The health care facilities are merely useful. This will be magic.
As spring brings life to the valley, an enchanting new creation is unfolding beside the highway, just east of the rodeo grounds. What makes the place seem even more magical is that it used to be a toxic waste site.
It’s difficult to imagine what might have been toxic about the sawmill that gave life to this community, until it closed in 1988. But an EPA document describing the “brownfields” cleanup project says the site was contaminated with petroleum byproducts including benzene and diesel fuels.
Ten years after the mill closed, a local family bought the site and donated it to the Nature Conservancy, stipulating that it should be used for the “health and enjoyment of the citizens of the greater Dubois community and its future generations.” After the town gained numerous grants, the cleanup began five years ago.
The medical clinic, fitness center, and assisted living facility on the site clearly qualify in the health category, but as mere buildings they would not inspire the words “enchanting” and “magical.” As the dog and I enjoy the eastern end of the river walk, I’ve seen something emerging that will clearly deserve that description.
The good folks of Dubois Anglers and Wildlife Group (DAWGS) are busy completing Pete’s Pond, the dream of Pete Petera, a former director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department who retired to Dubois. I knew the bright-eyed gentleman all too briefly before he passed away, too early to see the project begin.
Pete wanted a place where children could enjoy fishing safely. The need for this becomes clear as I follow this part of the river walk in late May, watching the surging water breach its banks and crash past, frothing and muddy.
DAWGS long ago made the river accessible for handicapped anglers along this riverwalk. Now, on the landward side of the walk, they’re busy with backhoes creating not just a pond, but a whole new park. There’s a small stream at the inlet, and islands in the center of the pond.
What astonishes me is the sylvan aspect of the scene, where a few years ago this was hard-packed tan dirt overgrown with weeds and sage, the kind of desolate landscape so many people think of when they hear the word “Wyoming.”
It’s a pleasure to think that this is what future travelers will see first as they pass into Dubois headed toward Yellowstone and Jackson. After that long desert drive from Rawlins or Casper, they will be enticed as they reach Dubois to stop and enjoy birds and gently lapping water, lined by trees and bordering the river.
It doesn’t yet look as green as it will, because it’s only early spring here, and the work is still under way. But I can already hear the laughter of the children.
Somewhere over there under the water is a ball that the dog lost in the weeds last summer. He’s certainly forgotten about it. I’m very pleased to make the sacrifice.
I know it’s sentimental, but I felt he was guarding me.
“Is that one of the geezers?” said the man at the pullout.
I smiled. “I love the way you English people say that word,” I said. “Here we pronounce it ‘guy-zer.’ In American vernacular, a geezer is — ”
“I know,” he said. “An old guy. But is that one of them? Is it Old Faithful?”
He didn’t mention the bison I was watching as it grazed nearby. Nor did he tell me he was Irish, not English, which I learned later on.
“No,” I said. “You’ll see the signs for Old Faithful about five miles further south.”
Recently I read that, while the TripAdvisor experts recommend taking three or four days to tour Yellowstone, about half of visitors come all this way just to see Old Faithful. That’s a fairly short drive up from the South Entrance, which wouldn’t open for another week yet.
We ourselves had come in last Saturday from the north. We wanted to visit the Park before the hordes began to arrive through the South Entrance. We’ll see them approaching shortly, via Dubois.
That morning we had sailed through the East Gate entirely unimpeded, only one day after it opened, after driving all the way around through Cody.
Only a few days into May, the northern regions of the Park were still blanketed with deep and drifting snow. A road sign just a few miles inside the entrance warned us of avalanche risk.
Pulling into an overlook, we saw that Yellowstone Lake was still almost entirely snowbound.
Farther on, people had stopped to walk on the shoreline, where the ice had melted back a foot or two.
On the second day of opening, it was about as crowded as you would want for a visit to a public park. We had a little company–just enough to feel pleasantly surrounded, not too isolated in the wilderness.
On the north side of the Lake, we encountered the first of several small “bison jams.” We had to slow down briefly when two or three cars stopped shortly ahead of us. As so often happens, a bison was ambling right down the middle of the road.
TripAdvisor experts warn visitors to anticipate lengthy delays for bison jams. That day, after a moment, the car ahead moved on and then we drove slowly past.
Besides a chance to visit that overly popular Park minus the crowds, this was a dry run for our small RV and our Vespa motorbike. We don’t use the Vespa much near home, because it wouldn’t feel safe in the traffic that zooms past at 70 mph, much of it either hurrying toward the Park or home afterwards.
Inside the Park, the speed limit is a comfortable 45. On that early-season day, we figured, even inside Yellowstone the traffic wouldn’t be too heavy.
It was very pleasant to zip around those winding roads that were nearly empty. We’d pull over every so often to let cars pass, and then continue on our leisurely way.
We drove into the parking lot at Old Faithful and stopped the bike. It looked like rain, so we went inside the Lodge to get a drink and maybe wait out the weather.
It was surprising how many people were already wandering around inside. The building is fanciful on an oversized scale, like a Norseman’s lodge gone mad (as my husband put it).
As I sipped my beer near the huge fireplace in the lobby, a decent-sized group listened to a tour guide.
“You want to see Old Faithful?” my husband asked as finished our drinks.
“Nah,” I said. “I’ve seen it before. Probably no different today. I’m sure it will keep going off without us.”
The conversation about the geezer happened shortly afterwards, as we headed back northward toward the campground on the Vespa. We had spoken about how it wouldn’t be safe to stop close to a bison while driving the motorbike. But I asked to stop at a pullout when I spotted one close enough to the road to catch a picture on my IPhone but far enough away to be safe.
My husband turned off the ignition so I could climb off the Vespa and catch the shot. Then it wouldn’t start again.
When the Irish couple drew up to look at the geyser a few minutes later, I was standing beside the bike watching the bison. My husband stood a few yards to the north with his thumb out, waiting for a quick lift back to the campground so he could drive back with the RV and install the dead Vespa on the rack at its rear.
I was amazed how many cars drove past without stopping.
“Poor fellow,” the Irish man said with a chuckle, looking back at him. “Nobody’s going to stop for him.”
“That’s my husband,” I said, and explained the situation. Quickly, and kindly, they offered the ride we were waiting for.
Meanwhile I turned to watch the bison grazing as I continued to wait. He lifted his head to watch me in return, as I stood silently beside the odd red object. Slowly, he turned in my direction. I caught my breath.
Then, ungainly, he sat down and resumed staring placidly at me.
After a while someone else pulled up to look at him. “You waiting for someone?” the woman asked, and I explained.
“What a place to be stranded!” she said.
It was an odd and fairly lonely vigil, as the other tourists sailed past unconcerned. It must have been 25 minutes before I saw our little RV approaching from the north. Most of that time, the bison and I had been gazing at each other from a certain distance.
My husband and I busied ourselves reinstalling the Vespa on the back of the RV, and then climbed into the cab. “Oh, look,” he said. “The bison has turned away.”
I know it’s sentimental, but I fancied that, rather than being a threat, he had been guarding me.
Just after we pulled onto the road, the heavens opened. Other campers told us later that we had missed a rainstorm at the campground. Amazingly, during the whole excursion, neither of us felt a drop of rain.
As night was falling, I enjoyed myself for a long time beside the campfire, looking over in the direction of the Vespa on the back of the camper–both of us sitting at rest and doing absolutely nothing at all.
What a delight to have such a peaceful day in Yellowstone Park! The woman was right: It was a great place to be stranded–and a privilege to spend a little time up (almost) close and personal with one of the few wild creatures in our general neighborhood that would never be seen passing within view of my dining room window.
I’m so grateful to my husband for suggesting that brief getaway, the perfect start to another busy summer season.