The good people of Buffalo, Wyoming

Not twenty-four hours into our trip, and already we have been thrust into trust.

This morning we left our naked apartment and headed east. Montana put on a beautiful show for us: the Sapphires, the Pintlers, the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Bridger Bowl, the Tobacco Root Mountains, and other brilliant ranges for which I have no names. We pulled into Sheridan, Wyoming and thought we’d try to make it just a bit farther. It was only six pm, already dark, but what else were we going to do? Sit in our packed-full pop-up camper in the Wal-Mart parking lot for four hours? So we pushed on, south.

Twenty miles out of Sheridan, the blowing snow gave way to reveal a carnival of flashing lights ahead on the highway. Closer, and we could see a shining orange panel. It was flame, emanating from a semi rig along with giant clouds of inky smoke. The road was blocked by another semi, and we stopped behind it, followed by three or four deliveries of firemen and other emergency-related personnel. Later we learned that no one was injured, though the cab was a charred hull when we at last passed it by. The road had become slick with ice, and the snow blew labyrinths over the straight white lines of the highway, and we were decidedly done testing our luck for the night. But where to? The nearest Wal-Mart was behind us, and the highway had been closed. The next one was a hundred twenty miles of questionable weather ahead. All that lay between was the town of Buffalo, Wyoming–which boasted no Flying J, no Wal-Mart, no parking lot obviously amenable to a couple of travelers hoping for a dry dock.

We went to the gas station, which referred us to the KOA, which was snowed in, but next to a hotel, which referred us to Duffy’s Restaurant. We set our hand on the door just as the night manager was turning the key in the lock. But she let us in. And when she discovered that there was no room at the inn, so to speak, her husband said: “There’s a place you can stay for free.” And he gave us directions to a latticework panel between a Chinese restaurant and a realty shop, and told us to just pull up close. And that it was his yard.

So we are now in the driveway of Greg and Kathy, and their son Matthew, who passed us on that treacherous stretch of road in a shiny black truck. It’s two degrees out, but the propane heater is warm on our toes, and there’s a 24-hour Kum & Go down the block with a functional toilet. These people who don’t know us from Adam kindly gave us shelter for the night. Our first “trail angels.” (Google it, it’s a hiker thing.) The universe doesn’t let you go very long as a pilgrim without making you surrender to events like these.

Continental Divide

We are in low gear hauling ass over the pass. By ass I mean the pickup with the pop-up strapped on top, including the steel reinforcing beams and stone tile that Huey laid down in there, nice looking but heavy as an awkward pause, plus five gallons of water and the stove and Mr. Buddy Mini Heater and two days’ worth of jeans and gorp and junk like that. We approach the divide and the truck growls at a higher pitch. A couple hairpin turns, the back end of our haul rocking on its tires, then a little metal sign, white reflective paint on Forest Service brown: CONTINENTAL DIVIDE. All the blood in my body plus the sauce from a can of beans and 16 ounces of blue raspberry Slurpee lurch from back to front. The water behind my eyeballs shifts from east to west, sloshes from the backs of the sockets right up to the eyelashes.

“Huey, didja feel that?”

She shakes her head. “Nah, what?”

Nah, nada? But Hue… if we flew past the tinfoil guard rails and off the road, if we were to drain, now, our five gal and Slurpees and any personal juices would drain to the Pacific, not down the Missouri River watershed eventually joining the Mississippi and a whole lot of other pollutants flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. We’d be Hawaii-bound, not Caribbean. We’d hang with the volcanic, not the hurricanic. A drop of the newly forward saltwater pooling in my eyelashes jumps off and hits the map unfolded in my hands. I look at the red dotted line there, the line we just crossed, then look at her.

“Ah, nothing.”