Reveries and Memories as Days Grow Short in Dubois

High time to get to the bucket list.

Other important commitments have distracted me from Living Dubois for a few weeks. Meanwhile, here’s the post I would write now if I weren’t otherwise occupied. Perhaps you missed it before. A year old, but still relevant:

AutumnCloudsThe autumn solstice passes. The days of daylight savings time are numbered.

But the days are still warm and bright. The crowds are gone, our days are not so busy any more. It’s time to enjoy those pleasures we promised ourselves back in midsummer, when we were just too busy.

High time to get to the bucket list.

I’ve been looking forward to this item on my list for more than a year. Finally I’m in repose, on the warm bed in the tiny log cabin at the back of the property on Mercantile Street, surrounded by lace and fabrics with fields of roses. I’ve been far too busy to take time for this, and she far too busy to accommodate me, but now we’re not.

MassageCabinThe wise and knowing hands of Helping Hands Massage Therapy are exploring and unwinding the knots and kinks in my muscle tissue. I have been to some of the best musculoskeletal specialists at the best hospitals in New York City, but Reenie’s exquisite skill has done more for my particular woes than all of them combined, and she is doing it now. What a blessing for me that she found her way here, before I even came.

There’s the comforting fragrance of oils. An endless loop of lyrical melodies spins gently in the background: Flute, harp, cello. I am lost in a reverie, half attentive to my body and half asleep.

LakeLouiseStream_MomentSomewhere there’s also the sound of trickling water, which brings me back to one reason why I’m here now: The mingled joy and stress of my last serious hike. A friend and I took the day off and clambered up to Lake Louise, a hidden glacial lake which is the splendid reward after more than an hour of trekking, much of it straight uphill on rocky ground.

It’s been years since either of us came this way, and we both have pleasant memories to revisit. For her, it is passing through a quiet glade carpeted in pine duff, after a long stretch of trudging uphill on a path littered with boulders the size of bricks that here and there becomes a stairway for giants. Often we have to step carefully; sometimes we halt to take in the ever-higher view across the valley.

The vision I want to relive is the broad stream that tumbles merrily and noisily down a channel of rocks beside the trail, toward a splendid waterfall at the bottom. The clamor is wonderful as we approach, and we can’t help but pause to enjoy it and the fragrance of pine. I’ve dreamed of that sight and that sound for years, and the little fountain in the massage cabin brings it back.

LakeLouiseHere’s one reason I need a massage today: The hike to Lake Louise ends in a rising field of solid granite, where the trail vanishes . You’re left on your own to clamber up any way you can, on hands and feet if all else fails. At the top, it’s so windy I fear I might be pitched over the edge. My friend remembers that, years ago, they brought fishing rods but could not fish. It was too windy.

But that view at the top! Breathing hard, we stop and stare, buffeted by the warm wind. Then we creep forward and downward to find a sheltered place where we can unpack our lunch. We are alone, in a patch of heaven at the top of the world.

Clambering, creeping, and holding yourself erect against a stiff wind does take its toll, which Reenie undoes oh, so slowly and carefully, in the little cabin. I wonder and dread when she is going to finish and I will have to rise from the table. Eventually she leaves the cabin, and then so do I. Checking my watch as I close the door behind me, I see that she has graciously given me two hours of her time, for less than the price of a dinner for two in New York.
Rainbow_100218_2
There’s no chance of a hike afterwards: Heavy, black clouds are speeding toward me as I drive home. I try to take the dog outside, but he looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind, and I turn back.

The drops beat on the roof for a few minutes, but as I’m starting to make salad the house suddenly glows with light. Out the window, I see a pair of rainbows that rise from the aspens and soar all the way across the valley, plummeting into a pasture full of cattle.

Beyond every challenge, ache, and disappointment here, I find a blessing.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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Bouquets for Dubois

Another city luxury pops up here in the wilderness.

One thing I will miss about Brooklyn (sometimes) are the masses of colorful cut flowers that that spill out from buckets in front of nearly every deli, all year round.

As there is about one deli per block on a shopping street in Brooklyn, that was plenty of opportunity to be tempted by flowers. And I succumbed, nearly every week.

I took this photo just before we began packing to move out of the house. (How different this looks than the rough-hewn charm of our Wyoming home!) If there wasn’t a bouquet on this dresser in the entryway, that probably meant I was sick or away on a trip.

Every Mother’s Day in Brooklyn, I could expect a bouquet like this from my son. Being on a budget, he would always choose a selection from a nearby deli and make it into an arrangement, rather than paying for a bouquet from a high-end New York florist.

I cropped an image of another one of his Mother’s Day bouquets, and I use it for the lock screen on my laptop.

So I would still see “fresh” flowers nearly every day, but I have not bought many bouquets in Dubois. The supermarket sells a few, but they are mostly carnations and daisies — nothing varied or exotic.

The flowers in my living room look nice, but they’re artificial. This is grass and sage country, I thought. Who needs flowers?

Besides, they’re so easy to find outdoors. I saw these masses of lupine among the sage up on Union Pass last week. It’s my favorite color combination. Someday I will paint a bathroom in those colors.

Nature grows flowers by the armful here in a dazzling array of colors, but that task is beyond me. To keep flowers alive in a garden near my house would mean constant watering, carrying them inside overnight when the weather is cool, and unyielding defensive efforts in the war against deer and ground squirrels. Simply not worth the effort.

So I gasped the first time I stepped out the side door last month, after returning from our final stay in Brooklyn. Arising from my years of sheer neglect was this utterly perfect iris.

I had seen the blade-like leaves for several years and not pulled them, because they looked too elegant to be a weed. I can’t even recall when, in a burst of naive enthusiasm, I must have planted that bulb.

That wasn’t the last of the pleasant surprises. Among the new storefronts that are springing up in the middle of town, I was pleased to find the Wilderness Flower Company.

Casey is new to Dubois. She worked for a while at Western Bouquet, the flower shop far up a side street in the old part of town. I rarely patronized it because it was out of the way. To be frank, I tended to forget that it existed.

The owner retired while I was away. Casey bought the business and relocated it to a prominent spot along the boardwalk in the center of Dubois, right next to the new old-fashioned drugstore. There she holds court with her two small children over the large refrigerator and its stock of tall, proud blossoms.

I need refrain from indulging myself no longer. Why should I not have my bouquet of fresh flowers each week, just because I’ve decamped to the remote high mountain desert?

I make it a practice to buy the oldest and least attention-grabbing of the blooms.. I want to leave the showier flowers there for other customers, because I want The Wilderness Flower Company to survive.

Just like the sage, the lupine, and my lovely, lone iris.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Field Report: Encounters With Migrating Bipedals

A lone male and a mating pair, taking a break from the Front Range.

One of the migratory creatures most often sighted in Dubois during the summer is that distinctive species, the heavy-laden touring cyclist Homo bipedalist.

As with other wild creatures, it is crucial that drivers be vigilant for the touring cyclist, in order to avoid striking one. Their behavior can be unpredictable.

When possible, courteous drivers give them a wide berth and veer far to the left when encountering H. bipedalist as it travels on the shoulder. As with deer, they often appear in groups, and the first one in view is a sign that others are nearby.

The reason we see so many cyclists is that, as with deer and elk, our region is along a major migration route. In fact, it’s at the crossroads of two: The Continental Divide Trail that runs north and south, and the TransAmerica Trail, heading east and west.

Many creatures have been following these routes for time immemorial. Our local historian Steve Banks says that Native Americans, who often used game trails to guide them, followed the Wind River east and west and the trail down the Dunoir valley and up Union Pass as trade routes and during their seasonal migration cycle. The first European explorers in this area used Native Americans as their guides in turn, passing through the same intersection.

Although I often see migrating cyclists, I seldom have an opportunity to get close. This summer I’ve been fortunate to have two enjoyable encounters, both times with cyclists traveling northward from the Front Range of Colorado. One was a solitary individual following the TransAmerica Trail; the second was a mating pair following the Continental Divide.

The migrating species metaphor isn’t entirely a joke. Although many years ago we took bicycle trips of our own, these individuals do seem exotic to me now. I admire their stamina, their strength, and their determination. I can’t imagine doing what they do.

While driving eastward toward town one day, I saw a lone male heavy-laden cyclist laboring slowly westward. As he did not seem aggressive, I determined to stop for a closer inspection if I saw him again when I came back the other way.

He had progressed only a few miles when I returned. Having no special obligations that day, I decided to save him the hard slog over Togwotee Pass toward Yellowstone Park, if he was willing. I pulled over and approached cautiously.

“Would it be against your philosophy to accept a ride?” I said. He thought about it, smiled, and said, “Not at all.”

After loading his bicycle in back of the car, we set off again.

This wasn’t a race or some sort of personal challenge, he told me. He had come north on his bicycle to escape the dull and stressful routine of his job. He wasn’t using his cellphone for information, but just accepting events as they came along — including offers of rides.

We discussed whether he should venture into Jackson for groceries. I advised against it, as his object was to avoid stress and crowds. Along the way, he realized that by giving him a lift I had saved the need to use the supplies he already had, so he had no need to take the busy road to Jackson and could head straight into Yellowstone.

As we approached the top of the Pass, a thought occurred to me. “How’d you like to cheat?” I said. “I could drop you at the Continental Divide and then you could sail downhill just as if you’d climbed all this way.”

“That would be great!” he said. I was amused that he wanted to unload his gear and set off again without being seen, so we waited for all traffic to pass before we parted.

I encountered the mating pair on Union Pass one day when I went up there for a hike. They and had come north from their home in Denver to celebrate their anniversary by cycling the Continental Divide Trail.

Here, you see them sharing information with a cyclist heading the other direction. (It’s a pretty long steep climb that way, they told him.)

The male had many questions for me: Was there water at the bottom of this slope? Is it fresh? What’s the road like afterwards? How far is it to Falls Campground?

I answered to the best of my knowledge (yes, plenty; absolutely fresh; not bad, just one gentle climb and then a long set of switchbacks down to the highway; not sure but maybe 20 miles along the highway, mostly uphill). A while later, having finished my hike, I saw them again and offered them a ride.

They declined, knowing that it was downhill from there all the way to the highway. “Well if you’d like a drink at the bottom, feel free to stop by my house,” I replied, and told them how to find it.

Not long after I got home, they turned into the driveway. I offered each a beer, and I joined them on the front porch as they took a break.

They noticed that the wind had picked up, and it would be pushing against them as they headed uphill.

“And now I have that buzz,” said the woman, finishing her beer. They didn’t seem eager to start off again. I offered them a ride up to Falls Campground, and they accepted with evident relief.

Suddenly the man leaped up and ran toward the yard at the east side of the porch. “I’ve lost a piece of paper!” he said. (I had just been joking about things that would blow into the next county.)

He returned a few minutes later, empty-handed.

He brushed the loss away with a wave of his hand, saying he could easily make another. But having found the paper a few days ago, snared in a sagebush, I respectfully disagree.

Reading the two-sided document, I could see how much work and care he had put into it as he planned each step of the journey from Steamboat Springs to Whitefish, Montana. I put a red box around their journey so far; they were only about halfway there.

Alas, our meeting as strangers was all too careful. I wished we had shared contact information so I could send him the paper, if only as a souvenir.

Their journey must be long finished by now. I hope they made it safely, and that it has blessed their marriage.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Delight About Data in Dubois

Awaiting a decision about a merger, T-Mobile delivers in one remote rural area

Finally, the long wait was over. We locked the door behind us and went to close on the sale of our New York City house.

Afterwards we headed off in rush-hour traffic toward the Holland Tunnel. Four long days of driving later, we returned to the place we now call home, this small remote town in the mountains of Wyoming.

Stopping at Superfoods to buy a few essentials, what to my wondering eyes should appear! There at the upper left on my phone was the word “T-Mobile,” beside 3 splendid bars of signal.

Our impoverished, second-class-citizen roaming days were over. This wasn’t news as good as the long-awaited sale of our New York house, but it sure made me happy.

“The new T-Mobile is all about bringing value and accessibility to everyone,” T-Mobile CEO John Legere tweeted recently, “particularly underserved customers and their communities.”

His company awaits a decision from the Federal Communications Commission about a merger with Sprint that, T-Mobile says, would improve service to remote rural areas. But I feel like we’ve already won. It was as if he was waiting there for us, holding out a beautiful welcome-home gift.

I took the image above a few days later, during a hike way up-mountain, near the Continental Divide. Clearly the broadband reach is truly broad.

We switched to T-Mobile ages ago, back in New York, when we consolidated plans as our children got cellphones of their own. Moving to remote little Dubois years later was white-knuckle time. Would there be any coverage at all?

There was, but it was lame. T-Mobile had contracted with the local provider for roaming service, but clearly it was a stingy contract. We got unlimited phone service, but we’d be kicked off data service after only a day or two every month. No amount of complaining either explained or solved this problem. We had to content ourselves with Wifi in cafes when in town. When we traveled to a large city, we would revel in the full coverage.

Nokia 4G LTE cellspot

There was one compensation: the magnificent team of T-Mobile customer service agents in Meridian, Idaho. They truly get it about working remotely in a remote location, and they told me several very useful things.

First, and best of all, when I complained of lousy coverage at our house, an agent asked for my delivery address and promptly sent us a Nokia 4G LTE cellspot. It’s like a small short-range T-Mobile cell tower right inside our house.

(Now T-Mobile is selling the Coolpad Surf, a similar item run off a rechargeable battery. For $72 and a data plan, you can take your 600 MHz mobile tower anywhere. T-Mobile says its aim in selling the device is to bring service to rural areas.)

Digits app logo

They also told me about Digits. I wanted a new local cellphone number, so my Wyoming friends wouldn’t deny my calls that were coming from my unrecognizable New York area code. But I didn’t want to lose my old contacts in the 917 area either.

The T-Mobile folks in Meridian told me that the Digits app would allow me to have 2 lines on the same phone, with two different ring tones. I added a 307 line for another $10 a month. As they say in New York, bada-bing, bada-boom.

For many months, I’d been hearing rumors that T-Mobile was going to build a new tower here. The agents in Meridian, Idaho, even said so. But who knew where, or when?

According to PC Magazine, T-Mobile won licenses to serve many rural areas in a 2017 auction, but has had to wait for local TV stations to move their frequencies to lower channels in order to accommodate cell service. Judging from the company’s service-area map, we still don’t get full 4G LTE service in the area surrounding the town, but I can still browse websites while hiking in the badlands now or shopping in town.

Who knows when we might actually get the new super-fast 5G service here? Looking at the recent press about 5G, I’m not sure I really care. An article in CNET says that 5G is being built on a 4G backbone, which may only enhance the capabilities of the service we now already have. I don’t watch movies on my phone, and I work at home at my desk, so why do I need it?

What a charming coincidence that, in the very week that I left the city behind, I left behind the last vestige of any need to be there. To be fair, T-Mobile service was sub-par in our Brooklyn house anyway, blocked by God knows how many walls and tree trunks. It was pretty challenging to make phone calls once we ditched the land line. In this house, with our personal cell tower, it’s great.

Here we have unsurpassed Internet service, fast and convenient online shopping (and free delivery with Amazon Prime), and wilderness hikes a few miles away. Our neighbors are horses and eagles and sometimes moose. We also have solid cellphone service at last, here as well as almost anywhere else.

The word “remote” has lost its negative overtones, and now applies only to our mode of communication and physical distance from heavy traffic.

Why on earth would I live anywhere else?

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Shocks and Surprises as the Snow Recedes

The rewards for hanging in (and out) in a chancy season.

IMG_2846I returned from a visit to Texas on one of the last days in April. Boarding after a layover in Denver, I saw opaque ice crusting the window beside my seat. We taxied, got de-iced with orange spray, returned to the gate, de-planed, and waited for the weather in Jackson to improve.

Finally we were cleared for takeoff. An hour later, we descended at Jackson in heavy snowfall. I kept waiting for the jolt as the wheels hit tarmac, but the cloud ceiling was actually a few hundred feet above the runway and we came down smoothly.

When I departed from Jackson 10 days earlier, it had been mild, so I left my coat inside the car in long-term parking. Now, at 11 PM, it was snowing hard and I was wearing only a gauze shirt. I ran to the car, dragging my roller suitcase, found the coat and gloves, and scraped the windshield. It was 1 AM when I finally fell asleep in a motel in Jackson.

This is spring in our part of the West. The next day, the road over the Pass to Dubois was nearly clear; just slushy at the top. It snowed hard again that night, and leaving home the following morning I felt it might require a backhoe to clear my windshield. I took the picture above that same afternoon. As you see, the snow had vanished. Typical.

ElkMy husband is away on business, and I seem to spend more time than usual looking out the window. The day after my return, I was startled to see four unusual creatures almost the size of horses, grazing as they ambled slowly across the meadow to the east.

What else could they be but female elk? I actually had to look them up on Google to be sure what a female elk looked like. The usual pictures of elk show a handsome male with a rack, like the picture below.

This picture isn’t clear because she’s so far away.

We’re not accustomed to seeing elk in the valley, not females alone, and not in mere foursomes. They are supposed to migrate across the tops of ridges in large herds, heading westward this time of year, guarded by watchful males.

ElkMaleA friend suggested that these females may have been separated from their herd in the snowstorm. I hope they found their way back.

The next afternoon in the dining room I was startled by an eagle swooping past the window so close that it almost touched the glass. Magpies and swallows fly across the yard all the time, but eagles belong soaring in the updraft hundreds of feet above. I like to watch them across the valley when I’m up on the ridge after a hard climb. What on earth was this?

I raced to the other window to watch. He landed on the buck and rail fence down by the irrigation ditch, soon to be strafed by another eagle that sailed in from the east. They took their dispute on up the hill and out of sight.

hawkThe next day this lovely hawk chose to perch for a while on the balcony railing, just outside the netting that we use to keep the swallows from building mud nests under the gable. I’ve never seen a hawk so close, even in a zoo. Unfortunately the picture doesn’t show the lovely red feathered cap on the top of his head.

Today I was delighted to see a dove-gray female bluebird and her mate, which looked like a fragment of sky descending, as they inspected the birdhouse we have cleaned out for them behind the house.

At the ranch on the west edge of town, three wooly sheep have suddenly appeared in the meadow usually occupied by the cattle, which are now crowded into the next field over. There seem to be a remarkable proportion of calves. Maybe I never noticed them, scattered as they usually are on the large fields to the north of the highway. The other day, I saw a cowboy on horseback in there among them.

cattleThese are sights the tourists would covet — working cowboys, eagles, elk — but the tourists haven’t arrived yet. One joy of being here all year is that I can encounter these sights by serendipity — especially in this season, when so few visitors dare to come because the weather is chancy.

By the start of May, however, the snow is rare. Although days may be cloudy, the weather is comfortable enough in a windbreaker or light overcoat. Suddenly I can venture onto roads that were still snowbound when I flew off to Texas.

This afternoon, I reveled in one of my go-to hikes that has been off-limits until now. It felt great to stride through the sagebrush in my hiking boots, rather than trudging along across heavy snowpack. I didn’t see any wildlife, but then I was enjoying the walk and not paying much attention.

Again, I was startled. It was easy to recognize from these prints who else had followed the trail, and not long before. I paused immediately to look around. Fortunately, sight lines are broad and very clear on this hike, which is one reason I favor it.

IMG_2873A few steps later, I saw where it had come down the same slope I had just descended, but a bit farther to the west.

Another sign of the season. This is a track I have never before seen up close. How huge it is, next to my bear spray!

This was one creature I was very glad not to see. It’s as close as I’ve ever come — and I have no idea how close I actually came.

What a relief that it was heading in the opposite direction from my car.

(Yes, I hear you, honey. I’ll stop hiking alone after the snow melts.)

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Field Notes From the Far West

Where no passport is needed and most natives speak English.

 

pile of rocks on ocean beachI will view this, I told myself as we set off, as an interesting journey to an exotic foreign land.

It is, after all, fairly alien. The political system seems to be quite different. The culture and customs are, from all I have heard, strange and remarkable compared to our simple, humble, straightforward way of life in Wyoming.

Their culinary habits are somewhat unusual from our perspective, having an almost limitless access to fresh produce at any time. Some residents don’t eat any meat at all.

The people here seem to view us as equally alien. “Wyoming?” they say, after asking where we’re from. And then: “You drove all that way?” (As if none of my kind have ventured this far before.) And then, invariably, nothing more. I feel some empathy for the Lewis and Clark team; these natives seem less interested in my culture than I am in theirs.

ocean beachWe have focused our travels this month on the predominant feature of their habitat that is entirely unfamiliar to us in Wyoming: the seaside. Having attained it, of course, I had to take a hike on the beach, early on the first morning after our arrival.

Which revealed the first and most elementary evidence that I am a stranger in this land: The natives know that in the morning, the tide is in, and there is, in fact, precious little beach to hike.

(Who knew to think about tides? Evidently I should have done more research.)

I strode happily along, enjoying the sound of the surf at my left as it crashed onto the shore. I looked down, as always when I hike, watching for interesting objects at my feet, and entirely oblivious to the waves that were creating that gentle, insistent murmur nearby.

sneakers being washed in tide

Once over my surprise, I ventured on.

The rocks at my feet were interesting, but not noticeably different than those I can find on any hike back home. After all, our own landscape was once, millennia in the past, also at the edge of a great ocean. Like many I find down walking any draw back home, most of these stones were washed smooth and round.

dead sea creatures on beachThe flora and fauna are quite different, of course. As were the carcasses of dead creatures I found on the beach. Was this an animal before it washed up here, or some sort of plant? I have no idea.

What looks like a stick may also have been some sort of creature once. It bore more resemblance to a tube than to a branch.

Many of the true branches washed ashore had been buffed as smooth as the round stones.

I picked one up to bring home for a walking stick.

swimmer offshore

In due course, I noticed what appeared to be a creature some distance offshore. Back home, I am adept at identifying rocks that look like bears. But I’m not familiar with sea creatures. As this was bobbing in the water rather than being constantly washed over, I decided it could not be a rock.

I’ve heard there are sea otters to the south, and later we would see elephant seals basking and molting on the shore. But what was this?

Only after I took the picture did I notice the strange, long-necked shorebird in the middle of the image, in the foreground. I believe it was a curlew.

surfer in ocean riding waveAs I walked farther up the beach, the mystery of the sea creature solved itself. You can see another there in this image, on the right.

This is referred to as a surfer.

The species is never encountered in Wyoming. Having just arrived from the land of deep snow, however, I can approximately imagine the sensation of riding the wave. I have done something similar on skis. You have to become one with the surface beneath your feet.

I wonder: When the surfer’s legs and feet fail him, is the landing softer or harder than a wipeout in cold white powder?

fisherman on ocean beachReturning south on the wet sand, I noticed a species I recognize well from back home.

Not being an angler of any sort, I have no frame of reference. I wonder how his experience — and his catch — differs from that of those I see along the Wind River, similarly kitted out.

His line seemed to be tangled, which did make me wonder about the wind. That, we know about.

I will say this about California: Most of the people here speak excellent English, and it requires no passport to visit. The natives are exceedingly friendly (if perhaps sometimes a bit distant to drivers of cars with Wyoming plates).

rocking chair and view of oceanThe landscape is as spectacular as our own, although much different. Notably, it is capable of producing excellent wine.

I commend the seaside destination as an alternative way to contemplate realities deeper than the mundane details of daily life. In Wyoming, I am drawn to the mountains that seem ageless and unchanging, the sight of which always brings a long glimpse into the incomprehensible past long before I arrived.

The ocean offers a contrasting vision of eternity. It renews itself endlessly as I watch, second after second, rolling always to shore, and will do so long after I am gone.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Saturday Stalkers in the Snow

A happy morning exploring and pondering puzzles.

I chuckle inside whenever someone says: “Wyoming! How can you put up with those brutal winters?”

Sure, once in a while there are days when we really prefer to stay indoors. But often, like today, it’s clear, bright, windless, and we yearn to be outside. Wear the right layers, and you’re perfectly comfortable when you go out exploring. Soon you’ll shed the hat and gloves.

One of our favorite pastimes is pondering the puzzles that hint at stories in the snow. The image above is my trophy. Some friends gasp a little when I show it.

“You got a bird print!” You can clearly see the marks of the wings. Is that a head and a beak at the center? And if so, why did it come down sideways?

This isn’t as prized, however, as an imprint of a bird nose-diving into the snow to catch its prey.

What happened here? The tracks at the right went nonchalantly past, either before or after the bird alit. But a few yards away, on the other side of those willows at the upper left, I found clear signs of a scuffle. Alas, the dog tramped all over them before I got there, so I was never able to decipher what kind of creature this bird might have stalked and then caught.

That was a while ago.

On a day like today, how could I resist when a friend texted with an invitation to join her and two other women on a snowshoe trek? We arrived to find the surface clean and newly groomed by the volunteers with DART.

I was glad for sunglasses. The sunshine was almost painfully brilliant. Not a cloud in the sky.

Squirrels chattered overhead, and we could see their tiny tracks everywhere, crossing and recrossing the trail. I recognize the rabbit tracks in my driveway, but in the woods, in general, I don’t know what I’m looking at.

Unlike my friends, I’ve not yet joined an excursion with naturalist Bruce S. Thompson, who can read the animal tracks like a book. He’s the founder of an invitation-only Facebook page, Togwotee Trackers Exchange, where members pursue what he calls “foot-writing analysis” based on images of what they have seen on the ground.

We’re just discussing the shapes of tracks when K turns and points her pole at these strange hourglass-shaped traces of a passerby. “Snowshoe hare,” says K_, who has been practicing this for a while.

“Right,” says A_. “Not a weasel. They’re shaped more like a dumbbell.”

“I wonder why they call them snowshoe hares,” I say, looking down at my own boots clamped into cumbersome contraptions.

“Perhaps because they can walk across the top of the snow,” says A_, who is an amateur naturalist in her own right. “Or maybe because their feet stay white all summer.”

The conversation drifts to tales of other creatures we have seen while trekking in the winter. Meanwhile we peruse the field of white for other signs of life gone by. Someone mentions a sage grouse. “In the winter?” I ask.

“Come back this way!” K_ calls out, and we trudge back up a slope. “What’s this?”

There you see it, at the far left next to the shadow of a branch. Something has landed in a splotch, and then headed off to the right. The tracks are three-toed, and slender.

“Good for you!” says A_. “I think that must be a grouse.”

She turns around, and we can follow the traces on the other side of our own trail, up the slope and off toward the cliff and the fabulous long vista over the valley, which is carpeted in pines and blanketed with snow.

K_ leans over and grabs a shot with her IPhone. No doubt she will post it on Bruce’s invitation-only Facebook group, where we share puzzling and amusing tracks and debate what they might be portraying–or just document what we ran across.

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” drawls A_. “To take a look at the view.”

Many yards later, after navigating over several downed trees, we stop for a long chat with our Forest Service rep L_ (who’s out on Nordic skis on Saturday checking the trails, government shutdown or not). A_ recalls the time that she was out with another group on a day just like this, also standing around, yakking.

Suddenly, in the middle of their circle, a weasel pops up out of the snow. It looks around amazed, left, then right, and pops right back down again.

As we near the highway and the parking lot, K_ calls out again, “Come back!” She points with her pole to something beside the trail.

“Oh my gosh,” says A_. “I think that’s a weasel. What else could it be?”

K_ whips a small measuring tape from her pocket, spins it out beside the track, drops her glove next to it for perspective, and takes another shot with the IPhone.

Another post for Bruce, no doubt.

But then A_ calls us to turn around. “There’s the hole back to his burrow,” she says. “And this is on a cattle guard. Perfect.”

It’s the dark image in the center of the picture below. The slots in the cattle guard, now buried in snow, offer easy access downward for a small, slender critter.

Beneath our feet, A_ says, lies a world we cannot see. It’s called the subnivean zone, an open layer between the surface of the ground and the underside of the snowpack. In that vast chamber, beneath that roof, small animals like voles and mice live out the winter protected from the cold, from predators, and from noisy interlopers like us who crunch deafeningly overhead on snowshoes. (Who knew?)

We trudge back to the car. Two and a half hours. Maybe a mile and a half. Who bothered to click that app on their Apple watch? Who cares? (We stopped a lot.) We’re pleasantly tired and happily edified. Lots of vitamin D through our faces. Clean, fresh air in and out our lungs.

Back in the day, back in the city, I might be sitting in a bistro on a beautiful Saturday like this, lazily downing eggs florentine and a mimosa, talking nonsense.

That never gave me this kind of buzz.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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