Spotted While Hiking: Cables and Cabins

Bright and promising, in place of the old and familiar.

The wind has cleared away the choking haze from the Lone Star fire in Yellowstone, and yesterday we could rejoice once more in a splendid, bracing Indian summer day. Time to get back outdoors.

Tramping around in the woods, I got slightly and happily lost. I generally knew my way, because this is one of my favorite stomping grounds.

A few years ago, these woods were cleared in places by our own Lava Mountain fire. I mourned the “burn,” because it eliminated some of my favorite paths and views. But as a tourist pointed out to me last week, around here you don’t run out of places to hike.

Emerging into the clear, I found this glorious sight: A new aspen grove springing up among the charred trunks.

That’s the way it goes sometimes. The old and familiar is destroyed. Then, a while later, something bright and promising emerges.

Just as I was putting the phone away after snapping this image, I was startled to hear it ring. I haven’t had signal in that area before.

A cellphone call can spoil the contemplations of a hike, but I took this one. In conversation with a friend, I led the dog on up the dirt road toward the creek, where I stumbled on something equally startling.

I’m accustomed to seeing the huge spools of orange cable sitting beside the highway or traveling on the back of a truck. But I’ve never seen those cables lying on the ground in the forest, in one of my go-to hiking spots.

They trailed on up toward the creek, partly buried already.

Look how healthy the trees are right here, only yards from those charred trunks. Among other features of our landscape that were spared, the firefighters worked very hard to save the campgrounds in this forest.

Both locals and national experts about wildfires say that one reason our forests keep burning nearly out of control is because, long ago, the Powers That Be killed off most logging activity. The result was large, dense stands of aged trees that are now vulnerable to disease and fire.

The lumber mill in Dubois closed nearly a half century ago. Our town has hung on by its fingernails ever since, taking advantage of its tourism assets while awaiting a new lifesaving industry that would bring back the year-round jobs.

So I saw those cables-in-waiting as both a sign of loss and a sign of hope. For me personally, it could mean losing another isolated hiking spot close to home. But for our region, it is reason for optimism.

Certainly, good broadband will soon reach much farther up-mountain. There could also be a Wifi hub right next to the pit toilet near the campsites. That would give digital nomads — those full-time Internet workers who haven’t yet decided to settle down — the opportunity to hang out for a while in our wilderness, while discovering the joys of the Wind River region.

Here’s another go-to hiking spot that delivered a surprise, back in the summer. This is a valley where the dog and I love to hike, also not far from home. When I first saw the view you see in the image at left, I gave a sigh at the sight of those ridges pointing off toward the far distance, on either side of that empty plain.


To judge from the picture on the right, others have had the same reaction. The circles are new cabins. The dirt roads that lead to them must be pretty rutted right now, but I’m sure that will change. I’m also fairly sure these people will soon be served by another orange cable–if they aren’t already.

Do they already know, or will they soon discover the fact? This is an ideal place to pursue what is now called “remote work” in a truly remote location.

Last week, some plein air painters from the annual Susan K. Black Foundation workshop set up on our back porch. It looked like they were either peering through the smoky haze or just trying to imagine what lay beyond, as they worked to capture the image of those mountains on canvas.

Meanwhile, an instructor used our broadband to live-stream a painting demonstration for artists elsewhere who had opted out of traveling to the workshop this year, because of COVID.

The Foundation has been holding workshops here every summer for 20 years, one member told me, because they love the scenery, the serenity, and the down-to-earth people.

She nailed it. This year, they also appreciate the terrific broadband, out here in the wild at the base of the mountains.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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The Cost of Suffrage in Wyoming

It’s not about strong women after all. That should have been obvious.

One hundred fifty years ago today, on September 6, 1870, in Laramie, Wyoming, 70-year-old grandmother Louisa Swain was first woman to vote after passage of the Wyoming Suffrage Act of 1869.

A celebration and re-enactment is underway in Laramie as I write this.

When I learned that Wyoming was the first state to give women the vote, I was quietly pleased. Who knew? It was one more reason to be proud of my new home state.

I credited this to the independence of the strong and determined women who preceded me here more than a century ago. Living very comfortably in my well-chinked log house with electric heat and indoor plumbing, I am fascinated by their accounts of trying to sweep a dirt floor clean, of cooking over a wood fire in old tin cans, of chasing a bear out of the kitchen with a broom.

Why shouldn’t these great women be enfranchised?

In her book Absaraka: Home of the Crows, first published the year before suffrage was enacted here, Margaret Carrington describes her journey to Wyoming territory as a young military bride, the outcomes of many skirmishes with the local native tribes, and the privations of winter life in the wilderness. Traveling north with her husband’s troops to build Fort Phil Kearney just south of the Bighorn Mountains, she writes of “the snapping of a tent-pole at midnight under three feet of snow” which can also creep in and “sprinkle” your bed and your clothes, the risk of the tent catching fire, and the challenge of “frozen-up” kettles and pots in the morning.

I ordered Carrington’s book after I discovered her in another wonderful book that somehow recently fell into my hands. In “Gentle Tamers,” Dee Brown chose an interesting title, because most of the women he describes are far from gentle.

How old is this book, I asked myself during the first chapter, because some of the words he chose would not pass muster in today’s self-conscious culture. (The book was published in 1958.) But it is a great read.

Brown takes a comprehensive, unflinching, and unsentimental look at the lives of the early female migrants to the West, from homesteaders and schoolteachers to prostitutes. She devotes an entire chapter to Esther Hobart Morris, a resident of the mining camp at South Pass City near Lander, who was the nation’s first female justice of the peace.

Morris is often credited with successfully negotiating for women’s suffrage in Wyoming. Indeed she was a proponent of women’s rights, and it was her neighbor, William H. Bright of South Pass City, who introduced the suffrage bill into the Wyoming legislature.

Why was Bright motivated to do so? Little is known about him, but a 1973 article in American Heritage suggests a possibility: The Fifteenth Amendment giving black men the right to vote had been introduced into the US Congress earlier that year.

“Bright was appalled,” says the author, Lynne Cheney. “A native Virginian, he thought the black man was not up to the franchise.” (If a Negro could vote, why not his wife?)

This introduction of racism into the matter was not the first shadow cast across my enthusiasm for the suffrage act. Dee Brown devotes a whole chapter to “The Great Female Shortage,” and his account of Morris and the Wyoming Suffrage Act comes next. If the juxtaposition was inadvertent, it’s ironic nonetheless. But I didn’t catch it either.

The penny didn’t drop until last month, when I heard a report on public radio, aired on the centennial of the 19th Amendment that gave all women in the US the right to vote. The story about Wyoming is not one about strong women after all, and the reality should have been obvious.

The golden spike had been driven at Ogden, Utah, exactly 7 months before passage of the Wyoming Suffrage Act. Miners were prospecting for gold, homesteaders were beginning to plow the soil, ranchers were grazing cattle, and forts were being built to protect all those settlers.

“Territories like Wyoming wanted more white settlers, so they figured they could bring more white women out by allowing them to vote,” said the report on Wyoming Public Media (Why Did Western Women Gain Voting Rights Earlier Than the Rest of the Nation?).

To the men who governed Wyoming 150 years ago, the Wyoming Suffrage Act of 1869 (at least to those who didn’t take it all as a big joke) was a step toward settlement and statehood. The granting of voting rights to women settlers in the West derives directly from the need to deprive the rights of natives who came here first.

Though the mining region where Esther Hobart Morris lived was subject to repeated attacks by local natives, there is no evidence that she herself linked the fight for suffrage with the demand to increase the white population. It seems that her chief motivation really was to assert women’s rights, although exactly what she did to achieve that in Wyoming is not clear.

Her contemporary Margaret Carrington, whose husband was commander of a fort being built to create a safe route north from Cheyenne to Montana gold mines–and who witnessed numerous raids and attacks intended to prevent that from happening–had a different perspective. Although her husband was relieved of command at Fort Phil Kearney after the disastrous Fetterman massacre, and the entire outfit including Margaret and other women had to leave it in a grueling midwinter journey, she evinced understanding and some concern about the interests of the original inhabitants of the land her people had invaded.

“[T]here comes the inevitable sentiment of pity, and even of sympathy with the bold warrior in his great struggle,” she wrote, “and in a dash over the plains, or breathing the pure air of the mountains, the sense of freedom and independence brings such contrast with the machinery and formalities of much that is called civilized life, that it seems but natural that the red man in his pride and strength should bear aloft the spear point…”

Another phrase in Carrington’s book caught me like a slap in the face this morning. Writing about people in the East who had never been to Wyoming and yet held strong opinions about the massacre, she scorned the “great delight of their own complacent souls” and the “wonderful wisdom of absolute ignorance.”

I still take delight in the strength and courage of the women who settled this land. But my ignorance is no longer so absolute.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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The Sorrow of the Late Summer Sky

This time of year the sky can be troubling, fascinating, or soothing. It depends…

This morning, at last, the air smelled fresh and clean. I caught the fragrance of new-mown hay. The subtle but disturbing smell of wood smoke was finally gone.

It’s that time of year when we expect the sky to turn the pale gray color of skim milk and the eyes to burn by day. Of an evening, the light show in the sky is as troubling as it is fascinating, as flashes of cloud lightning circulate the perimeter of our view. Any of them could become a fire.

Going outdoors gives us a constant reminder that there are fires out there somewhere. So far this year Dubois has been spared, but others elsewhere, we can easily tell, have not.

The tourists exploring our town don’t seem troubled at all by the close atmosphere and the hot haze. Perhaps they don’t know about the blue sky and refreshing air that they are missing.

Last week we drove over the mountain to Jackson. Those grand Tetons had entirely disappeared behind the airport. It was as if someone had dropped a huge light-gray blind in front of the mountain range. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

A plane glided down toward the runway, and I thought about the disappointed tourists inside, unable to have a first glimpse of the legendary mountain range they had come to see.

Especially this difficult year, the days of late summer arrive with a tinge of regret–for the lovely days lost to working indoors, for intentions unfulfilled and friends not seen for months, for the simple inexorable passage of time.

Days are shorter now, as the light begins to fade ever closer to dinnertime. But there are compensations. Now I can sit on the back porch and watch the stars without staying up past my bedtime.

On any relatively moonless night in this dark environment, the sky is freckled and sequined with them. The real star-spangled banner is the Milky Way, spreading lazily and visibly across the entire sky above our house.

My view of the night sky is to the north, which is where the action is, both in legend and in reality. There’s a domestic drama up there: Casseiopeia sits eternally on her throne (or rocking chair, in my impression of the image) just to the west of her husband Cepheus. Casseiopeia angered the god Poseidon by bragging too outrageously about her own beauty and especially that of her daughter Andromeda, whose constellation appears just below Casseiopeia.

As the story goes, Andromeda’s venal parents cut a deal with Poseidon: He would back off if they allowed him to chain beautiful Andromeda to a rock in the sea. Perseus cut her loose, rescuing her from a sea monster, and married her.

His constellation appears to the east of Andromeda, living forever below his inlaws and anchoring one end of the Milky Way. In that direction, if you’re lucky, for about a week this time of year you can see some real action: The Perseid meteor showers, which are remnants of a comet falling across the sky.

I wasn’t either patient or lucky this year, and I caught sight of only two or three faint “falling stars” while watching for a few minutes. But on other evenings I have watched some very bright meteors blazing across that sky: So. Slowly. As. To. Beg. A. Wish.

If I take time to rest and watch for a while, I see other bright spots moving across and between the constellations. These are either satellites or airplanes, too distant to hear but recognizable by the rhythmic flash of their light. I lean back on my porch and send a wave of sympathy to the people inside that metal tube, doubtless tired and eager to return to earth.

Around me, all is silence. The deer are settling down in their nests of trampled grass. The hawks must be resting on branches out there somewhere.

I am resting too. My mind is wandering somewhere in the black, silent, and incomprehensibly distant depths, where my insignificant regrets and disappointments vanish.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Building Youth for the Future in Dubois

Even in uncertain times, Dubois digs deep when it matters.

Madison Harper gave a theatrical gasp and wiggled her hands as if pounding a silent drum roll. “And the total is — ” (wait for it) “– sixty-six thousand dollars!”

People attending fundraiser for Dubois WY Boys & Girls Club

This was $6,000 more than the goal for the morning’s event.

The 75 people spread out around folding banquet tables erupted into applause. Who would guess that we could raise that much while meeting outdoors for breakfast in the desert chill of a very early August morning, in the midst of a national political crisis and a pandemic?

When I heard the size of the “ask” I was dubious that we could reach the $60,000 goal that morning. I envisioned Madison and her team hitting the phones as soon as they had cleared the tables, working to meet the shortfall.

“Well, that’s typical of Dubois,” remarked a friend afterwards. “We may not be on speaking terms with some of our neighbors, but we will still come together to support a local need.

The need in question that chilly morning was to fill a budget gap for the Boys & Girls Club of Dubois, which provides after-school and summer activities for the youth of this small remote town. Madison Harper, she of the bright smile and seemingly boundless enthusiasm, is the Director.

The Club reopened in June when pandemic restrictions were eased, and set about finding ways, as Madison put it, to help its young members “release their emotions in a safe place and learn how to process everything in a healthier way.”

Around Dubois, that involves going fly-fishing, driving up Whiskey Basin to look at petroglyphs, riding horses near a lodge up-mountain, gardening behind a church and tending bees at an apiary, floating on the river, and playing at the golf course. The options for healthy activities here are considerable.

“I am so thankful that the Club is open,” said a 9-year-old at the fund-raiser. “It has really helped me socializing with other kids, because COVID-19 has been driving me crazy.”

Having no young children, we’ve had little to do with the Club directly, but of course I’ve noticed the children around town. They remind me of my own early childhood in small towns in the Midwest, where I was free to roam — so different from the city life my own children experienced.

That’s why we came to Dubois on vacation in the first place, actually, and kept coming back. It was somewhere the children could run free for a while.

Kids playing in a back yard in Dubois WY

But I have no illusions about the hazards that small-town life can present to kids who have nothing to do.

The organization was born 12 years ago as Dubois Youth Activities, shortly after my husband and I moved here, to give kids in this frontier village some healthful ways to spend their spare time. It has grown and thrived since, serving more than 600 children over the years. It currently serves 126.

The pretext for the fund-raising event was to present an award to Budd Betts, who runs a local guest ranch that serves worthy groups such as cancer survivors and veterans with PTSD. “Most certainly give, give all you can,” he urged as he accepted the award. “Pick a cause, whether it’s the Boys & Girls Club or anything else that’s close to your heart.”

Fortunately, there are still some deep pockets in Dubois, and typically the hands that reach into them are discreet. We were asked to fill out donation cards, and these were collected in baskets.

It was so unlike the school fund-raisers I remember from New York, where parents at auctions would vie loudly to outbid each other with outrageous amounts for weekends on someone’s yacht. You always knew who had the big bucks, and they knew you knew it.

I learned only after the event that Madison Harper began her career by working for several years at Betts’ ranch. The only words on her “About” page on LinkedIn are a quote from Charles Dickens: “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”

In her own remarks that morning, Madison cited a different quote, from FDR: “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” In these sobering times, that is a heart-warming goal to have.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Flag and Fever: The Rest of the Story

Relieved on two fronts — but only somewhat

It took a long time to restore the Stars and Stripes to the flagpole in our driveway, after the wind captured and snared the far end of its tattered predecessor to create something that looked like a symbol of anarchy, hanging twisted and partly upside down.

My husband first tried to tear it loose by yanking on the cord, but it was too tightly caught in the finial at the top. Then, one Saturday morning, he asked for my help.

He had driven our little RV around and parked it adjacent to the flagpole. First, he duct-taped together two long poles, and attached a knife to one end. Using the ladder at the back of the camper, he climbed to the roof and asked me to hand the pole up to him.

Not surprisingly, it wobbled wildly. He could not get it in position near the finial, much less create the pressure at the top necessary to cut the flag free.

Next, I helped him to lift a stepladder to the top of the camper, and then climbed up there myself. He put the ladder in position, grabbed the long pole, and put his foot on the first step of the ladder. I grabbed the uprights of the stepladder and braced my legs.

In decades of marriage, you learn some things you should not say to your husband. Instead I began to pray. Fervently.

Then he stood back. “You know,” he said. “This is insane.” I breathed out.

Back in the house, he identified someone in town who could bring out a cherry-picker to solve the problem. He couldn’t make it before Tuesday.

I was relieved, but only somewhat. Friends back East were remarking that they are so upset with current events that they just wanted to leave the country — and they didn’t mean “leave for the country” as we have.

In this political climate, displaying a distorted flag even inadvertently made me very uncomfortable.

The next day, we took a long hike up Bonneville Pass with some friends. What a splendid way to escape the heat (in more senses than the obvious one).

The wild flowers were a riot of red and yellow. There were still patches of snow here and there. As we reached the valley at the top of the Pass, quite a wind kicked up.

Pulling into the driveway, I saw to my relief that the same wind had ripped the end of the old flag loose and it was flapping free, albeit raggedly. That’s kind of the way I feel myself these days. The old flag will go to rest at the VFW, where they take proper care of them. Call me Pollyanna, but the clean new flag looks like a symbol of hope.

On another front, for regular readers I should set the record straight about my brush with high fever and exhaustion, which I assumed were a sign of Covid-19 infection, until the tests came back negative.

“Could you have been bitten by a tick or another little critter?” commented a former coworker from Connecticut. I asked to be tested for tick-borne diseases, and the results came back strongly positive for Lyme disease.

Ixodes pacificus, the kind of deer tick that
spreads Lyme disease out West.

Earlier this spring, I shed plenty of ticks after hiking. I never noticed a bite or the tell-tale bullseye rash that is the classic sign of Lyme disease. But while being very vigilant about the pandemic, it looks like I was too careless about something else.

Isn’t that a creepy critter?

How ironic! After working and spending weekends in Connecticut for years, Lyme got me in Wyoming.

Unlike Covid-19, at least there is a good treatment for this. Although my “flirtation” with Coronavirus delayed treatment somewhat, thanks to my friend Natalie I got it soon enough to avoid major consequences, and now I feel fine.

Except whenever I read the news.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Dubois, Distant and Divided

Reflections on an Independence Day that was painfully different.

It has been quite warm outdoors, but there’s a stiff wind that carries a distinct chill.

That’s like Dubois these days. Warm beneath, but a chill blowing through.

A gust caught the far end of our flag and trapped it ridiculously upside down. A day with strong gusts is not the best time to climb a tall ladder, so it still hangs like that.

I hope people don’t think this is some strange expression of anarchy. You never know how people are going to take things these days.

Probably we won’t hear about it. Like cowboys, folks in Dubois are given to expressions of opinion that are strong, but silent.

A realtor at the main intersection has posted banners reading “Red State Real Estate.” One horse in the Independence Day parade had the word “Trump” painted on its rear flank.

Our Black Lives Matter protests, two of them, took place quietly and without confrontation. A few high school students stood silently on a corner with signs. Marchers processed around a pond in a park, not on the street.

We have noted with regret that on July 4, shootings in our former hometown of New York City were up 160% over last year. At our July 4 parade, the only threat of violence was the usual risk of dousing from the fire hose, but even that child’s play seemed rather somber.

Nobody tossed a small firecracker our way. We heard no music at all, and no announcer with a sound system because the organizers wanted to avoid crowding. The announcements live-streamed on a phone were never going to be as good as last year. We didn’t bother with it.

Tourists had lined the main street, as always, but my husband and I took care to isolate ourselves this year along an extended parade route that wound through the side streets in order to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. We were far from alone back there, but everyone else was just as careful to stay six feet apart.

By contrasting our Independence Day with New York’s, I don’t mean to suggest that we have no differences in Dubois. We certainly do.

But the only shots fired here since George Floyd died have sailed across the letters page of the weekly newspaper. Some writers have accused others of being too divisive.

With hardly any resident who doesn’t descend from white Europeans, our differences about civil rights tend to focus on the wearing of masks, not on law enforcement officers.

Meanwhile, we are no longer left to ourselves, and this complicates the matter of estrangement and distancing. Our local economy relies on our tourist visitors, but in these days of pandemic the strangers seem stranger than usual.

Expedia recently designated Dubois as the best place in Wyoming for an escape, and that message seems to have reached people who have been trapped at home for months. The town is as packed with outsiders as any other year. The RV parks are quite full. Thank heaven. (Or not?)

It has always been our instinct to to give any of these strangers a warm smile and a welcoming greeting. This showed up in our surveys of tourists passing through. Friendly, nice, and people were among the words they used most often in describing Dubois.

These days, our smiles disappear behind the masks we wear to protect ourselves and our neighbors from the danger they represent to us.

These tourists passing through come from who knows where, I said in a letter to the newspaper, and they don’t care much about us. As I predicted, very few of them wear masks. Which of them, feeling fine today, is about to notice the first symptoms as they head over the Pass toward Yellowstone, having left some of that virus behind with us? Therefore I am inclined to mistrust them.

That said, I have had a few friendly encounters while walking the dog in the Town Park with my mask off, standing well apart. During the past week, twice within two days, I heard almost exactly the same remark from two different women who had arrived here in an RV: “I just love America. Everywhere we go, people are so kind and friendly.”

“That’s the real America,” they said. “So what is going on with this divisiveness? Why aren’t the true voices being heard?”

They know the answers. So do I. What we don’t know is what can be done about it.

I do defy social distance when it comes to other creatures.

For some reason, a small bird has taken a a shine to me. Sometimes he perches on the clothesline when I am sitting on the side porch. I speak with him and he chirps back. He allows me to approach much closer than six feet, and will chat with me like this for a few minutes, turning his head back and forth to look at me. Then he decides “We’re done,” and swoops away.

Also twice recently I have been rushed by large, extravagantly beautiful butterflies that sailed past so quickly I had to duck to avoid being hit. This has never happened to me before.

Twice from strangers the remark that most of us are not like the voices that darken our view of the present. Twice the butterflies.

This brown and gray beauty clung to the garage door for several hours, deterring me from whatever chore had sent me in that direction. I left it alone, and eventually it left me alone as well.

Butterflies are said to be a symbol of rebirth and renewal. I’m not inclined to pay attention to such “signs,” but this time I would like to believe. What other option is there?

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Escaping Home on the Range

Sometimes I need to be even more remote than I already am.

“They don’t even talk about Yellowstone,” said someone about the couple who were staying in her rental cabin in Dubois. “They just want to escape because they’ve been cooped up for four months.”

Although I live in the very place where they have come to escape, I do sympathize. But it’s not four walls I want to be away from. It’s four mountain ranges, the ones that surround our home–the Winds, the Absarokas, the Tetons, the Owls.

I need to be even more remote than I already am. Completely off the grid for a while. To see canyons I never saw before and hike trails with unfamiliar views in a different world. That’s it, I realize: I want to live in a different world for a while. To escape the news of pandemic and panic, of pillagers and police.

We pack our toothpaste and face masks. We shut down, turn off, lock the doors behind us and head off toward the Bighorn Mountains, to camp out where we are distanced in earnest.

Soon we’re shooting northward out of the top of Wind River Canyon and onto the huge, flat plain called the Bighorn Basin. Ahead, off in the distance, are unfamiliar ridges and ranges.

Reading Roadside Geology of Wyoming as we cross the flats, we learn again about folding and faulting, and recall the reasons why the oldest rocks are at the peaks of mountains, not in the valleys below. We read why this barren desert plain is a vast oilfield now: because once, ages ago, it was all a huge seabed.

Or so we thought. Then a brown sign on a nearly deserted highway near the base of the Bighorn Mountains grabs us and turns us around. Dinosaur tracks! Now there’s something new to us – and like most of Wyoming, of course, also very, very old.

We rumble five miles down a gravel road past beautifully striped badlands (not that different from the ones near home, but smaller) to reach the Bureau of Land Management Paleontology Area near Red Gulch.

It’s one of those spots that only locals knew about, until four hikers noticed three-toed impressions in the rock at their feet, recognized what they were looking at, and told the experts, who ventured out here, found more, and put up lots of signs.

We learn that that this spot has overturned the accepted concepts about that ancient prehistoric seabed. In Roadside Geology we read that back in the Jurassic era about 160 million years ago, before the continents split apart, all of what is now the Rocky Mountain region was submerged under a vast inland sea.

But here’s something old and new: In this particular location, now near base of the Bighorn range, there must have been a reef-like island with wet sand at its edge, where dinosaurs once walked back and forth.  

We too walk back and forth along the ancient draw, where the silt long ago turned to stone, and we begin to see the three-toed tracks for ourselves, as well as others that seem to include the imprint of a bony heel. The longer we look, the more we find.

This has a way of distancing one from the concerns of the moment.

Fast forward 100 million years. This was still before the huge volcanic pile that we can see from our living room, the Absarokas, formed after a huge eruption. About 60 million years ago, the foundation of the land at that spot we had left behind was driven eastwards by an underground collision from the west, slowly grinding its leading edge beneath the basement of the land that we were about to ascend, which rose to become the Bighorns.

What was once deep, fundamental, and subterranean eventually became lofty and ascendant, pointing right to the sky. How long, I wonder aloud, did this take?

A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone, short as the watch that ends the night …

“I think modern humans have no concept of the mountain-building that is going on right now,” replied my husband. Or of their destruction, I think, as right now, when  the Wind River turns the color of caffe latte, bringing some of those mountains down.

Leaving the dinosaur tracks behind, we climb a long chain of switchbacks up a granite-rimmed canyon toward the meadows at the summit of the Bighorns. Some of the oldest rocks on earth rise from these meadows, white boulders sparsely draped with evergreens. The meadows themselves are a carpet of spring green just now, decorated with large patches of blue lupine and yellow asters.

Next to our campsite rises an imposing jumble of granite blocks. This is home to  a russet-colored creature with a fluffy tail that clambers cat-like across the boulders: A marmot. We learn that it likes walnuts, and will come quite close to retrieve them.

We seem to spend a fair bit of time gazing. We gaze at the marmot resting on a warm rock in the sun, and it gazes back. We gaze at moose as they chew placidly on willows near streams, ignoring us. I spend long periods just gazing at the forest across the stream beside the campground, listening to the birds.

It occurs to me that though we have no signal, I might actually work. Even write this. My laptop is in the camper, and its battery is charged. But I resist.

Instead, I hike to exhaustion in order to reach a tall formation of ancient lava, and follow a moose trail toward its top.

Leaving the campground, we grind slowly back down the switchbacks. Long before we reach cellphone signal, I sense a subtle groundshift, a change in perspective.

Obligations that seemed daunting a few days ago now feel workable. I find later that certain problems have resolved in my absence – not the monumental problems that have been troubling everyone, but a few smaller ones that had puzzled me. Meanwhile, some interesting new challenges have materialized.

During a miniscule sliver of geologic time while I went out of range to find repose at the top of a distant range, the world kept spinning without my assistance. The mountains are rising and falling, the flowers keep blooming in the high meadows, the wildlife are living their wild lives, and they will continue to do so whatever I decide to worry about.

What a relief.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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How to Endanger Dubois While Feeling Just Great

Where did I get it, and where did I leave it?

I have no idea how I could have caught it, and worse yet, no idea where I left it behind. I won’t even know what “it” is until I can get the results of the nasal swab test I had just this morning.

What I do know is that after going to bed on May 15–the very day that the Governor’s newest order allowed people to gather inside restaurants, gyms, and churches again–I fell ill without warning.

I slept very badly. All my muscles ached horribly, even the ones in my fingers and toes, and no medicine helped for very long. For a while I had chills.

The next morning I had a fever of 102 degrees, and I almost couldn’t get out of bed. I slept through that day, and all through the following night.

I’m puzzled about how I got this, whatever it is. I have been wearing a mask in stores and the Post Office. I’ve used Kleenex to open doors in town, and rubbed my hands with sanitizers before driving home.

There are two possible outcomes to this personal story, neither of which is pleasant.

Either the test is positive, in which case I’m the lucky winner of the First-Confirmed-Pandemic-Case-in-Dubois Prize, and my husband and I are stuck at home for another 14 days. Or it’s negative, I’m still vulnerable, and somehow all my precautions didn’t even protect me from something less virulent than that nasty, extraordinarily infectious pandemic virus.

While I was coming down with this, ironically, I read The Risks: Know Them, Avoid Them by Erin Bromage PhD, an immunologist at the University of Massachusetts. I’m sure she meant to be comforting (in the “knowledge is power” sense), but the scientific reports in her article document how easily the virus can spread to the unsuspecting.

What probably troubles me most is wondering who I endangered over the past days, while I felt absolutely fine but must have been spreading my germs around (whatever they are).

This experience reminds me of bedbugs (alas), and also of true love and parenthood. Until you’ve experienced it for yourself, you can’t really understand the impact.

It looks like I got off easy. My temperature dropped quickly to 99 during the day after the bad night, and a day and a half later, I felt much better. But I’m confined to the bedroom now. I wear a mask every time I leave the room (unless I forget). I wash my own dishes in the bathroom sink.

My husband is sleeping in a guest room. For the moment, I have to work very hard to protect him. This gives me an insight into how easy it must be to share Coronavirus with your family members.

It’s quite a chore to be adequately careful. Inadvertently, I touch a doorknob without reaching for a Kleenex first, and have to circle back and clean it off. I sometimes forget the mask when I walk out to talk to my husband from across the room. (Mustn’t leave my germs in his airspace.)

I simply can’t make my own food or even my own coffee, because it requires too much touching this and that (although I do grab cans of seltzer from the pantry). Here’s a good one: Opening the front door with my gloves on, I realize that I had just worn them while readjusting the filter inside my mask — on the side my breath has been facing.  So I have to spray them as well as the outside doorknob with bleach solution, of course using a paper towel to hold the spray bottle.

For several weeks I’ve been dutifully keeping a paper record of my contacts on the off-chance I might have to give information to a contact tracer. Thinking idly about this as I lay in bed, I realized that I had overlooked several casual conversations that took place with my mask off, because I mistakenly assumed I was no threat.

But I had already read that people can pass the Coronavirus along before they experience symptoms. In fact, some infected people never fall ill at all but can still spread it around; I have a friend living elsewhere in Wyoming who falls into that category. Maybe someone I spoke with infected me. Maybe I have infected them. Who knows?

bluebirdAt least I can be glad that we are no longer living in that tiny garden apartment in the pandemic hell-hole of New York City. There, we couldn’t have escaped each other at all during quarantine (which makes me really sorry for any New Yorkers who are roommates and don’t like each other much).

Here, we have an open-plan main floor with high ceilings, several bedrooms and bathrooms, and a back porch leading to the vast outdoors and paths that go off into wilderness.

I get to step out the back door from our bedroom to enjoy the fresh air and enjoy sights I never would have seen if I weren’t confined. Today, I scared up a whitetail deer that stared at me from just beyond the porch railing before ambling slowly off. Yesterday, I watched a bluebird swooping down feed his mate inside the birdhouse, just as my husband drops off my own next meal.

I’m so fortunate that this is happening to me in Dubois, I think. But then …

I ponder what will happen, now that the doors have opened on our business establishments and there’s a steady stream of cars heading in the direction of Yellowstone. The restaurants and gyms can be as careful as possible, yet it will be very easy for the virus to spread nonetheless, if the rest of us are too easygoing–especially as tourists begin to arrive. In theory, any of them might pass it along to any of us. 

Perhaps because so far Dubois has had the distinction of having a case count of zero, relatively few of our residents are wearing masks in town. I know of at least one who has actually refused to do so. It’s tempting to view this in the light of personal liberty and cowboy courage in the face of danger, rather than in the tradition of community self-help that has always prevailed here in the Mountain West. Perhaps not enough people realize that masks are worn to protect the other guy, as a surgeon does.

If I am the one to destroy our town’s enviable zero-case record, I won’t be apologetic. I did try to protect myself and everyone else. But my experience shows how important–and how difficult–it is to be vigilant enough.

Our best defense is to take this risk seriously, and make effective use of all of the protections we know about: social distancing, masks, and sanitizers.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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The End of Dubois As We Know It?

Down the rabbit hole into a very sad parallel universe.

face masks

People ask: So how are things in Dubois?

Well, quiet and slow. The “snowbirds” are returning from either coast. But they are in 14-day quarantine, if they are following the Governor’s orders.

Some people, myself included, wear face masks in the post office and the supermarket. Others don’t. Is it my imagination, or do they avert their eyes when they see me wearing mine?

In the winter, it was easy to distance. Wearing gloves and staying home seemed logical. But the sight of this young angler on a recent warm spring day at Pete’s Pond made me wonder whether a sense of social isolation is becoming even more second nature to us than it always was.

young fisherman in parkWill our way of life return to the fond and familiar someday? When, if ever, will we come together for the rodeo, the square dance, Happy Hour, the buffalo barbecue?

Of course these questions are far more poignant to my friends back in New York City, where “hanging out” is a way of life. But we too used to enjoy congregating, and our tourist economy depends on it.

With no cases documented here, and almost no testing, we have no idea how many of us have been exposed to the virus and recovered or never got sick at all, and now have immunity. But out-of-state vehicles have begun to pass through. I always use sanitizer on my hands after pumping gas, now that I’m no longer wearing gloves all the time.

So here we are, like everyone else, waiting to exhale–an unfortunate metaphor, in this context.

Cover of book by Prince Maximilian von WiedMy husband and I continue to read to each other at home. One reads while the other cooks or wash dishes.

We have been working our way slowly through the three-volume account by Prince Maximilian von Wied of Germany of his journey to the American West in 1830s.

In the last passage we read, von Wied and his party were traveling north by boat along the Missouri River, in that place where today Nebraska faces across to Iowa.

It’s familiar territory to us, after so many trips back and forth to New York by car. I was startled to find that the passage suddenly brought me into familiar territory, in a completely different sense.

Prince Maximilian described an encounter with a chief of the Ponca tribe, which had recently been impelled to abandon their former villages and become migratory because of conflicts with other tribes. The Ponca “have suffered greatly from smallpox and from their enemies, but are said to have been brave warriors,” he added, in a poignant past tense. “Even now one sees many pockmarks among them.” 

In a companion book, the wonderful illustrations of Karl Bodmer who traveled with von Wied, we found his portraits of two Native chiefs, an Otoe (below, left) and a Ponca (right.) Together, his drawings and von Wied’s writings are among the most detailed accounts of early encounters between Europeans and Native Americans.Portraits of an Otoe and a Ponca chief

Those two pale-skinned men were hardly the first European to encounter Native Americans. By that time, the tribes had had contact with trappers and explorers for far more than a century.

The man at left, the Otoe chief, was part of a tribe already decimated by smallpox when he sat for his portrait. 

According to the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains published by the University of Nebraska, the combined Otoe-Missouria population had been reduced to fewer than 800 by the time they met Lewis and Clark in 1804, 30 years before Maximilian passed through.

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs estimated that more than 17,000 “Indians died of smallpox in 1837 and 1838 … ” Beyond the deadly impact of  smallpox, other factors such as the decline in the bison population and the reduction in their freedom of movement by relocation to reservations doomed many Native populations to what today we would call “economic decline.”

Of course you know all this as well as I do. But perhaps it didn’t resonate last year. In my case, anyway, a pleasant moment of evening companionship unexpectedly drove me down a rabbit hole into a very sad parallel universe.

Long ago, it was our forebears. Soon, it could be our contemporaries who bring with them a mystifying and threatening dilemma, simply because they want to travel in this direction and explore the surroundings that we enjoy.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Living Dubois by email if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

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About Me