Caught on Camera: Spring Break in Dubois

Was it a hint or just a red herring?

Downtown032016 I have heard people say there is no proper spring in Dubois.

If that’s true, Mother Nature was messing with our heads on this First Official Day of Spring.

The thermometer stood at -8°F when we got up at 7 AM yesterday. By 2:00 in the afternoon, it read 51°F. I took a hike wearing only a windbreaker over my sweater.

A 60-degree swing is noteworthy, even for high-mountain desert: In summer it tends to start somewhere in the 40s and peak only in the mid-70s.

When we got up this morning, the sky was brilliant blue–about the same color as the mountain bluebirds that have begun to flit about behind our house.

011211The females are soft gray. The males always look to me like tiny pieces of the sky, broken off and soaring about at ground level.

As we left for church, the thermometer read only 22°F. But I was perfectly comfortable as I walked to the car carrying my parka over my arm.

It’s Palm Sunday, the day when parishioners often process around outdoors carrying palms. The minister, who had come over the pass from Jackson to fill in for the day, commented about the mild weather. The high in Jackson yesterday was 28°F (while we were enjoying the fifties). Today it was predicted to surge all the way up to 32.

PalmSunday3(I’ve commented before about the false equivalence many people make between Dubois and Jackson. There’s enough snow over there to serve the ski resorts for the rest of the season, I hear. We can see plenty of it on the mountain peaks here as well, but around town it’s totally dry, as you can see.)

We paraded into the sanctuary at a leisurely pace, many of us minus our overcoats. I’m amazed nobody thought to give thanks for the springlike weather during the prayers.

BennyCar032016In the afternoon, lacking a plan but determined not to stay indoors, we took a drive up Horse Creek Road just to see what it looks like over there right now. We took the chance to leave the car and explore some cave-like formations. Just the perfect day for spring jackets.

Benny obviously enjoyed spring break too. He seldom rides with his head out the window like that. Can you see his smile?

The forecast calls for snow on Tuesday and Friday, with sunshine on the days between and highs in the low 40s.

Paradise lost? No, just postponed.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Who Owns This Valley? Hey, Ya

In which I discover the serene beauty of the Rez, the foreign territory next door.

Eastbound5I needed to run some errands “down county” in Riverton, about an hour away. It was almost balmy spring, and a different experience altogether from the wintry drive over the mountain pass to Jackson a few weeks ago.

I was driving alone. With no conversation to distract me, I had time to discover that this route has a serene beauty of its own.

Almost all of the drive is on the Wind River Indian Reservation, home of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe people. This is not a desolate, barren desert of windblown sand, like the Hopi reservation we saw in Arizona last year. It’s as fertile as the rest of the valley. As you drive, you see cattle, horses, and lots of hay.

Eastbound3I’ve met a few of these distant neighbors, but I don’t have any friends among them. “The Rez” feels like foreign territory, which I suppose it actually is.

In Dubois, we maintain a cautiously respectful and distant regard for the people on the reservation. They do not hasten to engage us, for understandable reasons.

The Shoshone knew this temperate valley from ancient times. For many generations, they migrated through it and occupied seasonal villages around here, long before their descendants were forced to settle here permanently. Their revered leader Chief Washakie and his advisors astutely negotiated the Wind River Valley as a reservation for their people 1868.

Eastbound6The most prominent landmark on the drive is Crowheart Butte. You can see it in this picture, rising from the valley floor. I have no idea how the butte came to be on that flat plain, but nearly everyone here knows how it got its name.

The Shoshone and their enemies the Crow were in constant battle. Chief Washakie proposed ending the conflict with a man-to-man fight with the Crow leader on top of the butte. Legend says that Washakie won the fight, killed the foe, and ate his heart–hence “Crowheart.” I read somewhere that when someone asked old Chief Washakie if this was true, he chuckled and replied, “It sounds like something I might have done when I was young.”

There’s no cellphone signal on the drive across The Rez, and radio coverage is spotty. I kept pushing the scan button and finally came across a strong signal. The melody was repetitive, supported by a drum. The lyrics were at once strange and familiar: Hey-ya-ya-ya. Hey-ya-ya-ya. The music carried me along for a few miles.

Eastbound2

I found myself imagining a woman standing in her kitchen, listening to the same music and looking at this austerely beautiful vista as she cooks. She is not a symbol or a character from geopolitical history. She is part of a real community that occupies this land as surely as I occupy our few acres, cooking her dinner as surely as I cook mine. Of course her tie to the valley that I have come to love would be vastly stronger than mine, who first saw it only a few decades ago.

Maybe she appreciates this gold and blue landscape on a far deeper level than the way I enjoy the view out my own window, I thought.

The DJ announced a new song, with a similar lilting melody and drum rhythm, but this one had words whose meaning I could understand.

Like I told you before
I don’t love you any more.
Stay away from me.
I don’t need you any more.
Hi-yo-yo. Hi-yo-yo.

Her family isn’t locked up in the history I keep in my mind along with the images of petroglyphs and the sheep traps, I thought. Their culture evolves as ours does, but I will probably never know who they are. We slide past one another in Riverton or on the highway, aliens to each other for reasons still too deep to resolve.

Eastbound1My mother, who grew up in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, often lamented the travesty our ancestors had done to the Native Americans. But I was a child growing up in the Midwest when she raised me. I never saw a Native American (to my knowledge), or a reservation. Her words meant almost nothing to me then. I understood them, but I did not.

Gradually the road returning to Dubois begins to dip and rise, winding toward the striped and wrinkled backdrop of the badlands. It slides you gently around a huge curve, and then the other huge landmark suddenly rises in front of you: the red rocks.

RedRocks

On a midsummer day, backed by a jewel-bright blue sky, they are even more arresting than this.

They are the western end of this part of The Rez. Chief Washakie wisely insisted on holding onto these fabulous formations. On any of our long journeys back from somewhere farther to the east than Riverton, I see them as the finale.

Beyond the red rocks, I am at home.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Not Just Humans Migrate to This “Banana Belt”

Four-footed creatures also seek the milder climate of Dubois to avoid severe winters. They’re about to be tracked.

DuboisEastbound030116On our return trip through Antelope Flats this side of Jackson a few days ago, we encountered ice and cold winds. But over the pass and back in Dubois, we found the weather milder and dry.

That’s no particular surprise. When we left home early in the morning to catch a plane in Jackson last week, we had noticed that the temperature was 27° F. The car registered  15° at the top of Togwotee Pass, and then a frigid 7° farther west in Jackson, 90 minutes later.

People here sometimes refer to the Upper Wind River Valley as the “banana belt.” The four-footed wild critters, who are are at least as smart about the climate as we humans, have been migrating through and to Dubois for at least as long as we have (if you include in “we” the Native Americans).

Later this month, wildlife biologists will begin documenting these animal migrations around Dubois, using the latest tracking technology. Next week, they will be fitting 15 mule deer in the Dubois area (among a total of approximately 90 in the general area over a period of several years) with GPS collars. They will then watch remotely in real-time as the critters relocate each year from Yellowstone, across the Wind River Valley toward the Bighorn Basin, and back.

This is part of an evolving series of studies. Last year, when biologists reported that the mule deer’s annual trek along the south side of the Wind River range is one of the longest land-based migrations in the lower 48, the story made the New York Times.

deerMaybe they travel even farther on this side of the mountains. Who knows? We’ll find out soon, thanks to the collaboration between the Nature Conservancy, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Wyoming Migration Initiative, and numerous other partners.

Last week at the Bighorn Sheep Center in Dubois, a member of the migration studies listened with interest as local hunters and biologists in the audience told what they know about game animals here on the north side of the range.

Retired biologist Mark Hinschberger revealed that he had been surprised to see mule deer heading uphill toward the Continental Divide in the autumn while the elk were heading downhill toward Jackson. This was in the late 1970s, when he was part of a US Forest Service study monitoring the effects of logging on elk migration patterns.

Mark told me he began to understand the “backward” uphill migration of the deer after he moved to Dubois. “There are areas on the leeward side of the Continental Divide at the south end of Lava Mountain that are part of the Wind River range,” he said. “They travel over that lower elevation and head into this country and parts east. Some of the deer also hang around here.”

(This is no surprise at all, because we have to watch carefully for them all winter, even on routine daytime trips into town. You often see herds of deer and antelope grazing a respectful distance apart from the cattle in the pastures on both sides of the road. Some of them even seem to know how to watch for traffic. The problem is, you never know which ones those are.)

JacksonView022516“After spending the winter of ’78 and ’79 in Jackson Hole, seeing the snow and the weather, I’m not surprised to see the deer and the antelope coming this way,” Mark said. “The elk used to leave too, but we started intercepting that with fences [which they can’t jump]. So we have diverted those elk to the feed ground [in Jackson] at extremely high numbers.”

Pity the poor elk, standing in the snowfields over there all winter, grazing from bales of hay. I thought of them last week as I looked out the airplane window, ascending eastward over the Gros Ventres and away from Jackson.

Just look at the snow in those mountains beneath the plane and on the flats behind them, with the Grand Tetons to the West in the background. Over the pass in the “banana belt” of Dubois, I knew, whatever snow might land over the coming weekend would quickly blow away. And I was right.

 

 

 

The Velvet Ribbon Out of Dubois

The trip across the mountain pass is perhaps less of an adventure now, but still exhilarating.

PassHighway022514_1Time to leave town. I have to head over the pass to catch a plane. (As they say in Brooklyn, you gotta do what you gotta do.)

It’s barely light when we turn uphill to catch the 9 AM departure. In clear weather like this, we know, the drive will take about 90 minutes. The moon is still visible in the sky, and the road is silent.

Plenty of our neighbors go over Togwotee Pass to Jackson all the time, for a shopping spree, to catch a ski lift or a show, or to visit a specialist. We rarely bother to head into that tourist hot spot, except to catch a flight.

Still, the trip across the mountain is usually a  delight–especially now that they’ve taken a little of it down to widen the highway.

We used to approach road cuts like the one below with trepidation. The lanes were narrow, the plunge off the far side was steep, and you couldn’t see what was barreling down on you from the other direction. Especially on a wintry day like this, the drive could be pretty nerve-wracking.

PassHighway022514_3No more. Today, the highway is smooth, fast, and (as you see from the pictures) well cared-for even in the winter. We’re going all the way over the Continental Divide here, above 10,000 feet and back down. Thanks in large part to the interests of the snowmobilers, it’s going to be an easy trip today.

The succession of vistas make you catch your breath, beginning with the monumental granite walls of the pinnacles, climbing to and passing across vast high mountain valleys, then drifting downward through a green tunnel of pines that open to views of the Tetons.

This pleasure came at a price. Not long ago, we had to endure hour-long waits to cross miles of washboard gravel, while the huge orange toys moved big chunks of rock from here to there, scooped the gravel flat and frosted it with asphalt.

Even back at home, we had nuisances to endure. Trucks burdened with boulders or tons of gravel would groan uphill past me as I finished my morning bike ride, and then growl noisily downhill using their jake-brakes on the way back down.

The reward for our patience is a smooth, wide ribbon. Thank you, Albright Sand & Gravel PassHighway022514_4and Oftedahl Construction. And thank heaven.

The heavy equipment that goes up and down the road most often this time of year, other than the logging trucks, are the snowplows. We see them out even at times when it’s bone dry where we are–a welcome sign that the snowshoeing farther uphill is still good.

In warmer months, this road becomes a scenic detour for those travelers who miss the turn at Moran Junction. Every so often a stranger pulls into our driveway and asks how far it is to Yellowstone. Told that the best option is to enjoy that same wonderful view again in the opposite direction for another hour or so, the driver often asks whether there’s another way around.

In fact, there is. It’s a great trip via Thermopolis and Cody, through a memorably beautiful canyon. But it reaches the northeast entrance to the park, and takes the better part of a day.

The driver’s next question: Is this a bed and breakfast?

Sorry, no. (But there are nice motels and good restaurants 10 minutes farther on, in town. Why don’t you take a look around and enjoy yourselves?)

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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14 Reasons to Love Dubois, Wyoming

Again and again, people come to this remote town not far from Yellowstone and fall in love. How does this happen?

DuboisWYValentineYou hear about it again and again:  Someone came to this remote town not far from Yellowstone and fell in love. How does this happen?

Let me count the ways. Those lucky folks who discover Dubois are:

1. Stunned by the scenery: A too well-kept secret. Granite peaks that rival the Grand Tetons for their splendor. The fascinating, slowly melting red desert. The quiet forests and mountain streams. The vistas never fail to astonish.

2. Seduced by the climate:  The weather is most often pleasant and dry. The sun shines most of the time. Days are generally mild in winter, and cool in summer.

Petro 93.  Fascinated by the history … and the prehistory. From the mysterious carvers of the petroglyphs to the courageous and resilient Mountain Men and homesteaders, the people of the past never fail to amaze.

4.  Charmed by the people of the present:  The welcoming instincts of Dubois’ townspeople and their impulse to help themselves and each other make it difficult to resist loving the whole community, once you get to know it.

5.  Awed by the animals:  The other beautiful residents of this valley appear unexpectedly, and leave you catching your breath in awe. You’d surely be poorer if you never saw an eagle fly–or watched an elk bound away, or glimpsed a mighty moose in the willows.

6.  Healed by the hikes (or the horseback rides):  Whatever the little misery that clouds your vision, it will vanish as soon as you can step outdoors, pause for a deep breath, and take the first few strides.

wintertrail.7.  Silenced by the snow: The noisy burdens and pressures of daily life melt away when you can get out into the soft, deep white of it, whether you’re marching on snowshoes, gliding on skis, or sailing along on your snowmobile. (It’s all good–and never too cold, as long as you stay out of the wind and wear enough layers. Don’t forget the sunglasses!)

8.  Romanced by the remoteness: It takes about an hour’s drive to find yourself in traffic or in a crowd. What does surround you? The beauty of nature, most of it accessible as public land. That said, there are plenty of good places to buy a meal or even an espresso.

9.  In love with the location:  Smack-dab in the middle of the great American West. It’s about an hour’s drive to Yellowstone in one direction and to a restored ghost town and gold mine in the other, stopping to visit Sacajawea’s grave on the reservation along the way. You’re a few days easy driving from Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park … I’ll stop there, for now.

1200px-US_map_-_geographic10.  Drawn to the artists:  You may not be skilled at capturing what you see on canvas (or film), but so many others are. Plenty of them have not resisted the lure of living here, and you have ample opportunities to admire their work on display at art or photography shows, or in local galleries.

11.  Overcome by events:  Did you think there would be nothing to do out here in the middle of so much wilderness? I find I actually welcome a quiet evening at home, after last night’s lecture on animal migrations, the jam session the night before, my neighbor’s dinner party followed by cards, and on and on. I must be sure to be rested up before the Soupenanny next weekend! I’m so sad I was closed out of that free course on early Native American art and elected to miss the hike about animal prints in the snow. Thank heaven it’s still midwinter, when not much is going on. So many choices, so little time!

12.  Beguiled by the benevolence:  There are at least 30 nonprofit organizations in a town that has not quite 1000 residents, as of the last census. Nearly every event is a benefit for one cause or another, and when we run into a true crisis — a catastrophic fire in the middle of the business district, the threatened cancellation of our ambulance service — the way Dubois pulls together to rise and recover is almost beyond descriptions.

DuboisQuiltShow080815_213.  Captivated by the creativity: Knitters and quilters. Guitarists and fiddlers. Woodcarvers and antler sculptors. Jewelry designers and master caterers. (So what is lacking here in Dubois? Walmart.)

14.  Finally, found by new friends:  I heard someone recently describe meeting people in this town as like opening a box of chocolates and finding that they’re all truffles. Among the good friends I have met here are a nuclear physicist, a retired cowboy, a Parisian photographer, a Swedish schoolteacher-turned-wrangler, a great hairdresser (“Excuse me, where do you get your hair cut? Oh, Wyoming. Where’s that?”), a computer wizard, several lawyers and a dentist, numerous artists (of course), and a microbiologist. My hiking buddy grew up in Singapore and Pakistan. Our newest neighbors have moved here from Baton Rouge.

So different, yet we all get along remarkably well. Why? We all share our love for this one remarkable place.

 

 

 

Dubois Winters: If They Only Knew …

Dodging brutal New York weather in the Wyoming wilderness? You betcha.

wintertrail.With a vigilant eye on the weather apps, we made it back to Dubois from New York City last Friday by car, dodging the storms by many miles and barely seeing a snowflake. It’s wonderful to be back.

The following day, as you may have read, the city experienced a historic snowstorm.

Here’s today’s dispatch from the New York Times: “The slush continues: mostly sunny today, with a high of 43 … Especially in a large pile of nasty snow-dirt, you wouldn’t want to ruin your Sunday (or Wednesday) best. But most snow boots, even attractive ones, don’t exactly go with a power suit.”

Oh, my.

Meanwhile, I took the photo above during my mid-afternoon walk yesterday. I wasn’t wearing either snowboots or a “power suit,” needless to say.

“All our weekend plans are ruined,” our 30-year-old son, who lives in Brooklyn, moaned in a text message on Friday evening.

Dear, dear. They had to watch old movies on Netflix last Saturday and eat something made at home for a change (probably microwave popcorn), rather than going out.

BrooklynSnowWhile not denying that a few people in the city truly suffered as a result of the storm (and tragically three died), we know what it was like for our neighbors back there. Streets were closed to traffic and the dogs could run around off leash. Shovels and salt came out of the basement.

Here’s what they face, beginning now: Crusty snowbanks stained yellow and peppered with soot, impassably slushy crosswalks, trash cans obstructing sidewalks narrowed by snow, because the garbage trucks are busy plowing elsewhere.

Here’s today’s forecast for Dubois, Wyoming:

weather012716

It can be brutally, even subzero cold overnight and in the early morning this time of year. But as the wind is usually calm until mid-day, the morning walk around the property with the dog is seldom unpleasant, because layering up really works in this dry climate.

A few hundred feet higher in elevation, a short drive to the west, there’s plenty of base for snow-shoeing (and I’m eager to get out there). Two days ago, a sudden white-out forced Karen and me to turn back from our drive toward the mountain pass for our mid-day hike. But within a half hour, while trudging the back roads near my house, it was sunny again. A few miles downhill in town, it’s almost bare and dry

I’m told the original natives called this “the valley of the warm winds.” They’re not all that mild this time of year, but it is the truth that daytime temperatures in Dubois aren’t much different (setting aside the vagaries of weather) from those back in Brooklyn–as you see above, 40 versus 43.

It may snow sideways for three or four days–and we hope it soon does, because that moisture will be needed in a few months. But at least where we are, the wind always blows most of that blizzard away in short order.

When I consider the blessings of geology here, most often I’m thinking of the beauty of majestic mountain peaks and the cathedral walls of the Pinnacles. But being cradled within this mountain fortress, between the Absarokas and the Winds, also blesses us with protection in winter.

Here’s how I show it to friends out east, using my hand:

MapAndHandOff to the left of the image there, beyond my thumb, is Jackson and the Tetons, which famously get the bulk of the snow (and the downhill skiing industry, with its rowdy crowds).

Yellowstone Park is covered by my hand, off-screen, and my index finger points down the Absaroka range toward Dubois.

The hump of my hand, representing the top of Togwotee Pass and the Continental Divide, shields us from the bulk of the precipitation and cold temperatures. Yet again, this town and this lovely valley reap benefits from our unique situation.

Enough time at the desk! I want to get out there.

@ Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Remotely and Wildly True: Of Dubois and Distance

Did National Geographic really call Dubois WY the most remote town in the lower 48? How remote is it, actually?

HighwayGoogle “Dubois WY” and you’ll soon encounter a statement that it has been designated the most remote town (or sometimes the second remotest town) in the lower 48 states. Often this distinction is attributed to National Geographic.

When we moved to Dubois, my husband and I quickly took up calling it one of the most remote towns in the lower 48 when we described it to friends. We even trotted out some criteria, whose origin I no longer recall: Farthest from the nearest Interstate, fewest traffic lights (none), fewest number of highways that run through it (one), distance to the nearest large town (about 70 miles), or proportion of land within a 360-degree radius that is publicly owned (who knows, but lots).

But is this distinction actually deserved? How remote is Dubois, and compared to what and by which criteria? Last summer I began to study the question, with interesting results.

First, I couldn’t find any such statement about Dubois in the archives of National Geographic. And many other towns lay claim to the distinction of being most remote.

I turned to local sources, Dubois town hall and the library. Sandy Hurst at town hall offered up text from a 2011 press release about Dubois:

“A place considered by National Geographic as the most remote town in the lower 48 states…  it perches on the edge of several wilderness areas and is surrounded by national forests.”

This traced back to a strategic plan for Dubois by the Foundation for Urban & Neighborhood Development of Denver, Colorado, dated 1986. The report said that Dubois had been “recently identified in national news media coverage” as the most remote location in the lower 48–the same unconfirmed designation that I was already seeing, albeit even older.

Anna Moscicki at the library turned up a wonderful quote from the memoir of Ethel Waxham, mother of the geologist David Love who defined the geological history of the Yellowstone region. Waxham wrote about her arrival in Wyoming by stagecoach in 1905:

“The other passenger beside myself was a woman of fifty or sixty, white-haired, face weather worn, bright brown eyes, Mrs. Welty. She was post mistress at Dubois, the post office farthest from the railroad of any in the U.S.”

Delightful, written when the railroads were still expanding, and perhaps an insight into the town’s perception of isolation. But not that relevant today.

In the course of promoting Living Dubois on Twitter, I was fortunate to gain the interest of Marilyn Terrell, chief researcher for National Geographic, who has also been unable to find any source for that attribution of Dubois’ remoteness by her publication (so we ought to stop using it). But she did point me to an article in Smithsonian magazine describing what truly may be the most remote settlement in the lower 48: the community of Supai, Arizona, located at the base of the Grand Canyon. At the bottom of that 3,000-foot crevasse, it is reachable only by mule train, which is how they get their mail.

But Supai isn’t really a town: It’s designated by the US Census Bureau as a “census-designated place,” which is the Bureau’s term for a populated place that is not an incorporated village and has no municipal government. So does Dubois still qualify?

Overlook7Author Henry Grabar on the website citylab.com looked into which towns were most remote by the criterion of being farthest from the nearest Interstate highway, honoring Key West, Florida, as being farthest as the crow flies, and Copper Harbor and Eagle Harbor, Michigan, (251 and 238 driving miles from the nearest Interstate), with an honorable mention to Paisley, Oregon (209 miles) due to the sheer difficulty of driving to the big highway.

Dubois is “only” about 173 miles from the nearest Interstate, at Idaho Falls, and is interestingly equidistant from Interstates at Rawlins, Casper, and Livingston MT (200, 199, and 199 miles, respectively). But considering only towns that are completely surrounded by Interstates (rather than having a national border or large body of water on at least one side), I do wonder whether Dubois might qualify as having the largest average distance to the Interstate in all 4 directions (193 miles).

If you aren’t familiar with Dubois, please be assured that you can buy plenty of groceries and hardware supplies in town, and it’s even easy to find a cafe latte. And by that other criterion of remoteness, Internet access, Dubois is marvellously well-connected. You feel the remoteness mostly by your proximity to all that wilderness.

Speaking of which, there is one remoteness criterion Dubois can legitimately claim without dispute: It is TwoOceanPasscloser than any other town in the United States to the spot in the lower 48 that is most remote from any road, and therefore reachable only on foot or by horseback. This is Two Ocean Plateau in the southeastern corner of Yellowstone Park.

This spot has been designated by the United States Geological Service as the location in the “coterminous” United States that is most distant from any road (the trailhead is at Moran, an unincorporated community). Dubois is 44.1 miles from Two Ocean Pass as the crow flies, and the plateau is farther north. Jackson is 48.8 miles away.

There is one criterion for remoteness by which Dubois fails miserably. The residents are hardly remote in their behavior toward other people. It’s one of the friendliest places I’ve ever encountered, which is one reason we go all that way to get there.

@ Lois Wingerson, 2016

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