What is it about beaches in summer? You remember. That sticky salty breeze. Gooey sunscreen. Heavy trudging in bare feet. Sand in your pants.
Is it a reflex that sends remote-work teams to the beach for their retreats? Maybe it’s because that’s where you went as a kid, for relief from the city heat.
Cape Cod. Cape May, Long Island. Monterey. It was the closest place to find a cooler breeze.
It’s the COOs and project managers in Boston, New York, Dallas, and San Francisco who are engaging most with our ads promoting the Wind River Valley for team retreats. Perhaps they feel it’s time for a cooler experience.
When Summit CPA Group escaped the beach rut last August, it took a pandemic (Cabo and Miami) and a hurricane (South Carolina) to open their minds.
Travel advisor Lillian Hocevar came up with a radical idea, and as Summit CEO Jody Grunden put it, during a podcast about team retreats, they “settled” on Jackson, Wyoming.
“We had a blast,” he went on. “It exceeded all expectations.”
Some team members went parasailing. Others rode a hot air balloon.
They they wanted a water experience? That didn’t need to mean beach volleyball. Hocevar booked white-water rafting: “It’s exhilarating, and it’s a natural team-building exercise. You have to figure out who’s rowing when.”
“It was a lot of the out-of-the-normal stuff,” said Grunden. He described what it wasn’t: Just going to a hotel and eating in this or that restaurant. Some ordinary vacation or getaway. A few typical team-building activities, like trust falls.
“It was an experience,” he added.
But not all that different an experience from being in a big city, actually: Crowds of humans and vehicles, many of them wasting time and energy just waiting in lines. For the hordes intent of visiting Yellowstone each summer, Jackson is hardly a radical idea. It’s all too obvious.
What a pity. Going a few extra miles, teams can retreat to someplace far cooler and less crowded, where the native Shoshone retreated every year, many centuries ago.
There is no salt-water beach, but there are wild rivers to raft and crystalline lakes to kayak. Rugged mountains to explore. Plenty of trout to catch. Countless stars in a vast night sky, to bring back a sense of wonder.
A unique and extraordinary option for remote-work teams
I kept glancing away from my lunch companion, avoiding her gaze. I felt things had started badly.
During our visit that morning in March, Lazy L&B Ranch had been deserted and silent. Sheets covered chairs. Mattresses leaned against walls.
It felt impossible to convey to Jennifer Pryor the life-changing sense of liberation I experienced in this cabin at that ranch many years ago, back when there was no such word as “workation,” let alone a concept or a hashtag. I was working on a book manuscript. My kids were riding horses. Seeing the vast open spaces breathed life into my work.
It will surely be the same for the many guests who fill Lazy L&B later this year, like all those who have posted 5-star reviews on TripAdvisor ever since we visited long ago. I just couldn’t bring them alive to her on this wintry day.
On this day in late winter, I had the impression that to her and to anyone just passing through, it must seem that this charming village surrounded by wilderness was dying. How unfortunate, and how untrue.
She must have noticed the For Sale signs on several motels. I explained that these aren’t pandemic casualties — the owner of one is retiring, and another relocating for family reasons. But even to me, these sounded like excuses.
Just as we can’t see the buds of wildflowers yet to explode into bloom, no casual visitor can see what Jennifer eventually discovered: Dubois is burgeoning with change. Ripe to reopen.
After lunch, we launched into a busy itinerary. At 3 Spear Ranch, just at the edge of town, Creed Garnick proudly showed us how layers of sheet rock have been cleared away in the main lodge to reveal the ancient logs beneath. The team had just been installing heated flooring beneath a claw-footed bathtub in the latest cabin to be upgraded.
After a few years of soft opening, the ranch is primed to welcome outside groups to an upscale establishment that offers elegant but rustic meeting rooms, as well as so much to do after work, from wilderness hikes to horseback rides to evening dips in a hot spring.
The next morning, Jen stopped by the legendary CM Ranch, which opened more than a century ago and has been offering respite and recreation to many generations of families — just not (yet) to company retreats. (That’s Jen at left, with manager Mollie Sullivan in front of one of the cabins.)
As a resident of nearby Lander, Jen has passed through Dubois often, and stopped for lunch or to let her children use the playground in the park. “I never had any idea how much there was here that you can’t see from the highway,” she told me. We were visiting the gallery of Western art hidden away in an upper floor of the conference facility, the Headwaters Center. She said it would be a great spot for intimate meetings.
Afterwards, we met in the Headwaters lobby with Robert Betts and his sister Lindsey Judd. Robert runs the Cutthroat Fly Shop, which is located in a historic building at the main intersection of town. Lindsey and her husband manage the Absaroka Ranch, which has hosted retreats for nonprofit organizations for many years.
They seemed glad for the chance to see each other, and spoke about collaborating more. Meanwhile, we learned that Robert plans to expand the fly shop this summer, to offer much more gear and to rebrand the business as “booking central,” a one-stop shop where visitors can reserve outdoor adventures such as guided wilderness hikes and float trips.
Next I took Jen to an unmarked building near the west edge of town, which is Never Sweat Lodge. If you hadn’t found it online, you’d never know that behind that red door is a space beautifully fitted out for snowmobile and wedding groups, with lodgepole pine beds, a large kitchen with a huge board table, a bar, a pool table, and 6 bedrooms (with much more lodging available right next door at the Super 8 motel). Owner Logan Vaughan is eager to add remote-work teams to his customer base.
The fortress-like edifice rising next to the Post Office is also not what it appears from the street. Family Dollar is not expanding; Nana’s Bowling Alley and Bakery has been rising behind it. Who knows? Bowling might also have some appeal as a team-building activity.
Personally, I would prefer hiking in the wilderness, as regular readers know. But then, Dubois stands ready to appeal to all sorts of people with many different preferences.
Maybe not surfing, I remarked to Creed Garnick, as he showed us where the swimming hole will fill up at 3 Spear Ranch later this spring, after he drops the dam wall in front of the stream.
“I don’t know,” he replied with a smile. “We’ll look into it.”
Cancer survivors, veterans, artists, photographers — why not coders and other techies?
The idea is so obvious I’m annoyed that I didn’t think of it myself.
How can we reach remote workers who would be grateful to know about Dubois, our charming Wyoming village surrounded by wilderness, with world-class Internet service?
How, indeed? Invite remote-work employers to hold their team retreats here.
Dubois has all the facilities for these retreats–many different options–and unmatched opportunities for activities to inspire innovative ideas and team-building after the day’s work is done.
The suggestion came from Highest Peak Consulting, a marketing firm that doesn’t actually exist. It was invented as part of a senior-year project by a team of marketing students at the University of Wyoming, whose professor kindly offered me the opportunity to present our challenge to her class.
Four young people put their heads together and came up with a very bright idea.
What’s most irritating is that I already knew what they didn’t: Dubois has been a retreat center for generations. Some groups come back every year, drawn by our very remoteness, our spectacular and varied landscape, and our charming facilities.
Most of these events are sponsored by nonprofits, not businesses. The participants are cancer survivors, veterans with PTSD, songwriters, photographers, dancers, and people in search of spiritual renewal.
Why not also remote-work teams? It is becoming a best business practice to hold remote-team retreats at least once a year, to improve communication and instill collaboration among coworkers who meet most often via email, Slack, and Zoom.
Probably the first “retreat” sponsor in the Dubois area was Charles Moore. The son of a local trader, he returned to Wyoming after graduating law school in Michigan and founded the Ramshorn Ranch and Yellowstone Camp in 1912. Meant to inspire citified boys with the wonders of the West, the ranch sat in a stream-side grove of trees that happens to be visible from my dining room.
Years later, when that burned down, he founded the CM Ranch, a few miles to the east, which has hosted generations of families every summer for welcome escapes from the madness of city life. These aren’t actually retreats; they’re vacations. But the impulse and the outcome are similar.
One of the longest-running retreats in the area is the artists’ workshop run by the Susan K. Black Foundation, held every year in September at the Headwaters Center. After their first workshop in Colorado, they’ve been coming here for 20 years.
The Foundation’s board had planned to travel to a different location every year. But after coming to Dubois, “we enjoyed it so much we never left,” said director of education Wanda Mumm.
What keeps drawing them back? The diversity of the landscape, she said, all the history of the region, the fact that every year she wants to find a different kind of landscape to paint and “it never fails me.”
There’s also the reality that “we need a reasonably priced area for artists who don’t have a lot of money. Dubois allows us to do that.”
Many organizations retreat to guest ranches in the back country. Others, like the Susan K. Black artists, meet at the Headwaters Center and stay at one of the many motels in town. Their annual workshop usually draws about 125 participants, Mumm told me, about 75-80% of whom are repeat attendees.
“They’re always so enthusiastic about coming to the area,” she added. “It’s interesting how even after 20 years, the artists keep looking forward to it.”
For many of them, she said, “It’s kind of like a family reunion.”
Of course, software engineers and IT consultants need to regroup and renew their inspiration and creativity every bit as much as writers, painters, sculptors. The magic in these mountains can work for anyone.
I am writing from a small chicken farm just outside a distant suburb of Austin, Texas, where we have relocated for a few months (for reasons that have nothing to do with this blog or with Dubois).
It’s great to have free eggs from these free-range chickens. But it was a rude surprise to find that here, only an hour from one of the hottest Internet hubs in the nation, the Internet signal in our guest cottage was so weak that I couldn’t use video on a Zoom call.
I don’t merely miss the flawless Internet back home. I miss hiking trails that don’t resemble eroded garden paths for giants with badly hewn stone staircases, where you can never look around because you must always look down. I miss my routine. I miss our community.
Perhaps this is how you feel as a digital nomad, one of those vagabonds who works on the Internet and travels the world with no fixed home. Given the challenges of the pandemic, social media groups about digital nomads are abuzz with the disadvantages of that lifestyle. Sampling vacation spots and writing posts from a beach chair may sound idyllic, but there are realities that begin to pixelate that rosy image.
Even before the pandemic, travel could be a headache. Besides that and the risk of spotty Internet, there’s the inconvenience of packing and unpacking in new places all the time.
Like a perpetual tourist, you never have sufficient time to connect with the local community. Your only community lives on your screen.
In a blog about the future of remote work, one of the original digital nomads, Pieter Levels, talks poignantly about why he gave up the wandering life. He predicts that when the pandemic is behind us, tech workers who are able to live anywhere “will NOT be fast-traveling from place to place, but instead will relocate longer-term to remote work destinations.”
What could this mean for communities like Dubois, which rely heavily on tourism?
Until now, I’ve focused on attracting digital workers who already have a home base elsewhere, and on whether or not Dubois should establish a co-working space for them. But this week I learned of something that reordered my thoughts.
It was an online conversation between Rowena Hennigan, who comes from Ireland but lives in Spain, and Gonçalo Hall, who is in Portugal. Both are remote-work advocates, and I’ve spoken separately with each of them on LinkedIn about our project to promote remote work in Dubois.
In a recent podcast, Rowena interviews Gonçalo about a government-sponsored plan to build a new community for digital nomads on the remote Portuguese island of Madeira, located west of the coast of Morocco. He says that the island is (like Dubois) “practically unexplored by any digital nomads or remote workers.”.
Gonçalo goes on to describe the same kind of loneliness that Pieter Levels portrays so poignantly. “Lisbon has a lot of digital workers just now,” he says, “but it’s not a community, because it’s just too big. I miss being with people. I miss the sense of belonging…. I think other digital nomads and other remote workers miss it too.”
So he intends to build a whole new village for them on Madeira.
The project will be based in the town of Ponta do Sol, which (quite unlike Dubois) has “no life to the village,” except for the tourists who come to see the sun set over the ocean. Afterwards, he said, they go down to the village looking for something, and find nothing.
“It should be full of people living there,” he said. “… We want them to create co-working spaces and co-living spaces. … It’s not just a project, it’s a sustainable future.”
Dubois already has its own case study of a former digital nomad, in the person of travel blogger Di Minardi. Perhaps a few readers will remember her name, because last spring I spent a great deal of effort searching for a place where she could stay.
Di approached me via LinkedIn a year ago, having seen my posts about Dubois. She proposed to come for the summer and to feature the area on her blog Slight North. Because the blog is targeted to remote workers, I jumped at the offer.
Naturally, we kept in close touch after that. Why, I asked, was she interested in Dubois, of all places? (If you don’t know the town yet, check out the link.) Because it sounded interesting, she said–but that wasn’t the whole story.
For reasons related to the pandemic, Di had to cancel the plan, and we agreed to revisit the idea after this crisis is over. She re-contacted me a few weeks ago, but for a different reason: To ask for a recommendation to a program in environmental writing at the University of Wyoming.
During the long, forced pause of the pandemic, Di told me, she began to realize that she needed a real-life community of mentors who could help her advance her skills, in the direction of a career with more impact than just describing places to visit.
Why that particular program? Because of the curriculum and the instructors, but also because of the location. Di told me that she has wanted to visit Wyoming for a long time, and was eager to experience living here.
As a science writer and now a friend, I was pleased to write the letter.
Of course, I’ll invite Di to come to Dubois once the “new normal” sets in. Then I will also ask her what we could do to make Dubois an attractive home base for her, and for other online workers who have tired of the wandering life. How can we fulfill their desires for their own community, not just for ours?
Our basic needs do align: They want something more than just a place to visit, and we want to be that.
It’s not easy to get in, but members are glad they did.
“Can you do better than this?” somebody posted on LinkedIn. There was an image of a beach, and text about going out to surf in the morning before starting work at a home office.
“Sure, I can,” I wrote. “How about this?”
… and then I clicked away to find exactly the right previous post from this blog, intending to add a link to it. Surely, many times I have written about my custom of signing off and shutting down at 3 PM to go for a hike in the nearby national forest.
I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and by clicking away from his post, I lost it and could not complete my reply. Oh, well.
The sun was beaming through the window over my shoulder, moving slowly down toward the back side of the ridge. I noticed that it was about 3 PM.
These heavenly mild autumn days will not last forever, I said to myself. I signed off from LinkedIn, shut down, called the dog, and headed outdoors.
The aspen are going out in a blaze of color, the same hue as the stripe down the middle of the highway, the leaves like fragments of the sun quaking in the breeze. Out there, my worries slip away.
“Work From Home is more accurately titled Work From Anywhere,” wrote Jocelyn Kung in Entrepeneur, “a cafe, a beach, a different country. People can choose where they live based on their desired quality of life without sacrificing career opportunities.”
The pandemic has made this option ever more obvious and appealing. Survey after survey has shown that a large majority of the people allowed (or forced) to work from home want to continue doing so.
And many of them are reconsidering where “home” is going to be. If they don’t need to go into headquarters, then why must they live nearby?
“The allure of the city has been eroded by technology,” wrote remote-work advocate Chris Herd on LinkedIn, listing observations based on his recent survey of about 1,000 companies. “You can easily spend time there without living there … Cost of living has made [cities] irrational.”
Under the heading “Rural living” he added that “world-class people will move to smaller cities, have a lower cost of living & higher quality of life.”
These advantages came up in conversation a few weeks ago, during the first online meetup sponsored by Wind River Remote Works, our new organization dedicated to promoting remote work in this area. But with a local population that tops out at about 3,000 in the height of summer, Dubois is hardly what he would call a “small city.”
How can we ever hope to attract new residents if we don’t (yet, at least) provide the amenities so many remote workers expect from urban life, like microbreweries and communal work spaces?
The remote workers who live here already offered some fresh ideas at the meetup.
We should “own” our lifestyle differences, suggested one.
Make the challenge of finding and living in Dubois an advantage, agreed another. (He had just been contending that it was not much of an inconvenience to drive 80 miles to the airport.)
“It’s not an easy place to live,” he added, “and if you live here, you’re in the club.”
He’s one of countless residents who, once he got to know this out-of-the-way village, couldn’t get Dubois out of his mind. He and his family moved here two months ago.
I was one of those as well. But I’ve lived here so long now that the special-ness of achieving that goal has faded. I’d never thought to describe living in Dubois from his perspective, as a community of independent spirits who can recognize a diamond in the rough and then embrace isolation and inconvenience in order to obtain it.
He’s very right: Dubois is an exclusive club. Those of us who live here do recognize that, even if we don’t describe it as such.
The membership criteria include first understanding and then embracing our unique culture and our lifestyle. This goes far beyond the mere pleasures of effortless access to beautiful wilderness.
But how can we ever convey that elusive reality to others–deliver to them such a vision of an authentic Western village (quite different from so many “tourist traps”) that they will be compelled at least to visit and begin to discover it? That’s our challenge now.
“It is too bad … that America knows the West from the roadside,” wrote the great chronicler of the West, Wallace Stegner, in The Rocky Mountain West, “for the roadside is the hoked-up West, the dude West, the tourist West ….”
“I have taken to traveling whenever possible by the back roads, and giving up the comforts along with the billboards,” he went on. “That is one way of getting behind the West’s roadside face.”
“Another is to live in some part of it for a while, sample it as a human dwelling place, as the formative stage of a unique civilization, as a place to go to, not through.”
Bright and promising, in place of the old and familiar.
The wind has cleared away the choking haze from the Lone Star fire in Yellowstone, and yesterday we could rejoice once more in a splendid, bracing Indian summer day. Time to get back outdoors.
Tramping around in the woods, I got slightly and happily lost. I generally knew my way, because this is one of my favorite stomping grounds.
A few years ago, these woods were cleared in places by our own Lava Mountain fire. I mourned the “burn,” because it eliminated some of my favorite paths and views. But as a tourist pointed out to me last week, around here you don’t run out of places to hike.
Emerging into the clear, I found this glorious sight: A new aspen grove springing up among the charred trunks.
That’s the way it goes sometimes. The old and familiar is destroyed. Then, a while later, something bright and promising emerges.
Just as I was putting the phone away after snapping this image, I was startled to hear it ring. I haven’t had signal in that area before.
A cellphone call can spoil the contemplations of a hike, but I took this one. In conversation with a friend, I led the dog on up the dirt road toward the creek, where I stumbled on something equally startling.
I’m accustomed to seeing the huge spools of orange cable sitting beside the highway or traveling on the back of a truck. But I’ve never seen those cables lying on the ground in the forest, in one of my go-to hiking spots.
They trailed on up toward the creek, partly buried already.
Look how healthy the trees are right here, only yards from those charred trunks. Among other features of our landscape that were spared, the firefighters worked very hard to save the campgrounds in this forest.
Both locals and national experts about wildfires say that one reason our forests keep burning nearly out of control is because, long ago, the Powers That Be killed off most logging activity. The result was large, dense stands of aged trees that are now vulnerable to disease and fire.
The lumber mill in Dubois closed nearly a half century ago. Our town has hung on by its fingernails ever since, taking advantage of its tourism assets while awaiting a new lifesaving industry that would bring back the year-round jobs.
So I saw those cables-in-waiting as both a sign of loss and a sign of hope. For me personally, it could mean losing another isolated hiking spot close to home. But for our region, it is reason for optimism.
Certainly, good broadband will soon reach much farther up-mountain. There could also be a Wifi hub right next to the pit toilet near the campsites. That would give digital nomads — those full-time Internet workers who haven’t yet decided to settle down — the opportunity to hang out for a while in our wilderness, while discovering the joys of the Wind River region.
Here’s another go-to hiking spot that delivered a surprise, back in the summer. This is a valley where the dog and I love to hike, also not far from home. When I first saw the view you see in the image at left, I gave a sigh at the sight of those ridges pointing off toward the far distance, on either side of that empty plain.
To judge from the picture on the right, others have had the same reaction. The circles are new cabins. The dirt roads that lead to them must be pretty rutted right now, but I’m sure that will change. I’m also fairly sure these people will soon be served by another orange cable–if they aren’t already.
Do they already know, or will they soon discover the fact? This is an ideal place to pursue what is now called “remote work” in a truly remote location.
Last week, some plein air painters from the annual Susan K. Black Foundation workshop set up on our back porch. It looked like they were either peering through the smoky haze or just trying to imagine what lay beyond, as they worked to capture the image of those mountains on canvas.
Meanwhile, an instructor used our broadband to live-stream a painting demonstration for artists elsewhere who had opted out of traveling to the workshop this year, because of COVID.
The Foundation has been holding workshops here every summer for 20 years, one member told me, because they love the scenery, the serenity, and the down-to-earth people.
She nailed it. This year, they also appreciate the terrific broadband, out here in the wild at the base of the mountains.
This time of year the sky can be troubling, fascinating, or soothing. It depends…
This morning, at last, the air smelled fresh and clean. I caught the fragrance of new-mown hay. The subtle but disturbing smell of wood smoke was finally gone.
It’s that time of year when we expect the sky to turn the pale gray color of skim milk and the eyes to burn by day. Of an evening, the light show in the sky is as troubling as it is fascinating, as flashes of cloud lightning circulate the perimeter of our view. Any of them could become a fire.
Going outdoors gives us a constant reminder that there are fires out there somewhere. So far this year Dubois has been spared, but others elsewhere, we can easily tell, have not.
The tourists exploring our town don’t seem troubled at all by the close atmosphere and the hot haze. Perhaps they don’t know about the blue sky and refreshing air that they are missing.
Last week we drove over the mountain to Jackson. Those grand Tetons had entirely disappeared behind the airport. It was as if someone had dropped a huge light-gray blind in front of the mountain range. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
A plane glided down toward the runway, and I thought about the disappointed tourists inside, unable to have a first glimpse of the legendary mountain range they had come to see.
Especially this difficult year, the days of late summer arrive with a tinge of regret–for the lovely days lost to working indoors, for intentions unfulfilled and friends not seen for months, for the simple inexorable passage of time.
Days are shorter now, as the light begins to fade ever closer to dinnertime. But there are compensations. Now I can sit on the back porch and watch the stars without staying up past my bedtime.
On any relatively moonless night in this dark environment, the sky is freckled and sequined with them. The real star-spangled banner is the Milky Way, spreading lazily and visibly across the entire sky above our house.
My view of the night sky is to the north, which is where the action is, both in legend and in reality. There’s a domestic drama up there: Casseiopeia sits eternally on her throne (or rocking chair, in my impression of the image) just to the west of her husband Cepheus. Casseiopeia angered the god Poseidon by bragging too outrageously about her own beauty and especially that of her daughter Andromeda, whose constellation appears just below Casseiopeia.
As the story goes, Andromeda’s venal parents cut a deal with Poseidon: He would back off if they allowed him to chain beautiful Andromeda to a rock in the sea. Perseus cut her loose, rescuing her from a sea monster, and married her.
His constellation appears to the east of Andromeda, living forever below his inlaws and anchoring one end of the Milky Way. In that direction, if you’re lucky, for about a week this time of year you can see some real action: The Perseid meteor showers, which are remnants of a comet falling across the sky.
I wasn’t either patient or lucky this year, and I caught sight of only two or three faint “falling stars” while watching for a few minutes. But on other evenings I have watched some very bright meteors blazing across that sky: So. Slowly. As. To. Beg. A. Wish.
If I take time to rest and watch for a while, I see other bright spots moving across and between the constellations. These are either satellites or airplanes, too distant to hear but recognizable by the rhythmic flash of their light. I lean back on my porch and send a wave of sympathy to the people inside that metal tube, doubtless tired and eager to return to earth.
Around me, all is silence. The deer are settling down in their nests of trampled grass. The hawks must be resting on branches out there somewhere.
I am resting too. My mind is wandering somewhere in the black, silent, and incomprehensibly distant depths, where my insignificant regrets and disappointments vanish.
It took a long time to restore the Stars and Stripes to the flagpole in our driveway, after the wind captured and snared the far end of its tattered predecessor to create something that looked like a symbol of anarchy, hanging twisted and partly upside down.
My husband first tried to tear it loose by yanking on the cord, but it was too tightly caught in the finial at the top. Then, one Saturday morning, he asked for my help.
He had driven our little RV around and parked it adjacent to the flagpole. First, he duct-taped together two long poles, and attached a knife to one end. Using the ladder at the back of the camper, he climbed to the roof and asked me to hand the pole up to him.
Not surprisingly, it wobbled wildly. He could not get it in position near the finial, much less create the pressure at the top necessary to cut the flag free.
Next, I helped him to lift a stepladder to the top of the camper, and then climbed up there myself. He put the ladder in position, grabbed the long pole, and put his foot on the first step of the ladder. I grabbed the uprights of the stepladder and braced my legs.
In decades of marriage, you learn some things you should not say to your husband. Instead I began to pray. Fervently.
Then he stood back. “You know,” he said. “This is insane.” I breathed out.
Back in the house, he identified someone in town who could bring out a cherry-picker to solve the problem. He couldn’t make it before Tuesday.
I was relieved, but only somewhat. Friends back East were remarking that they are so upset with current events that they just wanted to leave the country — and they didn’t mean “leave for the country” as we have.
In this political climate, displaying a distorted flag even inadvertently made me very uncomfortable.
The next day, we took a long hike up Bonneville Pass with some friends. What a splendid way to escape the heat (in more senses than the obvious one).
The wild flowers were a riot of red and yellow. There were still patches of snow here and there. As we reached the valley at the top of the Pass, quite a wind kicked up.
Pulling into the driveway, I saw to my relief that the same wind had ripped the end of the old flag loose and it was flapping free, albeit raggedly. That’s kind of the way I feel myself these days. The old flag will go to rest at the VFW, where they take proper care of them. Call me Pollyanna, but the clean new flag looks like a symbol of hope.
On another front, for regular readers I should set the record straight about my brush with high fever and exhaustion, which I assumed were a sign of Covid-19 infection, until the tests came back negative.
“Could you have been bitten by a tick or another little critter?” commented a former coworker from Connecticut. I asked to be tested for tick-borne diseases, and the results came back strongly positive for Lyme disease.
Earlier this spring, I shed plenty of ticks after hiking. I never noticed a bite or the tell-tale bullseye rash that is the classic sign of Lyme disease. But while being very vigilant about the pandemic, it looks like I was too careless about something else.
Isn’t that a creepy critter?
How ironic! After working and spending weekends in Connecticut for years, Lyme got me in Wyoming.
Unlike Covid-19, at least there is a good treatment for this. Although my “flirtation” with Coronavirus delayed treatment somewhat, thanks to my friend Natalie I got it soon enough to avoid major consequences, and now I feel fine.
Sometimes I need to be even more remote than I already am.
“They don’t even talk about Yellowstone,” said someone about the couple who were staying in her rental cabin in Dubois. “They just want to escape because they’ve been cooped up for four months.”
Although I live in the very place where they have come to escape, I do sympathize. But it’s not four walls I want to be away from. It’s four mountain ranges, the ones that surround our home–the Winds, the Absarokas, the Tetons, the Owls.
I need to be even more remote than I already am. Completely off the grid for a while. To see canyons I never saw before and hike trails with unfamiliar views in a different world. That’s it, I realize: I want to live in a different world for a while. To escape the news of pandemic and panic, of pillagers and police.
We pack our toothpaste and face masks. We shut down, turn off, lock the doors behind us and head off toward the Bighorn Mountains, to camp out where we are distanced in earnest.
Soon we’re shooting northward out of the top of Wind River Canyon and onto the huge, flat plain called the Bighorn Basin. Ahead, off in the distance, are unfamiliar ridges and ranges.
Reading Roadside Geology of Wyoming as we cross the flats, we learn again about folding and faulting, and recall the reasons why the oldest rocks are at the peaks of mountains, not in the valleys below. We read why this barren desert plain is a vast oilfield now: because once, ages ago, it was all a huge seabed.
Or so we thought. Then a brown sign on a nearly deserted highway near the base of the Bighorn Mountains grabs us and turns us around. Dinosaur tracks! Now there’s something new to us – and like most of Wyoming, of course, also very, very old.
We rumble five miles down a gravel road past beautifully striped badlands (not that different from the ones near home, but smaller) to reach the Bureau of Land Management Paleontology Area near Red Gulch.
It’s one of those spots that only locals knew about, until four hikers noticed three-toed impressions in the rock at their feet, recognized what they were looking at, and told the experts, who ventured out here, found more, and put up lots of signs.
We learn that that this spot has overturned the accepted concepts about that ancient prehistoric seabed. In Roadside Geology we read that back in the Jurassic era about 160 million years ago, before the continents split apart, all of what is now the Rocky Mountain region was submerged under a vast inland sea.
But here’s something old and new: In this particular location, now near base of the Bighorn range, there must have been a reef-like island with wet sand at its edge, where dinosaurs once walked back and forth.
We too walk back and forth along the ancient draw, where the silt long ago turned to stone, and we begin to see the three-toed tracks for ourselves, as well as others that seem to include the imprint of a bony heel. The longer we look, the more we find.
This has a way of distancing one from the concerns of the moment.
Fast forward 100 million years. This was still before the huge volcanic pile that we can see from our living room, the Absarokas, formed after a huge eruption. About 60 million years ago, the foundation of the land at that spot we had left behind was driven eastwards by an underground collision from the west, slowly grinding its leading edge beneath the basement of the land that we were about to ascend, which rose to become the Bighorns.
What was once deep, fundamental, and subterranean eventually became lofty and ascendant, pointing right to the sky. How long, I wonder aloud, did this take?
A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone, short as the watch that ends the night …
“I think modern humans have no concept of the mountain-building that is going on right now,” replied my husband. Or of their destruction, I think, as right now, when the Wind River turns the color of caffe latte, bringing some of those mountains down.
Leaving the dinosaur tracks behind, we climb a long chain of switchbacks up a granite-rimmed canyon toward the meadows at the summit of the Bighorns. Some of the oldest rocks on earth rise from these meadows, white boulders sparsely draped with evergreens. The meadows themselves are a carpet of spring green just now, decorated with large patches of blue lupine and yellow asters.
Next to our campsite rises an imposing jumble of granite blocks. This is home to a russet-colored creature with a fluffy tail that clambers cat-like across the boulders: A marmot. We learn that it likes walnuts, and will come quite close to retrieve them.
We seem to spend a fair bit of time gazing. We gaze at the marmot resting on a warm rock in the sun, and it gazes back. We gaze at moose as they chew placidly on willows near streams, ignoring us. I spend long periods just gazing at the forest across the stream beside the campground, listening to the birds.
It occurs to me that though we have no signal, I might actually work. Even write this. My laptop is in the camper, and its battery is charged. But I resist.
Instead, I hike to exhaustion in order to reach a tall formation of ancient lava, and follow a moose trail toward its top.
Leaving the campground, we grind slowly back down the switchbacks. Long before we reach cellphone signal, I sense a subtle groundshift, a change in perspective.
Obligations that seemed daunting a few days ago now feel workable. I find later that certain problems have resolved in my absence – not the monumental problems that have been troubling everyone, but a few smaller ones that had puzzled me. Meanwhile, some interesting new challenges have materialized.
During a miniscule sliver of geologic time while I went out of range to find repose at the top of a distant range, the world kept spinning without my assistance. The mountains are rising and falling, the flowers keep blooming in the high meadows, the wildlife are living their wild lives, and they will continue to do so whatever I decide to worry about.
An unexpected reason that I’m pleased we left the city.
“I am vilified for being motherly,” I texted my son in New York City. Not vilified, probably. But I think I have become a laughingstock of sorts.
I paid an outrageous amount to send him a four-pack of toilet paper by Express Mail, and other people in the Post Office overheard my remark about the cost.
He was running out, and he said there was no more to be had anywhere reasonably nearby in Manhattan. He’s not supposed to be wandering around looking for it, anyway.
I don’t really care if some people in this little town out west think I’m a little nutty. I love him and want to do what I can to help in a terrible situation. If all I can do is ship toilet paper, that’s what I’ll do.
“Maybe they will understand how bad it is here,” he texted back. “People are just dying.”
It’s true. Nobody has died from COVID-19 yet in Wyoming. But he says he has two friends who have lost their fathers, and he’s just one of how many thousands of people in the city?
He is anxious about his distant parents, who might be at risk in this pandemic. “Don’t go outdoors!” he orders via text message. “Don’t be in contact with anyone! Disinfect all surfaces at home!”
I can understand why he says this, trapped in his typically tiny apartment in Manhattan. Like so many people elsewhere, he has absolutely no concept what it is like where we are.
“I’m taking my life in my hands and going out to walk the dog,” I texted my son yesterday.
“As long as you’re not within 6 feet of anyone,” he wrote back.
Across the highway, I sent back this picture. “Nearest human,” I wrote. “Can you find him?”
He didn’t reply, so I don’t know whether he was able to find the man working up the ladder on that new cabin perhaps 200 yards away.
This week, I hosted a video call with a former team of coworkers whom I managed during the 9/11 crisis in New York. I thought it would be interesting to compare the experiences.
It was so good to see them again!
Over the years, I’d totally forgotten what Josh was like. On the video we saw him taking his temperature now and again, as he proudly told us about his real estate coup. He and his wife had scored a penthouse atop a large apartment building, not far from our former home in Brooklyn.
Unlike most others living in the building, they have a large outdoor deck that allows them to get outside under New York’s lockdown conditions. But as elevator trips are limited to one family per ride, the waits are interminable and he has taken to walking up and down the 17 floors when he needs to pick up a delivery.
Immediately I thought of the others trapped on the floors below, without roof decks, and those in the countless other high-rise buildings in New York City who live in small apartments that are stacked up like shoeboxes on shelves in a warehouse. Many of them have children who are confined inside, kept home from school. And as we know, they are running out of toilet paper.
And then there’s where I live.
A recent article in the Washington Post infuriated me so much that I actually posted on Facebook about it, which I normally resist. It described a geotargeting study based on cellphone data that claimed to measure how well people were complying with social distancing, by analyzing how much their movements have changed since the pandemic began. It graded all of the states. Wyoming got an F.
That’s yet another example of how the rest of the world has no clue what it’s like here, I wrote. Have ranchers changed their rounds when they feed the cattle? Have folks like us who live outside town changed our habits about driving in for mail and groceries? Have I suddenly stopped driving 10 minutes up-mountain to go walking with the dog at Sheridan Creek, just beyond the boundary of the Shoshone National Forest? Would it even make a difference?
Wyoming is the least densely populated state in the nation, and it has the second-lowest number of COVID-19 cases (after South Dakota). There are currently 70 cases in the state, and no deaths. The nearest documented cases are 75 miles away, and they are in a town of some size worth talking about. We are in a tiny village, at the edge of the wilderness.
Two friends Dubois who are sick may be affected and are quarantined, but we don’t know because they can’t get tested yet.
One of my quarantined friends lets her dog out the door and looks across a long lawn shaded by huge trees toward the river. The other looks out her window at the mountains in the distance and the field between, where she can watch the new calves as they romp.
Many people in this town can’t work just now and are doubtless concerned for the future. The Governor has ordered us just to stay at home. We don’t always.
We go for hikes alone on the Scenic Overlook or stroll on the riverwalk, and chat from several feet away if a friend appears coming in the other direction. We wave from our cars and sidle past each other somewhat awkwardly when saying hello in the Post Office and the supermarket. It’s strange, but it’s not awful.
As usual, whatever the current uncertainty, we are protected from much of the stress that currently darkens the lives of people who are living in cities.
Whatever my pleasure at being able to hike as far as I want in the sunshine outdoors, I feel sad to call this a “joy” of living in this remote wilderness location, because there actually isn’t much joy in the current situation. But it is certainly a comfort at a difficult time.