The Inestimable Loss of Esther Wells

A precious link to the first of my kind who came to know and love this valley

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EstherWellsPretty worn out when the last of our guests for the Great Eclipse of 2017 departed last Thursday, I determined to take it easy and stay home. We had skipped church on Sunday to take everyone out into the wilderness. Thus, sadly, I learned only from an obituary in the Frontier that Esther Wells had passed away and that I had missed her funeral.

I would certainly have gone. Farewell, Esther. It was a pleasure and a privilege to know you.

One of the last survivors of the homestead era, Esther Clendenning Pickett Wells was older than the town of Dubois–either 102 or 106 years old, depending on which record you prefer. The last time I saw her, only a few years ago, she was completely blind but nonetheless bright-eyed. Also still quite sharp and articulate. Not to mention kind and sweet to me, almost a stranger, and seemingly always cheerful.

When Esther was young and small, growing up, Dubois was also young and small. She survived two husbands. For a time she owned a ranch in Paraguay, where she founded a school that is still in operation. But what I admired most about Esther Wells was her legacy as a wife, mother, and co-manager of a ranch farther up that same steep glacial valley I see out my window, back when absolutely nothing about living around here was easy.

And yet, she said she loved it. She was a precious living link to the first of my kind who came to know and enjoy this place at a time when doing so was more of a challenge than a mere adventure.

CharlieRichardsGraveI first met Esther after she had stopped coming to church because she’d moved into assisted living. She must still have had some vision at that time, because she asked to come to our open house for one last look up that valley. I remember men carrying her up the front steps in a wheelchair, and setting her down facing out the window.

Someone pointed her out to me and suggested I greet her. Just to make conversation, I asked her if she knew anything about Charlie Richards, the early settler buried in an unmarked grave across the highway. I like to hike up to it now and again. Back then I used to entertain romantic visions of the man who wanted his grave to face out over that splendid valley.

“Why, sure I knew him,” she said, without a hint of admiration. “His wife was my mother’s best friend. They had the next ranch over. She was always borrowing pots and pans, because she had nothing to cook in but old tin cans.”

Mrs. Richards had to run the ranch all by herself, Esther said, and they were poor as church mice. Charlie was always out prospecting and was no help at all around the ranch. (A futile effort: More recent geology reports say there’s nothing of any mining value up there.) So much for my charmed estimation of Charlie! Although perhaps I should not allow my sympathy for his wife to rule out some compassion for his constant disappointment.

EstherWells2Thank goodness the Dubois Museum Association has preserved on videotape an interview with Esther about those early days when you couldn’t get down the valley all winter. We have learned that she was not bored as a child with no store-bought games, because old Mrs. Burlingame loved making toys. We also heard that geraniums were everywhere back then, because they were the only flowers that could survive the climate.

We learned to be especially grateful for soft fleece and Thermasilk, because something else Esther remembered was the cold. Just think about trying to layer cotton and canvas against these winds! “We didn’t have all the fabrics we have now,” she said. And fires never kept the whole cabin warm.

Later, Esther and her husband owned and managed what would become Brooks Lake Lodge, up the mountain. Today it’s a luxury getaway. Back then, life was elemental. She told of swiping a grizzly bear out of her kitchen with a broom, and then she laughed at the memory.

It matters only to me that I missed Esther’s funeral. What matters to everyone is that she is gone, and with her some of the strength, courage, and good humor that laid the human foundation for this valley.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Tiny Dubois Shines Through the Great Eclipse

How we conquered the Eclipse invaders

Dubuois WY Eclipse
The emotion was just the same as I had felt while being wheeled into the operating room. This is real. This will happen. This is not just some story we have been telling.
Dubois WY eclipse
Would our village triple in size during Eclipse weekend? Would 10,000 people turn up, diverted from Yellowstone? Would nobody come after all? We would shrug our shoulders. Who could say? But we worked so hard to make it a great visit. Only a few dozen turned up on Friday to hear local amateur historian Steve Banks describe how to live like a mountain man.
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But they were clearly captivated, as he loaded and fired an antique rifle and then started a flame, right before their eyes, using nothing more than flakes of rock and dried grass.
Dubois WY eclipse
The crowd had grown by Saturday. Tom Lucas had an attentive audience as he told how the ancient Shoshone must have used bighorn sheep horns to make their legendary bows, using water from hot springs and stone tools. Or so he thinks. Nobody knows for sure. They left no records or direct descendants to tell us how. “I never meant to become a bow maker, but somehow I did” said Tom, who is skilled at making Native American crafts but better known for his oil paintings. (The town had run out of folding chairs, so his listeners sat on hay bales and cardboard. Nobody seemed to mind.)
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Meanwhile in the background, the joyful but unfamiliar noise of many children playing at once. The Kiddie Karnival sponsored by the Boys & Girls Club was a brilliant plan to please parents and children who had so many hours to kill while waiting for the Big Event.
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The flow of car traffic passing through town was steady. I actually had to wait several minutes to make a left turn off the highway. But the classic car show had only a handful of entries, and viewers were few. We are a very tiny town, I thought. We’ve done the best we can to amuse you. We are who we are, and proud of it.
Dubois WY eclipse
But tempers were also frayed, and old rivalries emerged. This was probably inevitable. We were already exhausted when it came time to set up for the concert, which would take place on that big stage at left. No instructions came along with this huge canopy! We spent a long time figuring out the geometry, then had to take it all apart again to fit the hooks for the canopy into the right little holes! Then we moved it back and forth, unsure where it was supposed to stand. One of the event planners had a family emergency, and disappeared.
Dubois WY Eclipse
Meanwhile a bomb scare was taking place nearby, when a cameraman from the Google Megamovie Project left his equipment (complete with battery and timer) unattended in the park. Here, the other planner was shouting at the volunteers: “Alternate the Honda banners with the Chance Phelps banners, one per section! Not too low! Make them straight!” I took her aside for a moment, forced her to stand still, and ordered her to breathe deeply from the base of her abdomen out the top of her head, three times. She smiled. We will survive this! Really we will.
Dubois WY eclipse
Only a few hundred people turned up to hear our great local guitarist Mike Dowling on Saturday evening, not the thousand we had been hoping for. Some of them seemed to be leaving during the break. I had to leave too, because our relatives from out of state had arrived, so I missed Sarah Darling. Everyone obviously enjoyed the music, but I ached. My muscles ached, sure, but I ached more for those who would have to take everything down afterwards while I was having dinner with family. And the question remained: Where is everybody?
Dubois WY eclipse
The answer dawned on me Sunday morning, during this hike in the badlands with my niece. A few people did enjoy the events we had worked so hard to plan. But many more chose to enjoy the entertainments Mother Nature has been providing for visitors long before we arrived. She blessed us during the Eclipse week: The skies were gloriously clear throughout. Our family did not attend any events in town. They went mushroom hunting on Union Pass, which was packed with people out dry camping. Other relatives drove toward Yellowstone, hoping to see bison. Some folks in this picture enjoyed parasailing over our badlands.
Dubois WY eclipse
The big day arrived, clear and cheery. Nobody was trying to park on the side of the highway as I closed the gate behind my car, so the dire predictions of hordes descending from Yellowstone had proved false. I raced to town to help Scott arrange the sound system for our expert speaker from NASA, Craig Tupper. Craig was already speaking when I arrived, without benefit of technology. Both he and the eclipse watchers, of course, had arrived early.
Dubois WY eclipse
Others chose to skip the play-by-play in favor of a higher elevation. But the view was great from either vantage point.
Dubois WY Eclipse
So what’s he going to say? I wondered beforehand. “It’s 10% now. There you go, it’s 15%!” But Craig was fascinating. He talked about the shadow bands and the corona. He told why it didn’t make sense to try to take pictures (though people did). He talked about his cross-country cycle trip. He answered many questions. He joked around.
Dubois WY Eclipse
Here, people are watching for shadow bands on a white sheet, as Craig had suggested, as totality approached. (Can you see how the bright sky has begun to dim?) The bands we saw undulating all over that rocky ground were even more eerie.
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A crew from the NBC TV station in Salt Lake City turned up to film the total eclipse from Dubois. Here, the camera turned on Craig.
Dubois WY total eclipse 2017 Craig Tupper
He had realized that he’d been talking about the partial eclipse but never looking. So he paused, put on the glasses, and looked skyward. For all his expertise, he seems just as awed as the rest of us.
Dubois WY total eclipse 2017
“Can you feel a chill?” someone asked. And the sky began to darken. At first, I think we were quiet.
Dubois WY total eclipse 2017
It’s not possible to describe the quality of the light at totality. It’s like twilight, but not really. It seemed much darker than this as I was wandering over the uneven ground, hoping to capture people’s reactions on camera. All around me, I could hear them. Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable. Wowwwww. Amazing! I was probably saying these things myself.
Dubois WY total eclipse 2017
We had barely two minutes of totality. Somehow it seemed longer. It was startling how quickly the light re-emerged. And then it was over.
EclipsePlanViewSouth
The rest of my family were watching from the top of Table Mountain, where the view is spectacular but the viewing point is difficult to reach. I think it rivals the Grand Canyon. I took this shot a week earlier, while we were scoping out the location.
prairiedog
I suppose this permanent resident of Table Mountain and his relatives went underground for the Big Event.

Sheridan Creek Dubois WY
At last, we could all exhale. For a day or two after the Eclipse, the stream of cars passing through in both directions was almost uninterrupted. The restaurants in town were still packed. I took the dog and escaped to one of our familiar hikes. As we walked back toward the car, I had to stop often and pull the dog aside to let the departing campers come past, on their way down from Union Pass. I waved each time, smiled, and gave a thumbs up. Everyone seemed to have a great time. And we survived intact.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Ordeals, Ideals, and What We Stand For

What’s so special about Dubois? One Saturday in the Park tells it all.

streetscene
Here’s the start of a great day in Dubois. I came home at the end of it, full of good feelings, and then read the news about today’s violence at the white-supremacy rally in Charlottesville VA. “This is not what I fought for,” wrote someone on Twitter, “and not what America stands for.” I had been thinking how blessed we are to be far away from so many troubles. We have fires and floods and landslides, but we are spared this kind of hate. Quite the opposite, in fact.
obstacle_runners
Here, runners set off toward the grueling 5-mile obstacle course, up the steep and dusty road to the Scenic Overlook, climbing barriers and tromping through muddy ditches. It’s the annual Run4Chance competition sponsored by the Chance Phelps Foundation, in honor of a 19-year-old Marine who gave the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq in 2004.
Ishak_Lawver
There were so many themes I was going to write about today! For starters, how strong we are. Here are some friends, Mary and Larry, smiling after they finished the 5K run/walk race. They didn’t win; they were just glad to have run. My neighbors toss hay bales and ride bucking broncos. They hike for many miles to see wildflowers in the mountains. “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” read the message on the back of one T-shirt. If it’s tough, painful, or sad, they say, cowboy up. Turn out for the race to honor the memory of Chance Phelps.
Jeda_Callie
Or I was going to talk about our culture of service. We wear ourselves out, week after week, creating fun events like this, and always for a cause. It seems like nothing entertaining happens in Dubois that isn’t being done for a very good reason. Here are Jeda and Callie, who work tirelessly to make a good life for the children in Dubois, as they wait for competitors to return. The Run4Chance races fund getaway weekends for veterans.
obstacle_5
Gradually, the obstacle course runners began to return–exhausted and muddy, but hardly defeated–to mount the last few challenges before the finish line.
Domek
Here’s my friend Sara, crossing the last obstacle but one, smiling as always (but you can’t see that). She won the women’s division in the obstacle race.
Dignitaries
Cleaned up and now quiet, we regrouped this afternoon only a few yards from that finish line to honor Chance Phelps and all the veterans from town. Chance was only one of them, but he has come to represent a culture of public service that is woven into the fabric of the community. These dignitaries (US Senator Mike Enzi, Mayor Twila Blakeman, our Wyoming Representative Tim Salazar, and Randy Lahr, head of the Chamber of Commerce) spoke at today’s dedication of the new Veterans Memorial in our Town Park.
EagleScouts Monument
Culminating the 15-year effort to create the Memorial was the project of our newest three Eagle Scouts. Their names will certainly appear soon on this older memorial, not far from the new one they have created. Funded by local charities including the VFW and the Volunteer Fire Department, the Veterans Memorial was “completely constructed by the effort and generosity of our incredible town,” said Lahr at the dedication.
Piper
A bagpiper played “Amazing Grace,” while some men in the crowd took off their hats. When have we ever heard this haunting sound in Dubois?
Taps
There was a rifle salute, and a poignant rendition of Taps by two trumpeters, echoing each other from opposite sides of the Memorial.
USFlag_Raised
Finally, the US flag was raised. The piper started up again, and walked slowly off toward the river, the sound of his dirge gradually dying away as he moved off.
Memorial_Front
“They say this town of a thousand people can do anything a town of 10,000 people can do,” the Mayor had said as she opened the ceremony.  I wonder how many towns of 10,000 would even have thought to do this. Senator Enzi took up the point: “I wonder if there are any towns of 100,000 that have a Memorial as good as this, created without any Federal dollars.”
BarbecueLine
Then we lined up only a few feet farther west for the annual Buffalo Barbecue, a not-to-be-missed event always held this weekend in August in the Town Park. It’s the annual fund-raiser for those others who serve by putting themselves in harm’s way on our behalf: the volunteer firefighters.
VFD_shirt (2)
It’s a most serious commitment in Dubois. These volunteers not only protect our homes, they are first into the forest, protecting our precious part of paradise.
Servers2
Today they served us in a different way.
BarbecueScene
As we were leaving, I recognized the dark-skinned man sitting on the ground at left. I spoke with him at the Post Office yesterday, where he was mailing some packages to himself. “I’m guessing you’re a hiker,” I said, and asked where he was from. He said he really doesn’t have any fixed address right now. I asked where he was heading, and again he didn’t exactly say. “I hope you’ve been having a good time here,” I said this evening, and he smiled and nodded, pointing at his buffalo burger. He seems to want to be alone, and nobody here would want to hassle him as he sat quietly minding his own business. As the NAACP tweeted today, fear doesn’t live here.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Eclipse 2017, Too Close for Comfort

Indescribable, inevitable, timed to the second–and definitely unpredictable.

SolarEclipseCreditNASA_Barcroft“Have you noticed how the sun and the moon are getting closer in the sky?” Johanna asked yesterday.

I guess I’ve been too busy to look up, but last evening at around 8 PM I did. Sure enough: Hanging in the west, low to my right, was the setting sun. Just to my left, fairly high, the moon.

Definitely too close for comfort.

We’ve known for several years that the sun and the moon will meet almost directly over Dubois around midday on August 21. So have thousands of dedicated eclipse watchers, many thousands of vacationers and family members and distant friends. Some of our own relatives will be occupying every bed in our house.

Eclipse LogoA team from Google and Berkeley will be here, crowd-sourcing images of the eclipse. A reporter from National Geographic will be live-streaming the events. Untold numbers of travelers will want to nip over from Yellowstone. All these people will descend on our extraordinary little town starting about two weeks from today, all waiting to witness the total eclipse of 2017.

Months ago, when planning began, some people were calling it “the Apocalypse.” Lately, informational fliers about how to survive the eclipse have been turning up on counters in restaurants and gas stations. They’re like disaster preparedness warnings.

“With a total solar eclipse your environment changes within seconds and it’s quite startling,” said eclipse-chaser Fred Espenak in an interview on CNET, as he gushed about the unique joys of the experience–the sudden darkness, the goosebumps, the reactions of animals. We know that our environment will change too, but not merely for two minutes.

In the past year we’ve endured a fire and a flood. You’d think, given ample warning, we could prepare for this one, and we’ve given it our best shot. But as the mayor and the head of the Chamber of Commerce have been saying with a shrug, we have no idea exactly what will happen. There’s no good way to predict it, being so close to the world’s favorite national park and all.

I’ve had moments of tremendous pride in my townsfolk, who have risen to the occasion with an impressive array of events to entertain visitors for the entire weekend. We’ve addressed many questions: Will there be phone service? Do we have enough bathrooms? The two medical clinics will both be working overtime that weekend, as will police and emergency services. Armies of volunteers will be busy doing all sorts of things.

Meanwhile, we’re waiting.

CemeteryView1_042917I fervently hope the people of Dubois can retain the friendly good nature that our visitors enjoy.

Yesterday a car pulled into the driveway, carrying three adults and two adolescents from China, all of them obviously worried. A signal light was flashing on the dashboard of the rental car. None of them could speak English.

It was nothing more than a tire pressure problem. My husband got out the tire gauge, tried to convey the details with hand signals, and directed them toward a gas station in town.

Not long afterwards he encountered the same family at a gas station, in confused conversation with by another American, who was also consulting a tire gauge. “They’ve way over-inflated this tire,” he said.

This was a calm Thursday two weeks before the Big Event. I sighed when he told me about it. Multiply this vignette by a thousand or two, and you get the picture.

However, for those who have planned prudently, this could be (as it says on the Dubois Eclipse website) the best place on earth to view the total eclipse. Our views are spectacular on any normal day. Here are a two of the eclipse-viewing sites officially recommended to visitors, the Scenic Overlook and Union Pass.

I will be up at the Chariot Race track with Craig Tupper of NASA, who will be giving a play-by-play as events unfold during the eclipse. Craig and a friend specifically chose Dubois as their viewing point during a cross-country bicycle trip. He’s one eclipse watcher we’re delighted to welcome.

Those who choose that spot, for one thing, will have the advantage of hearing an expert tell them when to put their special eclipse glasses on and when it’s safe to take them off.  A few hours later, it will all be over. The next day, the visitors will begin to leave, and we will begin to take stock.

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© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.