Thank you, one last time, for joining me here. The time has come for a farewell.
I’d like to explain.
I sometimes say that this blog is about a city girl moving to the wilderness. Only half of that is true.
For most of my life I was a city girl, but since coming here I never actually lived in the wilderness.
I look at that wilderness every morning, and dream about going back in there again. I’ve hiked up there and ridden in on horseback. I’ve camped in a valley beneath those magnificent buttes, and gone in as far as possible behind those crags on an all-terrain vehicle.
But actually I live in a comfortable house with all of the modern conveniences, less than 500 feet from the highway that leads to Yellowstone. The drive into town takes 15 minutes. Day to day, except for my hikes, my life is just about like anyone else’s.
Like countless others, I came west for an adventure and to reinvent myself. I was lured by the endless space, the soul-restoring mountain and desert landscape, and a fascination with the legacy of those who came here long ago.
Everything I saw was fresh, remarkable, and full of wonder, and I have tried to share that.
Indeed, I did reinvent myself. I never did a moment’s work on a ranch, never even split a log, but I am certainly no longer a city girl. My perspective and my predilections have changed. Also the way I dress.
Along the way, I gradually became attuned to some common misconceptions about the nature of this part of the country. For instance, the romance of the cowboy mystique doesn’t accurately convey the brutality and struggles of that life. These days, a cattle ranch is often a hobby for the super-rich and seldom a viable economic enterprise.
The legendary “rugged independence” of spirit in the West often goes hand in hand with near-suicidal loneliness and desperation. And yet the irony is that many people in this situation would have it no other way.
A hundred and fifty years ago, this type of area attracted many for the opportunity to work incredibly hard and build something of lasting value. Many did (and many others did not, and either left or died trying). Today, it is a challenge to relocate here and find decent housing and a life-sustaining permanent job. I was fortunate to have one already, and to be able to work remotely, but many long-time time locals struggle mightily to stay afloat financially in an economy dominated by seasonal tourism.
I know that over the past 8 years this blog has been read by others who were curious about moving to this remote little valley. In fact, that was its original intent, back 8 years ago when Dubois seemed like the best-kept secret in the West.
Eventually I began to wonder whether that was a good thing to do, whether big-city sensibilities might slowly erode what Dubois residents had come to cherish. This is one reason I have posted less and less. I began to face the prospect of writing any new post with apprehension.
Then, while I was preparing to post this farewell, I received a comment to my original post from a man whose small Colorado farming community has suffered exactly what Dubois hopes to avoid. It is a cautionary tale worth reading. (Scroll down to read the words by Rick.)
For those who want to read other people’s reflections about the American West, there are many great writers, among them Wallace Stegner (the best of all), Willa Cather, Kent Haruf, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx (mentioned with reservations; many people feel she does not portray Wyoming fairly), and Mark Spragg. Wyoming Public Media posts a great podcast called The Modern West.
Or you may want to enjoy the songs on the album “Wyoming” by another skillful storyteller (and a fellow migrant to Dubois), singer-songwriter Skip Ewing. In the title track, his character says, “I didn’t stop to think out problems, I just headed west. I thought I’d get where I was going, but I haven’t yet.” It’s so true, for so many.
Fundamentally, and fittingly, living in Dubois is no longer an adventure for me, because it has become the familiar, and therefore I can’t write as if it is still an adventure. I have always known that there are other equally satisfying places to live. But as Skip Ewing sings, “my heart’s inclined to stay” in Dubois.
Fundamentally, I am very glad that I took my “leap” West, and would never want to live anywhere else. If you are still deciding about yours, I wish you an adventure of your own, and a journey that leads you home.
I thought it was just a sacrifice I had to make for living here
Looking around last Sunday at the Dennison Lodge, as musicians with Jackson Hole Chamber Music sailed through a string quartet with exquisite skill, I noticed all the smiles in the audience and, at times, among the performers.
What I didn’t see was my friend behind me, who was in tears. “It was so compelling,” she said later. “They just drew you in somehow.”
I also cried the first time I heard a performance by this chamber music group several years ago. I wasn’t sad at all — far from it –but tears welled up without warning.
I seldom cry. Usually when I do, it is for a loss — as my aged mother was dying, when I heard a street performer in New York City playing my late father’s instrument, the marimba, and just as I reached home after my last orchestra rehearsal. I’d left early because my shoulder pain became too intense to continue playing.
The arthritis specialist had predicted that moment, and I knew I would have to give it up. I opened the door, set down my beloved viola, and burst into sobs.
When my mother grew too old to continue performing professionally, she just stopped singing. Living in New York City, she could substitute the pleasure of attending concerts. She found it gratifying simply to appreciate the excellence of a performance, note by note, even if she wasn’t involved.
I had the same compensation after I stopped playing in orchestras and string quartets—until we moved to Dubois. Relinquishing the pleasure of those fine concerts, I thought, was my penance for the privilege of being here in the land of fabulous landscape and Western folk music. Never mind leaving behind the restaurants, the theater, and the legendary New York buzz. The only loss that caused me pain was that of classical music.
Maybe that’s because I was truly born into it. (That’s me at the keyboard there, in my Dad’s gag photo of his baby.)
As neuroscience has shown over and over, music is an ancient form of animal communication, an older form of human language than language itself and one deeply seated in the emotional centers of the brain. People tend to appreciate most the kind of music they have grown up with. Sometimes just listening to that kind of music, I find myself in tears for no reason having to do with events of the day.
The tears sprang upon me suddenly at that performance in Jackson as I began listening to a string quartet by Schubert. I sat in a small performance space, close enough to enjoy every movement the musicians made.
I wasn’t crying for a loss, but for something reclaimed. I may not be able to join the wonderful teamwork of a string quartet any more, I realized, but I could still experience it vicariously in nearby Jackson. And now, thanks to a group of music-loving friends and a partnership with the Wind River Valley Arts Guild, I can do so right here in Dubois.
For the past two years, we have won grants, advertised, and made arrangements for these performances at the Dennison. It’s the perfect venue for the occasion: So authentically Dubois, so ideal as a performance space for a small musical group.
The Jackson performances are in a classy, glass-fronted building set in the pines. The Dennison has a much different feel — an old lodge built of rough-hewn log walls that support mounts of elk, moose, and mountain lions. The performers find it charming.
They’ve told me they love the splendid drive over the pass from Jackson into a landscape that some of them have never seen before, and they appreciate the excellent acoustics in our rustic space. Clearly, they also appreciate the audience, which is attentive and appreciative in return.
The listeners enjoy sitting so close to the performers that they can watch them catching each others’ glances and smiling in pleasure at their own rapport. The audience can witness the strength in musicians’ arms as they lean into a heavy down-bow, and they can perceive, as one person remarked on a survey given at intermission, that the musicians enjoy the experience as much as they do.
It was clear from the survey responses that the 50 people who heard them felt the same way I did a few years ago. Unanimously, they told us that they would return for a similar concert next year.
“It made my heart soar,” wrote one member of the audience.
So many others here also share what they love — dance lessons, yoga, songwriting, painting, how to weave wool into blankets. Together we weave a wonderful diversity into a tiny, remote village in the mountains.
Last Sunday, I watched other people enjoying great music together and obviously appreciating each other as they did so. It is a far finer experience than the crowded concert halls in New York with their stiff, formal musicians performing at a distance as you sit surrounded by strangers.
At the Dennison, I leaned back, closed my eyes, reveled in the passing river of tones and harmonies, and pondered how it all travels through the air and then vanishes, this extraordinary gift to our senses. I am glad that at least 50 people here share my particular pleasure, and that they have told us it is well worth our efforts to provide it.
A photo exhibit wonderfully portrays the same contrasts I describe
Trying to plan some diversions for a house guest from New York, I stopped by the Headwaters Center here in Dubois to ask about the current art exhibit. It’s a show of photographs of Wyoming and New York City, I learned.
What could be more perfect? My visitor has degrees in fine arts and art history, and photography is one of his passions.
He’s always talking about the remarkable light and the changing cloud patterns, and regularly dashes outside to catch yet one more different image of landscape and sky. I sometimes wonder whether he visits me here mostly to take photographs.
On the Friday before July 4, we were alone in the Headwaters gallery. I knew absolutely nothing about the photographer, Amanda Fehring, and had no way to guess what my guest would think of her work.
I found most of the images attractive because I could relate to their subjects–a few of them of New York City, but most of them showing our Western landscapes. On my own, I would have looked at them briefly, in order, and then left. But I had the pleasure of an expert guide.
He kept crossing and re-crossing the room, reviewing and comparing the images, seeing them with the eye of someone who might have taken them and sometimes wished he had.
“Half of these are really fantastic,” he said before we left.
His favorite was a picture she had called “Leaning,” a black and white image of winter-bare trees and water. I would never have noticed it, but it stopped him in his tracks. On second viewing, he said it was perfect.
“Look at the way it’s divided exactly in thirds. There’s the white on the bottom balancing the white sky on the top. And look at the way the angle of the fallen tree exactly divides the image,” he said.
“And just listen to it. There’s that silence you get in winter. Not a sound, except maybe the flowing water.”
I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a photograph before.
Another, called “White Red Canyon,” shows a pastel mix of sky over a red-rock formation blanketed in snow, taken from a distance and above. It’s one of those photographs that might actually be a painting instead.
“Amazing,” he said. “You really have to wait for that light. And where was she taking that from? How did that happen?”
Again and again, he invoked the thought of patience and persistence, of the photographer going out in harsh weather, waiting for just the right moment or finding a difficult vantage point, all in search of the right image. It brought to mind some wildlife biologists I have admired for similar attributes.
“This one is really high art,” he said of an image of Lake Como in Italy, pointing out the clarity of the pine needles at the right and the cross-hatching in the water, which he traced to a jet boat that he spied as a white line and dot, barely visible at the base of the hills on the opposite shore.
“She got it so crisp,” he said. “It’s hard to get the saturation right in the shot like that, rather than just fixing it later.”
In contrast, it was the un-clarity of “Wintry Wind River” that he admired, the way in which her artistry caught the frigid vapor that rises above our river on a sub-zero day. Three visual elements caught in one moment, he said: wind, water, and air.
“What’s your favorite?” he asked me after a while.
“I can’t really say,” I replied, “after hearing everything you’ve had to say about them.”
Fair enough, he granted. Looking around quickly, I pointed to the photograph she had called “Noho Stroll.”
“I probably like it just because it reminds me of all those times I used to walk home from work in midtown all the way to Brooklyn,” I said.
“And I like the bright colors.” I pointed out the way the bright blue and red bicycle at the center of the image echoed the walls behind and the blue dress of the Asian woman with the parasol in the center.
“I don’t like that very much,” he remarked, pointing to a yellow traffic cone near the bicycle. But you can’t just rearrange the elements of a street scene, I argued–and then he began to change his mind.
“That matches the yellow of that sign, and there’s the green of those plants. She has all the primary colors. It does have the classic perspective from two points, and the reflection on the side of that delivery van at left really opens up the sky. And also she waited for the right subject.” (He meant the woman with the parasol). “So she has done her job.”
Finally we noticed a curious, postcard-like picture of an strangely shaped building that seemed inconsistent with the others — oddly unfocused and poorly composed.
“Where is that?” I asked. He peered closely at the image. Indistinctly, from the banners on either side of the door, he could discern the location.
“Greenwood Cemetery! Of course!”
We both recognized the building instantly. It’s a Brooklyn landmark.
“She was standing back to take the image from the front,” he guessed, “and then those two women in blue walked up with those gowns exactly the color of the sky. So she just took the shot.”
The image is called “Late.” Perhaps few others would get the hidden meaning. It looks like women walking into a church, but actually they’re entering a cemetery. And in fact, perhaps, Fehring herself arrived too late to compose the shot very well.
I had figured Amanda Fehring as some trust-fund kid who lives in Jackson and doesn’t really need to work. But returning home to my computer, I was surprised and pleased to learn that she’s the news director of County 10 in Riverton. She grew up in Montana, met her husband in college there, and they moved to Brooklyn together after college.
It would have been even more of a contrast for him than for me, because he comes from nearby Kinnear, a hamlet near Riverton which has a population of only about 50. They returned to the West, she told me, because “we needed a break from the big city.”
“Photography has always been a big part of my life,” Fehring said. She recalls grabbing her mother’s single-reflex camera at age 8 or 9, and she been taking pictures ever since.
“It’s never been something I tried to make money off of,” she added — and that’s still true. Every photograph in the current exhibition is priced at $175.
The exhibit closes on July 8. If you’re nearby and you like good art, hurry to catch it before it closes. At least half of the photographs are fantastic. An expert told me so.
My hiking buddy bailed, so I decided to do the go-to workout in the middle of town. I’ve often tramped that steep dirt road up the Overlook before, seen that red dirt and those rocks.
Just back from a hiking trip to the top of the Yorkshire Dales, I’ve been slow to regain my enthusiasm for hiking here. But at least it’s exercise, I told myself. And around here you never know what you may find.
It’s a fairly steep climb up the dirt road to the plateau halfway up, with the chariot racetrack off to the east. From that point there’s a brief stroll across fairly level ground (the middle part of the picture above). Then you have the option of continuing along the road or taking a shorter but steeper trail to the top.
That last part of the hike up the trail, which you can see at the lower left in the picture, is usually slick with loose pebbles. Always risking “rock and roll,” you want to go slowly and step carefully.
I left the road. Just starting up that final climb, I heard someone yelling behind me – the kind of shout an angry parent uses for a disobedient child. But this wasn’t one shout; it was repeated and insistent. I turned to look.
A pickup was coming slowly up the road. An arm waved out the driver’s window. Two dogs – one brown, one white – were trailing behind, detouring to sniff and explore. The yells went on, and the dogs followed in stops and spurts.
I went on uphill. A few feet up the pebbly trail, I heard barking close behind me. A handsome young white hound was trailing me, a few feet behind. Its gaze was interested, not hostile.
“Go back,” I said, waving toward the pickup that was headed along the road toward the top. “Go on!”
It barked again, then turned and ran toward the pickup. “Good dog!” I called after it.
The pickup was already parked when I emerged at the top of the trail, breathing hard. A woman and the two dogs were standing beside the driver’s door. Two others had stepped away to look at the badlands behind.
The driver caught my eye. “I can’t keep up with them, so I just let them run,” she said. “I bring them up here every day.”
Off-leash dogs are a hot-button issue here, a topic for debate in the local newspaper. Others let their dogs run loose on the Overlook. If there’s a rule about that, it is often honored in the breach.
“Yeah, I used to let my dog run free up here too,” I replied. “I knew he would never hurt anyone.”
“Your dog up here?” she asked.
“No, he’s no longer with us,” I said. (That’s him on the Overlook. I hope he is having many wonderful hikes in his afterlife.)
I approached the white hound dog, my hand extended palm down, and it sniffed and wagged its tail. “You’re a good dog!” I said. “Good for you protecting your owner.”
Her two friends were taking pictures with their cameras. “I always think it’s unfair that the steepest part is at the top,” I said to them as I headed toward the road downhill, having caught my breath. “See you on the way down.”
And I did. Both dogs ran happily behind the pickup. Neither was interested in me now.
Reaching the flat stretch on the middle level, I saw five horses trotting in my direction, tightly reined by a pair of riders. I stepped off into the sagebrush to let them pass.
It’s the week before the Don Scheer Memorial Pack Horse Races, when people compete to be quickest to load the panniers and gear on their horses at the Town Park, race up to the Overlook and away somewhere else, unload and repack, and then return, unload, and pitch “camp”.
I’ve seen riders on horseback along the highway in recent days, training their horses not to be spooked by the traffic. The tourists must love the sight.
“Good luck at the races!” I called out as the two men passed.
“We’ll need it!” said one of them.
“Doesn’t everybody?” I asked, thinking of the man last year whose load slipped off just as he was leaving the Park.
I continued along the double-track that runs toward the dirt road heading down toward the highway. Just as I reached the road, the pickup approached, followed by the brown dog. I couldn’t imagine why she would be coming up from behind, given that she had already passed me.
She stopped and rolled her window down. “Lose one?” I said.
“He got distracted by a coyote,” she replied. “Did you see the coyote?”
“Nope. I was too busy watching the horses.”
“Yeah, I saw them too. But I never heard of a coyote on the Overlook. What was a coyote doing up here, I wonder?”
“My dog once found a dead porcupine up here,” I replied. “I wondered what on earth a porcupine was doing on the Overlook.”
“Yeah. No trees up here,” she said. “Musta been lost.” She waved and drove on.
Sure was a workout, I said to myself as I went on.
It may not have the charm and novelty of the Yorkshire Dales. But still, it’s so much more interesting than Pandora on the headphones and the incline settings on the treadmill.
News from a remote region of North England that resonates with home
While relaxing with a beer after a long hike in England’s Yorkshire Dales, I picked up a copy of the Reeth & District Gazette. What I read was so similar to what goes on back home that I can’t resist sharing it.
Otherwise, the scene is quite different there. The buildings are made mostly of rough-cut stone, and most fields are lined with high stone walls. The thought of the strength and effort required for all that construction with native stone was mind-boggling.
Most of the livestock are sheep, not cattle. Because public rights of way cut right across the meadows (crossing those stone walls with very cumbersome stiles), most hikes lead directly through flocks of grazing ewes and their winsome lambs. All but the bravest lambs skitter off as you approach. The ewes shift a few feet away, if at all.
Cows are still fairly rare. Back in the day when farming rather than tourism dominated the economy, it was an unavoidable but costly requirement to keep one or two cows (never mind a whole herd).
Small stone barns dot the landscape, “cow houses” built to protect that valuable investment from the elements. Some of these structures are now falling to ruin. Others are renovated for use as studios or vacation rentals.
That’s the setting. Here’s the news from the Gazette:
Editor Mike Barden begins the edition by writing sadly of the pandemic, and fretting about impact of the subsequent “frightening price increases” on anyone “just starting out into their own world” as well as on single mums and pensioners. Then he mentions the horrors in the Ukraine and the heroism there that has “so far averted WW3.”
“Can you believe what I have just written about in those sentences?” he adds. “Matters we would have never expected to happen.”
The other articles, interspersed between the small ads, are reassuringly provincial, kindhearted, and oddly reminiscent. To wit:
— The Dales Police report for March consisted of one incident of violence, 2 each of criminal damage, burglary and drugs possession, 4 reports of theft and 5 complaints of fraud (the latter mostly involving phone scams related to Amazon and Ebay). On March 8, an unknown male took 2 bottles of Jack Daniels from the Co-op in Leyburn. Someone stole cooking oil from a pub in Wensley.
— A Community Emergency Plan is being enacted to retrieve “vulnerable people” from their homes in times of power outages or natural disasters and deliver them to community centers for shelter. This is necessary to avoid “long periods of waiting in case the Emergency Services are delayed and cannot arrive promptly.”
— Volunteers are working fast to create new nesting boxes for swifts, swallows, and house martins. The options for suitable nesting spots (“nooks and crannies in cavity walls in buildings, empty barns and window alcoves”) have been declining, presumably due to development. A box-building class is on offer, and contractors are being asked to incorporate nesting sites into new structures “subject to consent.” A bird count is also under way.
— Members of SWAAG (the Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group) have been pondering the origins of a large cross-shaped formation of white pebbles recently discovered on Calver Hill, oriented roughly to the north. Information from Google Maps and the (US) National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, pertaining to the deviation of magnetic north over the past 300-plus years, suggests that the stones were laid in 1945 or 1946. It could be some sort of memorial. The US and UK Royal Air Forces used the area for flight practice back then, but there is no record of a plane crash. The cross remains a mystery.
— In April, Swaledale Mountain Rescue (a team of “highly trained volunteers available 24/7 in any weather, any time”) assisted: (1) an injured hiker near the waterfall above Hawes, who was able to walk out after treatment; (2) a “vulnerable person” who had gone missing after being last seen at the visitor center, and was located with the help of a police helicopter and two search dogs; and (3) an injured mountain biker who was treated and then removed by ambulance.
Swaledale Mountain Rescue is offering to mail prints of the drawing “Sheep at Thea’s Cottage” to people who donate money to the cause.
— The huge, ancient Scots pine in Holy Trinity church yard in Low Row has to be removed because it is leaning dangerously eastward after surviving decades of high winds. The church plans to plant other trees to compensate. (Can’t you hear the grumbling from parishioners and neighbors? Something could have been done!) New trees will be planted to compensate for its loss.
— The Dales also have “badlands.” An expert from the Yorkshire Peat Partnership was scheduled to give an online talk about the restoration of three “moors that are close to her heart” — what might have caused them to degrade, the likely consequences for wildlife and water quality, and what could be done to restore them.
On May 21, a ”Peat and Poetry Event” will contemplate the same matters during a 5-6 mile trek on a nearby moor. There will also be recitals of poems about peat and a visit to the Poetry Postbox. Walkers are encouraged to contribute their own poems to the box.
The Dales are not my landscape, but I loved them anyway. I also love the way the people care about them – and about the strangers who choose to wander across them, and about each other. And about the wildlife.
So far, from what Rachel Smiley and Brittney Wagler said at the meeting, I assume that none of these sheep that gaze at us in the spring sun are infected. With luck, they never will be.
Smiley and Wagner, both graduate students at the University of Wyoming, are somewhere high in the mountains right now, working to capture female bighorns which will be tested and then released. After a long, slow process, they have amassed enough data points to draw some conclusions about what should be done.
As most locals know, these sheep are just a remnant of the core native herd of bighorns in the greater Yellowstone region. Before 1990, the Whiskey Mountain herd was so large that almost 2000 wild sheep were transferred out of here to populate other parts of the Mountain West. That stopped abruptly after the herd suffered a die-off in the 1990s. It has never recovered.
Scientists and interested local volunteers have spent decades trying to understand the problem. Only in the last few years, with the same DNA technology used to test for COVID, has research identified the root cause: the bacterium Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae. (Researchers shorthand this to “Movi”.)
It affects sheep worldwide, both domestic and wild, causing a form of pneumonia. Movi is easily transmitted and (especially in this area, for some reason) often fatal in bighorns.
The parallel to COVID isn’t lost on researchers, who observe that sheep don’t wear masks, have a habit of sniffing each other’s noses, and behave with the opposite of social distancing. There is no vaccine against Movi.
There’s another poignant parallel for the Sheep Center. Its Director (who is also, like Wagler and Smiley, young and very fit) nearly died last year from pneumonia due to a form of plague that she caught from her sick cat.
Like so many other pathogens, Movi came to America with the Europeans – specifically, with their sheep. It jumped easily to wild sheep. There aren’t any domestic sheep near here these days, but Movi has persisted. It isn’t the only respiratory pathogen now endemic among local bighorns, which may harbor any or all of 5 different varieties. It’s just the most deadly.
Since 2015, a multi-agency project begun in coordination with the Sheep Center in Dubois has been pursuing a coordinated effort to come up with solutions. As part of it, Smiley and Wagler capture ewes in December and March and test them for Movi as well as for their physical condition, having fitted each one with a radio collar and a vaginal implant transmitter (VIT) that signals when they give birth.
Since 2020, they have also been capturing and collaring newborn lambs. Much of the time, off-schedule, they go back in when sheep (or sometimes just their collars) have died. Every reading and result becomes a point in a larger image.
“Every one of those data points has a ton of effort that has gone into it,” said project advisor Kevin Monteith PhD at the Sheep Center Annual Meeting. But he didn’t expand on that. I was able to learn more from a long interview with Smiley and Wagler posted on the Artemis Podcast in 2020.
This was just after they had begun to radio-collar lambs, which in their rugged high-mountain habitat is a matter of tactics, stealth, endurance, and extreme physical agility. Smiley, a recreational rock climber, often relies on those skills.
“Sometimes it seems crazy that they choose to do what they do,” she said. “A cliff edge is their favorite place in the world.”
When a VIT signals a new birth, they have to race to wherever the GPS reads, because both sheep may easily move away. Some ewes favor giving birth near Down’s Lake, at 12,000 feet in the back and beyond of the Wind River range. “We go up on the old Glacier trail,” said Wagler, “steep, steep, steep switchbacks and then across Goat Flat, which is like 4 miles of rock-hopping. By the end of the summer, we’re all pretty just drained of doing this hike over and over again.”
Other ewes seem to want to give birth just after a snowstorm rolls through, so Smiley always waits for VIT signals after a spring blizzard. Occasionally, she has gone out on skis to find a newborn lamb.
Getting there is only part of the fun. Usually a spotter joins two people going out for the capture, all in contact by radio. They need to creep up as close as possible to the ewe and her newborn, then race in for the capture the instant the sheep spot the humans.
Lambs only a few hours old are quite mobile, and can easily dash out of sight in seconds or leap a 10-foot cliff, climbing and scrambling over rocks and steep snowbanks that no sensible human would attempt.
The researchers also have to trek out to retrieve carcasses, hoping to learn the cause of death. Sometimes the remains are too far gone to accomplish this. And sometimes they wonder what’s actually watching them.
Once, Smiley went out alone to pick up a collar only a few miles from the highway up a ravine. She found herself staring up into the steady gaze of the mountain lion that must have just swallowed the collar, along with the unlucky lamb. (She backed away, very slowly.)
All the data points gathered in this challenging effort have documented what the Sheep Center already knew: Nowhere near enough lambs are surviving to guarantee the Whiskey herd a future. Around half to three-fourths of lambs born to the Gros Ventre herd near Jackson survive to adulthood. Last year was a banner year for Dubois: Two lambs actually made it through to winter.
The first few weeks of life are perilous for any bighorn lamb. Although predators do kill some lambs, including some that are healthy, most lambs born to the Whiskey herd die of pneumonia, the team has found.
The problem is most grave in the Red Creek sub-herd, the bighorns that can be seen sometimes grazing dangerously near the highway beside the huge red-rock formations at the eastern edge of the Wind River Reservation.
One member of the herd, Sheep 108, was caught for the first time in March 2019 and twice since then. Each time, she has tested positive for Movi. She has never recovered.
(However, escape is possible: Sheep #1, also a member of the Red Creek sub-herd, has been tested 9 times and never tested positive. Many sheep in herds elsewhere catch the bacterium and do recover. What makes the difference? The team would like to know, and hope to learn.)
Sheep #6 was first caught in March 2015. She tested positive for Movi a year later, and then began to harbor the other 4 pathogens. Although she never appeared sick, she tested positive ever after, and died last December. At necropsy, her lungs were full of tissue killed by pneumonia. She also had a sinus tumor. These tumors, invisible to human observers in the live animal, are known to harbor bacteria.
Among the 10 lambs born to ewes that chronically tested positive for Movi among the Red Creek herd, only one survived to the next winter–and it had been born to a ewe that first tested positive only afterwards. The chronically infected ewes are not contributing to the herd. Instead, they are endangering it.
Obviously, it is not only the lambs born to infected mothers that are at risk of catching Movi. “Essentially any lamb is susceptible to dying of pneumonia if there is Movi in that subgroup,” said Daryl Lutz, wildlife management coordinator for Wyoming Game & Fish, at the Sheep Center meeting.
Over the Zoom screen, Lutz and Monteith looked troubled at times. Beginning his remarks, Monteith signaled the unhappy conclusion that was ahead. “When we engage in working to address difficult questions like this, we often hope to find a silver bullet, and oftentimes things are complex enough that maybe there’s not a silver bullet. I think this is one of those instances.”
After Smiley and Wagner painstakingly laid out the results of their research, Lutz had the more difficult task of explaining the consequences.
The collaborative team had already sought and won approval for its strategy from the Intertribal Council, the elected governing body on the Wind River Indian Reservation, which is part of the herd’s habitat. The jargon they use for the strategy is “test and remove.” It has shown some success in infected herds in Idaho, South Dakota, and British Columbia. (The Sheep Center is hosting a webcast about test and remove on April 9.)
“Remove” means to kill the chronically infected “super-spreaders” – in this case, three who had never produced a viable lamb since becoming chronically infected with Movi — because there’s no good option for actually relocating a very sick bighorn. (Nature has already removed the fourth, Sheep #6.) The team intends to examine the ewes that have been culled, anticipating they will find more sinus tumors.
I think a more appropriate euphemism would be the one we used back when I was doing cancer research on laboratory mice: Sacrifice. That research provided no advantage for the rest of the mice, but in this case the ewes are indeed being killed for the potential benefit of the rest of the herd.
The decision entailed “a lot of thought, a lot of discourse, and also angst on my part and I’m sure others felt it too,” Lutz said, “because what we’re talking about doing is a pretty aggressive management tool.”
Twice he stressed that the decision was not “cavalier,” adding that he hates killing any animal unnecessarily. “But I do think we’re at a point where this is the best thing to do.”
Someone asked whether it might be possible to treat the sick animals and isolate them instead. But there are no effective antibiotics or good place to keep bighorns in captivity, Monteith said. There is simply no time left to take any chances with this herd, Lutz added.
There’s no guarantee that the strategy will rescue the sub-herd at Red Creek, in part because the herd there is already so small. But it may help to protect others nearby, like those we saw last week.
Many questions remain.
Although Movi doesn’t survive outside a living body the way Coronavirus can, the outdoor environment may still play a role. Oddly, bighorns in the Absaroka range just across our valley test positive for the same number and kind of bacteria as the ones on the Whiskey Mountain side. But that herd is thriving, numbering around 1000, while the Dubois herd has been dying off for decades.
One reason might be nutrition. But then why did the Whiskey Mountain herd thrive before the 1990s, and not after?
Smiley and Wagler have found that ewes in the Whiskey herd don’t gain as much fat during the summer as bighorn ewes on the Gros Ventre side near Jackson. They’ve been systematically gathering samples of forage in both locations.
Their initial findings won’t surprise hikers in the Winds and the Tetons: Plant life is much less abundant in the mountains around Dubois than in the greener terrain over the Pass.
It could be that the lambs here are more susceptible simply because they (and the pregnant ewes) aren’t fed well enough. What to do about that, if it’s true, is yet another question to address.
Often, Wagner said during the podcast, people told them that what Montieth had assigned them to do was impossible.
“He just said we’re going to get it done. And yeah, we’re getting it done. It is possible.”
… 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.
A joyful cry, a reckless run, and at the end a silent drive home.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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?
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.