They are lucky. The morning's freeze has given way, leaving the temperature cool but bearable. Still, they stamp their feet, sprout goose bumps, giggle. What do you expect? They're naked, nothing but the sneakers on their feet to guard against the night, the mountain air, anyone watching. Their bodies tighten. Someone yelps, and they move at once, a pack of 15 young men running naked because this a University of Wyoming cross-country tradition, because this morning brought the season's first snowfall, because they are young and they can.
Does anyone see them? What if a Laramie cop cruises by? The young men whoop and laugh, breathing easily. One tosses firecrackers without breaking stride. The world, as they love to say, is divided between distance runners and candy-asses, and—come on, now—how many sub-five-minute milers can a doughnut-heavy policeman chase down? They fly past the Classroom Building, shout hellos to the statue of Ben Franklin, cross the expanse of Prexy's Pasture: a fleet of thin arms and highly muscled legs, hair catching the occasional flash of light. Their ears pick up the revelry of a campus Saturday night. Now they jog in place on a corner of 15th Street, waiting for a green light, and they hear the gratifying sound of sorority girls in shock: "Hey! They're naked!"
They cruise down sorority row and, with their backs to the Rockies, bear down for the stretch run to the Fieldhouse. They are shy, brainy men, none of them a great success with women. They spend their free time running over rocks and roots and packed-down dirt, twisting ankles and grinding knees to powder. They are 19, 20, 21, 22, 23 years old. Their skin is pale, a milky blur fading into the blackness. Snowmelt splashes up their legs.
Giddy from exposure and their audacity, some shout as they round into the parking lot. Their clothes wait in a car. They've pulled it off. Yes, it's a rush. They feel their hearts beating. They are young, so no one says this is a moment to remember. No one says it is something close to beautiful.
It is 9:45 p.m. on Sept. 8, 2001. In three days the world will rock with a terrifying new motion; in less than a week, Prexy's Pasture will fill with thousands of students grappling with the Sept. 11 attacks. Very soon, more than half the runners will be gone.
In the small hours of Sunday, Sept. 16, eight members of the Wyoming cross-country team, jammed into a Jeep Wagoneer and traveling north on Highway 287, just short of a six-building town called Tie Siding, saw the headlights of a one-ton truck hurtling toward them out of the dark. Within seconds, all eight—Cody Brown, Kyle Johnson, Josh Jones, Justin Lambert-B�langer, Morgan McLeland, Kevin Salver-son, Nick Schabron and Shane Shatto—were dead. Seven of them catapulted from the vehicle and landed as far as 100 feet away. It was the worst traffic accident in Wyoming history. Officers on the scene described it as a war zone.
"If you'd seen the picture of the Wagoneer, you'd know why," says Kerry Shatto, Shane's father. "The car was gutted. There's nothing from the engine block to the back: no roof, no side, no seats. He cleaned the car out and drove through."
The truck's driver, Clinton Haskins, a 21-year-old steer wrestler on the university's rodeo team, was arrested that day and charged with eight counts of aggravated homicide by vehicle. According to prosecutors, a blood test Haskins was given two hours after the crash gauged his blood-alcohol level at .16 (the legal limit is .10); fresh from a party and speeding south to Fort Collins, Colo., to patch things up with his girlfriend, Haskins had drifted over the center line and smashed into the Jeep. He suffered cuts and bruises, but he didn't break a bone.
None of the runners in the Jeep knew Haskins, but he was more than a fellow student. Although raised over the state border in the ranch country of Maybell, Colo., Haskins had competed against many Wyoming boys in high school, he was in a wedding last summer with one of Shane Shatto's cousins, and his name was known to the families of four Wyoming runners. This isn't unusual. With a population smaller than that of Washington, D.C., and a governor whose home number is listed in the phone book, Wyoming often feels like America's biggest small town. People connect across hundreds of miles through a web of relations and friendships woven over generations, and an event like the one at Tie Siding sends shock waves throughout the state. "Only something like 470,000 people live here," says Wyoming rodeo coach George Howard. "We still all get together for lunch on Sunday afternoon."