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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A Quick Jaunt into Dubois’ Back Yard

A view of the Park at closing time, with few visitors and many busy bison.

View from Artists Paint Pots, Yellowstone National Park

I know that two kinds of people read Living Dubois: Friends and neighbors who are curious what I will say next, and people who either used to come here, come sometimes, or have never been here at all.

This post is for the latter. (I hope the former will indulge me in sharing what they too can see, whenever they wish.)

It’s a good thing we decided to zip over to Yellowstone last Friday for another look around. The Park closed the next day, one day earlier than announced, because of inclement weather. Friday was beautiful, as you can see in the photo.

Any time of year, you have to leave Dubois early to get past the south gate in time to see anything at all inside the Park during a day trip. In summer, that’s because of the long wait at the entrance. In late autumn, it’s because the days are so short.

We turned out of our driveway at first light (this was two days before fall-back into Standard time) and pulled through the South Entrance about 90 minutes later, with no cars at all in sight.

Yellowstone Lake



When setting aside this vast region for a park, its early proponents intended to share the experience of wilderness with the general public. Ironically, for most visitors today that experience is often dominated by crowds, traffic jams, and hikes through parking lots.

On Friday, we saw 3 or 4 cars between Grant Village and Yellowstone Lake, where we pulled off for a view. Looking east across the lake, we saw a mirror image of the sky. Looking north, we could see distant mountains capped with snow.

I wanted to see Hayden Valley again, because we haven’t been that way in a while. Swiveling my gaze from side to side as my husband drove, I was alert for wildlife, but didn’t see any. The mudpots were steaming as usual.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park

Rounding a curve just past Sulphur Cauldron, we came across a herd of bison, as thick on the ground as the cattle in our own valley on any summer’s day.

As you see, they were busy preparing for winter. I stepped quickly outside the car to catch a closeup of the beautiful beasts that were grazing right beside the road. No need for concern about aggression: They did not interrupt their important work to lift their heads and look back at me.

Farther on, the route passes the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We chose to stop and stretch our legs at the Brink of the Falls, having never yet done that (at least in recent memory).

The parking lot was a blank grid of parallel lines. We slid inbetween two of them at the front.

Brink of the Falls near Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

A short stroll down a paved pathway leads to a set of sturdy wooden stairs that bring you down to a wide platform over the cascade. We walked in beautiful solitude. The enchanting view ought to justify a longer hike, I was thinking.

As we returned to the car, someone else was just arriving at the empty parking lot. A man who shares our general demographic profile stepped out of the passenger side.

“Is it worth the walk?” he asked. Incredible. I was shaking my head as we backed away. If he couldn’t bother to actually look at anything, why did he come at all?

As Dunraven Pass is closed to traffic until next spring, we had 3 choices: Retrace our steps south past Yellowstone Lake, exit via the East Entrance and take the long way home through Cody, Thermopolis, and Riverton (there wouldn’t be much Park left to see if we exited by that route), or continue down the familiar route past Madison Junction toward Old Faithful. Because traffic was nil and we had plenty of time, we chose to continue westward and then southward, around the lower loop.

Thermal in Artists Paint Pots, Yellowstone National Park

This route passes my favorite feature in the Park: the Artists’ Paint Pots. These are the brilliantly colored thermal ponds that led people back East to accuse the early explorers who described them of either fantasizing or fabricating.

I wish I had caught an image of one of the red ponds to contrast with this blue one, but we had traded crowds for chill and I did not feel like dawdling as long as usual here. The trail around the paint pots is close to a mile, and I was as glad as ever to stretch my legs and stride, but loath to linger.

The surreal green of the moss really leaps out at you against the iridescent colors of the ponds at this time of year, when the rest of the vegetation is brown.

Lewis River, Yellowstone National Park

On the west side of the loop, I was interested to see this river, the Firehole, surging almost up to its banks in late autumn.

It provided a startling contrast to the sad, flat muddy ponds we had seen earlier, sitting at the base of what is usually Jackson Lake. Fed by a completely different river system, and its natural waters enhanced by a dam on the Snake River, the lake feeds farms in Idaho.

Just a bit upstream, Lewis Lake was lovely and full. But the rain and snow runoff have been so sparse this year that the marinas on the Jackson Lake had to close because the dammed waters are claimed by the farms downstream. Who knows what this winter will bring?

We stopped at Old Faithful to eat our picnic lunch on a bench near the geyser. All of the concessions were closed, and it was chilly even in the sun. Old Faithful wasn’t scheduled for our lunch break, evidently, so we packed up and moved on toward the exit, headed for home.

I thought we were done with our sightseeing, but not so. At the intersection with Pilgrim Creek Road beyond the south entrance, inside Grand Teton National Park, we spotted this fellow.

There was no bear-jam, but a Park Ranger was on the spot to assure that nobody would approach the grizzly. He’s a young male, she told me, and he weighs about 300 pounds.

I’ve had rotten luck looking for bears from the car driving toward Jackson, although any number of friends have reported seeing them from the highway. Luckily, I’ve never seen one up close. I felt fortunate getting a glimpse of this fellow at this distance.

It’s a pleasure to tour Yellowstone. but most of the drive is like this: A paved channel through columns of tall pines.

Unless you spend all of your time in the concrete jungle, it’s tedium interspersed with moments of interest.

We passed through Grand Teton Park and took the left at Moran Junction toward Dubois.

This is where some tourists make their mistake coming from Jackson, when they miss the turn to Yellowstone and head east toward our house. Beyond Moran, the road widens quickly into broad meadows bordered by forest, with many distant views toward dramatic mountain peaks.

Pinnacles, Togwotee Pass, Wyoming

The misdirected tourists must think the gorgeous road over Togwotee Pass is part of the approach to Yellowstone. That’s understandable.

Told their mistake, they usually sigh and turn back. But to my way of thinking, the drive across the Pass is always the best part of the trip.

The Sunday Show: Roundup Time at the Buck’n’rail

… but you have to get lucky and be far from town on a chilly autumn afternoon

An adolescent girl, perhaps the one in this picture, climbed the slope toward the irrigation ditch near the fence where I sat, at the edge of our property. “They told me to tell you you’re not allowed to take pictures,” she said.

Returning from a hike on a raw and cloudy Sunday afternoon in October, I had heard whoops, hollers, and bellows from the valley just below. I guessed what was happening. It’s a sure sign of autumn when the cattle crowd that corral. I had stopped to watch the people racing around on horseback, driving the cattle in.

“Who’s in charge?” I asked. She mentioned two names I didn’t recognize.

“We’re rounding up the cattle in this valley for the people who own them,” she went on. “They do this every year.”

“I know,” I said. “I live here.”

I stopped taking pictures after that, and nobody in this one is identifiable. (I took the rest of these at other times.) But it’s difficult to imagine that I’m forbidden from taking pictures of the landscape adjacent to my own property. If the cattle have an issue, they may consult legal counsel.

I wonder why these folks objected. Perhaps they thought I was an animal-rights activist.

The reason for my interest is outright ignorance. I see cattle every (nonwinter) day from my windows, and I have seen cowboys in many movies riding around among cattle. But I have never watched an actual roundup in action. As you may recall, I was a city girl.

Tourists sometimes stop in town to ask where they can see real cowboys at work, and we locals glance at each other before responding politely. You’d have to get lucky, be fairly far from town, and probably not go looking for them on a lovely afternoon in midsummer. I got lucky one chilly Sunday in October, and I had that privilege.

They must have been rounding these cattle up all day, I thought. It’s a very long valley.

The neighbor’s five horses and a mule had gathered between me and the corral, sometimes looking up at me as they grazed. A woman bundled up in parka and scarf walked a toddler around by the hand among the three livestock trailers parked near the corral. Two small dogs trotted around outside the corral, busy as if on errands.

It was loud where I sat many yards away, so it must have been almost deafening for the people helping to herd the cattle. (I don’t say “cowboys” because a few of them were women and the others were not boys). The cattle were objecting loudly to being penned inside the corral, of course, not to mention the whinnying of the horses and the cowhands’ own yells and whistles.

As I took my perch on the fence, two men on horseback were expertly cutting one huge black beast out of the herd as the others were trapping the rest of the animals inside the corral. They drove it off to one side and out the gate. It went in the wrong direction, and they barked and shouted as they wheeled around and galloped toward it. It leaped one fence with surprising agility, then another, and wandered off toward the river.

Meanwhile, the other cowhands busied themselves inside the corral, urging their captives into one pen or the other. One of them galloped back and forth inside the pen, cleaning cows out of a far corner. After a while, only he was on horseback. The others just walked behind the cattle, sometimes urging them forward with lazy sweeps of a rope.

I wondered why they had divided them into groups, only to open the gates and let them crowd back into the largest pen together again. Then I overheard a shout: “Write down 112!” They had been counting, of course.

Soon after, I heard someone  call out “115”.

By historic standards, just over a hundred head is a fairly small herd for this region. Frank Welty, Sr. (1874-1958) reports in Recollections of the Upper Wind River Valley that he had a herd of 1800 head in 1919, but a drought followed by a hard winter reduced the herd to 150. That was “a sad end to a big business,” he said. I won’t attempt a digression now into the current economics of cattle ranching in this valley and why herds are smaller now. As I said, I’m ignorant.

Eventually, someone got into a pickup and backed one of the three livestock trailers toward the corral. The cowhands separated three or four of the cattle, closed them beyond a gate from the rest of the herd, and drove them into the trailer. The truck and trailer lumbered toward the highway and went off. (Were these few, I wondered, part of the wages?)

After a while, two men mounted their horses, headed back down the valley, and surrounded one of the few cattle that were still grazing out there. Is this the one they had cut out before? Why, I wondered, did they do that in the first place?

Now they turned it around, and it loped toward the corral, objecting. Handily, they steered it into the empty pen closest to the valley, then coaxed it into the largest pen with the rest of the herd.

There seemed to be a lot of standing around afterwards. Saddles were slung into pickups. Some of the horses were led into another trailer and driven away. Others were tied to the remaining trailer. People walked back and forth.

Sometimes, all at once, the cattle fell silent. Then one would moan and the others would start up again.

A few of the cowhands walked over to a fence near the corral and engaged in a long conversation with two men who had been watching from the other side. I could hear their voices, but not what they were saying. Negotiating terms or just shooting the breeze?

I waited for rest of the cattle to be driven into the other trailers. How would they all fit? Then I realized (knucklehead!) the trailers are for transporting all their horses, not for cattle. It’s their job to round the cattle up, not to transport them somewhere else—especially not after they have spent all day chasing them out of the valley. Others would pick up the rest of the cattle the next day, no doubt. (And sure enough, the cattle were still there the next morning.)

It was growing more breezy on my perch at the property line, and my gloved hands were cold. I gave up waiting for them to load the remaining horses into the last trailer, and headed home.

By the time I was seated by the window with a cup of tea, our neighbor’s five horses and mule had returned to the meadow by the aspen grove. I guess the show was over.

© Lois Wingerson, 2021

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Latest Attraction in Dubois: Domesticated Pronghorn?

All summer, tourists pull off the highway to take pictures of these “wildlife.”

Driving west at the edge of town, as usual I looked for the pronghorn. The herd has moved off the field north of the highway that they occupied all summer, the one next to the subdivision by the golf course.

I took the picture here a few weeks ago. That field is now crowded with the large cattle herd belonging to Warm River Ranch (the historic Mockler property).

The pronghorn have relocated to another field slightly to the west of the cattle, just over the fence from the mules and horses in the property beyond. This new field is greener than their previous feed lot.

Yesterday, in the warm sun of a late autumn afternoon, I almost missed seeing them. They were all sitting down.

Pronghorn, also popularly but mistakenly called antelope, are some of the fastest animals on earth. I’m used to seeing them, alert and skittish, roaming the open range on the Reservation. When do they ever sit down together, as placid as a flock of sheep?

“When they’re all full of grain and feeling safe,” said Brian DeBolt of Wyoming Game & Fish.

Although he says the herd has been around here for at least four or five years, living behind the red-rock ridge that shields the rifle range from the highway, I’m fairly sure there weren’t so many of them next to the highway, making themselves right at home all summer, until this year. They must number around 50 when the alfalfa is growing strong.

Despite what the sign says in this picture (which I took elsewhere in the state), these pronghorn don’t ever try to enter the road. They prefer to graze back the distance of a very good punt. In summer, tourists pull off the highway all the time to take pictures of what they must regard as wildlife.

As DeBolt put it, “they’ve carved themselves out a nice little niche.” They have all the food they need, plenty of water, no natural predators in all of North America, and are separated by a fence from the humans passing on a busy Federal highway and from the threat of hunters by the presence of the many houses nearby.

I have seen pronghorn in flight, but never here. They amble like the cattle.

Out of curiosity, I googled “domesticated pronghorn” just now. The only relevant result is from the gaming website Fandom:

“… a domesticated form of the pronghorn. It’s [sic] ancestors were domesticated by Protomen for their meat, horns, and milk.”

Protomen are occupants of the Fandom fantasy world, creatures about 5% smarter than humans. At some point, evidently, they decided to cultivate the species.

© Lois Wingerson, 2021

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Night Sky

From Sternschnuppen, by Franz Stuck

I wish I could show you my night sky. My camera is not good enough.

No camera is good enough. So I will use words instead.

A picture’s worth? A thousand is more than I need.

But far too few for the stars. I do not know how many there are. I do not know their names, but there must be names for all of them. Or numbers, at least. Think of that.

I have to be very patient. Some appear only slowly. They come and go. I see some only out of the corner of my eye. One peeks out from the edge of the mountain range at the north, and disappears. It blinks on and off, then returns, and slowly rises.

It doesn’t rise, in fact. We slowly bow to greet it.

Levi Price, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Milky Way washes from north to south, a frayed bright smudge across the dark sequined drape.

The galaxy on edge. I know this, but somehow the words have no meaning.

Up above the world so high. So high! So many. So vast. I am so small.

It doesn’t matter. Nothing that matters to me really matters.

That’s fine.

One falls fast and vanishes. That is not a star, I know. I try to conjure a wish. I have no wish. I need no wish. I am content.

Other bright spots that move are also not stars. They move sideways. The steady crosswise traveler may be a satellite. The bright flashes: an airplane. Toward Anchorage? Toward Moscow? Up there, shades are closed, people try to sleep. (So glad I am here.)

What is that bright glow to the northeast? I triangulate. Could that be Cody? (Poor Cody; that many lights at night? Can they see my sky?)

Albrecht Dürer

After a time the glow brightens suddenly, sharpens, focuses. Not Cody at all.

It is the moon, rising over a gap in the ridge. A face slowly takes shape.

Not really a face, of course. This has always seemed to me a sign of grace, that it glows at us from up there, looking to us like a face.

And it seems to smile.


© Lois Wingerson, 2021

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Two Homecomings – One Sweet, One Bitter

A joyful cry, a reckless run, and at the end a silent drive home.

Small boy with a ladder beside small airplane.

Our oldest grandchild came for a visit last week. He has refused to accept my statement that everything he saw here – not just our house – is called “Wyoming.”

This was his first time away from home without his parents.

He is not yet four, but we can already see who he is becoming.

At least right now, he’s fascinated with airplanes. Flying here was a huge excitement for him.

Misty and Mike Cavanagh kindly let me bring him to visit their hangar up at the small Dubois airport, where he was fascinated with the aircraft, but even more so with all the tools.

The airplanes were a bit scary. The tools were not, being much more familiar. “Here’s a screwdriver,” he said, handing one to Misty. Our son-in-law is in construction.

After leaving the hangar, he suddenly burst into tears.

“I want to see my Daddy!” he moaned.

“Soon,” I said. “Not just yet.”

Small boy sitting on an airplance.

He’s such a bundle of apprehension and courage, confusion and acceptance.

I saw all of these in the Denver airport, as we endured the security line and raced toward the plane that would bring him home. The rushing crowds. The scary escalators. The noisy terminal. The frightening little gap between jetway and airplane. The startling chimes from above and the bumps when we were in the air.

He was very good.

Then the long trek from the gate to the curb, and at last, the sight of the big black pickup, the cry of joy and the reckless run toward Daddy’s big embrace. A woman waiting nearby called it a multi-hankie reunion.

We had been dry-camping, and my phone began to run out of juice. Then I didn’t take the right power cords along to the airport. (Corralling a 3-year-old has a way of distracting you from other realities.) So I was mostly on childcare duty and off the grid, saving phone power for important messages. For a few days, I left the world behind.

View of Denver suburb from a car.

My return journey after dropping him off with his father was more restful, of course. As the plane slowly descended toward Denver from the west, I watched the vast, rumpled mountain carpet of peaks and furrows as they passed below. It was a calming sight. They looked untouched and unapproachable.

Gazing out the passenger window the next morning as we drove north, I saw the suburbs spread out at the base of the same Front Range I had flown across the day before. Many of the people in those houses came here to be near that wilderness. But how close can they get, how often – and driving through what kind of traffic for how long?

Denver always makes me yearn for home.

As almost everywhere during that trip last week, the rural road we followed was lined with sunflowers. As you see, it was a beautiful day just short of autumn.

Sunflowers beside a highway

This feels like the most hopeful time of year, full of the promise of new projects, the days brightened by the shimmer of glowing aspen leaves and the enchantment of clean, crisp air. Those masses of yellow blossoms seemed to be bright faces nodding at me as we sped by, headed for home.

Finally, I picked up my phone and checked back into the world of adulthood.

A long list of emails, including this, from the Governor’s office:

That announcement brought a jolt to the heart. World news is not supposed to come this close. 

I had to wait for signal to return before I could learn more about the late Lance Corporal from Wyoming. He had been guarding the entrance to Kabul airport in that mayhem during the evacuation. He was 20 years old.

To my grandmotherly eyes, the person gazing back from the news photos looked like a mere boy. But he was a man in every sense. He chose to serve our country, knowing he might give his life, and he did. His young wife is expecting their first child in a few weeks.

Arriving in town late in the evening, we made a quick stop at the grocery store.

The cashier and the customer ahead, both of whom I know, were fixated on each other in in an intense conversation. The customer had been crying. Being only a few feet away, I could not help overhearing.

She said something about babysitting and playing together, and that she was sad about how her son must be taking the news.

“You mean he lived in Dubois?” I asked, not needing to specify who I meant by “he.”

She nodded. “Before they moved to Jackson. When he was real small.”

It was Rylee’s lifelong dream to become a Marine, his father told reporters. Ever since he was 3. That number jumped out at me, of course.

American flag at half staff

One pleasure of being in this remote town is our distance from the existential crises of the world at large. We look to the mountains from whence cometh our help, but not always, not always quickly, and not for everyone.

We drove silently home. As I walked toward the door with the groceries, I heard my husband say, “I ought to put the flag at half-staff.”

He turned and walked toward the flagpole.

© Lois Wingerson, 2021

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Flights of Fancy at the Dubois Airport

Weather doomed the fly-in. But the aircraft on the ground were amazing.

On Saturday morning, the clouds hung low and heavy over Dubois. Nearly everyone around here was glad to have some rain, to dampen the risk of fires here and the haze of smoke from fires farther west. But the people at the airport weren’t so pleased.

Sadly, the weather had not been kind to Wyoming’s Third Highway Into Dubois Fly-In and Community Aviation Day.

“You should have come earlier,” said Cathy, when I reached her canopied stand. “There was quite a crowd for the pancake breakfast.” But probably the main point of the occasion was the fly-in, and under those conditions nobody would be landing at our small airport to drop by.

Silently, I wished for better luck next year, and walked on.

Inside a small hangar, a band was cheerily playing “Here Comes the Sun,” which did not seem to be the case. A few people stood nearby and chatted. Some small children carried balloon sculptures.

This facility on a plateau west of town was unfamiliar territory for me. I had come to the event mostly out of curiosity. I certainly wouldn’t sign up for flying lessons that day; my interest in aviation ends with boarding a big aircraft to get somewhere quickly, and I leave the details to the crew.

Toward the western end of the little taxiway, I saw a modestly built man pushing a tiny biplane out of a hangar, with about the same effort someone would use to wheel a Harley Davidson away from the curb. The black and white aircraft looked like it might have been pieced together from shoeboxes.

“Jungster 1” was painted on its side. It weighs 700 pounds and runs on a battery pack.

“Some old man in Ohio made it a long time ago,” Mike Cavanagh told me. After buying it and taking a short flight, Mike decided it needed to be rebuilt. He finished putting it back together last week, and won’t take it up again until it passes an inspection. He had brought it out of the hangar just to taxi around for the occasion. He let a five-year-old boy sit inside the cockpit and give his mother a thumbs-up for the camera.

The hangar behind him was jammed with somewhat larger aircraft, all painted in bright colors and as shiny as the new models in an auto dealership. One is a glider. Another is a plane made in Lithuania in 1985 that the Russians used for training.

“Quite a toybox you’ve got here,” said a man who stopped to look in.

Mike is a retired professional pilot who began flying solo at the age of 14. His wife Misty was standing inside, surrounded by the machines. She seemed a bit shy, until I asked her about the bright green and yellow plane backed into the far corner.

“This was built by the Navy for training during World War II,” Misty told me. “Mostly, the military buys aircraft from manufacturers, but this one was actually built by the Navy. It’s really cool. It’s made of material from dirigibles.”

“Almost nobody realizes that before World War II the Navy used dirigibles. They would transport Sparrowhawk planes using the dirigibles and do what they called parasite launch or landing.”

As explained by the website How Stuff Works, small biplanes would dock onto a “trapeze” hanging below the dirigible, and fly off again from this perilous platform. Why did they dream up this challenging early aircraft carrier and then dare to use it?

 “Probably, we can make the leap to say the parasite aircraft launch is indicative of the mental development of that era in flight,” she said with a laugh. “There were wing walkers, people climbing out on the wing to walk to and board another plane without a parachute, and pilots willing to fly planes with some truly sketchy building techniques with notoriously unreliable engines.”

N3N aircraft

Misty proudly rattled off the other features of the N3N model behind her – the relative weighting of its nose and tail, the fact that the spar and wings are made of extruded aluminum recycled from dirigibles, that one side of the plane is made of aluminum while the other side is fabric. Why fabric? To save weight, she said. Then why aluminum on the other side? So that panels could be lifted off easily for repairs inside the body, without damaging the structure.

“Look at this,” she said, pointing out a plastic tube hanging down from the underside of the wing above the cockpit. “This is the gas gauge. You just look up to see it.”

This remark prompted Misty to reflect on the joys of piloting in the open air. “It’s so much better for training,” she said. “You can really see around, and you get a much better feel for the way the plane is responding.”

Kind of like when I drive my Miata with the top down, I suggested, rather than being inside the Rav4. Her already bright eyes flashed a bit more. “Yes, that’s right,” she said. “You can really feel the road. It’s the same thing.”

Misty grew up in Oklahoma and used to train horses, until her first husband got into flying. “I had to know what he was doing,” she said, and things took off from there.

“Airplanes are so much better than horses,” she said as we were parting. I asked why.

“You don’t want to give your horse away to someone you don’t like,” she said at first, but then decided she had spoken too quickly.

“Airplanes aren’t subjective,” she went on. “They don’t have bad days. Sure, there can be an engine failure, but that’s just mechanical. If you’ve had a bad day, an airplane won’t respond to that. There’s no mix of personalities.”

Driving away from the airport, I thought about Mike, soon to be aloft in his 700-pound toy, and Misty’s joy at sitting in the open air hundreds or thousands of feet up, feeling a large machine moving around her. I reflected on the difference between the Cavanaghs’ passion for flying and my mix of mild apprehension and indifference at the very thought of it.

Passing through the exit, I saw a hawk playing in the currents beyond the top of the slope nearby, plunging and then rising with the updraft, as if dancing.

How lovely to be able to do that, I thought. How often have I wished I could?

© Lois Wingerson, 2021

Thanks for reading!

You can see every new entry of Living Dubois by email if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

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Midsummer 2021 in Dubois: Good, Bad, and Scary

Of vanishing produce, disappearing pastries, locusts, picket pins, blue coyotes, and more.

I remember the day when Dubois was a sleepy little hamlet, hidden away in a peaceful mountain valley … like, last April.

Feels like that time has gone for good, along with dial telephones.

Stopping for lunch at the Lone Burrito on Thursday, I couldn’t see a single parking spot anywhere. This is extraordinary.

I found a spot by driving behind the official tourist parking area in Lamb Park and around to the gravel lot at the back of Ace Hardware. I felt very glad to be a local who knows a workaround.

This situation is not unique to Dubois this summer, as many people will tell you. All of the gateway towns near National Parks here out West are overrun. Some visitors from Alpine told me it’s just the same on the other side of Teton Pass, where different tourists are heading to flee the crowds in Jackson Hole.

I went into Superfoods on Wednesday to buy some berries and radishes. The produce shelves were nearly empty. It reminded my of my travels inside the Eastern bloc decades ago, when the Berlin Wall was still intact.

“I know what you’re planning to do with that!” laughed my friend Tammy from the cash register, when she saw me snap this photo.

“Darn right!” I said.

Tammy said the staff were completely at a loss to explain this. They received the usual shipment on Monday, and they have been ordering extra for the season. It’s as if locusts had descended.

The annual Museum Day last weekend was a roaring success. I helped out for a while serving the Indian tacos made with fry bread, which seemed just as popular as the authentic chuckwagon stew of prior years. But I soon left, because it was clear there were plenty of volunteers.

Reportedly there were also a record number of visitors. The guest count was about 500, and revenues were high.

But spooky things were going on.

The buzz around town is about the theft. Someone bought a pie at the bake sale, and asked to have it held for later. The buyer’s name was duly attached using a piece of tape, as usual, and it was stored on a table in the kitchen inside the Dennison Lodge. When he or she returned for the pie, it had disappeared.

“I was very disappointed,” said Mary Lou, who ran the bake sale. “People in Dubois don’t do things like that.” (I ran that bake sale for several years, and I can agree.)

Maybe Dubois people don’t, but there are other suspects. Mary Lou told me that she kept having to shoo the same fat and persistent “picket pin” (AKA ground squirrel, genus Citellus) out of the bake sale prep area inside the Dennison. Finally she gave up, closed the door, and put up a sign that said something like “Please come in. Picket pins not welcome.”

Perhaps the picket pin brought some buddies and dragged the pie away after hours. I wouldn’t put it past them. (Like the tourists, they seem to be around in record numbers this year.)

An unsubstantiated rumor (we specialize in these in Dubois) regards a different bake-sale purchase, a plate of pastries. Reportedly someone substituted a different kind of bar for the brownies, leaving the rest of the plate intact. I can’t imagine blaming the picket pins for that.

In other news:

The Perch is closed this weekend. They’re not saying why, but my guess is Sheila and family are taking a well-deserved break. This proved a good opportunity to try out one of the two new options that have shown up to relieve the shock to our caffeine-addicted system.

The face in the top image belongs to Monica Furman, who serves it up with a smile at the Dubois branch of Pinedale-based Pine Coffee Supply. The truck is parked beside the new fly fishing shop across from the Black Bear Inn, which is owned by her in-laws.

Monica, a wedding planner by profession, grew up in Arizona. She and her husband didn’t expect to find full-time work in Dubois, but he landed a job as the manager at Nana’s Bowling and Bakery (soon to open). She found the coffee job, and now they’re here to stay.

The lower image shows the new tiny-house version of the former coffee shop called Coyote Blue, which closed at the start of the pandemic. That’s its familiar logo to the right of the window.

Ali’s trailer is parked in front of Never Sweat Lodge, just west of the Super 8. She’s serving her signature breakfast sandwiches again, just as she did at her previous location. (You can’t see her here because I snapped this picture late in the day, when the truck was closed.)

Another Dubois rumor holds that Joe Brandl has sold his shop. This I can confirm.

I caught that wonderful guy in town yesterday, spraying weed killer outside the shop. We haven’t seen much of Joe since he moved over to Crowheart, and his talk turned quickly to haying — not antiques and animal hides.

There will be a closeout sale in the fall, Joe told me, and probably a tag sale out back afterwards, for what hasn’t sold up front. (Clean out your storage sheds, Dubois! This is your chance.)

He also confirmed that the buyer is his son. Joe has no idea what is planned for the space.

So why is that big For Sale sign still out there? “I haven’t gotten around to taking it down,” he said with one of his smiles–and then he offered to sell it to me.

Which of this news is good, or bad, and which is scary? It’s a matter of opinion — and there are plenty of those in Dubois, any time of year.

© Lois Wingerson, 2021. Thanks for reading!

You can see every new entry of Living Dubois by email if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

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Dear readers: What was I thinking?

My previous post went out with a subject line that read “Status Report: Dubois June 2019.”

I can’t imagine why on earth I happened to propel myself two years backwards, pre-pandemic. The mind boggles.

No matter how often I re-read the text (and I did so, many times, with this post), something quirky often happens. This was that, this time. I blipped right over the headline.

Apologies for the confusion. I have re-titled the post as June 2021, but if you’re a prompt reader, the damage is done. Sorry.

Status Report, Dubois June 2021: Joint Jumpin’

Of bad news, good news, exciting events and turning points …

These are the days when I recall with a sense of enchantment what drew us here in the first place. The skies are endless and clear. While everywhere else in the nation seems to be sweltering, here it is blessedly cool.

The sun comes up early, hangs about all day, and doesn’t seem to want to let go of the day and set down.

Neither do we.

Town is overrun with visitors. We read that over there next door, Yellowstone Park has half again as many visitors as before the pandemic, and we can believe it. They began arriving in mid-May, somewhat to the consternation of local businesses that are accustomed to using that month for sprucing up.

It’s also bustling with new residents. I seem to meet someone new every week. Reportedly housing is in very short supply, if it’s available at all. We will soon see how many newcomers intend to remain year-round — and of those who do, how many will decide after all that they just can’t tolerate the dust, the wind, or the realities of small-town life.

It’s that time of year when cars with out-of-state plates stop unpredictably at the main intersection, and you may have to honk (a sound we never hear here, otherwise) to tell them to move along. It can be tough to find a parking spot at SuperFoods, and drivers are always pulling out onto the highway from the entrance.

People wander up and down the sidewalk looking lost, hoping to find a place for dinner where the wait isn’t so long. Last year, we wanted to patronize the restaurants to keep them going. These days, it’s probably kinder not to eat out. It seems that every business in town is advertising for employees, and those already at work are run off their feet.

The former steakhouse next to the Rustic Pine Tavern has reopened as the Honey House, where the Millers of Crowheart have installed beeswax products of all kinds as well as a real-live beehive complete with informational signs about the species. Our son, who visited a few weeks ago (and dropped a bundle there, Christmas shopping in June) informs me that the price of beeswax candles is considerably lower than back in New York City.

The bad news: Although that terrace on the left is still open and equipped with tables and chairs, because the Honey House is not a restaurant you can’t enjoy al fresco refreshment out there any more. The Rustic Pine Tavern (out of the picture to the right) won’t allow you to carry your drinks to the patio. This has something to do with state laws about carrying glasses outdoors.

But the good news, as you can see in the picture, is that the Rustic (under new ownership) is now serving brisket and pulled pork as well as barbecue. So there’s one more option for those hungry tourists.

The square dance was outdoors last night, with the street beside the Opportunity Shop closed off for the occasion. It was the first weekly Tuesday on the Town event, to be followed in coming weeks by a flea market, a children’s evening with face painting and balloons, an artists’ show, and a car show.

Clearly, the new officers at the Chamber of Commerce are full of energy and good ideas.

The most exciting event I have seen so far this summer was opening day at the new Ace Hardware. It felt like a party. The cashiers were all smiles, greeting customers by name. Manager Chris Sabatka was beaming, shaking hand after hand, as people congratulated him for returning to work in town. He has been traveling to Jackson for years, to run a different store there, when we urgently needed his business talents here. With him at the helm, we can be confident that Ace Hardware is here to stay.

One friend knew her husband would be so overjoyed at the opening that she made it a birthday occasion for him. She asked him to wear a blindfold, and then took him on a drive with many diversions before turning into the parking lot. Then she walked him through the door, positioned him at one end of an aisle, and took it off so he could see all the temptations.

Another reason for good cheer: The incoming kindergarten class next month will number all of 22. Small-town dwellers know that the size of the school population is a robust indicator of economic health, and this is surely a boost.

This news flash came from Jason Kintzler, a Wyoming native and entrepeneur whose family has finally achieved their longtime dream of moving to Dubois. Giving the keynote address at the annual fund-raising event for the Boys & Girls Club, he shared that exciting statistic, followed by his assertion that Dubois is reaching a turning point. No doubt the Kintzlers are helping to propel it there.

The founder of LifeKey, a “smart” wristband that provides access to health data and emergency contacts, Jason and his family tried living in bustling Jackson for two years. (He referred to it as a “sentence” he had to live out.) Last winter, they relocated eastward across the Pass, adding four new students to the Dubois school roster. His wife Jasmine has now opened Dubois Provisions on the main street, adding another trendy business to the strip of shops across from the Rustic.

I will certainly buy Mrs. Meyer’s hand soap there from now on, rather than ordering it online. I may be able to get anything I need from Amazon Prime via UPS. But I’d so much rather stop in for a chat with Jasmine than bang away at this keyboard.

© Lois Wingerson, 2021

Thanks for reading!

You can see every new entry of Living Dubois by email if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Who’s writing? Check out About Me.

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