Andersen: Wild horses dragged me to Wyoming
October 15, 2013
Two black stallions appeared out of nowhere. They seemed to rise up out of the sage flats like spectral visions. They raced ahead of us, tails and manes flying, and then joined a herd of 20 wild horses.
Something else caught my attention on the other side of the muddy road I was trying to negotiate. I swung my eyes left and saw a surging river of dark reddish brown churning up a hillside as one. A herd of elk was the last thing I expected in this high, desolate place.
This was two weeks ago when my wife and I were driving a back road through the Red Desert of Wyoming. We were headed for Yellowstone to see the sights — a futile effort given that the park soon closed.
We encountered the stallions 50 miles from the nearest pavement at Wamsutter in a place where few people other than oil and gas workers go. Etched in our minds is the picture of those noble steeds dashing across the high desert.
The elk herd and the horses disappeared over the low, sere hills, followed by a gusting wind. This eternal Wyoming gale nearly pushed us over during our earlier stop at a warm spring, a pond rimmed by tall grasses and fed by a well pipe that gushed 80-degree water.
It was sobering to realize that we were in the deep outback of Wyoming on a road where no one drives, especially when it's wet. Crossing a low point in a swale of sage, the car hit a soft patch and spun sideways. I wrestled the steering wheel, but the mud pulled the Subaru into a greasy ditch.
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I spun the wheel, hit the gas and somehow got us out of the ditch and up onto the side of the road in the sage. I kept the momentum up until I could swing the car back onto a dry section of road. Phew! A close escape from a rookie mistake.
My heart was racing, and my wife was gripped. If we had gotten stuck ,it might have been days before anyone came by if at all. Such was the gamble when we turned off the highway for a scenic drive to Oregon Buttes.
This is the kind of ill-fated decision that makes for adventures — and news stories. We were on an improbable adventure of the lamest kind given that Yellowstone was about to close and we were off in the boonies, relying on a Gazetteer and my driving skills.
With the car safely back on the road, we gazed ahead at the inconspicuous ridge of the Continental Divide, where a thin crest of snow marked the top. Greasy when wet, this road was only going to get worse, so I carefully turned the car around and made tracks back toward pavement. We got past the several dicey spots and breathed sighs of relief when blacktop was again under our wheels.
As we retreated from our backcountry route, we passed a pronghorn buck that sprung to its feet and ran alongside us. We watched the animal gain easily on us at 30 mph, so I pushed it 35, then 40, then 45. The antelope bore down bodily — head forward, shoulders hunched, legs churning with incredible power.
Evolutionary biologists speculate that cheetahs once lived in North America, not because of skeletal or fossil evidence but because of the antelope. There is no predator on this continent that can even hope to outrun an antelope. Somewhere along the line, scientists say, a cheetah-like cat must have hunted the high plains and pushed the speed limit on its fleet-hooved prey.
With Yellowstone closed, we dawdled in the hot springs at Thermopolis, visited historic sites along the Pony Express route and stayed at the Irma Hotel in Cody, where we were riveted by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and the Museum of Western Art.
We didn't get to see Yellowstone, but we saw another face of the West that will draw us back again and again.
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