Skating today feels like climbing a mountain. I claw my way upwind, using my skates like crampons. Every step takes effort, and it’s hard to breathe with the wind in my face. In my jeans and leather mittens I’m nothing like the elegant, sequin-encrusted skaters gracing the ice of Sochi. Still, something of the Olympic spirit lured us out here today.
We’re on Hutton Lake, a half dozen miles southwest of Laramie at the end of a gravel road behind the cement plant. The lake is encircled by a slanted ramp of frozen mud. Cacti and bronze-colored grasses stick out of the snowdrifts. A jackrabbit darts from the brush and gallops away, my dog in a full sprint behind it. The deep blue Laramie Mountains rim the eastern skyline, and to the west stormy clouds bury the Snowy Range.
Somewhere far away speed skaters and figure skaters are testing their physical limits to win civilization’s admiring gaze. The world is abuzz with the excitement and thrill, pain and drama of world-class athletic competition. Rebecca knows the lure of that challenge better than most — she once trained to be an Olympic snowboarder. Her roommates have rigged up a temporary antenna to watch the winter games (they don’t have cable). And in honor of the moment every four years when skating is on the minds of millions, we came to look for ice.
This morning in Rebecca’s kitchen we pored over page 22 of the Wyoming Atlas and Gazetteer, our fingers sliding from one water body to the next. In the spring and summer, waterfowl congregate on these plains lakes: mallards and grebes, coots and scaups. We searched for a patch of blue not too far from town, something we could drive to, unlikely to be occupied by ice fishermen: Lake Hutton.
Rebecca carried a snow shovel, and I a hatchet to check the ice thickness. I’ve heard two inches will hold a pickup. At nine inches the edges of the chopped hole started to interfere with the hatchet handle, and the ice was solid.
Lacing up my white figure skates takes me back to the reservoirs of my childhood, cottonwood-encircled ponds in the foothills of the Bighorns where my family skated and raced and twirled on winter afternoons. Later we had a pond next to the driveway. We shoveled a rink and neighbors came to play hockey (yes, in figure skates) for hours, using crushed pop cans for pucks as the real ones were too easily lost in the cattails.
Then there was the magical winter when seven-mile-long Lake DeSmet froze 16 inches thick, clear as glass, snow free and perfectly smooth. We’d glide out from shore and watch the shale floor drop sickeningly under our skate blades until there was nothing below but the occasional white bubble frozen in the inky green.
We skated for hours without crossing our own tracks. We skated for miles backwards without looking over our shoulders. We sat friends who didn’t know how to skate in metal lawn chairs and pushed them fast. We circled islands, exploring their shores. We lay on our stomachs and cupped our mittens to our faces to block the sunlight and peered down, waiting for fish to swim underneath us. We pressed our ears to the ice to hear moans and howls and creaking pops like a concert of alien whales.
At night the grownups built a bonfire on the beach and the kids skated far, far out until the flame was just a flickering spark. Then we raced back with long fast gliding kicks, swinging our arms like Olympic speed skaters, skidding to hockey stops at the shore, and skating back out toward the fat bright moon.
Now, decades later, faces to the wind, we approach the west end of Hutton Lake. I stop to take a photo and a gust of wind knocks my feet out from under me. My sunglasses fall off and skitter away over the drifts like a tiny sailboat pushed by the wind. At the end of the lake we find a rink of clean-swept ice big enough to make laps. My dog chases us, scrambling on the turns to catch her footing against the wind.
When we start back, Rebecca has the advantage, her hockey skate blades cutting smoothly though the snow and clattering over the lumpy ice while my toe picks risk catching every rough spot. I crouch to brace for falls. The wind is flat against my back, pushing my legs and shoulders. We’re so far away from Sochi’s gleaming medals and cheering crowds.
We come here, to Lake Hutton, too, to merge a celebration of Olympic skating with the wild wind buffeted cactus and ice. The winter games enthrall us because they are both sophisticated and primal. In a realm of scrupulously tuned equipment and perfectly manicured ice, we ask members of our frail species to excel at seemingly impossible physical stunts. Somewhere below those lures is the simple thrill of “the games,” much like the joy of an improbable Wyoming adventure.
My feet itch from the vibration of the rippled ice surface, and I collapse next to my waiting snow boots as if at the finish line. Wyoming wind skating: that should be the next Olympic event.