Horses are motionless in the sunless cold. You’ll have to pump the brakes. A stillness descends.
For better or worse, no red wave has splashed across our land. Instead, we have a white one.
As mere ordinary mortals, we can’t control the weather any more than we can control political events. With apps, we can watch a snowstorm coming on days earlier than we can see the leaden cloud bank looming on the horizon, and they are usually better at forecasts than the political pundits.
Still, somehow, the storm comes as a surprise.
Then the reminders begin. The cotton knit gloves just will not do any longer. You cannot just get up and go these days, because it will take far longer to get ready and also longer to arrive. You turn onto the highway to meet shiny, hard-packed snow, and you cannot quickly trust your sense of the road. You will drive 50 or less rather than 70, brake well before any curve, and pump your brakes gently long before you intend to stop.
In the valley below, horses stand motionless in the field, saving their energy in the cold, waiting to be fed. A stillness descends.
“Here we go again,” said the clerk at Super Foods, looking out the plate glass window. Rather, here we stay again.
The mountain pass closes for the day. You call friends who live alone to ask if they need anything. We won’t be packing in for the entire season as the homesteaders did back then, but we will surely spend more time indoors now, in COVID-like isolation.
Darkness falls in late afternoon now. Just at the time of day when I felt busiest and most alive a few weeks ago, I wonder how soon I should go to bed.
The houses of Congress will be deadlocked again. The longstanding Town Council member has won the election, and everything will go on (or remain dormant) as before.
Back East the road crews would spray salt, and the snow on streets would melt to slush. Here they spread dirt. As I drive facing a scene of endless white and gray, the fragrance of fresh soil rises up through the ventilation system, bringing with it the incongruous memory of digging in the flower bed with my trowel.
I waited too long to cut down the hollyhocks. They stand there festooned with snow, looking as ridiculous as dowagers who can no longer see well enough to apply their own eyeliner. Another day, I will have to put on heavy gloves and a scarf and shower myself with snow to carry them away.
Will I take advantage of all those extra hours indoors, working by lamplight to accomplish great new things? Probably not. I sense that we will watch old movies by the fire, eat popcorn, and go to bed early.
“This pub has almost as much character as the Rustic,” said my husband, as he sat down with my pint of bitters and his Guiness. We were in Bodmin, a town in Cornwall, on a vacation to England that has been long postponed due to COVID.
Three blokes sat on a bench a few feet away, joking, sharing beer and stories. The aged ranchmen in the Rustic swap memories too, but they sit on high stools at the bar.
“Well, I’d better get along,” said one of the men, while showing no sign of an intention to move. “Time to go home and kiss the dog and kick the wife.” One of the others said something too quiet to hear, and he replied that he didn’t really want to kiss the dog.
I couldn’t resist a chuckle, and he noticed. One joy of traveling in a country where you know the language is being able to get the jokes.
Leaning back, I noticed the flintlocks hanging from the ceiling beams, not on the walls as the rifles do at the Rustic. There was no line of cowboy hats behind the bar.
Cornwall was a Wild West of its own, once a land of outlaws as surely as the cowboy country in America. These outlaws were pirates and smugglers, some of whom lured ships to founder on the rocky coastline in order to plunder their cargo.
It’s the land of the hero Poldark and the villain Joss Merlyn, the brutal landlord of Jamaica Inn on the heights of Bodmin Moor. The Inn, which really exists, was the setting of a novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, which Alfred Hitchcock made into an ominous movie.
It’s an odd name for a hotel in the middle of Cornwall, perhaps given because its founder was a sea-captain who sailed to Jamaica. In the novel, the miscreant Merlyn has bought the Inn, let it fall to ruin, and turned it into a derelict storage space for smugglers’ booty. We are staying there now, as the base for our visit to Cornwall.
It’s charming and rather kitschy today, but DuMaurier made it seem wonderfully sinister in the book. (Do you like the picture? I caught it after sundown.) We are reading the novel to each other in our bright and comfortable room or in the bar, which is dark but hardly scary.
“Jamaica’s got a bad name,” says the coach driver who delivers the heroine, Mary Yellen, to the Inn. “Respectable folk don’t go to Jamaica anymore. That’s all I know. … They’re afraid.”
(Whenever we read the heroine’s name, Mary Yellen, I’m amused to be interrupted with the thought of a dear friend back home: Mary Ellen.)
Mary Yellen clearly finds the landscape forbidding as she approaches in the coach. “On either side of the road the country stretched interminably into space,” du Maurier wrote. “No trees, no lanes, no cottages or hamlet, but mile upon mile of bleak moorland, dark and untraversed, rolling like a desert land to some unseen horizon.”
Sounds rather like that country I love, the miles between Lander and Rawlins. Of course, out there we do have Jeffrey City which might be called a “hamlet”.
This is highway A30 that passes Jamaica Inn today. The modern road, now a divided highway, must generally follow the route of the old “high road” that passed the Inn in the 1820s, when the novel was set. As in Dubois now, there would have been only one proper highway in the entire area.
DuMaurier describes that land as fearsomely forbidding. “No human being could live in this wasted country, thought Mary, and remain like other people; the very children would be born twisted, like the blackened shrubs of broom, bent by the force of a wind that never ceased … Their minds would be twisted too, their thoughts evil, dwelling as they must amid … granite, harsh heather, and crumbling stone.”
A wind that never ceased. Granite and crumbling stone. Twisted minds.
Oh, my …
While some of the land has since become farm fields, the higher elevations of the moor surrounding the Inn remain isolated and desolate. We have hiked some of it. The high parts of the landscape are as rugged as the badlands back home, but in a different way. I loved it. Perhaps my mind is twisted.
Unlike Wyoming, this is wet country, and there are warnings in the guidebooks about sinking into bogs or marshes on lower ground. There’s a framed picture in the Inn of a young man who disappeared while hiking on the moor in the 1930s.
It’s been dry here lately, but we took the advice in the guidebooks and stayed to the high ground. That can have its perils too. I nearly foundered when a sudden gust of wind tried to knock me sideways on the rocky ground in this picture.
As on hikes back home, we passed prehistoric relics — stone circles and stone path markers.
We saw abandoned mines and clambered up to high outcrops of granite.
We also had charming encounters on the moor. We scared up many shaggy, rustic sheep accompanied by their gamboling lambs.
Wild mares wander the moors, followed closely by their foals.
That sight was endearing, but not thrilling like the encounter with a herd of horses from CM Ranch that a hiking buddy and I saw while walking up the road toward Three Lakes, shortly before I left for England.
Unlike the ponies on Bodmin Moor, they did not wander off in another direction. They stood silently and watched us from the ridge, unafraid, and then galloped down the slope ahead.
They weren’t wild horses, of course, but they were literally running wild.
Both times, the sight of the horses free and loose made me catch my breath and stop.
It’s strange, I texted to my hiking buddy back in Wyoming, to feel I am both at home and in a different world.
That great writer of the West, Wallace Stegner, once remarked that the West has always been a trail to somewhere else, a place with a literature that is more about motion than about place.
We love to travel the West, always by road trip. When we are in a hurry to get beyond the mundane and reach the spectacular, we pass the time reading. Usually I read while he drives.
Returning from Texas after the holidays this month, we enjoyed Roughing It, Mark Twain’s account of a stagecoach journey from Missouri to California in 1861. The route took Twain past Independence Rock and over South Pass, probably along roads near home that we have often traveled by car.
I was disappointed that he didn’t travel slightly farther north to our own beautiful valley. At least he got to the Continental Divide near Dubois, and he experienced how “it seemed that we could look around and abroad and contemplate the whole great globe, with its dissolving views of mountains, seas and continents stretching away through the mystery of the summer haze.”
Parts of his account of the stagecoach experience made me laugh aloud. For instance, driving into and out of a gulch:
“First we would all be down in a pile at the forward end of the stage, nearly in a sitting posture, and in a second we would shoot to the other end, and stand on our heads. And we would sprawl and kick, too, and ward off ends and corners of mail bags that came lumbering over us and about us, and as the dust rose from the tumult, we would all sneeze in chorus, and the majority of us would grumble, and probably say some hasty thing, like: Take your elbow out of my ribs! Can’t you quit crowding?”
We drove in heated comfort in mid-January, with cushioned seats, armrests, sun visors, cans of seltzer in the cup holders, and cellphones available to help in a crisis (or text the relatives to describe our progress). I could not help but compare our experience to that of Twain as I was reading, and also to that of cowboys along the northbound cattle drives. I had just finished reading Cattle Kingdom by Christopher Knowlton, a history of cattle drives and ranching in the late 1800s.
We would reach home via Denver and Cheyenne, two towns on the early cattle trails. Sometimes on this trek we actually follow an early cattle trail, through the Raton Pass to Trinidad, Colorado, and straight up the Interstate toward Denver and Cheyenne—more or less the 1866 route of the Goodnight-Loving cattle drive. But we prefer US Highway 287, slightly to the east, because it’s less congested, sometimes has a better road surface, and (incidentally) passes through Dubois.
During the cattle drives, which Knowlton calls “the largest forced migration of animals in human history,” some 50,000 cowboys drove about ten million cattle north out of Texas. They had to contend with water that might be toxic or completely absent, cactus and sagebrush that tore at their legs, the risk of stampedes, Indians, and outlaws, and the hostility of farmers along the way who knew that many Texas Longhorns carried and transmitted a disease that could be fatal to their own livestock.
He recounts the “astonishing” number of ways the trip could also be fatal to a cowboy. “You could fall from your horse, you could be kicked in the head while roping a steer, you could be gored by a horn, you could drown while crossing a river, you could be caught in quicksand, you could be struck by lightning, you could be scalped by an Indian, you could be shot by a rustler … “
An Iowan named George C. Duffield kept a journal during an 1866 cattle drive, which is quoted extensively in Cattle Kingdom. “It has been raining for three days … Hard rain and wind and lots of trouble … Ran my horse into a ditch & got my knee badly sprained…. Swam the river with a rope & then hauled the wagon over … Almost starved not having had a bite to eat for 60 hours … Am almost dead for [lack of] sleep. I am not homesick but heartsick.”
The cattle drives took from three to six months, with many detours to find water and grass. The average rate of travel was around 15 miles per day, or about one mile an hour.
Lacking cattle to drive, stagecoaches could be faster. Writing a decade after his trip west from Missouri, Mark Twain reveled in comparing the rate of travel by stagecoach with that of the new transcontinental railroad. He traveled “fifty-six hours out from St. Joe—THREE HUNDRED MILES!” or about 5 mph altogether. The train reached 300 miles west of Omaha in only 15 hours and 40 minutes, averaging nearly 20 mph.
“I can scarcely comprehend the new state of things,” he wrote.
We try to travel at 70 mph, by the way. Even in the short days of winter, we can make it back from Texas in less than three days. Pushing, we can make it in two.
Twain seemed to marvel even more at the culinary difference. At stage stops, he sometimes faced food and beverages so distasteful he opted to go hungry and thirsty. On the transcontinental railroad (according to a New York Times account he quotes), passengers dined on “snowy linen” using solid silver, served a “repast at which Delmonico himself could have had no occasion to blush” (antelope steak, mountain-brook trout, choice fruits and berries and “bumpers of sparkling Krug”) by waiters clad in white.
As a 19th century humorist, Twain could not have had our current mindset about the railroad. (In fact, if I quoted some of his phrases about Native Americans, Facebook might cancel this blog.)
He does not contemplate what immediately struck me as I read the quote above: the ultimate cost and consequences of delivering those passengers at such speed and elegance, not merely in dollars but in effort, anguish, and often lives–Asians and Native Americans and others.
Cattle Kingdom reckons the cost to bison, and thereby to Native Americans. The great transcontinental railroad, Knowlton write, divided the bison into two primary herds and thereby helped to decimate them– a southern herd of some 5 million animals, most of which disappeared by 1875, and a slightly smaller northern herd that largely vanished by 1883.
This was no mere matter of disrupting migration routes. “Railroad management encouraged recreational hunting,” he wrote, “hoping to eliminate the herds that blocked their line. Passengers were directed to shoot at the beasts from the train windows.” Telegraph companies also wanted to see an end to the bison, which liked to scratch themselves against the telegraph poles.
We passed a few very long trains in Texas this month—none shipping cattle, most shipping fuel. Of course, energy sources long ago replaced cattle as the most important commodity produced in both Texas and my home state of Wyoming.
The number of vast wind farms along our route in Texas is noteworthy. I caught this picture near Lubbock. (The train is transporting oil.) Sometimes I see cattle grazing beneath the turbines.
Our only challenge during this trip was the assault by thousands of tumbleweeds, which charged us from the northwest in a steady 30-mph blast as we traveled through Oklahoma and Colorado. They got caught in our grille and our undercarriage, and we sometimes swerved to avoid a tangle of weeds almost as large as a calf. We wonder how much paint they took off the car.
Unlike Stuart’s party, we had a guidebook and a topo map. Nonetheless …
This happened a while ago. It was one of those warm and sunny late-autumn days that call out “Last chance?” and propel you to get outdoors right now, and go somewhere, anywhere.
We had chosen to drive beyond Lander and then southwest. We were going to find the spot where, 209 years earlier almost to the day, Robert Stuart and his fellow explorers had camped for the night after they finally reached the legendary “shorter trace to the south” across the Rockies. Now known as South Pass, what Stuart called a “handsome low gap” leads widely and gradually over the Continental Divide, accessible to wagons and therefore, much later, to hundreds of thousands of emigrants heading west.
It had not been easy to find. Returning to St. Louis from the Northwest, Stuart and his band of Astorian fur traders had a long and arduous journey, traveling on foot when they could not obtain horses. They endured periods of starvation, angry disagreements, unsettling encounters with natives, misdirections (intentional or otherwise), and perilous, unnecessary detours.
We’d learned about all this in detail fromAcross the Great Divide, the biography of Robert Stuart written by his descendant, author and chronicler of Wyoming history Layton McCartney, a former part-time resident of Dubois whom we got to know briefly after we moved here from New York City. We now live close enough to see the exact historic spot he had described, and we set out to find it.
Unlike Stuart and his fellows, we knew the way in general, having driven the highway from Lander to Farson many times. But we had never crossed any part of that familiar sage and sand plain on foot. Nor had we ever before paid any particular attention to the Oregon Buttes, the huge rocky formations that were a landmark to all those westward-bound pioneers who passed by along the Oregon and Mormon trails.
“Follow the Oregon Buttes Road 2.9 miles to the crossing of a small, dirt two-track road,” directed our little red guide book, Day Hiking the Wind River Range. “Park here and begin walking to the right (west).”
Simple enough instructions, it seems. They were certainly much clearer than the ambiguous directions in reports from earlier explorers and rough translations of communications from natives, which were all that Stuart and his crew of explorers had to aid their search for an easier passage back east. We had the little guidebook, the biography, a topo map, and a general feel for the area (but no GPS, lacking signal). Nonetheless, we were puzzled from the outset.
The dirt double-track that headed west from Oregon Buttes Road was actually 2.1 miles south of the highway, not 2.9 miles as the guidebook said. There was no such track at 2.9 miles. So we got out of the car at 2.1 miles and walked west, already uncertain (as Stuart and his party almost always were) whether we were going the right way.
To our right, we could easily see what Stuart called the “southern terminus of the mighty Wind River Range”—the same range that towers over Dubois.
After a few hundred yards, another track took off to the left. We chose that direction, partly because we saw RVs parked farther along the other track, to the right.
We were looking for trail markers, not campsites, and there were good signs off to the left—specifically, these concrete markers which seemed designed to point the way to the old pioneer trails.
Our guidebook promised an easy 1.5 mile hike, marked at the 0.7-mile point with a fenced area surrounding two stone markers erected to designate the actual pass and the Oregon Trail, and another commemorating Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding, the first women on this trail, who came this way with their husbands in 1836.
We didn’t have pedometers, but we did have a general sense of how long it takes to hike ¾ of a mile on the flat. We passed through a gate in a barbed-wire fence, and we had seen the trail markers. But there was nothing like a monument to pioneer women.
However, looking at the map, we could easily identify our original goal: the eastern slope of a hill immediately northwest of present-day Pacific Springs. There, the Stuart party were forced to camp. As McCartney wrote, “the wind and snow hampered their progress” when, after a 15-mile hike, they could easily see the gap between the mountains just ahead.
We stopped to consult the map, still trying to decide where we were compared to where they must have been. Pacific Springs was clearly marked. The east-facing slope in question had to be the shallow one, distant but easily identifiable, off to our right and ahead.
It must have been disheartening beyond description for the men to reach that spot, finally to see the gap ahead, and not be able to attain it because of the Wyoming’s unpredictable autumn weather. In passing, it left a layer of snow on their blankets that vanished the next day. We recognize this weather pattern.
I took a picture, and we traveled on. But where were the legendary deep tracks of the Oregon Trail? We abandoned the track we had been following and walked overland across the sagebrush flats, in the general direction of that slope, heading toward a deep culvert on our side of the ridge.
And there, just up a rise, we found the fence, the two rough stone markers, and the unmistakable deep ruts of the original Oregon Trail. This is only one of many sets of deep wagon ruts in the area, we learned later, because of course not all of the 19th-century migrants followed exactly the same path westward across this desolate, flat country.
I hiked the deep ruts back toward our car, passing a fifth-wheeler and a pickup along the way. More recent off-road vehicles than covered wagons must have helped carve these grooves, I decided.
When the Stuart party crossed here, they took one last unfortunate detour. The path not chosen would have led them relatively straight northward to the Sweetwater River, and on toward the Missouri River and St. Louis. Unfortunately, near their camp they had discovered a fresh and easily identified trail left by Crow natives, whom they had reason to fear. So they turned south instead.
After taking time to climb one of the Oregon Buttes, which are much larger and more imposing than they appear from the modern highway, the men headed into the Red Desert. Layton McCartney depicted this as “four and a half million acres of rainbow colored badlands, towering buttes, high desert, and shifting, 10-foot-high sand dunes.”
This vast and forbidding terrain is basically a huge bowl created as the Continental Divide splits and then rejoins, noted on Wyoming maps as the Great Divide Basin. It has no outward-bound watersheds and is remarkably barren–nothing like the rolling, high plains the party had anticipated from the reports of other explorers.
“Stuart and his companions might have been in the Sahara Desert,” McCartney added. They wandered for many days without water, before finally turning northward to find a stream that led them to the Missouri, and civilization.
Having returned to our car after a pleasant jaunt on a lovely afternoon, we headed briefly in the direction of the Red Desert. The dirt road led bumpily downhill and quickly became impassable. We turned back toward the highway, going in the direction Stuart should have chosen.
Thanks for reading!
You can see every new entry of Living Dubois by email if you sign up at the top of the right column atwww.livingdubois.com.
A view of the Park at closing time, with few visitors and many busy bison.
I know that two kinds of people read Living Dubois: Friends and neighbors who are curious what I will say next, and people who either used to come here, come sometimes, or have never been here at all.
This post is for the latter. (I hope the former will indulge me in sharing what they too can see, whenever they wish.)
It’s a good thing we decided to zip over to Yellowstone last Friday for another look around. The Park closed the next day, one day earlier than announced, because of inclement weather. Friday was beautiful, as you can see in the photo.
Any time of year, you have to leave Dubois early to get past the south gate in time to see anything at all inside the Park during a day trip. In summer, that’s because of the long wait at the entrance. In late autumn, it’s because the days are so short.
We turned out of our driveway at first light (this was two days before fall-back into Standard time) and pulled through the South Entrance about 90 minutes later, with no cars at all in sight.
When setting aside this vast region for a park, its early proponents intended to share the experience of wilderness with the general public. Ironically, for most visitors today that experience is often dominated by crowds, traffic jams, and hikes through parking lots.
On Friday, we saw 3 or 4 cars between Grant Village and Yellowstone Lake, where we pulled off for a view. Looking east across the lake, we saw a mirror image of the sky. Looking north, we could see distant mountains capped with snow.
I wanted to see Hayden Valley again, because we haven’t been that way in a while. Swiveling my gaze from side to side as my husband drove, I was alert for wildlife, but didn’t see any. The mudpots were steaming as usual.
Rounding a curve just past Sulphur Cauldron, we came across a herd of bison, as thick on the ground as the cattle in our own valley on any summer’s day.
As you see, they were busy preparing for winter. I stepped quickly outside the car to catch a closeup of the beautiful beasts that were grazing right beside the road. No need for concern about aggression: They did not interrupt their important work to lift their heads and look back at me.
Farther on, the route passes the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We chose to stop and stretch our legs at the Brink of the Falls, having never yet done that (at least in recent memory).
The parking lot was a blank grid of parallel lines. We slid inbetween two of them at the front.
A short stroll down a paved pathway leads to a set of sturdy wooden stairs that bring you down to a wide platform over the cascade. We walked in beautiful solitude. The enchanting view ought to justify a longer hike, I was thinking.
As we returned to the car, someone else was just arriving at the empty parking lot. A man who shares our general demographic profile stepped out of the passenger side.
“Is it worth the walk?” he asked. Incredible. I was shaking my head as we backed away. If he couldn’t bother to actually look at anything, why did he come at all?
As Dunraven Pass is closed to traffic until next spring, we had 3 choices: Retrace our steps south past Yellowstone Lake, exit via the East Entrance and take the long way home through Cody, Thermopolis, and Riverton (there wouldn’t be much Park left to see if we exited by that route), or continue down the familiar route past Madison Junction toward Old Faithful. Because traffic was nil and we had plenty of time, we chose to continue westward and then southward, around the lower loop.
This route passes my favorite feature in the Park: the Artists’ Paint Pots. These are the brilliantly colored thermal ponds that led people back East to accuse the early explorers who described them of either fantasizing or fabricating.
I wish I had caught an image of one of the red ponds to contrast with this blue one, but we had traded crowds for chill and I did not feel like dawdling as long as usual here. The trail around the paint pots is close to a mile, and I was as glad as ever to stretch my legs and stride, but loath to linger.
The surreal green of the moss really leaps out at you against the iridescent colors of the ponds at this time of year, when the rest of the vegetation is brown.
On the west side of the loop, I was interested to see this river, the Firehole, surging almost up to its banks in late autumn.
It provided a startling contrast to the sad, flat muddy ponds we had seen earlier, sitting at the base of what is usually Jackson Lake. Fed by a completely different river system, and its natural waters enhanced by a dam on the Snake River, the lake feeds farms in Idaho.
Just a bit upstream, Lewis Lake was lovely and full. But the rain and snow runoff have been so sparse this year that the marinas on the Jackson Lake had to close because the dammed waters are claimed by the farms downstream. Who knows what this winter will bring?
We stopped at Old Faithful to eat our picnic lunch on a bench near the geyser. All of the concessions were closed, and it was chilly even in the sun. Old Faithful wasn’t scheduled for our lunch break, evidently, so we packed up and moved on toward the exit, headed for home.
I thought we were done with our sightseeing, but not so. At the intersection with Pilgrim Creek Road beyond the south entrance, inside Grand Teton National Park, we spotted this fellow.
There was no bear-jam, but a Park Ranger was on the spot to assure that nobody would approach the grizzly. He’s a young male, she told me, and he weighs about 300 pounds.
I’ve had rotten luck looking for bears from the car driving toward Jackson, although any number of friends have reported seeing them from the highway. Luckily, I’ve never seen one up close. I felt fortunate getting a glimpse of this fellow at this distance.
It’s a pleasure to tour Yellowstone. but most of the drive is like this: A paved channel through columns of tall pines.
Unless you spend all of your time in the concrete jungle, it’s tedium interspersed with moments of interest.
We passed through Grand Teton Park and took the left at Moran Junction toward Dubois.
This is where some tourists make their mistake coming from Jackson, when they miss the turn to Yellowstone and head east toward our house. Beyond Moran, the road widens quickly into broad meadows bordered by forest, with many distant views toward dramatic mountain peaks.
The misdirected tourists must think the gorgeous road over Togwotee Pass is part of the approach to Yellowstone. That’s understandable.
Told their mistake, they usually sigh and turn back. But to my way of thinking, the drive across the Pass is always the best part of the trip.
All summer, tourists pull off the highway to take pictures of these “wildlife.”
Driving west at the edge of town, as usual I looked for the pronghorn. The herd has moved off the field north of the highway that they occupied all summer, the one next to the subdivision by the golf course.
I took the picture here a few weeks ago. That field is now crowded with the large cattle herd belonging to Warm River Ranch (the historic Mockler property).
The pronghorn have relocated to another field slightly to the west of the cattle, just over the fence from the mules and horses in the property beyond. This new field is greener than their previous feed lot.
Yesterday, in the warm sun of a late autumn afternoon, I almost missed seeing them. They were all sitting down.
Pronghorn, also popularly but mistakenly called antelope, are some of the fastest animals on earth. I’m used to seeing them, alert and skittish, roaming the open range on the Reservation. When do they ever sit down together, as placid as a flock of sheep?
“When they’re all full of grain and feeling safe,” said Brian DeBolt of Wyoming Game & Fish.
Although he says the herd has been around here for at least four or five years, living behind the red-rock ridge that shields the rifle range from the highway, I’m fairly sure there weren’t so many of them next to the highway, making themselves right at home all summer, until this year. They must number around 50 when the alfalfa is growing strong.
Despite what the sign says in this picture (which I took elsewhere in the state), these pronghorn don’t ever try to enter the road. They prefer to graze back the distance of a very good punt. In summer, tourists pull off the highway all the time to take pictures of what they must regard as wildlife.
As DeBolt put it, “they’ve carved themselves out a nice little niche.” They have all the food they need, plenty of water, no natural predators in all of North America, and are separated by a fence from the humans passing on a busy Federal highway and from the threat of hunters by the presence of the many houses nearby.
I have seen pronghorn in flight, but never here. They amble like the cattle.
Out of curiosity, I googled “domesticated pronghorn” just now. The only relevant result is from the gaming website Fandom:
“… a domesticated form of the pronghorn. It’s [sic] ancestors were domesticated by Protomen for their meat, horns, and milk.”
Protomen are occupants of the Fandom fantasy world, creatures about 5% smarter than humans. At some point, evidently, they decided to cultivate the species.
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.”
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.