The Inestimable Loss of Esther Wells

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

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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.

Frontier Fest 2017: Dammed Fun for the Kids, and More

Half the town works, the other half turns up (and visitors).

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Harried but hopeful, I hurried to town. It was early Saturday morning, time to oversee the return of our annual Museum Day, this year with a new name: Frontier Fest. Sponsored by the Dubois Museum Association, the event promotes our delightful small history museum. Luckily for all of us, it was a beautiful day.
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The favorite features of the day were back again, of course. Here, Pat O’Neal tends the griddles turning out her amazing fry bread. I’ve discovered this treat in many cultures: The Mennonite ancestors from my childhood (they called them “crullers”), my Chinese ex-brother-in-law’s family (it was something like “io-tiao”), and here, the Native American version. Yummy, whatever you call it.
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They also served who only stood and waited — for the next visitor to turn up asking for lemonade or stew. We hoped people would slide something nice into the donation jar, because the entire event is free. It takes a whole village to create Frontier Fest: Seems like half the village works, the other half (we hope) turns up and enjoys the day. Many who are new to town discover a bit of our history, and a lot of our current culture.
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Billie came in her blue bonnet to work the first shift at the bake sale, and wound up staying the whole time. On Sunday at church you see her always dressed impeccably, but she obviously got into the frontier spirit on Saturday and pulled out some period attire. (What a pity this picture doesn’t show her lovely smile!) Much of the fun, said her daughter Sandy, was the chance to chat with friends.
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Steve Banks decided to bring out all of his Mountain Man regalia and paraphernalia again this year. Steve is another of our amazing assets. He’s walked nearly every step of the early explorers’ trails, working from their letters and journals, and he seems to know everything there is to know about the early history of the area. I saw him talking all day to small groups of fascinated onlookers. He said the questions never seemed to stop.
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Here’s Gordon the blacksmith, wowing an onlooker.
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Dan Seelye and Packin’ the Mail packed them in at the Dennison Lodge, and entertained everyone outside with the music piped on to the lawn. At the end of the day, when I went in to start cleaning up, I found many people were leaning against the wall, just listening to the music.
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Here’s Dean showing off his antique machinery, as he does every year. A retired watchmaker, Dean is a mechanical genius and a master carpenter. He was the behind-the-scenes star of the show, because he constructed …
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the great mini-flume race. This idea was created by the Board members of the Dubois Museum Association, but engineered and master-minded by Dean, who was intent on using his ingenuity to turn it into a truly competitive event. See the little knobs at the base of the chute? Those are the obstacles that stop your little marker from reaching the bottom. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
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The great flume race is modeled after the flumes created by the mighty tie hacks a century ago, when they hewed pine trees in our mountains in midwinter to create railroad ties. To get them down to the river and off to the railroad, they dammed up the meltwater as the snow subsided, and then released the water and floated them down to the river along giant versions of these chutes that went on for miles.
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The sandwich board at left held a poster explaining this history. I hope some of the kids looked at it! The object here was to be first to get your mini-tie to the bottom of the flume, controlling the flow of water with these mini-dams. Dean constructed it all. including the neat hand-held “dams” with their rubber gaskets and the mini-“ties” crafted at the same dimensions as real railroad ties.
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As this had never been done before, it was a challenge to figure out the best strategy.
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Competitors large and small took part.

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It was even a challenge to figure out the optimal flow from the hoses.
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We had arranged for prizes, but nobody seemed to care about them. They just wanted to keep playing!

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After we shut the water off, several kids simply couldn’t stop. They went back to the boring old beanbag toss.

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It was a great deal of hard work for a small army of volunteers. For me, at least, the best reward is this evidence of smiles all around. Many thanks to Bill Sincavage for these images, which are just as wonderful as the day itself.

© 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.

America At Its Best: Dubois, July 4, 2017

Serious. Fun. Together. It’s what we do, over and over.

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Here we went again, enjoying the best Independence Day celebration anywhere. That designation, awarded this year by several tourists on Ramshorn Street (who were obviously delighted and astonished at their good fortune in being here), arises in large part due to the nature of the town that creates it, year after year. I second the nomination, of course. It’s just the kind of July 4 we kept wandering around New England hoping to find for our children, back when they were small. We had no idea back then that we should be thousands of miles farther west.

 

 

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For one thing, as someone who came all the way from Cody pointed out, you don’t have to stake out your spot the night before to get a good view. An hour ahead of start time will do. Ramshorn Street is unusually crowded, but the scene is just about right: Festive, but not frenzied.
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We saw Daniel Starks’ fleet of Army tanks laboring slowly down the highway shoulder as we drove in. Seems like he sent out three times more this year than last.
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They set the pace in the parade, a powerful and sober reminder of what we celebrate on Independence Day. I wonder what, if anything, parents said to children about that. What would I have said to mine?
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Meanwhile, a neighbor kept making passes with his helicopter, just to add atmosphere. This sound normally means med-evac. Today, just more fun, and in the sky.
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What an odd juxtaposition against the century-old motel! Somewhere in the back of the mind: How far out of harm’s way we are. How many of own neighbors ready to put themselves in harm’s way for us–whether it’s mortar fire, forest fire, or house fire.
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Same location, much less thought-provoking display. Friendly wranglers from the CM Ranch turn up every year. This is what brings people here first–the image easiest to sell to the outside world, and least difficult to convey persuasively.
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“It’s great to celebrate July 4 in a town that is happy to be patriotic,” a visitor remarked. (Now that brings up a lot of thoughts this year!) I like the fact that nobody around here goes out of the way to tell me what my patriotism should mean to me. Just show the flag, and put your hand over your heart. We take it for granted you deeply feel what you feel. Whatever it may be.
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Someone chose to honor a fallen veteran in this wonderful old pickup. Another reminder that freedom is not free.
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Could it ever be a July 4 parade if there were no kids chasing free candy? So much of it! I asked for a little Tootsie roll. Someone didn’t want to share, but Mom shamed him into it.
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Uh-oh! Here come the fire hoses! Loudspeakers warn: “You WILL get wet!” The crowd begins to thin as people take cover.
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Some older folks complain about the fact that the firefighters don’t always aim the hoses straight up. Some younger folks seem eager for the harmless adventure. (Hey, it’s hot out here!)
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“Come under here!” urges a friendly gentleman, and I duck into the garage at Bull’s Conoco. (I’m not afraid of the water, but my camera is.) You can see that Dubois’ Bravest can be straight shooters when duty calls for it.
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I’ve never known a place more fond of its firefighters, except perhaps New York right after 9/11. Dubois’ Bravest are volunteers, of course. These are the same guys who came out in frigid subzero temperatures at midnight a few years ago, trying to save the old Mercantile. When we hear a siren in Dubois, everybody’s ears perk up and I’m sure many people think a prayer.
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There’s an ice cream social on the church lawn, just after the parade. (This picture is from last year, but the scene was the same.) I’d hitched a ride down to the middle of town with Randy, who was driving his SUV at the rear of the parade. He was exhausted after an early start to his day. After dropping me off, he would circle back and clean up the orange cones to let the traffic get through. “This event must really bring the town together,” a stranger from Riverton said to me, as he was enjoying his ice cream. Well meant, but I had to stop and think about that. “Um, I don’t really think so–no more than usual,” I said finally. “The town is together already. This is just what we do every year on July 4.” Along with everything else we do together every year. (Randy wasn’t present for ice cream, having gone home for a nap.)
Square dance, July 4 Dubois WY
Was there going to be a square dance on July 4? Well, of course! If it’s a Tuesday in the summer, there’s a square dance in the back room at the Rustic. I helped to serve soft drinks at the bar last Tuesday, as I often do. A quarter for a Pepsi or a 7-Up. The proceeds go to local charities.
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It’s fun to watch the dude ranch folks trying to figure it out, and slowly succeeding. But the best part of it all is the square that always forms in front at the right. The 8 young locals who turn up every week seem to have reserved that spot. They know what they’re doing, and they clearly enjoy doing it. I love how they take it very seriously and keep getting a kick out of it, at the same time. This is the very definition of good, clean fun.
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The lovely teenager at left began the evening helping out with the soft drinks. The Bob Marley shirt was an act of defiance. (“I’m not wearing any of those stupid Western clothes!” she had told my friend, whom she’s visiting.) And she refused to dance, saying she can’t. Once mother of a teenage girl, I found this all quite familiar. One of the young people saw the stranger at the bar, came on over, and pulled her onto the floor. (Friendly just isn’t something you can sell in a travel guide. You simply have to be here and witness it. Then you’re hooked.)

Wishes Come True: New Merchants in Dubois

Springing up like wild flowers, and just as beautiful.

WRArtisans3For a long time I have been hoping to see two new kinds of shops in town, and here they are. Maybe this came about because I finally got around to reading a Harry Potter book, and some magic rubbed off. (Or maybe it’s not about me at all.)

Last evening, the doors opened on the first new shop in the complex built on the site of the old Mercantile, which was destroyed in a famous dead-of-winter fire in late December 2014. The new business is an outgrowth of Sandy Frericks’ charming Christmas shop, Yeeha! Studio, which operated out of the old drugstore last November and December.

SandysShop4As I told Sandy yesterday, this answers my dream that Dubois would have what I’ve seen in so many other small towns on my road trips: A shop that features art and craft items by local designers.

Hey, presto! Wind River Artisans and Sky Photography now proudly faces onto our main street. (More, I hear, are coming next month.)

At least as important, but not so visible, is Scarecrow Bike & Key, operating out of a lean-to on the side of the hardware store at the back of the Mercantile site. This great idea bubbled up out of a couple of Bud Lights at the Rustic Tavern one day last winter, when Chris Wright told his buddy John McPhail that he had always wanted to open a bike shop in town.

100_0838As the official host for the many cyclists who spend a night at St. Thomas church while passing through town on cross-country bike treks, John quickly saw potential in the idea.

“Do you know how many cyclists came through town last summer?” he replied. (At least 375, in fact, who stayed at the church house. Who knows how many came through without stopping or camped out at the KOA?)

“Two weeks later,” Chris told me, “we were ordering parts.”

BikeShop 2Like two famous Wright brothers a century ago, Chris Wright was attracted to mechanics early in life. Growing up in a small California town, he and his friends built bikes from trash parts left in alleys. They saw to it that no kid in town was without a bike.

After working as a diesel mechanic in high school and at oil fields after graduation, he decided to become a fly fishing guide. Chris has worked at guest lodges near Dubois for the past four years.

John McPhail, who also enjoys making broken things work, has hoped for years to open a locksmith shop. He had seen an ad in the Roundup that said simply, “Don’t call me any more,” put there by a local man who wanted to close a locksmith shop he had been running out of his garage. John did call him, snapped up the equipment, and the other half of Scarecrow Bike & Key fell into place.

BikeShop4The bike shop opened in early May. John said they made 11¢ on the first day. (I didn’t ask what on earth had that price tag.) Not many touring cyclists reach Dubois in mud-and-slush season, and the startup was scary. But by the third week, he told me, “the floodgates opened.” (I don’t think he intended a metaphor; the actual snowmelt floods in Dubois didn’t begin until a few weeks after that.)

“We got bike after bike that had sat in a garage for ten years,” John said. “People would say, I just never wanted to take it all the way to Lander.”

BikeShop3Chris pointed out a vintage red-and-yellow model sitting outside the shop, waiting to be picked up. Its owner got it as a present for her ninth birthday. She wanted it tuned up so she could ride it again — at the age of 75.

What will happen to the business when the cycle tours end in the fall? Bicycles are always breaking, John responded calmly.

“That’s one good thing about bicycles,” Chris had said a few days earlier. “They are always repairable. And they always make you smile.”

© 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.

Telecommuter Appreciation Town: Dubois WY

Tools down, but back up leaving time for a hike.

ModemWho knew that I had chosen to down tools and leave town during Telecommuter Appreciation Week, which is set for the first week in March? Instead, I’m celebrating TelecommutING Appreciation Week.

I returned to find that my best tool, the Internet, was also surprisingly down. I recycled the modem several times, but that little light never flashed. My husband settled down to watch ordinary cable.

“Customer service won’t answer in the evening,” he said, but he was wrong. A nice fellow speaking from somewhere else walked me through the usual user-error tests, declared me correct, and gave me a work-order number.

“They should call you by early afternoon,” he said.

“Early afternoon? Forget that!” I replied. “I’ll just call DTE myself at 8 AM.”

But I never did. A nice rep from the local DTE office reached me instead, at 8:10. “I hear your Internet isn’t working?”

I laughed, and told her the last thing I’d said to the man from customer service.

SheridanSlush“Yeah, we upgraded your broadband, and your old modem won’t work any more,” she said. “Can you drop by to pick up the new one? Just give me a name and a password and we’ll set it up for you.”

I know I’m not the only lucky person who benefits from this kind of service. There are dozens or scores of others clacking away in these hills. DTE knows who they are, but won’t tell, of course. And we “digitanomads” aren’t much for socializing with each other.

Back to the routine: Early workout, then hit the desk. Work through until about 3:30 and then get out for a hike while it’s still light out.

There was a melt while we were away. The back road is packed by snowmobile tracks, but still really slushy. A much better workout than the elliptical, as usual.

As I trudged along, I heard the exuberant roar of snowmobiles up in the hills.

The dog zoomed around too, joyous in his untethered freedom. After a while, I caught up and found him enjoying a very large treat.

(Benny appreciates telecommuting too.)

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© 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.

The Place Where People Fall in Love

bigpinkheart“I just fell in love.” I can’t count how often the story ends in those four words, when I ask people how they came to be in Dubois. Sometimes “we” is substituted for “I.”

Joe and his wife were rounding the corner at the main intersection for the first time when one of them said, “This looks like a good place to retire.” And so they did.

Dorothy and her family got stalled here with car trouble on the way to Yellowstone. After a week at the campground, they returned to build a second home. Much later, as a widow, she lived here year-round.

We know many instances of young women from elsewhere who fell in love with a cowboy and ended up living here. I wonder whether the handsome young man was only part of a much larger infatuation.

I’ve also heard “I just fell in love” from a Millennial who moved here with her boyfriend, and from the mother of an eight-year-old boy who cried when leaving town after a week’s vacation. The family moved here a few months ago.

pigroast4I know not one but two couples who traveled the entire nation in their RVs looking for a place to settle, and wound up living in Dubois. One of the couples had lived here before, looked everywhere else, and then came back.

What is it about this place? The charm of the small village in the midst of this vast magnificent wilderness is what takes your breath away at first. What grabs you later and holds on? The welcoming kindness of the people, flavored by their spirits of self-assurance and independence.

We still have to be pioneers to live here (but that’s a story for another day). You sense it once you get to know the townspeople. It’s the same lure that always drew people to the West. Remarkably it survives in Dubois, intact.

It was the vast, empty spaces that won me over first. Airlifted out of a stressful job in the busiest of big cities, I was wonderfully unprepared for what I would find at the Lazy L&B.

I could ride a horse or easily climb up a draw to the top of a mesa, from which I could look out forever without seeing another human being, or even a structure. And I had never before seen anything to compare with what I was looking at.

lwlazylbWhen I went home I took along cuttings of sagebrush, which I kept in an envelope. Now and again I’d open it to sniff the fragrance, which always made me wistful.

Our courtship with Dubois was more gradual than some. We came back to the Lazy L&B several times, and at one point I took a photo looking up the draw from the river. I took it to a shop on W. 23rd St and had them enlarge it into a poster. Ever after, at several successive jobs, it hung directly across from my desk in my office. I’d look at it when the office politics got too intense.

Once, when my husband had time to kill while picking up our daughter from a wilderness program, he took a look at some real estate here. He called me back in New York with what I thought was a totally crazy idea. Years later, when the son who came along as a toddler on our first trip to Lazy L&B was in college, I surprised him by suggesting that return to Dubois and investigate it as a place to live rather than just visit.

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We stayed in town that time. I got my hair done, and listened. We went to Happy Hour at the Rustic, and listened. We went to church, and listened.

At the end of the weekend, much to my astonishment, we had bought a house.

I had been infatuated for decades. Then I fell in love.

© 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.

Today’s “Fix” for My Temptation

Studies show we just feel better out in wilderness. Lucky Dubois!

pinnaclesDriving up-mountain this morning, my husband mentioned an article he had just seen in the Wall Street Journal. Nothing about executive orders this time–unless (and I’m dreaming now) it’s an order from executives to their direct reports to get outdoors and take a walk at lunch hour.

After “good morning,” the first thing I had said today was “Can we go snowshoeing?”

I’d just looked out the window as I walked toward the kitchen. Especially on a day like this one, I simply have to get outdoors. It’s like an addiction. I’m beginning to figure it out.

I read the Wall Street Journal article after we returned home. People feel better and do better the more they spend time outdoors, it said, and ideally, outdoors somewhere in the countryside.

“Many experts agree that there seems to be a dose curve for the benefits of nature,” it read, under the headline ‘To Fight the Winter Blues, Try a Dose of Nature‘. “In general, the more time you spend in nature, the better you will do on measures of vitality, wellness and restoration.”

Pulling up at the trailhead, we found to my delight that the trail had been freshly groomed. A smooth new highway in the snow wound through the unoccupied campground, and we would be the first to travel it.

groomedtrailfallsWe ambled through a silent forest. The view ahead was a palette of four colors. The trees that waved above us were, of course, forest green. Beyond them, the sky was an uninterrupted swath of deep periwinkle–except for a contrail high above, which the wind had spun into a ribbon of lace. Each step drew us into the shadows of deep purple and the snow, which was of course pure white.

I had brought along hand-warmers and toe-warmers, but they stayed in my pocket. Eventually I shed my hat and my gloves, even though a stiff wind would blow up now and again to chase the loose snow around. It never fails to amaze me that I get warm while snowshoeing, even on the coldest days.

After a while, we heard voices and a motor. It was the volunteers from DART (Dubois Association for Recreation and Trails), returning from their grooming run. I stopped and kissed them both on the cheek, to thank them for coming out early to do this work. Of course, they’re getting their outdoor fix as well.

gymBack when I worked in an office in Manhattan, it was my habit to spend lunch hour at the gym whenever I could. I’m a firm believer in the many benefits of regular exercise (and it helped that I kept reading about them in my job as a medical editor).

The benefits of just being outdoors took longer to dawn on me. After I while, I began taking long random walks at lunch hour instead. I thought I was just enjoying the bustle of the city and the diversity of its people. But it always seemed I would head for a pocket park or for a wide view across one of the rivers.

Being outside in the city is better for your well-being than staying indoors, said the article, but country or the wilderness is best. Many city people may avoid going outdoors, it added, “because a chronic disconnection from nature causes them to underestimate its hedonic benefits—that is, how much it will contribute to their happiness.”

When I telecommuted from Dubois, I used to work from 7:30 in the morning to 3:30 in the afternoon, during the office hours of my coworkers back East. This gave me the delightful prospect of a hike in the woods each day after work. I’m afraid I used to gloat about it.

I’ve heard friends say that they just feel happier here in Dubois, although they’re not sure why. For myself, I know that I’m happier when I’m able to hike outdoors every day, even — and maybe especially — in the dead of winter.

snow2The benefits of exercise and exposure to nature aren’t the whole story. Numerous studies have shown that sunshine itself acts as an antidepressant. The duration and intensity of sunlight have a direct effect on the rate of production of serotonin, the chemical messenger in the brain that causes depression if it’s in short supply.

Is it any wonder I get blue around Christmas time, when there’s so little sunshine? Or that I’m so happy here in the summer, when the days are so long, the skies so clear, and the sun so bright?

“Regional and national parks, wild coasts and wilderness areas are the places where we can best reflect and recover from the stress of work and the news,” the article concluded. (Perhaps our distance from the East Coast is not only the factor that shields us from the post-election stress of 2017.)

It ended with a quote from the great nature writer John Muir: “Come to the woods, for here is rest.”

© 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.