LAY OF THE LAND: A SERIES OF ESSAYS ON THE SPIRIT OF MONTANA
I pulled over along with the four or five cars in front of our van. We were outside of Billings and it was clear something was very wrong up ahead. There were newspaper pages blowing all over the westbound lanes of the highway. There was part of a horse trailer askew in the highway median. There was a pickup truck against a fence 50 feet off to the right of the roadway, smoke or steam billowing out of the front end.
From the back seat, Isabel said, “Why are we stopping, Daddy?” I told her there was an accident up ahead and I was going to see if I could help. I put the van in “park” and got out, nervous about what I might find when I got to the pickup. Three people were already there, but they were strangely inactive. They were standing by different parts of the truck, but the first thing I noticed was they were all turned away from the vehicle.
I asked a middle-aged man with a large silver belt buckle if there was anyone hurt in the truck. He said, “Yep—there’s a guy in there, but I don’t think we can help him.” I asked if there were any passengers, but he didn’t know. Their passivity was maddening, so I walked to the driver’s door and saw that the entire front of the truck on the driver’s side was collapsed into the front seat. It looked like a large part of the horse trailer, which had been carrying sales circulars for the Sunday newspaper, had come off and slammed into the pickup and its driver.
Through the driver’s side window I saw no evidence that there even was a driver in the truck. I walked around to the passenger side and looked in and saw that the driver was indeed still in the truck, but he had not survived the impact. It was hard to tell, since much of the engine block was now in the cab, but it didn’t look like anyone else was in the truck with the poor man. I walked back to our van and before too long traffic started to make its way around the accident scene.
Isabel asked if there was an ambulance coming and I told her there was, leaving out the fact that it didn’t need to hurry.
I was badly shaken by what I saw in that truck, but something that had happened a week earlier helped take some of the horror out of the sight. We had been enjoying a few days up in the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains, at Erica’s grandfather’s cabin on the Stillwater River. We found some deflated inner tubes in the shed and took them to the gas station in Nye (Population: 9) to inflate.
On our way back we saw a young deer caught up in a barbed wire fence. It front legs were on the ground, but it had gotten one of its rear legs hung up on the fence.
I pulled over, got out and walked back to see what I could do for the fawn. It was extremely agitated as I got closer and tried to run away, but it couldn’t. Its front hooves were galloping at full speed, but its left rear leg was stuck in a metal loop at the top of the fence. I spoke quietly and (I hoped) soothingly as I looked closely to see how the leg was caught. The fawn eventually held still as I tried to pull open the tight loop of fence wire that had closed around the leg.
The chances of a fawn’s hoof getting stuck in the one open loop of fence wire along the entire 50 yards of fence visible to me must have been immensely small. Yet, it had happened. The deer had been in its painful predicament for no more than half an hour, since it hadn’t been there as we passed by on our way to the gas station, yet it had broken the bone clear through and its hoof and the final two inches of leg bone were connected only by a tough strand of sinew.
I did what I had to do to free the deer and it hobbled off into the high grass. Each time we passed that spot over the next few days I scanned the field, looking for evidence that coyotes or wolves had found the fawn before it could get to a safe place. Since I never saw signs of a struggle, I am free to imagine the best. I know that the odds of survival are small for that baby deer, but so were the odds of lassoing its own foot on the top of a fence to begin with.
It wasn’t freeing the deer or imagining its survival that helped me deal with the horrific images of the man in his pickup truck. Rather, it was something Isabel did after I released the deer.
On one of our hikes earlier in the week we had come across a prayer flag on top of a mountain. Isabel was curious, so I told her about the function of prayer flags in the wind in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
The idea must have struck her, because in the evening I went outside after dinner and saw a scrap of red cloth tied onto a bush next to the cabin. I didn’t connect the flag, the deer and the scrap right away. But then I looked more closely and saw that Isabel had written some words on the red cloth.
It said, “We saw a baby deer that had its leg cot in a fens. Help it.” The words grew blurry as tears welled up into my eyes. Isabel’s trust in the universe was so simple and so profound.
So, when I saw what I saw on the highway outside of Billings, the solace I was able to take was an odd kind of secondhand solace. My faith dried up years ago, but Isabel’s hope and faith were enough to make me think that maybe, just maybe, that three-legged fawn was back with its maternal herd and getting used to life minus one hoof.
And maybe the man who died in such a freak accident hadn’t suffered at all. And maybe, even more improbably still, he was in a better place.
Chris Dawson was born in Delaware and did not see Montana until he was 25. He moved to Billings in 1992 at the age of 27 and found work as a preschool teacher. He earned a master’s in education from MSU Billings and taught for 25 years in Billings, Upstate New York and New Haven, Conn. He married a Montana girl and spends as much time in south-central Montana as he can. He now works as a writer for the Cornell University College of Engineering. He lives with his wife and daughter in Ithaca, N.Y.