Alone and Connected, At Home on the Mountain

A coder and an attorney find peace and quiet.

Riverwalk_Snow2I met “Jack” in the park on Saturday evening because our dogs wanted to play together. Otherwise I’m sure he would have left me alone.

Jack is clearly into privacy. That’s fine in Dubois. We understand that some people prefer solitude and a certain degree of anonymity. We’re good with you whoever you are, as long as you have a decent character.

I can’t give him a cowboy name like Dustin or Cody. He’s clearly not a cowboy type. He’s young, but he doesn’t walk with a swagger and a smile. He and “Lynn” weren’t on their way to the Dubois Outfitters’ annual benefit pig roast and auction in the nearby Headwaters Center, as I was. That wouldn’t be their kind of scene.

At first I thought Jack and Lynn were visitors, because I’ve never seen them before. But they’ve been here for three years, hanging out in a house up in the hills near town.

They’d stopped in the park to give “Rusty” a romp after waiting in the car while they bought groceries. Normally they just hike in the public land right outside their door, but it’s been really muddy there after the recent snowmelt, so (like me) they’ve been using the paved Riverwalk in the park lately.

Both dogs were on the leash, but jumping around and eager to play. So we walked over the bridge to the large empty patch of sage and sand, at the back side of the Riverwalk, where they could be free.

“What brought you to Dubois?” I asked.

“We wanted a house in Wyoming,” Jack said simply.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

They’re from Los Angeles, but wanted to get away from the noise and the density. First they moved to Laramie, but they found Laramie also too crowded and noisy. Somehow, they discovered Dubois. (I didn’t ask how.)

Modem“It’s really nice in Dubois,” Lynn volunteered.

Even in tax-free, low-cost Wyoming, I figure, the only way that two people that young could afford to live for three years in a house in the woods would be on a trust fund, or telecommuting.

“So what do you do?” I persisted.

(I cringed; that’s a New York City question, but enthusiasm got the best of me. I’d like to think I’m not naturally nosy, just a bit too friendly with strangers in Dubois. In any case, Jack seemed willing to be tolerant as long as I behaved myself, so I think he will fit in well here.)

Jack told me he makes his income doing computer coding. Lynn is an attorney, still working for clients back in LA.

She also volunteered shyly that she’s expecting her first child in a few months. I couldn’t have guessed. Her shirt was loose. I asked if she had family nearby. “Chicago,” she said. We had a little polite girl-talk about babies, and then I asked them how it was going, this Internet life in the backwoods.

“Fine,” Jack said. He told me that DTE installed high-speed Internet service at 10 megabytes per second (Mbps) almost immediately after they moved into their new mountainside home, and he praised their customer service.

Mike Kenney at DTE has told me that they can provide 10 Mbps service to anyone who wants is, and if it isn’t easy, they’ll find a way.

BrandlHouseViewThere are several dozen people working remotely around Dubois, according to DTE, but of course DTE won’t share their identities. I already knew about a few; now I’ve stumbled on two more.

If you just want to be alone while you’re connected, we’re good with that too.

The dog and I hope I we run into Jack and Lynn again, but we’ll leave them to themselves.

(Lynn: I’m sure you know how to take care of yourself. But if you need something as that baby comes closer, please send an email. We’re here for you.)

© Lois Wingerson, 2017

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Deaths and Disappearances in Dubois

Our neighbors are under threat, for reasons known and unknown.

Sheep060816_5Bighorn sheep have been the talk of the town all week. Our treasured species is under threat for unknown reasons, and their numbers seem to be dwindling.

As if to add injury to insult, three ewes met a gruesome death under the wheels of a car last week at one of their favorite hangouts, beside the red rocks at the reservation boundary. Presumably the driver didn’t know enough to watch out for the curly-horned beauties at that location. Or just ignored the warning sign.*

One day last spring, traveling westbound, I ran across (not into!) this small group of them at the same big curve, right where the highway drops and bends toward Dubois. Troubled by the speed of traffic coming toward me (and them), I stopped the car and tried to herd the sheep over the fence and back toward the hills.

Foolish waste of time. I knew they’d return the moment I got back into the car and went on.

The herd around Whiskey Mountain declined last year by more than 100 from a population of 800, according to a report at the annual meeting of the National Bighorn Sheep center last month. The herd numbered nearly 1,000 five years ago.

This should have been a good year for them, with lots of forage. But the ewes were generally thinner, and very few lambs are on the scene. Nobody knows why.

SheepCountThe folks in this picture, most of them volunteers, aren’t trying to rescue and airlift an injured sheep. (If only we could do that!) They had captured it for a quick physical exam, as part of a sheep count last year.

Another count is under way up-mountain as I write these words. Everyone hopes that the biologists merely missed some in their last survey, and that today’s count will be more encouraging.

We always slow way down when rounding the curve by the red rocks, if only in hopes of catching a glimpse of the elusive sheep. I’ve also learned the spots where the deer hang out to graze by the highway on either side of town. Driving near sunset, you always have to strain your eyes all the way from the red rocks to Stoney Point to avoid hitting deer that might suddenly decide to cross the road.

We’re always watching for game anyway. It’s a very popular pastime here, especially during this heavy winter when we have seen many moose picking their way through snow up to their knees. Many conversations begin with an account of which animal or herd one has seen recently (or this time last year), and exactly where and when.

MountainLionWe not only enjoy seeing our neighbors on the hoof; we also like to keep track of the tracks that show where they have been. It’s only good sense to know who’s ahead of you when you’re hiking, after all.

Some people even install webcams out back to see who has visited at night. This mountain lion turned up just across the highway a few months ago. We’d never see him in the flesh, of course.

At dusk few weeks ago, already alert for deer as I headed westbound back from town, I came up behind a car that was barely crawling around the curve beside the roadcut at Stoney Point. As I got closer, I saw that the driver was following a herd of deer, headed by a buck which (I wrote “who,” and then changed it) was marching the others smartly up the middle of the highway, toward the blind curve.

The speed limit slows from 70 to 55 just there. It’s the first slowdown for cars that have sped down the pass coming from Jackson. Whether it’s the approach of journey’s end, or haste to get on with the drive, we know that many drivers go quickly around this sharp curve.

With great courage and selflessness, the driver in front of me had pulled partway into the left lane at the blind part of the curve, obviously hoping to herd the deer off the road onto the right side. By the grace of God, no one was coming in the opposite direction, and he succeeded. The herd climbed the steep slope to the right, and I pulled off to turn on my flashers, hoping to keep the deer uphill and to alert oncoming drivers.

DuboisEastbound030116Another fool’s gambit, of course. I had to get home, and I can’t spend my life protecting my four-footed neighbors. But I’m very pleased to learn that WYDOT, Game & Fish, and a bunch of nature and wildlife groups are hosting Wyoming’s Wildlife and Roadway Summit in Pinedale in late April “to address the effects of roads on wildlife and to minimize wildlife/vehicle collisions.”

It’s none too soon. Already we’re seeing signs of spring, and tourist season is just around the … well, the corner. And traveling fast.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017

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*POSTSCRIPT:  Our local Game & Fish warden got back to me with details after I posted this. The vehicle was a semi trailer-truck. The driver was the person who called it in. He said that there had been traffic approaching in the other lane, so he couldn’t swerve at all. Just after the cab passed the ewes, for some reason they bolted and got caught under the wheels of the trailer.


Telecommuter Appreciation Town: Dubois WY

Tools down, but back up leaving time for a hike.

ModemWho knew that I had chosen to down tools and leave town during Telecommuter Appreciation Week, which is set for the first week in March? Instead, I’m celebrating TelecommutING Appreciation Week.

I returned to find that my best tool, the Internet, was also surprisingly down. I recycled the modem several times, but that little light never flashed. My husband settled down to watch ordinary cable.

“Customer service won’t answer in the evening,” he said, but he was wrong. A nice fellow speaking from somewhere else walked me through the usual user-error tests, declared me correct, and gave me a work-order number.

“They should call you by early afternoon,” he said.

“Early afternoon? Forget that!” I replied. “I’ll just call DTE myself at 8 AM.”

But I never did. A nice rep from the local DTE office reached me instead, at 8:10. “I hear your Internet isn’t working?”

I laughed, and told her the last thing I’d said to the man from customer service.

SheridanSlush“Yeah, we upgraded your broadband, and your old modem won’t work any more,” she said. “Can you drop by to pick up the new one? Just give me a name and a password and we’ll set it up for you.”

I know I’m not the only lucky person who benefits from this kind of service. There are dozens or scores of others clacking away in these hills. DTE knows who they are, but won’t tell, of course. And we “digitanomads” aren’t much for socializing with each other.

Back to the routine: Early workout, then hit the desk. Work through until about 3:30 and then get out for a hike while it’s still light out.

There was a melt while we were away. The back road is packed by snowmobile tracks, but still really slushy. A much better workout than the elliptical, as usual.

As I trudged along, I heard the exuberant roar of snowmobiles up in the hills.

The dog zoomed around too, joyous in his untethered freedom. After a while, I caught up and found him enjoying a very large treat.

(Benny appreciates telecommuting too.)

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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Getaway #2: The Place That’s Too Much

Hikes through a brand spanking-new ghost town.

FlamingoesReturning after our brief escape from the land of snow and ice, I’m struck by the contrast  between two places we visited.

We began in the no-man’s land of southeast Arizona, where we found too little. At the end, we spent time in a place that offers too much.

“If you build it,” my friend said with a laugh, “they may not come.” We were strolling idly through a failed real-estate project on the shore of Lake Las Vegas, just north of the big city.

This was a would-be resort, built to resemble one of the charming villages you’d see in the mountains of Italy. A hotel and a few restaurants and galleries were open, but most of the shop windows were blank. The large casino at the entrance closed quite a while ago.

As we crossed Arizona and New Mexico, we saw real ghost towns with weathered wood and blank windows, and many small mountain villages well on their way to becoming ghost towns. But I never before walked through a brand spanking-new ghost town. These stones weren’t yet weathered.

Everyone knows what the nearby city of Las Vegas has to offer: Neon lights, blinking slot machines, shopping malls, stage shows–plenty of manufactured excitement. I amused myself principally, as usual, by going on hikes. They gave me plenty to ponder.

GolfcourseWe stayed with friends in their short-term rental, part of another new  development of hopes unrealized. Those condos are being rented because they have not sold. Walking the dog, I wondered how many blinds were drawn for shade and how many to disguise vacancy.

We wandered every day across a long golf course laid out with dips and swells and sand traps, bordering several different neighborhoods. The golf course didn’t seem to be in use, having no holes, and the green grew ever more brown the farther we walked from the club.

You don’t water an unused green when water is in short supply.

One day my friend took me hiking across the aquatic version of a ghost town. It was a desert valley of the kind I often walk back home, covered with mesquite and creosote rather than sagebrush.

We passed lots of trash on that flat valley bottom: old bottles, rusted cans, worn-out tires. “That’s probably very old,” she said, as I pointed out a beer bottle half-buried in sand. “We’re walking across what used to be a lake bottom, you know.” It used to be part of Lake Mead, the body of water created in 1935 when the Hoover Dam trapped the Colorado River.

Some of the valleys near Dubois were once at the bottom of a large ocean estuary, but that was many thousands of years ago, back when the continents had different shapes. This land went dry in my own lifetime.

“See that line of white?” she said, pointing to a striped feature scores of feet above our head. “That’s calcium, left behind from the surface of the lake.”

Mead1The edge of an RV park that used to be waterfront is now hundreds of yards from the shoreline of Lake Mead. The Alfred Merritt Smith Water Treatment Facility, opened in 1971 to improve the lake water, is now located nearly a mile from the water’s edge.

The lake captures and manages the flow of the river, providing water for farms and cities downstream, as well as electric power. The water levels have declined steadily since 1998, reaching a record low last May.

A report released by the US Bureau of Reclamation in January predicts that shortages in Lake Mead will trigger cuts in water deliveries to Nevada and  Arizona next year. Lake Mead draws its water from snow melting in the mountains, and this is anticipated to continue declining due to climate change.

Mead2The brilliant blue water line of Lake Mead is also bordered by a white stripe, so that it looks from a distance like a fancy swimming pool. What they call the “bathtub rim” clearly marks how much the lake has fallen. Above the bathtub rim, and on the edges of that island in the left of the picture, the landscape is striped in hues of brown and gray.

We also see striped slopes in our badlands, and I’ve often heard geologists describe what they mean. But not until my hikes around Las Vegas did I actually get it.

The “bathtub rim” exists for the same reason the blue bowl of water I leave out to boost humidity in my house goes chalky white inside: The water leaves behind calcium and other minerals as it evaporates (or, in Lake Mead, reduces in volume).

Thinking about the vanishing lake naturally brought to mind our record snowfall this year above Dubois. In a few weeks, I know, a torrent of muddy brown water will begin rushing down-mountain and under our bridges.

It will all settle somewhere down-valley, along the banks of the river, which is ever so slowly continuing to cut its gouge in the surface of the land. This is adding another stripe in the pattern of Nature’s geologic markers, for others to ponder in the future. Now I get it.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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