Masterworks by Dubois’ Lesser-Known Artists

Danita Sayers bustles about the rooms of the Dennison Lodge, tacking treasures to the folding screens and carefully placing the pieces of artfully painted furniture.

“We paint on whatever we can find to paint on,” she says, as I pause to admire the portrait of a horse standing in a swale. It has greatly elevated  the status of an ordinary TV tray the artist found at the Opportunity Shop.

A giant glider, a sliding bench made from horseshoes and wagon wheels, dominates the room. It’s the creation of a 6th grader.

Danita has spent the month transporting these artworks and displaying them statewide, bringing back the honors and the ribbons that prove their worth. Of 40 pieces submitted to the State Art Symposium this year, 21 won awards.

The Governor’s wife picked 2 from our little school for the First Lady’s Choice Awards. This year, Danita told me, the Dubois school got Congressional Artistic Discovery awards in both the 2D and 3D categories, and one was for a photograph, which is rare. These will go on tour for a year, and then hang in a gallery in Cheyenne.

Now she’s putting them on display, 166 artworks chosen by herself and her pupils (except for those award winners that have been held back elsewhere), during the annual school art show.

The owner of a local curio shop is helping out, while scoping the show for items she might be able to purchase resell in her shop. In other years, Danita says, art dealers and art professors have come from far away to look for acquisitions at this show.

The annual Dubois K-12 Youth Art Show has gone on for decades. This was the first time I saw it–someone who, like most parents, once thought her own young children were truly exceptional artists. What most takes my breath away here are the works by children who are just learning to read.

Dubois has more than its fair share of top-ranked artists and photographers, but its youngest don’t get much publicity and have no commercial websites. Danita, who is the art teacher in our school, bursts with pride in her students and the passion to share how special they are.

The student who created this sculpture was blind, she tells me. Would I believe that?

This peacock was the seventh-grade artist’s first oil painting. “She doesn’t even know it’s good,” Danita says with a smile, and repeats herself.

Slowly, I come to realize why so many locals like to point out the works by their favorite school-aged artists at the national art show that comes to the Headwaters in mid-summer.

These artists are growing up in one of the most remote towns in the lower 48. Some of them go home to ranch chores after school. and think the biggest event of the year is branding the calves.  The  parents are contractors and bank clerks and restaurant owners — precious few with a strong history in the liberal arts. Their home town is a place where kids waste time on a lazy summer Sunday by tooling around the main street on their bikes doing wheelies.

Unlike my children’s classmates three decades ago in New York City, some of these artists may find the thought of even visiting a city a bit frightening. Many have ridden a horse, shot a gun, been to a rodeo, and camped out overnight, but very few if any have seen a renowned painting by a great artist in an art museum.

What they do see every day is the mountain landscape and the wildlife. Instead of visiting galleries, they go on camping trips with botanists to study wildflowers.

In the primary and middle school my children attended, a short distance from the Brooklyn Bridge, the distinctions between the tough guys, the future CEOs, and the arty kids were clearly defined.

Walking past these panels, it is clear that it’s not an issue. Everyone does art, and many do it exceedingly well.

“A lot of our best artists are ranch kids, wrestling club guys,” Danita says.  She points across the room to a landscape. “The guy who made that painting was in wrestling and football. He won a blue ribbon [for the painting], but he also excels in sports.”

My guess is he knows the terrain quite well because he probably goes hunting up there in the fall.

As Danita puts it, at this school art is not placed in a “gentle” category alone. The school mascot is a ram. Clearly they can paint them as well as they can butt helmets on the field.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Escape from the Jingle Bells

The strolling tourists depart. Town is quiet, the summer houses are dark and empty, and the Thanksgiving turkey is all gone. Nighttime sets in during late afternoon.

I resign myself to the thought that the slow, sleepy period has begun. Then, with surprising speed, another busy season is upon us.

Back East in the city, it arrived like an invasive weed. At some point,  and far too soon, I’d be aware of background music with the sound of jingle bells. Before long, it was everywhere on the shopping streets. The sound made me literally agoraphobic: afraid of the market. Shoppers seemed stressed out. Carols intended to make me reverent made me want to flee.

The holidays are also busy in Dubois, but with a notably different feel. This is, after all, a town of 1,000 permanent residents with a reputation for friendliness, and about 50 nonprofit organizations, many of them devoted to charity.

My first sound of the season this year was the barely perceptible strain of classical background music in the Opportunity Shop (which raises many thousands of dollars each year, all of it given back to the community).

“Oh, yes,” I thought. “Christmas is coming.” And then quickly forgot about it.

Songwriter Skip Ewing, who used to hold workshops here and moved to town last spring, took it upon himself to open the season formally with a concert in the Dennison Lodge on December 1.

I wasn’t in the spirit at all when I bought tickets–not to celebrate the season, but to listen to Skip.

The Dennison was decked out for the event, and was packed for both performances. Here, we are waiting for him to start the first one.

Skip began by saying that he had brought us there to get us into the Christmas spirit, and warned that eventually, like it or not, we would all be singing too. After a long series of his county favorites (some of them top of the charts in their day), he segued into his new holiday songs — some silly, some sentimental, others solemn.

“In the meadow we can build a snowman,” he croons,
“and pretend he’s Santa bringing toys.
When he asks us ‘Are you naughty?’ we’ll say No, man,
’cause everybody’s nice here in Dubois.”

His last was “Silent Night.” Skip began simply and quietly, and sure enough some of us began to sing along. Gradually his voice grew softer and ours louder, until all that came through the microphone was the sound of his guitar. Then that fell away too, leaving nothing but our voices–and the spirit.

It’s the season of open houses now, at the bank, the phone company, the museums and the community centers. There’s no need to go far to find Christmas cookies.

People don’t speak of being stressed out by the shopping. We can gift shop online, of course, and the FedEx and UPS guys are visibly busy. We can find Western-themed gifts at Olsen’s, or a handmade item at the Christmas extravaganza in the Headwaters or at Anita’s shop, Wyoming Wool Works. Or we can treasure-hunt at the Opportunity Shop, which is actually fun.

The other day I sat on a stool in Superfoods wearing a silly elf’s hat and now and again ringing a little bell. At that very moment, some unlucky folks were certainly standing in front of Bed, Bath, and Beyond next door to my former office building in Manhattan, ringing their bells without a pause. In that context, it was another irritating noise of the season.

Just one particle in a floodstream of pedestrians, I used to pass by without paying them any attention at all. They rang like automatons, and looked cold and miserable. I didn’t know them or the people they helped. I supported other causes.

Superfoods graciously allows us to sit indoors next to the shopping carts. Most of the Salvation Army bell-ringers here are volunteers affiliated with other nonprofits.

This year I’m ringing on behalf of the Dubois Museum. Shoppers pass me one by one as they enter the store. I greet them all, and many are personal friends.

About half of the people drop something into the bucket on their way out, and now and again a rather large bill. I love their generosity. Almost everyone greets me again upon leaving the store. A few apologize for not contributing, or say they donated last time.  The sum of donations seems to increase every year.

As the sign beside me says, all the funds remain in Dubois. I know the person who runs Salvation Army here, and I have met some of the people that it quietly helps: Cross-country backpackers who have had a turn of bad luck in this remote location. Travelers stranded after a breakdown without enough funds for a motel. Impoverished old folks without the skills to navigate the social networks.

My favorite part of this gig, other than the obvious charitable benefit, is watching the banter and chatter that goes on in Superfoods.

“The way you mumble and with my hearing problem, we could probably start World War III,” jokes one guy.

“Let’s leave that to the oligarchs,” says the other.

Fortunately, the oligarchs are very far away. What we have is peace on this small part of the earth, and plenty of good will to go around.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.


Reveries and Memories as Days Grow Short in Dubois

High time to get to the bucket list.

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

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

High time to get to the bucket list.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Dubois’ Delightful Toxic Waste Site

The health care facilities are merely useful. This will be magic.

PetesPond_WillowForegroundAs spring brings life to the valley, an enchanting new creation is unfolding beside the highway, just east of the rodeo grounds. What makes the place seem even more magical is that it used to be a toxic waste site.

It’s difficult to imagine what might have been toxic about the sawmill that gave life to this community, until it closed in 1988. But an EPA document describing the “brownfields” cleanup project says the site was contaminated with petroleum byproducts including benzene and diesel fuels.

PetesPond_RiverwalkTen years after the mill closed, a local family bought the site and donated it to the Nature Conservancy, stipulating that it should be used for the “health and enjoyment of the citizens of the greater Dubois community and its future generations.” After the town gained numerous grants, the cleanup began five years ago.

The medical clinic, fitness center, and assisted living facility on the site clearly qualify in the health category, but as mere buildings they would not inspire the words “enchanting” and “magical.” As the dog and I enjoy the eastern end of the river walk, I’ve seen something emerging that will clearly deserve that description.

PetesPond_BenchViewThe good folks of Dubois Anglers and Wildlife Group (DAWGS) are busy completing Pete’s Pond, the dream of Pete Petera, a former director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department who retired to Dubois. I knew the bright-eyed gentleman all too briefly before he passed away, too early to see the project begin.

Pete wanted a place where children could enjoy fishing safely. The need for this becomes clear as I follow this part of the river walk in late May, watching the surging water breach its banks and crash past, frothing and muddy.

PetesPond_RiverFlowDAWGS long ago made the river accessible for handicapped anglers along this riverwalk. Now, on the landward side of the walk, they’re busy with backhoes creating not just a pond, but a whole new park. There’s a small stream at the inlet, and islands in the center of the pond.

What astonishes me is the sylvan aspect of the scene, where a few years ago this was hard-packed tan dirt overgrown with weeds and sage, the kind of desolate landscape so many people think of when they hear the word “Wyoming.”

PetesPond_ReflectionsIt’s a pleasure to think that this is what future travelers will see first as they pass into Dubois headed toward Yellowstone and Jackson. After that long desert drive from Rawlins or Casper, they will be enticed as they reach Dubois to stop and enjoy birds and gently lapping water, lined by trees and bordering the river.

It doesn’t yet look as green as it will, because it’s only early spring here, and the work is still under way. But I can already hear the laughter of the children.

Somewhere over there under the water is a ball that the dog lost in the weeds last summer. He’s certainly forgotten about it.  I’m very pleased to make the sacrifice.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Of Dubois, New York, and Hollywood

One up-side of remoteness: The high cost of production.

IMG_0140Back when I first lived in New York City, it really used to trouble me that there was so much violence in films set in my home town. But as time went by, I stopped caring about that.

In decades of living there, I never personally witnessed gun play or other violence (setting aside 9/11, of course). The French Connection was released way back in 1971, the same year I fell in love with my husband and his home town. Starting then, I grew accustomed to ignoring the bad rap about violence and crime that frightens so many tourists about New York. So what? I know better.

These days, I really enjoy watching films set in New York. It’s fun to recognize the intersection the cops are running through or the exact spot where the lovers are kissing. I enjoy trying to figure out whether the housing project on the screen is in the Bronx or on the Lower East Side. For absolutely nothing, I can get a free trip back to the city.

A few days ago, trolling around Netflix, I gave a little gasp. “There’s Wind River,” I said, seeing the icon for a film I always wanted to watch but never ran across in a cinema. (Well, I don’t “run across” films in a cinema any more. I have to travel an hour and a half to visit one. With Netflix, YouTube, and TCM, why bother?)

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I vaguely recalled someone telling me not to bother with that film. But there I sat in front of the TV. Why not?

It was off to an interesting start, with a woman’s voice reciting a poem as what seems to be a Native American woman runs across the snow. But the fact that the film is set in our beautiful valley in the dead of winter, always with whistling winds and deep snow, should have tipped me off: This was not going to end well.

The scenes are a snowmobilers’ dream, because our protagonists in law enforcement get to sled everywhere at high speed, passing spectacular stands of evergreens. They remind me of the footage our winter visitors like to put on YouTube after their trips to Togwotee Pass.

But the plot entirely robs the landscape of its beauty. A story of brutality against women by ignorant drunken men (not drunken Native Americans, I hasten to add), it ends in a shootout with high-powered weapons. The cinematographer revels in the contrast of the bloodbath against the pure white snow.

100_0724“So much for the image of our valley,” said my husband as the film ended.

This isn’t actually our valley, because the film was set down-county in the reservation. But the river that runs through our town has the same name, and if you Google “Wind River” today the top results, of course, link to pages about the film.

As to our town of Dubois, my son (who still lives in New York) commented in a recent visit that the village looks like a movie set. True West magazine endorses that view, having given Dubois its 2018 award for the best architecturally preserved Western town.

HonorGuardBut the only film ever set in Dubois wasn’t a “Western,” and it wasn’t actually filmed here. I’m gratified to say that Taking Chance, starring Kevin Bacon, was the deeply affecting true story of the return of a fallen Iraq soldier to Dubois and his burial in our local cemetery.

This image is not from the film. It’s an actual honor guard at the actual Dubois cemetery, on Veterans Day. Even though locals including Chance Phelps’ family worked hard to bring production here, the Western scenes were filmed in Montana.

The business incentives in Wyoming weren’t as good as elsewhere. But also, the costs of bringing the production to this remote area were too high to be practical.

This used to trouble me, but as time goes by, I have changed my view. Dubois was extraordinarily fortunate that the one film to feature it gave an accurately positive image of its character–even though the images didn’t actually show our town or our landscape. But it may be a blessing that it is a challenge to bring film producers here.

There are many reasons to value our remoteness in this valley. That it discourages the media that might send the wrong message about us is one of them.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Dubois Old Town and the Spirit of the West

Charm is a state of mind.

CemeteryView4_TrueWestThis is Dubois. It has a new distinction this year, being recognized by True West magazine as the town with the best-preserved Western architecture.

I don’t think the award was meant to designate the oldest residential part of town. But I think it deserves recognition.

Like many new settlers from far away, I don’t actually live in Dubois, although I usually say I do. So many of us who move here choose a house that is new-built, with a view, miles outside the town limits. We don’t often venture into the original housing section.

IMG_0745The main road bypasses the old part of town, which is also the low-rent district. For years, I never went over that way, except to go to the library.  Unless you know someone who lives there or you have children at the school (which is also in that direction), there’s little reason to visit the original village.

I began doing so lately. At first glance it appears unkempt and unattractive. But the longer I spend there, the more I have come to appreciate it.

IMG_0726“Can you help us get someone on the Town Council who will do something to clean up the town?” a friend asked me a few weeks ago.  I asked her to explain what she meant by “clean up.” One thing she mentioned was the trailers.

True, there are lots of old house trailers and double-wides in the old town. Mayor Blakeman told me that you’re no longer allowed to set up a new house trailer in Dubois. The ones in the old part of town are “grandfathered in.” Today, she said, to erect a dwelling you have to put up something made of “sticks.”

IMG_0725By and large, the properties with trailers are well-kept (in a dusty, not-much-will-grow-here way).

Many of the double-wides aspire to resemble suburban tract houses. Put on blinders and narrow the focus, in some spots, and you can envision yourself in a subdivision. But you’d have to ignore the fact that many of the streets are unpaved.

Notice how the mountains loom over the old village, as they do everywhere in Dubois. Here also, it’s quite possible to have a view.

IMG_0744Lots of the houses are small, old, insubstantial, and have a thrown-together appearance. Many have large stacks of firewood in the yard. It’s the only source of heat for many people, because out here in the wilderness electricity is expensive and there aren’t many jobs that pay well.

Some homes also have several vehicles in the yard besides the pickup. A camper, say, and a horse trailer. This is not especially attractive, but it doesn’t mean we are trashy. It means that we like to get out into the woods, and many of us do love horses.

IMG_0734A herd of deer also seems to regard the old village as home. They cross the streets with the proprietary air of homeowners out on a stroll, and sometimes lounge on porches in the sun. They like to graze in the empty lots.

Mayor Blakeman says there are still empty lots because people hold onto property in the old town as an investment, waiting for it to appreciate. She adds that some of the empty lots have begun to sell. Among the double-wides and bungalows, you also see some charming new log homes.

It’s fascinating to see the new interpretations that some people have made of their house trailers as they added on for more space. Is that what this is, in the image below? I especially like it, however it began.

IMG_0753_editedSome folks might like to spruce up the old part of town so that it looks more like a “historic district.” But as I walk these streets, I’ve come to think that the architecture of old town, if you can call it that, truly preserves the spirit of the Old West in the sense that True West magazine intended.

It’s a place founded by people without much money who intensely wanted to be here, and set up housekeeping in the best way they could, with what they had. There hasn’t been much by way of town planning and regulation, because this too is the spirit of the old West.

IMG_0739If it speaks of anything, the old town speaks of individualism — and that is truly who we are.

The other day I enjoyed a movie set in a hill town in Sicily, a part of Italy that we visited a few years ago. I saw the facades of peeling stucco on a town square, glowing in that special light you get in Italy, and I grew wistful for those ancient surroundings.

Would we still seek out those old villages, I wondered, if Disney World went in and repaired the stucco and paved the cobbled streets?

Then I thought of the old part of Dubois, which we could also cherish for its very imperfections.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

The Inestimable Loss of Esther Wells

A precious link to the first of my kind who came to know and love this valley

EstherWellsPretty worn out when the last of our guests for the Great Eclipse of 2017 departed last Thursday, I determined to take it easy and stay home. We had skipped church on Sunday to take everyone out into the wilderness. Thus, sadly, I learned only from an obituary in the Frontier that Esther Wells had passed away and that I had missed her funeral.

I would certainly have gone. Farewell, Esther. It was a pleasure and a privilege to know you.

One of the last survivors of the homestead era, Esther Clendenning Pickett Wells was older than the town of Dubois–either 102 or 106 years old, depending on which record you prefer. The last time I saw her, only a few years ago, she was completely blind but nonetheless bright-eyed. Also still quite sharp and articulate. Not to mention kind and sweet to me, almost a stranger, and seemingly always cheerful.

When Esther was young and small, growing up, Dubois was also young and small. She survived two husbands. For a time she owned a ranch in Paraguay, where she founded a school that is still in operation. But what I admired most about Esther Wells was her legacy as a wife, mother, and co-manager of a ranch farther up that same steep glacial valley I see out my window, back when absolutely nothing about living around here was easy.

And yet, she said she loved it. She was a precious living link to the first of my kind who came to know and enjoy this place at a time when doing so was more of a challenge than a mere adventure.

CharlieRichardsGraveI first met Esther after she had stopped coming to church because she’d moved into assisted living. She must still have had some vision at that time, because she asked to come to our open house for one last look up that valley. I remember men carrying her up the front steps in a wheelchair, and setting her down facing out the window.

Someone pointed her out to me and suggested I greet her. Just to make conversation, I asked her if she knew anything about Charlie Richards, the early settler buried in an unmarked grave across the highway. I like to hike up to it now and again. Back then I used to entertain romantic visions of the man who wanted his grave to face out over that splendid valley.

“Why, sure I knew him,” she said, without a hint of admiration. “His wife was my mother’s best friend. They had the next ranch over. She was always borrowing pots and pans, because she had nothing to cook in but old tin cans.”

Mrs. Richards had to run the ranch all by herself, Esther said, and they were poor as church mice. Charlie was always out prospecting and was no help at all around the ranch. (A futile effort: More recent geology reports say there’s nothing of any mining value up there.) So much for my charmed estimation of Charlie! Although perhaps I should not allow my sympathy for his wife to rule out some compassion for his constant disappointment.

EstherWells2Thank goodness the Dubois Museum Association has preserved on videotape an interview with Esther about those early days when you couldn’t get down the valley all winter. We have learned that she was not bored as a child with no store-bought games, because old Mrs. Burlingame loved making toys. We also heard that geraniums were everywhere back then, because they were the only flowers that could survive the climate.

We learned to be especially grateful for soft fleece and Thermasilk, because something else Esther remembered was the cold. Just think about trying to layer cotton and canvas against these winds! “We didn’t have all the fabrics we have now,” she said. And fires never kept the whole cabin warm.

Later, Esther and her husband owned and managed what would become Brooks Lake Lodge, up the mountain. Today it’s a luxury getaway. Back then, life was elemental. She told of swiping a grizzly bear out of her kitchen with a broom, and then she laughed at the memory.

It matters only to me that I missed Esther’s funeral. What matters to everyone is that she is gone, and with her some of the strength, courage, and good humor that laid the human foundation for this valley.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.