The Sheepwagon in the Snow

Magical moments have punctuated my life in wonderful ways, but life is going to have to go a long ways to beat the story that unfolded that snowy day in the deep winter of 1980 outside McCall, Idaho. The morning opened with me stuck in a tiny dark cabin deep at the bottom of the canyon, three feet of new snow on everything, screaming and over it as my relationship imploded around me. 

I HAD to leave. And there was a full quarter of a mile of steep dirt road buried in the snow between me and the world out there.

We had been living in the cabin, but the sheepwagon was right there, and I would not leave without it.

We didn’t have a phone, but I snowshoed out to the cafe on the edge of town, and called from there. I found a guy with a front end loader who could come dig his way down the road, hook onto my pickup which I would have hooked up to the sheepwagon, and he’d pull the whole parade up the hill and out. He said he could be there in a couple of hours, so I headed back down and got to work.

First I had to shovel out enough of the driveway to get my Ford jockeyed around and backed up to the sheepwagon, dig out the truck, put on the chains and get everything set.

Then I had to get the wagon ready to travel, which in addition to securing anything that might fall, meant taking out the stovepipe and laying it on the floor.

With the stovepipe out, I got worried about all the snow that would blow in through the open hole while I was going down the road, so I got the ladder, and shoveled off the front end of the roof, back about six feet, well past the hole.

The loader showed up, dug his way down the hill and and we got to work hooking everything up. 

It worked seamlessly. He towed me to the top of the hill, and unhooked where I could manage on my own. He took my thick wad of bills with an incredulous and rueful shake of his head, said “Man, you must have really wanted out of there!” 

To which I could only reply, “Yes.”

By now there wasn’t a lot of daylight left. At three in the afternoon, I had only a couple of hours to figure out what to do next, before it was pitch dark. I headed down Highway 55 toward Cascade, thinking I’d find a place to pull over, set up camp and consider my next move.

A few miles north of town, Warm Springs Road takes off to the east toward the forest. In the summer you can go all the way to the South Fork of the Salmon River on that route. In the winter, they plow it a few miles in, and at the end of the plowed section snowmobilers park to offload their machines, to continue on the unplowed road, into the forest.

I turned onto Warm Springs Road and headed east, knowing that I would at some point come across a wide spot where I could park, run the stove pipe back up, light a fire and have a cozy night.

Now anyone who has worked with trailers and snow might see the next part coming. But for me, on this day, I had failed to consider a simple key item in the physics of trailers. 

Tongue weight.

To have a happy truck and trailer, a person needs to think about tongue weight. Basically, you want the trailer to be leaning onto the hitch, not pulling up on it. Not TOO much lean. I mean, the trailer needs to carry its own weight. But the truck needs to be the one in charge of the action and direction, and for that it needs some help from gravity. 

And my treatment of the snow on the roof had wreaked havoc with the tongue weight. Instead of a nice hundred pounds or two, it was, I don’t know, minus 500? With all that snow on the back of the wagon and none on the front, it was not good.

Happily, I had made it down the highway without incident, and several miles out Warm Springs Road. Until I didn’t. 

All of a sudden, pandemonium. The truck was jerking to a stop, the trailer was weaving crazily, the noise was stupendous, there were literally sparks flying, easily visible in what had become late dusk, and I had all I could do to get straightened up and stopped. 

I got out and surveyed the situation, and saw the trailer tongue had lifted off the hitch, and had come down onto the road, resting on the built-in pipe that supports the trailer when freestanding. The safety chains connecting the truck and trailer had done their job beautifully, and drug the trailer along on the jack, plowing an inch deep, six foot long gash in the asphalt. The pressure had pulled the angle of the jack’s normal 90 degree connection to the trailer, so it now sat at a 45 degree tilt, and what had been a flat bottom to the jack was now worn to a matching angle.

I think I have neglected to mention that by this time of evening it was about 20 degrees below zero. 

The good news was that the road was deserted. I supposed this could just as easily be construed as bad news, but what it meant to me is that I did not need to immediately solve the problem of being stopped in the middle of the road. There was actually plenty of room to get around me if a person went slow.

So I was able to get down to business setting up camp for the night.

The trailer was level enough to be perfectly fine for the night, so I didn’t need to do anything but open the door, pull the kerosene lamp out of its cubby hole, get the stovepipe back in and get a fire lit. Once that was going and things were thawing out, I set the rest of camp to rights, got a kettle of water on and started pulling together some dinner on the woodstove.

As I was cooking, I heard a noise in the distance, which gradually resolved into the increasing thunder of snowmobiles approaching. By the time they pulled up on the roadbank outside camp, I had the door open to welcome them in.

There were three snowmachines with two families – the parents and three small kids. And they were COLD. The kids were crying with bright red hands, feet and faces even inside their gloves and protective gear, and the parents weren’t much better. We crowded in by the fire, and I added what I could to the food I was making. The moms piled the kids on the bed, got their boots off and feet warming up, and we got them some cocoa. We hung up wet gear to dry, and settled in to swap stories.

Their precise story is lost to my memory, whether they got lost, went a little too far or had engine trouble – I just can’t remember. What stands out in my memory is the snapshot image I hold from that evening. I remember looking around the group as they told their story, and I remember the look on one of the dads’ faces, as he settled into realizing that things were going to be OK. As he came back from the brink of dread, not knowing if his family was going to make it. 

I had quite a number of experiences when I was young and bulletproof, experiences that my simple acceptance of how things work out left me not asking questions that I wonder about now. 

I go back into this memory with a wider experience of loss, and find a new appreciation for the other side, the “could have beens.” 

I think about what it must have been like for that man, knowing the facts. The facts were: it was bitter, bitter cold. They had gone too far or taken too long, and now time and weather were against him. They were several miles from town and there was nothing to do but keep going. He knew there was nothing between him and town but snow, wind and cold.

And then. He topped a rise, expecting to see more of the same.

Snow, wind and cold. 

And instead, there where there rightly, on any other day, at any other time, there was no cabin. 

But tonight, there it was. There was a sheepwagon in the snow, with a warm light in the window and smoke rising from the chimney.

There are questions in the world I wish I had thought to ask, and this is one of them. I wish I had thought to ask, what was that like, that moment? But even in my imagination I find I can feel it, and it gives me a warm feeling that serves me deeply, in some way, as I move through my life now. 

That feeling of not being quite there, but seeing that it’s going to be OK. 

It’s OK. 

I don’t know the word for that feeling, and as a wordsmith I like to reach for a way to put it to words. It’s not really hope, because it’s the situation where hope was fading and almost extinguished, and now there’s something else. There’s knowing. We made it.

It’s not quite triumph, but it is certainly related to triumph. Because it’s the moment when you know the goal is reached. There are just the last details to polish. The last few steps to take. I wonder – could it be the difference between finishing and completion? The knowing that the job is finished, and now just needs the completion, the polish, the tying the bow, the telling the story.

I can imagine myself putting this story that I have held pretty privately all these years out into the world, and wondering if there might be one more piece of magic, in the continuing cycle of completion. I wonder if perhaps somewhere, somehow, that man whose face I watched that night will be handed this story by some friend who sees it somewhere and says, “Hey Joe, (I don’t actually know his name) Doesn’t this sound like that story you told me all those years ago? Was this you?” 

And perhaps I will hear the answer to my question.

Won’t that be magical? 

A whole new story growing out of the questions posed by a story. 

Oh, how I love this life, living the stories.

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