Remembering Patrick

Likeable? Not always. But remarkable.

Another piece has torn away from the wonderful crazy quilt that is Dubois. It’s difficult to believe he’s really gone.

His particular fragment in that work of art was frayed at the edges and rather dark. But at the center, it was lustrous and elegantly patterned.

Patrick would probably be unhappy if he could know that I am posting this. He was certainly a private person. But as I write that, I can hear his gruff laugh sounding from a distant place. “I don’t care what people think,” he would say. (Was it true?)

Many people knew him only as a chef, which indeed he was, par excellence. I must have met Patrick first (but not formally) when he was running the restaurant-deli called Paya with Barbara. That was when we first moved to Dubois.

Its Facebook page is still live, with tempting pictures and descriptions of that day’s offering on the steam table, and the comments.

“Best pizza in Wyoming.”

“There is no lunch like this anywhere.”

On this very blog, I myself said that Paya’s pizza was better than any I had found in Brooklyn.

They held on for years, but managing that busy main-street restaurant slowly ran them (and, I presume, their marriage) ragged. One of the last Google reviews was a complaint that vividly reveals Barbara’s frayed nerves. Paya closed in 2014.

Afterwards, Patrick tried opening another deli with another cook. When that didn’t work out, he had a succession of jobs in restaurants around town, did occasional catering, and then just stopped. He loved to prepare food, and to talk about the preparation of food, but he wasn’t on duty any more.

I would see him on the street, at the coffee shop or in the supermarket. Often, he would make some random comment that sounded nasty. I found his acerbic behavior interesting. It was as if he was testing to see if he could drive me away. I got to throwing it back at him.

At least once, Patrick complemented me about my residual New York City attitude in the course of saying that it must alienate some others. In a way, I felt like a kindred spirit. In another way, I wanted to defy his challenge.

We began to meet for lunch, and gradually I learned about his past. His mother had been French. His parents were diplomats. He had lived somewhere in Africa as a child, and in Vietnam as a teenager during the war. He well recalled their escape as US forces left the country. I wish I could remember more details about his past. He would surely tease me for forgetting them.

Patrick said that he was often dizzy and no longer had the stamina or the focus to work, which sounded like malingering. But he began to share details of his long series of visits to doctors in search of an explanation, and eventually I learned the truth. He had difficulty describing the diagnosis, but he handed me a scrap of paper on which he had written the name.

That’s how I learned he was having a series of small strokes, perhaps a hereditary problem but certainly one aggravated by his smoking. “I’m not going to stop,” he said several times, defiantly. “It’s about the only thing I can enjoy now.” The prognosis was not good, and he knew it.

By that point, he could no longer focus his eyes well enough to read or watch a screen. He never knew when he would have enough energy to cook, which he would have loved to do. Basically, all he could do any more was sit around the apartment, and he felt trapped in his life. About the only thing he could be sure to do would be to take his dog, Jasper, down by the river for a run.

When Patrick finally welcomed me to visit him at home, I felt I got to know him. You would never have guessed what was in his rooms above the laundromat: The little cast iron ship sitting on the woodstove humidifying the air through its smokestacks. The African face mask. The vast art deco armoire. I could see the fine antiques and paintings, the eclectic objects he had discovered at the Opportunity Shop, and his beloved jungle of houseplants.

I’d admire one painting, and he would tell me its history. “You must see this,” he would add, pulling something off a shelf to show me, or leading me into a back room to see another painting.

One recent Tuesday, I walked up the narrow stairs and opened the door to confront the usual rambunctious greeting from Jasper. I was expected, but Patrick hadn’t come to the corridor to greet me as usual. I found him sleeping soundly in his big chair.

I made plenty of noise as I calmed Jasper down, hoping to disturb him to alertness. But when I walked back to the chair, he was still breathing deeply. Needs his sleep, I told myself, and left quietly. I could return when he was awake.

“I stopped by,” I texted a few minutes later, “but you were sleeping so soundly I didn’t want to disturb you. Phone when you see this, please.”

He never called. I decided he must be in one of his moods, and I called to leave a voice message. Late that afternoon, someone called me with the most unwelcome news.

In the days that followed, when I said that I was sad, I began to learn about other people who had also cared about him. I had had no idea how many there were, and I suspect he didn’t, either.

© Lois Wingerson, 2021

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Lost in Search of the Oregon Trail

Unlike Stuart’s party, we had a guidebook and a topo map. Nonetheless …

Doubletrack trail near South Pass, Wyoming

This happened a while ago. It was one of those warm and sunny late-autumn days that call out “Last chance?” and propel you to get outdoors right now, and go somewhere, anywhere.

We had chosen to drive beyond Lander and then southwest. We were going to find the spot where, 209 years earlier almost to the day, Robert Stuart and his fellow explorers had camped for the night after they finally reached the legendary “shorter trace to the south” across the Rockies. Now known as South Pass, what Stuart called a “handsome low gap” leads widely and gradually over the Continental Divide, accessible to wagons and therefore, much later, to hundreds of thousands of emigrants heading west.

It had not been easy to find. Returning to St. Louis from the Northwest, Stuart and his band of Astorian fur traders had a long and arduous journey, traveling on foot when they could not obtain horses. They endured periods of starvation, angry disagreements, unsettling encounters with natives, misdirections (intentional or otherwise), and perilous, unnecessary detours.

Book covers: Across the Great Divide and Day Hikes in the Wind River Range

We’d learned about all this in detail from Across the Great Divide, the biography of Robert Stuart written by his descendant, author and chronicler of Wyoming history Layton McCartney, a former part-time resident of Dubois whom we got to know briefly after we moved here from New York City. We now live close enough to see the exact historic spot he had described, and we set out to find it.

Unlike Stuart and his fellows, we knew the way in general, having driven the highway from Lander to Farson many times. But we had never crossed any part of that familiar sage and sand plain on foot. Nor had we ever before paid any particular attention to the Oregon Buttes, the huge rocky formations that were a landmark to all those westward-bound pioneers who passed by along the Oregon and Mormon trails.

“Follow the Oregon Buttes Road 2.9 miles to the crossing of a small, dirt two-track road,” directed our little red guide book, Day Hiking the Wind River Range. “Park here and begin walking to the right (west).”

Simple enough instructions, it seems. They were certainly much clearer than the ambiguous directions in reports from earlier explorers and rough translations of communications from natives, which were all that Stuart and his crew of explorers had to aid their search for an easier passage back east. We had the little guidebook, the biography, a topo map, and a general feel for the area (but no GPS, lacking signal). Nonetheless, we were puzzled from the outset.

The dirt double-track that headed west from Oregon Buttes Road was actually 2.1 miles south of the highway, not 2.9 miles as the guidebook said. There was no such track at 2.9 miles. So we got out of the car at 2.1 miles and walked west, already uncertain (as Stuart and his party almost always were) whether we were going the right way.

View of Wind River Mountains from South Pass
Southern terminus of the Wind River Range at South Pass

To our right, we could easily see what Stuart called the “southern terminus of the mighty Wind River Range”—the same range that towers over Dubois.

After a few hundred yards, another track took off to the left. We chose that direction, partly because we saw RVs parked farther along the other track, to the right.

We were looking for trail markers, not campsites, and there were good signs off to the left—specifically, these concrete markers which seemed designed to point the way to the old pioneer trails.

Markers designating Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail on South Pass

Our guidebook promised an easy 1.5 mile hike, marked at the 0.7-mile point with a fenced area surrounding two stone markers erected to designate the actual pass and the Oregon Trail, and another commemorating Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding, the first women on this trail, who came this way with their husbands in 1836.

We didn’t have pedometers, but we did have a general sense of how long it takes to hike ¾ of a mile on the flat. We passed through a gate in a barbed-wire fence, and we had seen the trail markers. But there was nothing like a monument to pioneer women.

However, looking at the map, we could easily identify our original goal: the eastern slope of a hill immediately northwest of present-day Pacific Springs. There, the Stuart party were forced to camp. As McCartney wrote, “the wind and snow hampered their progress” when, after a 15-mile hike, they could easily see the gap between the mountains just ahead.

We stopped to consult the map, still trying to decide where we were compared to where they must have been. Pacific Springs was clearly marked. The east-facing slope in question had to be the shallow one, distant but easily identifiable, off to our right and ahead.

It must have been disheartening beyond description for the men to reach that spot, finally to see the gap ahead, and not be able to attain it because of the Wyoming’s unpredictable autumn weather. In passing, it left a layer of snow on their blankets that vanished the next day. We recognize this weather pattern.

I took a picture, and we traveled on. But where were the legendary deep tracks of the Oregon Trail? We abandoned the track we had been following and walked overland across the sagebrush flats, in the general direction of that slope, heading toward a deep culvert on our side of the ridge.

And there, just up a rise, we found the fence, the two rough stone markers, and the unmistakable deep ruts of the original Oregon Trail. This is only one of many sets of deep wagon ruts in the area, we learned later, because of course not all of the 19th-century migrants followed exactly the same path westward across this desolate, flat country.

I hiked the deep ruts back toward our car, passing a fifth-wheeler and a pickup along the way. More recent off-road vehicles than covered wagons must have helped carve these grooves, I decided.

When the Stuart party crossed here, they took one last unfortunate detour. The path not chosen would have led them relatively straight northward to the Sweetwater River, and on toward the Missouri River and St. Louis. Unfortunately, near their camp they had discovered a fresh and easily identified trail left by Crow natives, whom they had reason to fear. So they turned south instead.

Oregon Buttes

After taking time to climb one of the Oregon Buttes, which are much larger and more imposing than they appear from the modern highway, the men headed into the Red Desert. Layton McCartney depicted this as “four and a half million acres of rainbow colored badlands, towering buttes, high desert, and shifting, 10-foot-high sand dunes.”

This vast and forbidding terrain is basically a huge bowl created as the Continental Divide splits and then rejoins, noted on Wyoming maps as the Great Divide Basin. It has no outward-bound watersheds and is remarkably barren–nothing like the rolling, high plains the party had anticipated from the reports of other explorers.

Red Desert. Wyoming

“Stuart and his companions might have been in the Sahara Desert,” McCartney added. They wandered for many days without water, before finally turning northward to find a stream that led them to the Missouri, and civilization.

Having returned to our car after a pleasant jaunt on a lovely afternoon, we headed briefly in the direction of the Red Desert. The dirt road led bumpily downhill and quickly became impassable. We turned back toward the highway, going in the direction Stuart should have chosen.

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