The electronic zipper sign on Stalnaker Street said the chariot races had been cancelled. On a frigid weekend in February, there was not much else for entertainment. So most of us turned up at one point or another at the preview of the big estate sale.
Many of the people there, I suspect, were (like me) more curious than actually acquisitive.
These were the belongings of a wealthy rancher who passed away suddenly sometime last year. I met him only once, briefly. Sometimes I saw his helicopter churning along, low above the valley on a summer morning, checking on his longhorns.
The lots to be auctioned were spread across two adjoining barn-like buildings. “Yes, all items will be sold!” called out the estate sale manager on a bullhorn. “Everything has to go!”
We wandered up and down the aisles between the tables, perusing what he couldn’t take with him.
Four or five saddles. Shelf after shelf of ammunition, and rifles to match.
Many pieces of heavy furniture made of lodgepole pine. Quite a few leather recliners.
One or two machine-made quilts, with matching shams. Lots and lots of dishes. A box of mugs imprinted with the logo of his ranch. Disposable aluminum trays filled with kitchen utensils.
Many unopened boxes of doorknobs. (Why?) Dozens and dozens of identical brand new 8 x 11 wooden picture frames. (Why?)
A nice hand-painted salad bowl. A charming small cutting board. An interesting little sculpture. But I didn’t need any of it, and I knew I’d probably have to buy an entire lot to gain a single vaguely tempting item.
It felt slightly voyeuristic to examine all this stuff. A kind of unintended intimacy. But hey, he’s gone.
“You know what the lesson is?” Dale asked as I squeezed past him. “Don’t die.”
“No,” I replied. “The message is: Die suddenly so that you don’t have to worry about it at all.”
When I came out of the bedroom on Saturday morning, the first thing my husband said to me after “Good morning” was “I’ve decided not to go to the auction.”
All he might have wanted were some of the metal baker’s racks that he had seen, disassembled and stacked, with the poles piled separately. They would have come in handy in the storage unit. But if he bought them online instead, he could be sure the parts matched.
I hear that about half the town turned up at the auction, and that it took all day. We went up-mountain snowshoeing instead. It was beautiful, and made me feel very much alive.
The famous song writer could live anywhere. He moved here.
What’s the force behind the magnet that draws people to
Dubois and holds them here?
It’s no challenge to capture part of it: the spectacular wilderness landscape. Photographers capture that all the time, and scenes from this valley are all over Instagram. Another pull is the history, from the tectonic collisions to Indians and cowboys and Butch Cassidy, from mountain men to homesteaders and lumberjacks.
But there’s one special pull which is nearly impossible to describe. You have to feel it for yourself. Tourists responding to a survey last year said they liked the people, and called Dubois “friendly.” A hiking buddy told me that she retired to Dubois because the people here had grabbed her and held her close.
Skip Ewing, the country singer and songwriter, calls it the “heart.” He should know, because the heart is his business, and his passion.
Skip says he felt that tug most strongly in 2004, during his
benefit concert for the new medical clinic. He decided to auction off a shirt
that cowboy Ty Murray was wearing when he won a rodeo championship. Skip
suggested that people in the audience might pool their bids and donate the
shirt to the clinic, rather than one lucky bidder taking it home for bragging
Together, for no personal reward, people gave away $5,000 for the shirt to benefit the community. It now hangs in a frame in the clinic.
“That gave me a sense for the kind of heart, the generosity of people here,” he said. “That’s the same kind of heart Dubois had when I first came here.”
“If we can be part of that heart,” he added, “I’m about that.”
So Skip and his partner, photographer Linda Gordon, have settled down in Dubois. They’re in a position to live anywhere in the world they want to, Skip told me. And they’re here.
Skip doesn’t throw his credentials around (which wouldn’t gain him many fans here, anyway). But they’re impressive: Five of Skip Ewing’s country love songs have placed in the top 20s on the country-music charts. In 2000, he was named Songwriter of the year by Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), and he’s won the Country Music Association Triple Play Award for three number 1 songs within a year.
They’re the kind of love songs that somehow grab you where it hurts a bit, like “Love, Me” and “Little Houses.” (The announcers wouldn’t credit Skip, the songwriter, of course. They’d mention the singers, names like Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, Kenny Chesney, and Reba McIntyre. )
I ran into Skip and Linda at the Perch coffee shop sometime around Thanksgiving. He looked vaguely familiar, and I was puzzled to see him chatting with the locals as if he knew them (which he did). I felt I ought to recognize him, but I didn’t (it’s my failing to have a poor memory for faces as well as names). Someone introduced him as Skip Ewing and, city girl though I used to be, at least I recalled his name.
Probably about a decade ago, I had heard Skip at a concert in the back room at the Rustic Pine after one of his retreats for song-writers. But I had no idea that his was the creative mind behind some of the songs I liked best, after I began listening to country music on the radio.
The workshops (he called them “Horse and Writer” retreats) brought would-be songwriters to the Lazy L&B Ranch up East Fork, which he first visited when he wanted to give his five-year-old daughter a good place to ride horses. They went on for about a decade. I never saw Skip after that one concert, but he had been coming back to Dubois, whether there were retreats or not.
As the child in a military family and then a country singer, Skip Ewing has traveled widely. Quite a while ago, he sold his home in Nashville. He and Linda had multiple homes and were traveling a lot when Linda got a job offer that made them consider settling down somewhere.
They asked themselves whether that was what they really wanted. Skip had this dream that involved horses, which he isn’t ready to talk about yet. Eventually, they decided to settle here.
Grandson of a thoroughbred rancher, Skip learned to love horses as much as he loved country music.“The more time I spend on horses, he says, “the happier I am.” He hints that horses will have an important part in the next phase of his life’s work, but for the moment he intends to use his music to help the town.
Just after I ran into Skip and Linda at the Perch, they began shooting the first of five videos about Dubois that he has posted on Facebook. They are long, leisurely conversations with people in the town.
“This is Dubois, Wyoming, my home town now. I love it here,” he opens in the first one. “I love it here!”
He was already booked for his early December Christmas
concert at the Dennison Lodge, which attracted fans from as far away as Texas,
Utah, Louisiana, and California. His goal seems to be not so much
self-promotion as planting firm roots in this new ground.
Skip told me that, when he first visited Dubois, he knew he’d come to the right place almost as soon as the plane landed. This brought echoes of one my Skip Ewing favorites: “You Had Me From Hello.”
“… Your smile just captured me. You were in my future far as I could see And I don’t know how it happened but it happens still. You ask me if I love you, if I always will. Well, you had me from hello…”
But for Dubois, Mark Gordon might have been a New Englander
Last weekend, I heard Wyoming’s new governor delivering an address at a conference. Mark Gordon began with a virtual driving tour of the scenic wonders of our state. People would whoop as he mentioned their regions – Devil’s Tower, Thermopolis, Lander.
What better way to endear yourself to a Wyoming audience
than to extol the beauties of our state? Gordon was preaching to the choir, for
I waited for a mention of Dubois and a chance to call out. But
on his imaginary counter-clockwise circuit, Gordon veered away and entered Yellowstone from the
I sat back and sampled the little fruit tart in front of me.
Eventually, near the end of the speech, I did have a chance for my shout-out and it took me by surprise. Gordon drew toward his close by alluding to his father, and it was not the history I would have imagined. Fundamentally, Mark Gordon–the epitome of a devoted advocate of the spirit of the American West– is in Wyoming because his father fell in love with the West in Dubois.
Crawford Gordon (1917-2014) was given one of those patrician East-Coast names made up of two last names joined together. He grew up on a farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and went to Harvard University, where he earned a degree in economics.
The young Crawford could easily have taken a bank job and stayed on out East, and his son could have been born in Massachusetts. But he chose the tougher life of ranching in Wyoming. That’s because at the age of 15, Crawford visited CM Ranch in Dubois, where he developed a passion for the cowboy spirit and for rodeos. He had begun the evolution to the “Crow” Gordon he would be for the rest of his life.
For a while, young Crow Gordon rode the rodeo circuit. He won prizes at the Johnson County Fair and Cheyenne Frontier Days. I wonder what his parents thought.
That was long before Jerry Jeff Walker recorded these lyrics:
Why does he ride for the money? Why does he rope for half share? He’s losing his share, and he’s going nowhere … He must have gone crazy out there.
At the age of 30, Gordon settled with his wife and began ranching near Kaycee, Wyoming, in the northeast of the state. The new governor grew up on that ranch.
I had a brief conversation with Mark Gordon last weekend. He is urbane and engaging, but he also has the demeanor of a Wyoming cowboy – soft-spoken and easy-going. Without inquiring, I took him for a rancher, that combination of businessman and farmer that is so prevalent among Wyoming politicians.
But like his father, Mark Gordon was educated back East. He went to boarding school in New Hampshire and college in Vermont. After graduating — and I’m sure skipping his father’s dude ranch step, as he did grow up out here — he returned to Wyoming and began ranching.
When I spoke with the governor, of course I said I was from Dubois (not, strictly speaking, the truth). “You know,” he said, “my father created a silent film when he was at the CM Ranch. You should ask Twila Blakeman about it.”
I called the former Mayor yesterday, and she welcomed me to
drop by for a copy of the film. When Gordon gave it to her, she uploaded it to
her laptop, and then gave copies to the Dubois Museum, the CM Ranch and, yesterday,
Called “Deadwood Gold,” the film shot in the 1930s is grainy and funny, impromptu and crowded with extras. Evidently Crow Gordon had inspired everyone staying at the ranch to dress up and pitch in.
It’s a 30-minute shoot-em-up Western that has all the classic features: a stagecoach, a gold find, a villain and a sassy lady, and a posse that leap into the stirrup, always galloping on the run off into the hills or back into the corral.
One of the “stars” is the founder of the CM Ranch, Charlie
Moore, who was the son of a local old-timer. He went to the University of
Michigan (my alma mater) for law school, hated it, and returned to open a ranch
where he could impress young boys from the East with the independence and
adventure of the West.
I don’t know precisely how Crow Gordon came to stay at the
CM Ranch. Very likely his parents were among those whom Charlie Moore met
during his business trips back east to promote his ranch.
In the case of the elder Gordon, he clearly achieved his
objective. According to an obituary, Gordon’s passions were horses, ranching,
rodeo – and opera. Like Charlie Moore and like so many who live out here (including
his son, the new governor) he was obviously a fascinating hybrid of the rugged
and the refined.
So often you find interesting little surprises as you learn about these Wyoming people. I’m still learning that lesson myself.