Time Warps in the Old West Times Square

Dates and timelines offer up curious parallels.

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BanksWarmValley_croppedLocal historian Steve Banks gave another riveting talk a few weeks ago, this one about the history of traffic across this valley. Since then, I’ve been caught up in a sort of time travel.

I used to have the feeling that this Old West was much younger than the Back East I left behind. It must be part of the pioneer spirit you still feel out here, a sense of freshness and opportunity that reaches back from today’s new arrivals to the first intrepid white explorers.

Lately, I’ve been checking dates and making timelines. They parallel each other and resonate in very odd ways.

These four walls account for part of my confusion about time. They’re  made of huge logs felled nearby and chinked warmly together, much as the original settlers made their cabins. Our new house looks historic, but it is only decades old — far younger than the Victorian brownstone we left behind, which was built in 1880.

BrooklynHouseThe brownstone is 4 stories tall, has 4 bedrooms, and originally had a dining room and a receiving room for guests waiting to be admitted to the living room. It was remarkably modern for having central heating, fired by a coal furnace at the bottom.

In or around the same year it was built, Oran M. (“Old Man”) Clark, the first settler in this Wyoming valley, built his the first log cabin here — a windowless, one-room structure near the confluence of the Dunoir Creek and the Wind River. It too had “central heating,” People recalled that he often left the door open in winter so that he could run a huge log right across the middle of the room into the fireplace on the opposite wall. He would shift the log forward as it burned.

Clark didn’t file a homestead claim when he built the cabin, but he did claim to own the valley. Legend has it that in 1883, he raised his shotgun and ran off a party that included President Chester A. Arthur. He reportedly said that he had to give permission for anyone to enter the valley, and they didn’t have it. Wise men, they went to Yellowstone by another way.

For some reason he did, however, welcome John Burlingham and his son, who had come to Dubois to guide some dudes from Back East on a fishing trip. In fact, he coaxed the two men to return with their families, which they did in 1889.

For the first winter, the entire party stayed in Clark’s small, windowless log cabin. The following year they completed their own cabin, a few miles down the river. It was also windowless, with a dirt floor and a camp stove served by a pipe through the roof. A year later, Mahalia Burlingham gave birth to a stillborn daughter. Her husband John became the sought-after fiddler for dances across the entire region. He often left Mahalia alone with the children for months on end.

MabelsHill_1017According to Steve Banks, the first white man to visit the valley was probably a Kentuckian named John Dougherty. A fur trapper and trader, he fled south in 1810 from what is now Montana to escape an attack by Blackfoot Indians, crossing Shoshone Pass close to Ramshorn Peak and continuing down the Dunoir Valley to the Wind River. (This picture shows that valley.) A bullet from the attack remained in his side for the rest of his life.

Steve says that location, at the confluence of the Dunoir Creek and the Wind River about 12 miles west of the current town of Dubois, was like the Times Square of the Old West. The Valley of the Dunoir had been the north-south artery toward the crossroads of a  trade and migration route used by native Americans for time unknown. (The area has been part of the migration route for ancestors of the Shoshone for thousands of years.)

Early fur traders and explorers — men such as John Colter, John Hoback, and Jedediah Smith — passed this way, often guided by the natives.

WilsonPriceHuntIn 1811, a year after John Dougherty came down the Dunoir Valley with a bullet in his side, Wilson Price Hunt came through with a party of 68 people and 200 horses. Hunt was a co-owner of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, headed toward Fort Astoria on the Columbia River in the northwest, hoping to establish fur trade with Russia and China.

Steve pointed out that Hunt’s party and their horses would have filled two Greyhound buses and 6 semi trucks. It was probably the largest single group of people ever to visit this valley. No settlement existed here at the time, except for a small Shoshone village.

The party had run out of food by the time they reached the base of the Dunoir. The natives, ill-prepared to feed them, advised Hunt to continue southward, crossing the Wind River, and over the mountains toward the Green River, where there were plenty of bison. The hunting detour cost them two weeks of progress; they should have headed west, upriver, where a friendly fort was only a few days away.

Frontiersman and explorer Jedediah Smith came this way about a decade later, in the winter of 1823-24. He brought with him a fur trapper named Daniel Potts, whose family owned Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. Potts was the first man to record a description of the geysers in what is now Yellowstone.

RiverHe also described our valley. “From thence across the 2d range of mountains to Wind River Valley …” he wrote in a letter on July 16, 1826. “Wind River is a beautiful transparent stream, with hard gravel bottom about 70 or 80 yards wide, rising in the main range of Rocky Mountains … The valleys near the head of this river and its tributary streams are tolerably timbered with cotton wood, willow, &c. The grass and herbage are good and plenty, of all the varieties common to this country. In this valley the snow rarely falls more than three to four inches deep and never remains more than three or four days, although it is surrounded by stupendous mountains.”

The West was younger, yes, but not by as much as I thought. As Dougherty was fleeing down the Dunoir and Hunt’s party was pleading for food with Shoshones in a mountain village a year later, my former home town of Brooklyn was just a small settlement across a wide river from Manhattan.

It didn’t incorporate as a village until 1817, only about seven years before Potts crossed this valley and saw the geysers. In 1898, Brooklyn was swallowed up in the creation of the great city of New York.

OMClark_graveTwelve years after that, “Old Man” Clark froze to death, alone in his cabin, during a winter storm. His grave sits atop a small hill, marked by an obelisk and surrounded by a wrought iron fence.

He had left money to buy ample whiskey for a wake. It took many tries for the mourners, who had stoked themselves well with his whiskey in front of his fireplace, to succeed  in sliding his coffin up that slope over the icy ground.

But they did. Here is his grave.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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.

Mud, Slush, Trash, and Treasures

It seems a shame to call them “bad lands” when they are so wonderful.

DaybreakIn March and April, the town is ours at last. We see few out-of-state license plates, except for the spring snowmobilers heading up the pass.

Down-mountain, the snow may turn up now and then, but it doesn’t hang around very long. Everyone living nearby seems to have a new pond in their yard that freezes over and then thaws.

The streets are quiet. For motel owners who stay open all winter, this is the time to enjoy sleeping later and making repairs. You can probably count on a table at the Bistro without a reservation.

IMG_0196Some days it’s really cold; other days it’s mild enough to go out without a coat, especially where it’s not windy. Today the thermometer reads 20 degrees, but I’m quite comfortable in a denim shirt and down vest.

Still, the repeated melt and freeze are a challenge for a hiker. I have to strategize in order to avoid having to give the dog a bath after our outings. That’s why I revisit the badlands when early spring comes around.

BadlandsPlant2It seems a shame to call them “bad lands,” when they are so wonderful. Later in the spring, they will erupt with small wild flowers and the sage will turn green and fragrant.

Just now, the ground is barren, but it’s also fairly dry and rarely muddy. Each turn up a draw is a new adventure.

The views, as ever, are splendid. I heard somewhere that Dubois was voted as having the most scenic drive to the town dump anywhere in the country. Whether or not that ever happened, I believe it could be true.

GreenandRed_editedThe road beyond the dump heads over the badlands and on up toward Table Mountain where at some places the scene over the edge looks like a miniature Grand Canyon. Hiking closer to the dump today, what I notice are the ever-changing colors of the soil — which is the most striking feature of the badlands in any case.

Returning down a draw after an hour’s hike across this vast expanse of  wrinkled ridges, I come across a spot where the ground turns suddenly from badlands green to badlands red. I’m used to seeing this as changes in the stripes on the slowly melting slopes, not as fields of red or green, like this. I wonder what caused that transformation. (You can see the buildings of the dump ahead, at the top right in the picture. The white patch to its left is a snow-covered slope in the distance.)

BadlandsCarcass080616This close to the dump (and the start of the road) you always encounter some trash in the terrain: empty beer cans, cardboard, construction debris deposited out here for free (rather than paying the fee, at the dump). The ground is cleaner farther out the road.

There’s always some of the kind of refuse that my dog appreciates, the kind predators leave behind.

That’s another good reason to bring the dog here during mud and slush season. The bones are clean and dry, and won’t cause him any problem if I take them away before he chews off a chip. He just likes to carry them around like trophies, anyway.

Usually I follow the abundant game trails through this labyrinth, but seeing my car in the distance, I decide to strike out overland, crossing a draw and climbing a fairly steep slope on the other side.

RockerBadlandsNearing the top, I encounter a very large discarded object. Someone wanting to avoid the discard fee must have pushed this over the edge just beyond the dump, driving no farther than necessary on the rutted road in order to avoid being seen.

The wood is weathered, and most of the nails have pulled free. Nevertheless I turn it back upright, and tug at it. Wouldn’t it be great in our back yard come summer — bolted back together, given a new seat and left out behind the house, facing up our valley?

Alas, it proves too heavy to drag even a few yards uphill.  I leave it turned toward the distance. Fine old chair as it once was, it at least deserves to crumble facing out across the same uplifting terrain I have just enjoyed.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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.

Of Dubois, New York, and Hollywood

One up-side of remoteness: The high cost of production.

IMG_0140Back when I first lived in New York City, it really used to trouble me that there was so much violence in films set in my home town. But as time went by, I stopped caring about that.

In decades of living there, I never personally witnessed gun play or other violence (setting aside 9/11, of course). The French Connection was released way back in 1971, the same year I fell in love with my husband and his home town. Starting then, I grew accustomed to ignoring the bad rap about violence and crime that frightens so many tourists about New York. So what? I know better.

These days, I really enjoy watching films set in New York. It’s fun to recognize the intersection the cops are running through or the exact spot where the lovers are kissing. I enjoy trying to figure out whether the housing project on the screen is in the Bronx or on the Lower East Side. For absolutely nothing, I can get a free trip back to the city.

A few days ago, trolling around Netflix, I gave a little gasp. “There’s Wind River,” I said, seeing the icon for a film I always wanted to watch but never ran across in a cinema. (Well, I don’t “run across” films in a cinema any more. I have to travel an hour and a half to visit one. With Netflix, YouTube, and TCM, why bother?)

100_0141 (1)

I vaguely recalled someone telling me not to bother with that film. But there I sat in front of the TV. Why not?

It was off to an interesting start, with a woman’s voice reciting a poem as what seems to be a Native American woman runs across the snow. But the fact that the film is set in our beautiful valley in the dead of winter, always with whistling winds and deep snow, should have tipped me off: This was not going to end well.

The scenes are a snowmobilers’ dream, because our protagonists in law enforcement get to sled everywhere at high speed, passing spectacular stands of evergreens. They remind me of the footage our winter visitors like to put on YouTube after their trips to Togwotee Pass.

But the plot entirely robs the landscape of its beauty. A story of brutality against women by ignorant drunken men (not drunken Native Americans, I hasten to add), it ends in a shootout with high-powered weapons. The cinematographer revels in the contrast of the bloodbath against the pure white snow.

100_0724“So much for the image of our valley,” said my husband as the film ended.

This isn’t actually our valley, because the film was set down-county in the reservation. But the river that runs through our town has the same name, and if you Google “Wind River” today the top results, of course, link to pages about the film.

As to our town of Dubois, my son (who still lives in New York) commented in a recent visit that the village looks like a movie set. True West magazine endorses that view, having given Dubois its 2018 award for the best architecturally preserved Western town.

HonorGuardBut the only film ever set in Dubois wasn’t a “Western,” and it wasn’t actually filmed here. I’m gratified to say that Taking Chance, starring Kevin Bacon, was the deeply affecting true story of the return of a fallen Iraq soldier to Dubois and his burial in our local cemetery.

This image is not from the film. It’s an actual honor guard at the actual Dubois cemetery, on Veterans Day. Even though locals including Chance Phelps’ family worked hard to bring production here, the Western scenes were filmed in Montana.

The business incentives in Wyoming weren’t as good as elsewhere. But also, the costs of bringing the production to this remote area were too high to be practical.

This used to trouble me, but as time goes by, I have changed my view. Dubois was extraordinarily fortunate that the one film to feature it gave an accurately positive image of its character–even though the images didn’t actually show our town or our landscape. But it may be a blessing that it is a challenge to bring film producers here.

There are many reasons to value our remoteness in this valley. That it discourages the media that might send the wrong message about us is one of them.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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.