Last weekend my husband and I drove 300 miles, round-trip, to watch two of our young granddaughters compete in a giant slalom event at the nearest ski area.
It was a typical trip. We arose at 5:30 a.m. in order to arrive in time to watch the girls carve down the intimidating run in 49 seconds each, give or take a hundredth of a second or so. It was over in the blink of an eye.
As we headed home to feed the mules before dark, glissading through drifting snow on the narrow highway, I pondered the dedication of hundreds of parents and grandparents who follow their youngsters from event to event across the state.
What leads these normally sane people to risk life and limb on treacherous roads? The answer: in the Rocky Mountain West, high school sports are the elixir that makes the long, dark winter bearable in small towns scattered across vast spaces.
First come football and girls' volleyball; then, as temperatures drop and the wind chill plummets to sub-zero, basketball (for both sexes) and wrestling give the cheering crowds a chance to thaw out their hands and feet in sweaty gymnasiums. The hard benches might cause another part of the anatomy to solidify, but that's a small price to pay for the excitement of watching the epic battles on the court or the mats. Each spectator willingly donates toward the payment of the heat and light bills. It's incredibly cheap entertainment, at least if you ignore the fuel it takes to travel to an "away" game.
Communities large enough to boast a high school are few and far between here, so athletes spend many hours on buses in the rare good weather and the much more frequent bad weather. Our local team, the Roundup Panthers, makes trips each winter to Forsyth (102 miles away), Harlowton (68 miles), Harlem (158 miles), Red Lodge (111 miles), Hardin (96 miles), Big Timber (113 miles), and Plentywood, a whopping 329 miles away, to name just a few.
The kids leave in the afternoon in steamy-windowed, drafty buses guided by intrepid drivers who hold the lives of their young passengers in their hands. Accidents are rare and usually benign, involving maybe a slide-off into a ditch in a blizzard. Parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends trail along later, even if the forecast is "near white-out conditions due to blowing and drifting snow; travel not recommended."
At game's end, the crowd pours out of the gymnasium. Breath freezes in midair, scrapers chisel ice from windshields, snow squeaks underfoot, engines reluctantly cough to life, and the exodus begins. Home may be more than four hours away through darkness broken only by an occasional ranch yard light.
We've learned to travel prepared for emergencies. We carry blankets, thermoses full of coffee, high-energy snacks, shovels for digging our way out of drifts, Sorel boots, mufflers, hats, down coats, and anything else we can think of that might help us survive a catastrophe. The gas tank is topped off to the brim at every gas station along the way. Each driver learns how to keep a vehicle between the mostly invisible fog lines on roads that are elusive during a sideways Alberta Clipper snowstorm. It's a matter of feeling your way along. If your pickup truck begins bucking like a bronco, you may very well have wandered off the road into a wheat field. Somehow we almost always arrive intact, and the adrenaline gradually subsides as we join the community of kids and their supporters.
Once in awhile, a stay-at-home parent's worst nightmare becomes a reality. Not long ago, district championship games for both boys and girls' basketball were being played around the state. A carload of boys' basketball players from Superior was heading home on icy roads after rooting for the girls team in Hamilton, 103 miles away. The driver of an oncoming pickup truck lost control of her vehicle, crashed into the boys' SUV, and after the bumper-car melee ended, ambulances shuttled everyone involved to the nearest hospital. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries, but no doubt the parents suffered more than a few hours' anxiety after receiving phone calls from the highway patrol.
Our teams played their championship games in Red Lodge. Had they won there, the boys would have headed for Laurel, a mere 50 miles away, and the girls for Manhattan, a much longer 196 miles off. Snow and falling temperatures were forecast for the next seven days, with wind chills estimated in the minus-25 degree range. No problem; we'd have gone, no matter what. But sometimes, I confess, we are tempted to cheer for our opponents and an early end to the season.
Wendy Beye is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Roundup, Montana.