HITCH 6: Pinedale, Wyoming (weeks 7 and 8)
As way of summary and story, I present "A Day in the Life" for this particular hitch. Enjoy!
One of three things usually wakes me up. The first is my watch ($10 digital wristwatch from Wal-Mart) alarm, beeping gently. It’s a noise that often integrates seamlessly into my mind-bending high-altitude dreams for quite a while before it wakes me. The second (and most frequent) anti-soporific is the need to relieve myself. It’s a sudden awakening that sinks the heart and pours it directly into an already engorged bladder with an urgency that is impossible to ignore. After desperately squeezing my eyes shut to try and convince my body that it can wait another half hour, I’m forced to face the third and least pleasant thing that rouses me from my precious sleep: the cold.
I don’t want to overstate this, but like the heat that plagued me this summer, it’s hard to convey how much the weather affects you when your world exists entirely apart from climate controlled environments. Pinedale, Wyoming is situated immediately next to Big Piney, which is (according to their city signs) “the nation’s icebox,” and I believe it. Now, I’m a Midwestern kid, so I’m used to winter and snow. It’s in my blood. But as soon as the sun sets (usually around 7 o’clock these days), it sucks the heat out of the valley like a great galactic hoover. The enormous sky, with its soaring, mercurial clouds, offers no insulation from the darkness of space. If the cloud cover in Seattle wraps you like an oyster wraps a pearl, then the Midwest sky at least gives you the comfort of flannel sheets in autumn. Not suffocating, but close enough to be an ally. The Wyoming night sky is unlike either of these. Looking at it is like trying to make eye contact with someone immediately after a rush of blood to the head (I often stand up too quickly). There’s a fleeting feeling of distance, incredible distance. The practical effect of this distance, this cloudlessness, is that the sky is a portal to a vast, ancient cold. Temperature-wise, I’m sure that it isn’t anything record-breaking. But it’s the contrast that makes it feel so unfair. And this injustice is felt the most keenly at 5:00 in the morning. The sunrise is still 2 hours away, and the stars have had 10 hours already to search out and repossess any warmth they’ve been able to find.
I’ve only had a couple of nights during which I’ve woken up because of the cold, but they leave an impression. To wake up shivering, without the energy or ability to either warm yourself or fall back asleep is harrowing. I never truly feared for my health or safety, but to be within spitting distance of it was eye-opening. Not everyone is so lucky out there.
One other aspect of my morning I want to briefly touch on: the groover. This is a contraption fashioned out of old metal ammunition canisters that we use when we need to “leave no trace.” It’s a device that collects fecal matter. I’ll leave a photo, and you can use your imagination to figure out why we call it a “groover.”
After the Herculean trial of my morning ritual (see paragraphs above), I’m ready to start the work day. We meet in the dark next to our truck to stretch and discuss the day ahead of us. On our previous projects, we were lucky enough to be camped 30-60 minutes away from the work site, giving us a nice morning drive to wake up and warm up in the car. This project, we’re about 10 minutes away. So before 7:30, I’m holding a post-hole digger, trying to dig a 2.5 foot hole in the frozen ground.
We’re putting up a fence, about 2,300 feet long. The fence is made up of 8-12 inch wide wooden posts that we need to bury 2.5 feet into the ground. Then we’ll chainsaw the posts level, run 12.5 foot timber rails along the top, and string the remaining space with barbed wire. I’ll spare you the ugly details, but trying to build a fence like this from scratch is no easy task. Just keeping the posts in line over hilly and rocky terrain is an exercise in frustration.
On good mornings, we’ll see a moose or two on our way to the site.
Our first break of the day (we get two 15 minute breaks, per OSHA regulations). The first 3.5 hours are definitely the longest hours of the day. Between the cold, the dark, and the aching joints, the minutes go by as slowly as we do. It’s around this time that the sun has fully emerged from behind the hills, and the blood rushing back into my extremities signal that it’s time to strip layers. Off comes the under armor, the sweatshirt, the face mask, and the liner gloves. We all cram calories into ourselves and try to enjoy the 15 minutes before going back to digging.
Lunch time! I remove my boots and let my poor feet breathe. It’s the only chance they get to feel air, and it feels amazing. I eat my tuna wrap and carrots, and shoo away the flies. They eat cow poop, and I don’t feel inclined to share my meal with them.
It's hot enough now to seek out and enjoy shade. Any remaining layers of warmth have been removed, and shirt cuffs make the transition from wrists to elbows.
By now, a rhythm has developed, and it almost seems like a shame to take a break. But sitting down and shoving a granola bar into your mouth is like the first breath you take after sucking on a strong mint. It gives you a jolt, and makes you glad that you did it. The rest of the afternoon flies by.
Time to maintain our tools. Cleaning, sharpening, oiling, it takes about a half hour to get everything looking brand new again. Sometimes longer if we milk it. By now, we’re all a little loopy. This is when we begin to wax philosophical, and ask questions like "how would you describe sleep to an alien?" The collective blood sugar is low, along with problem-solving aptitude.
We roll back into camp around this time. There isn’t much sunlight left, so I usually take this opportunity to let my feet breathe and change into my sleeping clothes. If I’m feeling particularly sweaty, I’ll use a couple of baby wipes to clean up.
Eventually, it’s time to make dinner. A can of soup, some beans, and a bag of frozen veggies does the trick for me, along with a sprinkle of onions and about a half cup of hot sauce. Heat up some water for dishes, and try to get in bed before the sun sets completely. This isn’t always successful, but it’s nice to crawl into the sleeping bag before you start shivering.
This leaves a wonderful period of 60-90 minutes of uninterrupted reading time. With no phone and no computer to distract, I’ve been able to get through a stack of excellent books over the season. Very satisfying.
Aside from 2-3 nighttime excursions to relieve myself (which is more than usual – not sure what causes that), the nights are peaceful, if cold.
In a nutshell, that’s “a day in the life” for me. Go back to the top and re-read it 8 times, and that's a full hitch. After this, we have only one project left, and it’ll be another 8 days in the same place. I sure hope it doesn’t get any colder, not only for my own sake, but also because I’m going to have a hard time topping the litany of complaints that I wrote above… (note: this prophetic sentence was written in earnestness before we left for our last hitch (described below) - I decided to leave it in as a lesson to myself)
HITCH 7: Pinedale, Wyoming (weeks 9 and 10)
Ready for a surprise? It got colder. How much colder? Let me just show you a photo of our beloved groover. I took this photo the first morning back in Pinedale:
To be honest, it didn’t feel as terrible or as unjust as the previous hitch. Over the break, I geared myself up for winter, which included buying a set of thick woolen long johns. Expensive, but they were a lifesaver. My armor against the nighttime cold was as follows: wool long underwear (top and bottom), sweat pants, two sweatshirts, face mask, hat, two pairs of wool socks, sleeping bag liner, sleeping bag (with hot water bottle stuffed into base), and a big blue polar fleece blanket. As long as I kept my sleeping bag cinched up tight around my head, off-setting the mouth hole for the liner and the bag, so my lips weren’t exposed to the air, I was mostly warm enough. Extracting myself from this caddisfly larva-like cocoon was a time-consuming and static-electricity-filled affair, so I tried to do it as little as possible.
Another thing that has a big effect on our work is the setting of the sun. During the last hitch, we had a solid hour or so of daylight after returning to camp. This time around, our homecomings were heralded by the dying glare of a tired sun. The luxury of changing clothes and washing up before dinner was quickly discarded, and we all would fire up the stove as soon as we pulled into camp. As soon as dinner was heated and consumed, it was bedtime. Rarely was I still outside after 7:30. About halfway through the hitch, we stopped heating up water to do dishes after dinner. It was just too cold to be outside.
One night, the wind was so violent that we could hardly even hear each other. The stove had to be shielded from the gusts just to stay lit, and once the food was hot, each of us retreated to our own tents to eat. By the time I had walked my dinner from the stove to my tent (about 30 feet), my boiling pot of stew and veggies was barely warm.
Mornings were a special kind of torture. The sun doesn’t begin to show until close to 8 o’clock, so all activities prior to that are performed in the oppressive dark. I appreciated the presence of snow. It brightened the world, and provided a kind of justification for the temperature. If there’s snow, it’s supposed to be cold, at least in my mind. Of course, it made our worksite wet, muddy, slippery, and dangerous, but hey – it was pretty.
Wildlife was abounding this hitch. One morning, we spied two moose that we had seen before: a cow and her calf. About 50 feet behind them was a bull moose, following them and keeping a weather eye on the surroundings. When our throaty truck crested the hill above them, they calmly regarded us before crossing the road, no more than 30 feet from our vehicle. Another moose watched, nonplussed, from an adjacent slope.
Walking back for lunch, we startled a group of mule deer that were investigating our work site. I counted 11 deer that leapt through the willows after the split-second standoff that our sudden appearance caused. I also scared up an indignant spruce grouse that was taking a nap near my preferred “toilet tree.”
Last but not least: I saw my first wild badger! After living in the Badger State for almost 8 years, I finally saw a living specimen in its natural habitat. They are big, beautiful creatures – quite striking.This particular fellow was content to amble about our half-finished fence, sniffing the posts and sitting in an abandoned hole. After a few minutes, he wandered into the sage, and we never saw him again.
As much as I've enjoyed this experience, I can't describe how excited I was to drive away from this last hitch, and curl up in the back of my van. As I write this, I'm officially unemployed again. I have a lot of things that I have to get done, but I'm going to take a few days to warm up first.