow football field, they striped the road at first, but then they began to increase in size. Some were a foot high and about ten feet wide, some bigger. Flynn blasted the car through the first three, finding them deeper than he had guessed. He rounded a curve in the road and saw more ahead, wider now, about twenty or thirty feet. He accelerated, counting on the momentum of the car to get him to the other side of each drift. One by one he blasted through, snow bursting out as he did, the car shuddering and sliding. Through the fifth and sixth snowdrifts, he felt the wheels slide sideways as he charged into and out of them.
Down in Santa Fe, or for that matter back in Montrose, it would be about forty-five degrees now and calm. Here, it was howling bad. Flynn cracked open the window and the car rocked with the incoming gale. The wind and snow battered it with a fury.
The seventh snowdrift was ten times wider than the car was long, and Flynn slowed to a halt before it. There were no options. He could try to blast through, or sleep all night here and risk death by snowplow. The curve in the road behind him meant that if a plow came through, it would have little time to see a small vehicle covered in snow. The Sidekick would be a barely discernible bump in all the frenzied whiteness.
Flynn went in reverse for about fifty yards, until he was back against the end of the drift he had just gone through. He shifted into first, then second, and then accelerated into the big snowdrift, hoping to blast through it as he had the others. But midway through, the car shuddered to a halt, the rear wheels spinning. A few attempts at accelerating only drove the wheels further into the ice. The back end of the car skidded sideways, then back, sideways, then back, until Flynn stopped trying.
He put his gloves on, got out and stepped into the drifted snow, the icy wind blasting his face. Needles of pain stabbed his ears. Three high steps brought him to the rear of the car. He chipped off the ice on his tail lights, dug out the snow from around his rear tires, and saw that even if he had remembered to put a shovel in his car, he wouldn’t have much of a chance. The ice under the tires was solid and slick, and the wheels had worn a wide and deep groove. He stepped back to the car and emptied out his overnight bag, took out a couple of shirts, and shoved them under one tire, his dirty canvas jacket under the other. For the next half hour, he tried repeatedly to get himself out of his trap. He ruined his shirts and his coat, and didn’t move an inch.
He had a good half a tank remaining. Before he had left Montrose he had used all the money he could find in his pockets, on the floor of the car, and in the ashtray- nine dollars and sixty-three cents- for gas and food. Sitting in idle, even all night long, would probably use only a quarter tank. He would be all right until another vehicle came. But if one did, it would probably slam right into his car. Flynn tried to calculate how far he would have to walk to get to the Oleo Ranch, but then he remembered that around here, that’s how people lost their toes. The tips of his fingers throbbed under his gloves. He shifted the direction of the heat to the front, took off his gloves, and held his hands to the vents for a few minutes.
Then he pushed his seat all the way back, took off his wet hiking boots, socks, and pants, and put on his jeans, dry socks, and the brown shoes he had worn to teach earlier that day. Then he dropped the heat down to low, directed it onto his feet again, and settled in.
The weather didn’t bother him. What bothered him was that he should have moved to Montrose by now. This kind of weather just woke him up, that’s all. It was teaching him something, a lesson he was slow to learn.
It was only 8 p.m. There wouldn’t be another vehicle, not in this storm. Back in Chicago, the plows hit the road as soon as the snow started. But around here, they waited until the storm was over with before they went to work. Flynn thought of the dangers, and wondered if the drifting snow could clog the exhaust. So he got out of the car again and dug a trench around the exhaust pipe. The wind screamed and whistled, beating his face and numbing his hands through his wet gloves. Then he fought his way back into the car, took off his shoes, and changed his socks. The jeans he had on were the ones he had worn at Silver Jack’s Wednesday night, and they smelled like smoke. He got his black Dr. Martens from the bag and put them on. He stared at the rearview mirror, half dreading, half hoping to see headlights. He knew that within minutes the snow would build up again over his exhaust pipe, but he didn’t know if it could clog like that or if the heat from the exhaust would continually melt it. He leaned over to crack open the passenger window,just in case, then opened his own about an inch as well. The wind rifled into the car, and Flynn felt the vehicle rock. He slouched down in his seat, wrapped a sweatshirt around his neck, and closed his eyes. In the fabric of the sweatshirt he smelled the Gunnison River and the canyon rocks around it.
At 4 a.m., Flynn awakened to stillness. The gas gauge had dropped only an eighth of a tank. The snow was up to his window, but the storm had passed, and it had been more bluster than bite: not much had accumulated, but the wind had blown a great deal of it against the car.
He put on his hiking boots, now dry, scooted across to the passenger side, and stepped out to check the exhaust pipe. He looked up to see if the storm clouds had passed, and saw, to the east, a streak of cosmic dust slicing across the sky. He watched as another, then another bluish-white meteor streaked in unpredictable curves, one slicing off to the south, another to the north, all originating from the same domed area to the east, in the hook of the constellation Leo, one or two every second. Then a pause, then several all at once-some darting, others taking four full seconds to streak and dissipate. Flynn stood and watched for a half hour as hundreds of meteors sailed by. He felt for the first time the movement of the earth, and understood that it was ceaselessly surging forward, plowing its way through space. Any pause, any stasis, would mean instant death.
Before he got back in his car, he pulled his coat past his hands and brushed all the snow off the tail lights, so the plow guy would see them when he came. Then he got in, took off his boots, and put his Dr. Martens back on.
When he first settled in, after he knew he was stuck, Flynn stared at the mirror, dozed off a bit, and thought. After the storm had abated, and after the meteor shower, he slept peacefully for a few hours, the heater on low, the windows closed.
He had been living in Colorado for almost two years. That feeling he used to get, when he would fly on weekends to visit Casey, was with him all the time now. He had thought it was in her, but it wasn’t; it was in the land. Back then, he had needed something she had. Now he had it.
By the time another vehicle came by, it was light out, 8: 17 a.m. It was the same man he had seen going the other direction Tuesday morning. He was a carpenter named Ron, headed to South Fork to pick up some lumber. He had a four-wheel-drive pick-up and a tow chain. “How was that deer?” Flynn asked.
“Nice and tender,” the man said. Flynn saw him glance down at his black shoes.
Tied to the end of the chain, Flynn was pulled out of the snowdrift, and then, following Ron, blasted through nine or ten more. Sitting in his car behind the stronger truck, Flynn sometimes accelerated, sometimes allowed Ron to pull him through the drifts.
When the snowdrifts ended and the road cleared, close to the Rio Grande Reservoir, Ron stopped his truck, came back, and released him. Flynn felt that something had happened. He got out and took a deep breath of the crisp air.
He thanked Ron and watched him throw the chain into his truck and drive away with a wave. It was a bright day.
Off to the side, he saw a herd of elk staring at him, waiting to see what he would do.