After a phone call with a friend who’s in quarantine, I went out snowshoeing.
I had hoped the clouds would part and the sky turn blue, but soon I was actually enjoying the misty sky and gentle snowfall.
It was like an enchanted forest. Wearing a heavy crown of snow, the log-built restroom in the empty campground looked like a hut in a children’s story book. There was silence but for the patter of the snowflakes and the call of a distant duck.
A few days ago, the Governor closed down all public places in Wyoming for two weeks. It seems that nobody informed Mother Nature.
As in the early spring of any year, we are suddenly seeing animals other than the hardy livestock that tolerate cold and snow. Small calves are romping in the roadside meadows now, and I’ve seen my first pair of bluebirds.
Driving down-county last week, going in the direction away from Yellowstone, I had the rare pleasure of catching a glimpse of bison on the open range on the reservation.
The Native Americans have succeeded in bringing them back to the rez, and I always look for them. But I very seldom see them near the highway out there (though other bison are regulars along the route to Jackson).
Unlike what we expect in the summer when we head to Jackson, this time there was no traffic jam. Nobody else stopped to take a picture. Besides, going that way off-season there are hardly any other cars, anyway.
Coming back from dinner at a restaurant up-mountain last week (when dinners out were still allowed), we were remarking what a shame it is that you seldom see moose any more. We turned a corner and there, among the willows: Not one, but three!
We stopped and watched them enjoying their own evening meal. The dark spots at left are the two that are hiding out in the willow bank.
A few days later, taking the same route, I saw one of them again, again a dark shape among the russet willow branches. I pulled over and watched for a long time as it grazed in the late afternoon sunlight.
It stood still for a while afterwards, and then it sat down beneath the willows. I drove on, feeling rather fortunate.
The other day, our daughter spoke some words I never thought I’d hear her say: “I wish I lived in Dubois right now.”
You can go outdoors anytime, she went on, and always find something interesting to do. So true.
If he was older and could understand exactly what she means, this young fellow might agree with his mother. (Now there’s another wild creature I wish I could see more often.)
Out walking the dog yesterday, I encountered a friend and we hiked on together up a lovely country road, socially distant as per CDC advisories, well apart but happily together nonetheless.
Have I moved to the most dangerous place in the country?
“Be open and honest about the gun culture in your region,” urged a comment to one of my posts to a remote workers’ group on LinkedIn. It came from a manager with a global retail company.
“When we travel internationally, to European or Pacific locations, the first question we are asked when we say we are American is: Does everyone really walk around with a big gun?”
This inspired me to look at our small Wyoming town with a different set of eyes — the eyes of a stranger passing through, or perhaps my own eyes of 20 years ago, long before I left New York City to move here.
If we want to attract more remote workers to Dubois — and we should — it’s crucial to address this issue. I won’t discuss gun control here. I want to talk about the culture and the facts beyond the first impressions.
Guns are sold at auctions here and raffled off at charity benefits. You grow accustomed to the sight of rifles lined up on tables. One of the motels has a gun shop.
For someone who spent her whole life in New York City, this was somewhat disquieting at first.
These days I might not even notice someone wearing a gun in a holster. But I don’t think I ever see that, except for the sheriff. To be frank, I have no idea who’s walking around with a gun, because concealed weapons are allowed in Wyoming.
I do know that many people here own guns. Lots of my friends hunt. For some of them, that’s how they can afford meat.
Judging from some statistics, you might think I have moved from the safest place in the country to the most dangerous. Per capita gun ownership in Wyoming is far and away the highest in the entire nation. (That’s the tall bar at left in the graph.) My former state of New York ranks at the farthest right end of the scale.
Although it’s difficult to discredit the source of the data, that 230 per capita for Wyoming is astonishing and difficult to believe. Other studies show that barely half of Wyoming residents are gun owners. The figure is 53%, nearly the same as for neighboring Montana which is 16th from the left on that graph. So who has all those guns? Did they count the firearms museum in Cody?
The firearm mortality rate for Wyoming is also sobering at first glance. Wyoming ranks 8th among the 50 states. Alaska is first and Montana is third.
But the homicide mortality rate for Wyoming is so low it falls off the map. See that range from 0-26 on the image? Wyoming is the zero, with a rate that rounds to nil.
Wyoming also gets a score of zero on the database of mass shootings in the US, which is maintained by the nonprofit organization Mother Jones. Here’s what happened when I searched for mentions of Wyoming on its downloadable spreadsheet:
So what accounts for the difference between firearm mortality and homicide mortality in our state? Suicides, alas, which would justify another article. Like many rural regions, Wyoming has a high rate of self-inflicted death as well as firearm ownership, and the correlation is obvious. The reasons must be complicated and tragic, but I don’t feel personally threatened here.
Compared to New York City, Dubois is a very friendly place. It’s also laid-back and low-stress. I think this may explain why there is so little actual aggression here, despite the high rate of gun ownership.
I’ve never seen anyone brandish a firearm anywhere in Wyoming, except at a target range. I’ve never heard of anyone being robbed in this town, at gun point or any other way.
To be frank, the prevalence of guns probably deters a lot of crime. And in the state with the second-lowest population density in the country (below Alaska) it’s not surprising that we don’t expect to dial 911. Law enforcement is spread thin, and people need to be self-reliant. That’s the character and the reality of the West.
There are no street brawls here these days, and I can’t recall hearing a loud argument in public. It’s the kind of place where people leave their cars unlocked with the ignition running on a cold day (but probably not in high tourist season).
Obviously, the classic Western films are implicated in giving this region a falsely dangerous and badly outdated image for violence. The same kind of problem affected my former home town: Some tourists arrive (or never go to New York City at all) fearing a Mafia shootout or a rampage in the subway.
I guess if you base your decisions on what you see in the movies, you get the result you deserve.
How many remote workers have the true vision of remoteness?
January 27, this past Monday, was the 100th anniversary of the day that Wyoming ratified the 19th amendment allowing women to vote. That was more than 50 years after the newly formed territory of Wyoming enacted women’s suffrage in its own right, in 1869, making it the first state or territory to do so.
It was a pioneering act, but then this state has an august history of women pioneers: The first woman to be elected justice of the peace. The first woman in the United States to vote. And countless pioneering women who left comforts back east to homestead here, alone or with companions.
It was all tough — the life, the travel, and the women themselves.
I used to muse about these pioneer women as we drove the long commute between New York and Dubois, back before we sold our house out east. Our route crossed the Oregon Trail.
I sometimes wondered what they would have thought if someone had told them, as they bounced along on wooden wheels or walked the dusty track beside the mules, that someday one would be able to make the same journey in a mere four days, using a keyboard on the lap (and what’s a keyboard, exactly?) to type messages that coworkers thousands of miles away could read in an instant.
Of course I hold these pioneer women in awe. The first non-native woman to settle in this beautiful valley, Mahalia Burlingame, lived alone for long stretches with her children when her husband, who was the only fiddler around, traveled off to play for country dances many miles away. She made toys for the kids out of twigs.
Alice Welty looks delicate in her photographs, but after she moved to Dubois from Baltimore with her husband in the late 1880s, she learned to rope and shoe horses, and once drove a grizzly out of a campsite. I would have gone into child’s pose and played dead.
After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, Mary Back moved to Dubois in the 1930s with her husband Joe, where they bought an abandoned ranch west of town. Their first sofa was the front seat of an old Chevrolet, their pillows were sugar sacks filled with elk hair collected off the property, and their kitchen cabinet was made of apple boxes.
That delightful person Esther Wells, whom I knew all too briefly before her death at age 105 or 106, once said that they were never warm during the long winters of her childhood at the homestead, unless they were right beside the fire. Back then there was no fleece–just stiff cotton canvas or itchy wool.
Her mother’s best friend was a neighbor who would often come by to borrow cooking pots, because she had only tin cans to cook in. They were poor because the husband didn’t work much on the homestead; he was always away prospecting for gold, to no avail. Esther herself once shooed a grizzly bear out of her ranch house kitchen with a broom.
Many of the homesteaders of a century or more ago left behind the crowding, high cost, and unclean realities of industrial cities with hopes of a better new life out West. On the day of that suffrage anniversary this week, I realized with a jolt that in a sense some of us out here are new kinds of pioneers, drawn here by the same kind of urge.
Of course, I have had it vastly easier than those women I so admire. But more than a decade ago, when my husband suggested moving to this place, at first I thought it was a crazy idea. After further thought and some research, we set off hopefully but perhaps too impulsively to start a new kind of life in this small village out West. Like the old homesteaders, we had no promise that the idea would work.
With considerable trepidation (because we had already bought our house in Dubois), I asked a boss in division headquarters in Connecticut whether I could work from Wyoming part of the year, as I had already proven I could work reliably from my home two hours away in Brooklyn. My good fortune was that he had the vision to accept my wacky proposal.
I wasn’t worried much about being attacked by dangerous animals or hostile natives, but I did have concerns. Would I be able to get good vegetables? (Yes.) Where would I find Thai food? (Next town over.) Would I be lonely? (Heavens, no.) Would it be frightening out there? (Not at all, and unlike New York City not in the least stressful.)
And very importantly, would the Internet be good enough? (Oh, yes it was, and increasingly so also during the long road trips when we traveled).
“The popularity of remote work has been climbing at a rate of nearly 140% for the past decade,” wrote Laurel Farrer, a consultant and champion of remote workers, last year in Forbes. But I’ve been looking into it, and for all that states like Utah and Vermont are actually paying remote workers to relocate there, I do not see in the online chats among remote workers and the wannabes the same vision of a radically new life that drove the original pioneers to places like Wyoming.
They want to work remotely, as in remote from company headquarters. But few as yet seem to want to live remotely. They simply seem to flock to smaller cities, which then become more crowded, chaotic, and costly.
Despite modern comforts like Amazon and Pandora, I’m sure it’s scary to become a true digital pioneer: to abandon the security of a regular job and the easy, familiar conveniences of urban life.
Perhaps it does not require the courage of Alice, Mary, and Mahalia. But for most city dwellers with a high-tech mindset, it must be a challenge to envision and appreciate the unique freedom, simplicity, and peace of a truly rural environment, especially one at the edge of wilderness, and then to seek it out.
I have been away. Far, far away, and for a long time.
“Nous habitons une petite ville en Wyoming,” I’d say when people asked, “pres de Yellowstone Park?”
By the time I got to that implicit question mark, I would usually see a spark of recognition in the other person’s eyes. But even to me, after a few weeks, the place I was describing began to seem unreal and other-worldly. Which, from that distance, it actually is.
Passing through so many different places, all of them fascinating and enticing, I would ask myself: So what’s so special about Dubois? When we could live almost anywhere, why did we choose there?
One of the reasons came visibly to mind as the home-bound plane approached Jackson: The boundless sky, the bright sunshine, the wonderful sunrises and star-scapes.
Behind me now were the predictably endless gray, gloomy days from fall through spring, which don’t actually deliver precipitation but instead a sort of long-lasting mild depression. I am familiar with this; we lived over there twice. I swore I never wanted to live in Europe again, for that very reason.
In Dubois, I knew, the weather presents an honest challenge. You recognize it when it’s coming, and you may have to deal with it–like now, when the forecast bodes a full week of snow. But then it’s over and the huge blue sky returns. You can often glimpse it beyond the cloud cover.
The weather, however mood-altering, is ultimately trivial. What was it that I found so compelling about Dubois, compared to all the remarkably different places I had seen (and lived)? So long away, I had begun to wonder.
It took a journey through the stack of weekly newspapers that had accumulated ito remind me, as I endured the fog of jet lag. Mercifully perhaps, there wasn’t much local news. But there were profiles.
The school has a new principal, a Wyoming native, who said he has dreamed of holding that job in Dubois ever since he passed through as a child, on a school trip to Yellowstone. After living and working in Korea and Missouri, he finally made it here–joining so many others who have seen Dubois and been tugged back as if by a magnet.
But why? I don’t believe the article even mentioned the magnificent mountains or wonderful wildlife that we enjoy. “The people here, they are good people,” Tad Romsa told the Frontier. “Dubois is a special place.”
He said he loves the “family atmosphere” at the Dubois K-12 school, the high teacher-student ratio, and the “positive energy.”
“It seems like the kids want to be at school,” he added.
I recalled a recent conversation in a small hotel in the Basque region of Spain, when an English wine merchant and his wife wondered aloud why we had landed here, of all places. There are things you can say, but it isn’t simple to explain.
Tad Romsa knew the quiet joys of Wyoming from childhood. For Aaron and Nicole Coleman, profiled in the Frontier the following week, that knowledge grew slowly, after a great leap of intuition.
Nicole has an online banking job, but years ago she began selling crafts online in her spare time. Her husband Aaron, who has degrees in linguistics and international studies and spent a long time in the military, has joined her efforts in the company that evolved from this venture, Shotgun Paul, which makes and sells high-quality durable items such as aprons and bags made from canvas and leather.
As their business began to grow online, they sensed a need for a brick-and-mortar storefront. When their daughter arrived in 2016, the Colemans “were ready to leave the coast, crowds, and lifestyle of California for somewhere more family friendly,” says the Frontier.
Their business was mobile, so they were free to take it anywhere. Where they went was Dubois.
Because Aaron has a lifelong friend who lives in Dubois, they had visited often and got to know others here. “These connections, as well as the high quality of the outdoor life in Dubois, convinced them that the pros of a small, remote town far outweighed the cons,” the article says.
Nicole is often present behind the counter at the shop on the main street, stitching away at something. Aaron comes forward to greet new customers. You hope to find that that curly-towheaded Billie is on duty too, charming the clientele.
Walking the dog in the town park a few days after our return, as so often happens I ran into another dog-and-owner pair whom I’ve never met. This was the pup Sadie, followed on her erratic course by Sarah Walker.
Sarah is director of the Friends of the Bridger-Teton, a nonprofit that supports the national forest just over the Pass. She travels a lot, and works online.
Sarah too could actually live anywhere, but she has insisted on Dubois.
She and her husband discovered the town when he was posted here with the Forest Service. When he was transferred away, Sarah says she told him they had to return after two years; non-negotiable. She found her job with the nonprofit, and he is back at another Forest Service post nearby.
Today, says the nonprofit’s website, “they’re lucky enough to enjoy the Bridger-Teton and Shoshone National Forests just out their backdoor every chance they get.” Another important factor was the flawless high-speed Internet in Dubois.
“I couldn’t live without it,” Sarah called back as she chased Sadie on down the riverwalk.
An invisible glue holds Dubois together, despite our challenges and our differences. For many and the same reasons, when most of us could easily live elsewhere we have chosen to be here, and we all know it.
Still away from my desk for a while. Here for your amusement is something I wrote a while ago, when the misconceptions about Dubois began to pile up in my awareness. Can you think of any others? Please send a comment.
Most of what follows is hearsay. In the past few weeks, several people have told me about some remarkable comments they’ve heard from visitors to town. I’ve also run across some other amusing misconceptions on my own.
I decided I should set the record straight:
1. We don’t dress this way as part of a historic re-enactment. This is really how we like to dress, and for good reason. We wear brimmed hats and long-sleeved shirts for protection against the fierce sun. We wear vests because it’s just enough to keep us warm in the high-desert cool. We wear jeans because they’re comfortable and sturdy. We wear boots because they keep the rocks out. (Here’s what I might be wearing today, if I hadn’t chosen a different shirt, vest, and jeans.)
2. Whatever that person in Jackson may have said, there’s no need to stock up before heading this way. Dubois does have an amply stocked grocery store, a gas station (well, actually four of them), and many places to buy a cup of coffee (or even a latte, a cappuccino, or a chai).
3. There probably isn’t a grizzly bear in the Town Park just now. Our bear expert Brian does say that, in theory, except in the dead of winter, a grizzly could be anywhere. But a grizzly doesn’t want to see you any more than you want to see her. We know better than to leave trash around for her to find, and she prefers to be in the forest anyway. Everybody knows how to recognize the signs that a bear has been around, and if any had been seen recently, you can bet that (1) everybody would be talking about it and (2) it would have been taken care of long before they began talking.
4. We do not “farm” deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, or other animals you may see behind fences near town. This is actually the wildlife you have come all this way to view. They come here of their own free will, probably because they like it around here as much as we do. They leap the fences, live in peace with the livestock, and like to graze our fields. (Please drive with care.)
5. We’re not all cowboys in Dubois. Indeed there are many working cowhands, retired cowboys, former cowboys, and would-be cowboys. But the population also includes (off the top of my head) a computer architect, a designer of medical devices, a lobbyist, and many painters and photographers.
6. Dubois does have stop signs.“There’s not even really a stop sign in town,” Jeda Higgs said on the video “Chasing Totality: Making the Eclipse Megamovie.” I probably would have been dazzled by the exposure too, but that was hyperbole. More accurately, there is no stop sign, yield sign, or traffic light for cars making the 90-degree turn on the highway as it passes through the center of town. They have the right of way (and locals know it). People do face stop signs as they enter the highway from many side streets in town, and there are more in the residential parts of the village.
7. Dubois is not the most remote town in the lower 48 states. I dealt with this long-held and much-quoted myth in a previous post. The following is true: Dubois is more than an hour’s drive from the nearest large towns. A remarkable proportion of the surrounding landscape is publicly owned wilderness. The nearest Interstate is about 3 hours away. On the other hand, goods and services are easily accessible and residents take the commute to big-box stores and other conveniences as a fact of life (just as people elsewhere endure traffic, which we don’t have). Besides, those “commutes” are unusually scenic. But by any published criterion, Dubois is not the most remote town in the US. Maybe the most interesting or most charming or most authentically Western or most friendly remote town in the lower 48, but not the remotest.
8. Winters aren’t brutal in Dubois (generally). Last winter may have been tough, true. But in general, temperatures here are several degrees warmer than in Jackson. Most of the snow (usually) gets dumped on that side of Togwotee Pass or on the Pass itself, giving us wonderful opportunities for snowmobiling and snowshoeing. The dry climate keeps winter temperatures surprisingly tolerable. And the air is magically clean.
Working for a while on other projects and pleasures, I’m taking a brief break from Living Dubois. Meanwhile, please enjoy this post from last year. My friend the “geek” Gareth and his wife still enjoy living in Dubois, and we heartily enjoy knowing them.
I ran into Gareth a few days ago at the Cowboy Café. Over breakfast he was working on a draft of a white paper.
“There are more technology choices than ever before,” it reads, “but little certainty around which are the best investment.” Not the kind of thing you’d expect to find someone poring over in a restaurant by that name in a remote Wyoming mountain town. But I wasn’t surprised. This is the new Dubois.
I know that most technology workers still go into concrete-block offices every day, and that the bright millennials who crowd the digital world prefer big cities with microbreweries and “coworking spaces.” But I also know that a fortunate few are finding their way here, where they can see mountains from their desks and find bald eagles and moose to post on Instagram. Gareth is one.
I met him last summer at a community meeting. I introduced myself to his wife Sharon, and was startled to hear her reply: “You want to meet my husband.” During the careful process of planning their relocation from Colorado, she had seen this blog and knew of my interest in telecommuting.
The first step in investigating Dubois, Gareth told me this week, was contacting DTE, our Internet provider. This wasn’t so crucial for Sharon, the former head of a private school in Steamboat Springs. But it’s essential for Gareth, who is an information architect with a firm that provides cybersecurity services for large corporations around the world. His work demands peerless high-speed Internet, and the fact that DTE provides fiberoptic service in town was a strong selling point for Dubois.
Colorado’s new marijuana law was a prime reason for the relocation, Gareth told me. They had grown weary of Steamboat Springs, because it had quickly changed “from a funky family town to being party central.” This echoes what I’ve heard from tourists in Dubois over the past year: Traffic (the ordinary kind) is building in the state to the south, and it’s no longer easy to find a campsite on the spur of the moment there, or an uncrowded spot in those high Rocky Mountains.
It’s only a six hour drive north through Baggs and Rawlins to reach Dubois, but for Gareth and Sharon, the trip took far longer. Finding their next home, Gareth said, required “a lot of traveling in our RV.”
Having lived in 17 other states, mostly in the East, Gareth had a fairly strong feeling for where he didn’t want to live. During our chat over breakfast, he recalled the daily commute that took place at 80 miles an hour. I get the picture.
They looked carefully at the West Coast. He kind of liked San Francisco, but Sharon hated it. They explored Oregon and Washington, but no place sat exactly right with them.
“We began to realize that the closer we got to the mountains, the happier we were,” Gareth said. “We could just feel it.”
What drew them to Wyoming, besides the mountains, was the fact that there are no taxes to speak of, and that the cost of living is generally low. But why Dubois?
“We’ve always liked small towns,” he said. “The fact that there’s no traffic. New York burned us out for that.”
They did look at Jackson Hole, but the sight of the real estate prices quickly inspired a look away. They drove over the Pass to Dubois, and came home.
“Dubois has everything Jackson Hole has to offer,” Gareth told me. “You just hop into the car, and you’re in the Tetons. It’s all great.”
The move offers Gareth plenty of opportunity to pursue his off-duty passion: photography. As for Sharon, she has joined two nonprofit boards here as well as setting up www.wyophoto.com, a website that sells images of Wyoming. It’s the source of the beautiful pictures on this page.
Danita Sayers bustles about the rooms of the Dennison Lodge, tacking treasures to the folding screens and carefully placing the pieces of artfully painted furniture.
“We paint on whatever we can find to paint on,” she says, as I pause to admire the portrait of a horse standing in a swale. It has greatly elevated the status of an ordinary TV tray the artist found at the Opportunity Shop.
A giant glider, a sliding bench made from horseshoes and wagon wheels, dominates the room. It’s the creation of a 6th grader.
Danita has spent the month transporting these artworks and displaying them statewide, bringing back the honors and the ribbons that prove their worth. Of 40 pieces submitted to the State Art Symposium this year, 21 won awards.
The Governor’s wife picked 2 from our little school for the First Lady’s Choice Awards. This year, Danita told me, the Dubois school got Congressional Artistic Discovery awards in both the 2D and 3D categories, and one was for a photograph, which is rare. These will go on tour for a year, and then hang in a gallery in Cheyenne.
Now she’s putting them on display, 166 artworks chosen by herself and her pupils (except for those award winners that have been held back elsewhere), during the annual school art show.
The owner of a local curio shop is helping out, while scoping the show for items she might be able to purchase resell in her shop. In other years, Danita says, art dealers and art professors have come from far away to look for acquisitions at this show.
The annual Dubois K-12 Youth Art Show has gone on for decades. This was the first time I saw it–someone who, like most parents, once thought her own young children were truly exceptional artists. What most takes my breath away here are the works by children who are just learning to read.
Dubois has more than its fair share of top-ranked artists and photographers, but its youngest don’t get much publicity and have no commercial websites. Danita, who is the art teacher in our school, bursts with pride in her students and the passion to share how special they are.
The student who created this sculpture was blind, she tells me. Would I believe that?
This peacock was the seventh-grade artist’s first oil painting. “She doesn’t even know it’s good,” Danita says with a smile, and repeats herself.
Slowly, I come to realize why so many locals like to point out the works by their favorite school-aged artists at the national art show that comes to the Headwaters in mid-summer.
These artists are growing up in one of the most remote towns in the lower 48. Some of them go home to ranch chores after school. and think the biggest event of the year is branding the calves. The parents are contractors and bank clerks and restaurant owners — precious few with a strong history in the liberal arts. Their home town is a place where kids waste time on a lazy summer Sunday by tooling around the main street on their bikes doing wheelies.
Unlike my children’s classmates three decades ago in New York City, some of these artists may find the thought of even visiting a city a bit frightening. Many have ridden a horse, shot a gun, been to a rodeo, and camped out overnight, but very few if any have seen a renowned painting by a great artist in an art museum.
What they do see every day is the mountain landscape and the wildlife. Instead of visiting galleries, they go on camping trips with botanists to study wildflowers.
In the primary and middle school my children attended, a short distance from the Brooklyn Bridge, the distinctions between the tough guys, the future CEOs, and the arty kids were clearly defined.
Walking past these panels, it is clear that it’s not an issue. Everyone does art, and many do it exceedingly well.
“A lot of our best artists are ranch kids, wrestling club guys,” Danita says. She points across the room to a landscape. “The guy who made that painting was in wrestling and football. He won a blue ribbon [for the painting], but he also excels in sports.”
My guess is he knows the terrain quite well because he probably goes hunting up there in the fall.
As Danita puts it, at this school art is not placed in a “gentle” category alone. The school mascot is a ram. Clearly they can paint them as well as they can butt helmets on the field.
They call it Sheep Ridge, the one you can see from the main street in Dubois, but no bighorn sheep have grazed there for a long time. The herd is still around, but its population is plummeting. Why?
Back in the 1870s, I’ve heard, hunters could find a bighorn sheep in these mountains any time they wanted. Most bighorn sheep in the West came from that original herd as transplants, moved out by the hundreds to other regions of the Rockies during the last century.
Some of those relocated herds have been threatened by the same basic problem, but have bounced back. Not so the bighorns that stayed here.
It’s not that there isn’t any explanation. There are too many. That’s the problem.
Our high school sports teams are called the Rams, and you see their image on logos all over town, but the rams themselves are fragile. Local taxidermists say some of their skulls are too light to hold screws, and the curly horns are no longer as big as before.
Unlike the herds in Cody and Jackson, Whiskey Mountain sheep keep their weight stable in the winter, but lose weight when they move up to summer range. Is there something wrong with the local wild grasses, forbs, and brush that are central to their summer diet?
Predators like wolves or eagles might play some role in the animals’ deaths. But in those cases they may be only the final blow — not the root cause.
The greatest concern is that these bighorns are extraordinarily prey to respiratory infections common among sheep. They harbor a half-dozen strains of the relevant bacteria, while wild sheep elsewhere in the West seem to be hosts to only two or three. Enough lambs are born to this herd each year, but only a handful reach maturity. Many of the ewes live on, chronically ill, to infect again and again.
The infection traces to domestic sheep, which were raised here for four decades starting in 1890, but dwindled as the cattle ranchers prevailed. In 2015, the US Forest Service formally banned domestic sheep from the local bighorns’ range—decades after their decimation began.
It can’t go on. But what to do?
About a year ago Sara Domek, executive director or the National Bighorn Sheep Center in town, approached two experts (wildlife biologist Daryl Lutz of Game & Fish and Steve Kilpatrick, head of the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation) to plan a strategy. The outcome is a series of summits now under way in Dubois, where absolutely anyone who is interested is welcome. I didn’t take an actual count, but scores of my friends and neighbors, have turned up, bringing with them an astonishing wealth and depth of knowledge on the subject.
The biggest challenge is the complexity of the problem. “You came up with 170 issues, so we had a lot of fun categorizing them all,” said Jessica Western of the University of Wyoming at the last session. A soft-spoken, genial person, she is shepherding a large flock of biologists, land managers, outfitters, hunters, environmentalists, ranchers, and other interested residents, toward recommendations to help the Wyoming Game & Fish Department decide what it can and should do next.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has won grants from four organizations to support the summits, and commitments of time and expertise from bighorn sheep specialists all over the West. One of the grants brought a panel of eight specialists on the bighorns to Dubois last month, where they shared their knowledge, listened to ours, and brainstormed.
They brought insights about bighorn sheep and their habitats in Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington (the state) and, of course, Wyoming. The scientists truly seemed to enjoy themselves, having a rare opportunity to hide away in the wilderness as a select team asked to learn from each other and contribute to a poignantly good cause.
It’s not that nothing has been tried. At the latest summit, held early this month, Game & Fish habitat biologist Amy Anderson described many efforts to improve the forage in the wilderness, including fertilizers, herbicides, selective cropping, and “range pitting” (dragging an implement across the ground to disturb the ground and encourage growth of new grasses).
Follow-up studies analyzing the forage (quantity, species composition, protein content, and relative food value) found that these tactics didn’t seem to make any great difference, compared to untreated areas, “so I don’t know what we bought with these treatments,” Anderson said. “We’re not necessarily seeing improvement” in the varieties of grass the sheep prefer.
So what’s the problem? Is it the climate? Minerals in the soil or the salt licks? Air pollution coming from Utah or even farther west?
Prescribed burns have been tried in parts of the forest, not only to encourage growth of grasses but also to deny hiding places to predators. Local hunter and taxidermist Lynn Stewart pointed out that Sheep Ridge itself, visible from the middle of town, was bald a century ago. Today it is blanketed with evergreens and sheep won’t go there. Another prescribed burn is planned for this summer in a spot where conifers now cover a bighorn migration route between winter and summer ranges.
Immense interest centers around University of Wyoming biologist Kevin Monteith, who has been pursuing an intensive three-year research project on this herd. His team has implanted monitors like IUDs in ewes, which send a signal when they give birth. A member of the team will spend this summer camping in the remote, rocky Whiskey Mountain region, waiting. After a signal, she will race over the treacherous ground to find its source, hoping to reach the lamb and attach a motion sensor. This should allow her and others to locate some of the lambs that die and learn what happened.
At the latest summit, the facilitator Jessica Western assigned us into breakout groups. Our task was to arrive at a consensus about which of those 170 issues she compiled after the previous session deserve the most attention for the future. Inevitably, we also pondered some recommendations. Some of them are controversial, and some unrealistic.
Why not cull the entire herd and start again with healthy bighorns, descendants of the transplants from the original herd? (They’d inevitably get infected too, because the microorganisms do persist in the soil for some time, and anyway, what about the forage issue? Besides, the transplanted sheep wouldn’t know the local migration routes. Studies elsewhere show that sheep lacking this knowledge tend to stay in the winter range all year round.)
No solution will emerge quickly. We’ll remain in the dark about the root cause of the die-off for at least three years, while Montieth’s team completes its research.
Meanwhile, in June after the workshops are over, the Game & Fish Department will sort through all the recommendations and decide what it can try, what it can’t, and why not. Whatever it eventually does will also take time, as well as funds and personnel. And the clock is ticking for the herd.
Sara Domek of the Sheep Center closed the last summit with a plea for help from all those people with furrowed brows who were sitting on the folding chairs in the audience.
“This is the time for citizen science,” she said. “People want to help. Let’s do it.”
I hear that you decided to dump the Big Apple. Sounds from your sad little blog post on Valentine’s Day (how poignant!) like you’re not planning to open a different HQ2 at this time. You sounded a little broken up about the break-up.
But you didn’t sound nearly as grief-stricken as Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal last week. She mourned not only the loss of those 25,000 jobs, but “all the construction, and the signs and symbols of a coming affluence … the sidewalks busy, shops and restaurants humming, hiring.”
I understand about falling in love with NYC, Jeff. I actually got a bit choked up about it last week while driving across the reservation on my way to Lander. The theme from the movie “Arthur” came up on Sirius XM. You’ve probably heard the chorus:
When you get caught between the moon
and New York City
the best that you can do (best that you can do)
is fall in love.
That brought it all powerfully back: The lights, the buzz, the sounds, the gorgeous, cosmopolitan, purpose-driven people. It was all so thrilling!
But I got over it too, eventually. Believe me, I can understand. All those spats about how she was offended that you wanted a few accommodations in exchange for moving in could totally kill the magic before you got to the altar.
Here in remote little Dubois, we hope for the same pleasures whose loss Peggy Noonan was lamenting: busy sidewalks, shops and restaurants that are humming and hiring. And not just in midsummer.
Don’t get me wrong, Jeff: I’m not suggesting that you consider Dubois for your next engagement. We couldn’t sustain another 25,000 jobs, even if we had the workforce.
We certainly wouldn’t want to balloon our population by 2500%. It would utterly destroy us: our magnificent environment, our way of life, and our beloved small-town character.
All we’re asking is one date. Surely among the other educated, skilled people who seek a new life in our truly remote (and tax-free) location, we could spare a place for a few, or a few dozen, who qualify for those “remote” jobs that you regularly post online.
Why do companies like yours always gravitate to the big cities? Working on our flawless Internet here at the edge of wilderness in Dubois, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering that.
Admit it: You guys are always seduced by the divas. Maybe you just can’t help it.
“It’s just absolutely hard-wired into technology economies,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in that article. “It’s not just a sort of interesting thing that happens — it’s inherent to the technology.”
But at least one other person — Dartmouth University’s online education expert Joshua Kim — thinks there may be some superstars who actually don’t want to live in “superstar cities.” In an article titled Corporate Welfare, Superstar Cities, and the Tyranny of Geography, he wrote: “I have a hard time believing that all the best talent wants to live in Seattle or NYC or Northern VA.”
Besides, is it all about “superstars?” Countless successful people aren’t superstars (including many of your employees), but are productive and vital to our local and national economy nonetheless.
I know some people like that, right here in little Dubois. They work on our Internet, which never fails. They come here partly for the fiberoptic power that comes right to their door. But that’s not the only reason.
Some of them are very unusual telecommuters, people who want to find mountains and wildlife outside their front doors rather than art-film cinemas and Starbucks. In their spare time, these people who spend all day at their keyboards want to hike, rock climb, snowshoe, or go fishing rather than hanging out in bars. They prefer the shadow of the starlight to the glare of city lights.
Maybe some of your own employees dream of raising their children in a safe and very healthy place where class sizes are small, college acceptance rates are high (because small-town Wyoming is under-represented in their mix and also very interesting), and scholarships actually go begging.
Can you help us find some of those people, Jeff, and tell them that we’re here?
The famous song writer could live anywhere. He moved here.
What’s the force behind the magnet that draws people to
Dubois and holds them here?
It’s no challenge to capture part of it: the spectacular wilderness landscape. Photographers capture that all the time, and scenes from this valley are all over Instagram. Another pull is the history, from the tectonic collisions to Indians and cowboys and Butch Cassidy, from mountain men to homesteaders and lumberjacks.
But there’s one special pull which is nearly impossible to describe. You have to feel it for yourself. Tourists responding to a survey last year said they liked the people, and called Dubois “friendly.” A hiking buddy told me that she retired to Dubois because the people here had grabbed her and held her close.
Skip Ewing, the country singer and songwriter, calls it the “heart.” He should know, because the heart is his business, and his passion.
Skip says he felt that tug most strongly in 2004, during his
benefit concert for the new medical clinic. He decided to auction off a shirt
that cowboy Ty Murray was wearing when he won a rodeo championship. Skip
suggested that people in the audience might pool their bids and donate the
shirt to the clinic, rather than one lucky bidder taking it home for bragging
Together, for no personal reward, people gave away $5,000 for the shirt to benefit the community. It now hangs in a frame in the clinic.
“That gave me a sense for the kind of heart, the generosity of people here,” he said. “That’s the same kind of heart Dubois had when I first came here.”
“If we can be part of that heart,” he added, “I’m about that.”
So Skip and his partner, photographer Linda Gordon, have settled down in Dubois. They’re in a position to live anywhere in the world they want to, Skip told me. And they’re here.
Skip doesn’t throw his credentials around (which wouldn’t gain him many fans here, anyway). But they’re impressive: Five of Skip Ewing’s country love songs have placed in the top 20s on the country-music charts. In 2000, he was named Songwriter of the year by Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), and he’s won the Country Music Association Triple Play Award for three number 1 songs within a year.
They’re the kind of love songs that somehow grab you where it hurts a bit, like “Love, Me” and “Little Houses.” (The announcers wouldn’t credit Skip, the songwriter, of course. They’d mention the singers, names like Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, Kenny Chesney, and Reba McIntyre. )
I ran into Skip and Linda at the Perch coffee shop sometime around Thanksgiving. He looked vaguely familiar, and I was puzzled to see him chatting with the locals as if he knew them (which he did). I felt I ought to recognize him, but I didn’t (it’s my failing to have a poor memory for faces as well as names). Someone introduced him as Skip Ewing and, city girl though I used to be, at least I recalled his name.
Probably about a decade ago, I had heard Skip at a concert in the back room at the Rustic Pine after one of his retreats for song-writers. But I had no idea that his was the creative mind behind some of the songs I liked best, after I began listening to country music on the radio.
The workshops (he called them “Horse and Writer” retreats) brought would-be songwriters to the Lazy L&B Ranch up East Fork, which he first visited when he wanted to give his five-year-old daughter a good place to ride horses. They went on for about a decade. I never saw Skip after that one concert, but he had been coming back to Dubois, whether there were retreats or not.
As the child in a military family and then a country singer, Skip Ewing has traveled widely. Quite a while ago, he sold his home in Nashville. He and Linda had multiple homes and were traveling a lot when Linda got a job offer that made them consider settling down somewhere.
They asked themselves whether that was what they really wanted. Skip had this dream that involved horses, which he isn’t ready to talk about yet. Eventually, they decided to settle here.
Grandson of a thoroughbred rancher, Skip learned to love horses as much as he loved country music.“The more time I spend on horses, he says, “the happier I am.” He hints that horses will have an important part in the next phase of his life’s work, but for the moment he intends to use his music to help the town.
Just after I ran into Skip and Linda at the Perch, they began shooting the first of five videos about Dubois that he has posted on Facebook. They are long, leisurely conversations with people in the town.
“This is Dubois, Wyoming, my home town now. I love it here,” he opens in the first one. “I love it here!”
He was already booked for his early December Christmas
concert at the Dennison Lodge, which attracted fans from as far away as Texas,
Utah, Louisiana, and California. His goal seems to be not so much
self-promotion as planting firm roots in this new ground.
Skip told me that, when he first visited Dubois, he knew he’d come to the right place almost as soon as the plane landed. This brought echoes of one my Skip Ewing favorites: “You Had Me From Hello.”
“… Your smile just captured me. You were in my future far as I could see And I don’t know how it happened but it happens still. You ask me if I love you, if I always will. Well, you had me from hello…”