Spring comes grudgingly to Wyoming’s high desert

 

People like me who live in this corner of southwest Wyoming joke that we have two seasons: winter and the fourth of July.

To be fair, this high desert valley enjoys a short fall with golden cottonwoods and lingering warmth. We even have spring, although it’s a neurotic season when a few warm days may be interrupted by a snowstorm or tree-toppling wind. After an interminable winter, the yearning for spring makes you alert to changes, little assurances coming one day at a time.

On March 21, the temperature reaches 40 degrees in the afternoon. It’s a notable improvement over the twenties and thirties of previous weeks, even if an icy breeze slices across the fields. I hear the familiar throaty warble of sandhill cranes and look up to see three flapping purposefully overhead. They left last October after circling higher and higher until they disappeared into the bright autumn sky.

Today, snowdrifts are melting into muddy puddles in the ditches. From out in the sagebrush, the unmistakable faint melody of springs advance guard, the meadowlark, gives me reason to hope that spring in high desert country has begun.

The next day, I hear a raucous blackbird cacophony outside. The day invites a search for other signs of spring, that is, if you dress warmly. The stoic Wind River Range that stretches picturesquely across my line of vision maintains its wintry facade, but nine geese in formation flap their way above me, returning from who-knows-where.

Stuck to a tree limb like a giant black caterpillar, a hungry porcupine munches bark. I keep listening for the meadowlark I heard yesterday, but the sound of the wind rushing by my ears drowns out its melodious voice. It isn’t until I return to my own yard that I find the welcoming bird singing on a fence post.

By March 28, hope for spring is fading. A blustery wind discourages me from taking a walk. I want to stay close to a warm fire, but other creatures are braver. I look out the window to see the first robin perched on a stump, looking from side to side as if scouting possible locations for this years nest.

A red fox skirts our fence alert for the appearance of something edible, possibly my cat. Is it my imagination or is the sagebrush greening up a little? An ice jam has backed up the water of the Little Sandy River. Where ice was solid, now brown water rushes, and flying over it is a great blue heron back from a winter vacation.

On April 1, the wind is blowing ferociously again, causing cottonwoods to wave crazily against a deceptively spring-like sky. From inside, it sounds like squadron after squadron of jet planes flying low overhead, a continuous roar. I bundle up, determined to get out of the house, but find walking requires forcing my legs to push through the wind as if swimming through air. Tumbleweeds, blown against the west side of barbed wire fences, fill the space between strands, making a wall. Above me a dozen sandhill cranes flying into the wind hang almost motionless although their strong wings beat with determination.

Finally, on April 5, the day I’ve been waiting for arrives. I wake to a chorus of birdsong: robins’ calls, meadowlarks’ melodies, and sparrows’ chattering. Non-threatening clouds idle across a turquoise sky. Best of all, the wind is calm. By noon I am opening windows, abandoning my inside chores. Instead of vacuuming the carpet, I rake the yard. Then I find a dusty lawn chair and sit in the sun and watch horses grazing on emerging blades of grass. The pasture is changing from tan to green before my very eyes. A few chartreuse tulip leaves peek out of the flowerbed, although it will be weeks before they bloom. As if to make amends for its recent bad behavior, a modest breeze from the southwest lifts my hair and softly touches my face.

Only the distant white-blanketed mountains remind me that those comforting cumulus clouds could shape-shift into snow boats and signal a lurking blizzard. Although I expect more heartless wind and freezing nights, I think winter’s tight grip has been loosened. Summer lies ahead.

But the thing about high desert weather is that you can never be sure.

Marcia Hensley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Wyoming’s Eden Valley.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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