The Bright Side of the Dark in Dubois

I’m not very good at patience, but I had nothing else to do …

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I really, really needed my sleep last night. But when my mind came close to the surface at 4 AM,  the Geminid meteor shower drifted in.

I had read about the event in my news feed, and had wished I could witness it.

After a while, I gave up trying to sleep. I got up, made a cup of herbal tea, and drew a chair up to the window.

These are the dark times in Dubois, when daylight ends in late afternoon and we try to find ways to stay alert through the long dark evenings until bedtime. There are two compensations for this: 1. It’s also the holidays, and 2. We’re blessed to live in a dark sky location. The sky is not just dark; it’s  profoundly dark. It feels as if you can see all the stars there are.

Back in Brooklyn, when I thought of God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would number like the stars, I had the impression that God meant he’d have 3 or 4 grandchildren. But as I approached the window last night, in every direction I looked, the sky above our wilderness was a riot of stars. They glittered in the windy air.

Out to the east, one star — or was it a planet? — gleamed especially bright and steady. I thought of the Wise Men. How long, I wondered, would I have to wait to see a “shooting star”? Would this be a fool’s errand, a waste of perfectly good sleep time?

The news site had warned us to dress warmly, as this is December. But the night sky here is so dark I could sit cozily indoors, in the dining room, wrapped only in my bathrobe.

I’m not very good at patience, but it was silent and dark and I had nothing else to do at that moment if I wasn’t going to sleep. I sat looking out the window with the largest view — the one that faces Cody and Saskatchewan — and soon a narrow flash of brilliance zoomed past, low on the horizon, just above the windowsill. A good omen.

Were those faint swipes in my peripheral vision tiny meteors, or just my imagination? Giving Nature the benefit of the doubt, I counted both of them: Two.  Three. Then, closer to my center of vision, numbers 4 and 5.

My neighbor, who began watching at 2 AM (having set an alarm), told me she saw 61 in an hour or so. I began later. My count was a mere 17, but then I spent some time making more tea and trying without success to get a picture of the stars on my phone. (These images are public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.)

This image does look very similar to the night view from my window, but I didn’t see anything that looked like a fireworks display.

A meteor shower isn’t like what you take in the bathroom after a hard hike, I discovered. It’s a drop here, a splash there.

As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I began to trust the fainter flashes that would travel about a millimeter’s apparent distance across my field of vision. They vanished much too quickly to be wished upon.

But meteor number 10 was a superstar of falling debris: It began above my head and swooped slowly “northward,” toward the horizon, blazing downward for 2 or 3 whole seconds. I almost imagined I could hear a whooshing sound.

I was too amazed to make a wish.

©Lois Wingerson, 2018

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.

Escape from the Jingle Bells

The strolling tourists depart. Town is quiet, the summer houses are dark and empty, and the Thanksgiving turkey is all gone. Nighttime sets in during late afternoon.

I resign myself to the thought that the slow, sleepy period has begun. Then, with surprising speed, another busy season is upon us.

Back East in the city, it arrived like an invasive weed. At some point,  and far too soon, I’d be aware of background music with the sound of jingle bells. Before long, it was everywhere on the shopping streets. The sound made me literally agoraphobic: afraid of the market. Shoppers seemed stressed out. Carols intended to make me reverent made me want to flee.

The holidays are also busy in Dubois, but with a notably different feel. This is, after all, a town of 1,000 permanent residents with a reputation for friendliness, and about 50 nonprofit organizations, many of them devoted to charity.

My first sound of the season this year was the barely perceptible strain of classical background music in the Opportunity Shop (which raises many thousands of dollars each year, all of it given back to the community).

“Oh, yes,” I thought. “Christmas is coming.” And then quickly forgot about it.

Songwriter Skip Ewing, who used to hold workshops here and moved to town last spring, took it upon himself to open the season formally with a concert in the Dennison Lodge on December 1.

I wasn’t in the spirit at all when I bought tickets–not to celebrate the season, but to listen to Skip.

The Dennison was decked out for the event, and was packed for both performances. Here, we are waiting for him to start the first one.

Skip began by saying that he had brought us there to get us into the Christmas spirit, and warned that eventually, like it or not, we would all be singing too. After a long series of his county favorites (some of them top of the charts in their day), he segued into his new holiday songs — some silly, some sentimental, others solemn.

“In the meadow we can build a snowman,” he croons,
“and pretend he’s Santa bringing toys.
When he asks us ‘Are you naughty?’ we’ll say No, man,
’cause everybody’s nice here in Dubois.”

His last was “Silent Night.” Skip began simply and quietly, and sure enough some of us began to sing along. Gradually his voice grew softer and ours louder, until all that came through the microphone was the sound of his guitar. Then that fell away too, leaving nothing but our voices–and the spirit.

It’s the season of open houses now, at the bank, the phone company, the museums and the community centers. There’s no need to go far to find Christmas cookies.

People don’t speak of being stressed out by the shopping. We can gift shop online, of course, and the FedEx and UPS guys are visibly busy. We can find Western-themed gifts at Olsen’s, or a handmade item at the Christmas extravaganza in the Headwaters or at Anita’s shop, Wyoming Wool Works. Or we can treasure-hunt at the Opportunity Shop, which is actually fun.

The other day I sat on a stool in Superfoods wearing a silly elf’s hat and now and again ringing a little bell. At that very moment, some unlucky folks were certainly standing in front of Bed, Bath, and Beyond next door to my former office building in Manhattan, ringing their bells without a pause. In that context, it was another irritating noise of the season.

Just one particle in a floodstream of pedestrians, I used to pass by without paying them any attention at all. They rang like automatons, and looked cold and miserable. I didn’t know them or the people they helped. I supported other causes.

Superfoods graciously allows us to sit indoors next to the shopping carts. Most of the Salvation Army bell-ringers here are volunteers affiliated with other nonprofits.

This year I’m ringing on behalf of the Dubois Museum. Shoppers pass me one by one as they enter the store. I greet them all, and many are personal friends.

About half of the people drop something into the bucket on their way out, and now and again a rather large bill. I love their generosity. Almost everyone greets me again upon leaving the store. A few apologize for not contributing, or say they donated last time.  The sum of donations seems to increase every year.

As the sign beside me says, all the funds remain in Dubois. I know the person who runs Salvation Army here, and I have met some of the people that it quietly helps: Cross-country backpackers who have had a turn of bad luck in this remote location. Travelers stranded after a breakdown without enough funds for a motel. Impoverished old folks without the skills to navigate the social networks.

My favorite part of this gig, other than the obvious charitable benefit, is watching the banter and chatter that goes on in Superfoods.

“The way you mumble and with my hearing problem, we could probably start World War III,” jokes one guy.

“Let’s leave that to the oligarchs,” says the other.

Fortunately, the oligarchs are very far away. What we have is peace on this small part of the earth, and plenty of good will to go around.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018

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.


The Appalling Case of the Diligent Scout Master

Joe has no idea who reported him. It’s difficult to imagine anyone in town doing that. More than likely, some well-meaning visitor to the campground saw the empty kayaks floating downstream, and called 911.

As everyone in town knows (who has not been comatose, away all summer, or boycotting Facebook) that incident led the Boy Scouts of America to suspend our long-time Scoutmaster, Joe Brandl. The BSA has now denied his appeal.

It was a routine outing last May, a typical outdoors training exercise for the troop that Joe headed for many years. The Wind River was predictably high with the late-spring runoff of snowmelt, and some of the boys were tipped from their kayaks.

None of the scouts was hurt or even (in the other sense of the word) upset. This had happened before, and was hardly unexpected. Thanks to Joe’s guidance, they already knew what to do. In fact, they probably saw it as an ordinary part of the training.

But the Sheriff and the volunteer fire department showed up, and somehow the BSA got wind of it. Although the local Sheriff closed the case without further action, the Wyoming State Council decided that Joe’s outdoor activities were “reckless and endangering.” He was suspended with a threat of dismissal, which has now been carried out.

Nearly everyone here likes Joe Brandl, who exemplifies the characteristics most of us admire and hope to emulate: Courage, good sense, good humor, open-mindedness, honesty, selflessness, an industrious temperament and an independent spirit.

He delights us with his imaginative Facebook page, updated at least daily. Sometimes he dresses up and poses as a Mountain Man, a homesteader, or an English gentleman. Next he shows us the buffalo moccasins or rawhide neckties he is making (he’s a tanner by trade), or he posts a quote by a philosopher with an image of the mountains. It’s worth joining Facebook if your only friend there is Joe Brandl.

Joe has been sharing his outdoor survival skills for many years, with everyone, in every medium: Public workshops and treks for all ages, article series in the local newspaper, posts on Facebook, and of course his tireless efforts with his Boy Scouts.

His appearance a few years ago on the reality show Naked and Afraid was just a lark. His “life devotion,” Joe wrote recently on Facebook, has been his work with the scouts.

“I love the old scout ways and believe more now than ever that the Scout Oath and Law is 2nd only to the Ten Commandments,” he said. “I hold in high regard the Scout Motto of ‘Be Prepared’ and the Scout Slogan, ‘Do a Good Turn Daily’.”

“We live in an environment that is shared with grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions and ornery moose.,” Joe wrote in his letter of appeal to BSA. “Our rivers are wild and our mountains are steep and rugged. This is our backyard to explore. In the past 30+ years our scouts have challenged themselves in severe weather, high water and rocky cliffs, I have always maintained a commitment to safety while pushing my scouts to take on these activities. While I have not always stressed the use [of] safety videos, I have instead put them in the water and on the mountains in all types of weather conditions. Each scout has grown to respect the outdoors and to deal with their fears. In all the years of scouting, I have never had any scout seriously injured.”

Joe’s Facebook post announcing the failure of the appeal has generated 166 responses and 94 comments to date, including:

“So you were teaching boys to become good men. Teaching them to be brave and prepared in tough spots ? Dang you!”

“You can be our son’s Boy Scout leader anytime! Where do we need to move to?”

“Let’s see: trustworthy loyal helpful friendly courteous kind obedient cheerful thrifty brave clean and reverent. They’ve mangled and broken several of those scout laws in the way they’ve treated you, Joe…
clearly a kangaroo operation.”

Many comments mentioned the fact that neither party named as signators to the letter (Brad Bodoh, CEO of the Greater Wyoming Council, and Shane Calendine, regional director of BSA’s Western Region) actually signed it. This was seen as demonstrating a lack of courage or conviction.

Joe says that the Boy Scouts in Dubois continue strong, and that parents have stepped forward to help. Forbidden himself to volunteer as a Boy Scout leader, to wear their uniform, or even to take part in troop meetings, Joe continues to hold well-attended meetings in which he trains boys and young men in survival and independence, according to the tenets of Robert Baden-Powell. Three days ago he was teaching them to make snowshoes from willow branches.

“I am not shocked by their decision, but just baffled by it,” Joe wrote on Facebook after sending his futile letter of appeal to the BSA.

Baffling, indeed. In an era when priests and public officials are vilified for the most distressing of indiscretions, our Scout leader has been stripped of his rank for the offense of teaching independence and survival skills to young men who enjoy, and many of whom hope to find a way to continue living in, this wilderness.

For whatever it’s worth, Brad Bodoh lives in Casper and Shane Calendine lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. Neither accepted the opportunity to comment on this blog before posting.

The action they chose is another testimony, and this a very sad one, to the fact that Dubois is unique, challenging, close-knit, wonderful, and extremely difficult to describe or to understand from a distance.

In order to get it, you have to be here for a while. Not very many have that privilege.

 ©   Lois Wingerson, 2018   

You can see new entries of LivingDubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.


A New Image for Dubois: Antiquarian Armory

As the new museum rises, we ask ourselves …

Tanks070417The sight of tanks rolling down the main street of Dubois would be jarring if we did not know the context: the Independence Day parade. Every July, we have been seeing just a few of the tanks, trucks, and ambulances brought out for the day by a local landowner, Dan Starks, an engineer who is fascinated by the machinery and its history.

Starks has about 250 US military vehicles dating back to World War II, the largest private collection in the country and perhaps the world. When he decided to open most of it to public view in a new museum just down the river, this has understandably provoked some conversation.

What effect will this have on our town? How will this fit with our shared image of Dubois: Remote, quiet, rustic, peaceful?

Will this be the “making” of Dubois, as the Buffalo Bill Center of the West made a boom town of Cody? (And are we comfortable with that?)

TankMuseum_1018Will it be the long-sought “draw” that lures people to stop overnight n Dubois on their way to Yellowstone? Will this all overwhelm us, as the Total Eclipse did last year (but only for a few days)?

Whatever our questions, the National Museum of Military Vehicles is rising rapidly from its foundations–all 144,000 square feet of it (so far), to exhibit 107 vehicles from World War II, with a second building coming later to house about another 80 post-WWII vehicles, as well as two additional exhibits, a library, a theater, and two classrooms.  The first building should be completed next May, and some of the exhibits should be more or less in place for a “soft launch” next September. After a winter of finalizing the exhibits and training staff, a grand opening is scheduled for May 2020.

Dan Starks and his wife moved to Dubois from Minneapolis several years ago, finding this to be “a private remote area where we could build a home and have a lot of privacy,” Starks said. “When we first came here, it was for the view, and the privacy, and the freedom.”

Starks said he started his work life harvesting beans and working in warehouses, and eventually turned a bankrupt medical device company into a Fortune 500 firm with $6 billion in annual sales in 130 countries. Starks6He has bought up a great deal of property in the area, and reportedly contributed large amounts anonymously for various charitable causes here.

Gradually, Starks began bringing his collection of tanks, trucks, ambulances, and other military vehicles to his property near town. Some visiting friends who saw them urged Starks to share the huge collection with others, and eventually he decided to do so.

This is not a commercial venture; he portrays it more as a tribute to the troops. “Of course, the place we should be doing this to get the most visitors would be a large metropolitan area,” he said last spring. “The main reason it’s here is because we live here … I sure as heck don’t want to have to travel to see it.”

Starks was speaking at a public forum on May 31, co-chaired by Dubois resident and Wyoming state Congressman Tim Salazar, a member of the legislative task force created to study whether the state could or should be involved in the private enterprise.

Starks very pleasantly made it clear that he was grateful but didn’t really need any help. He said that the project had already cost $20 million and would probably cost $50 million in the long run. He added that he had created a large endowment so that “this asset [will] be here when we’re in our graves.”

Starks2Earlier that day, Starks had welcomed the public to his property, to view at least part of the collection. Speaking in a rapid-fire monologue, and naming the vehicles by model number, he spoke about them with some passion.

He told how the rivets in the earliest tanks could pop inward under fire, turning them into deadly weapons that doomed their operators. He described the progress in tank technology throughout World War II—the lower profile, the increases in the armor, improvements in welding and casting, engines and transmissions and weaponry, and what this all meant to protecting the troops and to victory.

Starks pointed out a tank that was involved in the Battle of the Bulge, and went on to talk about the history of that battle. Because the US military gave most vehicles to the Allies after the war or abandoned them in Europe, he said, it’s rare to acquire one that can be definitively traced to a particular battle in this way. (He is committed to documentation. He has manuals for all vehicles in the collection, and they will be kept in a library in the museum, along with oral history information.)

Starks7I asked about the truck standing next to it, and Starks described why a new delivery/artillery hybrid was needed in the  Vietnam, where it was easy to lob a grenade at a supply vehicle. An onlooker spoke up to say that he had actually used a truck like that in ‘Nam.

“You see, that’s what I’m hoping for,” Starks remarked. He wants to tell the stories around the vehicles, and to prompt memories from veterans who see the displays.

“There’s recognition,” he had said. “There’s honor. There’s remembrance. There’s a level of healing we hope to get at in the modest way that we can.”

Later, I approached a woman standing toward the back to ask what she thought. She paused. “I’m offended,” she replied after a moment. “This is so contrary to the character of the country, to freedom. To the wildlife.”

During the public forum that afternoon, she raised her concern that the museum would glorify war in a landscape of quiet and refuge. Starks (who is not himself a veteran) replied quietly and respectfully, saying that he would like to speak more with her about that in private. A politician at the dais remarked that, done well, the stories behind the machinery could bring to life the true costs of war–and might therefore help to deter it.

Starks13_reworkedThe new curator of the museum, Doug Cubbison, who comes here directly from 5 years at the Veterans Museum in Casper, has been working quietly in town since last August to begin the massive effort of creating and staffing a huge and unique institution in one of the most remote towns in the country.

Already, they have made some firm decisions about what they will not do, Cubbison told me.

  • They will not open a restaurant or lodging as part of the museum complex, to avoid to avoid competing with the businesses in town, and they plan to coordinate with the Chamber of Commerce to direct visitors to services in Dubois. The most refreshment offered in the museum will be beverages such as water and soft drinks.
  • They will institute an entry fee for general admission (veterans excepted), to avoid unfair competition with the Dubois Museum and the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center. (Starks committed to this during the May forum.)
  • The gift shop will sell only books and other objects related to military vehicles and their history, to avoid competing with other shops in town.

“He’s willing to talk to anyone,” Representative Salazar said at the forum last May. “And he’s willing to listen. Someone opening a private [museum] could easily do otherwise.”

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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.

So the Doctor Came Over the Pass in the Snow …

Another blessing for our health on the heels of the new pharmacy.

IMG_1782“What happened to your hand?” friends were asking yesterday.

I explained that it’s really nothing, and then we tried to come up with an amusing answer. I got injured fending off a grizzly attack? (Not funny.) Got caught up when I was dallying the lasso? (Not even remotely plausible.)

In fact, the bandage is there to protect the minor laser burns sustained during my latest biannual ritual at the skin doctor. She found more of those pre-cancerous spots, and zapped them away. It’s ugly, but not painful, and it will heal quickly.

Why am I sharing this? Because of another blessing that has come to town, hot on the heels of our new pharmacy.

PassHighway022514_2For this visit, I didn’t have to take the usual 90-minute drive over Togwotee Pass to Jackson to see the dermatologist. This time (on the morning of our first snowfall, as it happens), the dermatologist and the rest of her team came to me.

This could have been their last monthly visit at the end of a six-month experiment. But they’ve decided to keep coming every month, year-round.

This is no small favor. That a specialist and her team will come over the Pass to spare dozens of us driving the other way in order to detect early skin cancer is a very important benefit in this remote town. At around 7000 feet, the sun is deceptively brutal here. It’s not hot, but it’s dangerous–especially for someone with a family history of skin cancer, but actually for anyone. I never go outdoors without a generous application of sunscreen and a hat with a brim.

Grandad_BarnDoorThere would not have been any sunscreen available to my grandfather, who was a Nebraska farmer with fair skin. I’m guessing there were no public-health messages about the risks of the sun during the Great Depression, and as you see him standing here in the barn door, he was not wearing a hat.

He died from melanoma that arose on the back of his neck. I envision him laboring for hours on his tractor, head bare, sun at his back as he plowed the furrows.

My mother (not a rancher but a teacher) regularly had pre-cancerous lesions taken off her skin. Now so do I, as do many of my neighbors. Thank heaven.

And thanks to Storey Donaldson, office manager of Western Wyoming Dermatology & Surgery, who proposed adding Dubois to their satellite offices in Pinedale and Afton.

IMG_1784_editedThis week was the end of a six-month pilot project to see whether the practice would attract enough patients in Dubois to justify the effort. Not only have they gained new patients from our town, Storey told me; about half of their visits in Dubois are from people farther down the valley, in Lander and Riverton, who would not want to make a 3-hour trip all the way over to Jackson.

Back in the day, someone would ride on horseback all day and hope to be able to bring a doctor back in time before the injured person died. Today, we have two clinics and regular access to preventive care. One clinic now offers dermatology visits once a month; the other offers telemedicine links to specialists at the best hospital in the state. There’s also an ambulance service with response times that match national standards, air lifts to regional intensive care centers, and search and rescue crews that venture out to help people injured in our wilderness.

IMG_1778In New York City, I left behind some of the best medical care in the world. But I don’t spend much time even thinking about that.

So what did I do after seeing the dermatologist on Wednesday, instead of spending 90 minutes driving back from Jackson? I put on my hat, of course, and took the dog for a ramble.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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.

An Exhilarating Farewell to Summer

Live. Jam. Funk. Free. This looked promising.

PerfectFallDayPark“I’m so sad to see the end of summer,” friends will say, as the fields turn to gold and the air grows crisp. Not I.

The smoke has cleared. Most of the tourists are gone. The skies are blue and the days are warm.

September is the most wonderful time in Dubois, and I do not dread the end of summer. I begin to think of the brilliant beauties of winter.

Last Friday, I was musing about how so many others elsewhere would be spending their Labor Day weekends: Dressing light on account of the humid heat, getting out the suits and shovels for a trip to a beach somewhere that would deposit sticky sand in every crevice, packing food to keep the ants out of the picnic. Here in Dubois, we added another layer to the T-shirts to prepare for the cool of evening and headed off for Coyote Blue, where Alli and Noah had set out a gift for the entire town in the back yard of their coffee shop.

SneakyPetePosterThe text and look-and-feel of their poster said it all: Live. Jam. Funk. (Free.) Nothing like our usual laid-back country music band strumming away as a few old-timers shuffle around the dance floor doing the two-step. This looked promising.

We arrived right on time, which of course is not the coolest time to arrive. Sneaky Pete and the Secret Weapons were still warming up on the platform behind the coffee shop, as people slowly began to filter in across the blocked-off side street.

It brought to mind our annual block party in Brooklyn, one of the few things I miss about the city I’ve left behind. There’s something special about reveling to music outdoors on the street with your neighbors, who aren’t the people you usually choose to get down with on a weekend evening. You never know who will turn up. It felt like that.

We nursed our beers and watched the band or gazed across the highway at the foothills of Whiskey Basin, talking about not much as the shadows lengthened. Small children were chasing each other around on the lawn behind the building. Parents felt no urgent need to be vigilant.

EarlyCrowdAllie and Noah were briskly selling brisket from a food van at the back, which quickly ran out — but nobody seemed to care. There was plenty of the crucial element: beer.

Somehow the funky jazz enhanced our wistful sense of general goodwill as we savored the slow decline of a beautiful thing–the day, the summer, the season.

Then the sun went down, and the feeling changed. Many older folks got chilly and went home. Many younger ones finished their workdays or the left the bar and dropped by to check out the scene. The canopy of strip lights went on. And as it got darker, the band got hotter.

Eventually, almost nobody could resist the growling bass line and the beat. This band was really remarkably good. The dance floor filled to capacity and spilled over onto the gravel and the lawn. It seemed that every body–young, old, inbetween, or small enough to carry–was literally moved by the music.

Dancing1For a brief few hours, we all shared a remarkable sense widespread exhilaration. This is not something I’ve experienced before in Dubois. I may witness others’ joy in beauty, often a sense of relaxation or the peace of rest after hard work, the pleasure of a good, hard hike–but never anything quite like this. Not here.

For all that everyone did a year ago to make an even bigger thing of the total eclipse in our tiny town, this event was more memorable. Alli told me that she and Noah decided to create the evening simply to celebrate the end of a summer of hard work. She added that they intend to do it again next year.

I heard others that evening express my feeling that we must find ways to offer more small free outdoor dance events that bring out all ages and all tastes, and give us us a chance to enjoy a collective sense of good-natured abandon. The few tourists who stopped by seemed to have a good time also.

The Irish poet Seamus O’Sullivan captured the feeling:

A piper in the streets today
Set up, and tuned, and started to play,
And away, away, away on the tide
Of his music we started; on every side
Doors and windows were opened wide,
And men left down their work and came,
And women with petticoats coloured like flame.
And little bare feet that were blue with cold,
Went dancing back to the age of gold,
And all the world went gay, went gay,
For half an hour in the street today.

The tide of the music. Let’s find a way to do this again. And often. Please.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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.

Another Dubois Distinction: The Bones in the Big Red Dead

Defying the experts in a search for remains.

IMG_1386I used to love scrutinizing the rocks as I hiked. I hoped to find something important.

I’d find pretty green and pink rocks, rocks with interesting shapes, rocks that might have been carving tools, once a petrified twig. I’ve mostly stopped doing that, because I really don’t know what I’m looking for, or at.

But some others do, and they have found it—in abundance.

Paleontologists “spend a lot of time walking around with their eyes glued to the ground, because that’s where the fossils are,” said Calvin So, a paleontology student at the University of Wisconsin. I heard him a few weeks ago at the Riverton Museum.

IMG_1268Two days earlier, the crew of the Nobby Knob Triassic Expedition had covered over their site southeast of Dubois to leave it behind for the winter. They have spent this past summer excavating a trove of remains from what So called “the dawn of the dinosaurs,” between 230 and 200 million years ago, during the Late Triassic.

Team leader Dr. Dave Lovelace gave a similar presentation at the Dubois Museum in July, when I was out of town. My husband went, and phoned me afterwards with astonishing news: Lovelace and the team have been tramping around the outskirts of town for the past four years, searching and digging for fossils.

They’ve been defying the experts, looking for remains in a geologic stratum in Wyoming that paleontologists have referred to as “the big red dead,” always thought to be a dry and barren period devoid of animal remains. The fact that the team has proved them wrong should not surprise us in Dubois, where we know that dry and apparently barren does not imply a lack of life.

“We have found an abundance of fossils,” So said, “contrary to what other people have been saying.” Almost everywhere they’ve looked in the Wind River Valley, Lovelace told me, they have found fragments of bone from this period.

IMG_1430After finding a tantalizing whole phytosaur skull near Lander, where a few Triassic finds were reported in the early 1900s, the team began to explore the red dirt on public land almost within view of structures in Dubois. In 2014, they found fossil fragments of extinct salamander-like creatures known as temnospondyls. The next year they determined where those fragments had been eroding from. This summer, the crew was digging at that spot for two months.

Who knew that these guys (and women) have been out there, as they put it, “digging up Dubois” for four years? (“Anyone who is interested can see us from the main drag in Dubois,” Lovelace said.) And who would have guessed what they’d uncover?

The red hill they named Nobby Knob (after a character in a fantasy book series) has yielded what Lovelace calls “amazing” remains of creatures with the wonderful name of Koskinonodon, a genus of extinct amphibian. Among them is a skull, probably a juvenile, that they affectionately named “Wally.”

When Wally died, sometime way back in a period when the continents were in entirely different shapes and orientations, this area was covered with a shallow lake. Think, So said, of a creature lurking partly submerged, waiting for something to ambush.

IMG_1271Extracting the fossils can be brutal work. To extract the fossils from the dirt, they cover them with plaster. One plaster “jacket” containing dozens of stone-covered fossils weighed 500 pounds, So said. It took about 400 hours of work to chip away painstakingly at the surrounding rock in order to expose the fossilized bones. Another weighed about 1000 pounds.

Once the specimens arrive in Wisconsin, the team exposes the bones. Then they run them through a CT scanner and analyze them using a custom imaging program that allows them to discern the individual bones inside a skull.

In 2016, the team began excavating another site nearby that is rich with remains. Lovelace calls the Serendipity Site a “mass death assemblage.” It’s a Late Triassic cemetery of sorts; a large collection of burrows containing the fossils of tiny early amphibians, probably distant ancestors of the salamanders. Many of their skeletons are preserved largely intact.

This could be echoes of a distant climate change. So said these may be the remains of creatures that went into estivation – a sort of hibernation intended to wait out a drought – and were doomed when the drought lasted too long.

This site adds to another prehistoric distinction for Dubois: A curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York has called this region “the epicenter of Rocky Mountain archaeology,” because the prehistoric high-altitude villages found above Whiskey Basin a decade ago have changed our ideas about some of the earliest Native Americans.

IMG_1269Now this site is changing the way we think about some of the earliest vertebrates. There are enough late Triassic fossils just east of town to classify Dubois as a “world-class vertebrate paleontology locality,” Lovelace told me.

There are only 5 similar sites in the world, he says, and “this one is unique even among those rare localities.”

The other sites (in Poland, Portugal, Morocco, and New Mexico) are “multi-taxon sites” that include remains of several different types of animals. Most of them are random collections of bones and skulls, not large numbers of complete skeletons. The Dubois site is unique, according to Lovelace, because it preserves a single type of animal.

The remains at Nobby Knob are extraordinarily well preserved, in part due to the slow, shallow waters in which they were submerged, still showing remarkable features such as tiny teeth embedded in the palate at the roof of the mouth. Also, the vast majority of the skulls are small, and “small individuals are exceedingly rare.”

This leaves a number of unanswered questions: Were they small because they were all young? (It is not uncommon for adults to inhabit different areas than their young to avoid “their young becoming part of their diet,” he says.) Or are they a new and different species?

And another intriguing question remains: Why were more than half of the burrows at Serendipity not found empty, but still encasing the skeletons of tiny creatures doomed never again to walk that alien, ancient landscape? What was the fatal factor?

The crew will return next year to continue work at the site.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018. Thanks to Dr. Lovelace for reviewing the text for accuracy.

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