Field Notes From the Far West

Where no passport is needed and most natives speak English.

 

pile of rocks on ocean beachI will view this, I told myself as we set off, as an interesting journey to an exotic foreign land.

It is, after all, fairly alien. The political system seems to be quite different. The culture and customs are, from all I have heard, strange and remarkable compared to our simple, humble, straightforward way of life in Wyoming.

Their culinary habits are somewhat unusual from our perspective, having an almost limitless access to fresh produce at any time. Some residents don’t eat any meat at all.

The people here seem to view us as equally alien. “Wyoming?” they say, after asking where we’re from. And then: “You drove all that way?” (As if none of my kind have ventured this far before.) And then, invariably, nothing more. I feel some empathy for the Lewis and Clark team; these natives seem less interested in my culture than I am in theirs.

ocean beachWe have focused our travels this month on the predominant feature of their habitat that is entirely unfamiliar to us in Wyoming: the seaside. Having attained it, of course, I had to take a hike on the beach, early on the first morning after our arrival.

Which revealed the first and most elementary evidence that I am a stranger in this land: The natives know that in the morning, the tide is in, and there is, in fact, precious little beach to hike.

(Who knew to think about tides? Evidently I should have done more research.)

I strode happily along, enjoying the sound of the surf at my left as it crashed onto the shore. I looked down, as always when I hike, watching for interesting objects at my feet, and entirely oblivious to the waves that were creating that gentle, insistent murmur nearby.

sneakers being washed in tide

Once over my surprise, I ventured on.

The rocks at my feet were interesting, but not noticeably different than those I can find on any hike back home. After all, our own landscape was once, millennia in the past, also at the edge of a great ocean. Like many I find down walking any draw back home, most of these stones were washed smooth and round.

dead sea creatures on beachThe flora and fauna are quite different, of course. As were the carcasses of dead creatures I found on the beach. Was this an animal before it washed up here, or some sort of plant? I have no idea.

What looks like a stick may also have been some sort of creature once. It bore more resemblance to a tube than to a branch.

Many of the true branches washed ashore had been buffed as smooth as the round stones.

I picked one up to bring home for a walking stick.

swimmer offshore

In due course, I noticed what appeared to be a creature some distance offshore. Back home, I am adept at identifying rocks that look like bears. But I’m not familiar with sea creatures. As this was bobbing in the water rather than being constantly washed over, I decided it could not be a rock.

I’ve heard there are sea otters to the south, and later we would see elephant seals basking and molting on the shore. But what was this?

Only after I took the picture did I notice the strange, long-necked shorebird in the middle of the image, in the foreground. I believe it was a curlew.

surfer in ocean riding waveAs I walked farther up the beach, the mystery of the sea creature solved itself. You can see another there in this image, on the right.

This is referred to as a surfer.

The species is never encountered in Wyoming. Having just arrived from the land of deep snow, however, I can approximately imagine the sensation of riding the wave. I have done something similar on skis. You have to become one with the surface beneath your feet.

I wonder: When the surfer’s legs and feet fail him, is the landing softer or harder than a wipeout in cold white powder?

fisherman on ocean beachReturning south on the wet sand, I noticed a species I recognize well from back home.

Not being an angler of any sort, I have no frame of reference. I wonder how his experience — and his catch — differs from that of those I see along the Wind River, similarly kitted out.

His line seemed to be tangled, which did make me wonder about the wind. That, we know about.

I will say this about California: Most of the people here speak excellent English, and it requires no passport to visit. The natives are exceedingly friendly (if perhaps sometimes a bit distant to drivers of cars with Wyoming plates).

rocking chair and view of oceanThe landscape is as spectacular as our own, although much different. Notably, it is capable of producing excellent wine.

I commend the seaside destination as an alternative way to contemplate realities deeper than the mundane details of daily life. In Wyoming, I am drawn to the mountains that seem ageless and unchanging, the sight of which always brings a long glimpse into the incomprehensible past long before I arrived.

The ocean offers a contrasting vision of eternity. It renews itself endlessly as I watch, second after second, rolling always to shore, and will do so long after I am gone.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Remotely and Wildly True: Of Dubois and Distance

Did National Geographic really call Dubois WY the most remote town in the lower 48? How remote is it, actually?

[Taking the chance for a spring break, I’m re-posting this piece of barely investigative journalism from a while ago, which inquired into a popular bit of rural mythology.]

Highway

Google “Dubois WY” and you’ll soon encounter a statement that it has been designated the most remote town (or sometimes the second remotest town) in the lower 48 states. Often this distinction is attributed to National Geographic.

When we moved to Dubois, my husband and I quickly took up calling it one of the most remote towns in the lower 48 when we described it to friends. We even trotted out some criteria, whose origin I no longer recall: Farthest from the nearest Interstate, fewest traffic lights (none), fewest number of highways that run through it (one), distance to the nearest large town (about 70 miles), or proportion of land within a 360-degree radius that is publicly owned (who knows, but lots).

But is this distinction actually deserved? How remote is Dubois, and compared to what and by which criteria? Last summer I began to study the question, with interesting results.

First, I couldn’t find any such statement about Dubois in the archives of National Geographic. And many other towns lay claim to the distinction of being most remote.

I turned to local sources, Dubois town hall and the library. Sandy Hurst at town hall offered up text from a 2011 press release about Dubois:

“A place considered by National Geographic as the most remote town in the lower 48 states…  it perches on the edge of several wilderness areas and is surrounded by national forests.”

This traced back to a strategic plan for Dubois by the Foundation for Urban & Neighborhood Development of Denver, Colorado, dated 1986. The report said that Dubois had been “recently identified in national news media coverage” as the most remote location in the lower 48–the same unconfirmed designation that I was already seeing, albeit even older.

Anna Moscicki at the library turned up a wonderful quote from the memoir of Ethel Waxham, mother of the geologist David Love who defined the geological history of the Yellowstone region. Waxham wrote about her arrival in Wyoming by stagecoach in 1905:

“The other passenger beside myself was a woman of fifty or sixty, white-haired, face weather worn, bright brown eyes, Mrs. Welty. She was post mistress at Dubois, the post office farthest from the railroad of any in the U.S.”

Delightful, written when the railroads were still expanding, and perhaps an insight into the town’s perception of isolation. But not that relevant today.

In the course of promoting Living Dubois on Twitter, I was fortunate to gain the interest of Marilyn Terrell, chief researcher for National Geographic, who has also been unable to find any source for that attribution of Dubois’ remoteness by her publication (so we ought to stop using it). But she did point me to an article in Smithsonian magazine describing what truly may be the most remote settlement in the lower 48: the community of Supai, Arizona, located at the base of the Grand Canyon. At the bottom of that 3,000-foot crevasse, it is reachable only by mule train, which is how they get their mail.

But Supai isn’t really a town: It’s designated by the US Census Bureau as a “census-designated place,” which is the Bureau’s term for a populated place that is not an incorporated village and has no municipal government. So does Dubois still qualify?

Overlook7Author Henry Grabar on the website citylab.com looked into which towns were most remote by the criterion of being farthest from the nearest Interstate highway, honoring Key West, Florida, as being farthest as the crow flies, and Copper Harbor and Eagle Harbor, Michigan, (251 and 238 driving miles from the nearest Interstate), with an honorable mention to Paisley, Oregon (209 miles) due to the sheer difficulty of driving to the big highway.

Dubois is “only” about 173 miles from the nearest Interstate, at Idaho Falls, and is interestingly equidistant from Interstates at Rawlins, Casper, and Livingston MT (200, 199, and 199 miles, respectively). But considering only towns that are completely surrounded by Interstates (rather than having a national border or large body of water on at least one side), I do wonder whether Dubois might qualify as having the largest average distance to the Interstate in all 4 directions (193 miles).

If you aren’t familiar with Dubois, please be assured that you can buy plenty of groceries and hardware supplies in town, and it’s even easy to find a cafe latte. And by that other criterion of remoteness, Internet access, Dubois is marvellously well-connected. You feel the remoteness mostly by your proximity to all that wilderness.

Speaking of which, there is one remoteness criterion Dubois can legitimately claim without dispute: It is TwoOceanPasscloser than any other town in the United States to the spot in the lower 48 that is most remote from any road, and therefore reachable only on foot or by horseback. This is Two Ocean Plateau in the southeastern corner of Yellowstone Park.

This spot has been designated by the United States Geological Service as the location in the “coterminous” United States that is most distant from any road (the trailhead is at Moran, an unincorporated community). Dubois is 44.1 miles from Two Ocean Pass as the crow flies, and the plateau is farther north. Jackson is 48.8 miles away.

There is one criterion for remoteness by which Dubois fails miserably. The residents are hardly remote in their behavior toward other people. It’s one of the friendliest places I’ve ever encountered, which is one reason we go all that way to get there.

@ Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Dubois in 5-7-5 Time

Images in words and pixels …

As the snow builds outside and we settle in to await the end of winter, take a deep breath and enjoy a few vivid haiku poems inspired by life in Dubois. Thanks to Mary Ellen Honsaker for the privilege of posting them.

 

 

Fingers spread, stove’s warmth,
curled dog at feet in fire’s glow
log’s gift understood

 

 

 

redrocks

 

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

 

Gorge

 

 

 

River, glacier, wind
each flowed through my valley home
sculptors of my heart

A Surprise Visit to the Cemetery

We welcomed the arrival, with concern

bighorn sheep Dubois WY

One day last week, some bighorn sheep wandered into town. This was astonishing.

Many deer live in town year-round, but the sheep live up-mountain, off in the wilderness. The Bighorn Sheep Center offers guided tours up Whiskey Basin to look for them, but they’re not supposed to be easy to find.

People are used to spotting them on the cliffs across the river from the Painted Hills subdivision, or sometimes down on the highway by the red rocks at the edge of the Reservation. They may be the mascot for the school’s sports teams, but we don’t expect them to show up down here in town.

I was inside the hardware store when they came past. “Aren’t those sheep?” someone gasped, and we went outside. There they were, ambling unconcerned across the slope beyond the yard

Many people told me they had never seen the sheep in town before. Someone in the supermarket had a great shot of the herd behind the big brown “Dubois Wyoming” sign beside the highway east of town. Later they were spotted in the cemetery.

bighorn sheep statue

Why did they come down to visit? Sara Domek, the Executive Director of the Sheep Center, chuckled at the question, in the same bemused way a parent might talk about a toddler: Who knows what they’ll get into their heads?

It’s anybody’s guess, she said. Maybe they liked the grass in the cemetery. Maybe it was because of the cold snap. Or predators could have driven them down.

Predators were the favored theory in town, but in truth nobody really knows what’s going on with the sheep. Their numbers are declining, though, and nobody is more concerned about that than Domek and local wildlife experts.

The Bighorn Center has launched a series of forums in town, in collaboration with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and other agencies, to help seek explanations for the troubling decline in the survival of bighorn lambs.

bighorn sheep

Game and Fish has donated $300,000 to a study of bighorn sheep lamb mortality. “We are at a critical point,” said biologist Greg Anderson at the last session on February 11, as quoted in the Dubois Frontier. The sheep “are not in a good condition,” he added.

The department is focusing on three major suspects in the early death of lambs: habitat and nutrition, disease, and predators.

The excursion to town might be one of the “behavioral changes” in the lower winter range than Anderson said predators are causing. But whether that is linked to actual mortality is unknown, at least for now.

So if the visit from the bighorns was a charming surprise, it was also rather sobering.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Amazon CEO: Dropped NYC? Date Dubois!

Can you see past the superstars?

Lower Manhattan skylineDear Mr. Bezos:

I hear that you decided to dump the Big Apple. Sounds from your sad little blog post on Valentine’s Day (how poignant!) like you’re not planning to open a different HQ2 at this time. You sounded a little broken up about the break-up.

But you didn’t sound nearly as grief-stricken as Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal last week. She mourned not only the loss of those 25,000 jobs, but “all the construction, and the signs and symbols of a coming affluence … the sidewalks busy, shops and restaurants humming, hiring.”

I understand about falling in love with NYC, Jeff. I actually got a bit choked up about it last week while driving across the reservation on my way to Lander. The theme from the movie “Arthur” came up on Sirius XM. You’ve probably heard the chorus:

When you get caught between the moon
and New York City
the best that you can do (best that you can do)
is fall in love.

That brought it all powerfully back: The lights, the buzz, the sounds, the gorgeous, cosmopolitan, purpose-driven people. It was all so thrilling!

But I got over it too, eventually. Believe me, I can understand. All those spats about how she was offended that you wanted a few accommodations in exchange for moving in could totally kill the magic before you got to the altar.

Here in remote little Dubois, we hope for the same pleasures whose loss Peggy Noonan was lamenting: busy sidewalks, shops and restaurants that are humming and hiring. And not just in midsummer.

Downtown Dubois, WyomingDon’t get me wrong, Jeff: I’m not suggesting that you consider Dubois for your next engagement. We couldn’t sustain another 25,000 jobs, even if we had the workforce.

We certainly wouldn’t want to balloon our population by 2500%. It would utterly destroy us: our magnificent environment, our way of life, and our beloved small-town character.

All we’re asking is one date. Surely among the other educated, skilled people who seek a new life in our truly remote (and tax-free) location, we could spare a place for a few, or a few dozen, who qualify for those “remote” jobs that you regularly post online.

Why do companies like yours always gravitate to the big cities? Working on our flawless Internet here at the edge of wilderness in Dubois, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering that.

According to a recent article in the New York Times titled “In Superstar Cities, the Rich Get Richer and They Get Amazon,” you want to be in locations where there are already lots of tech workers, because you think that grouping innovative people in one location will stimulate more innovation.

Admit it: You guys are always seduced by the divas. Maybe you just can’t help it.

“It’s just absolutely hard-wired into technology economies,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in that article. “It’s not just a sort of interesting thing that happens — it’s inherent to the technology.”

But at least one other person — Dartmouth University’s online education expert Joshua Kim — thinks there may be some superstars who actually don’t want to live in “superstar cities.” In an article titled Corporate Welfare, Superstar Cities, and the Tyranny of Geography,  he wrote: “I have a hard time believing that all the best talent wants to live in Seattle or NYC or Northern VA.”

DTECoils2Besides, is it all about “superstars?” Countless successful people aren’t superstars (including many of your employees), but are productive and vital to our local and national economy  nonetheless.

I know some people like that, right here in little Dubois. They work on our Internet, which never fails. They come here partly for the fiberoptic power that comes right to their door. But that’s not the only reason.

Some of them are very unusual telecommuters, people who want to find mountains and wildlife outside their front doors rather than art-film cinemas and Starbucks. In their spare time, these people who spend all day at their keyboards want to hike, rock climb, snowshoe, or go fishing rather than hanging out in bars. They prefer the shadow of the starlight to the glare of city lights.

Maybe some of your own employees dream of raising their children in a safe and very healthy place where class sizes are small, college acceptance rates are high (because small-town Wyoming is under-represented in their mix and  also very interesting), and scholarships actually go begging.

Can you help us find some of those people, Jeff, and tell them that we’re here?

Thanks sincerely,

Dubois

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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

 

 

 

 

 

Memento Mori: The Estate Auction

Unintended intimacy with someone I scarcely knew.

The electronic zipper sign on Stalnaker Street said the chariot races had been cancelled. On a frigid weekend in February, there was not much else for entertainment. So most of us turned up at one point or another at the preview of the big estate sale.

Many of the people there, I suspect, were (like me) more curious than actually acquisitive.

These were the belongings of a wealthy rancher who passed away suddenly sometime last year. I met him only once, briefly. Sometimes I saw his helicopter churning along, low above the valley on a summer morning, checking on his longhorns.

The lots to be auctioned were spread across two adjoining barn-like buildings. “Yes, all items will be sold!” called out the estate sale manager on a bullhorn. “Everything has to go!”

We wandered up and down the aisles between the tables, perusing what he couldn’t take with him.

Four or five saddles. Shelf after shelf of ammunition, and rifles to match.

Many pieces of heavy furniture made of lodgepole pine. Quite a few leather recliners.

One or two machine-made quilts, with matching shams. Lots and lots of dishes. A box of mugs imprinted with the logo of his ranch. Disposable aluminum trays filled with kitchen utensils.

Many unopened boxes of doorknobs. (Why?) Dozens and dozens of identical brand new 8 x 11 wooden picture frames. (Why?)

A nice hand-painted salad bowl. A charming small cutting board. An interesting little sculpture. But I didn’t need any of it, and I knew I’d probably have to buy an entire lot to gain a single vaguely tempting item.

It felt slightly voyeuristic to examine all this stuff. A kind of unintended intimacy. But hey, he’s gone.

“You know what the lesson is?” Dale asked as I squeezed past him. “Don’t die.”

“No,” I replied. “The message is: Die suddenly so that you don’t have to worry about it at all.”

When I came out of the bedroom on Saturday morning, the first thing my husband said to me after “Good morning” was “I’ve decided not to go to the auction.”

All he might have wanted were some of the metal baker’s racks that he had seen, disassembled and stacked, with the poles piled separately. They would have come in handy in the storage unit. But if he bought them online instead, he could be sure the parts matched.

I hear that about half the town turned up at the auction, and that it took all day. We went up-mountain snowshoeing instead. It was beautiful, and made me feel very much alive.

The dog was happy too.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Skip Ewing Gets to the Heart of Dubois

The famous song writer could live anywhere. He moved here.

What’s the force behind the magnet that draws people to Dubois and holds them here?

It’s no challenge to capture part of it:  the spectacular wilderness landscape. Photographers capture that all the time, and scenes from this valley are  all over Instagram. Another pull is the history, from the tectonic collisions to Indians and cowboys and Butch Cassidy, from mountain men to homesteaders and lumberjacks.

But there’s one special pull which is nearly impossible to describe. You have to feel it for yourself. Tourists responding to a survey last year said they liked the people, and called Dubois “friendly.” A hiking buddy told me that she retired to Dubois because the people here had grabbed her and held her close.

Skip Ewing, the country singer and songwriter, calls it the “heart.” He should know, because the heart is his business, and his passion.

Skip says he felt that tug most strongly in 2004, during his benefit concert for the new medical clinic. He decided to auction off a shirt that cowboy Ty Murray was wearing when he won a rodeo championship. Skip suggested that people in the audience might pool their bids and donate the shirt to the clinic, rather than one lucky bidder taking it home for bragging rights.

rodeo shirt
Ty Murray’s shirt
hanging in the clinic.

Together, for no personal reward, people gave away $5,000 for the shirt to benefit the community. It now hangs in a frame in the clinic.

“That gave me a sense for the kind of heart, the generosity of people here,” he said. “That’s the same kind of heart Dubois had when I first came here.”

“If we can be part of that heart,” he added, “I’m about that.”

So Skip and his partner, photographer Linda Gordon, have settled down in Dubois.   They’re in a position to live anywhere in the world they want to, Skip told me. And they’re here.

Skip doesn’t throw his credentials around (which wouldn’t gain him many fans here, anyway). But they’re impressive: Five of Skip Ewing’s country love songs have placed in the top 20s on the country-music charts. In 2000, he was named Songwriter of the year by Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), and he’s won the Country Music Association Triple Play Award for three number 1 songs within a year.

They’re the kind of love songs that somehow grab you where it hurts a bit, like “Love, Me” and “Little Houses.” (The announcers wouldn’t credit Skip, the songwriter, of course. They’d mention the singers, names like Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, Kenny Chesney, and Reba McIntyre. )

I ran into Skip and Linda at the Perch coffee shop sometime around Thanksgiving. He looked vaguely familiar, and I was puzzled to see him chatting with the locals as if he knew them (which he did). I felt I ought to recognize him, but I didn’t (it’s my failing to have a poor memory for faces as well as names). Someone introduced him as Skip Ewing and, city girl though I used to be, at least I recalled his name.

Probably about a decade ago, I had heard Skip at a concert in the back room at the Rustic Pine after one of his retreats for song-writers. But I had no idea that his was the creative mind behind some of the songs I liked best, after I began listening to country music on the radio.

The workshops (he called them “Horse and Writer” retreats) brought would-be songwriters to the Lazy L&B Ranch up East Fork, which he first visited when he wanted to give his five-year-old daughter a good place to ride horses. They went on for about a decade. I never saw Skip after that one concert, but he had been coming back to Dubois, whether there were retreats or not.

Skip Ewing and Linda Gordon

As the child in a military family and then a country singer, Skip Ewing has traveled widely. Quite a while ago, he sold his home in Nashville. He and Linda had multiple homes and were traveling a lot when Linda got a job offer that made them consider settling down somewhere.

They asked themselves whether that was what they really wanted. Skip had this dream that involved horses, which he isn’t ready to talk about yet. Eventually, they decided to settle here.

Grandson of a thoroughbred rancher, Skip learned to love horses as much as he loved country music. “The more time I spend on horses, he says, “the happier I am.” He hints that horses will have an important part in the next phase of his life’s work, but for the moment he intends to use his music to help the town.

Just after I ran into Skip and Linda at the Perch, they began shooting the first of five videos about Dubois that he has posted on Facebook. They are long, leisurely conversations with people in the town.

“This is Dubois, Wyoming, my home town now. I love it here,” he opens in the first one. “I love it here!”

From Skip’s first Dubois video

He was already booked for his early December Christmas concert at the Dennison Lodge, which attracted fans from as far away as Texas, Utah, Louisiana, and California. His goal seems to be not so much self-promotion as planting firm roots in this new ground.

Skip told me that, when he first visited Dubois, he knew he’d come to the right place almost as soon as the plane landed. This brought echoes of one my Skip Ewing favorites: “You Had Me From Hello.”

“… Your smile just captured me.
You were in my future far as I could see
And I don’t know how it happened but it happens still.
You ask me if I love you, if I always will.

Well, you had me from hello…”

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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