Thank you, one last time, for joining me here. The time has come for a farewell.
I’d like to explain.
I sometimes say that this blog is about a city girl moving to the wilderness. Only half of that is true.
For most of my life I was a city girl, but since coming here I never actually lived in the wilderness.
I look at that wilderness every morning, and dream about going back in there again. I’ve hiked up there and ridden in on horseback. I’ve camped in a valley beneath those magnificent buttes, and gone in as far as possible behind those crags on an all-terrain vehicle.
But actually I live in a comfortable house with all of the modern conveniences, less than 500 feet from the highway that leads to Yellowstone. The drive into town takes 15 minutes. Day to day, except for my hikes, my life is just about like anyone else’s.
Like countless others, I came west for an adventure and to reinvent myself. I was lured by the endless space, the soul-restoring mountain and desert landscape, and a fascination with the legacy of those who came here long ago.
Everything I saw was fresh, remarkable, and full of wonder, and I have tried to share that.
Indeed, I did reinvent myself. I never did a moment’s work on a ranch, never even split a log, but I am certainly no longer a city girl. My perspective and my predilections have changed. Also the way I dress.
Along the way, I gradually became attuned to some common misconceptions about the nature of this part of the country. For instance, the romance of the cowboy mystique doesn’t accurately convey the brutality and struggles of that life. These days, a cattle ranch is often a hobby for the super-rich and seldom a viable economic enterprise.
The legendary “rugged independence” of spirit in the West often goes hand in hand with near-suicidal loneliness and desperation. And yet the irony is that many people in this situation would have it no other way.
A hundred and fifty years ago, this type of area attracted many for the opportunity to work incredibly hard and build something of lasting value. Many did (and many others did not, and either left or died trying). Today, it is a challenge to relocate here and find decent housing and a life-sustaining permanent job. I was fortunate to have one already, and to be able to work remotely, but many long-time time locals struggle mightily to stay afloat financially in an economy dominated by seasonal tourism.
I know that over the past 8 years this blog has been read by others who were curious about moving to this remote little valley. In fact, that was its original intent, back 8 years ago when Dubois seemed like the best-kept secret in the West.
Eventually I began to wonder whether that was a good thing to do, whether big-city sensibilities might slowly erode what Dubois residents had come to cherish. This is one reason I have posted less and less. I began to face the prospect of writing any new post with apprehension.
Then, while I was preparing to post this farewell, I received a comment to my original post from a man whose small Colorado farming community has suffered exactly what Dubois hopes to avoid. It is a cautionary tale worth reading. (Scroll down to read the words by Rick.)
For those who want to read other people’s reflections about the American West, there are many great writers, among them Wallace Stegner (the best of all), Willa Cather, Kent Haruf, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx (mentioned with reservations; many people feel she does not portray Wyoming fairly), and Mark Spragg. Wyoming Public Media posts a great podcast called The Modern West.
Or you may want to enjoy the songs on the album “Wyoming” by another skillful storyteller (and a fellow migrant to Dubois), singer-songwriter Skip Ewing. In the title track, his character says, “I didn’t stop to think out problems, I just headed west. I thought I’d get where I was going, but I haven’t yet.” It’s so true, for so many.
Fundamentally, and fittingly, living in Dubois is no longer an adventure for me, because it has become the familiar, and therefore I can’t write as if it is still an adventure. I have always known that there are other equally satisfying places to live. But as Skip Ewing sings, “my heart’s inclined to stay” in Dubois.
Fundamentally, I am very glad that I took my “leap” West, and would never want to live anywhere else. If you are still deciding about yours, I wish you an adventure of your own, and a journey that leads you home.
The moths aren’t disturbing, but they evoke troubling reflections.
We arrived home last month after many weeks away to find our home invaded.
We found many moths inside, live ones and dead ones. Moth corpses on the kitchen counter, piles of disembodied wings on the garage floor, moths fluttering inside lampshades, moths dragging themselves up the side of the kitchen sink, moths crawling slowly out from behind the coffeemaker.
If you live nearby, you know what I’m talking about. It’s been a banner year for Miller moths, the adult stage of the Army Cutworm that feeds on crops and grasses farther east in spring and summer and then matures to a moth form that migrates westward and up-mountain, seeking nectar in flowers.
Sometimes we don’t see them at all. It depends mostly on the weather. The moths may seem a pestilence, but they do no real harm because they do not feed on our clothes or our rugs.
I am more sad than annoyed about the moths that turn up inside our house. They are doomed, because they’ve lost their way. During the day, they hide from the light in small cracks, and then turn the wrong direction at night, emerging indoors rather than outdoors where they could fly away and lay more eggs. In here, they move around until they wear out, exhausted at the end of a fruitless life, and perish.
As to the moths that succeed in migrating back east, it is their worms that do the damage, and they do it elsewhere. Meanwhile, the moths themselves are an important part of our ecosystem, being a major food source for grizzly bears.
This is the season when the backdrop turns golden as the leaves change. This seasonal cycle of change is predictable and reassuring, but other changes are unsettling surprises.
New houses seem to rise from the ground like mushrooms, popping up in empty spaces around town, along the highway, on the slopes. Where once I saw profound darkness out the window at night, I now see lights sprinkled across the landscape. Our patch of the valley at the base of the mountains is beginning to feel a bit like a subdivision.
I see faces I don’t recognize, and now I don’t know who is a tourist and who moved here earlier this year. In New York I enjoyed the passing crowd of strangers, but in our small town I have treasured knowing lots of people, progressively more the longer I remained. But some have left, others have died, and the newcomers (whoever they are) don’t seem eager to greet me. (Or have I become less eager to meet them?)
When this process altered our Brooklyn neighborhood beyond recognition, we left and came here. That kind of change is expected in New York City; it’s part of the city’s life cycle. Here, I hoped, the situation would be stable and comfortable. (Of course, to be fair, I am partly at fault for writing this blog and launching it out to into the worldwide webiverse, helping to pave the road to our paradise with my good intentions.)
More than once recently I have set out on an old, familiar hike to find that new property owners have repositioned fences or built new ones. The game trails I like to follow have changed, and like the wildlife I cannot go exactly the way I went before. Of course I find this a bit disturbing.
I am also troubled as I begin to see in myself the same instinct that not long ago I lamented in some of my neighbors. We came here because we loved the isolation and the blessed lack of crowds, and we fear the threat of losing that. So let’s not make too many changes, I begin to think. But how many are too many? And which ones are the right ones?
I remember the scorn I felt at a cocktail party in Kent, Connecticut — a bastion of country homes for rich New Yorkers — when I overheard someone saying they wanted to put a tollbooth on Route 22 to keep out any newcomers. Now that we have our place, let’s keep out the others.
Where is the fairness in this situation?
In a few weeks, the residents of Dubois will choose a new mayor. Many who live outside town limits will have no voice, although the results could affect their lives considerably.
One candidate is a woman who has lived here for 25 years, owned numerous properties, and serves as a member of Town Council. The other is a man with a history of launching successful businesses who has lived in our county since childhood but moved to Dubois only last year, relocating his latest business to town. Both candidates say a top priority is finding a way to manage the growth of the area while retaining what we all value about Dubois.
What defines that value is clear from a bevy of community studies carried out since way back in 1986. Respondents speak about the wildlife and the scenery. We value the openness and uncrowded nature of our environment. We also treasure our Western culture.
But how to manage growth and assure the future of our town while retaining all that is far from clear. In fact, the candidates often seem to disagree completely about the best way to proceed.
“Accept change as inevitable,” was the last point on a list called Rules for Working Well, which I found somewhere and kept posted above my desk for years. Accepting it is one matter, I learned eventually, but effectively responding to it is quite another.
Will our town lose its way and turn the wrong direction as it emerges from this turning point, exhausting itself in fruitless efforts? And which is the right direction?
My hiking buddy bailed, so I decided to do the go-to workout in the middle of town. I’ve often tramped that steep dirt road up the Overlook before, seen that red dirt and those rocks.
Just back from a hiking trip to the top of the Yorkshire Dales, I’ve been slow to regain my enthusiasm for hiking here. But at least it’s exercise, I told myself. And around here you never know what you may find.
It’s a fairly steep climb up the dirt road to the plateau halfway up, with the chariot racetrack off to the east. From that point there’s a brief stroll across fairly level ground (the middle part of the picture above). Then you have the option of continuing along the road or taking a shorter but steeper trail to the top.
That last part of the hike up the trail, which you can see at the lower left in the picture, is usually slick with loose pebbles. Always risking “rock and roll,” you want to go slowly and step carefully.
I left the road. Just starting up that final climb, I heard someone yelling behind me – the kind of shout an angry parent uses for a disobedient child. But this wasn’t one shout; it was repeated and insistent. I turned to look.
A pickup was coming slowly up the road. An arm waved out the driver’s window. Two dogs – one brown, one white – were trailing behind, detouring to sniff and explore. The yells went on, and the dogs followed in stops and spurts.
I went on uphill. A few feet up the pebbly trail, I heard barking close behind me. A handsome young white hound was trailing me, a few feet behind. Its gaze was interested, not hostile.
“Go back,” I said, waving toward the pickup that was headed along the road toward the top. “Go on!”
It barked again, then turned and ran toward the pickup. “Good dog!” I called after it.
The pickup was already parked when I emerged at the top of the trail, breathing hard. A woman and the two dogs were standing beside the driver’s door. Two others had stepped away to look at the badlands behind.
The driver caught my eye. “I can’t keep up with them, so I just let them run,” she said. “I bring them up here every day.”
Off-leash dogs are a hot-button issue here, a topic for debate in the local newspaper. Others let their dogs run loose on the Overlook. If there’s a rule about that, it is often honored in the breach.
“Yeah, I used to let my dog run free up here too,” I replied. “I knew he would never hurt anyone.”
“Your dog up here?” she asked.
“No, he’s no longer with us,” I said. (That’s him on the Overlook. I hope he is having many wonderful hikes in his afterlife.)
I approached the white hound dog, my hand extended palm down, and it sniffed and wagged its tail. “You’re a good dog!” I said. “Good for you protecting your owner.”
Her two friends were taking pictures with their cameras. “I always think it’s unfair that the steepest part is at the top,” I said to them as I headed toward the road downhill, having caught my breath. “See you on the way down.”
And I did. Both dogs ran happily behind the pickup. Neither was interested in me now.
Reaching the flat stretch on the middle level, I saw five horses trotting in my direction, tightly reined by a pair of riders. I stepped off into the sagebrush to let them pass.
It’s the week before the Don Scheer Memorial Pack Horse Races, when people compete to be quickest to load the panniers and gear on their horses at the Town Park, race up to the Overlook and away somewhere else, unload and repack, and then return, unload, and pitch “camp”.
I’ve seen riders on horseback along the highway in recent days, training their horses not to be spooked by the traffic. The tourists must love the sight.
“Good luck at the races!” I called out as the two men passed.
“We’ll need it!” said one of them.
“Doesn’t everybody?” I asked, thinking of the man last year whose load slipped off just as he was leaving the Park.
I continued along the double-track that runs toward the dirt road heading down toward the highway. Just as I reached the road, the pickup approached, followed by the brown dog. I couldn’t imagine why she would be coming up from behind, given that she had already passed me.
She stopped and rolled her window down. “Lose one?” I said.
“He got distracted by a coyote,” she replied. “Did you see the coyote?”
“Nope. I was too busy watching the horses.”
“Yeah, I saw them too. But I never heard of a coyote on the Overlook. What was a coyote doing up here, I wonder?”
“My dog once found a dead porcupine up here,” I replied. “I wondered what on earth a porcupine was doing on the Overlook.”
“Yeah. No trees up here,” she said. “Musta been lost.” She waved and drove on.
Sure was a workout, I said to myself as I went on.
It may not have the charm and novelty of the Yorkshire Dales. But still, it’s so much more interesting than Pandora on the headphones and the incline settings on the treadmill.
News from a remote region of North England that resonates with home
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.
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:
— 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.
— 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.
— 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.
“This pub has almost as much character as the Rustic,” said my husband, as he sat down with my pint of bitters and his Guiness. We were in Bodmin, a town in Cornwall, on a vacation to England that has been long postponed due to COVID.
Three blokes sat on a bench a few feet away, joking, sharing beer and stories. The aged ranchmen in the Rustic swap memories too, but they sit on high stools at the bar.
“Well, I’d better get along,” said one of the men, while showing no sign of an intention to move. “Time to go home and kiss the dog and kick the wife.” One of the others said something too quiet to hear, and he replied that he didn’t really want to kiss the dog.
I couldn’t resist a chuckle, and he noticed. One joy of traveling in a country where you know the language is being able to get the jokes.
Leaning back, I noticed the flintlocks hanging from the ceiling beams, not on the walls as the rifles do at the Rustic. There was no line of cowboy hats behind the bar.
Cornwall was a Wild West of its own, once a land of outlaws as surely as the cowboy country in America. These outlaws were pirates and smugglers, some of whom lured ships to founder on the rocky coastline in order to plunder their cargo.
It’s the land of the hero Poldark and the villain Joss Merlyn, the brutal landlord of Jamaica Inn on the heights of Bodmin Moor. The Inn, which really exists, was the setting of a novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, which Alfred Hitchcock made into an ominous movie.
It’s an odd name for a hotel in the middle of Cornwall, perhaps given because its founder was a sea-captain who sailed to Jamaica. In the novel, the miscreant Merlyn has bought the Inn, let it fall to ruin, and turned it into a derelict storage space for smugglers’ booty. We are staying there now, as the base for our visit to Cornwall.
It’s charming and rather kitschy today, but DuMaurier made it seem wonderfully sinister in the book. (Do you like the picture? I caught it after sundown.) We are reading the novel to each other in our bright and comfortable room or in the bar, which is dark but hardly scary.
“Jamaica’s got a bad name,” says the coach driver who delivers the heroine, Mary Yellen, to the Inn. “Respectable folk don’t go to Jamaica anymore. That’s all I know. … They’re afraid.”
(Whenever we read the heroine’s name, Mary Yellen, I’m amused to be interrupted with the thought of a dear friend back home: Mary Ellen.)
Mary Yellen clearly finds the landscape forbidding as she approaches in the coach. “On either side of the road the country stretched interminably into space,” du Maurier wrote. “No trees, no lanes, no cottages or hamlet, but mile upon mile of bleak moorland, dark and untraversed, rolling like a desert land to some unseen horizon.”
Sounds rather like that country I love, the miles between Lander and Rawlins. Of course, out there we do have Jeffrey City which might be called a “hamlet”.
This is highway A30 that passes Jamaica Inn today. The modern road, now a divided highway, must generally follow the route of the old “high road” that passed the Inn in the 1820s, when the novel was set. As in Dubois now, there would have been only one proper highway in the entire area.
DuMaurier describes that land as fearsomely forbidding. “No human being could live in this wasted country, thought Mary, and remain like other people; the very children would be born twisted, like the blackened shrubs of broom, bent by the force of a wind that never ceased … Their minds would be twisted too, their thoughts evil, dwelling as they must amid … granite, harsh heather, and crumbling stone.”
A wind that never ceased. Granite and crumbling stone. Twisted minds.
Oh, my …
While some of the land has since become farm fields, the higher elevations of the moor surrounding the Inn remain isolated and desolate. We have hiked some of it. The high parts of the landscape are as rugged as the badlands back home, but in a different way. I loved it. Perhaps my mind is twisted.
Unlike Wyoming, this is wet country, and there are warnings in the guidebooks about sinking into bogs or marshes on lower ground. There’s a framed picture in the Inn of a young man who disappeared while hiking on the moor in the 1930s.
It’s been dry here lately, but we took the advice in the guidebooks and stayed to the high ground. That can have its perils too. I nearly foundered when a sudden gust of wind tried to knock me sideways on the rocky ground in this picture.
As on hikes back home, we passed prehistoric relics — stone circles and stone path markers.
We saw abandoned mines and clambered up to high outcrops of granite.
We also had charming encounters on the moor. We scared up many shaggy, rustic sheep accompanied by their gamboling lambs.
Wild mares wander the moors, followed closely by their foals.
That sight was endearing, but not thrilling like the encounter with a herd of horses from CM Ranch that a hiking buddy and I saw while walking up the road toward Three Lakes, shortly before I left for England.
Unlike the ponies on Bodmin Moor, they did not wander off in another direction. They stood silently and watched us from the ridge, unafraid, and then galloped down the slope ahead.
They weren’t wild horses, of course, but they were literally running wild.
Both times, the sight of the horses free and loose made me catch my breath and stop.
It’s strange, I texted to my hiking buddy back in Wyoming, to feel I am both at home and in a different world.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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?
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.”
Unlike Stuart’s party, we had a guidebook and a topo map. Nonetheless …
This happened a while ago. It was one of those warm and sunny late-autumn days that call out “Last chance?” and propel you to get outdoors right now, and go somewhere, anywhere.
We had chosen to drive beyond Lander and then southwest. We were going to find the spot where, 209 years earlier almost to the day, Robert Stuart and his fellow explorers had camped for the night after they finally reached the legendary “shorter trace to the south” across the Rockies. Now known as South Pass, what Stuart called a “handsome low gap” leads widely and gradually over the Continental Divide, accessible to wagons and therefore, much later, to hundreds of thousands of emigrants heading west.
It had not been easy to find. Returning to St. Louis from the Northwest, Stuart and his band of Astorian fur traders had a long and arduous journey, traveling on foot when they could not obtain horses. They endured periods of starvation, angry disagreements, unsettling encounters with natives, misdirections (intentional or otherwise), and perilous, unnecessary detours.
We’d learned about all this in detail fromAcross the Great Divide, the biography of Robert Stuart written by his descendant, author and chronicler of Wyoming history Layton McCartney, a former part-time resident of Dubois whom we got to know briefly after we moved here from New York City. We now live close enough to see the exact historic spot he had described, and we set out to find it.
Unlike Stuart and his fellows, we knew the way in general, having driven the highway from Lander to Farson many times. But we had never crossed any part of that familiar sage and sand plain on foot. Nor had we ever before paid any particular attention to the Oregon Buttes, the huge rocky formations that were a landmark to all those westward-bound pioneers who passed by along the Oregon and Mormon trails.
“Follow the Oregon Buttes Road 2.9 miles to the crossing of a small, dirt two-track road,” directed our little red guide book, Day Hiking the Wind River Range. “Park here and begin walking to the right (west).”
Simple enough instructions, it seems. They were certainly much clearer than the ambiguous directions in reports from earlier explorers and rough translations of communications from natives, which were all that Stuart and his crew of explorers had to aid their search for an easier passage back east. We had the little guidebook, the biography, a topo map, and a general feel for the area (but no GPS, lacking signal). Nonetheless, we were puzzled from the outset.
The dirt double-track that headed west from Oregon Buttes Road was actually 2.1 miles south of the highway, not 2.9 miles as the guidebook said. There was no such track at 2.9 miles. So we got out of the car at 2.1 miles and walked west, already uncertain (as Stuart and his party almost always were) whether we were going the right way.
To our right, we could easily see what Stuart called the “southern terminus of the mighty Wind River Range”—the same range that towers over Dubois.
After a few hundred yards, another track took off to the left. We chose that direction, partly because we saw RVs parked farther along the other track, to the right.
We were looking for trail markers, not campsites, and there were good signs off to the left—specifically, these concrete markers which seemed designed to point the way to the old pioneer trails.
Our guidebook promised an easy 1.5 mile hike, marked at the 0.7-mile point with a fenced area surrounding two stone markers erected to designate the actual pass and the Oregon Trail, and another commemorating Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding, the first women on this trail, who came this way with their husbands in 1836.
We didn’t have pedometers, but we did have a general sense of how long it takes to hike ¾ of a mile on the flat. We passed through a gate in a barbed-wire fence, and we had seen the trail markers. But there was nothing like a monument to pioneer women.
However, looking at the map, we could easily identify our original goal: the eastern slope of a hill immediately northwest of present-day Pacific Springs. There, the Stuart party were forced to camp. As McCartney wrote, “the wind and snow hampered their progress” when, after a 15-mile hike, they could easily see the gap between the mountains just ahead.
We stopped to consult the map, still trying to decide where we were compared to where they must have been. Pacific Springs was clearly marked. The east-facing slope in question had to be the shallow one, distant but easily identifiable, off to our right and ahead.
It must have been disheartening beyond description for the men to reach that spot, finally to see the gap ahead, and not be able to attain it because of the Wyoming’s unpredictable autumn weather. In passing, it left a layer of snow on their blankets that vanished the next day. We recognize this weather pattern.
I took a picture, and we traveled on. But where were the legendary deep tracks of the Oregon Trail? We abandoned the track we had been following and walked overland across the sagebrush flats, in the general direction of that slope, heading toward a deep culvert on our side of the ridge.
And there, just up a rise, we found the fence, the two rough stone markers, and the unmistakable deep ruts of the original Oregon Trail. This is only one of many sets of deep wagon ruts in the area, we learned later, because of course not all of the 19th-century migrants followed exactly the same path westward across this desolate, flat country.
I hiked the deep ruts back toward our car, passing a fifth-wheeler and a pickup along the way. More recent off-road vehicles than covered wagons must have helped carve these grooves, I decided.
When the Stuart party crossed here, they took one last unfortunate detour. The path not chosen would have led them relatively straight northward to the Sweetwater River, and on toward the Missouri River and St. Louis. Unfortunately, near their camp they had discovered a fresh and easily identified trail left by Crow natives, whom they had reason to fear. So they turned south instead.
After taking time to climb one of the Oregon Buttes, which are much larger and more imposing than they appear from the modern highway, the men headed into the Red Desert. Layton McCartney depicted this as “four and a half million acres of rainbow colored badlands, towering buttes, high desert, and shifting, 10-foot-high sand dunes.”
This vast and forbidding terrain is basically a huge bowl created as the Continental Divide splits and then rejoins, noted on Wyoming maps as the Great Divide Basin. It has no outward-bound watersheds and is remarkably barren–nothing like the rolling, high plains the party had anticipated from the reports of other explorers.
“Stuart and his companions might have been in the Sahara Desert,” McCartney added. They wandered for many days without water, before finally turning northward to find a stream that led them to the Missouri, and civilization.
Having returned to our car after a pleasant jaunt on a lovely afternoon, we headed briefly in the direction of the Red Desert. The dirt road led bumpily downhill and quickly became impassable. We turned back toward the highway, going in the direction Stuart should have chosen.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.