Field Notes From the Far West

Where no passport is needed and most natives speak English.

 

pile of rocks on ocean beachI will view this, I told myself as we set off, as an interesting journey to an exotic foreign land.

It is, after all, fairly alien. The political system seems to be quite different. The culture and customs are, from all I have heard, strange and remarkable compared to our simple, humble, straightforward way of life in Wyoming.

Their culinary habits are somewhat unusual from our perspective, having an almost limitless access to fresh produce at any time. Some residents don’t eat any meat at all.

The people here seem to view us as equally alien. “Wyoming?” they say, after asking where we’re from. And then: “You drove all that way?” (As if none of my kind have ventured this far before.) And then, invariably, nothing more. I feel some empathy for the Lewis and Clark team; these natives seem less interested in my culture than I am in theirs.

ocean beachWe have focused our travels this month on the predominant feature of their habitat that is entirely unfamiliar to us in Wyoming: the seaside. Having attained it, of course, I had to take a hike on the beach, early on the first morning after our arrival.

Which revealed the first and most elementary evidence that I am a stranger in this land: The natives know that in the morning, the tide is in, and there is, in fact, precious little beach to hike.

(Who knew to think about tides? Evidently I should have done more research.)

I strode happily along, enjoying the sound of the surf at my left as it crashed onto the shore. I looked down, as always when I hike, watching for interesting objects at my feet, and entirely oblivious to the waves that were creating that gentle, insistent murmur nearby.

sneakers being washed in tide

Once over my surprise, I ventured on.

The rocks at my feet were interesting, but not noticeably different than those I can find on any hike back home. After all, our own landscape was once, millennia in the past, also at the edge of a great ocean. Like many I find down walking any draw back home, most of these stones were washed smooth and round.

dead sea creatures on beachThe flora and fauna are quite different, of course. As were the carcasses of dead creatures I found on the beach. Was this an animal before it washed up here, or some sort of plant? I have no idea.

What looks like a stick may also have been some sort of creature once. It bore more resemblance to a tube than to a branch.

Many of the true branches washed ashore had been buffed as smooth as the round stones.

I picked one up to bring home for a walking stick.

swimmer offshore

In due course, I noticed what appeared to be a creature some distance offshore. Back home, I am adept at identifying rocks that look like bears. But I’m not familiar with sea creatures. As this was bobbing in the water rather than being constantly washed over, I decided it could not be a rock.

I’ve heard there are sea otters to the south, and later we would see elephant seals basking and molting on the shore. But what was this?

Only after I took the picture did I notice the strange, long-necked shorebird in the middle of the image, in the foreground. I believe it was a curlew.

surfer in ocean riding waveAs I walked farther up the beach, the mystery of the sea creature solved itself. You can see another there in this image, on the right.

This is referred to as a surfer.

The species is never encountered in Wyoming. Having just arrived from the land of deep snow, however, I can approximately imagine the sensation of riding the wave. I have done something similar on skis. You have to become one with the surface beneath your feet.

I wonder: When the surfer’s legs and feet fail him, is the landing softer or harder than a wipeout in cold white powder?

fisherman on ocean beachReturning south on the wet sand, I noticed a species I recognize well from back home.

Not being an angler of any sort, I have no frame of reference. I wonder how his experience — and his catch — differs from that of those I see along the Wind River, similarly kitted out.

His line seemed to be tangled, which did make me wonder about the wind. That, we know about.

I will say this about California: Most of the people here speak excellent English, and it requires no passport to visit. The natives are exceedingly friendly (if perhaps sometimes a bit distant to drivers of cars with Wyoming plates).

rocking chair and view of oceanThe landscape is as spectacular as our own, although much different. Notably, it is capable of producing excellent wine.

I commend the seaside destination as an alternative way to contemplate realities deeper than the mundane details of daily life. In Wyoming, I am drawn to the mountains that seem ageless and unchanging, the sight of which always brings a long glimpse into the incomprehensible past long before I arrived.

The ocean offers a contrasting vision of eternity. It renews itself endlessly as I watch, second after second, rolling always to shore, and will do so long after I am gone.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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

Remotely and Wildly True: Of Dubois and Distance

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.]

Highway

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?

Overlook7Author 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 TwoOceanPasscloser 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

You can sign up at the top of the right column at http://www.duboiswyoming.com to see new posts on LivingDubois via email.

Dubois in 5-7-5 Time

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

 

 

 

redrocks

 

Red cliffs lead sheep down
like a shepherd from the fold
watered, fed, they climb

 

Gorge

 

 

 

River, glacier, wind
each flowed through my valley home
sculptors of my heart

A Surprise Visit to the Cemetery

We welcomed the arrival, with concern

bighorn sheep Dubois WY

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.

bighorn sheep statue

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.

bighorn sheep

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

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