Who says documentary video production isn’t a blast? What could be more fun than gripping a Sony camera with frostbitten fingers while trudging across a snowy field where, with the temperature at 12 below, the only unfrozen surface is the gooey deposit dropped moments ago by a flatulent bovine?
Oh, the glamour!
A couple of weeks ago a cameraman and I holed up in Pinedale’s cheapest hotel, misplaced our warm hats and gloves, and got queezy eating an alleged egg breakfast that may actually have been a soccer player’s shin guard … all for the privilege of getting out at 7 a.m. to wander around a remote pasture where the temperature was — it bears repeating — 12 below zero. We were there to illustrate the work ranchers do in the winter, for a documentary about the Green River Drift, a legendary cattle drive still done on horseback.
Quick, Kyle, unfreeze your finger from the zoom lever! A winter-whipped rancher is driving a chugging tractor with a bale feeder into the pasture! Angle the camera up, up … because he’s looking down at us from a heated cab and listening to — just guessing — Taylor Swift. Meanwhile, I appear to have slipped on the icy skin of a half-buried pipe, facilitated by the goo on my boot, and slid into a ditch, at a temperature of — did I mention this? — 12 below. The cows get their fresh green hay, spread along the bale feeder’s path like eggs gently folded into a soufflé … and we get a belch of choking hay dust.
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The real fun, of course, is exaggerating the hardship and complaining about it. The truth is, the morning was magical. As Albert Sommers forked up another bale from his towering pile north of the Green River, he spotted a bald eagle watching from some cottonwoods and called us over. Earlier, there were two moose marching up a ridge in the grey blanketed morning, and far across the valley, a faint pink sunrise blushed the Wyoming Range. The river whispered against the ice, and the horses stood like sculpture, motionless except for their pluming breath.
But let’s not get all poetic. The best descriptions of Wyoming keep it simple: “rock-tipped blue mountains, so softened by haze and distance that the farther peaks melt imperceptibly into the sky, like blue-gray clouds.” Agnes Wright Spring wrote that description of the mountains surrounding the Green River Valley the 1930s. She spent a couple of years back then riding in a Model T, and taking notes along the state’s mostly dirt roads.
Spring saw history by every roadside, like this tidbit near Farson: “Here, Jim Bridger and Brigham Young met in overnight camp and conferred regarding the route westward and the possibility of sustaining a large population in the Valley of Great Salt Lake. According to legend, Bridger pessimistically offered $1,000 for the first bushel of corn grown in that valley.”
Eighty years later, her book is still the best companion you could have for a Wyoming road trip (it still pops up on Amazon, from University of Nebraska Press). How else will you find the mile- markers to the long-gone town of Van Tassell, near the Nebraska border, or the spot along the Gray’s River Road where a paymaster under attack once buried some money?
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Spring recently accompanied us on another documentary journey: “Over Wyoming,” a Wyoming PBS hour in which we flew all over the state shooting video of peaks, valleys, towns and trails from the air. Well, “we” is not exactly accurate: some helicopter pilots did the flying and shooting, while the lowly writers (ahem) watched jealously from the ground.
Spring was literarily with us but, not literally with us (she died in 1988). The 550 page guide she wrote (along with many other books) was done for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, a federal program designed to put able bodies and minds back to work. Apparently Spring didn’t realize that government programs aren’t capable of producing anything of value.
Whoops! A little editorial just slipped out!
Images shot from a helicopter — especially when they zoom in on looming Devils Tower, or circle writer Joe Hutto on a ridge in the Wind River Mountains — can be thrilling, but … for an hour? More was needed.
First, music: thank you, flat-picking marvel Jeff Troxell.
Then, words. Researcher Rose Steller Burke combed through Spring’s guidebook and a lot of other Wyoming narratives, providing the geography and history that rooted the “Over Wyoming” script. Writers like Craig Johnson and ranchers like Pat Frolander and geologists like Dr. Kent Sundell made the images more fertile (careful, there) with their Wyoming perspectives. Spring was heard, too, thanks to actress Diane Springford of Lander. Finally, narrator Pete Simpson provided the craggy voice that seems to come from the chest of Wyoming itself. He even convinced me we could do “Over Wyoming, Part II” by excavating the bottomless well of stories in his head. (Well, some of them … we make family television.)
It’s the collaborative nature of documentaries that draws writers like me out of our garrets and away from our desks, for a chance to blend the talents of others together. And, for the opportunity to explore landscapes that seem new every time you experience them. Spring once wrote of Wyoming, “the past presses so closely on the present,” and it’s clear from her writing that when she explored Wyoming’s remote corners, they pulsed with history and natural wonders and even poetry.
I’m not sure it was poetry that happened in a pasture north of the Green River last week, but there was weather and wildlife and the kind of light a camera loves, and — did I mention this? — a temperature of 12 below zero.
Suggest you ask Montana and Idaho to annex Yellowstone and the Tetons since “government programs aren’t capable of producing anything of value.”
Geoff, there is a growing risk that I could become a fan of your stories. Since you introduced me to Agnes Wright Spring’s superb prose, a new appreciation of the landscape I now call home has come into view. Of the two kinds of people my wife describes – one, who looks at Wyoming and sees nothing, and the other who sees everything – I’ve thought of myself as the later. But Spring opens up another perspective with color and smell and feel. (By the way, your readers may find it worthwhile to order a book called A Long Road Home, available on Amazon, Houghton Mifflin Press, by Geoffry O’Gara) Said book recounts the footsteps of Spring and other gifted WPA writers.
But thanks to you, I’ll never watch a farmer spreading hay again without thinking of soufflé.