Where no passport is needed and most natives speak English.
Where no passport is needed and most natives speak English.
Did National Geographic really call Dubois WY the most remote town in the lower 48? How remote is it, actually?
[Taking the chance for a spring break, I’m re-posting this piece of barely investigative journalism from a while ago, which inquired into a popular bit of rural mythology.]
Google “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?
Author 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 closer 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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Images in words and pixels …
As the snow builds outside and we settle in to await the end of winter, take a deep breath and enjoy a few vivid haiku poems inspired by life in Dubois. Thanks to Mary Ellen Honsaker for the privilege of posting them.
Fingers spread, stove’s warmth,
curled dog at feet in fire’s glow
log’s gift understood
Red cliffs lead sheep down
like a shepherd from the fold
watered, fed, they climb
River, glacier, wind
each flowed through my valley home
sculptors of my heart
We welcomed the arrival, with concern
One day last week, some bighorn sheep wandered into town. This was astonishing.
Many deer live in town year-round, but the sheep live up-mountain, off in the wilderness. The Bighorn Sheep Center offers guided tours up Whiskey Basin to look for them, but they’re not supposed to be easy to find.
People are used to spotting them on the cliffs across the river from the Painted Hills subdivision, or sometimes down on the highway by the red rocks at the edge of the Reservation. They may be the mascot for the school’s sports teams, but we don’t expect them to show up down here in town.
I was inside the hardware store when they came past. “Aren’t those sheep?” someone gasped, and we went outside. There they were, ambling unconcerned across the slope beyond the yard
Many people told me they had never seen the sheep in town before. Someone in the supermarket had a great shot of the herd behind the big brown “Dubois Wyoming” sign beside the highway east of town. Later they were spotted in the cemetery.
Why did they come down to visit? Sara Domek, the Executive Director of the Sheep Center, chuckled at the question, in the same bemused way a parent might talk about a toddler: Who knows what they’ll get into their heads?
It’s anybody’s guess, she said. Maybe they liked the grass in the cemetery. Maybe it was because of the cold snap. Or predators could have driven them down.
Predators were the favored theory in town, but in truth nobody really knows what’s going on with the sheep. Their numbers are declining, though, and nobody is more concerned about that than Domek and local wildlife experts.
The Bighorn Center has launched a series of forums in town, in collaboration with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and other agencies, to help seek explanations for the troubling decline in the survival of bighorn lambs.
Game and Fish has donated $300,000 to a study of bighorn sheep lamb mortality. “We are at a critical point,” said biologist Greg Anderson at the last session on February 11, as quoted in the Dubois Frontier. The sheep “are not in a good condition,” he added.
The department is focusing on three major suspects in the early death of lambs: habitat and nutrition, disease, and predators.
The excursion to town might be one of the “behavioral changes” in the lower winter range than Anderson said predators are causing. But whether that is linked to actual mortality is unknown, at least for now.
So if the visit from the bighorns was a charming surprise, it was also rather sobering.
© Lois Wingerson, 2019
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