Thank you, one last time, for joining me here. The time has come for a farewell.
I’d like to explain.
I sometimes say that this blog is about a city girl moving to the wilderness. Only half of that is true.
For most of my life I was a city girl, but since coming here I never actually lived in the wilderness.
I look at that wilderness every morning, and dream about going back in there again. I’ve hiked up there and ridden in on horseback. I’ve camped in a valley beneath those magnificent buttes, and gone in as far as possible behind those crags on an all-terrain vehicle.
But actually I live in a comfortable house with all of the modern conveniences, less than 500 feet from the highway that leads to Yellowstone. The drive into town takes 15 minutes. Day to day, except for my hikes, my life is just about like anyone else’s.
Like countless others, I came west for an adventure and to reinvent myself. I was lured by the endless space, the soul-restoring mountain and desert landscape, and a fascination with the legacy of those who came here long ago.
Everything I saw was fresh, remarkable, and full of wonder, and I have tried to share that.
Indeed, I did reinvent myself. I never did a moment’s work on a ranch, never even split a log, but I am certainly no longer a city girl. My perspective and my predilections have changed. Also the way I dress.
Along the way, I gradually became attuned to some common misconceptions about the nature of this part of the country. For instance, the romance of the cowboy mystique doesn’t accurately convey the brutality and struggles of that life. These days, a cattle ranch is often a hobby for the super-rich and seldom a viable economic enterprise.
The legendary “rugged independence” of spirit in the West often goes hand in hand with near-suicidal loneliness and desperation. And yet the irony is that many people in this situation would have it no other way.
A hundred and fifty years ago, this type of area attracted many for the opportunity to work incredibly hard and build something of lasting value. Many did (and many others did not, and either left or died trying). Today, it is a challenge to relocate here and find decent housing and a life-sustaining permanent job. I was fortunate to have one already, and to be able to work remotely, but many long-time time locals struggle mightily to stay afloat financially in an economy dominated by seasonal tourism.
I know that over the past 8 years this blog has been read by others who were curious about moving to this remote little valley. In fact, that was its original intent, back 8 years ago when Dubois seemed like the best-kept secret in the West.
Eventually I began to wonder whether that was a good thing to do, whether big-city sensibilities might slowly erode what Dubois residents had come to cherish. This is one reason I have posted less and less. I began to face the prospect of writing any new post with apprehension.
Then, while I was preparing to post this farewell, I received a comment to my original post from a man whose small Colorado farming community has suffered exactly what Dubois hopes to avoid. It is a cautionary tale worth reading. (Scroll down to read the words by Rick.)
For those who want to read other people’s reflections about the American West, there are many great writers, among them Wallace Stegner (the best of all), Willa Cather, Kent Haruf, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx (mentioned with reservations; many people feel she does not portray Wyoming fairly), and Mark Spragg. Wyoming Public Media posts a great podcast called The Modern West.
Or you may want to enjoy the songs on the album “Wyoming” by another skillful storyteller (and a fellow migrant to Dubois), singer-songwriter Skip Ewing. In the title track, his character says, “I didn’t stop to think out problems, I just headed west. I thought I’d get where I was going, but I haven’t yet.” It’s so true, for so many.
Fundamentally, and fittingly, living in Dubois is no longer an adventure for me, because it has become the familiar, and therefore I can’t write as if it is still an adventure. I have always known that there are other equally satisfying places to live. But as Skip Ewing sings, “my heart’s inclined to stay” in Dubois.
Fundamentally, I am very glad that I took my “leap” West, and would never want to live anywhere else. If you are still deciding about yours, I wish you an adventure of your own, and a journey that leads you home.
As I wrote last time, it’s difficult to adjust when suddenly daylight begins disappearing before dinner.
November was unseasonably cold, snowy, and depressing. I couldn’t imagine why I ever said winters here are beautiful.
Then, after we flew south to spend the holidays with family, on Christmas morning I came down with the virus I had caught from the five-year-old. The test showed it wasn’t COVID, but it was awful anyway. The cough lasted forever.
Even after returning home, when I felt better physically, I was not well in spirit. Nothing seemed worth the effort any more.
“Come on,” said my husband one evening. “Get out of this post-viral depression. Pull up your socks.”
The next morning, I not only pulled up my socks but put on extra layers before leaving for a meeting in Lander. I wasn’t looking forward to the drive: Dubois had little snow, but everywhere down-county past Crowheart had been dumped on the previous day.
Not a great day for travel in a Wyoming winter. Would drifts block the road? Would I get trapped or need to turn around? I made sure I had blankets, water, and snacks in the car. I allowed extra time, switched on the seat heater, and set off, hoping for the best.
The road was dry as I passed the red rocks. Climbing past the curves, where the highway straightens, I began to cross patches of snow, but the surface wasn’t bad. I felt safe enough to turn the cruise control on.
The highway was empty. Here and there, a few horses stood motionless at fences, waiting for their hay. As I drove, even I wasn’t moving bodily, thanks to cruise control. It felt as if my car was the only movement in a vast, flat channel of white enclosed by distant walls of mountain. I could almost see the silence.
Crossing that corner of the Reservation, I thought: This is part of the small parcel of land we gave back after taking so much more. Suddenly the smooth jazz I was hearing felt wrong, so I loaded a CD by Carlos Nakai, who plays Native American flute on a background of haunting symphonic harmonies.
Just right for a stranger in a now-familiar land. I sat back and enjoyed the sights and the sound.
Rising up from the valley after I turned right where the highways divide, I came to that long stretch across the plain that leads to Lander. This was where I most feared that dangerous or impassible drifts might rise as uninterrupted winds swept the soft snow across the highway.
But the air was still, and the road nearly clear. The only other vehicles I met were snowplows.
The sky ahead, beneath a layer of clouds, loomed softly pink and blue on the horizon. Beside the highway, the white of snow was dappled with the black-green of distant sagebrush and the beige of dried grass. On one side, low hills billowed gently beyond the wide fields. The magnificent Wind River Range rose on the other.
So silent, so beautiful, and I was alone to see it. My apprehension gave way to a sense of calm, and of healing.
Slowing before the small square houses at Fort Washakie, I wondered what life is like for the people who live there. Sharing a heritage of conflict, we certainly see the world from different perspectives. But there is one other thing that we share, I thought. We love this land. We arrived here by different routes. But it sustains us all.
Driving home later, I listened to a CD of Beethoven’s Ninth that our son gave us for Christmas. It was quite a different kind of symphonic harmony than Nakai, hardly as evocative in this landscape. But the long drive was a good opportunity to enjoy the gift.
As I turned down the switchbacks and passed the red rocks again, heading west toward home, Beethoven’s symphony was also nearing its conclusion. The sopranos kept repeating the same refrain, at a pitch that the deaf composer no longer realized that no human voice can reach without strain.
“Alle menschen werden Brüder,” they shrieked at me, over and over.
All people will be brothers. A very lofty idea, I said to the ghost of the deaf, depressed Beethoven who had basically chosen those as his last words to humanity.
Maybe, I added, but maybe not. Always worth a try, though.
It had been a very good meeting in Lander. I arrived home with my sense of hope and purpose restored.
I knew it was not the meeting or the music that had lifted my spirits. It was the drive.
Horses are motionless in the sunless cold. You’ll have to pump the brakes. A stillness descends.
For better or worse, no red wave has splashed across our land. Instead, we have a white one.
As mere ordinary mortals, we can’t control the weather any more than we can control political events. With apps, we can watch a snowstorm coming on days earlier than we can see the leaden cloud bank looming on the horizon, and they are usually better at forecasts than the political pundits.
Still, somehow, the storm comes as a surprise.
Then the reminders begin. The cotton knit gloves just will not do any longer. You cannot just get up and go these days, because it will take far longer to get ready and also longer to arrive. You turn onto the highway to meet shiny, hard-packed snow, and you cannot quickly trust your sense of the road. You will drive 50 or less rather than 70, brake well before any curve, and pump your brakes gently long before you intend to stop.
In the valley below, horses stand motionless in the field, saving their energy in the cold, waiting to be fed. A stillness descends.
“Here we go again,” said the clerk at Super Foods, looking out the plate glass window. Rather, here we stay again.
The mountain pass closes for the day. You call friends who live alone to ask if they need anything. We won’t be packing in for the entire season as the homesteaders did back then, but we will surely spend more time indoors now, in COVID-like isolation.
Darkness falls in late afternoon now. Just at the time of day when I felt busiest and most alive a few weeks ago, I wonder how soon I should go to bed.
The houses of Congress will be deadlocked again. The longstanding Town Council member has won the election, and everything will go on (or remain dormant) as before.
Back East the road crews would spray salt, and the snow on streets would melt to slush. Here they spread dirt. As I drive facing a scene of endless white and gray, the fragrance of fresh soil rises up through the ventilation system, bringing with it the incongruous memory of digging in the flower bed with my trowel.
I waited too long to cut down the hollyhocks. They stand there festooned with snow, looking as ridiculous as dowagers who can no longer see well enough to apply their own eyeliner. Another day, I will have to put on heavy gloves and a scarf and shower myself with snow to carry them away.
Will I take advantage of all those extra hours indoors, working by lamplight to accomplish great new things? Probably not. I sense that we will watch old movies by the fire, eat popcorn, and go to bed early.
The moths aren’t disturbing, but they evoke troubling reflections.
We arrived home last month after many weeks away to find our home invaded.
We found many moths inside, live ones and dead ones. Moth corpses on the kitchen counter, piles of disembodied wings on the garage floor, moths fluttering inside lampshades, moths dragging themselves up the side of the kitchen sink, moths crawling slowly out from behind the coffeemaker.
If you live nearby, you know what I’m talking about. It’s been a banner year for Miller moths, the adult stage of the Army Cutworm that feeds on crops and grasses farther east in spring and summer and then matures to a moth form that migrates westward and up-mountain, seeking nectar in flowers.
Sometimes we don’t see them at all. It depends mostly on the weather. The moths may seem a pestilence, but they do no real harm because they do not feed on our clothes or our rugs.
I am more sad than annoyed about the moths that turn up inside our house. They are doomed, because they’ve lost their way. During the day, they hide from the light in small cracks, and then turn the wrong direction at night, emerging indoors rather than outdoors where they could fly away and lay more eggs. In here, they move around until they wear out, exhausted at the end of a fruitless life, and perish.
As to the moths that succeed in migrating back east, it is their worms that do the damage, and they do it elsewhere. Meanwhile, the moths themselves are an important part of our ecosystem, being a major food source for grizzly bears.
This is the season when the backdrop turns golden as the leaves change. This seasonal cycle of change is predictable and reassuring, but other changes are unsettling surprises.
New houses seem to rise from the ground like mushrooms, popping up in empty spaces around town, along the highway, on the slopes. Where once I saw profound darkness out the window at night, I now see lights sprinkled across the landscape. Our patch of the valley at the base of the mountains is beginning to feel a bit like a subdivision.
I see faces I don’t recognize, and now I don’t know who is a tourist and who moved here earlier this year. In New York I enjoyed the passing crowd of strangers, but in our small town I have treasured knowing lots of people, progressively more the longer I remained. But some have left, others have died, and the newcomers (whoever they are) don’t seem eager to greet me. (Or have I become less eager to meet them?)
When this process altered our Brooklyn neighborhood beyond recognition, we left and came here. That kind of change is expected in New York City; it’s part of the city’s life cycle. Here, I hoped, the situation would be stable and comfortable. (Of course, to be fair, I am partly at fault for writing this blog and launching it out to into the worldwide webiverse, helping to pave the road to our paradise with my good intentions.)
More than once recently I have set out on an old, familiar hike to find that new property owners have repositioned fences or built new ones. The game trails I like to follow have changed, and like the wildlife I cannot go exactly the way I went before. Of course I find this a bit disturbing.
I am also troubled as I begin to see in myself the same instinct that not long ago I lamented in some of my neighbors. We came here because we loved the isolation and the blessed lack of crowds, and we fear the threat of losing that. So let’s not make too many changes, I begin to think. But how many are too many? And which ones are the right ones?
I remember the scorn I felt at a cocktail party in Kent, Connecticut — a bastion of country homes for rich New Yorkers — when I overheard someone saying they wanted to put a tollbooth on Route 22 to keep out any newcomers. Now that we have our place, let’s keep out the others.
Where is the fairness in this situation?
In a few weeks, the residents of Dubois will choose a new mayor. Many who live outside town limits will have no voice, although the results could affect their lives considerably.
One candidate is a woman who has lived here for 25 years, owned numerous properties, and serves as a member of Town Council. The other is a man with a history of launching successful businesses who has lived in our county since childhood but moved to Dubois only last year, relocating his latest business to town. Both candidates say a top priority is finding a way to manage the growth of the area while retaining what we all value about Dubois.
What defines that value is clear from a bevy of community studies carried out since way back in 1986. Respondents speak about the wildlife and the scenery. We value the openness and uncrowded nature of our environment. We also treasure our Western culture.
But how to manage growth and assure the future of our town while retaining all that is far from clear. In fact, the candidates often seem to disagree completely about the best way to proceed.
“Accept change as inevitable,” was the last point on a list called Rules for Working Well, which I found somewhere and kept posted above my desk for years. Accepting it is one matter, I learned eventually, but effectively responding to it is quite another.
Will our town lose its way and turn the wrong direction as it emerges from this turning point, exhausting itself in fruitless efforts? And which is the right direction?
I thought it was just a sacrifice I had to make for living here
Looking around last Sunday at the Dennison Lodge, as musicians with Jackson Hole Chamber Music sailed through a string quartet with exquisite skill, I noticed all the smiles in the audience and, at times, among the performers.
What I didn’t see was my friend behind me, who was in tears. “It was so compelling,” she said later. “They just drew you in somehow.”
I also cried the first time I heard a performance by this chamber music group several years ago. I wasn’t sad at all — far from it –but tears welled up without warning.
I seldom cry. Usually when I do, it is for a loss — as my aged mother was dying, when I heard a street performer in New York City playing my late father’s instrument, the marimba, and just as I reached home after my last orchestra rehearsal. I’d left early because my shoulder pain became too intense to continue playing.
The arthritis specialist had predicted that moment, and I knew I would have to give it up. I opened the door, set down my beloved viola, and burst into sobs.
When my mother grew too old to continue performing professionally, she just stopped singing. Living in New York City, she could substitute the pleasure of attending concerts. She found it gratifying simply to appreciate the excellence of a performance, note by note, even if she wasn’t involved.
I had the same compensation after I stopped playing in orchestras and string quartets—until we moved to Dubois. Relinquishing the pleasure of those fine concerts, I thought, was my penance for the privilege of being here in the land of fabulous landscape and Western folk music. Never mind leaving behind the restaurants, the theater, and the legendary New York buzz. The only loss that caused me pain was that of classical music.
Maybe that’s because I was truly born into it. (That’s me at the keyboard there, in my Dad’s gag photo of his baby.)
As neuroscience has shown over and over, music is an ancient form of animal communication, an older form of human language than language itself and one deeply seated in the emotional centers of the brain. People tend to appreciate most the kind of music they have grown up with. Sometimes just listening to that kind of music, I find myself in tears for no reason having to do with events of the day.
The tears sprang upon me suddenly at that performance in Jackson as I began listening to a string quartet by Schubert. I sat in a small performance space, close enough to enjoy every movement the musicians made.
I wasn’t crying for a loss, but for something reclaimed. I may not be able to join the wonderful teamwork of a string quartet any more, I realized, but I could still experience it vicariously in nearby Jackson. And now, thanks to a group of music-loving friends and a partnership with the Wind River Valley Arts Guild, I can do so right here in Dubois.
For the past two years, we have won grants, advertised, and made arrangements for these performances at the Dennison. It’s the perfect venue for the occasion: So authentically Dubois, so ideal as a performance space for a small musical group.
The Jackson performances are in a classy, glass-fronted building set in the pines. The Dennison has a much different feel — an old lodge built of rough-hewn log walls that support mounts of elk, moose, and mountain lions. The performers find it charming.
They’ve told me they love the splendid drive over the pass from Jackson into a landscape that some of them have never seen before, and they appreciate the excellent acoustics in our rustic space. Clearly, they also appreciate the audience, which is attentive and appreciative in return.
The listeners enjoy sitting so close to the performers that they can watch them catching each others’ glances and smiling in pleasure at their own rapport. The audience can witness the strength in musicians’ arms as they lean into a heavy down-bow, and they can perceive, as one person remarked on a survey given at intermission, that the musicians enjoy the experience as much as they do.
It was clear from the survey responses that the 50 people who heard them felt the same way I did a few years ago. Unanimously, they told us that they would return for a similar concert next year.
“It made my heart soar,” wrote one member of the audience.
So many others here also share what they love — dance lessons, yoga, songwriting, painting, how to weave wool into blankets. Together we weave a wonderful diversity into a tiny, remote village in the mountains.
Last Sunday, I watched other people enjoying great music together and obviously appreciating each other as they did so. It is a far finer experience than the crowded concert halls in New York with their stiff, formal musicians performing at a distance as you sit surrounded by strangers.
At the Dennison, I leaned back, closed my eyes, reveled in the passing river of tones and harmonies, and pondered how it all travels through the air and then vanishes, this extraordinary gift to our senses. I am glad that at least 50 people here share my particular pleasure, and that they have told us it is well worth our efforts to provide it.
A photo exhibit wonderfully portrays the same contrasts I describe
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
News from a remote region of North England that resonates with home
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.
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:
— 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.
— 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.
— 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.
“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.
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.
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”.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
“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.