For some reason Medicine Bow, Wyoming calls to me. In the late 1800’s Medicine Bow was a mildly prosperous stop along the transcontinental Railway due to its proximity to water provided by the Medicine Bow River. Later – it was a vibrant stock and cattle holding operation and a stop for auto travelers along the old Lincoln Highway. In the early 70’s Medicine Bow was effectively cut off when Interstate 80 was built 35 miles to the south. Medicine Bow is one of the windiest places in America, a fact I can attest to from my visits. Often times when opening the car door, the wind catches and violently cranks it against the hinges causing the car to lurch.
My first intentional trip to Medicine Bow was several years ago as I determined to follow 287 north as far as I practically could. Outside of Laramie there’s not much topographic relief as one travels along the bottom of the enormous Laramie River Valley, ringed with high, wild peaks in the distance. The car drifts sideways in ever present wind as you unconsciously pull to the left while heading straight North. All but empty enclaves like Bosler, Rock River and Como Bluffs distantly dot the highway – a mirage providing the hope of relief that vanish as you approach, then roll through with no visible sign of activity. For a large portion of the drive the highway parallels the railroad and trains pass in either direction, the smile of their headlights providing brief companionship. Beyond the tracks, hidden from site by the risen berm lies the Laramie River, winding its way down from Wheatland Reservoir, 30 miles to the north east.
Upon arriving in Medicine Bow I was struck by its sparse, barren landscape, wind, and intense, western afternoon light. Long, coal and cattle-laden freight trains regularly tear through the town’s center at full speed as I prowl around the tracks. Sometimes when visiting a new place surrounded by such emptiness there’s a mild reservation about leaving the imagined security of whatever semblance of civilization there is – and striking out alone into the void. With minimal maps and no real idea what lay ‘out there’ I check the fuel gauge and tires, listen to the car carefully for any indication of malfunction, make sure a little food and water are close at hand.
It’s the very definition of solitary.
On this most recent trip the emptiness is tempered by the presence of our one year old chocolate lab Tecla. The sun begins to sink and I start the car. Four mule deer amble across the dirt road in front of me. Tecla erupts in the back seat, bouncing back and forth from passenger to driver side angrily barking at the cautious, large, four-legged invaders. Though the windows are up they glance briefly at the car, assess the threat, then pick up the pace as the rail road crossing sounds yet again. I drop the car into drive and head into the late, windy afternoon.
Coming home that night, topping the snowy pass separating Wyoming from Colorado the headlights catch a large, still shape sprawled across the road. It’s a deer. She’s been hit and killed and lay still, alone in the night. I stop. At the top of the cold, foggy pass. Visibility is low and I sit for a moment in the dark car deliberating. Another car speeding up the thill will surely create problems for everyone. Tecla wakes up in the front seat and looks at me as I open the door and step into the night.
I grab the doe by the front legs and drag her across the road. She’s heavier than anticipated. ‘I’m so sorry, sweetheart’ I say as her head arcs back against the friction of blacktop tries to prevent us from our task. The hair on her legs above her hooves is wet and my bare hands slip, then grab tighter. Leather gloves are somewhere in the car but I couldn’t risk the time to find them. A trail of blood points to where she lay, and a large, round organ the size of a beach ball sits in the road like a rock cairn on a hiking trail.
When I climb back in the car Tecla is awake and smells the dead animals’ scent on my hands. She aggressively sniffs and licks as one arm shoes her away, while the other searches the console for something to clean up with. There’s nothing. I drive 20 minutes down the pass and stop at Ted’s Place for a $2 bottle of hand sanitizer, then wipe down the steering wheel. This is life in Colorado and Wyoming, I think to myself. I know I can’t share the event with my wife. I don’t know where to put the pain and tragedy of such a beautiful animal killed so violently and innocently.
“How was your trip,” she’ll say the next morning over coffee. “Good,” I say. “Really good.” And leave it at that.