Here's a typical Wyoming story: One night last week, I was heading down a lonely highway, driving the 100 miles from town to home. I had seen the dentist, bought cement so that we could repair our cattle-working pens, gone to the grocery store and checked on a friend who had just moved from her summer cabin back to town for the winter. My dad, 88, was with me, as well as my 3-year-old grandson.
Dark comes early now that the fall equinox has long since swung by, and we are well on our way to winter solstice, even without daylight-saving time's early nightfall. The guys were both sleeping, and I was tired of listening to another debate over health care on satellite radio.
Only a year ago, this stretch of road was abuzz with traffic scurrying around the oil fields that patchwork the surrounding countryside. Now, the boom times have busted, and few vehicles passed by. I was driving a three-quarter ton, four-wheel-drive pickup, its folding sheep rack sandwiched up against the cab, and the resulting flatbed loaded down with bags of Sakrete and boxed groceries. Paper bags full of bread rode in the back seat next to my grandson, so they wouldn't blow out the back in the bitter wind.
The two-lane road was mostly all mine and looked much the same as it always has for most of my life -- a blacktop stretch crossed by more deer than fellow travelers. A half-moon threw feeble light through gathering clouds, and a snowstorm is predicted for tomorrow. Tonight, though, the road was dry and clear. The rare oncoming car flashed its brights at me since the heavy load tipped my lights upward.
With things calm, I punched my cousin's number into the cell phone and started visiting about friends and family. Our other cousin had just had a triple bypass operation that nearly killed her. We'd followed her progress on Facebook, where the ill cousin's daughter-in-law reported that she was on the mend -- as evidenced by her giving the finger to irritating visitors. That's when I noticed the dreaded red and white lights flashing in my rear view mirror.
"Oops, I'm being stopped," I reported. "Could it be the cell phone?"
After pulling over, I rolled down the window and saw a young man about my son's age. My dad startled awake, having gone from a snooze to flashing lights and a strange face peering in the driver's side.
"Your tail light is out," the patrolman reported.
"Gosh, I didn't know," I said, truthfully.
"Your license plate is unreadable, due to mud," he added.
That didn't surprise me since I had moved sheep camps up muddy roads the previous two days. I figured the mud would fall off before spring.
"And, you don't have license plate lights." Also not a surprise. Finally, some good news: "But you weren't speeding."
He seemed cheerful enough, so I didn't think I was in for a ticket, even though the insurance card was last year's and it took a thorough search to come up with a registration. I mentioned that my son-in-law was a deputy sheriff in the county, and that I tease him this only doubles my fines. No comment from the officer, who left bearing my driver's license.
We sat there next to the Oregon Trail, where so many had passed through only a moment in time before. I could almost draw aside a curtain and see those souls, westering. My great-grandparents came by wagon from Missouri, but stopped before they hit the Oregon Trail.
He came back. "So how is the elk hunting?" he asked. My dad brightened.
"Pretty good, this year," dad told him.
"My wife drew a tag in the north part of the county," he told us. "But I know the hunting is supposed to be good by Battle Mountain." We allowed as how most of the elk hunters seemed to be having luck. My dad went on to ask about his family, where he lived and where he was stationed.
When I learned that he was based in a town we frequent on our way to and from our winter sheep country in the Red Desert, I said, "I'd better get that light fixed because we'll be going through there a lot starting next month." With that, he wished us well, and I told him that it was nice to meet him.
We headed back out into the blackness of the desert night, 55 miles still ahead of us.
Sharon O'Toole is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She ranches and writes in Savery, Wyoming.