My City and My Country, in the Eyes of an Artist

A photo exhibit wonderfully portrays the same contrasts I describe

picture of building reflected in water

Trying to plan some diversions for a house guest from New York, I stopped by the Headwaters Center here in Dubois to ask about the current art exhibit. It’s a show of photographs of Wyoming and New York City, I learned.

What could be more perfect? My visitor has degrees in fine arts and art history, and photography is one of his passions.

He’s always talking about the remarkable light and the changing cloud patterns, and regularly dashes outside to catch yet one more different image of landscape and sky. I sometimes wonder whether he visits me here mostly to take photographs.

On the Friday before July 4, we were alone in the Headwaters gallery. I knew absolutely nothing about the photographer, Amanda Fehring, and had no way to guess what my guest would think of her work.

I found most of the images attractive because I could relate to their subjects–a few of them of New York City, but most of them showing our Western landscapes. On my own, I would have looked at them briefly, in order, and then left. But I had the pleasure of an expert guide.

He kept crossing and re-crossing the room, reviewing and comparing the images, seeing them with the eye of someone who might have taken them and sometimes wished he had.

“Half of these are really fantastic,” he said before we left.

picture of an art gallery

His favorite was a picture she had called “Leaning,” a black and white image of winter-bare trees and water. I would never have noticed it, but it stopped him in his tracks. On second viewing, he said it was perfect.

“Look at the way it’s divided exactly in thirds. There’s the white on the bottom balancing the white sky on the top. And look at the way the angle of the fallen tree exactly divides the image,” he said.

“And just listen to it. There’s that silence you get in winter. Not a sound, except maybe the flowing water.”

I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a photograph before.

picture of mountain range in snow

Another, called “White Red Canyon,” shows a pastel mix of sky over a red-rock formation blanketed in snow, taken from a distance and above. It’s one of those photographs that might actually be a painting instead.

“Amazing,” he said. “You really have to wait for that light. And where was she taking that from? How did that happen?”

Again and again, he invoked the thought of patience and persistence, of the photographer going out in harsh weather, waiting for just the right moment or finding a difficult vantage point, all in search of the right image. It brought to mind some wildlife biologists I have admired for similar attributes.

“This one is really high art,” he said of an image of Lake Como in Italy, pointing out the clarity of the pine needles at the right and the cross-hatching in the water, which he traced to a jet boat that he spied as a white line and dot, barely visible at the base of the hills on the opposite shore.

“She got it so crisp,” he said. “It’s hard to get the saturation right in the shot like that, rather than just fixing it later.”

shadows of people looking at a framed photograph

In contrast, it was the un-clarity of “Wintry Wind River” that he admired, the way in which her artistry caught the frigid vapor that rises above our river on a sub-zero day. Three visual elements caught in one moment, he said: wind, water, and air.

“What’s your favorite?” he asked me after a while.

“I can’t really say,” I replied, “after hearing everything you’ve had to say about them.”

Fair enough, he granted. Looking around quickly, I pointed to the photograph she had called “Noho Stroll.”

framed photograph of woman walking down a street in New York City

“I probably like it just because it reminds me of all those times I used to walk home from work in midtown all the way to Brooklyn,” I said.

“And I like the bright colors.” I pointed out the way the bright blue and red bicycle at the center of the image echoed the walls behind and the blue dress of the Asian woman with the parasol in the center.

“I don’t like that very much,” he remarked, pointing to a yellow traffic cone near the bicycle. But you can’t just rearrange the elements of a street scene, I argued–and then he began to change his mind.

“That matches the yellow of that sign, and there’s the green of those plants. She has all the primary colors. It does have the classic perspective from two points, and the reflection on the side of that delivery van at left really opens up the sky. And also she waited for the right subject.” (He meant the woman with the parasol). “So she has done her job.”

Finally we noticed a curious, postcard-like picture of an strangely shaped building that seemed inconsistent with the others — oddly unfocused and poorly composed.

photograph of entry to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn

“Where is that?” I asked. He peered closely at the image. Indistinctly, from the banners on either side of the door, he could discern the location.

“Greenwood Cemetery! Of course!”

We both recognized the building instantly. It’s a Brooklyn landmark.

“She was standing back to take the image from the front,” he guessed, “and then those two women in blue walked up with those gowns exactly the color of the sky. So she just took the shot.”

The image is called “Late.” Perhaps few others would get the hidden meaning. It looks like women walking into a church, but actually they’re entering a cemetery. And in fact, perhaps, Fehring herself arrived too late to compose the shot very well.

I had figured Amanda Fehring as some trust-fund kid who lives in Jackson and doesn’t really need to work. But returning home to my computer, I was surprised and pleased to learn that she’s the news director of County 10 in Riverton. She grew up in Montana, met her husband in college there, and they moved to Brooklyn together after college.

It would have been even more of a contrast for him than for me, because he comes from nearby Kinnear, a hamlet near Riverton which has a population of only about 50. They returned to the West, she told me, because “we needed a break from the big city.”

“Photography has always been a big part of my life,” Fehring said. She recalls grabbing her mother’s single-reflex camera at age 8 or 9, and she been taking pictures ever since.

“It’s never been something I tried to make money off of,” she added — and that’s still true. Every photograph in the current exhibition is priced at $175.

The exhibit closes on July 8. If you’re nearby and you like good art, hurry to catch it before it closes. At least half of the photographs are fantastic. An expert told me so.

© Lois Wingerson, 2022

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Life on the Overlook, Wild and Otherwise

Of animal encounters on the way up and down

View from the Overlook in Dubois WY

My hiking buddy bailed, so I decided to do the go-to workout in the middle of town. I’ve often tramped that steep dirt road up the Overlook before, seen that red dirt and those rocks.

Just back from a hiking trip to the top of the Yorkshire Dales, I’ve been slow to regain my enthusiasm for hiking here. But at least it’s exercise, I told myself. And around here you never know what you may find.

It’s  a fairly steep climb up the dirt road to the plateau halfway up, with the chariot racetrack off to the east. From that point there’s a brief stroll across fairly level ground (the middle part of the picture above). Then you have the option of continuing along the road or taking a shorter but steeper trail to the top.

That last part of the hike up the trail, which you can see at the lower left in the picture, is usually slick with loose pebbles. Always risking “rock and roll,” you want to go slowly and step carefully.

I left the road. Just starting up that final climb, I heard someone yelling behind me – the kind of shout an angry parent uses for a disobedient child. But this wasn’t one shout; it was repeated and insistent. I turned to look.

Hike to the top of the Scenic Overlook in Dubois WY

A pickup was coming slowly up the road. An arm waved out the driver’s window. Two dogs – one brown, one white –  were trailing behind, detouring to sniff and explore. The yells went on, and the dogs followed in stops and spurts.

I went on uphill. A few feet up the pebbly trail, I heard barking close behind me. A handsome young white hound was trailing me, a few feet behind. Its gaze was interested, not hostile.

“Go back,” I said, waving toward the pickup that was headed along the road toward the top. “Go on!”

It barked again, then turned and ran toward the pickup. “Good dog!” I called after it.

The pickup was already parked when I emerged at the top of the trail, breathing hard. A woman and the two dogs were standing beside the driver’s door. Two others had stepped away to look at the badlands behind.

The driver caught my eye. “I can’t keep up with them, so I just let them run,” she said. “I bring them up here every day.”

Off-leash dogs are a hot-button issue here, a topic for debate in the local newspaper. Others let their dogs run loose on the Overlook. If there’s a rule about that, it is often honored in the breach.

Dog on the Scenic Overlook in Dubois WY

“Yeah, I used to let my dog run free up here too,” I replied. “I knew he would never hurt anyone.”

“Your dog up here?” she asked.

“No, he’s no longer with us,” I said. (That’s him on the Overlook. I hope he is having many wonderful hikes in his afterlife.)

I approached the white hound dog, my hand extended palm down, and it sniffed and wagged its tail. “You’re a good dog!” I said. “Good for you protecting your owner.”

Her two friends were taking pictures with their cameras. “I always think it’s unfair that the steepest part is at the top,” I said to them as I headed toward the road downhill, having caught my breath. “See you on the way down.”

And I did. Both dogs ran happily behind the pickup. Neither was interested in me now.

Reaching the flat stretch on the middle level, I saw five horses trotting in my direction, tightly reined by a pair of riders. I stepped off into the sagebrush to let them pass.

It’s the week before the Don Scheer Memorial Pack Horse Races, when people compete to be quickest to load the panniers and gear on their horses at the Town Park, race up to the Overlook and away somewhere else, unload and repack, and then return, unload, and pitch “camp”.

I’ve seen riders on horseback along the highway in recent days, training their horses not to be spooked by the traffic. The tourists must love the sight.

Contestant in Pack Horse Races, Dubois WY

“Good luck at the races!” I called out as the two men passed.

“We’ll need it!” said one of them.

“Doesn’t everybody?” I asked, thinking of the man last year whose load slipped off just as he was leaving the Park.

I continued along the double-track that runs toward the dirt road heading down toward the highway. Just as I reached the road, the pickup approached, followed by the brown dog. I couldn’t imagine why she would be coming up from behind, given that she had already passed me.

She stopped and rolled her window down. “Lose one?” I said.

“He got distracted by a coyote,” she replied. “Did you see the coyote?”

“Nope. I was too busy watching the horses.”

View east from Scenic Overlook in Dubois WY

“Yeah, I saw them too. But I never heard of a coyote on the Overlook. What was a coyote doing up here, I wonder?”

“My dog once found a dead porcupine up here,” I replied. “I wondered what on earth a porcupine was doing on the Overlook.”

“Yeah. No trees up here,” she said. “Musta been lost.” She waved and drove on.

Sure was a workout, I said to myself as I went on.  

It may not have the charm and novelty of the Yorkshire Dales. But still, it’s so much more interesting than Pandora on the headphones and the incline settings on the treadmill.

© Lois Wingerson, 2022

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Dispatch from a Distance

News from a remote region of North England that resonates with home

Cover of Reeth & District Gazette May 2022 edition

While relaxing with a beer after a long hike in England’s Yorkshire Dales, I picked up a copy of the Reeth & District Gazette. What I read was so similar to what goes on back home that I can’t resist sharing it.

Otherwise, the scene is quite different there. The buildings are made mostly of rough-cut stone, and most fields are lined with high stone walls. The thought of the strength and effort required for all that construction with native stone was mind-boggling.

Most of the livestock are sheep, not cattle. Because public rights of way cut right across the meadows (crossing those stone walls with very cumbersome stiles), most hikes lead directly through flocks of grazing ewes and their winsome lambs. All but the bravest lambs skitter off as you approach. The ewes shift a few feet away, if at all.

Sheep grazing in a meadow

Cows are still fairly rare. Back in the day when farming rather than tourism dominated the economy, it was an unavoidable but costly requirement to keep one or two cows (never mind a whole herd).

Small stone barns dot the landscape, “cow houses” built to protect that valuable investment from the elements. Some of these structures are now falling to ruin. Others are renovated for use as studios or vacation rentals.

That’s the setting. Here’s the news from the Gazette:

Editor Mike Barden begins the edition by writing sadly of the pandemic, and fretting about impact of the subsequent “frightening price increases” on anyone “just starting out into their own world” as well as on single mums and pensioners. Then he mentions the horrors in the Ukraine and the heroism there that has “so far averted WW3.”

“Can you believe what I have just written about in those sentences?” he adds. “Matters we would have never expected to happen.”

The other articles, interspersed between the small ads,  are reassuringly provincial, kindhearted, and oddly reminiscent. To wit:

Street in a rural village in Yorkshire

— The Dales Police report for March consisted of one incident of violence, 2 each of criminal damage, burglary and drugs possession, 4 reports of theft and 5 complaints of fraud (the latter mostly involving phone scams related to Amazon and Ebay). On March 8, an unknown male took 2 bottles of Jack Daniels from the Co-op in Leyburn. Someone stole cooking oil from a pub in Wensley.

— A Community Emergency Plan is being enacted to retrieve “vulnerable people” from their homes in times of power outages or natural disasters and deliver them to community centers for shelter. This is necessary to avoid “long periods of waiting in case the Emergency Services are delayed and cannot arrive promptly.”

— Volunteers are working fast to create new nesting boxes for swifts, swallows, and house martins. The options for suitable nesting spots (“nooks and crannies in cavity walls in buildings, empty barns and window alcoves”) have been declining, presumably due to development. A box-building class is on offer, and contractors are being asked to incorporate nesting sites into new structures “subject to consent.” A bird count is also under way.

— Members of SWAAG (the Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group) have been pondering the origins of a large cross-shaped formation of white pebbles recently discovered on Calver Hill, oriented roughly to the north. Information from Google Maps and the (US) National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, pertaining to the deviation of magnetic north over the past 300-plus years, suggests that the stones were laid in 1945 or 1946. It could be some sort of memorial. The US and UK Royal Air Forces used the area for flight practice back then, but there is no record of a plane crash. The cross remains a mystery.

Hikers on a moor in Yorkshire

— In April, Swaledale Mountain Rescue (a team of “highly trained volunteers available 24/7 in any weather, any time”) assisted:
(1) an injured hiker near the waterfall above Hawes, who was able to walk out after treatment;
            (2) a “vulnerable person” who had gone missing after being last seen at the visitor center, and was located with the help of a police helicopter and two search dogs; and
            (3) an injured mountain biker who was treated and then removed by ambulance.

Swaledale Mountain Rescue is offering to mail prints of the drawing “Sheep at Thea’s Cottage” to people who donate money to the cause.

A church in Yorkshire, England

— The huge, ancient Scots pine in Holy Trinity church yard in Low Row has to be removed because it is leaning dangerously eastward after surviving decades of high winds. The church plans to plant other trees to compensate. (Can’t you hear the grumbling from parishioners and neighbors? Something could have been done!) New trees will be planted to compensate for its loss.

— The Dales also have “badlands.” An expert from the Yorkshire Peat Partnership was scheduled to give an online talk about the restoration of three “moors that are close to her heart” — what might have caused them to degrade, the likely consequences for wildlife and water quality, and what could be done to restore them.

On May 21, a ”Peat and Poetry Event” will contemplate the same matters during a 5-6 mile trek on a nearby moor. There will also be recitals of poems about peat and a visit to the Poetry Postbox. Walkers are encouraged to contribute their own poems to the box.

The Dales are not my landscape, but I loved them anyway. I also love the way the people care about them – and about the strangers who choose to wander across them, and about each other. And about the wildlife.

© Lois Wingerson, 2022

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At Home in a Different World

Reflections from another sort of wild West

Hole in the Wall pub, Bodmin, Cornwall

“This pub has almost as much character as the Rustic,” said my husband, as he sat down with my pint of bitters and his Guiness. We were in Bodmin, a town in Cornwall, on a vacation to England that has been long postponed due to COVID.

Three blokes sat on a bench a few feet away, joking, sharing beer and stories. The aged ranchmen in the Rustic swap memories too, but they sit on high stools at the bar.

“Well, I’d better get along,” said one of the men, while showing no sign of an intention to move. “Time to go home and kiss the dog and kick the wife.” One of the others said something too quiet to hear, and he replied that he didn’t really want to kiss the dog.

I couldn’t resist a chuckle, and he noticed. One joy of traveling in a country where you know the language is being able to get the jokes.

Leaning back, I noticed the flintlocks hanging from the ceiling beams, not on the walls as the rifles do at the Rustic. There was no line of cowboy hats behind the bar.

Port Isaac, Cornwall

Cornwall was a Wild West of its own, once a land of outlaws as surely as the cowboy country in America. These outlaws were pirates and smugglers, some of whom lured ships to founder on the rocky coastline in order to plunder their cargo.

It’s the land of the hero Poldark and the villain Joss Merlyn, the brutal landlord of Jamaica Inn on the heights of Bodmin Moor. The Inn, which really exists, was the setting of a novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, which Alfred Hitchcock made into an ominous movie.

It’s an odd name for a hotel in the middle of Cornwall, perhaps given because its founder was a sea-captain who sailed to Jamaica. In the novel, the miscreant Merlyn has bought the Inn, let it fall to ruin, and turned it into a derelict storage space for smugglers’ booty. We are staying there now, as the base for our visit to Cornwall.

Jamaica Inn, Bolventor, Cornwall, 2022

It’s charming and rather kitschy today, but DuMaurier made it seem wonderfully sinister in the book. (Do you like the picture? I caught it after sundown.) We are reading the novel to each other in our bright and comfortable room or in the bar, which is dark but hardly scary.

“Jamaica’s got a bad name,” says the coach driver who delivers the heroine, Mary Yellen, to the Inn. “Respectable folk don’t go to Jamaica anymore. That’s all I know. … They’re afraid.”

(Whenever we read the heroine’s name, Mary Yellen, I’m amused to be interrupted with the thought of a dear friend back home: Mary Ellen.)

Mary Yellen clearly finds the landscape forbidding as she approaches in the coach. “On either side of the road the country stretched interminably into space,” du Maurier wrote. “No trees, no lanes, no cottages or hamlet, but mile upon mile of bleak moorland, dark and untraversed, rolling like a desert land to some unseen horizon.”

Sounds rather like that country I love, the miles between Lander and Rawlins. Of course, out there we do have Jeffrey City which might be called a “hamlet”.

View of A30 from Jamaica Inn, Cornwall

This is highway A30 that passes Jamaica Inn today. The modern road, now a divided highway, must generally follow the route of the old “high road” that passed the Inn in the 1820s, when the novel was set. As in Dubois now, there would have been only one proper highway in the entire area.

DuMaurier describes that land as fearsomely forbidding. “No human being could live in this wasted country, thought Mary, and remain like other people; the very children would be born twisted, like the blackened shrubs of broom, bent by the force of a wind that never ceased … Their minds would be twisted too, their thoughts evil, dwelling as they must amid … granite, harsh heather, and crumbling stone.”

A wind that never ceased. Granite and crumbling stone. Twisted minds.

Oh, my …

Stowe Hill, Bodmin Moor

While some of the land has since become farm fields, the higher elevations of the moor surrounding the Inn remain isolated and desolate. We have hiked some of it. The high parts of the landscape are as rugged as the badlands back home, but in a different way. I loved it. Perhaps my mind is twisted.

Unlike Wyoming, this is wet country, and there are warnings in the guidebooks about sinking into bogs or marshes on lower ground. There’s a framed picture in the Inn of a young man who disappeared while hiking on the moor in the 1930s.

It’s been dry here lately, but we took the advice in the guidebooks and stayed to the high ground. That can have its perils too. I nearly foundered when a sudden gust of wind tried to knock me sideways on the rocky ground in this picture.

As on hikes back home, we passed prehistoric relics — stone circles and stone path markers.

We saw abandoned mines and clambered up to high outcrops of granite.

Mare and foal on Bodmin Moor (top). Horses running near Jakey’s Fork, Dubois WY

We also had charming encounters on the moor. We scared up many shaggy, rustic sheep accompanied by their gamboling lambs.

Wild mares wander the moors, followed closely by their foals.

That sight was endearing, but not thrilling like the encounter with a herd of horses from CM Ranch that a hiking buddy and I saw while walking up the road toward Three Lakes, shortly before I left for England.

Unlike the ponies on Bodmin Moor, they did not wander off in another direction. They stood silently and watched us from the ridge, unafraid, and then galloped down the slope ahead.

They weren’t wild horses, of course, but they were literally running wild.

Both times, the sight of the horses free and loose made me catch my breath and stop.

It’s strange, I texted to my hiking buddy back in Wyoming, to feel I am both at home and in a different world.

© Lois Wingerson, 2022

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The Truth About Richard Dennison (So Far…)

Stories about him, and by him about himself.

Richard V. Dennison
Richard V. Dennison

Richard V. (Dick) Dennison was one of those enigmatic characters who came to Dubois from the East Coast, tried and failed, and then vanished without leaving much of himself behind.

Fortunately for us, someone mentioned to Grace Remington, a documentary film-maker in New York City, that she “had a grand uncle who killed someone and then fled justice to Wyoming, where he built a palatial lodge populated with celebrities.”

Curious, Grace followed up briefly over the phone with former Dubois mayor Twila Blakeman. Then the pandemic hit.

A few months ago, with the pandemic easing, and herself now supported by a fellowship from the Jacob Burns Film Center, Grace reached out to the Dubois Museum, feeling a need to “just go and see if anyone knows anything about this guy to whom I’m distantly related and who died a long time ago.” (He was her maternal grandfather’s uncle.)

I happened upon Grace at the coffee shop, on her first morning in town. Lynn Stewart introduced us, we sorted out our coincidental connection, and she beamed her infectious smile. I’m so glad I stopped by that morning.

It happens that Grace lives about 6 blocks from my former home in Brooklyn. This revelation prompted a long and intense conversation, mostly about restaurants and ethnic food stores far from Wyoming.

She had just arrived. She sat on the white sofa, the Perch’s copy of Mary Allison’s Dubois Area History right in front of her on the table. She stayed for 3 hours after I left, as people drew her in and vice versa, the way it often happens in there.

She came to my house later (I lent her a memory card) and a few days afterwards we had lunch at the Cowboy Cafe, where I formally interviewed her and took notes. This is that story.

Dennison Lodge
Dennison Lodge

R.V.D. did leave one important thing behind: the Dennison Lodge. It’s the attractive log building that stands today between the Dubois Museum and the National Bighorn Sheep Center, across the highway from Family Dollar.

As most locals know, it used to stand 18 miles up East Fork, the center of an exclusive, invitation-only dude ranch whose guests included Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.

After Dennison died suddenly, under mysterious circumstances, and the property ended up in government hands, the building was threatened with demolition. Several influential women moved heaven and earth to get it moved into town. It’s an event venue today. (At least one barn from the property was also relocated, a few miles down East Fork, to the site of the Trial Lawyers College.)

Many long-term residents can sketch in other details, often tracing back to the account in Mary Allison’s book. A Brief History of the Dennison Lodge, published in 2000, repeats some of the same information and adds more.

They say that Richard Dennison fled here to escape prosecution after he killed someone in a hit-and-run accident back East. The lodge was fitted out with lavish, expensive furniture and mounts of African animals which Dennison, not being a hunter, had purchased. He went broke, killed himself, and the lodge stood empty.

That’s the local lore, much of it true. But the reality that Grace is teasing out is different in some details, at once stranger and oddly familiar.

Adapted from an entry in Dubois Area History, p. 200

During her visit, the town responded “in a way that was genuine and really beautiful,” Grace told me. “I got to know people, and everyone was enthusiastic to share what they have to offer.”

She visited the Dennison and the Museum and anyone she could find who had information about the history of the Lodge and its founder. Grace told me it was interesting to see “how the story plays out in a town full of stories and story tellers–reliable and otherwise.”

Richard Dennison was born in Philadelphia in December 1880, the third of 7 siblings, three of whom died in childhood. Mary Allison says he was a member of the New Jersey family that owned the Dennison Paper Company, but actually his father was president of American Oil Development Company in Pittsburgh. As Grace puts it, he was a trust fund baby.

A Brief History of the Dennison Lodge says that Dick visited “the CM Dude Ranch on Jakey’s Fork in 1913” at the age of 23. But he was actually 33 in 1913, and that was 7 years before Charles Moore founded the CM on Jakey’s Fork. Moore did run a pack-tripping operation out of the base of the Dunoir, but it was intended for boys, not grown men, and its buildings burned down sometime around 1905, according to Allison.

Her book says that he first came here in 1914, without mentioning the CM Ranch. Whatever the reality, like so many others Dennison obviously fell in love with the Wind River Valley once he saw it.

“Clearly, he had the experience of a lifetime there,” Grace said. “That must be when he decided what he wanted to do.”

Looking through records at the court house in Lander, she hasn’t yet tracked down exactly when Dick bought the ranch up Bear Creek. But only 7 years later, by 1920, he lived in Lander. In 1924, he was living back East in New Jersey, but by 1930 he was in Fremont County for good.

Dennison Lodge, then

He began living out the cowboy dream. People say he was a good rider. On the ranch, he raised Jersey cattle and thoroughbred horses.

After Grace left, I took a picture of a few pages about Dick Dennison from Esther Mockler’s memoir, and texted them to her. He “had a theory that horses raised in high altitudes would develop a larger lung capacity than low-altitude horses, and thus could win more races,” Mockler wrote. “He never conclusively proved his theory.”

Dennison Lodge, now. Same room,
slightly different vantage point.

“Seems like a good summation of Dick Dennison’s overall approach to things,” Grace wrote back, repeating the last line: He never conclusively proved his theory.

There’s also much that she may never prove conclusively.

Through a distant relative doing family genealogy, whom she learned about from the Dubois Museum, and from her own research, Grace has discovered “things that aren’t the case.” In short, much of what Dick Dennison told people here is untrue or cannot be verified.

Mary Allison wrote that he had a twin brother who died at the age of 12. There is no record of a twin brother.

He told people that he served overseas in World War I, and he chose to wear WWI-style Army boots. According to the genealogy by Grace’s relative, his death certificate says that he was a World War 1 veteran who suffered shell shock after the war. But his passport shows that he went to France in 1918 as a volunteer for the Red Cross.

At the age of 37, he would have been deemed too old to serve according to regulations at the time, and in any case the war ended shortly afterwards. Veteran or volunteer, perhaps it doesn’t matter. But he left a certain impression.

Mary Allison recorded his middle name as “venison” (see image above). “Richard Venison Dennison?” said Grace. “That’s so insane!” His real middle name was Vincent. Was she mistaken, or was he playing around?

“Who knows?” she said during our interview. “Maybe the hit and run was another fabrication, to give him some sort of ‘credibility’. Like he killed someone, but then he wasn’t to blame because it was an accident, so he didn’t have to feel guilty.” The concept “fleeing justice to the West” does have considerably more glamor than just coming West to play cowboy, doesn’t it?

Because there’s no evidence that he ever mentioned a date and a place, and by definition he would have fled the scene, Grace can’t imagine how she might validate that part of his story. He had no criminal record.

When he came to Wyoming, Grace believes, he set about to “write his own story and fashion a life for himself that was fulfilling.” She talks of a “duality of identity,” of a life not lived and experiences never had.

In a sense, she pointed out, he followed a course of action that is paralleled by “many other people, even to this day” — those who envision a new lifestyle for themselves and head West to create it.

On September 27, 1939, according to Mary Allison, Dick called his friend Eloise Peck saying that she should come over if she wanted to see him alive. When she arrived at 10:30 a.m., she found him dead in a chair. There was no inquest, and the rumor that he took his own life has not been verified. He was 59 years old.

He was cremated and his ashes taken to Denver. There is no information beyond that.

Grace drove to Lander to read his estate documents. In December 1939, the inventory ran to 27 pages of possessions, assessed at $100,000. But there was also a long list of creditors, and the inventory list eventually shrank to 5 pages. By that time the assessment had fallen to $33,500, “which the lawyer for his executor conveniently buys,” Grace told me.

There are rumors that many items were stolen and never recorded.

“It’s telling and poetic that what remained of Dick Dennison was a list of his stuff,” Grace said at the Cowboy Cafe. Very few pictures from the Dennison ranch in the Museum collection have people in them, she told me. Most of them show nothing but things.

Grace Remington

“But after all, the only thing that remains of any of us are the stories we tell about ourselves,” she went on, “and the stories that others tell about us.”

“Well, there IS a big lodge,” she added, with that smile.

She asked for a hug, and we parted. Grace intends to return to Dubois sometime in June.

© Lois Wingerson, 2022

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February in April — With Benefits

Musings and images about winter, which is slow to yield …

icicles descending from a roof eave

Winter has come just as the calendar ordered up spring. Days are longer but just as cold.

After teasing us for a few days, Mother Nature blessed us with snow here at the base of the mountain, day after day. (I write “blessed” because we need the precipitation to avoid drought.)

We wish this had happened a while ago.

However, this does give me occasion to share some new poems by my dear friend Mary Ellen Honsaker, who enjoys playing with haiku. Wherever you are reading this, and whatever your weather, I hope you enjoy them.


sunrise over snow
bright sun brings its warmth
but wind from the mountain snow
steals summer from us
Pine trees in snowfall
yesterday snow fell
I hoped it would continue
but it was brief lace
Foothills with a little snow
Cold sun lies of warmth
step out and disappointment
pulls your down coat close
Fireplace
Taste of fine whiskey
on a cold night warms the soul
and wakens old dreams


Bighorn sheep grazing
Red cliffs lead sheep down
like the shepherd from the fold
watered, fed, they climb

Bird on a roof

A bird, refugee
in my cold stove this morning,
bursts in, illegal

seeking warmth he came
only to find dark passage
to a strange prison

escape to windows
keeping him from sky beyond,
settled down at last

we spoke, quiet chirps
understanding only voice
that sought to ease fear

caught with soft tossed cloth,
gentle hand our only touch
carried him hidden

out through my porch door
opened folds transfixed our eyes
a moment, then gone

Did he know my heart
would have welcomed the visit
for a bit longer?

Asylum granted
and promised if ever need
wings this way again


Haiku poetry © Mary Ellen Honsaker 2022

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Science Tackles A Different Pandemic in Our Valley

Finally, a clear picture begins to emerge from the data

I’m driving over the washboard road toward the Whiskey Mountain Trailhead, when my hiking partner gasps. I brake.

“Look over there!” she says.

It’s a rare and very special sight: A group of bighorn sheep, up close. We count 26.

“Are those lambs?” she asks, spotting a few small ones. Maybe last year’s, I respond. The new lambs won’t be born for a few weeks yet.

I resist the urge to add what I learned recently, at the Annual Meeting of the National Bighorn Sheep Center in Dubois.

So far, from what Rachel Smiley and Brittney Wagler said at the meeting, I assume that none of these sheep that gaze at us in the spring sun are infected. With luck, they never will be.

Smiley and Wagner, both graduate students at the University of Wyoming, are somewhere high in the mountains right now, working to capture female bighorns which will be tested and then released. After a long, slow process, they have amassed enough data points to draw some conclusions about what should be done.

As most locals know, these sheep are just a remnant of the core native herd of bighorns in the greater Yellowstone region. Before 1990, the Whiskey Mountain herd was so large that almost 2000 wild sheep were transferred out of here to populate other parts of the Mountain West. That stopped abruptly after the herd suffered a die-off in the 1990s. It has never recovered.

Drawing of bighorn sheep near mountains

Scientists and interested local volunteers have spent decades trying to understand the problem. Only in the last few years, with the same DNA technology used to test for COVID, has research identified the root cause: the bacterium Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae. (Researchers shorthand this to “Movi”.)

 It  affects sheep worldwide, both domestic and wild, causing a form of pneumonia. Movi is easily transmitted and (especially in this area, for some reason) often fatal in bighorns.

The parallel to COVID isn’t lost on researchers, who observe that sheep don’t wear masks, have a habit of sniffing each other’s noses, and behave with the opposite of social distancing. There is no vaccine against Movi.

There’s another poignant parallel for the Sheep Center. Its Director (who is also, like Wagler and Smiley, young and very fit) nearly died last year from pneumonia due to a form of plague that she caught from her sick cat.

Like so many other pathogens, Movi came to America with the Europeans – specifically, with their sheep. It jumped easily to wild sheep. There aren’t any domestic sheep near here these days, but Movi has persisted. It isn’t the only respiratory pathogen now endemic among local bighorns, which may harbor any or all of 5 different varieties. It’s just the most deadly.

Since 2015, a multi-agency project begun in coordination with the Sheep Center in Dubois has been pursuing a coordinated effort to come up with solutions. As part of it, Smiley and Wagler capture ewes in December and March and test them for Movi as well as for their physical condition, having fitted each one with a radio collar and a vaginal implant transmitter (VIT) that signals when they give birth.

Since 2020, they have also been capturing and collaring newborn lambs. Much of the time, off-schedule, they go back in when sheep (or sometimes just their collars) have died. Every reading and result becomes a point in a larger image.

Bighorn lamb

“Every one of those data points has a ton of effort that has gone into it,” said project advisor Kevin Monteith PhD at the Sheep Center Annual Meeting. But he didn’t expand on that. I was able to learn more from a long interview with Smiley and Wagler posted on the Artemis Podcast in 2020.

This was just after they had begun to radio-collar lambs, which in their rugged high-mountain habitat is a matter of tactics, stealth, endurance, and extreme physical agility. Smiley, a recreational rock climber, often relies on those skills.

“Sometimes it seems crazy that they choose to do what they do,” she said. “A cliff edge is their favorite place in the world.”

When a VIT signals a new birth, they have to race to wherever the GPS reads, because both sheep may easily move away. Some ewes favor giving birth near Down’s Lake, at 12,000 feet in the back and beyond of the Wind River range. “We go up on the old Glacier trail,” said Wagler, “steep, steep, steep switchbacks and then across Goat Flat, which is like 4 miles of rock-hopping. By the end of the summer, we’re all pretty just drained of doing this hike over and over again.”

Other ewes seem to want to give birth just after a snowstorm rolls through, so Smiley always waits for VIT signals after a spring blizzard. Occasionally, she has gone out on skis to find a newborn lamb.

Getting there is only part of the fun. Usually a spotter joins two people going out for the capture, all in contact by radio. They need to creep up as close as possible to the ewe and her newborn, then race in for the capture the instant the sheep spot the humans.

Lambs only a few hours old are quite mobile, and can easily dash out of sight in seconds or leap a 10-foot cliff, climbing and scrambling over rocks and steep snowbanks that no sensible human would attempt.

The researchers also have to trek out to retrieve carcasses, hoping to learn the cause of death. Sometimes the remains are too far gone to accomplish this. And sometimes they wonder what’s actually watching them.

Once, Smiley went out alone to pick up a collar only a few miles from the highway up a ravine. She found herself staring up into the steady gaze of the mountain lion that must have just swallowed the collar, along with the unlucky lamb.  (She backed away, very slowly.)

All the data points gathered in this challenging effort have documented what the Sheep Center already knew: Nowhere near enough lambs are surviving to guarantee the Whiskey herd a future. Around half to three-fourths of lambs born to the Gros Ventre herd near Jackson survive to adulthood. Last year was a banner year for Dubois: Two lambs actually made it through to winter.

The first few weeks of life are perilous for any bighorn lamb. Although predators do kill some lambs, including some that are healthy, most lambs born to the Whiskey herd die of pneumonia, the team has found.

Graph showing early life mortality in bighorn lambs
Adapted from a graph created by the Monteith team

The problem is most grave in the Red Creek sub-herd, the bighorns that can be seen sometimes grazing dangerously near the highway beside the huge red-rock formations at the eastern edge of the Wind River Reservation.

One member of the herd, Sheep 108, was caught for the first time in March 2019 and twice since then. Each time, she has tested positive for Movi. She has never recovered.

(However, escape is possible: Sheep #1, also a member of the Red Creek sub-herd, has been tested 9 times and never tested positive. Many sheep in herds elsewhere catch the bacterium and do recover. What makes the difference? The team would like to know, and hope to learn.)

Sheep #6 was first caught in March 2015. She tested positive for Movi a year later, and then began to harbor the other 4 pathogens. Although she never appeared sick, she tested positive ever after, and died last December. At necropsy, her lungs were full of tissue killed by pneumonia. She also had a sinus tumor. These tumors, invisible to human observers in the live animal, are known to harbor bacteria.

Among the 10 lambs born to ewes that chronically tested positive for Movi among the Red Creek herd, only one survived to the next winter–and it had been born to a ewe that first tested positive only afterwards. The chronically infected ewes are not contributing to the herd. Instead, they are endangering it.

Obviously, it is not only the lambs born to infected mothers that are at risk of catching Movi. “Essentially any lamb is susceptible to dying of pneumonia if there is Movi in that subgroup,” said Daryl Lutz, wildlife management coordinator for Wyoming Game & Fish, at the Sheep Center meeting.

Brittney Wagler, Rachel Smiley, and Daryl Lutz on Zoom
Wagler, Smiley, and Lutz on Zoom at Sheep Center Annual Meeting

Over the Zoom screen, Lutz and Monteith looked troubled at times. Beginning his remarks, Monteith signaled the unhappy conclusion that was ahead. “When we engage in working to address difficult questions like this, we often hope to find a silver bullet, and oftentimes things are complex enough that maybe there’s not a silver bullet. I think this is one of those instances.”

After Smiley and Wagner painstakingly laid out the results of their research, Lutz had the more difficult task of explaining the consequences.

The collaborative team had already sought and won approval for its strategy from the Intertribal Council, the elected governing body on the Wind River Indian Reservation, which is part of the herd’s habitat. The jargon they use for the strategy is “test and remove.” It has shown some success in infected herds in Idaho, South Dakota, and British Columbia. (The Sheep Center is hosting a webcast about test and remove on April 9.)

“Remove” means to kill the chronically infected “super-spreaders” – in this case, three who had never produced a viable lamb since becoming chronically infected with Movi — because there’s no good option for actually relocating a very sick bighorn. (Nature has already removed the fourth, Sheep #6.) The team intends to examine the ewes that have been culled, anticipating they will find more sinus tumors.

I think a more appropriate euphemism would be the one we used back when I was doing cancer research on laboratory mice:  Sacrifice. That research provided no advantage for the rest of the mice, but in this case the ewes are indeed being killed for the potential benefit of the rest of the herd.

The decision entailed “a lot of thought, a lot of discourse, and also angst on my part and I’m sure others felt it too,” Lutz said, “because what we’re talking about doing is a pretty aggressive management tool.”

Tally of bighorn sheep viewed in Wind River Valley
Bighorn tally on display at Sheep Center

Twice he stressed that the decision was not “cavalier,” adding that he hates killing any animal unnecessarily. “But I do think we’re at a point where this is the best thing to do.”

Someone asked whether it might be possible to treat the sick animals and isolate them instead. But there are no effective antibiotics or good place to keep bighorns in captivity, Monteith said. There is simply no time left to take any chances with this herd, Lutz added.

There’s no guarantee that the strategy will rescue the sub-herd at Red Creek, in part because the herd there is already so small. But it may help to protect others nearby, like those we saw last week.

Many questions remain.

Although Movi doesn’t survive outside a living body the way Coronavirus can, the outdoor environment may still play a role. Oddly, bighorns in the Absaroka range just across our valley test positive for the same number and kind of bacteria as the ones on the Whiskey Mountain side. But that herd is thriving, numbering around 1000, while the Dubois herd has been dying off for decades.

One reason might be nutrition. But then why did the Whiskey Mountain herd thrive before the 1990s, and not after?

Bighorn sheep

Smiley and Wagler have found that ewes in the Whiskey herd don’t gain as much fat during the summer as bighorn ewes on the Gros Ventre side near Jackson. They’ve been systematically gathering samples of forage in both locations.

Their initial findings won’t surprise hikers in the Winds and the Tetons: Plant life is much less abundant in the mountains around Dubois than in the greener terrain over the Pass.

It could be that the lambs here are more susceptible simply because they (and the pregnant ewes) aren’t fed well enough. What to do about that, if it’s true, is yet another question to address.

Often, Wagner said during the podcast, people told them that what Montieth had assigned them to do was impossible.

“He just said we’re going to get it done. And yeah, we’re getting it done. It is possible.”

© Lois Wingerson, 2022

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Texas to Wyoming Overland, January 2022

On the trail of Mark Twain and many cowboys

Two lane highway through empty fields.

That great writer of the West, Wallace Stegner, once remarked that the West has always been a trail to somewhere else, a place with a literature that is more about motion than about place.

We love to travel the West, always by road trip. When we are in a hurry to get beyond the mundane and reach the spectacular, we pass the time reading. Usually I read while he drives.

Returning from Texas after the holidays this month, we enjoyed Roughing It, Mark Twain’s account of a stagecoach journey from Missouri to California in 1861. The route took Twain past Independence Rock and over South Pass, probably along roads near home that we have often traveled by car.

I was disappointed that he didn’t travel slightly farther north to our own beautiful valley. At least he got to the Continental Divide near Dubois, and he experienced how “it seemed that we could look around and abroad and contemplate the whole great globe, with its dissolving views of mountains, seas and continents stretching away through the mystery of the summer haze.”

Painting of stagecoach by Frederick Remington.
The Old Stagecoach of the Plains, Frederick Remington

Parts of his account of the stagecoach experience made me laugh aloud. For instance, driving into and out of a gulch:

“First we would all be down in a pile at the forward end of the stage, nearly in a sitting posture, and in a second we would shoot to the other end, and stand on our heads. And we would sprawl and kick, too, and ward off ends and corners of mail bags that came lumbering over us and about us, and as the dust rose from the tumult, we would all sneeze in chorus, and the majority of us would grumble, and probably say some hasty thing, like: Take your elbow out of my ribs! Can’t you quit crowding?”

We drove in heated comfort in mid-January, with cushioned seats, armrests, sun visors, cans of seltzer in the cup holders, and cellphones available to help in a crisis (or text the relatives to describe our progress). I could not help but compare our experience to that of Twain as I was reading, and also to that of cowboys along the northbound cattle drives. I had just finished reading Cattle Kingdom by Christopher Knowlton, a history of cattle drives and ranching in the late 1800s.

Colorado Roundup on the Cimarron
William Henry Jackson (1843-1942)

We would reach home via Denver and Cheyenne, two towns on the early cattle trails. Sometimes on this trek we actually follow an early cattle trail, through the Raton Pass to Trinidad, Colorado, and straight up the Interstate toward Denver and Cheyenne—more or less the 1866 route of the Goodnight-Loving cattle drive. But we prefer US Highway 287, slightly to the east, because it’s less congested, sometimes has a better road surface, and (incidentally) passes through Dubois.

During the cattle drives, which Knowlton calls “the largest forced migration of animals in human history,” some 50,000 cowboys drove about ten million cattle north out of Texas. They had to contend with water that might be toxic or completely absent, cactus and sagebrush that tore at their legs, the risk of stampedes, Indians, and outlaws, and the hostility of farmers along the way who knew that many Texas Longhorns carried and transmitted a disease that could be fatal to their own livestock.

He recounts the “astonishing” number of ways the trip could also be fatal to a cowboy. “You could fall from your horse, you could be kicked in the head while roping a steer, you could be gored by a horn, you could drown while crossing a river, you could be caught in quicksand, you could be struck by lightning, you could be scalped by an Indian, you could be shot by a rustler … “

An Iowan named George C. Duffield kept a journal during an 1866 cattle drive, which is quoted extensively in Cattle Kingdom. “It has been raining for three days … Hard rain and wind and lots of trouble … Ran my horse into a ditch & got my knee badly sprained…. Swam the river with a rope & then hauled the wagon over … Almost starved not having had a bite to eat for 60 hours … Am almost dead for [lack of] sleep. I am not homesick but heartsick.”

Trainon Dale Creek Iron Viaduct, Wyoming. Charles Roscoe Savage (1832-1909)

The cattle drives took from three to six months, with many detours to find water and grass. The average rate of travel was around 15 miles per day, or about one mile an hour.

Lacking cattle to drive, stagecoaches could be faster. Writing a decade after his trip west from Missouri, Mark Twain reveled in comparing the rate of travel by stagecoach with that of the new transcontinental railroad. He traveled “fifty-six hours out from St. Joe—THREE HUNDRED MILES!” or about 5 mph altogether. The train reached 300 miles west of Omaha in only 15 hours and 40 minutes, averaging nearly 20 mph.

“I can scarcely comprehend the new state of things,” he wrote.

We try to travel at 70 mph, by the way. Even in the short days of winter, we can make it back from Texas in less than three days. Pushing, we can make it in two.

Twain seemed to marvel even more at the culinary difference. At stage stops, he sometimes faced food and beverages so distasteful he opted to go hungry and thirsty. On the transcontinental railroad (according to a New York Times account he quotes), passengers dined on “snowy linen” using solid silver, served a “repast at which Delmonico himself could have had no occasion to blush” (antelope steak, mountain-brook trout, choice fruits and berries and “bumpers of sparkling Krug”) by waiters clad in white.

As a 19th century humorist, Twain could not have had our current mindset about the railroad. (In fact, if I quoted some of his phrases about Native Americans, Facebook might cancel this blog.)

He does not contemplate what immediately struck me as I read the quote above: the ultimate cost and consequences of delivering those passengers at such speed and elegance, not merely in dollars but in effort, anguish, and often lives–Asians and Native Americans and others.

Cattle Kingdom reckons the cost to bison, and thereby to Native Americans. The great transcontinental railroad, Knowlton write, divided the bison into two primary herds and thereby helped to decimate them– a southern herd of some 5 million animals, most of which disappeared by 1875, and a slightly smaller northern herd that largely vanished by 1883.

This was no mere matter of disrupting migration routes. “Railroad management encouraged recreational hunting,” he wrote, “hoping to eliminate the herds that blocked their line. Passengers were directed to shoot at the beasts from the train windows.” Telegraph companies also wanted to see an end to the bison, which liked to scratch themselves against the telegraph poles.

We passed a few very long trains in Texas this month—none shipping cattle, most shipping fuel. Of course, energy sources long ago replaced cattle as the most important commodity produced in both Texas and my home state of Wyoming.

The number of vast wind farms along our route in Texas is noteworthy. I caught this picture near Lubbock. (The train is transporting oil.) Sometimes I see cattle grazing beneath the turbines.   

Our only challenge during this trip was the assault by thousands of tumbleweeds, which charged us from the northwest in a steady 30-mph blast as we traveled through Oklahoma and Colorado. They got caught in our grille and our undercarriage, and we sometimes swerved to avoid a tangle of weeds almost as large as a calf. We wonder how much paint they took off the car.

© Lois Wingerson, 2022

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Remembering Patrick

Likeable? Not always. But remarkable.

Another piece has torn away from the wonderful crazy quilt that is Dubois. It’s difficult to believe he’s really gone.

His particular fragment in that work of art was frayed at the edges and rather dark. But at the center, it was lustrous and elegantly patterned.

Patrick would probably be unhappy if he could know that I am posting this. He was certainly a private person. But as I write that, I can hear his gruff laugh sounding from a distant place. “I don’t care what people think,” he would say. (Was it true?)

Many people knew him only as a chef, which indeed he was, par excellence. I must have met Patrick first (but not formally) when he was running the restaurant-deli called Paya with Barbara. That was when we first moved to Dubois.

Its Facebook page is still live, with tempting pictures and descriptions of that day’s offering on the steam table, and the comments.

“Best pizza in Wyoming.”

“There is no lunch like this anywhere.”

On this very blog, I myself said that Paya’s pizza was better than any I had found in Brooklyn.

They held on for years, but managing that busy main-street restaurant slowly ran them (and, I presume, their marriage) ragged. One of the last Google reviews was a complaint that vividly reveals Barbara’s frayed nerves. Paya closed in 2014.

Afterwards, Patrick tried opening another deli with another cook. When that didn’t work out, he had a succession of jobs in restaurants around town, did occasional catering, and then just stopped. He loved to prepare food, and to talk about the preparation of food, but he wasn’t on duty any more.

I would see him on the street, at the coffee shop or in the supermarket. Often, he would make some random comment that sounded nasty. I found his acerbic behavior interesting. It was as if he was testing to see if he could drive me away. I got to throwing it back at him.

At least once, Patrick complemented me about my residual New York City attitude in the course of saying that it must alienate some others. In a way, I felt like a kindred spirit. In another way, I wanted to defy his challenge.

We began to meet for lunch, and gradually I learned about his past. His mother had been French. His parents were diplomats. He had lived somewhere in Africa as a child, and in Vietnam as a teenager during the war. He well recalled their escape as US forces left the country. I wish I could remember more details about his past. He would surely tease me for forgetting them.

Patrick said that he was often dizzy and no longer had the stamina or the focus to work, which sounded like malingering. But he began to share details of his long series of visits to doctors in search of an explanation, and eventually I learned the truth. He had difficulty describing the diagnosis, but he handed me a scrap of paper on which he had written the name.

That’s how I learned he was having a series of small strokes, perhaps a hereditary problem but certainly one aggravated by his smoking. “I’m not going to stop,” he said several times, defiantly. “It’s about the only thing I can enjoy now.” The prognosis was not good, and he knew it.

By that point, he could no longer focus his eyes well enough to read or watch a screen. He never knew when he would have enough energy to cook, which he would have loved to do. Basically, all he could do any more was sit around the apartment, and he felt trapped in his life. About the only thing he could be sure to do would be to take his dog, Jasper, down by the river for a run.

When Patrick finally welcomed me to visit him at home, I felt I got to know him. You would never have guessed what was in his rooms above the laundromat: The little cast iron ship sitting on the woodstove humidifying the air through its smokestacks. The African face mask. The vast art deco armoire. I could see the fine antiques and paintings, the eclectic objects he had discovered at the Opportunity Shop, and his beloved jungle of houseplants.

I’d admire one painting, and he would tell me its history. “You must see this,” he would add, pulling something off a shelf to show me, or leading me into a back room to see another painting.

One recent Tuesday, I walked up the narrow stairs and opened the door to confront the usual rambunctious greeting from Jasper. I was expected, but Patrick hadn’t come to the corridor to greet me as usual. I found him sleeping soundly in his big chair.

I made plenty of noise as I calmed Jasper down, hoping to disturb him to alertness. But when I walked back to the chair, he was still breathing deeply. Needs his sleep, I told myself, and left quietly. I could return when he was awake.

“I stopped by,” I texted a few minutes later, “but you were sleeping so soundly I didn’t want to disturb you. Phone when you see this, please.”

He never called. I decided he must be in one of his moods, and I called to leave a voice message. Late that afternoon, someone called me with the most unwelcome news.

In the days that followed, when I said that I was sad, I began to learn about other people who had also cared about him. I had had no idea how many there were, and I suspect he didn’t, either.

© Lois Wingerson, 2021

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Lost in Search of the Oregon Trail

Unlike Stuart’s party, we had a guidebook and a topo map. Nonetheless …

Doubletrack trail near South Pass, Wyoming

This happened a while ago. It was one of those warm and sunny late-autumn days that call out “Last chance?” and propel you to get outdoors right now, and go somewhere, anywhere.

We had chosen to drive beyond Lander and then southwest. We were going to find the spot where, 209 years earlier almost to the day, Robert Stuart and his fellow explorers had camped for the night after they finally reached the legendary “shorter trace to the south” across the Rockies. Now known as South Pass, what Stuart called a “handsome low gap” leads widely and gradually over the Continental Divide, accessible to wagons and therefore, much later, to hundreds of thousands of emigrants heading west.

It had not been easy to find. Returning to St. Louis from the Northwest, Stuart and his band of Astorian fur traders had a long and arduous journey, traveling on foot when they could not obtain horses. They endured periods of starvation, angry disagreements, unsettling encounters with natives, misdirections (intentional or otherwise), and perilous, unnecessary detours.

Book covers: Across the Great Divide and Day Hikes in the Wind River Range

We’d learned about all this in detail from Across the Great Divide, the biography of Robert Stuart written by his descendant, author and chronicler of Wyoming history Layton McCartney, a former part-time resident of Dubois whom we got to know briefly after we moved here from New York City. We now live close enough to see the exact historic spot he had described, and we set out to find it.

Unlike Stuart and his fellows, we knew the way in general, having driven the highway from Lander to Farson many times. But we had never crossed any part of that familiar sage and sand plain on foot. Nor had we ever before paid any particular attention to the Oregon Buttes, the huge rocky formations that were a landmark to all those westward-bound pioneers who passed by along the Oregon and Mormon trails.

“Follow the Oregon Buttes Road 2.9 miles to the crossing of a small, dirt two-track road,” directed our little red guide book, Day Hiking the Wind River Range. “Park here and begin walking to the right (west).”

Simple enough instructions, it seems. They were certainly much clearer than the ambiguous directions in reports from earlier explorers and rough translations of communications from natives, which were all that Stuart and his crew of explorers had to aid their search for an easier passage back east. We had the little guidebook, the biography, a topo map, and a general feel for the area (but no GPS, lacking signal). Nonetheless, we were puzzled from the outset.

The dirt double-track that headed west from Oregon Buttes Road was actually 2.1 miles south of the highway, not 2.9 miles as the guidebook said. There was no such track at 2.9 miles. So we got out of the car at 2.1 miles and walked west, already uncertain (as Stuart and his party almost always were) whether we were going the right way.

View of Wind River Mountains from South Pass
Southern terminus of the Wind River Range at South Pass

To our right, we could easily see what Stuart called the “southern terminus of the mighty Wind River Range”—the same range that towers over Dubois.

After a few hundred yards, another track took off to the left. We chose that direction, partly because we saw RVs parked farther along the other track, to the right.

We were looking for trail markers, not campsites, and there were good signs off to the left—specifically, these concrete markers which seemed designed to point the way to the old pioneer trails.

Markers designating Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail on South Pass

Our guidebook promised an easy 1.5 mile hike, marked at the 0.7-mile point with a fenced area surrounding two stone markers erected to designate the actual pass and the Oregon Trail, and another commemorating Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding, the first women on this trail, who came this way with their husbands in 1836.

We didn’t have pedometers, but we did have a general sense of how long it takes to hike ¾ of a mile on the flat. We passed through a gate in a barbed-wire fence, and we had seen the trail markers. But there was nothing like a monument to pioneer women.

However, looking at the map, we could easily identify our original goal: the eastern slope of a hill immediately northwest of present-day Pacific Springs. There, the Stuart party were forced to camp. As McCartney wrote, “the wind and snow hampered their progress” when, after a 15-mile hike, they could easily see the gap between the mountains just ahead.

We stopped to consult the map, still trying to decide where we were compared to where they must have been. Pacific Springs was clearly marked. The east-facing slope in question had to be the shallow one, distant but easily identifiable, off to our right and ahead.

It must have been disheartening beyond description for the men to reach that spot, finally to see the gap ahead, and not be able to attain it because of the Wyoming’s unpredictable autumn weather. In passing, it left a layer of snow on their blankets that vanished the next day. We recognize this weather pattern.

I took a picture, and we traveled on. But where were the legendary deep tracks of the Oregon Trail? We abandoned the track we had been following and walked overland across the sagebrush flats, in the general direction of that slope, heading toward a deep culvert on our side of the ridge.

And there, just up a rise, we found the fence, the two rough stone markers, and the unmistakable deep ruts of the original Oregon Trail. This is only one of many sets of deep wagon ruts in the area, we learned later, because of course not all of the 19th-century migrants followed exactly the same path westward across this desolate, flat country.

I hiked the deep ruts back toward our car, passing a fifth-wheeler and a pickup along the way. More recent off-road vehicles than covered wagons must have helped carve these grooves, I decided.

When the Stuart party crossed here, they took one last unfortunate detour. The path not chosen would have led them relatively straight northward to the Sweetwater River, and on toward the Missouri River and St. Louis. Unfortunately, near their camp they had discovered a fresh and easily identified trail left by Crow natives, whom they had reason to fear. So they turned south instead.

Oregon Buttes

After taking time to climb one of the Oregon Buttes, which are much larger and more imposing than they appear from the modern highway, the men headed into the Red Desert. Layton McCartney depicted this as “four and a half million acres of rainbow colored badlands, towering buttes, high desert, and shifting, 10-foot-high sand dunes.”

This vast and forbidding terrain is basically a huge bowl created as the Continental Divide splits and then rejoins, noted on Wyoming maps as the Great Divide Basin. It has no outward-bound watersheds and is remarkably barren–nothing like the rolling, high plains the party had anticipated from the reports of other explorers.

Red Desert. Wyoming

“Stuart and his companions might have been in the Sahara Desert,” McCartney added. They wandered for many days without water, before finally turning northward to find a stream that led them to the Missouri, and civilization.

Having returned to our car after a pleasant jaunt on a lovely afternoon, we headed briefly in the direction of the Red Desert. The dirt road led bumpily downhill and quickly became impassable. We turned back toward the highway, going in the direction Stuart should have chosen.

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