Highway 14 Revisited

The weather can descend fast in Wyoming, especially as it did on that day near the Big Horns, past Shell Canyon along Highway 14, a stretch mostly populated by soulful, lonely ponies and otherwise empty fields. On that day, the sky was split in two; one half to the east a light grey, and to the west a thick pewter that sank onto the horizon and trawled through the valley, scooping everything into its windy influence. For me it was day 37 of a bike trip across the United States, which meant it was day 37 of being tired, lonesome, and simply beaten by headwinds on a raw day of an unusually cold and sloppy summer.

This being the West, it was the only house for a long way. It just didn’t seem like a place where you could park up on the porch without at least announcing yourself. The wind surged from meddlesome to menacing and flipped the feed shelter in the corral on its face. It beat on the windows and must have silenced my knocking, so it was many minutes before the door was flung open by a short man in a duck-green button-down shirt and unbelted pants. He didn’t offer a pleasant greeting; I had woken him from a nap. He was a greyed redhead with pale eyes hazed to an allergic pink—he’d spent the afternoon clearing rabbit brush. When I told him I was biking cross-country, and just need to sit out the wind, he told me I was crazy. Just crazy to be on the road with so many idiots. He glared. It was a moment, like so many travel moments—when the taxi driver detours down a deserted street, when skulkers linger around your campsite as you’re about to leave, when the bus is stopped at by a rag-tag checkpoint— when all good options close and you simply have to take the situation as it is. In those scenarios you didn’t want to encounter, you just search for possibility.

In the middle of a new harangue, he cursed. He saw the upturned shelter, and dragged me to it, which brought us to his stables, a soothing, alee eddy in the chaos around us. We stood there for an hour, me in spandex and a bike helmet, still cold, with three horses guarding us in the corner like solemn watchdogs. We rubbed their necks, they nuzzled our chests. We talked, which is to say I mostly listened. Two lonely people, in the wide-openness of the West, generations apart, remarking on homes far away, the beauty of a horse, of companions.

The conversation lasted past midnight. It ranged through a meticulously-chopped salad and couscous dinner. We discussed books, his old lovers, new beginnings, ranching, and love for the mountains. He was an extensive reader, an expert horseman and gunsmith. He lived alone. All over his house were pistols and rifles in every stage of assembly. Upon entering the doorway I was given a stern notice that a man never touches another man’s dogs, women, or guns.

He never told me his name. He never asked for mine. I snooped a magazine address to learn he was called David. For breakfast we drank his special tea, a cowboy’s Constant Comment of earl grey mixed with o.j. and cardamom seeds. Toast for the road, another long talk, and then I had to be off. At the gate he told me again that I was nuts. This time I wasn’t convinced it was he that was the crazy one. “I don’t know if this was good thing, or in the end a very bad thing for me,” he said. “But I’m glad you came to my door.”

S Clark

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