After three days of whiteout and steady snowfall, we woke up this morning to a crystalline vista beneath blue skies–just as the forecast promised.
The snow crunched and glistened as I tramped my way out to the car, parked at the far end of the driveway near the highway, like so many others.
In town, people were all smiles, freed again to buy groceries and pick up the mail. We traded stories about being snowbound. Wives grumbled about men too slow to clear the driveway. All the talk was of snow: snowshoes, snowplows, snowbanks, snowdrifts.
The old-timers say they haven’t seen a snowstorm like this in 30 or 40 years.
Last night at bedtime I gazed out the window, mesmerized at the brilliant, bleached-out scene beneath the full moon. Watching the clouds clear away above the white slope rising beyond the valley, I began to think of O.M. Clark, buried somewhere right out there.
The first settler in this area, O.M. Clark staked his homestead claim in that very creekbed, sometime in the 1870s.
To the old homesteaders like Clark, this was just the way it was in winter. They had no weather apps to warn them of what was coming, either.
O.M. met his end during just such a long winter storm in 1910, as Esther Mockler recounts in her oral history Recollections of the Upper Wind River Valley.
Sometime in the winter of 1910, after a snowstorm had lasted for two days, neighbors noticed that no smoke was rising from O.M.’s cabin in the valley. Someone saddled up and rode over, to find Clark dead in the cabin, and frozen solid.
O.M. had been feeling poorly for some time, and every time he went to Lander he had been stocking up on whiskey for his own wake. Notified of his death, five neighbor men came out to the cabin, shaved and dressed his body, placed it on a plank in a storage shed, and brought wood back to the cabin to build his coffin.
Intent on honoring his dying wish, the men also retrieved the whiskey from the cave where O.M. had stored it.
That night they built a coffin, played poker, and drank O.M.’s whiskey. The next morning, they trudged uphill to the spot O.M. had chosen for his grave. The ground, of course, was frozen.
They hacked away all day, taking breaks for more whiskey. By the time they had finished, it was too late to bury the body.
The next day, when they tried to drag the coffin uphill through the deep snow on a sled, it kept sliding off and heading back downhill. Eventually they gave up and returned it to the shed.
By the third day, the whiskey had run out, the men were sober, and O.M. Clark was finally laid to rest.
For the families of laborers who cut railroad ties in these mountains in the first half of the last century, snow was an important fact of life. They lived and worked in it all winter, and sent the ties downhill in its runoff in the spring.
Meanwhile, they might have to dig their way out of the cabin each morning to get to work and school. (This shows what remained of one tie-hack cabin last summer.)
In December 1937, the Riverton Review reported that all of the remote tie hack communities above Dubois were snowed in. “From now until spring, the residents will have no way of leaving their homes other than by skis or using horse-drawn sleds. There is considerable rueful dismay because the snow came so unusually early this year.”
The skis were no gleaming, curved fiberglass runners, by the way. They were slats of sanded wood, sometimes lined with animal fur to make it easier to get back uphill.
One of my favorite winter stories, also from the Mockler oral history, features our local outlaw and rancher, Butch Cassidy. It also involves one of the original loggers, a local homesteader named Hank Boedeker, who lived alone at the time in a small cabin remote in the mountains near Dubois.
At work one day in the middle of a very cold winter, Boedeker was trapped under a rolling log and injured so badly he couldn’t mount his horse. Cassidy came along the trail and helped him back to his cabin, Boedeker said. Cassidy stocked the cabin with food and firewood, cooked the meals, and stayed until Boedeker was well enough to work again.
In 1894, Boedeker was one of the guards who accompanied Cassidy to prison in Laramie, where he served a term for stealing three horses. When they reached the prison after a long and difficult trip, Cassidy was sent in alone to report to the warden.
“That’s a hell of a way to deliver a prisoner!” the warden said.
“I just wanted to prove to you that there is honor among thieves,” Boedeker replied.
© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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