Dubois and the Myth of Remoteness

Is Dubois really the most remote town in the lower 48?

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I’ve been in recovery this week after supervising Frontier Fest. So for the first time I will repeat an earlier blog in this series, for those who missed it 18 months ago.

Here, I ponder the assertion that Dubois is the most remote town in the lower 48 states. What I don’t explore here are the implications of that word “remote,” which is a subject of other blogs and one I’m still pondering. In my opinion, Dubois is just remote enough but not too remote. I can leave the world behind but still buy a mocha frappe or a tuna sashimi.

HighwayGoogle “Dubois WY” and you’ll soon encounter a statement that it has been designated the most remote town (or sometimes the second remotest town) in the lower 48 states. Often this distinction is attributed to National Geographic.

When we moved to Dubois, my husband and I quickly took up calling it one of the most remote towns in the lower 48 when we described it to friends. We even trotted out some criteria, whose origin I no longer recall: Farthest from the nearest Interstate, fewest traffic lights (none), fewest number of highways that run through it (one), distance to the nearest large town (about 70 miles), or proportion of land within a 360-degree radius that is publicly owned (who knows, but lots).

But is this distinction actually deserved? How remote is Dubois, and compared to what and by which criteria? Last summer I began to study the question, with interesting results.

First, I couldn’t find any such statement about Dubois in the archives of National Geographic. And many other towns lay claim to the distinction of being most remote.

I turned to local sources, Dubois town hall and the library. Sandy Hurst at town hall offered up text from a 2011 press release about Dubois:

“A place considered by National Geographic as the most remote town in the lower 48 states… it perches on the edge of several wilderness areas and is surrounded by national forests.”

This traced back to a strategic plan for Dubois by the Foundation for Urban & Neighborhood Development of Denver, Colorado, dated 1986. The report said that Dubois had been “recently identified in national news media coverage” as the most remote location in the lower 48–the same unconfirmed designation that I was already seeing, albeit even older.

Anna Moscicki at the library turned up a wonderful quote from the memoir of Ethel Waxham, mother of the geologist David Love who defined the geological history of the Yellowstone region. Waxham wrote about her arrival in Wyoming by stagecoach in 1905:

“The other passenger beside myself was a woman of fifty or sixty, white-haired, face weather worn, bright brown eyes, Mrs. Welty. She was post mistress at Dubois, the post office farthest from the railroad of any in the U.S.”

Delightful, written when the railroads were still expanding, and perhaps an insight into the town’s perception of isolation. But not that relevant today.

In the course of promoting Living Dubois on Twitter, I was fortunate to gain the interest of Marilyn Terrell, chief researcher for National Geographic, who has also been unable to find any source for that attribution of Dubois’ remoteness by her publication (so we ought to stop using it). But she did point me to an article in Smithsonian magazine describing what truly may be the most remote settlement in the lower 48: the community of Supai, Arizona, located at the base of the Grand Canyon. At the bottom of that 3,000-foot crevasse, it is reachable only by mule train, which is how they get their mail.

But Supai isn’t really a town: It’s designated by the US Census Bureau as a “census-designated place,” which is the Bureau’s term for a populated place that is not an incorporated village and has no municipal government. So does Dubois still qualify?

Overlook7Author Henry Grabar on the website citylab.com looked into which towns were most remote by the criterion of being farthest from the nearest Interstate highway, honoring Key West, Florida, as being farthest as the crow flies, and Copper Harbor and Eagle Harbor, Michigan, (251 and 238 driving miles from the nearest Interstate), with an honorable mention to Paisley, Oregon (209 miles) due to the sheer difficulty of driving to the big highway.

Dubois is “only” about 173 miles from the nearest Interstate, at Idaho Falls, and is interestingly equidistant from Interstates at Rawlins, Casper, and Livingston MT (200, 199, and 199 miles, respectively). But considering only towns that are completely surrounded by Interstates (rather than having a national border or large body of water on at least one side), I do wonder whether Dubois might qualify as having the largest average distance to the Interstate in all 4 directions (193 miles).

If you aren’t familiar with Dubois, please be assured that you can buy plenty of groceries and hardware supplies in town, and it’s even easy to find a cafe latte. And by that other criterion of remoteness, Internet access, Dubois is marvellously well-connected. You feel the remoteness mostly by your proximity to all that wilderness.

Speaking of which, there is one remoteness criterion Dubois can legitimately claim without dispute: It is TwoOceanPasscloser than any other town in the United States to the spot in the lower 48 that is most remote from any road, and therefore reachable only on foot or by horseback. This is Two Ocean Plateau in the southeastern corner of Yellowstone Park.

This spot has been designated by the United States Geological Service as the location in the “coterminous” United States that is most distant from any road (the trailhead is at Moran, an unincorporated community). Dubois is 44.1 miles from Two Ocean Pass as the crow flies, and the plateau is farther north. Jackson is 48.8 miles away.

There is one criterion for remoteness by which Dubois fails miserably. The residents are hardly remote in their behavior toward other people. It’s one of the friendliest places I’ve ever encountered, which is one reason we go all that way to get there.

@ Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Frontier Fest 2017: Dammed Fun for the Kids, and More

Half the town works, the other half turns up (and visitors).

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Harried but hopeful, I hurried to town. It was early Saturday morning, time to oversee the return of our annual Museum Day, this year with a new name: Frontier Fest. Sponsored by the Dubois Museum Association, the event promotes our delightful small history museum. Luckily for all of us, it was a beautiful day.
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The favorite features of the day were back again, of course. Here, Pat O’Neal tends the griddles turning out her amazing fry bread. I’ve discovered this treat in many cultures: The Mennonite ancestors from my childhood (they called them “crullers”), my Chinese ex-brother-in-law’s family (it was something like “io-tiao”), and here, the Native American version. Yummy, whatever you call it.
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They also served who only stood and waited — for the next visitor to turn up asking for lemonade or stew. We hoped people would slide something nice into the donation jar, because the entire event is free. It takes a whole village to create Frontier Fest: Seems like half the village works, the other half (we hope) turns up and enjoys the day. Many who are new to town discover a bit of our history, and a lot of our current culture.
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Billie came in her blue bonnet to work the first shift at the bake sale, and wound up staying the whole time. On Sunday at church you see her always dressed impeccably, but she obviously got into the frontier spirit on Saturday and pulled out some period attire. (What a pity this picture doesn’t show her lovely smile!) Much of the fun, said her daughter Sandy, was the chance to chat with friends.
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Steve Banks decided to bring out all of his Mountain Man regalia and paraphernalia again this year. Steve is another of our amazing assets. He’s walked nearly every step of the early explorers’ trails, working from their letters and journals, and he seems to know everything there is to know about the early history of the area. I saw him talking all day to small groups of fascinated onlookers. He said the questions never seemed to stop.
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Here’s Gordon the blacksmith, wowing an onlooker.
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Dan Seelye and Packin’ the Mail packed them in at the Dennison Lodge, and entertained everyone outside with the music piped on to the lawn. At the end of the day, when I went in to start cleaning up, I found many people were leaning against the wall, just listening to the music.
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Here’s Dean showing off his antique machinery, as he does every year. A retired watchmaker, Dean is a mechanical genius and a master carpenter. He was the behind-the-scenes star of the show, because he constructed …
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the great mini-flume race. This idea was created by the Board members of the Dubois Museum Association, but engineered and master-minded by Dean, who was intent on using his ingenuity to turn it into a truly competitive event. See the little knobs at the base of the chute? Those are the obstacles that stop your little marker from reaching the bottom. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
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The great flume race is modeled after the flumes created by the mighty tie hacks a century ago, when they hewed pine trees in our mountains in midwinter to create railroad ties. To get them down to the river and off to the railroad, they dammed up the meltwater as the snow subsided, and then released the water and floated them down to the river along giant versions of these chutes that went on for miles.
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The sandwich board at left held a poster explaining this history. I hope some of the kids looked at it! The object here was to be first to get your mini-tie to the bottom of the flume, controlling the flow of water with these mini-dams. Dean constructed it all. including the neat hand-held “dams” with their rubber gaskets and the mini-“ties” crafted at the same dimensions as real railroad ties.
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As this had never been done before, it was a challenge to figure out the best strategy.
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Competitors large and small took part.

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It was even a challenge to figure out the optimal flow from the hoses.
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We had arranged for prizes, but nobody seemed to care about them. They just wanted to keep playing!

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After we shut the water off, several kids simply couldn’t stop. They went back to the boring old beanbag toss.

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It was a great deal of hard work for a small army of volunteers. For me, at least, the best reward is this evidence of smiles all around. Many thanks to Bill Sincavage for these images, which are just as wonderful as the day itself.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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Going Wild Between Work and Dinner

The road would end soon, and then there’s only wilderness.

071317_5“It doesn’t get any better than this,” said my friend Ted, visiting from Arizona.

When I didn’t respond, he repeated himself. “It doesn’t get any better than this”–echoing some of the first words I ever wrote on this blog.

“Yeah,” I replied, “when somebody else is doing all the work.”

A bit snarky, Ted. I apologize. Even in this little out-of-the-way piece of heaven, it’s possible to get over-stressed in high tourist season when you actually have to wait a while before pulling out of the driveway, and when you can’t find a parking spot at the hardware store.

IMG_0140The worst of it is when, like so many other people in town, you’re so busy helping out with the events that make this town great in the summer (like Neversweat Rendezvous this month and everything that will happen around the total eclipse in August) that you can’t get around to the pleasures that brought you here in the first place. It gets overwhelming. I want to escape.

Back in New York, when I’d get to this mental place during a work day, I’d head off at lunch hour toward the riverfront, where the sky opens out, and look over at New Jersey or Manhattan. This time, at my workday’s end, I deliberate briefly and decide to go up to the other side of the splendid view out our own window. I put on my boots, call the dog, and start the long drive up to the top of the valley.

071317_2Stopping at a logging road I never noticed before, I park and step out of the car. Immediately I smell horses and notice their tracks. Some lucky folks are off on a pack trip.

The road is gentle and shaded. It takes us downhill toward a large meadow. Beyond the sounds of flies and cattle, the dog and I are completely alone–until the mosquitoes find us, and we turn back.

It’s been a good walk, and I’m much calmer, but I’m not finished yet. I turn the car back uphill, away from home. The road switches back and forth, and keeps rising.

071317_4After a long while, the forest falls away and there they are: The same mountains we can see from our window, but so much closer, so huge and so rugged.

The road would end soon, and then there’s only wilderness. I wish I could walk all the way across, but I can’t. I’m not nearly strong or brave enough.

I think of the Native Americans and Mountain Men who did cross them. I think of geology and eternity. I breathe in the clear mountain air, and notice the lupine and the noisy bees.

Time to head back; there’s salad to be made for dinner. I pause to count my blessings. Here’s where I go to get away from the place others come to as a getaway.

As he said, it doesn’t get any better than this.

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© Lois Wingerson, 2017

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America At Its Best: Dubois, July 4, 2017

Serious. Fun. Together. It’s what we do, over and over.

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Here we went again, enjoying the best Independence Day celebration anywhere. That designation, awarded this year by several tourists on Ramshorn Street (who were obviously delighted and astonished at their good fortune in being here), arises in large part due to the nature of the town that creates it, year after year. I second the nomination, of course. It’s just the kind of July 4 we kept wandering around New England hoping to find for our children, back when they were small. We had no idea back then that we should be thousands of miles farther west.

 

 

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For one thing, as someone who came all the way from Cody pointed out, you don’t have to stake out your spot the night before to get a good view. An hour ahead of start time will do. Ramshorn Street is unusually crowded, but the scene is just about right: Festive, but not frenzied.
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We saw Daniel Starks’ fleet of Army tanks laboring slowly down the highway shoulder as we drove in. Seems like he sent out three times more this year than last.
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They set the pace in the parade, a powerful and sober reminder of what we celebrate on Independence Day. I wonder what, if anything, parents said to children about that. What would I have said to mine?
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Meanwhile, a neighbor kept making passes with his helicopter, just to add atmosphere. This sound normally means med-evac. Today, just more fun, and in the sky.
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What an odd juxtaposition against the century-old motel! Somewhere in the back of the mind: How far out of harm’s way we are. How many of own neighbors ready to put themselves in harm’s way for us–whether it’s mortar fire, forest fire, or house fire.
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Same location, much less thought-provoking display. Friendly wranglers from the CM Ranch turn up every year. This is what brings people here first–the image easiest to sell to the outside world, and least difficult to convey persuasively.
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“It’s great to celebrate July 4 in a town that is happy to be patriotic,” a visitor remarked. (Now that brings up a lot of thoughts this year!) I like the fact that nobody around here goes out of the way to tell me what my patriotism should mean to me. Just show the flag, and put your hand over your heart. We take it for granted you deeply feel what you feel. Whatever it may be.
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Someone chose to honor a fallen veteran in this wonderful old pickup. Another reminder that freedom is not free.
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Could it ever be a July 4 parade if there were no kids chasing free candy? So much of it! I asked for a little Tootsie roll. Someone didn’t want to share, but Mom shamed him into it.
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Uh-oh! Here come the fire hoses! Loudspeakers warn: “You WILL get wet!” The crowd begins to thin as people take cover.
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Some older folks complain about the fact that the firefighters don’t always aim the hoses straight up. Some younger folks seem eager for the harmless adventure. (Hey, it’s hot out here!)
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“Come under here!” urges a friendly gentleman, and I duck into the garage at Bull’s Conoco. (I’m not afraid of the water, but my camera is.) You can see that Dubois’ Bravest can be straight shooters when duty calls for it.
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I’ve never known a place more fond of its firefighters, except perhaps New York right after 9/11. Dubois’ Bravest are volunteers, of course. These are the same guys who came out in frigid subzero temperatures at midnight a few years ago, trying to save the old Mercantile. When we hear a siren in Dubois, everybody’s ears perk up and I’m sure many people think a prayer.
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There’s an ice cream social on the church lawn, just after the parade. (This picture is from last year, but the scene was the same.) I’d hitched a ride down to the middle of town with Randy, who was driving his SUV at the rear of the parade. He was exhausted after an early start to his day. After dropping me off, he would circle back and clean up the orange cones to let the traffic get through. “This event must really bring the town together,” a stranger from Riverton said to me, as he was enjoying his ice cream. Well meant, but I had to stop and think about that. “Um, I don’t really think so–no more than usual,” I said finally. “The town is together already. This is just what we do every year on July 4.” Along with everything else we do together every year. (Randy wasn’t present for ice cream, having gone home for a nap.)
Square dance, July 4 Dubois WY
Was there going to be a square dance on July 4? Well, of course! If it’s a Tuesday in the summer, there’s a square dance in the back room at the Rustic. I helped to serve soft drinks at the bar last Tuesday, as I often do. A quarter for a Pepsi or a 7-Up. The proceeds go to local charities.
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It’s fun to watch the dude ranch folks trying to figure it out, and slowly succeeding. But the best part of it all is the square that always forms in front at the right. The 8 young locals who turn up every week seem to have reserved that spot. They know what they’re doing, and they clearly enjoy doing it. I love how they take it very seriously and keep getting a kick out of it, at the same time. This is the very definition of good, clean fun.
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The lovely teenager at left began the evening helping out with the soft drinks. The Bob Marley shirt was an act of defiance. (“I’m not wearing any of those stupid Western clothes!” she had told my friend, whom she’s visiting.) And she refused to dance, saying she can’t. Once mother of a teenage girl, I found this all quite familiar. One of the young people saw the stranger at the bar, came on over, and pulled her onto the floor. (Friendly just isn’t something you can sell in a travel guide. You simply have to be here and witness it. Then you’re hooked.)

Wyoming to Africa: The Workday of a Health Information Specialist

At a remote ranch in the US West, helping Africa share its medical research.

Thanks to Julia Royall for this guest blog, part of a series about people who work remotely from Dubois.

Before first light, as I am just beginning my day in Wyoming, my colleagues in East Africa are about to end theirs.  After a first quick cup of tea, I scurry to respond to email messages. Or I take a quick look in the mirror and make the necessary adjustments to ready myself for a video meeting convened by Ernie, our project assistant based in Seattle.  In attendance: Me, in Wyoming, my coworker Becky in Maryland, and our colleagues in Africa.

They are medical librarians in Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Mali–part of a network that has developed important projects, from an electronic training manual to a health information center for Masai people in Kenya.  Currently, they are creating an African Digital Health Library, an online repository of indigenous research, so that people anywhere who want to know about health care research in Africa can find out what has already been done on location.

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My role, for the past 25 years, has been as a facilitator. Starting in 1990 as part of a team enabling some of the sub-Sahara’s first access to the Internet and electronic health information, I have been lifting up African voices by any means possible, to present their scientific findings, their health priorities, and their proposals for new solutions to old scourges — malaria, AIDS, and TB — as well as the chronic diseases of cancer, hypertension, and diabetes.

Today, I’m working with Masimba, a young medical librarian in Zimbabwe whose library features a strong collection.  He is working to build a digital repository joining libraries around his country—and even a mobile app—that will allow worldwide sharing of research in Zimbabwe and Ministry of Health reports, priorities, and guidelines.

Of course, my work isn’t all online. Often I travel from Wyoming to Africa. At the Sheraton Hotel in Uganda, when the security guard at the gate leans into my car to ask my driver who I am, Moses says simply, “Figure 1.” The guard lets us through without a word.

I’m not sure how this code got started, but “Figure 1” is the guard code of a security firm in Kampala. It means either “white woman” or “all is well.” That says a lot about privilege, a concept I have struggled with my entire career of working and sometimes living in Africa. No matter how I cut the cake, I am a seemingly wealthy white woman from the West. The term Figure 1 presumes that as a white female, I could probably do no harm or make too many waves. It is a sign of impotent privilege.

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I was born and bred on the gentle marshes of Charleston, South Carolina, where I first came to appreciate a transported African culture through the Gullah people of the Lowcountry. I now find myself watching the wide sky from a ranch just outside of Dubois.

My husband’s mother bought properties here over 50 years ago (Spring Ranch, where we live, and Ring Lake Ranch, where she started an ecumenical retreat center), when she left the East forever and became a pastor in an even smaller town nearby.  After years of travel and interesting work in research and policy, we too, have left the high-gear life of the East coast to make Dubois our full-time base.

Here, we can watch the badlands turn various shades of red and then fade to silhouette as night begins to fall.  Remote rural silent sunsets here in Wyoming are equal in brilliance to those I’ve seen in African countries, but there is a major difference.

Although both sunsets herald the end of day, the nights are different. In Dubois, night is blessedly silent, and usually domed with a cascade of stars.

The night sky in Uganda is also lit, but with the lights of night life in cities or fireflies in the village. The nights in Africa have a sense of urgency and action and possibility.

Africa is not the “dark continent” many still believe it to be (as evidenced by all the fly-by health mission trips and schools of “global health” that have sprung up with development dollars and under-employed graduate students from the US). If we really believed that African countries had potential, we would be supporting their capacity and their own health priorities, sharing all of our glitzy tools, rather than engaging in “development tourism” and neo-colonial research.

From the serene location of Dubois, using the Internet, I will continue to do all I can to help them move their own projects forward.

Julia Royall retired from her position as chief of the Office of International Programs at the US National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine. She continues to work as a health information specialist from Dubois.