Last winter I drove the 45 miles from Cheyenne to Laramie (and back) about four days a week.  This stretch includes I-80’s highest elevation: 8,640 feet above various shining seas.

I saw plenty of hairy conditions, but few days of really bad weather. Wind was the main consideration. It could sweep a few inches of new snow off the prairie and spread it across the interstate like a thick, slick layer of marzipan. Distinguishing between road and borrow ditch became full-time chore.

One day, however, I was made aware of the how quickly weather changes at high elevations. I left Cheyenne driving west amid dark clouds and modest winds, but no snow and dry roads. Good visibility, too. The wind turbines north of the interstate churned earnestly; antelope grazed in the shadow of pump jacks; all was well.

Then I noticed the traffic heading east towards Cheyenne was a lot heavier than the traffic going west.  I shrugged it off. But I did note tiny crystals floating past my car. Then, in a short period of time, probably less than a minute, a blinding cloud of flakes assaulted my windshield.

Where the hell did this come from? I fretted. The wind turbines vanished from sight. I had, in fact, about 50 feet of visibility. I turned on my lights. Snow swirled crazily around my beams like a rising mayfly hatch.

A series of taillights, all crawling along, came hazily into view. This turned into brake lights, solid brake lights, all in a row. The highway department had closed the road and was turning people around.

I called one of my students at University of Wyoming, a mere 30 miles away, asking him to send an e-mail to his class mates that I would be unable to teach that day. “Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “We figured you wouldn’t make it. There’s six inches on the ground and it’s coming in sideways. We’ll see you on Friday.”

Samuel Western

Samuel Western of Sheridan is a university lecturer, poet and U.S. regional correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of Pushed Off the Mountain Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its...

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  1. In the summer of 1975, between my junior and senior years in college, I worked for the BLM in Kemmerer. I was living at home in Casper then, and in June, I packed my things into my Volkswagen beetle, a model 1300 with a 4-speed manual transmission. I headed from Casper through Muddy Gap to Rawlins, then turned west on I-80. The sun was shining and the country was beautifully green, and the wind was pounding out of the west. How long the trip from Rawlins to Granger Jct. took me, I no longer remember, but it was a long time because I couldn’t get out of third gear. Every time I tried, the needle on the tachometer dropped inexorably into the low zone where, I had been told, one should never run a beetle’s engine. So I left the transmission in third and maintained a speed that I thought would save the engine. Listening to the radio was out of the question, which was okay because all the bug had was AM. Somewhere along the way, I picked up a hitch-hiker, a black guy whose car had broken down. I have no idea anymore where I dropped him off. Ever since then, I’ve wondered how he fared. Wyoming in the mid-70s; what was that like for a black person?