Snowfences


September 1, 1997
South Pass, Wyoming

There are places all over the world that pride themselves in great construction feats. The pyramids of Egypt or India’s Taj Mahal come to mind. In America, the skyscrapers of New York City and Nevada’s Hoover Dam top my list. Driving from Farson to Lander one day via South Pass, it dawned on me that Wyoming’s claim to construction fame lies in the miles and miles of snowfences shadowing its highways.

Perhaps you’re not familiar with the snowfence. It usually parallels a highway but not necessarily right along side of it. A snowfence line can be a hundred yards or so away and for that reason is often unnoticed. I suspect that some out-of-state observers have mistaken them for fences used to contain an oversized strain of cattle. However, most folks probably don’t give snowfences much thought as they cruise by at 65 mph. I imagine the typical Wyomingite sees them in the same light as an oversized boulder or lone cottonwood tree—just another forgotten reference point in the state’s desolate landscape.

Though idle in the summer months, these barriers work hard in the winter to keep the blowing snow from drifting over the highly-elevated byways in the Cowboy state. “Blowing” is the operative word here. It would take a great deal of snow to come straight down and overcome the Wyoming Highway Department’s efforts in keeping the roads clear. But, throw a typical Wyoming wind into the equation and all it takes is six inches of the white stuff and the road will disappear before the plow has time to turn around. Enter the snowfence. Its defiant profile stops the drifting snow, causing it to pile up next to the fence rather than along and over the highway.

Near Livingston, Montana

On a lighter note, sometimes I can almost convince myself that snowfences are nothing more than a convoluted prank generated by the Wyoming Highway Department—poking fun at modern art. And if the truth be known, snowfences don’t make a damn bit of difference in keeping the snow off the highways.

I’ve pondered the life-expectancy of a snowfence. How many winters can you get out of a neglected snowfence before it starts letting the snow through? I would imagine that even in a state of dilapidation, its broken down heaps of wooden boards could still carry out a snowfence’s mission with a high degree of effectiveness.

Like sentinels, the snowfences are always there watching over the highways no matter what time of the year. And you can see a line of them from miles away. I’ve envisioned a day when I become lost in Wyoming’s high country; about the time I’m ready to expire, I spot the woven basket patterns of a snowfence and my state of surrender will be replaced with ecstasy knowing there is a highway nearby leading to my rescue.

Reminiscent of the apes gazing at the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was standing before a snowfence one day. I sensed harmony and beauty in its structure. Perhaps it doesn’t blend in completely with the landscape but its ongoing pattern has a certain quality that enhances one’s visual experience in the great vastness of Wyoming.

I recommend a visit to a line of snowfence. Yes, even touching one. Examine its construction closely. Consider the workers that travelled to these remote sections of highway in the summers and labored in the hot sun to build something that doesn’t kick in until the winter. Maybe it’s not as resilient as the Great Wall of China, but make the time to take in a ribbon of wood that follows the contour of the Wyoming landscape and tell me you’re not awestruck.

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