Rethinking Remoteness

Desolate? Isolated? Not the right image at all.

Like others, I have often described Dubois as remote. But a trip to Laramie last week has inspired a change of perspective. I may have been giving a false impression all this time.

Perhaps when I write “remote,” readers who don’t know the area have a mental image that is completely mistaken. Let me describe that kind of remote more precisely. That is what I drove last week, and not at all what defines Dubois.

It’s a five-hour drive to Laramie, where I had a meeting at the University — down 287 to Rawlins and then across I-80 eastward for about 80 miles. To most Wyoming residents, this is not a great distance.

I’ve come to enjoy knowing the names of the landmarks as well as I used to know the names of subway stops on the F train in Manhattan. They are so evocative: Burris. Crowheart. Lander. Sweetwater Station. Jeffrey City (of which more later). Split Rock. And perhaps my favorite: Muddy Gap, which has almost nothing to commend it except a descriptive name and a turn in the road.

Most times I enjoy driving across the rather desolate expanse between Lander and Rawlins, but in December it’s no trivial undertaking–especially if you’re driving alone.

The crosswinds out of the West between Sweetwater Station and Muddy Gap are often arm-numbingly strong, with nothing on that high prairie to stop them. I checked the weather apps carefully before committing to the trip, and made sure I had plenty of gas before heading south out of Lander.

This is the same country where scores of Mormon pioneers perished when they were halted by snow in November 1856 during their westward trek toward Utah. (The exact number who died at Martin’s Cove near Split Rock along today’s highway 287 is unknown.)

After Rawlins, I’d head east toward Laramie on Interstate 80. I have a sort of pity for people who say they have been to Wyoming, when all they have done is drive Interstate 80 between Cheyenne and Salt Lake City. Hugging the southern border of the state, it travels through almost nothing but sand and sagebrush. You see nothing of the spectacular beauty of our state on that long, boring journey.

The trip toward Laramie was uneventful, and I had a very pleasant stay. But the return trip on Friday the 13th was a different matter. The forecast called for no snowfall, but it did warn of high winds. And the road was slick. There were signs forbidding travel by light high-profile vehicles.

We crawled at 45 miles per hour most of the way west toward Rawlins and even slower in the first few northbound miles on 287. Sometimes vision was obscured by clouds of windborne snow. I saw two semi trucks blown over on their sides. I nearly turned back to spend the night in Rawlins.

I’m glad I didn’t. Somewhere before Muddy Gap, I noticed that the sedan ahead of me had gained lots of distance. The road was dry, and the wind had forgotten to blow. I turned Sirius XM back on, and after a while I noticed that I was sometimes driving with one hand.

As I was passing Split Rock, and thinking about the Mormons, I began to muse about that idea of remoteness. Just ahead was Jeffrey City, a former uranium mining town that nearly died but began to revive recently. The motel has reopened, but someone told me today that even if he had no choice, he’d drive on.

I pulled off to take just the right picture. Now this may be what people think of when you hear the words “remote” and “Wyoming” in the same context.

See the abandoned apartment buildings. Feel the wind howling across the empty prairie. Hear the coyotes at night under that huge, boundless sky. Imagine the drive north to Lander or south to Rawlins, the next places to buy gas or groceries.

In the long run, it wasn’t a bad drive at all. Rather than the dirty gray walls of a subway tunnel, I saw cattle crowding a gate waiting for their feed. I saw many large birds riding on the updrafts. I saw a large herd of wild horses on the right, not long after I stopped to take this picture.

Well before sunset, I reached the welcoming streets of Dubois, which were lined with open shops as usual, and busy with cars on a Friday evening. Our town is cradled in a narrow valley between two mountain ranges, which may funnel the wind but also give a sense of shelter. It is little more than an hour’s drive to any of 3 larger towns, and those drives are both beautiful, with varied landscapes and visual landmarks to engage the eyes and the mind.

I think I will stop calling Dubois remote. Maybe it felt remote when I first came here from the city, but it doesn’t any more. There’s a much better term, and finding it will require further thought.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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On Learning How to Be

I had so much else to do! And then I saw this sign.

It was Saturday, the last day of November. The next day would be the start of Advent, that season of penance which, in the words of my favorite spiritual guide, is meant “to get you better fit for what’s to come, by cleaning you and trimming you and training you.”

Winter had arrived suddenly, like an unwelcome in-law, dropping nearly a foot of snow. It was difficult to see the lines on the highway as I drove toward town.

This was not what I had planned for the day. I had emails to respond to and documents to prepare. But I found myself diverted, to help a snowbound friend whose car was stuck in her driveway.

I had volunteered to help, but I was rebelling. I had so much else to do!

And then I saw this sign. The complete message used to read “Be alert. Deer on highway.” I don’t know why, but for several days it had been conveying this truncated, existential message. That morning, it gave me pause.

Simply be. That brought to mind the words of author Eckhard Tolle, whose focus is on the meaning of being, and especially of being in the moment.

“Whatever the present moment contains,” he wrote, “accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.”

Maybe I sighed. Anyway, I drove on in a new frame of mind towards Superfoods, to do what my friend had scheduled for that time. I put on the apron and began to greet people coming in the door, to thank those who slipped something into the slot in the bucket and then to ring the little red bell.

Perhaps echoing the next word that was missing from that electronic highway sign, I felt unusually alert.

Neighbors stamped snow off their boots and opened heavy scarves as they passed my stool. There was lots of chatter with the cashiers.

All roads east and southbound, I heard, had been closed by snow on this morning two days after Thanksgiving. Not only was my friend snowbound in her own home; some people who had come to visit our town for the weekend were now trapped here, and kept away from theirs.

There were various responses to this predicament. I overheard one young man who came to visit his parents, and would now have to miss something important back at work. I wished he could have seen that sign. “Worry pretends to be necessary,” Tolle has written, “but serves no useful purpose.”

Someone else inquired how to get a permit to cut a Christmas tree in the forest. “You’ve come all the way from Casper to get a Christmas tree?” I asked, and then realized: Being trapped, he’d decided to make the best of it. I wished him a tree full of good memories.

That day I never did get to those other things I had meant to do. Instead, we tried to dig my friend’s car out of the snow. The drifts were soft as powdered sugar; the snow sparkled as I tossed it off the shovel. Our effort was doomed to failure; her car spun endlessly on a patch of ice concealed by the white.

As the light waned into evening, we made room for her in our own back seat and drove off toward town to enjoy the Christmas concert by songwriter Skip Ewing. Skip and his wife Linda made Dubois their home town last year. Once again, he had decided to welcome the season in our company, among his new friends.

As he introduced his songs, Skip sometimes bragged about the famous people who had recorded them or the famous places they had been performed. He’s so likeable that we are willing to overlook this, because he surely knows his way around a guitar, and something about his manner makes us feel like neighbors rather than an audience. If anything could make me live in the moment that evening, it was his unspoken invitation to add our own voices to his in singing “Silent Night.”

Welcome, Advent. The snow has returned, and with it the long quiet evenings in my home several miles outside a remote small town in Wyoming. As the frantic holiday season approaches, I can mentally rebel against these realities of winter. Or (constitutionally A-type ex-urbanite that I am) I can use them as reminders that there are realities more important than my constant busy-ness.

Like the snow, I can drift sometimes. Perhaps exactly when I feel I have too much to do, I will remember to emulate the brilliant stars in the dark sky outside, and simply be.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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