Dirt Roads, Reservoirs and Rattle Snakes

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Prairie steed . . . .

More . . . . Travels With Sandy

Sandy was the Southern Johnson County water commissioner.  She invited me to ride along with her in the autumn of 2007.  Summer was about gone and her long list of reservoirs to be inspected was narrowing down to a few far-flung dry holes on the eastern edge of her assigned territory.  I was interested in the prospect of touring the prairie stretching from Nine Mile to the Pumpkin Buttes.  My family homestead lies just east of the Pine Ridge and it was a welcome opportunity to stir up a few memories and a lot of dust.

We loaded up some lunch and water bottles.  Her old Ford Bronco was already piled high in back with the tools of her trade: shovel; level; tape measure; “come along” to open gates; rope; and a cheater bar to loosen lug nuts in case of a flat tire.  She had a sheaf of plans and permit maps provided by the Wyoming State Engineer which we were supposed to decipher to locate the reservoirs.  After a quick look at some of those, I figured we were in for a long day.

As near and I can recall, our trip was a vast circle that took us down the Sussex highway east to Highway 50 and from there a series of graveled and dirt roads that led us back to Reno Road and home on old U.S. 87.  I was lost most of the time, but Sandy seemed to have an unerring instinct for locating the reservoirs, many of which were ancient and had not seen water in years.  Finding roads to the dams was out of the question and we bounced and bucked over sagebrush, up and down hills, across gullies and washed out dry creek beds.  The dust came in one side of the Bronco and out the other.  We had to keep the windows rolled down because Sandy chain-smoked as she drove along.  Since I didn’t smoke, she wanted me to “breathe fresh air and smell the sage.”

The dust didn’t seem to affect her vision.  Frankly, I believe she was driving from plain grit and instinct.  I offered to take the wheel but got a flat “no!”  After a great deal of trial and error, our search would eventually lead us to the designated reservoir.  We got out and after a firm warning to be on the lookout for rattlesnakes, she would commence with her job to determine if there was any water (no in almost all cases); measure the height of the dam; check the spill way; measure the length of the dam; and look for any problems that may have cropped up since the last inspection.  Some were only required to be inspected every five years, which makes it difficult to remember where on earth they are located.

It would seem a simple task to check in with the ranchers and get clear directions.  Not.  Modern ranches are far flung and few ranch headquarters remain out in the prairie.  We drove past old homestead sites with little but foundation stones and rusting windmills left standing to blow in the wind.  Houses, sheds and anything that could be relocated were removed long ago and ended up in town or on somebody’s ranch many miles away, which was the case with our homestead.

Whenever we weren’t hanging onto the seats for dear life as we jounced across the prairie, we had a few moments to relax on smooth road and watch the antelope, who were gathering for their fall mating rituals.  We spied a magnificent golden eagle sitting high on a branch in a dead cottonwood tree.  One of two larger reservoirs that had water was teeming with an amazing number of ducks, geese and shore birds.  We had a bird guide book and tried to identify whatever we came across, although I don’t recall any of the names on the list we compiled.  The prairie was a beautiful golden brown and stretched uninterrupted except for patches of sagebrush and old cedar fence posts.

As our day was wrapping up we reached the asphalt on Reno Road.  We headed west to 287 and we noticed a huge snake stretched across the road catching a few rays of sun and gathering some warmth from the asphalt.  Having an intense dislike for and morbid fear of snakes, I was hopeful we would drive over it and keep going, preferably at high speed.  Not Sandy.  She hit the brakes and we skidded sideways over the top of the snake.  Not satisfied, she backed up and took another run at him, braking where she believed the “sweet spot” was to put the Bronco tracks across it one more time.  She then turned the engine off and sat listening for the hissing rattle of a thoroughly agitated snake.  All was quiet.  She leaned over the seat and grabbed her shovel, then started to climb out the door and step down to the road.  “Are you coming?”  “Hell no!”  She walked along the road until she found what was left of the snake, detached his rattles with her shovel, and crawled back into the Bronco, cuddling the rattles in her hand.

I was relieved the snake had come at the end of the day.  We were pretty close to home and I figured the chances of coming upon another snake were pretty remote.  In a move to settle my jitters, she offered to let me drive the rest of the way back to Kaycee.

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