It was fall when I drove into Montana for the first time.
The trees dripped soft golden leaves into the streets of downtown Billings, and the wind caught those leaves, ferrying them to their next destination.
My boyfriend had been doing some work in the city late last week, and I decided to drive up from Casper so we could spend the weekend there. We had a couple of days to explore the area, which was exciting — we would experience a flash of autumn, the most fleeting of seasons, in a spot I’d never seen.
It wasn’t until Saturday morning that I took in my first real view of the city, since it had been dark when I’d arrived. The ridge that surrounds much of Billings was calling to me – it reminded me of what Casper looks like in the fog, when the mountain disappears and the city seems to contract, ending at the foothills. We selected a trail and before I knew it, we were standing against the wind, looking over the city and its miles of trees. The Yellowstone River curled along the ridge.
We surveyed the landscape and found change and transformation everywhere.
The long grasses rustling in the wind were becoming dry and brittle, while many of the trees sported rich amber and ruby hues. The sky was a brilliant autumnal blue, dotted with puffy white clouds. The city, aware that cold was coming, was using these last few weeks to show off. But it wasn’t even very chilly, not yet. We shrugged into and out of light jackets all day.
Our next stop, Pictograph Cave State Park, was another joyous riot of color. Auburns and aubergines danced in the wind with cool, dry tans and hunter greens. Along the trail, we discovered a hidden natural nook, where a leafy golden tree wept over a well-placed bench, mostly blocking the sun. Only a few of the most resistant rays could creep in, lending the spot a warm glow unlike any I’d ever seen in the middle of an afternoon. It was decidedly fall, but this day was holding tighter to summer than winter.
We scampered up and down the trails, even sweating a little in the afternoon sun. We laughed at our efforts to identify the ancient art – thank goodness for interpretive signs – and worried about little beyond what to have for lunch.
But when we checked the weather to plan our drive home, even more change was evident. Casper was expecting snow as dark fell that Sunday evening.
Most of the drive was beautiful – we passed the Bighorn Mountains as the day wound down, and as the pale evening light shot through the clouds and highlighted the contrast between land, sky and snow, they were even more astonishing.
But then the wintry weather arrived, as we knew it would.
It was dark in Wyoming by then, and snow pelted the windshield. The roads looked mainly clear, until I drove into a patch of highway illuminated by an overhead light and realized there was white beneath our tires. In some places, there was a lot of it.
I slowed the car and prepared for my first winter drive in months, keeping two careful hands on the wheel and two careful eyes on the road. It wasn’t particularly frightening – I’ve navigated much scarier conditions on Wyoming highways – but it did demand my attention. Snow had splattered over the road signs, so although I was generally familiar with my surroundings by that point I couldn’t be sure exactly which sign indicated what. Together with the darkness that had descended, it lent the world a feeling of randomness and chance, as if any sign could say anything under the coating of snow.
But they did take me toward home, and as I turned onto our sleepy street that Sunday evening I was struck by the warm light coming from the porch lights as it illuminated the snow that was still softly falling. It looked like a cozy early winter’s evening, though it was only October.
The calendar wouldn’t agree, of course, but at best its seasonal stylings offer a source of mild bemusement. Winter starts whenever it starts.
Since then, as we know, the air has been milder, and autumn seems to be mounting a comeback. But when snow does fly down to Earth again, on a quiet evening in central Wyoming, I’ll remember when I left the state in the full glory of autumn and returned just a couple of days later in the first moments of winter, and I’ll remember all the golden moments in between.