One sunny, temperate late-April afternoon five years ago, I make the 26-mile drive from Livingston, Montana, the small town of 7,000 where I live, to the nearest city of Bozeman to get a bikini wax. When I leave the appointment an hour later, the air is heavy, the sky darkening to the color of dishwater, and all signs point to rain. But my then-boyfriend, now-husband, is returning from a trip that evening, so I ignore the weather, because I want to buy some candles before he arrives. By the time I emerge from the store, snow is beginning to fall. Now I know that when the sky starts glowering like this, it’s safest to prepare for the worst, but at the time I anticipate a light dusting. It’s spring, after all. Unconcerned, I get into my car.
My route home will take me over the Bozeman Pass, a winding mountain passage on Interstate 90 that joins the Gallatin and Bridger ranges, and sits at the approximate midpoint between Bozeman and Livingston. Driving over “the pass” in the winter is dangerous, and instills a twinge of fear in the hearts of all but the most foolhardy locals. Before I attempt it, I do my research. There’s an online webcam that offers real-time pictures of the highest point (elevation 5,702 feet), but to me they always look like the grainy, inscrutable black-and-white images produced by a security camera or a sonogram machine. Usually, someone who has had to drive over the pass—for work, or to fetch a visitor at the airport—posts their snapshot on the Livingston Facebook page, letting other people know of the conditions. News of snow and ice also travels quickly by word-of-mouth through the town’s lunch spots, coffee shops, and bars.