It?s what?s for dinner. And breakfast and all day long. Wind.
It?s not only blowing the stars around and making the mountains sound like someone?s up there dying.
It?s also moving snow into every crevice, filling last week?s footprints so I occasionally fall forward as a foot plummets from the icy surface into my own trace, left carelessly last week as I stared at the vacancy of this barren spacious land — as I do again today.
The ridges have been cleaned. Yesterday?s thaw turned into ice so I slide now and even where I haven?t walked before sometimes I crunch through, bringing on that sense of walking on a pond.
Once I fell through a small reservoir in Woods Gulch north of Missoula, ruining the sheepskin boots that belonged to my best friend?s mother and of course soaking myself in more-than-frigid water. I think I was 12.
My friend thought it was hilarious, which hurt me worse. But it also told me I was going to be okay. But that sense of going down when you hear that crack, it never leaves you.
Today I knew I was safe, I?ve walked these barren rolling-so-gently-you have to lie down to see it hills enough in my month here to know. But still. That cracking sound froze me, sent my arms shooting out?instinctively.
Just leeward of the ridges the snow deposits begin. I find that by walking along this soft edge of wind-cleansed ice just inside the new smooth deposit I can secure traction but not go too deep.
Soon I am avoiding my tracks along the northernmost fence line, noting an irregularity I could swear was not there last week.
The depth of the snow is measured in wires. The four-strand barbed wire fence shows three wires here?not too deep. But suddenly, a top strand dips in a sharp angle down into the snow.
I?d seen an elk along here last fall but surely an elk would take down the whole fence. I look for a clue and as if I?d imagined it, the tiny toes of a deer poke up from beneath the frozen smooth pond of wind-leveled whiteness. Just one little cloven hoof. The ankle must be caught and whatever remnant of the deer the coyotes and vultures and sundry cats have?not already predated ? must be there, beneath the surface.
I march on.
The badger hole, the rabbit tracks, the mysterious drunken beaver or pouting porcupine?all the tracks from last week have been erased, filled in by blowing snow.
But less than a quarter mile away, standing up to shake and tease the wind, I spot a tuft of deer-colored fur. Then, stomping closer, hip bones and ribs, red still with meat and frozen blood.
I dig my heels in to cross the icy ridges ? and pause?when I arrive at my last fence.
Should I climb it? Should I duck between the top and third wires? Will I sink in when I land on the other side if I stretch over it??What part of me would the coyotes eat first? I have been through four fences every day I walk. But suddenly, I see fences differently.