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!

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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

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Signs of Spring: Bears, Birds, Bikes — and Fiber

Welcome-home messages (one much more welcome than the other)

Opening the front door after a long drive home from a visit to family in Texas, I heard a text message chime in on my phone. Busy unloading luggage, I ignored it.

When I looked, I saw that it was from our next-door neighbor. Her husband had just chased 4 grizzlies out of their chicken coop. We must have driven in just after he fired the warning shots into the hillside.

“Which way did they go?” I replied quickly.

“Headed your way,” she wrote back. “Or else they went into the aspen grove and on up the valley.”

“Welcome home,” she added.

We looked, but never saw them. A friend told me later that it could be the grizzly sow named Fiona, with her 3 two-year-olds.

Our local bear expert, Brian DeBolt (who identifies himself on LinkedIn as a “Large Carnivore Conflict Coordinator” with Wyoming Game & Fish), said he hasn’t heard the name Fiona. But he added that she’s probably the same grizz who passes through this time every spring with her 3 “kids” — always curious but never confrontational.

He can’t be sure, because when they once tried to fit that bear with a radio collar, she was shy and ran away. “It looks from the pictures like two of the kids had tags,” he added, which seems to tag these as the repeat visitors — but again he can’t be sure, because “we don’t collar the kids.”

The signs of spring are everywhere. It’s warm enough to take my morning bike ride up the highway.

Businesses are reopening, expanding, starting up. A shiny sign announces a new Ace hardware, opening soon. The new Honey House is already in business selling local honey, next to the Rustic Pine Tavern. Studio 207 has improved its branding with bright signs that say “hand-made goods.”

Shannon’s trendy boutique has relocated slightly westward, expanding to add a much-needed sideline managed by her husband: bicycles and bike supplies. Landscape artist Gary Keimig has reopened his gallery in her former location.

Town is already busy with visitors. The cars that passed me on the highway this morning wore plates that read Texas, California, and Florida. At Pete’s Pond this afternoon, the kids who were fishing had come from Utah and Florida.

When a friend told me the cowboy was overrun, for an instant I wanted to ask who it was and who struck him. Of course she meant, being its owner, that the Cowboy Cafe already had a line of would-be diners waiting on the sidewalk.

The wildlife is busy too. We saw robins perform a mating dance in the meadow. The “picket pins” stand upright behind the back porch, as ever in warm weather, guarding the entrance to their burrows. A male bluebird — a favorite sign of spring in this town — is just as vigilant from his perch atop the birdhouse beside the utility pole, watching his mate fly back and forth with twigs to build a nest inside.

Another pair is busy trying to reoccupy the hollow log beside the back door of our new screen porch. They abandoned it last year during the construction, and obviously didn’t welcome my presence as I worked on this laptop at the table inside the porch.

Who knew that male bluebirds have a patch of green on their backs? It was beautiful to see one so close.

However, I’m sorry to say, unless they can decide to tolerate my presence I expect this pair to find a different home. I won’t abandon my new enclosed porch for their sake.

It’s delightful to work there in the morning, with the beautiful view of the ridge and the fresh breeze passing through the doors, and just as pleasant to have tea there in the afternoon, sheltered from the wind that always picks up at midday in summer.

Now that the weather is fine, humans are at work outdoors as well. The roofer is finally working noisily overhead. A team is building a new fence along the highway.

Here’s the very welcome welcome-home message I saw when we first entered the driveway, even before I received my neighbor’s text.

Everyone over in town already has fiberoptic Internet service. Now that the ground has thawed, I guess it will soon be our turn.

The Internet here is already flawless, for our purposes, and has been for years. When that work is done, I guess it will be even better. (But what can be better than flawless?)

© Lois Wingerson, 2021

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Remarkable Rural Retreats: Small Town, Big Plan

A unique and extraordinary option for remote-work teams

I kept glancing away from my lunch companion, avoiding her gaze. I felt things had started badly.

During our visit that morning in March, Lazy L&B Ranch had been deserted and silent. Sheets covered chairs. Mattresses leaned against walls.

It felt impossible to convey to Jennifer Pryor the life-changing sense of liberation I experienced in this cabin at that ranch many years ago, back when there was no such word as “workation,” let alone a concept or a hashtag. I was working on a book manuscript. My kids were riding horses. Seeing the vast open spaces breathed life into my work.

It will surely be the same for the many guests who fill Lazy L&B later this year, like all those who have posted 5-star reviews on TripAdvisor ever since we visited long ago. I just couldn’t bring them alive to her on this wintry day.

Jen Pryor’s visit was intended as the springboard to launch a new campaign by Wind River Remote Works: to promote Dubois as a unique and extraordinary location where companies that employ remote workers can host their team retreats. The owner of Gather Events Company, she will book those retreats.

On this day in late winter, I had the impression that to her and to anyone just passing through, it must seem that this charming village surrounded by wilderness was dying. How unfortunate, and how untrue.

She must have noticed the For Sale signs on several motels. I explained that these aren’t pandemic casualties — the owner of one is retiring, and another relocating for family reasons. But even to me, these sounded like excuses.

Just as we can’t see the buds of wildflowers yet to explode into bloom, no casual visitor can see what Jennifer eventually discovered: Dubois is burgeoning with change. Ripe to reopen.

After lunch, we launched into a busy itinerary. At 3 Spear Ranch, just at the edge of town, Creed Garnick proudly showed us how layers of sheet rock have been cleared away in the main lodge to reveal the ancient logs beneath. The team had just been installing heated flooring beneath a claw-footed bathtub in the latest cabin to be upgraded.

After a few years of soft opening, the ranch is primed to welcome outside groups to an upscale establishment that offers elegant but rustic meeting rooms, as well as so much to do after work, from wilderness hikes to horseback rides to evening dips in a hot spring.

The next morning, Jen stopped by the legendary CM Ranch, which opened more than a century ago and has been offering respite and recreation to many generations of families — just not (yet) to company retreats. (That’s Jen at left, with manager Mollie Sullivan in front of one of the cabins.)

As a resident of nearby Lander, Jen has passed through Dubois often, and stopped for lunch or to let her children use the playground in the park. “I never had any idea how much there was here that you can’t see from the highway,” she told me. We were visiting the gallery of Western art hidden away in an upper floor of the conference facility, the Headwaters Center. She said it would be a great spot for intimate meetings.

Afterwards, we met in the Headwaters lobby with Robert Betts and his sister Lindsey Judd. Robert runs the Cutthroat Fly Shop, which is located in a historic building at the main intersection of town. Lindsey and her husband manage the Absaroka Ranch, which has hosted retreats for nonprofit organizations for many years.

They seemed glad for the chance to see each other, and spoke about collaborating more. Meanwhile, we learned that Robert plans to expand the fly shop this summer, to offer much more gear and to rebrand the business as “booking central,” a one-stop shop where visitors can reserve outdoor adventures such as guided wilderness hikes and float trips.

Next I took Jen to an unmarked building near the west edge of town, which is Never Sweat Lodge. If you hadn’t found it online, you’d never know that behind that red door is a space beautifully fitted out for snowmobile and wedding groups, with lodgepole pine beds, a large kitchen with a huge board table, a bar, a pool table, and 6 bedrooms (with much more lodging available right next door at the Super 8 motel). Owner Logan Vaughan is eager to add remote-work teams to his customer base.

The fortress-like edifice rising next to the Post Office is also not what it appears from the street. Family Dollar is not expanding; Nana’s Bowling Alley and Bakery has been rising behind it. Who knows? Bowling might also have some appeal as a team-building activity.

Personally, I would prefer hiking in the wilderness, as regular readers know. But then, Dubois stands ready to appeal to all sorts of people with many different preferences.

Maybe not surfing, I remarked to Creed Garnick, as he showed us where the swimming hole will fill up at 3 Spear Ranch later this spring, after he drops the dam wall in front of the stream.

“I don’t know,” he replied with a smile. “We’ll look into it.”

© Lois Wingerson, 2021

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The Cost of Suffrage in Wyoming

It’s not about strong women after all. That should have been obvious.

One hundred fifty years ago today, on September 6, 1870, in Laramie, Wyoming, 70-year-old grandmother Louisa Swain was first woman to vote after passage of the Wyoming Suffrage Act of 1869.

A celebration and re-enactment is underway in Laramie as I write this.

When I learned that Wyoming was the first state to give women the vote, I was quietly pleased. Who knew? It was one more reason to be proud of my new home state.

I credited this to the independence of the strong and determined women who preceded me here more than a century ago. Living very comfortably in my well-chinked log house with electric heat and indoor plumbing, I am fascinated by their accounts of trying to sweep a dirt floor clean, of cooking over a wood fire in old tin cans, of chasing a bear out of the kitchen with a broom.

Why shouldn’t these great women be enfranchised?

In her book Absaraka: Home of the Crows, first published the year before suffrage was enacted here, Margaret Carrington describes her journey to Wyoming territory as a young military bride, the outcomes of many skirmishes with the local native tribes, and the privations of winter life in the wilderness. Traveling north with her husband’s troops to build Fort Phil Kearney just south of the Bighorn Mountains, she writes of “the snapping of a tent-pole at midnight under three feet of snow” which can also creep in and “sprinkle” your bed and your clothes, the risk of the tent catching fire, and the challenge of “frozen-up” kettles and pots in the morning.

I ordered Carrington’s book after I discovered her in another wonderful book that somehow recently fell into my hands. In “Gentle Tamers,” Dee Brown chose an interesting title, because most of the women he describes are far from gentle.

How old is this book, I asked myself during the first chapter, because some of the words he chose would not pass muster in today’s self-conscious culture. (The book was published in 1958.) But it is a great read.

Brown takes a comprehensive, unflinching, and unsentimental look at the lives of the early female migrants to the West, from homesteaders and schoolteachers to prostitutes. She devotes an entire chapter to Esther Hobart Morris, a resident of the mining camp at South Pass City near Lander, who was the nation’s first female justice of the peace.

Morris is often credited with successfully negotiating for women’s suffrage in Wyoming. Indeed she was a proponent of women’s rights, and it was her neighbor, William H. Bright of South Pass City, who introduced the suffrage bill into the Wyoming legislature.

Why was Bright motivated to do so? Little is known about him, but a 1973 article in American Heritage suggests a possibility: The Fifteenth Amendment giving black men the right to vote had been introduced into the US Congress earlier that year.

“Bright was appalled,” says the author, Lynne Cheney. “A native Virginian, he thought the black man was not up to the franchise.” (If a Negro could vote, why not his wife?)

This introduction of racism into the matter was not the first shadow cast across my enthusiasm for the suffrage act. Dee Brown devotes a whole chapter to “The Great Female Shortage,” and his account of Morris and the Wyoming Suffrage Act comes next. If the juxtaposition was inadvertent, it’s ironic nonetheless. But I didn’t catch it either.

The penny didn’t drop until last month, when I heard a report on public radio, aired on the centennial of the 19th Amendment that gave all women in the US the right to vote. The story about Wyoming is not one about strong women after all, and the reality should have been obvious.

The golden spike had been driven at Ogden, Utah, exactly 7 months before passage of the Wyoming Suffrage Act. Miners were prospecting for gold, homesteaders were beginning to plow the soil, ranchers were grazing cattle, and forts were being built to protect all those settlers.

“Territories like Wyoming wanted more white settlers, so they figured they could bring more white women out by allowing them to vote,” said the report on Wyoming Public Media (Why Did Western Women Gain Voting Rights Earlier Than the Rest of the Nation?).

To the men who governed Wyoming 150 years ago, the Wyoming Suffrage Act of 1869 (at least to those who didn’t take it all as a big joke) was a step toward settlement and statehood. The granting of voting rights to women settlers in the West derives directly from the need to deprive the rights of natives who came here first.

Though the mining region where Esther Hobart Morris lived was subject to repeated attacks by local natives, there is no evidence that she herself linked the fight for suffrage with the demand to increase the white population. It seems that her chief motivation really was to assert women’s rights, although exactly what she did to achieve that in Wyoming is not clear.

Her contemporary Margaret Carrington, whose husband was commander of a fort being built to create a safe route north from Cheyenne to Montana gold mines–and who witnessed numerous raids and attacks intended to prevent that from happening–had a different perspective. Although her husband was relieved of command at Fort Phil Kearney after the disastrous Fetterman massacre, and the entire outfit including Margaret and other women had to leave it in a grueling midwinter journey, she evinced understanding and some concern about the interests of the original inhabitants of the land her people had invaded.

“[T]here comes the inevitable sentiment of pity, and even of sympathy with the bold warrior in his great struggle,” she wrote, “and in a dash over the plains, or breathing the pure air of the mountains, the sense of freedom and independence brings such contrast with the machinery and formalities of much that is called civilized life, that it seems but natural that the red man in his pride and strength should bear aloft the spear point…”

Another phrase in Carrington’s book caught me like a slap in the face this morning. Writing about people in the East who had never been to Wyoming and yet held strong opinions about the massacre, she scorned the “great delight of their own complacent souls” and the “wonderful wisdom of absolute ignorance.”

I still take delight in the strength and courage of the women who settled this land. But my ignorance is no longer so absolute.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Building Youth for the Future in Dubois

Even in uncertain times, Dubois digs deep when it matters.

Madison Harper gave a theatrical gasp and wiggled her hands as if pounding a silent drum roll. “And the total is — ” (wait for it) “– sixty-six thousand dollars!”

People attending fundraiser for Dubois WY Boys & Girls Club

This was $6,000 more than the goal for the morning’s event.

The 75 people spread out around folding banquet tables erupted into applause. Who would guess that we could raise that much while meeting outdoors for breakfast in the desert chill of a very early August morning, in the midst of a national political crisis and a pandemic?

When I heard the size of the “ask” I was dubious that we could reach the $60,000 goal that morning. I envisioned Madison and her team hitting the phones as soon as they had cleared the tables, working to meet the shortfall.

“Well, that’s typical of Dubois,” remarked a friend afterwards. “We may not be on speaking terms with some of our neighbors, but we will still come together to support a local need.

The need in question that chilly morning was to fill a budget gap for the Boys & Girls Club of Dubois, which provides after-school and summer activities for the youth of this small remote town. Madison Harper, she of the bright smile and seemingly boundless enthusiasm, is the Director.

The Club reopened in June when pandemic restrictions were eased, and set about finding ways, as Madison put it, to help its young members “release their emotions in a safe place and learn how to process everything in a healthier way.”

Around Dubois, that involves going fly-fishing, driving up Whiskey Basin to look at petroglyphs, riding horses near a lodge up-mountain, gardening behind a church and tending bees at an apiary, floating on the river, and playing at the golf course. The options for healthy activities here are considerable.

“I am so thankful that the Club is open,” said a 9-year-old at the fund-raiser. “It has really helped me socializing with other kids, because COVID-19 has been driving me crazy.”

Having no young children, we’ve had little to do with the Club directly, but of course I’ve noticed the children around town. They remind me of my own early childhood in small towns in the Midwest, where I was free to roam — so different from the city life my own children experienced.

That’s why we came to Dubois on vacation in the first place, actually, and kept coming back. It was somewhere the children could run free for a while.

Kids playing in a back yard in Dubois WY

But I have no illusions about the hazards that small-town life can present to kids who have nothing to do.

The organization was born 12 years ago as Dubois Youth Activities, shortly after my husband and I moved here, to give kids in this frontier village some healthful ways to spend their spare time. It has grown and thrived since, serving more than 600 children over the years. It currently serves 126.

The pretext for the fund-raising event was to present an award to Budd Betts, who runs a local guest ranch that serves worthy groups such as cancer survivors and veterans with PTSD. “Most certainly give, give all you can,” he urged as he accepted the award. “Pick a cause, whether it’s the Boys & Girls Club or anything else that’s close to your heart.”

Fortunately, there are still some deep pockets in Dubois, and typically the hands that reach into them are discreet. We were asked to fill out donation cards, and these were collected in baskets.

It was so unlike the school fund-raisers I remember from New York, where parents at auctions would vie loudly to outbid each other with outrageous amounts for weekends on someone’s yacht. You always knew who had the big bucks, and they knew you knew it.

I learned only after the event that Madison Harper began her career by working for several years at Betts’ ranch. The only words on her “About” page on LinkedIn are a quote from Charles Dickens: “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”

In her own remarks that morning, Madison cited a different quote, from FDR: “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” In these sobering times, that is a heart-warming goal to have.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Dubois, Distant and Divided

Reflections on an Independence Day that was painfully different.

It has been quite warm outdoors, but there’s a stiff wind that carries a distinct chill.

That’s like Dubois these days. Warm beneath, but a chill blowing through.

A gust caught the far end of our flag and trapped it ridiculously upside down. A day with strong gusts is not the best time to climb a tall ladder, so it still hangs like that.

I hope people don’t think this is some strange expression of anarchy. You never know how people are going to take things these days.

Probably we won’t hear about it. Like cowboys, folks in Dubois are given to expressions of opinion that are strong, but silent.

A realtor at the main intersection has posted banners reading “Red State Real Estate.” One horse in the Independence Day parade had the word “Trump” painted on its rear flank.

Our Black Lives Matter protests, two of them, took place quietly and without confrontation. A few high school students stood silently on a corner with signs. Marchers processed around a pond in a park, not on the street.

We have noted with regret that on July 4, shootings in our former hometown of New York City were up 160% over last year. At our July 4 parade, the only threat of violence was the usual risk of dousing from the fire hose, but even that child’s play seemed rather somber.

Nobody tossed a small firecracker our way. We heard no music at all, and no announcer with a sound system because the organizers wanted to avoid crowding. The announcements live-streamed on a phone were never going to be as good as last year. We didn’t bother with it.

Tourists had lined the main street, as always, but my husband and I took care to isolate ourselves this year along an extended parade route that wound through the side streets in order to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. We were far from alone back there, but everyone else was just as careful to stay six feet apart.

By contrasting our Independence Day with New York’s, I don’t mean to suggest that we have no differences in Dubois. We certainly do.

But the only shots fired here since George Floyd died have sailed across the letters page of the weekly newspaper. Some writers have accused others of being too divisive.

With hardly any resident who doesn’t descend from white Europeans, our differences about civil rights tend to focus on the wearing of masks, not on law enforcement officers.

Meanwhile, we are no longer left to ourselves, and this complicates the matter of estrangement and distancing. Our local economy relies on our tourist visitors, but in these days of pandemic the strangers seem stranger than usual.

Expedia recently designated Dubois as the best place in Wyoming for an escape, and that message seems to have reached people who have been trapped at home for months. The town is as packed with outsiders as any other year. The RV parks are quite full. Thank heaven. (Or not?)

It has always been our instinct to to give any of these strangers a warm smile and a welcoming greeting. This showed up in our surveys of tourists passing through. Friendly, nice, and people were among the words they used most often in describing Dubois.

These days, our smiles disappear behind the masks we wear to protect ourselves and our neighbors from the danger they represent to us.

These tourists passing through come from who knows where, I said in a letter to the newspaper, and they don’t care much about us. As I predicted, very few of them wear masks. Which of them, feeling fine today, is about to notice the first symptoms as they head over the Pass toward Yellowstone, having left some of that virus behind with us? Therefore I am inclined to mistrust them.

That said, I have had a few friendly encounters while walking the dog in the Town Park with my mask off, standing well apart. During the past week, twice within two days, I heard almost exactly the same remark from two different women who had arrived here in an RV: “I just love America. Everywhere we go, people are so kind and friendly.”

“That’s the real America,” they said. “So what is going on with this divisiveness? Why aren’t the true voices being heard?”

They know the answers. So do I. What we don’t know is what can be done about it.

I do defy social distance when it comes to other creatures.

For some reason, a small bird has taken a a shine to me. Sometimes he perches on the clothesline when I am sitting on the side porch. I speak with him and he chirps back. He allows me to approach much closer than six feet, and will chat with me like this for a few minutes, turning his head back and forth to look at me. Then he decides “We’re done,” and swoops away.

Also twice recently I have been rushed by large, extravagantly beautiful butterflies that sailed past so quickly I had to duck to avoid being hit. This has never happened to me before.

Twice from strangers the remark that most of us are not like the voices that darken our view of the present. Twice the butterflies.

This brown and gray beauty clung to the garage door for several hours, deterring me from whatever chore had sent me in that direction. I left it alone, and eventually it left me alone as well.

Butterflies are said to be a symbol of rebirth and renewal. I’m not inclined to pay attention to such “signs,” but this time I would like to believe. What other option is there?

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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How to Endanger Dubois While Feeling Just Great

Where did I get it, and where did I leave it?

I have no idea how I could have caught it, and worse yet, no idea where I left it behind. I won’t even know what “it” is until I can get the results of the nasal swab test I had just this morning.

What I do know is that after going to bed on May 15–the very day that the Governor’s newest order allowed people to gather inside restaurants, gyms, and churches again–I fell ill without warning.

I slept very badly. All my muscles ached horribly, even the ones in my fingers and toes, and no medicine helped for very long. For a while I had chills.

The next morning I had a fever of 102 degrees, and I almost couldn’t get out of bed. I slept through that day, and all through the following night.

I’m puzzled about how I got this, whatever it is. I have been wearing a mask in stores and the Post Office. I’ve used Kleenex to open doors in town, and rubbed my hands with sanitizers before driving home.

There are two possible outcomes to this personal story, neither of which is pleasant.

Either the test is positive, in which case I’m the lucky winner of the First-Confirmed-Pandemic-Case-in-Dubois Prize, and my husband and I are stuck at home for another 14 days. Or it’s negative, I’m still vulnerable, and somehow all my precautions didn’t even protect me from something less virulent than that nasty, extraordinarily infectious pandemic virus.

While I was coming down with this, ironically, I read The Risks: Know Them, Avoid Them by Erin Bromage PhD, an immunologist at the University of Massachusetts. I’m sure she meant to be comforting (in the “knowledge is power” sense), but the scientific reports in her article document how easily the virus can spread to the unsuspecting.

What probably troubles me most is wondering who I endangered over the past days, while I felt absolutely fine but must have been spreading my germs around (whatever they are).

This experience reminds me of bedbugs (alas), and also of true love and parenthood. Until you’ve experienced it for yourself, you can’t really understand the impact.

It looks like I got off easy. My temperature dropped quickly to 99 during the day after the bad night, and a day and a half later, I felt much better. But I’m confined to the bedroom now. I wear a mask every time I leave the room (unless I forget). I wash my own dishes in the bathroom sink.

My husband is sleeping in a guest room. For the moment, I have to work very hard to protect him. This gives me an insight into how easy it must be to share Coronavirus with your family members.

It’s quite a chore to be adequately careful. Inadvertently, I touch a doorknob without reaching for a Kleenex first, and have to circle back and clean it off. I sometimes forget the mask when I walk out to talk to my husband from across the room. (Mustn’t leave my germs in his airspace.)

I simply can’t make my own food or even my own coffee, because it requires too much touching this and that (although I do grab cans of seltzer from the pantry). Here’s a good one: Opening the front door with my gloves on, I realize that I had just worn them while readjusting the filter inside my mask — on the side my breath has been facing.  So I have to spray them as well as the outside doorknob with bleach solution, of course using a paper towel to hold the spray bottle.

For several weeks I’ve been dutifully keeping a paper record of my contacts on the off-chance I might have to give information to a contact tracer. Thinking idly about this as I lay in bed, I realized that I had overlooked several casual conversations that took place with my mask off, because I mistakenly assumed I was no threat.

But I had already read that people can pass the Coronavirus along before they experience symptoms. In fact, some infected people never fall ill at all but can still spread it around; I have a friend living elsewhere in Wyoming who falls into that category. Maybe someone I spoke with infected me. Maybe I have infected them. Who knows?

bluebirdAt least I can be glad that we are no longer living in that tiny garden apartment in the pandemic hell-hole of New York City. There, we couldn’t have escaped each other at all during quarantine (which makes me really sorry for any New Yorkers who are roommates and don’t like each other much).

Here, we have an open-plan main floor with high ceilings, several bedrooms and bathrooms, and a back porch leading to the vast outdoors and paths that go off into wilderness.

I get to step out the back door from our bedroom to enjoy the fresh air and enjoy sights I never would have seen if I weren’t confined. Today, I scared up a whitetail deer that stared at me from just beyond the porch railing before ambling slowly off. Yesterday, I watched a bluebird swooping down feed his mate inside the birdhouse, just as my husband drops off my own next meal.

I’m so fortunate that this is happening to me in Dubois, I think. But then …

I ponder what will happen, now that the doors have opened on our business establishments and there’s a steady stream of cars heading in the direction of Yellowstone. The restaurants and gyms can be as careful as possible, yet it will be very easy for the virus to spread nonetheless, if the rest of us are too easygoing–especially as tourists begin to arrive. In theory, any of them might pass it along to any of us. 

Perhaps because so far Dubois has had the distinction of having a case count of zero, relatively few of our residents are wearing masks in town. I know of at least one who has actually refused to do so. It’s tempting to view this in the light of personal liberty and cowboy courage in the face of danger, rather than in the tradition of community self-help that has always prevailed here in the Mountain West. Perhaps not enough people realize that masks are worn to protect the other guy, as a surgeon does.

If I am the one to destroy our town’s enviable zero-case record, I won’t be apologetic. I did try to protect myself and everyone else. But my experience shows how important–and how difficult–it is to be vigilant enough.

Our best defense is to take this risk seriously, and make effective use of all of the protections we know about: social distancing, masks, and sanitizers.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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A New Love Late in My Life

A true story about small miracles

Let’s talk about something else. I’m so weary of that topic, aren’t you?

Here’s a nice true story.

Once upon a time before all this, I was walking the dog with a good friend. She asked me whether I knew someone who could provide a good home for a piano.

I cast my eyes heavenward and replied, “Ye-AH-ah!”

It would take too long to explain why, but our decision to move to Wyoming forced me to sell my beloved piano in Brooklyn (the one in the picture). This made me very sad, because playing it had brought me great joy for all of my married life.

I am an amateur musician (both my parents were professionals), and I did have piano lessons as a child. I’m not a skilled pianist now, but I still love practicing to create the sounds that the composers intended to be beautiful.

Like my friend the software designer who relaxes by writing code when he’s feeling stressed, I relax by reading music using the keyboard. I also play the flute, the violin, and the mandolin, but none of these can provide the full harmonic richness of piano music.

I had chalked up the sacrifice of my piano as one of the few downsides of living in wonderful Wyoming. What were the odds of finding a good piano for sale in a tiny town in the wilderness? And was it worth transporting one here from somewhere else, just for a hobby?

Now my friend needed to find a home for her late mother’s piano, which was a century old. It had spent the past 20 years in the home of a man in town whose mother had just passed away. He wanted it moved out so he could have his own mother’s piano instead. My friend had no room for it in her house, and said she wouldn’t play it herself anyway.

I was thrilled at her question–provisionally. Of course I wanted to see and play the piano before committing. After all, it could easily be like the ones you see in the taverns in old Westerns, with a tone more like a xylophone than a Steinway.

We drove over to check it out. It was love at first touch.

It did look a bit like a honky-tonk, scratched here and there and the keys all discolored. But it was a deep pecan color with a lovely grain, and despite its Victorian-era provenance, a no-frills design.

What mattered far more was how it sounded: Rich and deep, and barely out of tune despite heaven knows how long since its last tuning. I shook the man’s hand, we agreed to share the cost of moving it to my house, and a few days later there it was.

The dirty keys cleaned up beautifully with a damp sponge and paper towel, and scratch remover took care of the scars.

My online search to learn how much to pay my friend for this wonderful windfall revealed how lucky I had been. The piano tuner confirmed this once he heard it and saw behind the music rack. He couldn’t stop interrupting his work to tell us what he had found.

The instrument was manufactured in Toronto by a company renowned in its day for striving to make top-quality pianos. It was advertised then as an “upright grand,” and that term is still used by many sellers online.

The piano tuner pointed out some features he had never seen before in an upright, but only in grand pianos. What he said explained why it caused four burly men to groan and sweat while moving it, and why it stays so well in tune: It has a huge cast-iron frame, just like a grand, and instead of being held in place by pins the strings are run through channels cast right into the frame. The wooden keys are shaped to make them weightier at the back end, so that they hit the hammers more firmly and create a richer sound.

I am indeed in love with my new piano. I almost can’t pass it without stopping to play.

How we made space for it is another charming who-would-have-guessed Dubois story. We wanted it in a side room on the main floor, where I could close the door and play in seclusion if that was desirable. But what to do with the huge old pump organ that dominated the room?

It had come to us along with the furnishings in the house, but was no particular fun to play. You have to pump with your feet to keep the sound going, and it has quite a reedy voice. Most of the time, I rested my electronic keyboard right in front of it.

An antique-dealer friend had no interest. “They’re impossible to get rid of,” he said bluntly.

My husband suggested donating it to a church. But what church would want a heavy, cumbersome white elephant that you had to pump to play? Like me, they’d rather use a Casio keyboard.

“Put an ax to it,” I said. My husband was horrified, and suggested at least advertising it somewhere.

As a first resort, I sent an email to the Roundup, our local shopping sheet, to post among the giveaways. Then I totally forgot about it. On the morning after the posting appeared, I got a call from a newcomer to town who asked if it was still available.

An amateur musician like myself, he enjoys playing antique instruments. By profession, he is a leather-crafter. When he came to pick up the pump organ, he told me he plays the bagpipes. He had always wanted a pump organ.

We found each other in tiny Dubois, in the middle of the wilderness and hours from any Interstate. Can you believe it? Truth is stranger than fiction.

When my new love was settled in place, I sent my son a joyful text with the astonishing news. “You should have a piano,” he replied. “We always had one.”

Since then, I sometimes send him a small recording late in the evening, as he goes to sleep sheltering in place in his Manhattan apartment. (Oops, sorry. We weren’t going to go there this time.)

He thinks that his beloved Grammy (that’s her in the picture, playing my Baldwin long ago) is responsible for all this. During a break in rehearsals for the heavenly choir, she overheard my friend’s mother in conversation with the man’s mother. 

Of course they’re all together in the heavenly choir. By definition, all three were music lovers, after all. (My mother was a professional mezzo soprano, and any choir would be lucky to have her. I heard the angels cheering when she arrived.)

“Your daughter needs to find a home for her piano?” she said to my friend’s mother. “My daughter lives in Dubois, and she dreams of having a piano again. I think we can arrange a miracle.”

Hearing that, in my version of the story, the man’s mother (who was a newcomer to the group) just smiled.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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First Day of Spring 2020: Sheltered in Peace

You can’t tell Mother Nature to be in lockdown.

After a phone call with a friend who’s in quarantine, I went out snowshoeing.

I had hoped the clouds would part and the sky turn blue, but soon I was actually enjoying the misty sky and gentle snowfall.

It was like an enchanted forest. Wearing a heavy crown of snow, the log-built restroom in the empty campground looked like a hut in a children’s story book. There was silence but for the patter of the snowflakes and the call of a distant duck.

A few days ago, the Governor closed down all public places in Wyoming for two weeks. It seems that nobody informed Mother Nature.

As in the early spring of any year, we are suddenly seeing animals other than the hardy livestock that tolerate cold and snow. Small calves are romping in the roadside meadows now, and I’ve seen my first pair of bluebirds.

Driving down-county last week, going in the direction away from Yellowstone, I had the rare pleasure of catching a glimpse of bison on the open range on the reservation.

The Native Americans have succeeded in bringing them back to the rez, and I always look for them. But I very seldom see them near the highway out there (though other bison are regulars along the route to Jackson).

Unlike what we expect in the summer when we head to Jackson, this time there was no traffic jam. Nobody else stopped to take a picture. Besides, going that way off-season there are hardly any other cars, anyway.

Coming back from dinner at a restaurant up-mountain last week (when dinners out were still allowed), we were remarking what a shame it is that you seldom see moose any more. We turned a corner and there, among the willows: Not one, but three!

We stopped and watched them enjoying their own evening meal. The dark spots at left are the two that are hiding out in the willow bank.

A few days later, taking the same route, I saw one of them again, again a dark shape among the russet willow branches. I pulled over and watched for a long time as it grazed in the late afternoon sunlight.

It stood still for a while afterwards, and then it sat down beneath the willows. I drove on, feeling rather fortunate.

The other day, our daughter spoke some words I never thought I’d hear her say: “I wish I lived in Dubois right now.”

You can go outdoors anytime, she went on, and always find something interesting to do. So true.

If he was older and could understand exactly what she means, this young fellow might agree with his mother. (Now there’s another wild creature I wish I could see more often.)

Out walking the dog yesterday, I encountered a friend and we hiked on together up a lovely country road, socially distant as per CDC advisories, well apart but happily together nonetheless.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

Thanks for reading! 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.

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