Heck Hansen gripped the wheel so tight that his knuckles were as white as the snow swirling around him. With visibility down to mere feet, he was driving more on instinct and adrenaline that anything else. Despite the freezing temperatures, sweat soaked into the band of his Stetson and dripped down his forehead. The wind whipped down Rabbit Ears Pass in frenzied gusts, hitting his beat-up pickup truck head on with the ferocity of a boxer swinging for a knockout. Heck knew he should turn back, that his chances of making it up and over the pass in weather like this were slim to none.
But he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
The call had come early. Too early. Sarah wasn’t due for another six weeks. It was one of the main reasons they had decided he should hire on with the C-Bar for the fall round-up. The timing seemed perfect. The wages he earned would be enough to pay for all of the hospital bills and see them through the winter in their little place near Stagecoach. As rough as three weeks away would be during her final trimester, if it assured him of the next four months at home, it would be worth it.
Heck tried to keep his mind on what little he could see of the road ahead, but his thoughts kept drifting back to the past few hours. He had been riding nightwatch, making lazy and slow circles around the herd. The cows were restless. Heck figured it was because of the full moon, so bright it cast long blue shadows on the ground. He heard the chatter of coyotes off in the distance, eerie and beautiful, but they were too far away to be a threat. He stopped on a rise, admiring the immensity of the land. It was then he spied the dust trail, kicked up by a truck hightailing it towards camp. Deep in the pit of his stomach, Heck knew the truck meant something was wrong. There was no other reason for anyone to head out here at night. He put spurs to his horse and raced back, choking on fear the whole way.
When he got there, Mr. Carson, owner of the C-Bar, was standing around the fire with a few of the hands. Heck swung down from the saddle.
“We got a call from the hospital in Steamboat, Heck. Your wife’s gone into an early labor, and she’s having complications. Grab your gear. I’ll drive you back to your truck so you can head out,” Mr. Carson said.
“Is she okay? Is the baby okay?” His words laced with fear, Heck didn’t recognize the sound of his own voice.
“I don’t know, son,” Mr. Carson replied, putting a fatherly hand on his shoulder. “Get whatever stuff you need.”
The cowboys offered prayers and words of encouragement as Heck quickly packed his things.
“Watch out,” said Tell, a grizzled old cowhand who had been herding cattle in Northern Colorado since the Depression. He looked off towards the mountains, and the clouds gathering behind them. “There’s a storm moving in. Pass could get tricky.”
Tricky it was, but Heck plowed on, his resolve as firm as the bunched up muscles in his forearms. He searched for any discernible landmark, but his headlights showed nothing but a white blur. Even the moon, so full and bright earlier, had been erased from his view by the storm. Exhausted and afraid, he inched along.
His tires found the ditch on the side of the road before his eyes did. Heck threw the truck into reverse and tried to back up. The tires spun wildly. He got out and assessed the situation. He tried to dig out the right front tire but the snow was already building up in drifts. He knew he was stuck. Heck grabbed his gear out of the bed and climbed back into the cab. He shook out his bedroll and climbed in, and piled his saddle blankets on top. The wind howled and raged. Sleet and snow battered the window above his head. Sprawled across the bench seat, quivering with cold and fear and exhaustion, he thought of the ocean.
Heck had only seen the ocean once, seven years back. That once had been more than enough.
Fresh from high school, and unsure of what he wanted to do in life, he had tramped across the land, hitchhiking and hopping trains, and seeing what there was to see. Drawn West by the summery sounds of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean, he ended up just north of LA.
Hypnotized by the mighty expanse of the Pacific and the slow undulations of its waves, he was taken by surprise when the undertow sucked him in. For three long minutes--minutes that felt like forever--he struggled, tumbling end over end as he searched for blue sky and sun. The waves, thunderous cascades of churning white water, crashed down on him. His lungs burned. His limbs ached. And then, just when he thought he couldn’t survive another second, he felt someone grab him, pull him to the surface, and swim him back to shore.
The lifeguard hovered over him.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I … I think so,” said Heck.
“That was a close one,” the lifeguard said. “Now this might sound weird, but if that happens again, don’t struggle. When you get stuck like that, you lose your bearings and sometimes you’re fighting the whole time to go the wrong way. So instead, just let go.”
Heck thought of the lifeguard’s words. He closed his eyes and let his exhaustion overtake him. He dreamt of the ocean, of tremendous waves that battered him, that pulled him under. But in his dream, when the water pushed him down, he let go, and was lifted out of the water by a giant invisible hand.
Heck awoke six hours later to sunlight, stillness, and a silence so profound it resonated in his soul, like the voice of God himself. The storm had passed. He climbed out of his truck. The snow had drifted into a giant wave that engulfed the passenger side. He looked around. Beartooth Peak sat off to his right. He had almost made it to the top of the pass.
A faint rumble cut through the quiet, growing louder by the second. Heck watched as the plow truck worked its way up the road. When it pulled up next to him, he could barely hear the driver over the roar of the diesel engine.
“You Heck Hansen?” the driver yelled.
“Climb on in. There’s a woman and baby girl anxious to see you.”
Written by: Ben Cook
Photo by: Samuel Zeller