Dispatch from a Distance

News from a remote region of North England that resonates with home

Cover of Reeth & District Gazette May 2022 edition

While relaxing with a beer after a long hike in England’s Yorkshire Dales, I picked up a copy of the Reeth & District Gazette. What I read was so similar to what goes on back home that I can’t resist sharing it.

Otherwise, the scene is quite different there. The buildings are made mostly of rough-cut stone, and most fields are lined with high stone walls. The thought of the strength and effort required for all that construction with native stone was mind-boggling.

Most of the livestock are sheep, not cattle. Because public rights of way cut right across the meadows (crossing those stone walls with very cumbersome stiles), most hikes lead directly through flocks of grazing ewes and their winsome lambs. All but the bravest lambs skitter off as you approach. The ewes shift a few feet away, if at all.

Sheep grazing in a meadow

Cows are still fairly rare. Back in the day when farming rather than tourism dominated the economy, it was an unavoidable but costly requirement to keep one or two cows (never mind a whole herd).

Small stone barns dot the landscape, “cow houses” built to protect that valuable investment from the elements. Some of these structures are now falling to ruin. Others are renovated for use as studios or vacation rentals.

That’s the setting. Here’s the news from the Gazette:

Editor Mike Barden begins the edition by writing sadly of the pandemic, and fretting about impact of the subsequent “frightening price increases” on anyone “just starting out into their own world” as well as on single mums and pensioners. Then he mentions the horrors in the Ukraine and the heroism there that has “so far averted WW3.”

“Can you believe what I have just written about in those sentences?” he adds. “Matters we would have never expected to happen.”

The other articles, interspersed between the small ads,  are reassuringly provincial, kindhearted, and oddly reminiscent. To wit:

Street in a rural village in Yorkshire

— The Dales Police report for March consisted of one incident of violence, 2 each of criminal damage, burglary and drugs possession, 4 reports of theft and 5 complaints of fraud (the latter mostly involving phone scams related to Amazon and Ebay). On March 8, an unknown male took 2 bottles of Jack Daniels from the Co-op in Leyburn. Someone stole cooking oil from a pub in Wensley.

— A Community Emergency Plan is being enacted to retrieve “vulnerable people” from their homes in times of power outages or natural disasters and deliver them to community centers for shelter. This is necessary to avoid “long periods of waiting in case the Emergency Services are delayed and cannot arrive promptly.”

— Volunteers are working fast to create new nesting boxes for swifts, swallows, and house martins. The options for suitable nesting spots (“nooks and crannies in cavity walls in buildings, empty barns and window alcoves”) have been declining, presumably due to development. A box-building class is on offer, and contractors are being asked to incorporate nesting sites into new structures “subject to consent.” A bird count is also under way.

— Members of SWAAG (the Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group) have been pondering the origins of a large cross-shaped formation of white pebbles recently discovered on Calver Hill, oriented roughly to the north. Information from Google Maps and the (US) National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, pertaining to the deviation of magnetic north over the past 300-plus years, suggests that the stones were laid in 1945 or 1946. It could be some sort of memorial. The US and UK Royal Air Forces used the area for flight practice back then, but there is no record of a plane crash. The cross remains a mystery.

Hikers on a moor in Yorkshire

— In April, Swaledale Mountain Rescue (a team of “highly trained volunteers available 24/7 in any weather, any time”) assisted:
(1) an injured hiker near the waterfall above Hawes, who was able to walk out after treatment;
            (2) a “vulnerable person” who had gone missing after being last seen at the visitor center, and was located with the help of a police helicopter and two search dogs; and
            (3) an injured mountain biker who was treated and then removed by ambulance.

Swaledale Mountain Rescue is offering to mail prints of the drawing “Sheep at Thea’s Cottage” to people who donate money to the cause.

A church in Yorkshire, England

— The huge, ancient Scots pine in Holy Trinity church yard in Low Row has to be removed because it is leaning dangerously eastward after surviving decades of high winds. The church plans to plant other trees to compensate. (Can’t you hear the grumbling from parishioners and neighbors? Something could have been done!) New trees will be planted to compensate for its loss.

— The Dales also have “badlands.” An expert from the Yorkshire Peat Partnership was scheduled to give an online talk about the restoration of three “moors that are close to her heart” — what might have caused them to degrade, the likely consequences for wildlife and water quality, and what could be done to restore them.

On May 21, a ”Peat and Poetry Event” will contemplate the same matters during a 5-6 mile trek on a nearby moor. There will also be recitals of poems about peat and a visit to the Poetry Postbox. Walkers are encouraged to contribute their own poems to the box.

The Dales are not my landscape, but I loved them anyway. I also love the way the people care about them – and about the strangers who choose to wander across them, and about each other. And about the wildlife.

© Lois Wingerson, 2022

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At Home in a Different World

Reflections from another sort of wild West

Hole in the Wall pub, Bodmin, Cornwall

“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.

Port Isaac, Cornwall

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.

Jamaica Inn, Bolventor, Cornwall, 2022

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”.

View of A30 from Jamaica Inn, Cornwall

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 …

Stowe Hill, Bodmin Moor

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.

Mare and foal on Bodmin Moor (top). Horses running near Jakey’s Fork, Dubois WY

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.

© Lois Wingerson, 2022

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Science Tackles A Different Pandemic in Our Valley

Finally, a clear picture begins to emerge from the data

I’m driving over the washboard road toward the Whiskey Mountain Trailhead, when my hiking partner gasps. I brake.

“Look over there!” she says.

It’s a rare and very special sight: A group of bighorn sheep, up close. We count 26.

“Are those lambs?” she asks, spotting a few small ones. Maybe last year’s, I respond. The new lambs won’t be born for a few weeks yet.

I resist the urge to add what I learned recently, at the Annual Meeting of the National Bighorn Sheep Center in Dubois.

So far, from what Rachel Smiley and Brittney Wagler said at the meeting, I assume that none of these sheep that gaze at us in the spring sun are infected. With luck, they never will be.

Smiley and Wagner, both graduate students at the University of Wyoming, are somewhere high in the mountains right now, working to capture female bighorns which will be tested and then released. After a long, slow process, they have amassed enough data points to draw some conclusions about what should be done.

As most locals know, these sheep are just a remnant of the core native herd of bighorns in the greater Yellowstone region. Before 1990, the Whiskey Mountain herd was so large that almost 2000 wild sheep were transferred out of here to populate other parts of the Mountain West. That stopped abruptly after the herd suffered a die-off in the 1990s. It has never recovered.

Drawing of bighorn sheep near mountains

Scientists and interested local volunteers have spent decades trying to understand the problem. Only in the last few years, with the same DNA technology used to test for COVID, has research identified the root cause: the bacterium Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae. (Researchers shorthand this to “Movi”.)

 It  affects sheep worldwide, both domestic and wild, causing a form of pneumonia. Movi is easily transmitted and (especially in this area, for some reason) often fatal in bighorns.

The parallel to COVID isn’t lost on researchers, who observe that sheep don’t wear masks, have a habit of sniffing each other’s noses, and behave with the opposite of social distancing. There is no vaccine against Movi.

There’s another poignant parallel for the Sheep Center. Its Director (who is also, like Wagler and Smiley, young and very fit) nearly died last year from pneumonia due to a form of plague that she caught from her sick cat.

Like so many other pathogens, Movi came to America with the Europeans – specifically, with their sheep. It jumped easily to wild sheep. There aren’t any domestic sheep near here these days, but Movi has persisted. It isn’t the only respiratory pathogen now endemic among local bighorns, which may harbor any or all of 5 different varieties. It’s just the most deadly.

Since 2015, a multi-agency project begun in coordination with the Sheep Center in Dubois has been pursuing a coordinated effort to come up with solutions. As part of it, Smiley and Wagler capture ewes in December and March and test them for Movi as well as for their physical condition, having fitted each one with a radio collar and a vaginal implant transmitter (VIT) that signals when they give birth.

Since 2020, they have also been capturing and collaring newborn lambs. Much of the time, off-schedule, they go back in when sheep (or sometimes just their collars) have died. Every reading and result becomes a point in a larger image.

Bighorn lamb

“Every one of those data points has a ton of effort that has gone into it,” said project advisor Kevin Monteith PhD at the Sheep Center Annual Meeting. But he didn’t expand on that. I was able to learn more from a long interview with Smiley and Wagler posted on the Artemis Podcast in 2020.

This was just after they had begun to radio-collar lambs, which in their rugged high-mountain habitat is a matter of tactics, stealth, endurance, and extreme physical agility. Smiley, a recreational rock climber, often relies on those skills.

“Sometimes it seems crazy that they choose to do what they do,” she said. “A cliff edge is their favorite place in the world.”

When a VIT signals a new birth, they have to race to wherever the GPS reads, because both sheep may easily move away. Some ewes favor giving birth near Down’s Lake, at 12,000 feet in the back and beyond of the Wind River range. “We go up on the old Glacier trail,” said Wagler, “steep, steep, steep switchbacks and then across Goat Flat, which is like 4 miles of rock-hopping. By the end of the summer, we’re all pretty just drained of doing this hike over and over again.”

Other ewes seem to want to give birth just after a snowstorm rolls through, so Smiley always waits for VIT signals after a spring blizzard. Occasionally, she has gone out on skis to find a newborn lamb.

Getting there is only part of the fun. Usually a spotter joins two people going out for the capture, all in contact by radio. They need to creep up as close as possible to the ewe and her newborn, then race in for the capture the instant the sheep spot the humans.

Lambs only a few hours old are quite mobile, and can easily dash out of sight in seconds or leap a 10-foot cliff, climbing and scrambling over rocks and steep snowbanks that no sensible human would attempt.

The researchers also have to trek out to retrieve carcasses, hoping to learn the cause of death. Sometimes the remains are too far gone to accomplish this. And sometimes they wonder what’s actually watching them.

Once, Smiley went out alone to pick up a collar only a few miles from the highway up a ravine. She found herself staring up into the steady gaze of the mountain lion that must have just swallowed the collar, along with the unlucky lamb.  (She backed away, very slowly.)

All the data points gathered in this challenging effort have documented what the Sheep Center already knew: Nowhere near enough lambs are surviving to guarantee the Whiskey herd a future. Around half to three-fourths of lambs born to the Gros Ventre herd near Jackson survive to adulthood. Last year was a banner year for Dubois: Two lambs actually made it through to winter.

The first few weeks of life are perilous for any bighorn lamb. Although predators do kill some lambs, including some that are healthy, most lambs born to the Whiskey herd die of pneumonia, the team has found.

Graph showing early life mortality in bighorn lambs
Adapted from a graph created by the Monteith team

The problem is most grave in the Red Creek sub-herd, the bighorns that can be seen sometimes grazing dangerously near the highway beside the huge red-rock formations at the eastern edge of the Wind River Reservation.

One member of the herd, Sheep 108, was caught for the first time in March 2019 and twice since then. Each time, she has tested positive for Movi. She has never recovered.

(However, escape is possible: Sheep #1, also a member of the Red Creek sub-herd, has been tested 9 times and never tested positive. Many sheep in herds elsewhere catch the bacterium and do recover. What makes the difference? The team would like to know, and hope to learn.)

Sheep #6 was first caught in March 2015. She tested positive for Movi a year later, and then began to harbor the other 4 pathogens. Although she never appeared sick, she tested positive ever after, and died last December. At necropsy, her lungs were full of tissue killed by pneumonia. She also had a sinus tumor. These tumors, invisible to human observers in the live animal, are known to harbor bacteria.

Among the 10 lambs born to ewes that chronically tested positive for Movi among the Red Creek herd, only one survived to the next winter–and it had been born to a ewe that first tested positive only afterwards. The chronically infected ewes are not contributing to the herd. Instead, they are endangering it.

Obviously, it is not only the lambs born to infected mothers that are at risk of catching Movi. “Essentially any lamb is susceptible to dying of pneumonia if there is Movi in that subgroup,” said Daryl Lutz, wildlife management coordinator for Wyoming Game & Fish, at the Sheep Center meeting.

Brittney Wagler, Rachel Smiley, and Daryl Lutz on Zoom
Wagler, Smiley, and Lutz on Zoom at Sheep Center Annual Meeting

Over the Zoom screen, Lutz and Monteith looked troubled at times. Beginning his remarks, Monteith signaled the unhappy conclusion that was ahead. “When we engage in working to address difficult questions like this, we often hope to find a silver bullet, and oftentimes things are complex enough that maybe there’s not a silver bullet. I think this is one of those instances.”

After Smiley and Wagner painstakingly laid out the results of their research, Lutz had the more difficult task of explaining the consequences.

The collaborative team had already sought and won approval for its strategy from the Intertribal Council, the elected governing body on the Wind River Indian Reservation, which is part of the herd’s habitat. The jargon they use for the strategy is “test and remove.” It has shown some success in infected herds in Idaho, South Dakota, and British Columbia. (The Sheep Center is hosting a webcast about test and remove on April 9.)

“Remove” means to kill the chronically infected “super-spreaders” – in this case, three who had never produced a viable lamb since becoming chronically infected with Movi — because there’s no good option for actually relocating a very sick bighorn. (Nature has already removed the fourth, Sheep #6.) The team intends to examine the ewes that have been culled, anticipating they will find more sinus tumors.

I think a more appropriate euphemism would be the one we used back when I was doing cancer research on laboratory mice:  Sacrifice. That research provided no advantage for the rest of the mice, but in this case the ewes are indeed being killed for the potential benefit of the rest of the herd.

The decision entailed “a lot of thought, a lot of discourse, and also angst on my part and I’m sure others felt it too,” Lutz said, “because what we’re talking about doing is a pretty aggressive management tool.”

Tally of bighorn sheep viewed in Wind River Valley
Bighorn tally on display at Sheep Center

Twice he stressed that the decision was not “cavalier,” adding that he hates killing any animal unnecessarily. “But I do think we’re at a point where this is the best thing to do.”

Someone asked whether it might be possible to treat the sick animals and isolate them instead. But there are no effective antibiotics or good place to keep bighorns in captivity, Monteith said. There is simply no time left to take any chances with this herd, Lutz added.

There’s no guarantee that the strategy will rescue the sub-herd at Red Creek, in part because the herd there is already so small. But it may help to protect others nearby, like those we saw last week.

Many questions remain.

Although Movi doesn’t survive outside a living body the way Coronavirus can, the outdoor environment may still play a role. Oddly, bighorns in the Absaroka range just across our valley test positive for the same number and kind of bacteria as the ones on the Whiskey Mountain side. But that herd is thriving, numbering around 1000, while the Dubois herd has been dying off for decades.

One reason might be nutrition. But then why did the Whiskey Mountain herd thrive before the 1990s, and not after?

Bighorn sheep

Smiley and Wagler have found that ewes in the Whiskey herd don’t gain as much fat during the summer as bighorn ewes on the Gros Ventre side near Jackson. They’ve been systematically gathering samples of forage in both locations.

Their initial findings won’t surprise hikers in the Winds and the Tetons: Plant life is much less abundant in the mountains around Dubois than in the greener terrain over the Pass.

It could be that the lambs here are more susceptible simply because they (and the pregnant ewes) aren’t fed well enough. What to do about that, if it’s true, is yet another question to address.

Often, Wagner said during the podcast, people told them that what Montieth had assigned them to do was impossible.

“He just said we’re going to get it done. And yeah, we’re getting it done. It is possible.”

© Lois Wingerson, 2022

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Lost in Search of the Oregon Trail

Unlike Stuart’s party, we had a guidebook and a topo map. Nonetheless …

Doubletrack trail near South Pass, Wyoming

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.

Book covers: Across the Great Divide and Day Hikes in the Wind River Range

We’d learned about all this in detail from Across 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.

View of Wind River Mountains from South Pass
Southern terminus of the Wind River Range at South Pass

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.

Markers designating Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail on South Pass

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.

Oregon Buttes

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.

Red Desert. Wyoming

“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.

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An Ode to My Commute

On ways to spend time doing nothing.

view of mountains from a porch

“I will send you the link as soon as I boot up,”
I email on my phone,
then hurry

to get the bed made and carry the laptop
to the sun porch
where I can see the draws
on the ridge beyond the valley
still outlined in white by snow.

I remember
the long march of suits to the subway, the laptop
heavy in its vinyl case.

New York subway train entering station

The platform black with a century of grime, the lights
dim yet harsh in the early morning as the train
rumbled in.

Standing shoulder to shoulder as it lurched.

The lockstep tramp up
stairs, the hike across the lobby through that
ant-like swarm – how did we never collide? – toward
the coffee
stand.
Careful not to spill as I hurry
not to miss the 8:10.

Gazing at the ranks of buildings as the train
(or they)
sped by.

Commuters walking next to a train

The hike to the old beater in that parking lot

and then
that brief journey through a tunnel
of trees.

That other parking lot.

Returning later, tired.
Still that heavy laptop.
Watching the train loom large toward me on the open-air track
Careful not to trip.
Wondering what would happen if I did.

Commuter train pulling into a station

Then sit. Breathe.

Read, maybe, or just be
weary.
Relax an hour before

that subway crush again. That twice as long trudge homeward.

Dinner.

Bed.

Being more productive starts with finding time to do nothing
professed the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

I work all day, I tell myself. Do I ever have time do nothing?

Willows beside a riverwalk

I ask again later as I stroll
with the dog
along the river,

the ducks
taking issue with our presence,

the buds
waiting to burst from the willows.

Yes.


© Lois Wingerson, 2021

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Why We Love Forest Bathing in the Snow

So much more gratifying than taking a stroll to the vending machines.

I’m sitting in my warm, bright office under the gable, admiring the view of mountains that look like they’ve been dusted with sugar.

Why would anyone want to live through the winter in Dubois? The question troubled my mind recently, during two days of uninterrupted snowfall and subzero temperatures, but just now the answer seems obvious.

I’m thinking of good friends in Texas whose pipes are frozen today, and I can think of one good reason. We’re prepared to deal with winter here.

In fact, by and large, we enjoy it. That’s why we stay, and we’re hardly the first to do so. For more than a century, some people have chosen to live out their winters in this beautiful, isolated spot.

For many of us, getting outdoors is a priority. That’s why we’re here, in fact, and why it’s such a great location for remote work. Here (as I have said often before) getting away from the desk can be a much more gratifying experience than taking a stroll to the vending machine cubicle.

An article in the Wall Street Journal this week underscores the difference. “For Better Health During the Pandemic, Is Two Hours Outdoors the New 10,000 Steps?” asks the headline.

That’s two hours a week, according to the studies, which for me and most of my neighbors is a laughably small amount of time to enjoy doing what the article calls “forest bathing.”

That would break down to 20 minutes each day except Sunday. Turn back 10 minutes after hitting the trail? Ridiculous.

The article describes a study by a Stanford University researcher who compared the effects of a 45-minute walk on two groups of people. One group went up and down some hills in “nature,” the other walked along a busy but tree-lined thoroughfare.

“There was a massive difference,” in cognitive performance afterward, the researcher said. “It’s not like they were in Yosemite or the wilderness,” but the nature walkers clearly benefited more from their stroll. “A 45-minute walk in nature,” she added, “can make a world of difference to mood, creativity, the ability to use your working memory.”

And how much greater is the benefit when you actually are hiking in wilderness, a short drive from home?

On the very same day I saw that report, I was delighted to learn that the winter outdoor pleasures near our little town of Dubois were the subject of an entire article in Forbes.

Myself, I prefer the more quiet pleasures of trekking on snowshoes, but Wendy Altschuler describes going on a snowmobile tour a bit farther up the pass.

She ends with the moment when her guide stopped at a lookout, suggested turning the machinery off, and asked “Do ya hear that?”

She shook her head no, and he smiled and replied “exactly.”

It’s so easy to get away and forget your troubles, whatever they are, by pondering the flight of an eagle across a vast swath of sky or by following a woodland trail blazed by countless deer and elk.

Is this why a new analysis by the personal finance firm WalletHub ranks Wyoming as the “least sinful” state in the nation? The rankings are based on seven indicators including anger and hatred, jealousy, greed, vanity, and laziness, as judged by all sorts of measures such as health-related habits and crime statistics.

I would rephrase that ranking for our state as “most virtuous.” Virtuous might seem a rather grandiose description for people like me and my neighbors, but to be fair I see little of those vices listed above.

And I would place a lot of the credit for that on “forest bathing.”

Or mountain biking, or rock climbing, or hiking the badlands, or fly fishing. Or, just now, trudging around in the snow all bundled up in sheepskin and wool. Even below zero, with enough layers, I’m not at all cold.

Really.

© Lois Wingerson, 2021

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Our Remote Team Meetup: The Good, the Bad, and the Lovely

On the mismatch between Zoom and “real life,” and more …

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of another team that formed and worked entirely on Zoom and Slack, without anyone meeting in person for the first six months,” Dennis Ellis of Microsoft said to me two weeks ago.

Images from numerous WTCC projects.

Ellis was referring to the leadership team of the Wyoming Technology Coronavirus Coalition (WTCC). Created last March, the all-volunteer group of several hundred tech-savvy people (including me) has been able to engage online in the most sparsely populated state in the nation, remaining productive in coordinated activities to address the pandemic, rather than just fretting about it.

We’ve made masks. We’ve made maps. We’ve built apps. We’ve prepared white papers on wastewater testing. We’ve kept very busy.

Meanwhile, during a time of tremendous divisiveness, somehow we have remained cohesive and cordial, whatever our differences in age, gender, profession, and politics. I can’t recall a single meeting when we did not resolve disagreements easily and reach consensus without conflict.

I met Ellis during coffee break at the Wyoming Global Technology Summit in Jackson Hole. All but one of the original leadership team had signed up to attend. (Nicholas was engaged elsewhere, managing a hackathon.) As a result, we had been invited to make a presentation. So in a sense the occasion was serendipity.

Most of the team drove to Jackson from Cheyenne and Laramie, in the tech-heavy southeast corner of the state. Jeremiah flew down from Cody in his own small plane, and I drove over Togwotee Pass from Dubois. Until we joined up in Jackson, we had never laid eyes on each other in the same physical space.

Governor Mark Gordon acknowledging WTCC’s creation of an online map of COVID testing sites in Wyoming.

We had met virtually however, twice every week since mid-March, on Zoom. During those meetings, the team worked together to plan many efforts that helped Wyoming to meet the COVID-19 crisis head-on at its start.

Long before the presentation at the Summit, we had already won public recognition from the Governor, during one of his many COVID press briefings.

Thus, despite all the debate about the practicality and effectiveness of all-remote teams, I believe we’ve shown that it’s possible to make great achievements in the purely digital space, if members are sufficiently committed, collaborative, and comfortable with the technology.

On the evening before the Summit, I was first to arrive at the restaurant where we would meet for dinner. Eager to meet my colleagues at last, I felt as if I was awaiting a family reunion, or even better than that.

I was delighted to see Lars and Tyler approaching me, in the company of a stranger. It took a few moments to register that the third man was Jeremiah, whom I knew just as well. Later, we spoke about the slight mismatch between Zoom and “real life,” and decided that it could relate to camera angle. Unless the camera is directly face-on with your face, we decided, you may seem less involved in Zoom meetings and a less-familiar member of the team..

As we all agreed afterwards, we didn’t spend enough time networking during the Summit. At the networking event after the sessions closed, we spent most of the time hanging out with each other on the terrace, rather than joining the (largely un-masked) crowd inside to make contacts.

WTCC’s core leadership team, minus Nicholas. I’m the one holding wine glass and mask.

We also chose to skip the networking breakfast at the end of the Summit, quickly agreeing that we would rather go on a hike together before driving home.

“I just said, heck, I would rather hang out with these people I’ve spent six and a half months with,” acknowledged our leader Eric Trowbridge, who is the founder of the Cheyenne-based Array School of Design and Technology. Clearly the rest of us felt the same.

On a glorious, golden Indian-summer Wyoming morning, we chatted, stopped to take pictures, and tried to avoid tripping over Tyler’s dogs as we hiked a trail at the base of the Grand Tetons. It was easy to keep a sociable distance.

During online seminars this year, I’ve heard many remote-work experts say that holding a team retreat is important to a team’s success. Of course, ours wasn’t a typical “corporate” retreat, because we spent nearly all our time together socializing. As far as I know, there was almost no talk about our business agenda.

That said, the major purpose of remote-team retreats is similar, giving coworkers who are rarely together a chance to soak in body language, subtle facial expressions, and the other kind of interpersonal impressions that happen only in person.

“We focus on the social and the casual,” said Natalie Nagele, founder of Wildbit, when she spoke during an online 2020 Running Remote conference about her own team retreats. That means replacing conference tables with couches and sofas in a communal living space somewhere, she added, and preferably not in a city where there are “so many distractions.”

Scene from a regular WTCC Zoom meeting.

My small, rural Wyoming town of Dubois would be ideal: remote, beautiful, with plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy together (and an easy drive from Jackson). In fact, I wish the WTCC team had met in Dubois before the Summit, rather than during the conference, which was a distraction too.

It wasn’t easy to say goodbye to my new old friends after the hike. But at least unlike an ordinary family reunion, I knew we’d see each other again in a few days, back on Zoom. Now the regular joke about disagreements between me and Lars feels much easier, because I know we are friends.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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An Exclusive Club for Certain Remote Workers

It’s not easy to get in, but members are glad they did.

rocking chair and view of ocean

“Can you do better than this?” somebody posted on LinkedIn. There was an image of a beach, and text about going out to surf in the morning before starting work at a home office.

“Sure, I can,” I wrote. “How about this?”

… and then I clicked away to find exactly the right previous post from this blog, intending to add a link to it. Surely, many times I have written about my custom of signing off and shutting down at 3 PM to go for a hike in the nearby national forest.

I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and by clicking away from his post, I lost it and could not complete my reply. Oh, well.

The sun was beaming through the window over my shoulder, moving slowly down toward the back side of the ridge. I noticed that it was about 3 PM.

These heavenly mild autumn days will not last forever, I said to myself. I signed off from LinkedIn, shut down, called the dog, and headed outdoors.

The aspen are going out in a blaze of color, the same hue as the stripe down the middle of the highway, the leaves like fragments of the sun quaking in the breeze. Out there, my worries slip away.

“Work From Home is more accurately titled Work From Anywhere,” wrote Jocelyn Kung in Entrepeneur, “a cafe, a beach, a different country. People can choose where they live based on their desired quality of life without sacrificing career opportunities.”

The pandemic has made this option ever more obvious and appealing. Survey after survey has shown that a large majority of the people allowed (or forced) to work from home want to continue doing so.

And many of them are reconsidering where “home” is going to be. If they don’t need to go into headquarters, then why must they live nearby?

“The allure of the city has been eroded by technology,” wrote remote-work advocate Chris Herd on LinkedIn, listing observations based on his recent survey of about 1,000 companies. “You can easily spend time there without living there … Cost of living has made [cities] irrational.”

Under the heading “Rural living” he added that “world-class people will move to smaller cities, have a lower cost of living & higher quality of life.”

These advantages came up in conversation a few weeks ago, during the first online meetup sponsored by Wind River Remote Works, our new organization dedicated to promoting remote work in this area. But with a local population that tops out at about 3,000 in the height of summer, Dubois is hardly what he would call a “small city.”

Downtown Dubois, Wyoming

How can we ever hope to attract new residents if we don’t (yet, at least) provide the amenities so many remote workers expect from urban life, like microbreweries and communal work spaces?

The remote workers who live here already offered some fresh ideas at the meetup.

We should “own” our lifestyle differences, suggested one.

Make the challenge of finding and living in Dubois an advantage, agreed another. (He had just been contending that it was not much of an inconvenience to drive 80 miles to the airport.)

“It’s not an easy place to live,” he added, “and if you live here, you’re in the club.”

He’s one of countless residents who, once he got to know this out-of-the-way village, couldn’t get Dubois out of his mind. He and his family moved here two months ago.

I was one of those as well. But I’ve lived here so long now that the special-ness of achieving that goal has faded. I’d never thought to describe living in Dubois from his perspective, as a community of independent spirits who can recognize a diamond in the rough and then embrace isolation and inconvenience in order to obtain it.

He’s very right: Dubois is an exclusive club. Those of us who live here do recognize that, even if we don’t describe it as such.

The membership criteria include first understanding and then embracing our unique culture and our lifestyle. This goes far beyond the mere pleasures of effortless access to beautiful wilderness.

But how can we ever convey that elusive reality to others–deliver to them such a vision of an authentic Western village (quite different from so many “tourist traps”) that they will be compelled at least to visit and begin to discover it? That’s our challenge now.

“It is too bad … that America knows the West from the roadside,” wrote the great chronicler of the West, Wallace Stegner, in The Rocky Mountain West, “for the roadside is the hoked-up West, the dude West, the tourist West ….”

“I have taken to traveling whenever possible by the back roads, and giving up the comforts along with the billboards,” he went on. “That is one way of getting behind the West’s roadside face.”

“Another is to live in some part of it for a while, sample it as a human dwelling place, as the formative stage of a unique civilization, as a place to go to, not through.”

(Digital nomads: Are you listening?)

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Spotted While Hiking: Cables and Cabins

Bright and promising, in place of the old and familiar.

The wind has cleared away the choking haze from the Lone Star fire in Yellowstone, and yesterday we could rejoice once more in a splendid, bracing Indian summer day. Time to get back outdoors.

Tramping around in the woods, I got slightly and happily lost. I generally knew my way, because this is one of my favorite stomping grounds.

A few years ago, these woods were cleared in places by our own Lava Mountain fire. I mourned the “burn,” because it eliminated some of my favorite paths and views. But as a tourist pointed out to me last week, around here you don’t run out of places to hike.

Emerging into the clear, I found this glorious sight: A new aspen grove springing up among the charred trunks.

That’s the way it goes sometimes. The old and familiar is destroyed. Then, a while later, something bright and promising emerges.

Just as I was putting the phone away after snapping this image, I was startled to hear it ring. I haven’t had signal in that area before.

A cellphone call can spoil the contemplations of a hike, but I took this one. In conversation with a friend, I led the dog on up the dirt road toward the creek, where I stumbled on something equally startling.

I’m accustomed to seeing the huge spools of orange cable sitting beside the highway or traveling on the back of a truck. But I’ve never seen those cables lying on the ground in the forest, in one of my go-to hiking spots.

They trailed on up toward the creek, partly buried already.

Look how healthy the trees are right here, only yards from those charred trunks. Among other features of our landscape that were spared, the firefighters worked very hard to save the campgrounds in this forest.

Both locals and national experts about wildfires say that one reason our forests keep burning nearly out of control is because, long ago, the Powers That Be killed off most logging activity. The result was large, dense stands of aged trees that are now vulnerable to disease and fire.

The lumber mill in Dubois closed nearly a half century ago. Our town has hung on by its fingernails ever since, taking advantage of its tourism assets while awaiting a new lifesaving industry that would bring back the year-round jobs.

So I saw those cables-in-waiting as both a sign of loss and a sign of hope. For me personally, it could mean losing another isolated hiking spot close to home. But for our region, it is reason for optimism.

Certainly, good broadband will soon reach much farther up-mountain. There could also be a Wifi hub right next to the pit toilet near the campsites. That would give digital nomads — those full-time Internet workers who haven’t yet decided to settle down — the opportunity to hang out for a while in our wilderness, while discovering the joys of the Wind River region.

Here’s another go-to hiking spot that delivered a surprise, back in the summer. This is a valley where the dog and I love to hike, also not far from home. When I first saw the view you see in the image at left, I gave a sigh at the sight of those ridges pointing off toward the far distance, on either side of that empty plain.


To judge from the picture on the right, others have had the same reaction. The circles are new cabins. The dirt roads that lead to them must be pretty rutted right now, but I’m sure that will change. I’m also fairly sure these people will soon be served by another orange cable–if they aren’t already.

Do they already know, or will they soon discover the fact? This is an ideal place to pursue what is now called “remote work” in a truly remote location.

Last week, some plein air painters from the annual Susan K. Black Foundation workshop set up on our back porch. It looked like they were either peering through the smoky haze or just trying to imagine what lay beyond, as they worked to capture the image of those mountains on canvas.

Meanwhile, an instructor used our broadband to live-stream a painting demonstration for artists elsewhere who had opted out of traveling to the workshop this year, because of COVID.

The Foundation has been holding workshops here every summer for 20 years, one member told me, because they love the scenery, the serenity, and the down-to-earth people.

She nailed it. This year, they also appreciate the terrific broadband, out here in the wild at the base of the mountains.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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The Sorrow of the Late Summer Sky

This time of year the sky can be troubling, fascinating, or soothing. It depends…

This morning, at last, the air smelled fresh and clean. I caught the fragrance of new-mown hay. The subtle but disturbing smell of wood smoke was finally gone.

It’s that time of year when we expect the sky to turn the pale gray color of skim milk and the eyes to burn by day. Of an evening, the light show in the sky is as troubling as it is fascinating, as flashes of cloud lightning circulate the perimeter of our view. Any of them could become a fire.

Going outdoors gives us a constant reminder that there are fires out there somewhere. So far this year Dubois has been spared, but others elsewhere, we can easily tell, have not.

The tourists exploring our town don’t seem troubled at all by the close atmosphere and the hot haze. Perhaps they don’t know about the blue sky and refreshing air that they are missing.

Last week we drove over the mountain to Jackson. Those grand Tetons had entirely disappeared behind the airport. It was as if someone had dropped a huge light-gray blind in front of the mountain range. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

A plane glided down toward the runway, and I thought about the disappointed tourists inside, unable to have a first glimpse of the legendary mountain range they had come to see.

Especially this difficult year, the days of late summer arrive with a tinge of regret–for the lovely days lost to working indoors, for intentions unfulfilled and friends not seen for months, for the simple inexorable passage of time.

Days are shorter now, as the light begins to fade ever closer to dinnertime. But there are compensations. Now I can sit on the back porch and watch the stars without staying up past my bedtime.

On any relatively moonless night in this dark environment, the sky is freckled and sequined with them. The real star-spangled banner is the Milky Way, spreading lazily and visibly across the entire sky above our house.

My view of the night sky is to the north, which is where the action is, both in legend and in reality. There’s a domestic drama up there: Casseiopeia sits eternally on her throne (or rocking chair, in my impression of the image) just to the west of her husband Cepheus. Casseiopeia angered the god Poseidon by bragging too outrageously about her own beauty and especially that of her daughter Andromeda, whose constellation appears just below Casseiopeia.

As the story goes, Andromeda’s venal parents cut a deal with Poseidon: He would back off if they allowed him to chain beautiful Andromeda to a rock in the sea. Perseus cut her loose, rescuing her from a sea monster, and married her.

His constellation appears to the east of Andromeda, living forever below his inlaws and anchoring one end of the Milky Way. In that direction, if you’re lucky, for about a week this time of year you can see some real action: The Perseid meteor showers, which are remnants of a comet falling across the sky.

I wasn’t either patient or lucky this year, and I caught sight of only two or three faint “falling stars” while watching for a few minutes. But on other evenings I have watched some very bright meteors blazing across that sky: So. Slowly. As. To. Beg. A. Wish.

If I take time to rest and watch for a while, I see other bright spots moving across and between the constellations. These are either satellites or airplanes, too distant to hear but recognizable by the rhythmic flash of their light. I lean back on my porch and send a wave of sympathy to the people inside that metal tube, doubtless tired and eager to return to earth.

Around me, all is silence. The deer are settling down in their nests of trampled grass. The hawks must be resting on branches out there somewhere.

I am resting too. My mind is wandering somewhere in the black, silent, and incomprehensibly distant depths, where my insignificant regrets and disappointments vanish.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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