Masks, Ghosts, and Spooky Things About Retirement

Feeling like a ghost of your former self, facing truly spooky choices in the shadow of mortality.

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Halloween maskIs this a Halloween mask? An outer space creature? A new Sesame Street character?

Trick and treat.  It’s the bark on a section of a felled log where I rested during a recent hike.

Isn’t it beautiful? Looking at it reminded me of my own wrinkles (how much time I have spent pondering them!) and about the wonderfully wrinkled other faces I see on the aged ranchers in Dubois. Those wrinkles have great stories to tell!

The young, hip gentry back in that now-trendy city neighborhood in Brooklyn that I must visit now and again refer to Baby Boomer homeowners like us, who haven’t yet sold and moved out, as the “leftovers.” These new neighbors walk right past me on those familiar streets, as if we were both wearing masks. It makes me feel more like a ghost than a leftover, but perhaps appropriately so. The house I used to occupy began to feel haunted, by the high, noisy voices of our children who grew up there.

thicket Then I retired, intentionally making a ghost of my former self. I embarked on a journey into a spooky thicket that is treacherous and tangled, with truly endless commitments to adult children, sad and scary duties to aging parents, unforeseeable hazards and murky decisions.

One of them may be the choice of where to live out those perilous years in the shadow of your own mortality. That decision can be scary. It was for us.

A brief road trip to the Southwest has brought to mind some of the options we did not choose. For instance:

failed retirement villageThe planned retirement village, offering a quiet life in the exclusive company of other people with similar interests and lifestyles.

If you want, of course, you can guarantee that exclusion with gates and guards.

A friend at my mother’s retirement village — one of the oldest and best in the country, a nonprofit — calls it a “ghetto.” A very pleasant ghetto indeed, she says, but a self-imposed prison nonetheless.

We do have the feeling that by removing all challenges and inconveniences, this option has a way of hastening your trip into passivity.

Of course, as the sad picture above demonstrates, these communities may fail to evolve as planned.

RVParkThe opposite end of the spectrum, the RV nomad lifestyle, beckons with the pleasant thought of following the best weather everywhere and seeing new places at every turn.

We see these nomads passing through Dubois all the time, and sometimes host them at our local RV parks. Temporary communities do seem to form among the mobile homers who settle in the same seasonal location year after year, but this gypsy lifestyle would only suit me for a few weeks at a time.

We have neighbors who lived only in their large RV for nearly a decade. They finally sold it and settled in Dubois.

Nobody planned Dubois. It is what social planners have called a naturally organizing retirement community,” where people of our age group gravitate and build the resources they need for themselves.

Dubois WYWe are indeed a community of like-minded people, but just about the only opinion that we feel the need to share is the value of the community itself. At home in Dubois, I’ve found, people don’t really care where you came from or what you used to do. (In fact, a newly published oral history of the town says that a century ago it was considered rude to ask.)

What matters is who you are now and what you contribute to the village.

Which is what it really is: a village, with children and noisy, irreverent teenagers, and young adults who may make bad choices, as well as many who grew old here and others who came here to grow old.

That’s enlivening, and hopeful, and not a bit scary.

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© Lois Wingerson 2015

Dubois: Middle of Nowhere, and Everywhere

Dubois WY
The road to Evanston, October 21.

One of the great things about Dubois is how great it is to get away.

Please don’t get me wrong. There’s probably not a minute when I want to escape.

A few weeks ago my husband asked whether I’d mind missing our annual road trip if he couldn’t fulfill his commitments before the holidays. I said I really didn’t mind.

Living in Dubois is sort of like a vacation anyway.

We did get away after all, and we chose the right time. Whatever it may say in “Home on the Range,” the skies were predicted to be cloudy all day on the day we left, and they did stay that way all day as we headed south.

1200px-US_map_-_geographic
Source: US Geological Survey

What I meant in the first sentence was that it’s almost the perfect place to start from on a road trip to somewhere else in the American West. Especially for someone like me, a retired Easterner who saw the West only via airports during business trips, it’s the ideal jumping-off point from which to explore.

Here’s a map of places we’ve visited by highway since moving to Dubois. The red line heading straight east is sort of a cheat, because it roughly describes the commute back to New York City which we take now and again. But those are road trips too, and I enjoy them.

jordanelleSkies were clearing as we reached our first campsite, in northern Utah.

Since then we have seen massive 1000-foot ridges of red stone that stayed with us for hours. We’ve dropped through vertiginous canyons and followed tortuous switchbacks. Nothing thousands of other tourists haven’t done — but it’s so easy to get home!

En route I’ve met several people who have taken months away from whatever to tour the American West by car. Lucky, lucky me. I can do it at my leisure.Flagstaff1

I can also take great hikes in a different location. The pictures at right are from a 3-mile loop the dog and I reached out the back entrance of our KOA campground in Flagstaff. It was a magical uphill scramble over many boulders, along a very well-maiintained trail, with the reward you see at the top.

On the left there you can see a long-dead, black volcano.

So much for what I’ve done on my vacation. What I’ve learned on my vacation is this: You can drive for many days around the American West, and see many unforgettable sights.

But I have yet to see any location in the American West that has so many of those remarkable sights — red rocks, massive vistas, huge rock formations, deep canyons, dark pine forests, hidden lakes — within such a relatively compact space.

In Sedona, all you see is red rocks. In Crater Lake, what you see is a high mountain lake. In Dubois, I can hike the red rock badlands or the pine forests. It just depends which way I turn onto the highway.

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© Lois Wingerson 2015

Dubois WY Naked and Afraid? Nah. Under-Exposed and Apprehensive

Mostly Dubois WY rests in splendid isolation, 80 miles from anywhere. Once in a while it basks briefly, if uncomfortably, in the bright light of publicity.

Mostly, Dubois WY rests in its splendid isolation, 80 miles from anywhere else. But once in a while it basks briefly, and a bit uncomfortably, in the bright light of the national media.

Six years ago, Kevin Bacon starred in Taking Chance, a movie (not actually filmed here, curiously) that honored the town’s welcome home to the body of a son fallen in Iraq. Late last December, the fire that engulfed part of the historic main street, and the heroic response of volunteer firefighters, made a great story for the post-Christmas news slump on NBC.

Dubois WY Naked and Afraid
Joe Brandl shows off a shoe he made from bulrushes. They were great until they got wet.

And last night, one of our favorite local characters won his 50 minutes of fame on the Discovery Channel series “Naked and Afraid.” I went to a celebration at the Headwaters, with some 200 townsfolk, to watch the broadcast on a big screen and to celebrate as our local tanner and Boy Scout leader, Joe Brandl, described his 21-day adventure on a remote island in Namibia. He was surrounded by swamps, armed with nothing more than his tin cook-pot and knife, and assisted by a previously unknown female companion who had brought along a fire-starter.

We all knew right away that they wouldn’t need the fire-starter. Joe has published a multi-part series in the local weekly newspaper about how to survive in the wilderness, including advice on how to create a survival kit that would fit inside a Band-Aid tin. He also wrote about how he survived a winter breakdown miles into the middle of nowhere by using his underwear and gasoline from the tank to start a fire.

He compiled all this in the first place to educate his young Scouts, who spend lots of time out in the wilderness for their own amusement.

Long since, like many others here, Joe has learned to start fires the original way (as another castaway, Tom Hanks, showed us in a different movie), by spinning a stick rammed into some fragile kindling.

Banks
Steve Banks in mountain man regalia.

Joe said he was fascinated by mountain men from an early age. “I tried not to just read it, but to live it,” he told us.

The guy operating the sound system last night lives by exactly the same motto. A retired telecommunications engineer and amateur local historian, Steve Banks has not only studied the journals of mountain men like John Colter, he has made a pastime of walking every step they walked and seeing the very vistas they described. Banks knows the trails of the Yellowstone Basin better than I know the back of my own hand.

Probably nobody in the room would have doubted that Joe Brandl would make it through his 21 days in isolation not only unscathed, but triumphant. (It was a set-up anyway, of course. The camera crew was ever-present, and medics checked the pair every day.) Nonetheless, we listened fascinated as he described finding nothing to eat for the first 12 days but grubs, minnows, chameleons, and one dove egg.

The crowd roared with cheer as we heard Joe tell producers on his audition video, “In Dubois, we have the toughest-ass Scout troop in the United States. No doubt about it.”

We murmured with assent when he dismissed the threat from 4-ton hippos that live in that swamp and regularly crossed “his” island. “Scared?” he said. “No. I live every day with grizzlies [nearby]….Where I live now tests me every day.”

We were silent later, as we watched our 55-year-old tough-guy neighbor on the screen, by then himself grizzled and filthy, staring with a deeply furrowed brow and moist eyes at the tiny woman young enough to be his daughter. She had broken down when sharing the experience during her job as a beat cop that had broken her heart. After vowing not to touch her without her consent, Joe reached out and gently stroked her arm.

We had seen the words “Dubois WY” exposed, so briefly and so rarely, to the entire vast continent. Everyone saw them there, proudly tattooed in pixels over Joe’s living embodiment of our “brand”: Tough as nails, in many ways remote, yet deeply compassionate when someone is in trouble.

The simile goes beyond even that. Like Joe himself on that virtual reality show, we people of Dubois are fundamentally concerned about our town’s survival, and always intent on assuring it — but at the same time uneasy about getting too much visibility.

Before the film rolled, Joe had shared with us the mission statement that had kept him and his companion going during those kinda lonely 21 days. Here’s part of it:

“To thrive, not just survive, and to do so with passion and compassion.”

Did you notice that all three of my examples of national media attention have told very positive stories? Enough said.

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© Lois Wingerson 2015

Dubois Trash Tells All

Archaeologists dig around in the dirt to learn about ancient people. I examine roadside trash to paint a picture of a remote small town.

HighwayArchaeologists extricate prehistoric trash from their middens to learn about ancient people.

Sociologists go through trash cans to learn the habits of modern city dwellers.

The flotsam I see by the highway during my morning bicycle ride also has a lot to tell about Dubois.

It’s an interesting (if random and incomplete) picture of what we get up to around here.

There’s the usual kind of debris, of course: Pieces of tire tread, random paper trash, and lots and lots of beverage containers. (Why do so many people want to use the edge of our beautiful wilderness as their garbage can?)

The empties on the side of the road suggest that most people prefer BudLightbrands of beer that I don’t like. (Or are the people who like my favorite brand less likely to toss the empties out the window? Oops. Political correctness alert!)

IceTeaCan Many of the beverage containers are not for alcoholic drinks, of course.

But enough about real trash! What interested me was the items people inadvertently lose by the side of the road and never go back to retrieve. Given the prevalence of pick-up trucks on this highway, it’s easy to see how that might happen.

gloveExhibit #1. (The first item I saw, and the one that inspired this reflection. Clearly lost, not tossed. Who throws away one glove, especially such a good one?) Evidence of one of our favorite pastimes: Outdoor motor sports.

Did the owner need it for a motorcycle? Not likely, because then how did it slip away? My guess is it fell off an all-terrain vehicle, one of the most convenient ways to explore our abundant wilderness, when the vehicle was no longer on a back road.

ChainSawCover Exhibit 2: Broken and repaired, the cover to a chain saw.

Testimony to one of the oldest activities in these mountains: Logging.

This heritage is more than a century old, beginning with the tie hacks, the Scandinavian immigrants who came here to bring down and hew the huge pine trees into ties for the new railroads.

I still see logging trucks lumbering down the highway, every day, bringing out more timber from the same forest.RecycleThis

Exhibit 3: So funny! Whoever lost (or let go) this broken box clearly didn’t get its message.

Exhibit #2 bespoke history; this tells of the future. The box contained a telecommunications cable, evidence of perhaps the most important activity for Dubois’ future: Laying the fiber optic cable that delivers our flawless Internet service.

I’ve blanked out the recipient’s name on the label to protect the possibly innocent. But I read the item description and Googled the distributor to discover the identity of the contents.

VentCampingExhibit 4: Whoever lost track of the rope at left probably didn’t need those instructions.

Was it left behind on the way to a camping trip or a hunting trip? Either way, it’s totally typical of activities around here.

Exhibit 5 (at right): Some kind of vent. Can you guess what it’s from?

My theory is it fell off someone’s home-made recreational vehicle, or at least a very old one.

RVs are a major presence on our highway, and many of them stop here. Besides the pleasant RV campgrounds along the river in and near our town, many of the motels have parking lots large enough to accommodate the big rigs. Many other campers just pass through on their way to or from Yellowstone. (Their loss.)

WindRiver101715Exhibit 5: I’m delighted to report that as I crossed the bridge I noticed the Wind River beautifully clear and free of trash.

It does go the color of a nonfat latte after a major rainstorm, dirtied with Mother Nature’s refuse, not with ours. Within a day, it’s usually running clear and blue again.

I once met someone who wouldn’t let her dog go into the river. She was concerned about “all the pollution” upstream. You run into all kinds among the people passing through. (Maybe she hadn’t actually traveled in that direction yet.)

golfball Exhibit 6: Quite a surprise.

What’s a golf ball doing out here, miles from the Antelope Hills Golf Course on the west side of town?

I’m not a golfer myself, but many of the townspeople are.

The golf course holds tournaments every month during the summer.

fishingbootExhibit 7: My last discovery on this expedition. Like the first, this clearly could not have been thrown away. Fishing boots belong in pairs.

So many of my neighbors are here precisely because of the great fly-fishing on this beautiful river and its tributaries. I don’t enjoy the sport, myself, but it does affect me: All too often one of my hiking buddies begs off to go fishing.

I didn’t pick up this castoff or any of the other trash I found this morning. I was on a bicycle, after all.

What’s more, just as I took the picture of the boot I was distracted by the sudden din coming from the other side of the buck-and-rail fence: Bellowing, roaring, whistling, shouting. It may have nothing to do with my topic of trash, but I can’t resist including this other occupation common to Dubois. Some of us do round up cattle now and again.Cowboys101715_1The bellows and roars came from the creatures visible as a black mass at left here. The whistles and shouts came from the cattle-management experts indicated by the two arrows. I couldn’t get close enough to take a better picture until the cattle were already in the corral.Cowboys101715_2

I’m not calling them “cowboys”  because I noticed that two were wearing hot pink sweatshirts and one had very long black braid. (Political correctness alert: Maybe these days some Wyoming cowboys are wearing hot pink sweatshirts and long black braids. But somehow I doubt it.)

Notice the dog in the circle at right, who is also an expert and evidently an important factor in the roundup.

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© Lois Wingerson 2015

Wyoming Wool Works. Wow! (Who Knew?)

I never even noticed this charming shop which would fare well on the streets of trendy Brooklyn. Why is it so invisible in Dubois?

wyowool10How could I have lived in Dubois for 8 years without even knowing about Wyoming Wool Works? Because it was in hiding.

A neighbor new to town diverted me into this charming shop on the way back from a hike in the badlands. I probably never would have gone in there otherwise, because I don’t knit or crochet.

Besides, it’s in a nondescript location: the block-like old Masonic Temple building, out beyond the main intersection on the way toward the town dump.

I stop all the time at the Opportunity Shop right next door, but I’ve never noticed Wyoming Wool Works. It has no display windows, and not even a real sign. The only clue that it is inside is a small text-only black and white placard on the stair rail.

We had to turn a corner into an office-like corridor to reach the shop door. And then: Oh, my goodness. I caught my breath.

wyowool2Wyoming Wool Works is no mere purveyor of yarns and crochet hooks (although you can buy those, including one made from a ram’s horn).

You can also buy hand-knitted woolen hats, sweaters, and jackets. Hand-painted aprons. Crocheted rugs. Delightful huge baskets made from large strips of felt. There are also a few antiques.

The proprietor’s excellent taste is unmistakeable. Given more visibility, this shop would stand up well on Madison Avenue or on the trendier streets of Brooklyn where I still spend a little time.

It’s a very high-end little treasure chest, curiously hidden from view.

“I get how to run a shop,” said Anita Thatcher, when I got up the nerve after a few days to ask why she keeps such a low profile. What I heard was a love story with some plot elements that are fairly familiar.

Anita started out in New York City. Sometime in the late 1980s (like me) she booked a vacation near Dubois, at what we now politely call a “guest ranch.”

During her visit, the cook quit, was fired, or fell ill — I don’t recall the details. Anita offered to help with the cooking. This is somewhat outré for a guest at what we called a dude ranch back then. But her offer was accepted. She returned the next summer, as the cook.

wyowool6Like me, she fell in love with the area.

Unlike me — but like many other wives I know here — she also fell in love with a cowboy. They bought a ranch in nearby Crowheart, where a neighbor woman, also from New York City, was raising sheep.

Thus began Anita’s love of all things wool (third chapter in this love story). Eventually she and two friends opened a yarn shop in Dubois. But her culinary skills were still in demand locally, and for several decades she has been catering events for hosts of distinction in Dubois.

wyowool1“My husband once asked me if I ever tried to relax,” she said. “I told him I don’t know how.”

Anita’s husband died a while ago. He went the way many cowboys go, she told me, taking too many knocks. She relocated from the Crowheart ranch to Lander and then to Dubois, where she opened Wyoming Wool Works in its current out-of-the-way location, serving a small clientele of local and mail-order customers and offering knitting and weaving classes.

Opening the shop only a few days a week, she admitted, has been one way of intentionally keeping it nearly invisible. A woman only has so much energy, after all. Anita still caters the weekly Kiwanis Club breakfast. She will always do catering for some longstanding clients, she told me, but “it’s time for me to stop carrying food all over the county.”

I’m watching now for the fourth chapter in this love story. At an age when Anita needs to slow down, and when many other women are playing golf or enjoying travel, it may be that she has decided to bring Wyoming Wool Works out of the shadows.

wyowool5“I thought for a while about only operating through the website,” she said. “But then I asked myself, what are you really doing here?”

For the love of Dubois! I do hope she devotes the same creative energies to the future of her delightful shop that she has lavished on her husband and her catering business.

wyowool8She told me with some delight about a recent phone call. A woman from Jackson wanted to bring a group of friends over here to go Christmas shopping. Would Anita open the shop for them?

“Would I?” she said with a chuckle. “I’d even serve scones and tea!”

What a day trip! Escape the crowds. Take a great hike in the morning, have lunch at the Nostalgia Bistro or the Cowboy Cafe. Then stop by that great little yarn shop to see what you can’t resist.

Shopping therapy is a time-honored restorative. In this location that offers respite to so many, I think Anita Thatcher is morally obligated not to keep denying her therapeutic skills to all those people who turn that corner in the middle of town, entirely unaware of what is only a block away.

Want to read more about living in Dubois WY? You can read weekly updates via email using the link at the top of the right column.

© Lois Wingerson 2015

Two Beautiful Days in September: 9/11/01 and 9/28/15

Like 9/11 in Brooklyn, this was a beautiful day one moment and in the next, devastation. How was it different in Dubois?

Both days began the same, wonderfully–a flawless blue sky and the kind of mildly warm weather that make you wistful at the loss of summer. One moment, it was a bittersweet and beautiful day. In the next, I saw devastation.

National_Park_Service_9-11_Statue_of_Liberty_and_WTC CrookedCreek1Both times the sign was a column of smoke.

On that first September day, 14 years ago, I turned a corner in Manhattan and watched, dreamlike, as the huge cloud of smoke surged up into that blue sky. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, but I also couldn’t watch too long.

Last Monday, I was on the phone at my desk. I turned toward the window. This cloud of smoke didn’t so much surge as billow upwards. After a summer of fire catastrophes in the West, forest fire had come home to me–or nearly so.

Much as I loathe using the Nazi Holocaust as a literary gimmick to generate pathos, I resist comparing these two fires. Nothing in my life compares to 9/11. However, experiences during one inevitably bring back images and emotions from the other.

First, the smell. In both cases, our house was downwind only a few miles from the fire. The days and months after 9/11 were redolent with the inescapable odor of burning plastic and something else, unidentifiable and acrid. As Ground Zero smoldered, seemingly forever, we could not get away for a moment from that reminder of tragedy, and the knowledge that life had changed incalculably.

BeetleKillThe smell of this week’s Crooked Creek fire was, of course, burning wood. Even as I was hosing off our shingle roof to deter sparks from the fire that could in theory destroy our log house, I was smelling memories of campfires, of sitting around the firepit on our own deck with a glass of wine.

This was threatening to be sure, and a call to urgent action by me and–far more important–a small and well-organized battalion of brave firefighters. But it was also, most of us assumed, merely the result of one human’s careless action combined with the results of misguided forest-management policy. Nature, benign and dispassionate, combined with mere human stupidity. Not colossal malevolence.

Next, the airplanes. All that night, September 11, I could not sleep for the sound of airplanes clattering over the house. I knew these were military aircraft, that all other flights over the area had been banned. Still, I found the sound deeply frightening. Even now, when I see a commercial jetliner soaring high over Prospect Park in Brooklyn, I remember how that looked to me in the months after that event.

CrookedCreek3Two days ago, my annual autumn hike up the tall ridge beside our valley was unusual for the constant sound of aircraft nearby. The noise went on all week, small planes and helicopters doing reconnaissance, dropping off fire jumpers, lobbing “bombs” of fire retardant slurry over the fire that puffed and fumed two ridges away, off to the southwest. I could easily see them, flying low and circling back, over and over. The sound of planes was reassuring, wonderful.

And above all, the nature of the fear. Fourteen years ago I lived through days and months of gradually waning terror. I’ll never forget the sight and sound of deserted Manhattan that evening, as if someone had dropped a neutron bomb and only the (rest of the) buildings survived. All of the people had gone underground, or at least home. There was almost nobody on the streets. Midtown Manhattan, the city that never sleeps, was literally silent.

We didn’t see the cleanup crews. Who would enter that area voluntarily, even if we could? In a sense, in the following weeks, we also didn’t see each other. Yes, the city pulled together as it always does in crisis. On the other hand, back then you wondered who the other person really was.

CrookedCreek4This week, the first responders were, of course, our own highly prized volunteer firefighters. We know who they are. They’re friends. And look at this: The teams that came in later put up pup tents in our town park and ate their meals in the same Headwaters Center where we have our own community events, all the time.

They didn’t camp in the ball field, so as not to interfere with practice. The cost unit leader for the incident management team actually lives in town. I see her at church. The public information officer for the team comes from Melrose, Colorado, but he has come here to fish.

The team had nearly vanquished the Crooked Creek fire when I took this picture in the park, and a few days of rain have certainly doused it for good. It’s all over, I’m sure.

That’s the real difference between those two different events on two beautiful September days. This one is certainly over, thank heaven. I wonder if that other one will ever be.

CrookedCreek2

Want to read more about living in Dubois WY? You can read weekly updates via email using the link at the top of the right column.

© Lois Wingerson 2015