Small Town Small Talk in Dubois

knightdedication“I’ve had enough of small towns,” said our dinner guest last Tuesday, a friend of a friend. “I know what they’re like. I grew up in one. Small-minded people with boring lives.”

How many people, we asked, do you know in Dubois?

“Oh, not many. I mostly go to the Superfoods and the post office, sometimes the Cowboy. And then home.”

You should try to meet a few, we suggested.

“How would I do that?”

Oh, maybe go to Happy Hour. Or volunteer for something. There should be some way you could help out.

pict0113One day later, invited to dinner at someone else’s home, we noticed the photos of Italy rotating on the digital frame on her kitchen’s island. And then a few from somewhere in eastern Europe.

What is it about Dubois, we asked ourselves. So many people here with so much interesting history. There are so many fascinating back-stories, once you start to ask. For instance, these weren’t vacation snapshots. She worked for a federal agency and traveled the world on business.

Someone in New York asked me once if there’s diversity in Dubois. Well, not in the usual politically correct sense of the word. Our minister is a black woman, but she doesn’t feel like “diversity” because she grew up here. You don’t see Latinos on the street every day, or people from China or Korea or even Native Americans. But yes: There is tremendous diversity in another sense.

We lived many kinds of lives in many other places, and then at some point decided to take that crazy leap and follow the dream that we had been cherishing for so many years. And here we all are.

billyshouse101515Those who have always lived here are just as worth engaging in many long conversations: The orphan wrangler who married the debutante from out east, settled down, and happily settled down on the ranch. The logger who kept on lumbering and built a life after the sawmill closed, because leaving was just not an option. These are just the first two who come to mind.

It’s also great fun to talk to the younger people who have landed here for one reason or another. So many hope to find a way to stay.

This evening I went for a book signing, to celebrate a new biography of local artist and historian Tom Lucas. It’s written by someone who moved here a few years ago (she and her husband just couldn’t stay away), became intrigued by his life, and decided to document it all.

lucas-bookAs I expected, the event was packed, with people spilling out from his gallery onto the sidewalk and lined up inside to buy the book. I can’t wait to read it, even though I know Tom well and count him a good friend. There must be lots I still don’t know.

Tom is a remarkable person, and well deserving of this distinction. But come to think of it, so many fascinating biographies could be written here. The mind boggles.

 

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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The Lady and Her Knight

It’s her birthday, so she gives a gift to Dubois. A very large one.

john_and_knightIt was her 92nd birthday, so Leota Didier gave Dubois a present: a life-sized bronze statue of a cowboy. He now stares steadfastly off to the north from the front of the log-hewn Dennison Lodge, one of our favorite gathering places.

So typical: It’s Leota’s birthday, so she gives a big present to the town. The sculpture is an enlargement of the knight figure from a chess set that her former neighbor, artist John Finley, created in 1979, using Western-themed characters.

“I wanted to be sure to get this done while I still had time,” Leota said, in her deep, gruff voice. “I saw a statue like this in a town somewhere else, and I said: Dubois needs something like that.”

Like what? “Something that represents the spirit of the town.”

John is a diffident fellow, but also an old friend. Somehow she persuaded him to undertake the arduous task of recreating a chess piece as a monument.

chess-setLeota has already given much to her hometown. In fact, she was important to the historic Dennison Lodge itself, throwing herself into the effort to bring it to town when it was threatened with demolition in the 1990s. Out in the wilderness where she used to ride, it had been part of a dude ranch where notables such as Clark Gable and Carole Lombard once stayed.

Like so many others devoted to Dubois, Leota is a transplant. She was born in Iowa, and first came to town in 1970 when her husband Bernard, a Presbyterian minister, diverted them here from Denver during a vacation.

“Bernard was a funny man,” she told me recently. “He would get these urges. We came to Wyoming and he fell in love with it.”

She had thought they would be traveling on to California, but Bernard changed his plan. He had read somewhere that dilapidated ranches were going for marvelous prices in Wyoming. They came here instead, and a week laterlazylb they owned a ranch.

For many years, they ran the Lazy L&B Ranch (the “L” is for Leota) just down the East Fork valley from the Finleys. Two owners later, it’s still a very successful guest ranch.

(I owe my presence in Dubois to Leota, as I love to remind her. We stayed at the Lazy L&B nearly 30 years ago, and never stopped coming back to this area. I was delighted to see her still here when we finally moved to town.)

When Bernard passed away, Leota sold the ranch. As she aged, she slowly gave up her beloved horseback riding and moved to town. You see her often, always elegantly dressed and wearing one of her signature cowboy hats, whether at the rodeo, at church, or checking guests in at the weekly square dance in town (which devotes its earnings to charity).

leotaIt seemed like the whole town had turned out at the Dennison yesterday, to celebrate with Leota and join in as Reverend Melinda Bobo gave a blessing.

I was late for the ceremony. “What did you bless?” I asked Melinda.

“The statue,” she said. “The town. The community.”

One of its great blessings sat on a folding chair near the door, evidently enjoying her birthday celebration, and wearing her signature smile.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

A Perspective on Distance from Dubois

Thoughts during a long visit with my aged mother back East.

LeslieGwynedd051316_2
Mom in her room

I’ve been back East for a long visit with my aged mother, which is how we will continue contact after  the great leap westward. Instead of driving from New York once a month, I’ll fly out from Dubois to see her regularly, and stay for a while.

Of course there are trade-offs to choosing a life in Dubois, however wonderful its benefits. This is one of them.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t think of bringing your mother with you!” said a good friend when she heard about the move. This sent me into a frenzy of inquiries.

No, I hadn’t considered it. Mom is no longer mobile. The nurses use a lift to transfer her from chair to bed.

Just transporting her to Dubois, I found, would probably require a medical airlift. Then how would we care for her? Dubois has a wonderful assisted living facility, but the nearest skilled nursing units are an hour away (and have waiting lists with indeterminate endpoints). Finding or importing private day nurses  would be a tremendous chore–not to mention an impossible expense.

I agonized for a while, and then decided it truly doesn’t make sense. Mom lives in an exemplary facility. She chose this retirement community for herself to limit the burden on me, her only child, after living with our family for decades. Back when it would have been possible for her to rejoin us, Mom wanted to be independent. Now that she can’t be, it’s no longer possible.

MarkLesKatieLazyLB
Mom on a visit to Dubois with the family, years ago.

I chose to extend my visit through Labor Day weekend, to see how she fared over a holiday break. (The usual staff weren’t all replaced with strangers, and the weekend was fine.) What I saw was what happens when adult children stop by for the day to visit to Dad or Mom, as we used to do before the move.

The usual peace and quiet gives way to a frenzy of activity. There are earnest, all-too-public updates on events in the family and entreaties to finish meals. There’s a pause from the TV noise in the lounge while someone’s daughter plays piano, too loudly and too long. (“This is truly awful,” remarked one resident who usually can’t find the right words.)

Today it will return to the day-to-day rhythm of events, and the regular flow of visitors. Some residents go for weeks without seeing anyone from outside the unit. A few, whose spouses live elsewhere in this planned village, have a visit every day.

LesKerchief
A new find: Mom and me.

It’s not necessarily uncaring neglect that leaves some residents without visitors. One woman here has a son whose job took him to the West coast (and who phones often). Her widowed daughter-in-law comes as often as she can, while also tending to her father who has dementia. An adult grandchild lives nearby but is institutionalized with a severe disability.

I will continue my flying visits as long as Mom needs me. It’s one cost of living in Dubois that I will gladly pay.

I’ve spent the past month going through photo albums with Mom, discovering heart-stopping old snapshots I never knew existed. We’ve eaten many meals together (although I eat far more than she does). I’ve been reading to her (either from the Bible or a travel book, as she chooses), bringing her wildflowers from the roadside, taking her outdoors in her wheelchair, talking to her (and interpreting for her in conversations with others now that she can’t speak for herself), and reading what she writes to me in her notebook.

The words “remote” and “distance” have two meanings, it occurred to me. One of them describes my relationship to my mother. The other does not.
© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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A Brief History of the History of Dubois

We’re rightly proud of our history and our Museum. Both need attention to stay alive.

DMAlogo5In a sense, our history goes back eons, to the time when the mountains in our backyards were being pushed up and carved out.

In another sense, it’s only 40 years old–dating to the time of the bicentennial, when a group of Dubois residents decided it to create a museum to document it all.

MuseumDay2015_CrosscutSawDemoForty years ago, in 1976, a group of Dubois villagers began to collect interesting artifacts, from vintage household items and old tools to remnants of Native American culture. They fretted about how to decide which items were worth keeping. They planted trees and shrubs, and made arrangements to move buildings such as an old post office and a forestry cabin to the site of the new museum on the main street.

“Possibility was discussed of acquiring some old cabins in the area and moving them to the museum,” read the very first recorded minutes of the Dubois Museum Association.  Today, the Museum’s collection of historic cabins is one of its best features.

HomesteadCabin Exterior

The result of these efforts is one of the best spots in Dubois. The displays reach from ancient geology to the history of a landmark guest ranch, with a long stop midway to portray the distant and recent history of Native Americans. The Museum also sponsors regular treks to the remnants of history hidden in the landscape nearby.

“My favorite part was the historical cabins that were brought in from around the area,” wrote a visitor last month on TripAdvisor. “They highlighted local historical figures and gave a great overview of the tie hack industry. Really worth seeing!”

“Great museum for a small town,” reads the most recent review on TripAdvisor. “It is small but a very nice surprise.”

MainBldgInteriorI’ve never understood why everyone in town isn’t a member of the DMA, because the heritage of Dubois is so fascinating, so fragile and precious (and easily lost), and so crucial to our identity and future as a community.

There’s so much to preserve, document, and celebrate: The creators of the petroglyphs and sheep traps, the courageous Mountain Men, the hunters and trappers, indomitable homesteaders, the hardy and heroic tie hacks, the cowboys and painters and quilters.

In its cabins and its tiny main building (the prospect of a new and better one always seems to recede into the distance), the Museum somehow captures it all.

There’s often confusion about the difference between the administration of the Museum, which is owned and run by Fremont County, and the Dubois Museum Association, the volunteers who created it in the first place and still provide regular support. We pay for the purchase of important items such as cameras for documenting acquisitions and IPads for interactive displays, and we recently provided supplies and manpower to replace the rotting boardwalk that leads between those charming cabins.

We also sponsor a popular annual community event, Museum Day, in the middle of July.

EstherWellsLately, we’ve also been carrying out oral histories of local residents. For instance, we videotaped an interview with centenarian Esther Wells recalling her life as a child and young wife homesteading up one of the mountain valleys, and another with Kip Macmillan as he recounted a childhood visit to the camp where German prisoners of war were serving as tie hacks during World War II. The originals are housed, of course, at the Museum.

If you haven’t seen the Museum lately, please visit. The exhibits change all the time.

If you haven’t thought much about supporting it, please consider joining the Dubois Museum Association. The dues are an affordable $10, although many people contribute more.

This Saturday, the Dubois Museum Association celebrates 40 years of serving the community, at its 2016 annual meeting at the Dennison Lodge. I am a proud member of its Board of Directors.

Boardwalk (2)“You only need to sit in at meetings,” said my neighbor Dorothy when she asked me to replace her on the Board years ago. It’s been so much better than that, because we are a vital and dedicated group with a mission that we feel to be extremely important.

Our history is always there, but it isn’t permanent. It will only stay alive as long as we continue to pay attention to it.

Happy 40th anniversary, DMA! Here’s to a long and fruitful life ahead.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

What Home Feels Like, Reconsidered

Why do so many of us fall in love with the wide open spaces? There’s a theory.

FoulkewaysAugust01Back east visiting my aged mother, I find myself again in that verdant country in high summer.

Once long ago, growing up in the Midwest, I loved these steamy late-summer days. They spoke to me of indolent lassitude, of the seemingly endless stretch of uncommitted time. I tried not to think of the start of school, only weeks away.

One of my favorite songs paints a word picture of this pleasant torpor induced by humid heat:

It’s a lazy afternoon
And the farmer leaves his reaping.
In the meadow cows are sleeping,
And the speckled trouts stop leaping up stream
As we dream

FoulkewaysAugust02Today, I took a short hike in the woods behind that meadow. For many years, it seemed like a luxury to take a long walk under such a canopy of trees, with the crunch of dead leaves underfoot and the wisps of fragile greenery brushing at my ankles.

I texted these pictures to my daughter in Florida. “I miss forest,” she wrote back.

“I miss mountains and sagebrush,” I replied.

After spending several summers in our Wyoming house, I realized that the tree-lined New England back roads that I used to find charming had begun to close in on me and now seemed vaguely threatening. I was amused to find that another Wyoming transplant, the writer Annie Proulx, had the same reaction.

“Trees bothered me,” she wrote about Vermont in an essay after she moved  to Wyoming,  “their dense shade, their impenetrable jungles of seedlings, the claustrophobic looming that cut off all but a small piece of sky.”

WheelbarrowsA few years ago, shoving our rusty wheelbarrow across the rocky ground beside the house, I suddenly had a vision of an old picture I had seen of my grandmother. She was a Nebraska farmwife, and told me about the land of coyotes and rattlesnakes, and about leading my young mother and her brother on hikes for picnics on top of the tall bluff. I learned a few years ago (to my surprised delight) that her husband, my grandfather, grew up in Casper, in northeast Wyoming.

Is it a mere coincidence that I experienced a conversion, late in life, to a deep love for that desolate scrub-covered landscape beneath mountains and under an endless sky? Or is it written somewhere in my genes, inherited from that grandfather and grandmother?

Being a retired science writer, I couldn’t resist looking it up.

GreenGenes082815I found this review article, which I got around to reading while my husband was somewhere out there on Brooks Lake fishing with friends.

“[I]t is commonly assumed that restorative responses triggered by exposure to natural elements and settings are ultimately adaptive traits originating from our species’ long evolutionary history,” wrote Joye and van den Borg in 2011, in their analysis of the psychology of landscape preferences.

One theory, they said, is that we humans like wide-open spaces surrounded by a defined border because, harking back to our distant ancestors on the savannah, we find them non-threatening. They are not frighteningly endless; they have a boundary, and the trees have the promise of forage. But being able to see open land around us, according to the theory, gives us ample opportunity to detect threats. (Anyone who has hiked in grizzly country can appreciate this.)

This doesn’t account for my exultant sense of the transcendent as I watch a leaden bank of storm clouds move across the mountain peaks, followed by a rainbow. I wouldn’t see something like this in Connecticut.

Whatever the reason, I’d far rather be in this kind of landscape now, whatever the season. No contest.

RainbowView

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Adventures Away From the Fire

Discoveries in a tiny “wilderness” close to home, but beyond the smoke of a forest fire.

One gratifying fact about our wilderness is that there’s always somewhere else to go.

Mercifully, the Lava Mountain fire is almost history now, and the heroic crews have gone elsewhere to defeat other flames. But back in the day, a few weeks ago when we had no idea which way the fire would go, I needed to escape the smoke and the threat.

Hike072516That day I chose a trail I had scarcely explored before, although it’s on public land very close to home. It’s a very tiny “wilderness”close enough to hear the highway, and far too small an area to entice me most days. You either quickly run into dense undergrowth or are forced uphill toward a steep back road that I know all too well.

No mysteries, or so I thought. On that day, though, it passed the most important challenge: It was not down-wind from the fire.

We set off down the trail, dog and I, in search of new discoveries–he in search of scents and with luck carcasses, and me of new sights. Especially, I wanted to find a route to the river this time.

Before, I had always failed to reach the riverbank here. Wherever I walked, it was  hidden beyond dense thickets of underbrush or too far down a rocky slope to reach on foot. (What drives me to set a goal of reaching the riverbank? Food for thought some other day.)

TreeandRockI decided to deviate into a small thicket of trees, off the trail, where we’d never explored before. We scared up a few deer and a rabbit, but came quickly back to that steep slope toward the well-known road.

So I turned the other way, and quickly found a narrow game trail leading up the side of a steep ravine.

What was that interesting shape foundering at the edge of the ravine? We soldiered on, dog and I, and came to a wonderfully gnarly old tree that had spent its life in combat with a boulder.

Life often persists and triumphs out here despite daunting odds. Reminds me now of the firefighters who finally brought the Lava Mountain Fire to 90% containment, driving it off into the wilderness, without the loss of a single structure or, more importantly, a life. (But I didn’t know that then.)

I could clearly hear that elusive river, chattering along below.

We returned to the meadow at the end of the main trail, and set off crashing in the general direction of upriver. The dog was hoping for a way to charge toward the water — no hike is complete for him without a swim — and I kept directing him away from banks that looked to steep for him to climb back after his dip.

WatergateEventually, a small break in the brush appeared, with a rocky descent of just a few feet down to a nice beach. I urged him on, and followed carefully. After he had paddled back and forth and explored for a while, he bounded back up the slope.

Not so easy for me; I had to grab at some tree roots and hope for the best.

That was how, on all fours, I came to notice this ancient water gate just upstream, rusting and hidden deep in the undergrowth–a relic of someone’s efforts to manage the river, long ago.

Why does this seem a treasure? Because it’s something I found that few people must know about these days. I won’t be able to travel that nearby section of road without thinking about it.

Back in the meadow, I looked up at the sky. No smell of smoke, but there it certainly was, still invading a typically heavenly day in July in Dubois.

However, I was content. We’d gotten away, explored, and made discoveries within a few hundred yards, only a few miles from home. All would be well, I felt at that moment. And eventually, it was.

FireClouds072516

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

 

The Beauty in the Beast

What would I want to do if our dream house turned to ashes?

TownHallSignOn the day after we evacuated because of the Lava Mountain fire, I stopped at Town Hall to register to vote in Wyoming.

Why would I do that? Because like so many people, I want to stay here, whatever.

“Now you’ll never forget the day you registered to vote,” said the town clerk with a smile.

I had stood in the living room taking a long, possibly last, look at the magnificent view out the window. It’s funny what you grab at the last minute, when you thought you’d already moved everything to safety. (Don’t worry, Ted. I saw your wonderful painting of the black bear in the lupine, where I had hung it to be protected from the sunlight, and brought it out under my arm as I exited.)

I can save a small painting. But what would I do if our dream house turned to ashes?

“You’d rebuild,” said the town clerk. “That’s what people do here. They don’t go away. They rebuild.”

There’s a prominent example of this in the middle of town, where Jeff Sussman’s company is now starting to rebuild on the old Mercantile site that burned to the ground in a freak fire 18 months ago.

MercantileLot072615“Of course I will rebuild,” Jeff said at the time. “How could I not?”

And so they have broken ground. The plan is less elaborate than the original vision, because in the end the insurance didn’t buy as much building as the developers anticipated. But it still looks good.

Town looks like an armed camp these days, with two separate camps serving firefighters who keep arriving from places we’ve never heard of. It sounded like an episode of MASH around our house, as huge helicopters hovered to lift buckets of water from the river and then lumbered noisily away to dump them on the newest hot spots.

But it’s still Dubois. At one of the almost-nightly public meetings about the fire, a Red Cross official stood up and announced that a service center for evacuees  had been set up at the old high school to provide beds and meals. She said that she had a list of local people who were willing to offer rooms or even whole cabins to evacuees.

Rumor has it that only one lonely person is actually staying at the rescue shelter in the old high school. I haven’t had time to check that, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As far as I know, people are either seeing to their own needs independently, or staying with friends.

People tried to organize collections for the firefighters, suggesting contributions of supplies like eyedrops, lip salve, and socks. I thought about combing through my drawers for all of those extra supplies I haven’t even bothered to remove. But a Forest Service official thanked the town at the meeting, adding that donations are unnecessary. All of the crew member’s needs are supplied at the incident base, he explained.

“How can we volunteer?” asked someone in the audience. The speaker referred the question to the Red Cross representative, but she had already left the meeting. I wonder whether the Red Cross actually needed the volunteers either.

Most people I know are already volunteering, by taking up the slack for people who have had to back out on their own routine volunteer efforts because they’re too busy evacuating.

I reported to the church that I might not be able to turn up to help feed the bicycle trekkers who would be staying at the church yesterday, because we were still clearing out around the house. “Don’t worry about it,” said the minister. “We’re expecting this. We have backups.”

100_0456I couldn’t resist taaking a moment to grab a few images of this smoke cloud when I saw it from our side porch at sunset, several days before we evacuated.

The fire is a fearsome experience for all involved, but there is some beauty in it nonetheless.

 

 

 

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.