Mud, Slush, Trash, and Treasures

It seems a shame to call them “bad lands” when they are so wonderful.


DaybreakIn March and April, the town is ours at last. We see few out-of-state license plates, except for the spring snowmobilers heading up the pass.

Down-mountain, the snow may turn up now and then, but it doesn’t hang around very long. Everyone living nearby seems to have a new pond in their yard that freezes over and then thaws.

The streets are quiet. For motel owners who stay open all winter, this is the time to enjoy sleeping later and making repairs. You can probably count on a table at the Bistro without a reservation.

IMG_0196Some days it’s really cold; other days it’s mild enough to go out without a coat, especially where it’s not windy. Today the thermometer reads 20 degrees, but I’m quite comfortable in a denim shirt and down vest.

Still, the repeated melt and freeze are a challenge for a hiker. I have to strategize in order to avoid having to give the dog a bath after our outings. That’s why I revisit the badlands when early spring comes around.

BadlandsPlant2It seems a shame to call them “bad lands,” when they are so wonderful. Later in the spring, they will erupt with small wild flowers and the sage will turn green and fragrant.

Just now, the ground is barren, but it’s also fairly dry and rarely muddy. Each turn up a draw is a new adventure.

The views, as ever, are splendid. I heard somewhere that Dubois was voted as having the most scenic drive to the town dump anywhere in the country. Whether or not that ever happened, I believe it could be true.

GreenandRed_editedThe road beyond the dump heads over the badlands and on up toward Table Mountain where at some places the scene over the edge looks like a miniature Grand Canyon. Hiking closer to the dump today, what I notice are the ever-changing colors of the soil — which is the most striking feature of the badlands in any case.

Returning down a draw after an hour’s hike across this vast expanse of  wrinkled ridges, I come across a spot where the ground turns suddenly from badlands green to badlands red. I’m used to seeing this as changes in the stripes on the slowly melting slopes, not as fields of red or green, like this. I wonder what caused that transformation. (You can see the buildings of the dump ahead, at the top right in the picture. The white patch to its left is a snow-covered slope in the distance.)

BadlandsCarcass080616This close to the dump (and the start of the road) you always encounter some trash in the terrain: empty beer cans, cardboard, construction debris deposited out here for free (rather than paying the fee, at the dump). The ground is cleaner farther out the road.

There’s always some of the kind of refuse that my dog appreciates, the kind predators leave behind.

That’s another good reason to bring the dog here during mud and slush season. The bones are clean and dry, and won’t cause him any problem if I take them away before he chews off a chip. He just likes to carry them around like trophies, anyway.

Usually I follow the abundant game trails through this labyrinth, but seeing my car in the distance, I decide to strike out overland, crossing a draw and climbing a fairly steep slope on the other side.

RockerBadlandsNearing the top, I encounter a very large discarded object. Someone wanting to avoid the discard fee must have pushed this over the edge just beyond the dump, driving no farther than necessary on the rutted road in order to avoid being seen.

The wood is weathered, and most of the nails have pulled free. Nevertheless I turn it back upright, and tug at it. Wouldn’t it be great in our back yard come summer — bolted back together, given a new seat and left out behind the house, facing up our valley?

Alas, it proves too heavy to drag even a few yards uphill.  I leave it turned toward the distance. Fine old chair as it once was, it at least deserves to crumble facing out across the same uplifting terrain I have just enjoyed.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at

Of Dubois, New York, and Hollywood

One up-side of remoteness: The high cost of production.

IMG_0140Back when I first lived in New York City, it really used to trouble me that there was so much violence in films set in my home town. But as time went by, I stopped caring about that.

In decades of living there, I never personally witnessed gun play or other violence (setting aside 9/11, of course). The French Connection was released way back in 1971, the same year I fell in love with my husband and his home town. Starting then, I grew accustomed to ignoring the bad rap about violence and crime that frightens so many tourists about New York. So what? I know better.

These days, I really enjoy watching films set in New York. It’s fun to recognize the intersection the cops are running through or the exact spot where the lovers are kissing. I enjoy trying to figure out whether the housing project on the screen is in the Bronx or on the Lower East Side. For absolutely nothing, I can get a free trip back to the city.

A few days ago, trolling around Netflix, I gave a little gasp. “There’s Wind River,” I said, seeing the icon for a film I always wanted to watch but never ran across in a cinema. (Well, I don’t “run across” films in a cinema any more. I have to travel an hour and a half to visit one. With Netflix, YouTube, and TCM, why bother?)

100_0141 (1)

I vaguely recalled someone telling me not to bother with that film. But there I sat in front of the TV. Why not?

It was off to an interesting start, with a woman’s voice reciting a poem as what seems to be a Native American woman runs across the snow. But the fact that the film is set in our beautiful valley in the dead of winter, always with whistling winds and deep snow, should have tipped me off: This was not going to end well.

The scenes are a snowmobilers’ dream, because our protagonists in law enforcement get to sled everywhere at high speed, passing spectacular stands of evergreens. They remind me of the footage our winter visitors like to put on YouTube after their trips to Togwotee Pass.

But the plot entirely robs the landscape of its beauty. A story of brutality against women by ignorant drunken men (not drunken Native Americans, I hasten to add), it ends in a shootout with high-powered weapons. The cinematographer revels in the contrast of the bloodbath against the pure white snow.

100_0724“So much for the image of our valley,” said my husband as the film ended.

This isn’t actually our valley, because the film was set down-county in the reservation. But the river that runs through our town has the same name, and if you Google “Wind River” today the top results, of course, link to pages about the film.

As to our town of Dubois, my son (who still lives in New York) commented in a recent visit that the village looks like a movie set. True West magazine endorses that view, having given Dubois its 2018 award for the best architecturally preserved Western town.

HonorGuardBut the only film ever set in Dubois wasn’t a “Western,” and it wasn’t actually filmed here. I’m gratified to say that Taking Chance, starring Kevin Bacon, was the deeply affecting true story of the return of a fallen Iraq soldier to Dubois and his burial in our local cemetery.

This image is not from the film. It’s an actual honor guard at the actual Dubois cemetery, on Veterans Day. Even though locals including Chance Phelps’ family worked hard to bring production here, the Western scenes were filmed in Montana.

The business incentives in Wyoming weren’t as good as elsewhere. But also, the costs of bringing the production to this remote area were too high to be practical.

This used to trouble me, but as time goes by, I have changed my view. Dubois was extraordinarily fortunate that the one film to feature it gave an accurately positive image of its character–even though the images didn’t actually show our town or our landscape. But it may be a blessing that it is a challenge to bring film producers here.

There are many reasons to value our remoteness in this valley. That it discourages the media that might send the wrong message about us is one of them.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at

How to Live Well in the Wilderness

Transformations in daily life, now taken for granted.

UPSPackageI found the box with my new IPhone on the drivers’ seat of my car, which I had left unlocked on a trip to town last week.

The UPS driver, recognizing my car from many visits to our driveway, wanted to save himself the long trip out to my house. So he popped it in and drove on.

I find this remarkable on several levels: The fact that I can leave my car unlocked in this small town, without a second thought. The fact that the UPS driver recognizes my car and chooses it as a delivery point. The fact that I can easily get a new IPhone without even having to leave my house.

Maybe you have to be born well before the last millennium to appreciate this. The first folks who settled in the valley that we see from our window wouldn’t be able to comprehend it at all. They had no such thing as a telephone, and they were snowed in for the winter.

It was a RamshornSnowday’s long trip into town, what with the long slog through the snow to the highway. For the most part, whatever you had by October was what you got by with until spring.

When Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days, he fasted and was tempted by the devil. These days, my greatest temptations arrive when I leave this wilderness and go back to a place where shopping is easier.

When we decided to move here, I used to wonder how we would manage in a place where great merchandise was no longer available around the corner or, at most, a few subway stops away. A few decades ago, I would not have dreamed of living in a place like Dubois, partly for that reason. I had no idea what transformation the Internet would bring to our everyday life.

In fact, I can have anything I want, if I’m willing to wait a day or two and pay the shipping costs. When you consider that there’s no income tax in Wyoming, I actually come out ahead.

I’m even farther ahead if you consider that I don’t often find myself wandering into a shop, drawn in by something in the display window, and come out with something I neither need nor really want. I feel this same pull even as close as a trip to nearby Jackson. But here in Dubois, I buy only what I really need.

FedExAnd given crowd-sourced reviews on the Internet, I usually wind up with the best product — not whatever brand happens to be in stock in the store I’m in.

Rather than paying (what is it now?) $20 each to watch whatever latest movie is on the big screen in the cinema two blocks away, we now troll around Netflix and the Roku channel. Thus we often catch truly wonderful films, either great obscure independents or big-screen features that we missed when they first came out.

A few nights ago, it was Night Train to Lisbon, an intriguing story and a wonderful mini-vacation, an escape to a distant city I visited long ago.

The next evening it was Finding Forrester with Sean Connery, a few hours’ enjoyable return to the world of New York City that I’ve left behind. All this with a glass of wine in hand and some healthy popcorn for free.

SahadisWe don’t even have to leave behind some of the best that we enjoyed in that city. There on my kitchen counter is a bag of the best coffee beans we have ever found, fresh (well, since frozen) from Sahadi’s, our former go-to Middle Eastern market on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. We place an order on, and find it at our doorstep a few days later — along with the same olives, nuts, spices, and gourmet teas we used to enjoy in our kitchen back in New York.

Sahadi’s was one of the few things I thought I would miss from my former life in the city. But I don’t.

And I can hike or snowshoe around the corner, rather than just shopping. How we are blessed.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at

Lights Down. Leota’s Gone from Dubois.

She left the ranch and became a phenomenon.

Back in the city, a neighbor’s death was the loss of one thread in a rich tapestry. There were so many others weaving in and out.

Rainbow_croppedHere, it’s more like the fading of bands in the rainbow, a loss of our brilliance. In recent weeks, our light has dimmed with the sudden absence of several townsfolk — a beloved young man lost too soon to cancer, an elderly businessman important to the town’s growth, and now Leota Didier.

With her passing, I think we’ve lost the bright vermilion stripe. Alas.

Leota had a special place in my heart, because she gave us our first glimpse of Dubois when we stayed at the Lazy L&B dude ranch 30 years ago. She and her husband Bernard, a retired Presbyterian minister, had bought the ranch 20 years earlier. That was on a side trip during a vacation in Denver, when she had thought they were headed to California.

“My husband was a funny man,” Leota told me once. “He got urges.”

LazyLB “He heard there were marvelous buys on dilapidated ranches in Wyoming,” she recalled. Having formerly run church camps, Bernard got an idea. “Before the week was over,” she went on, “we owned a ranch.”

By the time we got there, Lazy L&B was far from dilapidated, but it was folksy and friendly. Having grown up on a farm in Iowa, she knew well how to handle animals, and I guess as a minister’s wife she had also learned how to deal with people

When we returned to Dubois decades later, I was pleased to find that she was still here. I invited her to tea, and then came to know her better.

In the meantime, Bernard had succumbed to Alzheimer’s and passed away. Leota had left the ranch, moved to town, and become a phenomenon.

CuttingParty2015The “L” in Lazy L&B, Leota was hardly lazy. Among many other blessings, she helped to move the historic Dennison Lodge to the center of town, where it became an events venue (and pity the person who left a mess in that kitchen!).

She installed large bronze statues by local artists in the town square, and was heavily involved in helping to create the new assisted living center at Warm Valley Lodge, where she spent her last days.

I saw her most often when I would help out at the weekly square dance selling soft drinks. She would always sit at the door and stamp hands as people paid their fee and came in. I have great photos of my young children at the square dance decades ago, and I’m sure she must have been at the door back then.

LeotaEven last summer, after she had moved to Warm Valley, she would never miss this duty as long as someone would pick her up and take her home after.

Tall and patrician, she dressed with elegance, even as she grew stooped and slow. Always slim skirts and fitted jackets in the muted colors of the West, and always that signature hat.

I bought the sassy red hat below in the thrift-shop auction one year, thinking it must have been a donation from her. That was her style: Classy and bold.

She told me she had not donated that hat. Who knows; at that time her memory was fading. I can’t pull it off with her style, so I seldom wear it. But in any case I think of her whenever I see it.


“How are you?” I asked, the last time I saw her, only weeks ago, at church.

“About as well as could be expected,” she replied, with a gentle echo of her former husky laugh. Typical Leota: Ironic, straightforward, candid.

Her devoted wrangler, Max, posted on Facebook about her death, inspiring a flood of responses.

“Leota was a true original,” someone wrote. “She was a Pioneer and a woman of substance. She had a great heart and an energy and a drive that was legendary.”

“She did so much for so many people and the town of Dubois,” replied someone else, “and most of the time nobody knew.”

Another post said that nobody could fill her shoes.

“Or hats,” I replied. Max gave that a “like.”

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at

How Dubois Gets Lost Online

The highway over Togwotee Pass has disappeared!

PassHighway022514_4Have you ever been steered down an utterly ridiculous route in your own neighborhood by a digital navigator? Then you’ll appreciate this.

Helping out at the Dubois Chamber yesterday, I took a call from an unnamed man who has visited Dubois before and wanted to return.

“Have they removed the highway between Jackson and Dubois,” he asked, “the pretty one, over the Togwotee Pass?”

I laughed and said of course not, that in fact it has been recently improved.

“Well, I was looking on Rand McNally’s online map,” he said, “and that highway doesn’t exist. I thought maybe the Indians took it away.”

I laughed again, thanked him heartily and looked it up. Sure enough, that household name of highway maps and atlases, Rand McNally, routes people from Jackson down to Farson, across South Pass, through Lander, across the Reservation, and back west toward Dubois. A 287-mile, six-hour trip that ought to take about an hour and a half:


US Highway 26/287 does not appear on their map. The (more or less) straight line from A to B has vanished.

Needless to say, I immediately contacted Rand McNally’s online support about this problem, pleading with them not to rob Dubois of its lifeblood, as tourism so important to our town’s economy.

In return, I’ve received ticket number 1094112 and a promise that my submission will be reviewed.

I probably couldn’t hope for any response at all from Google Maps, which directs everyone wanting to go from Denver to Jackson to head straight west on boring old I-80. It doesn’t even suggest the possibility of heading north at Rawlins and exploring beautiful Wind River Country, heading up that gorgeous valley past the Wind River Reservation and through that lovely green stripe between Dubois and Jackson at the top there:


At least MapQuest offers both routes, with the information that the route through Lander takes an hour longer. Of course, nobody looking at the online maps would understand the difference between an overnight in Rock Springs and an overnight in Lander or Dubois. Pity there’s no easy way to convey the scenery en route.

Maybe this will come along with virtual reality  mapping.

DuboisWebcam121715Last evening I attended a town meeting to consider a new project to improve traffic flow through Dubois. My husband and I cast sidelong glances at each other when the consulting engineer from another town spoke about potential “loss of service” and the results of traffic monitoring, which showed little evidence of traffic jams.

We knew this already.

Part of the objective is to prepare for future increases in traffic. I didn’t think to ask whether he has any contacts at Google or Rand McNally. Perhaps he knows something I don’t know.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at

Dubois Old Town and the Spirit of the West

Charm is a state of mind.

CemeteryView4_TrueWestThis is Dubois. It has a new distinction this year, being recognized by True West magazine as the town with the best-preserved Western architecture.

I don’t think the award was meant to designate the oldest residential part of town. But I think it deserves recognition.

Like many new settlers from far away, I don’t actually live in Dubois, although I usually say I do. So many of us who move here choose a house that is new-built, with a view, miles outside the town limits. We don’t often venture into the original housing section.

IMG_0745The main road bypasses the old part of town, which is also the low-rent district. For years, I never went over that way, except to go to the library.  Unless you know someone who lives there or you have children at the school (which is also in that direction), there’s little reason to visit the original village.

I began doing so lately. At first glance it appears unkempt and unattractive. But the longer I spend there, the more I have come to appreciate it.

IMG_0726“Can you help us get someone on the Town Council who will do something to clean up the town?” a friend asked me a few weeks ago.  I asked her to explain what she meant by “clean up.” One thing she mentioned was the trailers.

True, there are lots of old house trailers and double-wides in the old town. Mayor Blakeman told me that you’re no longer allowed to set up a new house trailer in Dubois. The ones in the old part of town are “grandfathered in.” Today, she said, to erect a dwelling you have to put up something made of “sticks.”

IMG_0725By and large, the properties with trailers are well-kept (in a dusty, not-much-will-grow-here way).

Many of the double-wides aspire to resemble suburban tract houses. Put on blinders and narrow the focus, in some spots, and you can envision yourself in a subdivision. But you’d have to ignore the fact that many of the streets are unpaved.

Notice how the mountains loom over the old village, as they do everywhere in Dubois. Here also, it’s quite possible to have a view.

IMG_0744Lots of the houses are small, old, insubstantial, and have a thrown-together appearance. Many have large stacks of firewood in the yard. It’s the only source of heat for many people, because out here in the wilderness electricity is expensive and there aren’t many jobs that pay well.

Some homes also have several vehicles in the yard besides the pickup. A camper, say, and a horse trailer. This is not especially attractive, but it doesn’t mean we are trashy. It means that we like to get out into the woods, and many of us do love horses.

IMG_0734A herd of deer also seems to regard the old village as home. They cross the streets with the proprietary air of homeowners out on a stroll, and sometimes lounge on porches in the sun. They like to graze in the empty lots.

Mayor Blakeman says there are still empty lots because people hold onto property in the old town as an investment, waiting for it to appreciate. She adds that some of the empty lots have begun to sell. Among the double-wides and bungalows, you also see some charming new log homes.

It’s fascinating to see the new interpretations that some people have made of their house trailers as they added on for more space. Is that what this is, in the image below? I especially like it, however it began.

IMG_0753_editedSome folks might like to spruce up the old part of town so that it looks more like a “historic district.” But as I walk these streets, I’ve come to think that the architecture of old town, if you can call it that, truly preserves the spirit of the Old West in the sense that True West magazine intended.

It’s a place founded by people without much money who intensely wanted to be here, and set up housekeeping in the best way they could, with what they had. There hasn’t been much by way of town planning and regulation, because this too is the spirit of the old West.

IMG_0739If it speaks of anything, the old town speaks of individualism — and that is truly who we are.

The other day I enjoyed a movie set in a hill town in Sicily, a part of Italy that we visited a few years ago. I saw the facades of peeling stucco on a town square, glowing in that special light you get in Italy, and I grew wistful for those ancient surroundings.

Would we still seek out those old villages, I wondered, if Disney World went in and repaired the stucco and paved the cobbled streets?

Then I thought of the old part of Dubois, which we could also cherish for its very imperfections.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at

The Dubois Jackalope: A Unique Genetic Variant?

Adding to controversy about a remarkable hybrid

As a former science writer with a special interest in genetics, I hardly expected to find something of professional interest in my tiny, remote home town of Dubois, Wyoming. My hearfelt thanks to the Riverton friend who sent me a document someone left on the photocopy machine in her workplace. This gives me a rare and unexpected opportunity to revive my old skills.

I have traced the document to Steven J. McAllister, a biology professor at Central Wyoming College. It contains a description of the genetic characteristics of “the rarely seen and little studied Dubois Jackalope.” I was aware that the elusive jackalope is sighted throughout the state of Wyoming, but not that there is a specific Dubois variant—let alone that it has been the subject of scientific study.

JackalopeThe Dubois Jackalope is beloved of tourists, who like to take selfies on a statue of the creature, which has stood for years outside a small private museum dedicated to the animal. In fact, my own husband recalls passing through on vacation as a child and begging his parents to stop and let him ride the jackalope.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says they told him. “That’s just a tourist trap.”

Not so! Described as a hybrid between an antelope and a jackrabbit, the creature had an illustrious history long before biologists began to document its genetic characteristics. Accounts by cowboys describe a fearless and ferocious “warrior rabbit” that fought with its horns and could imitate the songs they sang around the campfire.

Kathy Weiser writes in Legends of America  that the “antlered species of rabbit” are  “brownish in color, weight between three and five pounds, and move with lighting speeds of up to 90 miles per hour.”

HornedHareAccording to Weiser, our esteemed local explorer John Colter, who passed through here en route to what is now Yellowstone Park, was the first to report sightings of the antlered rabbit in North America. But it has a much longer history in Europe. The Flemish painter Joris Hoefnagel included the image at right in his book Animalia Qvadrvpedia et Reptilia (Terra) [Terrestrial Quadrupeds and Reptiles], published around 1575.

I have discovered information about jackalope genetics in three college tests, which we can assume refer to reports that the students have read in preparation for the tests. Unfortunately,  none of these quizzes offer journal citations to the relevant publications.

However, they do provide a fascinating glimpse of this esoteric field.

As always in science, there is considerable controversy about the genetic qualities of the jackalope – especially with regard to coat color, as I will describe later.

Inheritance of other jackalope characteristics seems to follow the simplest rules of Mendelian genetics: Each parent possesses two genetic factors (known as “alleles”) for a property, of which one is passed on to offspring. Inheriting one from each parent, the young have two copies of each allele. “Dominant” alleles always win out over “recessive” alleles; the only way to inherit a “recessive” characteristic is by getting a recessive allele from both parents.

A document from the Missouri University of Science and Technology describes this phenomenon in mating experiments between long-horned and short-horned variants of the jackalope. The inheritance patterns suggest that the gene for long horns is dominant. Therefore long horns will be far more common among jackalopes than short horns. (This makes sense, as long horns would help them to be fierce fighters.)

Jackalope_croppedThe Wyoming report also describes a quality that follows this pattern: ear length. The Dubois jackalope has long-eared and short-eared variants, it says, with short ears being recessive (and therefore much less common). For whatever it’s worth, both jackalopes represented in the museum in Dubois appear to have long ears.

Controversy has arisen about the inheritance of coat color. A test question from the American School of Warsaw says that the fur color of jackalopes is inherited through “incomplete dominance,” in which an animal that inherits one dominant and one recessive allele winds up with a color that is a mix of the two. In this case, it says, the alleles are for red or white, but the heterozygote (which inherits both) turns out pink.

Another document about jackalope genetics, this one from North Central College in Napierville IL, concurs that coat color is inherited through incomplete dominance, but describes the colors differently. Jackalopes can inherit alleles for either brown or white, it says, and animals with one brown and one white allele have gray fur.

Descriptions of color are always subjective; one wonders whether these two reports describe different subtypes or just use different words for the same thing. Of course “red” and “brown” can sometimes be conflated (note that Weiser described the color as “brownish”.)

However, it is difficult to see how gray and pink can be confused as the same color. Most likely, heterozygous jackalopes in Poland are indeed pink and those in Illinois are actually gray. These kinds of geographic variations are common in nature, as Charles Darwin himself recognized.

Jackalop_sketchThe Dubois test, not available online, describes a different system for inheritance of coat color: Orange as recessive and gray as dominant. Is “orange” equivalent to the “pink” of Warsaw jackalopes? Or is the evidence behind the Dubois report in error?

Do the “orange” jackalopes in Dubois actually represent incomplete dominance, not recessive inheritance? Or is it just that, like so much else in Dubois, the Dubois jackalope is unique? One hopes the scientists involved can reconcile these issues.

In the interests of completeness, I must report that alternative theories for the origins of the jackalope have been reported elsewhere. These arguments hold that horns arising on the head of ordinary jackrabbits are the result of a disease (appropriately called “jackalopism”) caused by a papilloma virus, which induces tissue to harden on the top of a rabbit’s head.

In his book A Planet of Viruses (University of Chicago Press, 2011), my fellow science journalist Carl Zimmer described experiments in the 1930s that validated this theory. A scientist ground up the horns of a creature with this condition, dissolved them and filtered the solution so viruses could get through. He applied the liquid to the heads of other rabbits which, sure enough, grew horns.

Are there genetic factors that determine susceptibility to this virus? How do they relate to ear length and, more importantly, coat color? I will end with the conclusion common to so many scientific reports: Further research is necessary.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at