The Depth of Night in Dubois

What’s so profound about darkness?

duboissunrise2Stepping out from the warmth of our neighbor’s house after Thanksgiving dinner this evening, it wasn’t the night chill that struck me. It was the darkness.

As we drove across the highway, our headlights were the only light anywhere. The phrase “profound darkness” came to mind.

So much of what we love here has to do with light: the sunrises, the sunsets, the brilliant sunshine in a vast bright blue sky, the rainbows. What could be profound about darkness?

Darkness falls very early this time of year, near the winter solstice, but it carries more meaning here than it did in New York, the city that never sleeps.

On a moonless evening, I looked at the clock after dinner and was startled to find it was only 7 PM. The house was surrounded by complete darkness. It felt like we should already be asleep. What’s the sense of staying up? It’s dark.

I opened the back door, stepped out onto the frosty deck, and listened. Nothing. No sirens, no passing cars, not even any animal noises. To match the darkness, an equally profound silence.

It was never truly dark or quiet in the cities where I have always lived. Even the sight of a street lamp carried the comforting implication that others would be passing by before long.

At night here, I discover what it means to be really alone. Not lonely. Just alone.

nightskyWhen there is no moon here, because there are almost no lights below, the brilliance of the stars is also profound, but in another way. It instills a different sense of solitude. The longer you look, the more you see.

The sight makes me ponder how very small and insignificant I am, of course. It also makes me think about the promise to Abraham, that his children would be numbered like the stars, and I understand as never before how impossible this must have seemed.

Someone here commented recently that many people in the world never see a night sky filled with stars. “It’s true,” I replied. “In Brooklyn, we used to see about three stars at night.” That’s not an understatement. If you kept looking, you might eventually spy five, or maybe even twelve.

When my daughter turned 18, she chose to spend her birthday money in Manhattan getting a tattoo. This was legal at 18, and she knew that we would no longer forbid it.

“Don’t you want to see my tattoo?” she asked a few days later. She had had a small star burned into her shoulder.

“That’s very tasteful,” I said. “But why did you choose a star?”

“Don’t you know that stars are very important to me?” she said.

“No. Why are stars so important to you?”

“Because I remember lying in a sleeping bag staring up at them,” she said. I was so glad that our city child had wanted, at her perceived coming of age, to honor the memory of an earlier time out here, when the same darkness might have moved her to think some deep thoughts.

Like her, I grew up in a city. Back then, I thought that Milky Way was a candy bar. Sure, I learned about it, like I learned about photosynthesis and trigonometry.

Now, on any night when the moon isn’t full, I can walk into the driveway, look up, and see it spilling across the sky, a wide ribbon of luminosity.

There’s our whole galaxy, on edge. My ever-busy mind stops spinning for a moment, and I feel wonderfully empty.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

(There are some great videos of the night sky in this valley. But they don’t really tell the whole story. You have to come here to appreciate it.)

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Neversweat: The Details

Musings about an old name, and changes in communication.

postofficeOne of the many myths about Dubois is that the town originally applied to the US Postal Service to name itself “Neversweat,” and was refused.

Charming, but not exactly true. According to the definitive oral history by Esther Mockler, the US Postal Service in 1889 did deny a request to name the new town. But the name was to be “Tibo,” after the native Shoshone’s nickname for the Episcopal missionary who served them.

The Senator who served the Wyoming Territory on the Postal Service didn’t like the proposal, and named the town after himself.

It’s an interesting statement about the nature of those times, and about the nature of our town’s original residents, who wanted to honor both their priest and their native neighbors.

neversweat2Some local homesteaders actually did apply to open a new post office named “Never Sweat” in 1895, and that request was granted, albeit changing the name to one word.

The homesteaders felt that the 15 miles to Dubois from the Dunoir Valley was too far to go for their mail. The Neversweat post office operated out of the home of the first postmistress.

Back in those days, many post offices were in country stores and in people’s homes. I get the impression that being postmaster was akin to serving on a nonprofit board today: You could officially hold the mail for your neighbors if you were willing.

For the early settlers, Mockler wrote, “a letter was the only communication with the outside world. It had to come via the Union Pacific Railroad to Rawlins, Wyoming, where it was picked up by the stage driver who operated the stagecoach to Lander. It was then taken to Fort Washakie.” A local resident took it upon himself to ride on horseback to Fort Washakie to pick up the mail for his neighbors, once a month.

emailsSitting at my keyboard, I can’t help pondering how communications have changed. Most of my messages reach me today within seconds after they are sent, via a cable that runs past my house and up toward the pass.

This picture arrived in my Inbox one second after I hit “Send” on my phone. How extraordinary! This brings to mind the stories I’ve heard from ranchers who once got together to string wires across poles down this valley so they could share a party line.

The appealing word “Neversweat” still lives on in town, in the name of the local quilter’s guild. But I think it’s high time to revive it more formally, for a different reason. We never sweat the Internet.

I can’t imagine anyone riding on horseback to Fort Washakie these days, even once a month. Meanwhile, these days our Internet service never winks out, since Dubois Telephone Exchange (DTE) ran that wire up the mountain and created multiple redundancies in our Internet service with other towns far away.

My buddy John, who works at DTE, tells me that he knows about two dozen people who telecommute quietly and anonymously from the Dubois area, 4 of them with 100 meg connections.

“All have moved here for recreation, skiing, kayaking, outdoors, the people, the safe community, the remoteness,” he remarked in an email. “I do not know of one person that moved here for the ‘telecommuting opportunities’.”

Too true. But without our flawless broadband, they wouldn’t have come.

“DTE has spent millions in the last few years,” he went on. “Fiber to The Home, Network Upgrades, Stoney Point, Union Pass, clear out to Crowheart! – relatively without fanfare … without many people noticing what’s happening, what’s happened.”

I don’t suppose DTE would consider changing its name, after all these years. But how about Neversweat Communications Services?

There’s speculation about why they  chose the name Never Sweat in the first place. I reject the hypothesis that people wanted to say you didn’t have to work out here. Anybody who knows anything about homesteading knows that can’t have been true. I prefer the theory that they were alluding to the pleasantly dry climate.

neversweat3The name for the Neversweat post office went away after a few years–but at the request of later residents, not the Postal Service.

The Dunoir residents asked to name their new post office “Union,” and to place it at the base of Union Pass. That old building still stands, according to our local historian. Here’s what it looks like.

The log structure is on private land, but you can see it from the highway if you know where to look.






The Beauty of Our Favorite Beast

Why open your pockets to pay homage to a mere sheep?

bash2016Last Saturday, I finally had the chance to show off some of what I brought here from New York: the slinky black trousers, my hand-painted jacket, and my fancy necklace. We had two of the 200 tickets to the sold-out Bighorn Bash, which is probably the hottest gala in town.

The minute I got through the door at the Headwaters Center, I realized what I’d left behind: My good sense. Nobody cares about my big-town duds. In Dubois, it doesn’t matter what you wear. What matters is who you are.

buckleAgain this year, I asked myself what it is that creates the wonderful clamor at the annual Bighorn Bash (which supports our own home-grown educational institution, the National Bighorn Interpretive Sheep Center). The meal ticket alone is $35, a fairly hefty sum for many people here. But the goodwill in the big room at the Headwaters is palpable during that event.

The Official Speakers orate over the hubbub, and people gasp and roar during the live auction, as bidding escalates beyond the point of reason for items bearing the image of our favorite elusive animal. Leigh paid thousands for a smallish wall hanging (and then donated it back). The anonymous $1900 bid for the little box with a ram’s head carved on ramshorn was officially deemed to be unsatisfactorily low. A few pounds of fresh-caught seafood went for hundreds.

lucasbox“I wish I was that rich,” said someone at my table. I knew she didn’t mean she really wishes to be wealthy. She meant she wished that she too could afford to bid outrageously high for the benefit of the Sheep Center.

Not only did I not get why this particular event is so popular; the bighorn sheep was never very high on my list of things to love about Dubois. We joined the Sheep Center out of general goodwill, but I have always focused instead on the incredible scenery here, the history, the geology and archaeology. On individual residents and the community spirit in general.

Why do they get so excited about a mere sheep?

The next morning, waking to yet another stunning Indian summer day, we decided to go out beyond the reach of hikes in our ATV. “I’m going to take you somewhere you’ve never seen,” said my husband, who spends more time on the four-wheeler than I do.

gorgeHe drove me out to the East Fork, that wonderful region far on the other side of town where I first fell in love with this territory, while staying at a dude ranch. We climbed up beyond the undulating red rock hills to a nearly barren, windswept ridge where we were higher than the eagles fly.

When the rocky track petered out, he turned off the engine and led me out to a precipice. As John Denver once eloquently sang, I saw everything as far as I could see. The river was way down there, dizzyingly far below my feet.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” I said, but he didn’t hear. He had already walked back to the ATV and turned it around.

Almost as soon as we started off, he turned the engine off again. Instantly, I understood what had escaped me before.


There, directly ahead, was a lone ram. He stood silent and erect, wearing his elegant pair of heavy horns like a crown.

He turned and looked at us for a moment, then strode off across the track and down the slope on the other side. He had the bearing of a landowner graciously ignoring two trespassers.

He and his family roam easily the places where I can venture only with great difficulty, or not at all. This landscape we love with such passion is his kingdom. That’s why.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Pumpkin Recycling, Cold Angry Birds, and a Highwayman

What happens on Halloween in this remote small town

brooklynhalloween“Even if you’ve had fun smashing your pumpkin, I’ll gladly take them off your hands!” someone posted in Dubois’ online classifieds today. “My goats and chickens will happily make use of them!”

That’s quite a change from the Halloweens we celebrated all those years in Brooklyn, where ours was one of the safe go-to neighborhoods for trick-or-treating!. From late afternoon to the gloaming, the street was jammed with small and outrageously tall beggars.

I never gave treats to a teenager who turned up without a costume, and I always dreaded walking the dog that evening, when I had to steer him away from countless dropped candies. We would see crumbling pumpkins in the trash for weeks afterwards.

halloween2016_2What happens in one of the most remote small towns in the lower 48? Children do trick-or-treat in Dubois, someone told me. If you live on one of the paved streets with lighting, you know you have to buy candy for that evening.

But the place to be is the Halloween celebration in the town park, where adult volunteers cobble together scary and not-so-scary displays for the young, of course featuring candy.

I thought the Kiwanis event was the most fun, at least for children. They were meant to hurl a beanbag via slingshot at the stack of cans, but quickly the kids decided the game was to aim at one of the brightly dressed “Angry Birds” sitting behind the cans on the truckbed.

halloween2016_4My friends Judy, Karen, and Michelle were hopping up and down in their winter gear and holding their elbows close as they helped with the event. (It turns pretty cold when the sun drops off this time of year.) Karen said she still felt cold the next day.

Judy told me later that some of the anonymous “Angry Birds” had pretty big bruises as their reward for this service to the community.

I hear the haunted tent from the Opp Shop won the prize for best display. But whoever decided to set up a firepit for s’mores deserved a special prize.

orangebagAnother curiosity reminded me about Halloween long before the day. I began seeing bright orange bags beside the highway. Surely they were filled with trash, not candy. But they seemed to set the mood.

It was puzzling: The sign clearly says that stretch of Adopt-A-Highway is unclaimed. So who was that guy spearing the litter and dragging the trash can, and what was his affiliation?

adoptahighwayI stopped to inquire. CM relocated to Dubois a few months ago. He moved from New York state to Jackson decades ago, right after high school, intent on living in the real West. Then Jackson began to feel like a big city. Lately, he promised himself that after retirement he would move out here.

He reminisced a bit about what Jackson used to be like, back in the day. Now that he’s finally retired and built a home here, CM told me, he feels he ought to help out. So he’s chosen this as his unpaid and unsung service to the community: picking up the trash.

Right around Halloween, curiously, he switched from orange bags to plain black. Maybe they ran out of orange.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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