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?
I thought it was just a sacrifice I had to make for living here
Looking around last Sunday at the Dennison Lodge, as musicians with Jackson Hole Chamber Music sailed through a string quartet with exquisite skill, I noticed all the smiles in the audience and, at times, among the performers.
What I didn’t see was my friend behind me, who was in tears. “It was so compelling,” she said later. “They just drew you in somehow.”
I also cried the first time I heard a performance by this chamber music group several years ago. I wasn’t sad at all — far from it –but tears welled up without warning.
I seldom cry. Usually when I do, it is for a loss — as my aged mother was dying, when I heard a street performer in New York City playing my late father’s instrument, the marimba, and just as I reached home after my last orchestra rehearsal. I’d left early because my shoulder pain became too intense to continue playing.
The arthritis specialist had predicted that moment, and I knew I would have to give it up. I opened the door, set down my beloved viola, and burst into sobs.
When my mother grew too old to continue performing professionally, she just stopped singing. Living in New York City, she could substitute the pleasure of attending concerts. She found it gratifying simply to appreciate the excellence of a performance, note by note, even if she wasn’t involved.
I had the same compensation after I stopped playing in orchestras and string quartets—until we moved to Dubois. Relinquishing the pleasure of those fine concerts, I thought, was my penance for the privilege of being here in the land of fabulous landscape and Western folk music. Never mind leaving behind the restaurants, the theater, and the legendary New York buzz. The only loss that caused me pain was that of classical music.
Maybe that’s because I was truly born into it. (That’s me at the keyboard there, in my Dad’s gag photo of his baby.)
As neuroscience has shown over and over, music is an ancient form of animal communication, an older form of human language than language itself and one deeply seated in the emotional centers of the brain. People tend to appreciate most the kind of music they have grown up with. Sometimes just listening to that kind of music, I find myself in tears for no reason having to do with events of the day.
The tears sprang upon me suddenly at that performance in Jackson as I began listening to a string quartet by Schubert. I sat in a small performance space, close enough to enjoy every movement the musicians made.
I wasn’t crying for a loss, but for something reclaimed. I may not be able to join the wonderful teamwork of a string quartet any more, I realized, but I could still experience it vicariously in nearby Jackson. And now, thanks to a group of music-loving friends and a partnership with the Wind River Valley Arts Guild, I can do so right here in Dubois.
For the past two years, we have won grants, advertised, and made arrangements for these performances at the Dennison. It’s the perfect venue for the occasion: So authentically Dubois, so ideal as a performance space for a small musical group.
The Jackson performances are in a classy, glass-fronted building set in the pines. The Dennison has a much different feel — an old lodge built of rough-hewn log walls that support mounts of elk, moose, and mountain lions. The performers find it charming.
They’ve told me they love the splendid drive over the pass from Jackson into a landscape that some of them have never seen before, and they appreciate the excellent acoustics in our rustic space. Clearly, they also appreciate the audience, which is attentive and appreciative in return.
The listeners enjoy sitting so close to the performers that they can watch them catching each others’ glances and smiling in pleasure at their own rapport. The audience can witness the strength in musicians’ arms as they lean into a heavy down-bow, and they can perceive, as one person remarked on a survey given at intermission, that the musicians enjoy the experience as much as they do.
It was clear from the survey responses that the 50 people who heard them felt the same way I did a few years ago. Unanimously, they told us that they would return for a similar concert next year.
“It made my heart soar,” wrote one member of the audience.
So many others here also share what they love — dance lessons, yoga, songwriting, painting, how to weave wool into blankets. Together we weave a wonderful diversity into a tiny, remote village in the mountains.
Last Sunday, I watched other people enjoying great music together and obviously appreciating each other as they did so. It is a far finer experience than the crowded concert halls in New York with their stiff, formal musicians performing at a distance as you sit surrounded by strangers.
At the Dennison, I leaned back, closed my eyes, reveled in the passing river of tones and harmonies, and pondered how it all travels through the air and then vanishes, this extraordinary gift to our senses. I am glad that at least 50 people here share my particular pleasure, and that they have told us it is well worth our efforts to provide it.
A photo exhibit wonderfully portrays the same contrasts I describe
Trying to plan some diversions for a house guest from New York, I stopped by the Headwaters Center here in Dubois to ask about the current art exhibit. It’s a show of photographs of Wyoming and New York City, I learned.
What could be more perfect? My visitor has degrees in fine arts and art history, and photography is one of his passions.
He’s always talking about the remarkable light and the changing cloud patterns, and regularly dashes outside to catch yet one more different image of landscape and sky. I sometimes wonder whether he visits me here mostly to take photographs.
On the Friday before July 4, we were alone in the Headwaters gallery. I knew absolutely nothing about the photographer, Amanda Fehring, and had no way to guess what my guest would think of her work.
I found most of the images attractive because I could relate to their subjects–a few of them of New York City, but most of them showing our Western landscapes. On my own, I would have looked at them briefly, in order, and then left. But I had the pleasure of an expert guide.
He kept crossing and re-crossing the room, reviewing and comparing the images, seeing them with the eye of someone who might have taken them and sometimes wished he had.
“Half of these are really fantastic,” he said before we left.
His favorite was a picture she had called “Leaning,” a black and white image of winter-bare trees and water. I would never have noticed it, but it stopped him in his tracks. On second viewing, he said it was perfect.
“Look at the way it’s divided exactly in thirds. There’s the white on the bottom balancing the white sky on the top. And look at the way the angle of the fallen tree exactly divides the image,” he said.
“And just listen to it. There’s that silence you get in winter. Not a sound, except maybe the flowing water.”
I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a photograph before.
Another, called “White Red Canyon,” shows a pastel mix of sky over a red-rock formation blanketed in snow, taken from a distance and above. It’s one of those photographs that might actually be a painting instead.
“Amazing,” he said. “You really have to wait for that light. And where was she taking that from? How did that happen?”
Again and again, he invoked the thought of patience and persistence, of the photographer going out in harsh weather, waiting for just the right moment or finding a difficult vantage point, all in search of the right image. It brought to mind some wildlife biologists I have admired for similar attributes.
“This one is really high art,” he said of an image of Lake Como in Italy, pointing out the clarity of the pine needles at the right and the cross-hatching in the water, which he traced to a jet boat that he spied as a white line and dot, barely visible at the base of the hills on the opposite shore.
“She got it so crisp,” he said. “It’s hard to get the saturation right in the shot like that, rather than just fixing it later.”
In contrast, it was the un-clarity of “Wintry Wind River” that he admired, the way in which her artistry caught the frigid vapor that rises above our river on a sub-zero day. Three visual elements caught in one moment, he said: wind, water, and air.
“What’s your favorite?” he asked me after a while.
“I can’t really say,” I replied, “after hearing everything you’ve had to say about them.”
Fair enough, he granted. Looking around quickly, I pointed to the photograph she had called “Noho Stroll.”
“I probably like it just because it reminds me of all those times I used to walk home from work in midtown all the way to Brooklyn,” I said.
“And I like the bright colors.” I pointed out the way the bright blue and red bicycle at the center of the image echoed the walls behind and the blue dress of the Asian woman with the parasol in the center.
“I don’t like that very much,” he remarked, pointing to a yellow traffic cone near the bicycle. But you can’t just rearrange the elements of a street scene, I argued–and then he began to change his mind.
“That matches the yellow of that sign, and there’s the green of those plants. She has all the primary colors. It does have the classic perspective from two points, and the reflection on the side of that delivery van at left really opens up the sky. And also she waited for the right subject.” (He meant the woman with the parasol). “So she has done her job.”
Finally we noticed a curious, postcard-like picture of an strangely shaped building that seemed inconsistent with the others — oddly unfocused and poorly composed.
“Where is that?” I asked. He peered closely at the image. Indistinctly, from the banners on either side of the door, he could discern the location.
“Greenwood Cemetery! Of course!”
We both recognized the building instantly. It’s a Brooklyn landmark.
“She was standing back to take the image from the front,” he guessed, “and then those two women in blue walked up with those gowns exactly the color of the sky. So she just took the shot.”
The image is called “Late.” Perhaps few others would get the hidden meaning. It looks like women walking into a church, but actually they’re entering a cemetery. And in fact, perhaps, Fehring herself arrived too late to compose the shot very well.
I had figured Amanda Fehring as some trust-fund kid who lives in Jackson and doesn’t really need to work. But returning home to my computer, I was surprised and pleased to learn that she’s the news director of County 10 in Riverton. She grew up in Montana, met her husband in college there, and they moved to Brooklyn together after college.
It would have been even more of a contrast for him than for me, because he comes from nearby Kinnear, a hamlet near Riverton which has a population of only about 50. They returned to the West, she told me, because “we needed a break from the big city.”
“Photography has always been a big part of my life,” Fehring said. She recalls grabbing her mother’s single-reflex camera at age 8 or 9, and she been taking pictures ever since.
“It’s never been something I tried to make money off of,” she added — and that’s still true. Every photograph in the current exhibition is priced at $175.
The exhibit closes on July 8. If you’re nearby and you like good art, hurry to catch it before it closes. At least half of the photographs are fantastic. An expert told me so.
Richard V. (Dick) Dennison was one of those enigmatic characters who came to Dubois from the East Coast, tried and failed, and then vanished without leaving much of himself behind.
Fortunately for us, someone mentioned to Grace Remington, a documentary film-maker in New York City, that she “had a grand uncle who killed someone and then fled justice to Wyoming, where he built a palatial lodge populated with celebrities.”
Curious, Grace followed up briefly over the phone with former Dubois mayor Twila Blakeman. Then the pandemic hit.
A few months ago, with the pandemic easing, and herself now supported by a fellowship from the Jacob Burns Film Center, Grace reached out to the Dubois Museum, feeling a need to “just go and see if anyone knows anything about this guy to whom I’m distantly related and who died a long time ago.” (He was her maternal grandfather’s uncle.)
I happened upon Grace at the coffee shop, on her first morning in town. Lynn Stewart introduced us, we sorted out our coincidental connection, and she beamed her infectious smile. I’m so glad I stopped by that morning.
It happens that Grace lives about 6 blocks from my former home in Brooklyn. This revelation prompted a long and intense conversation, mostly about restaurants and ethnic food stores far from Wyoming.
She had just arrived. She sat on the white sofa, the Perch’s copy of Mary Allison’s Dubois Area History right in front of her on the table. She stayed for 3 hours after I left, as people drew her in and vice versa, the way it often happens in there.
She came to my house later (I lent her a memory card) and a few days afterwards we had lunch at the Cowboy Cafe, where I formally interviewed her and took notes. This is that story.
R.V.D. did leave one important thing behind: the Dennison Lodge. It’s the attractive log building that stands today between the Dubois Museum and the National Bighorn Sheep Center, across the highway from Family Dollar.
As most locals know, it used to stand 18 miles up East Fork, the center of an exclusive, invitation-only dude ranch whose guests included Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.
After Dennison died suddenly, under mysterious circumstances, and the property ended up in government hands, the building was threatened with demolition. Several influential women moved heaven and earth to get it moved into town. It’s an event venue today. (At least one barn from the property was also relocated, a few miles down East Fork, to the site of the Trial Lawyers College.)
Many long-term residents can sketch in other details, often tracing back to the account in Mary Allison’s book. A Brief History of the Dennison Lodge, published in 2000, repeats some of the same information and adds more.
They say that Richard Dennison fled here to escape prosecution after he killed someone in a hit-and-run accident back East. The lodge was fitted out with lavish, expensive furniture and mounts of African animals which Dennison, not being a hunter, had purchased. He went broke, killed himself, and the lodge stood empty.
That’s the local lore, much of it true. But the reality that Grace is teasing out is different in some details, at once stranger and oddly familiar.
During her visit, the town responded “in a way that was genuine and really beautiful,” Grace told me. “I got to know people, and everyone was enthusiastic to share what they have to offer.”
She visited the Dennison and the Museum and anyone she could find who had information about the history of the Lodge and its founder. Grace told me it was interesting to see “how the story plays out in a town full of stories and story tellers–reliable and otherwise.”
Richard Dennison was born in Philadelphia in December 1880, the third of 7 siblings, three of whom died in childhood. Mary Allison says he was a member of the New Jersey family that owned the Dennison Paper Company, but actually his father was president of American Oil Development Company in Pittsburgh. As Grace puts it, he was a trust fund baby.
A Brief History of the Dennison Lodge says that Dick visited “the CM Dude Ranch on Jakey’s Fork in 1913” at the age of 23. But he was actually 33 in 1913, and that was 7 years before Charles Moore founded the CM on Jakey’s Fork. Moore did run a pack-tripping operation out of the base of the Dunoir, but it was intended for boys, not grown men, and its buildings burned down sometime around 1905, according to Allison.
Her book says that he first came here in 1914, without mentioning the CM Ranch. Whatever the reality, like so many others Dennison obviously fell in love with the Wind River Valley once he saw it.
“Clearly, he had the experience of a lifetime there,” Grace said. “That must be when he decided what he wanted to do.”
Looking through records at the court house in Lander, she hasn’t yet tracked down exactly when Dick bought the ranch up Bear Creek. But only 7 years later, by 1920, he lived in Lander. In 1924, he was living back East in New Jersey, but by 1930 he was in Fremont County for good.
He began living out the cowboy dream. People say he was a good rider. On the ranch, he raised Jersey cattle and thoroughbred horses.
After Grace left, I took a picture of a few pages about Dick Dennison from Esther Mockler’s memoir, and texted them to her. He “had a theory that horses raised in high altitudes would develop a larger lung capacity than low-altitude horses, and thus could win more races,” Mockler wrote. “He never conclusively proved his theory.”
“Seems like a good summation of Dick Dennison’s overall approach to things,” Grace wrote back, repeating the last line: He never conclusively proved his theory.
There’s also much that she may never prove conclusively.
Through a distant relative doing family genealogy, whom she learned about from the Dubois Museum, and from her own research, Grace has discovered “things that aren’t the case.” In short, much of what Dick Dennison told people here is untrue or cannot be verified.
Mary Allison wrote that he had a twin brother who died at the age of 12. There is no record of a twin brother.
He told people that he served overseas in World War I, and he chose to wear WWI-style Army boots. According to the genealogy by Grace’s relative, his death certificate says that he was a World War 1 veteran who suffered shell shock after the war. But his passport shows that he went to France in 1918 as a volunteer for the Red Cross.
At the age of 37, he would have been deemed too old to serve according to regulations at the time, and in any case the war ended shortly afterwards. Veteran or volunteer, perhaps it doesn’t matter. But he left a certain impression.
Mary Allison recorded his middle name as “venison” (see image above). “Richard Venison Dennison?” said Grace. “That’s so insane!” His real middle name was Vincent. Was she mistaken, or was he playing around?
“Who knows?” she said during our interview. “Maybe the hit and run was another fabrication, to give him some sort of ‘credibility’. Like he killed someone, but then he wasn’t to blame because it was an accident, so he didn’t have to feel guilty.” The concept “fleeing justice to the West” does have considerably more glamor than just coming West to play cowboy, doesn’t it?
Because there’s no evidence that he ever mentioned a date and a place, and by definition he would have fled the scene, Grace can’t imagine how she might validate that part of his story. He had no criminal record.
When he came to Wyoming, Grace believes, he set about to “write his own story and fashion a life for himself that was fulfilling.” She talks of a “duality of identity,” of a life not lived and experiences never had.
In a sense, she pointed out, he followed a course of action that is paralleled by “many other people, even to this day” — those who envision a new lifestyle for themselves and head West to create it.
On September 27, 1939, according to Mary Allison, Dick called his friend Eloise Peck saying that she should come over if she wanted to see him alive. When she arrived at 10:30 a.m., she found him dead in a chair. There was no inquest, and the rumor that he took his own life has not been verified. He was 59 years old.
He was cremated and his ashes taken to Denver. There is no information beyond that.
Grace drove to Lander to read his estate documents. In December 1939, the inventory ran to 27 pages of possessions, assessed at $100,000. But there was also a long list of creditors, and the inventory list eventually shrank to 5 pages. By that time the assessment had fallen to $33,500, “which the lawyer for his executor conveniently buys,” Grace told me.
There are rumors that many items were stolen and never recorded.
“It’s telling and poetic that what remained of Dick Dennison was a list of his stuff,” Grace said at the Cowboy Cafe. Very few pictures from the Dennison ranch in the Museum collection have people in them, she told me. Most of them show nothing but things.
“But after all, the only thing that remains of any of us are the stories we tell about ourselves,” she went on, “and the stories that others tell about us.”
“Well, there IS a big lodge,” she added, with that smile.
She asked for a hug, and we parted. Grace intends to return to Dubois sometime in June.
Another piece has torn away from the wonderful crazy quilt that is Dubois. It’s difficult to believe he’s really gone.
His particular fragment in that work of art was frayed at the edges and rather dark. But at the center, it was lustrous and elegantly patterned.
Patrick would probably be unhappy if he could know that I am posting this. He was certainly a private person. But as I write that, I can hear his gruff laugh sounding from a distant place. “I don’t care what people think,” he would say. (Was it true?)
Many people knew him only as a chef, which indeed he was, par excellence. I must have met Patrick first (but not formally) when he was running the restaurant-deli called Paya with Barbara. That was when we first moved to Dubois.
Its Facebook page is still live, with tempting pictures and descriptions of that day’s offering on the steam table, and the comments.
“Best pizza in Wyoming.”
“There is no lunch like this anywhere.”
On this very blog, I myself said that Paya’s pizza was better than any I had found in Brooklyn.
They held on for years, but managing that busy main-street restaurant slowly ran them (and, I presume, their marriage) ragged. One of the last Google reviews was a complaint that vividly reveals Barbara’s frayed nerves. Paya closed in 2014.
Afterwards, Patrick tried opening another deli with another cook. When that didn’t work out, he had a succession of jobs in restaurants around town, did occasional catering, and then just stopped. He loved to prepare food, and to talk about the preparation of food, but he wasn’t on duty any more.
I would see him on the street, at the coffee shop or in the supermarket. Often, he would make some random comment that sounded nasty. I found his acerbic behavior interesting. It was as if he was testing to see if he could drive me away. I got to throwing it back at him.
At least once, Patrick complemented me about my residual New York City attitude in the course of saying that it must alienate some others. In a way, I felt like a kindred spirit. In another way, I wanted to defy his challenge.
We began to meet for lunch, and gradually I learned about his past. His mother had been French. His parents were diplomats. He had lived somewhere in Africa as a child, and in Vietnam as a teenager during the war. He well recalled their escape as US forces left the country. I wish I could remember more details about his past. He would surely tease me for forgetting them.
Patrick said that he was often dizzy and no longer had the stamina or the focus to work, which sounded like malingering. But he began to share details of his long series of visits to doctors in search of an explanation, and eventually I learned the truth. He had difficulty describing the diagnosis, but he handed me a scrap of paper on which he had written the name.
That’s how I learned he was having a series of small strokes, perhaps a hereditary problem but certainly one aggravated by his smoking. “I’m not going to stop,” he said several times, defiantly. “It’s about the only thing I can enjoy now.” The prognosis was not good, and he knew it.
By that point, he could no longer focus his eyes well enough to read or watch a screen. He never knew when he would have enough energy to cook, which he would have loved to do. Basically, all he could do any more was sit around the apartment, and he felt trapped in his life. About the only thing he could be sure to do would be to take his dog, Jasper, down by the river for a run.
When Patrick finally welcomed me to visit him at home, I felt I got to know him. You would never have guessed what was in his rooms above the laundromat: The little cast iron ship sitting on the woodstove humidifying the air through its smokestacks. The African face mask. The vast art deco armoire. I could see the fine antiques and paintings, the eclectic objects he had discovered at the Opportunity Shop, and his beloved jungle of houseplants.
I’d admire one painting, and he would tell me its history. “You must see this,” he would add, pulling something off a shelf to show me, or leading me into a back room to see another painting.
One recent Tuesday, I walked up the narrow stairs and opened the door to confront the usual rambunctious greeting from Jasper. I was expected, but Patrick hadn’t come to the corridor to greet me as usual. I found him sleeping soundly in his big chair.
I made plenty of noise as I calmed Jasper down, hoping to disturb him to alertness. But when I walked back to the chair, he was still breathing deeply. Needs his sleep, I told myself, and left quietly. I could return when he was awake.
“I stopped by,” I texted a few minutes later, “but you were sleeping so soundly I didn’t want to disturb you. Phone when you see this, please.”
He never called. I decided he must be in one of his moods, and I called to leave a voice message. Late that afternoon, someone called me with the most unwelcome news.
In the days that followed, when I said that I was sad, I began to learn about other people who had also cared about him. I had had no idea how many there were, and I suspect he didn’t, either.
… but you have to get lucky and be far from town on a chilly autumn afternoon
An adolescent girl, perhaps the one in this picture, climbed the slope toward the irrigation ditch near the fence where I sat, at the edge of our property. “They told me to tell you you’re not allowed to take pictures,” she said.
Returning from a hike on a raw and cloudy Sunday afternoon in October, I had heard whoops, hollers, and bellows from the valley just below. I guessed what was happening. It’s a sure sign of autumn when the cattle crowd that corral. I had stopped to watch the people racing around on horseback, driving the cattle in.
“Who’s in charge?” I asked. She mentioned two names I didn’t recognize.
“We’re rounding up the cattle in this valley for the people who own them,” she went on. “They do this every year.”
“I know,” I said. “I live here.”
I stopped taking pictures after that, and nobody in this one is identifiable. (I took the rest of these at other times.) But it’s difficult to imagine that I’m forbidden from taking pictures of the landscape adjacent to my own property. If the cattle have an issue, they may consult legal counsel.
I wonder why these folks objected. Perhaps they thought I was an animal-rights activist.
The reason for my interest is outright ignorance. I see cattle every (nonwinter) day from my windows, and I have seen cowboys in many movies riding around among cattle. But I have never watched an actual roundup in action. As you may recall, I was a city girl.
Tourists sometimes stop in town to ask where they can see real cowboys at work, and we locals glance at each other before responding politely. You’d have to get lucky, be fairly far from town, and probably not go looking for them on a lovely afternoon in midsummer. I got lucky one chilly Sunday in October, and I had that privilege.
They must have been rounding these cattle up all day, I thought. It’s a very long valley.
The neighbor’s five horses and a mule had gathered between me and the corral, sometimes looking up at me as they grazed. A woman bundled up in parka and scarf walked a toddler around by the hand among the three livestock trailers parked near the corral. Two small dogs trotted around outside the corral, busy as if on errands.
It was loud where I sat many yards away, so it must have been almost deafening for the people helping to herd the cattle. (I don’t say “cowboys” because a few of them were women and the others were not boys). The cattle were objecting loudly to being penned inside the corral, of course, not to mention the whinnying of the horses and the cowhands’ own yells and whistles.
As I took my perch on the fence, two men on horseback were expertly cutting one huge black beast out of the herd as the others were trapping the rest of the animals inside the corral. They drove it off to one side and out the gate. It went in the wrong direction, and they barked and shouted as they wheeled around and galloped toward it. It leaped one fence with surprising agility, then another, and wandered off toward the river.
Meanwhile, the other cowhands busied themselves inside the corral, urging their captives into one pen or the other. One of them galloped back and forth inside the pen, cleaning cows out of a far corner. After a while, only he was on horseback. The others just walked behind the cattle, sometimes urging them forward with lazy sweeps of a rope.
I wondered why they had divided them into groups, only to open the gates and let them crowd back into the largest pen together again. Then I overheard a shout: “Write down 112!” They had been counting, of course.
Soon after, I heard someone call out “115”.
By historic standards, just over a hundred head is a fairly small herd for this region. Frank Welty, Sr. (1874-1958) reports in Recollections of the Upper Wind River Valley that he had a herd of 1800 head in 1919, but a drought followed by a hard winter reduced the herd to 150. That was “a sad end to a big business,” he said. I won’t attempt a digression now into the current economics of cattle ranching in this valley and why herds are smaller now. As I said, I’m ignorant.
Eventually, someone got into a pickup and backed one of the three livestock trailers toward the corral. The cowhands separated three or four of the cattle, closed them beyond a gate from the rest of the herd, and drove them into the trailer. The truck and trailer lumbered toward the highway and went off. (Were these few, I wondered, part of the wages?)
After a while, two men mounted their horses, headed back down the valley, and surrounded one of the few cattle that were still grazing out there. Is this the one they had cut out before? Why, I wondered, did they do that in the first place?
Now they turned it around, and it loped toward the corral, objecting. Handily, they steered it into the empty pen closest to the valley, then coaxed it into the largest pen with the rest of the herd.
There seemed to be a lot of standing around afterwards. Saddles were slung into pickups. Some of the horses were led into another trailer and driven away. Others were tied to the remaining trailer. People walked back and forth.
Sometimes, all at once, the cattle fell silent. Then one would moan and the others would start up again.
A few of the cowhands walked over to a fence near the corral and engaged in a long conversation with two men who had been watching from the other side. I could hear their voices, but not what they were saying. Negotiating terms or just shooting the breeze?
I waited for rest of the cattle to be driven into the other trailers. How would they all fit? Then I realized (knucklehead!) the trailers are for transporting all their horses, not for cattle. It’s their job to round the cattle up, not to transport them somewhere else—especially not after they have spent all day chasing them out of the valley. Others would pick up the rest of the cattle the next day, no doubt. (And sure enough, the cattle were still there the next morning.)
It was growing more breezy on my perch at the property line, and my gloved hands were cold. I gave up waiting for them to load the remaining horses into the last trailer, and headed home.
By the time I was seated by the window with a cup of tea, our neighbor’s five horses and mule had returned to the meadow by the aspen grove. I guess the show was over.
A joyful cry, a reckless run, and at the end a silent drive home.
Our oldest grandchild came for a visit last week. He has refused to accept my statement that everything he saw here – not just our house – is called “Wyoming.”
This was his first time away from home without his parents.
He is not yet four, but we can already see who he is becoming.
At least right now, he’s fascinated with airplanes. Flying here was a huge excitement for him.
Misty and Mike Cavanagh kindly let me bring him to visit their hangar up at the small Dubois airport, where he was fascinated with the aircraft, but even more so with all the tools.
The airplanes were a bit scary. The tools were not, being much more familiar. “Here’s a screwdriver,” he said, handing one to Misty. Our son-in-law is in construction.
After leaving the hangar, he suddenly burst into tears.
“I want to see my Daddy!” he moaned.
“Soon,” I said. “Not just yet.”
He’s such a bundle of apprehension and courage, confusion and acceptance.
I saw all of these in the Denver airport, as we endured the security line and raced toward the plane that would bring him home. The rushing crowds. The scary escalators. The noisy terminal. The frightening little gap between jetway and airplane. The startling chimes from above and the bumps when we were in the air.
He was very good.
Then the long trek from the gate to the curb, and at last, the sight of the big black pickup, the cry of joy and the reckless run toward Daddy’s big embrace. A woman waiting nearby called it a multi-hankie reunion.
We had been dry-camping, and my phone began to run out of juice. Then I didn’t take the right power cords along to the airport. (Corralling a 3-year-old has a way of distracting you from other realities.) So I was mostly on childcare duty and off the grid, saving phone power for important messages. For a few days, I left the world behind.
My return journey after dropping him off with his father was more restful, of course. As the plane slowly descended toward Denver from the west, I watched the vast, rumpled mountain carpet of peaks and furrows as they passed below. It was a calming sight. They looked untouched and unapproachable.
Gazing out the passenger window the next morning as we drove north, I saw the suburbs spread out at the base of the same Front Range I had flown across the day before. Many of the people in those houses came here to be near that wilderness. But how close can they get, how often – and driving through what kind of traffic for how long?
Denver always makes me yearn for home.
As almost everywhere during that trip last week, the rural road we followed was lined with sunflowers. As you see, it was a beautiful day just short of autumn.
This feels like the most hopeful time of year, full of the promise of new projects, the days brightened by the shimmer of glowing aspen leaves and the enchantment of clean, crisp air. Those masses of yellow blossoms seemed to be bright faces nodding at me as we sped by, headed for home.
Finally, I picked up my phone and checked back into the world of adulthood.
A long list of emails, including this, from the Governor’s office:
That announcement brought a jolt to the heart. World news is not supposed to come this close.
I had to wait for signal to return before I could learn more about the late Lance Corporal from Wyoming. He had been guarding the entrance to Kabul airport in that mayhem during the evacuation. He was 20 years old.
To my grandmotherly eyes, the person gazing back from the news photos looked like a mere boy. But he was a man in every sense. He chose to serve our country, knowing he might give his life, and he did. His young wife is expecting their first child in a few weeks.
Arriving in town late in the evening, we made a quick stop at the grocery store.
The cashier and the customer ahead, both of whom I know, were fixated on each other in in an intense conversation. The customer had been crying. Being only a few feet away, I could not help overhearing.
She said something about babysitting and playing together, and that she was sad about how her son must be taking the news.
“You mean he lived in Dubois?” I asked, not needing to specify who I meant by “he.”
She nodded. “Before they moved to Jackson. When he was real small.”
It was Rylee’s lifelong dream to become a Marine, his father told reporters. Ever since he was 3. That number jumped out at me, of course.
One pleasure of being in this remote town is our distance from the existential crises of the world at large. We look to the mountains from whence cometh our help, but not always, not always quickly, and not for everyone.
We drove silently home. As I walked toward the door with the groceries, I heard my husband say, “I ought to put the flag at half-staff.”
Weather doomed the fly-in. But the aircraft on the ground were amazing.
On Saturday morning, the clouds hung low and heavy over Dubois. Nearly everyone around here was glad to have some rain, to dampen the risk of fires here and the haze of smoke from fires farther west. But the people at the airport weren’t so pleased.
Sadly, the weather had not been kind to Wyoming’s Third Highway Into Dubois Fly-In and Community Aviation Day.
“You should have come earlier,” said Cathy, when I reached her canopied stand. “There was quite a crowd for the pancake breakfast.” But probably the main point of the occasion was the fly-in, and under those conditions nobody would be landing at our small airport to drop by.
Silently, I wished for better luck next year, and walked on.
Inside a small hangar, a band was cheerily playing “Here Comes the Sun,” which did not seem to be the case. A few people stood nearby and chatted. Some small children carried balloon sculptures.
This facility on a plateau west of town was unfamiliar territory for me. I had come to the event mostly out of curiosity. I certainly wouldn’t sign up for flying lessons that day; my interest in aviation ends with boarding a big aircraft to get somewhere quickly, and I leave the details to the crew.
Toward the western end of the little taxiway, I saw a modestly built man pushing a tiny biplane out of a hangar, with about the same effort someone would use to wheel a Harley Davidson away from the curb. The black and white aircraft looked like it might have been pieced together from shoeboxes.
“Jungster 1” was painted on its side. It weighs 700 pounds and runs on a battery pack.
“Some old man in Ohio made it a long time ago,” Mike Cavanagh told me. After buying it and taking a short flight, Mike decided it needed to be rebuilt. He finished putting it back together last week, and won’t take it up again until it passes an inspection. He had brought it out of the hangar just to taxi around for the occasion. He let a five-year-old boy sit inside the cockpit and give his mother a thumbs-up for the camera.
The hangar behind him was jammed with somewhat larger aircraft, all painted in bright colors and as shiny as the new models in an auto dealership. One is a glider. Another is a plane made in Lithuania in 1985 that the Russians used for training.
“Quite a toybox you’ve got here,” said a man who stopped to look in.
Mike is a retired professional pilot who began flying solo at the age of 14. His wife Misty was standing inside, surrounded by the machines. She seemed a bit shy, until I asked her about the bright green and yellow plane backed into the far corner.
“This was built by the Navy for training during World War II,” Misty told me. “Mostly, the military buys aircraft from manufacturers, but this one was actually built by the Navy. It’s really cool. It’s made of material from dirigibles.”
“Almost nobody realizes that before World War II the Navy used dirigibles. They would transport Sparrowhawk planes using the dirigibles and do what they called parasite launch or landing.”
As explained by the website How Stuff Works, small biplanes would dock onto a “trapeze” hanging below the dirigible, and fly off again from this perilous platform. Why did they dream up this challenging early aircraft carrier and then dare to use it?
“Probably, we can make the leap to say the parasite aircraft launch is indicative of the mental development of that era in flight,” she said with a laugh. “There were wing walkers, people climbing out on the wing to walk to and board another plane without a parachute, and pilots willing to fly planes with some truly sketchy building techniques with notoriously unreliable engines.”
Misty proudly rattled off the other features of the N3N model behind her – the relative weighting of its nose and tail, the fact that the spar and wings are made of extruded aluminum recycled from dirigibles, that one side of the plane is made of aluminum while the other side is fabric. Why fabric? To save weight, she said. Then why aluminum on the other side? So that panels could be lifted off easily for repairs inside the body, without damaging the structure.
“Look at this,” she said, pointing out a plastic tube hanging down from the underside of the wing above the cockpit. “This is the gas gauge. You just look up to see it.”
This remark prompted Misty to reflect on the joys of piloting in the open air. “It’s so much better for training,” she said. “You can really see around, and you get a much better feel for the way the plane is responding.”
Kind of like when I drive my Miata with the top down, I suggested, rather than being inside the Rav4. Her already bright eyes flashed a bit more. “Yes, that’s right,” she said. “You can really feel the road. It’s the same thing.”
Misty grew up in Oklahoma and used to train horses, until her first husband got into flying. “I had to know what he was doing,” she said, and things took off from there.
“Airplanes are so much better than horses,” she said as we were parting. I asked why.
“You don’t want to give your horse away to someone you don’t like,” she said at first, but then decided she had spoken too quickly.
“Airplanes aren’t subjective,” she went on. “They don’t have bad days. Sure, there can be an engine failure, but that’s just mechanical. If you’ve had a bad day, an airplane won’t respond to that. There’s no mix of personalities.”
Driving away from the airport, I thought about Mike, soon to be aloft in his 700-pound toy, and Misty’s joy at sitting in the open air hundreds or thousands of feet up, feeling a large machine moving around her. I reflected on the difference between the Cavanaghs’ passion for flying and my mix of mild apprehension and indifference at the very thought of it.
Passing through the exit, I saw a hawk playing in the currents beyond the top of the slope nearby, plunging and then rising with the updraft, as if dancing.
How lovely to be able to do that, I thought. How often have I wished I could?
Of vanishing produce, disappearing pastries, locusts, picket pins, blue coyotes, and more.
I remember the day when Dubois was a sleepy little hamlet, hidden away in a peaceful mountain valley … like, last April.
Feels like that time has gone for good, along with dial telephones.
Stopping for lunch at the Lone Burrito on Thursday, I couldn’t see a single parking spot anywhere. This is extraordinary.
I found a spot by driving behind the official tourist parking area in Lamb Park and around to the gravel lot at the back of Ace Hardware. I felt very glad to be a local who knows a workaround.
This situation is not unique to Dubois this summer, as many people will tell you. All of the gateway towns near National Parks here out West are overrun. Some visitors from Alpine told me it’s just the same on the other side of Teton Pass, where different tourists are heading to flee the crowds in Jackson Hole.
I went into Superfoods on Wednesday to buy some berries and radishes. The produce shelves were nearly empty. It reminded my of my travels inside the Eastern bloc decades ago, when the Berlin Wall was still intact.
“I know what you’re planning to do with that!” laughed my friend Tammy from the cash register, when she saw me snap this photo.
“Darn right!” I said.
Tammy said the staff were completely at a loss to explain this. They received the usual shipment on Monday, and they have been ordering extra for the season. It’s as if locusts had descended.
The annual Museum Day last weekend was a roaring success. I helped out for a while serving the Indian tacos made with fry bread, which seemed just as popular as the authentic chuckwagon stew of prior years. But I soon left, because it was clear there were plenty of volunteers.
Reportedly there were also a record number of visitors. The guest count was about 500, and revenues were high.
But spooky things were going on.
The buzz around town is about the theft. Someone bought a pie at the bake sale, and asked to have it held for later. The buyer’s name was duly attached using a piece of tape, as usual, and it was stored on a table in the kitchen inside the Dennison Lodge. When he or she returned for the pie, it had disappeared.
“I was very disappointed,” said Mary Lou, who ran the bake sale. “People in Dubois don’t do things like that.” (I ran that bake sale for several years, and I can agree.)
Maybe Dubois people don’t, but there are other suspects. Mary Lou told me that she kept having to shoo the same fat and persistent “picket pin” (AKA ground squirrel, genus Citellus) out of the bake sale prep area inside the Dennison. Finally she gave up, closed the door, and put up a sign that said something like “Please come in. Picket pins not welcome.”
Perhaps the picket pin brought some buddies and dragged the pie away after hours. I wouldn’t put it past them. (Like the tourists, they seem to be around in record numbers this year.)
An unsubstantiated rumor (we specialize in these in Dubois) regards a different bake-sale purchase, a plate of pastries. Reportedly someone substituted a different kind of bar for the brownies, leaving the rest of the plate intact. I can’t imagine blaming the picket pins for that.
In other news:
The Perch is closed this weekend. They’re not saying why, but my guess is Sheila and family are taking a well-deserved break. This proved a good opportunity to try out one of the two new options that have shown up to relieve the shock to our caffeine-addicted system.
The face in the top image belongs to Monica Furman, who serves it up with a smile at the Dubois branch of Pinedale-based Pine Coffee Supply. The truck is parked beside the new fly fishing shop across from the Black Bear Inn, which is owned by her in-laws.
Monica, a wedding planner by profession, grew up in Arizona. She and her husband didn’t expect to find full-time work in Dubois, but he landed a job as the manager at Nana’s Bowling and Bakery (soon to open). She found the coffee job, and now they’re here to stay.
The lower image shows the new tiny-house version of the former coffee shop called Coyote Blue, which closed at the start of the pandemic. That’s its familiar logo to the right of the window.
Ali’s trailer is parked in front of Never Sweat Lodge, just west of the Super 8. She’s serving her signature breakfast sandwiches again, just as she did at her previous location. (You can’t see her here because I snapped this picture late in the day, when the truck was closed.)
Another Dubois rumor holds that Joe Brandl has sold his shop. This I can confirm.
I caught that wonderful guy in town yesterday, spraying weed killer outside the shop. We haven’t seen much of Joe since he moved over to Crowheart, and his talk turned quickly to haying — not antiques and animal hides.
There will be a closeout sale in the fall, Joe told me, and probably a tag sale out back afterwards, for what hasn’t sold up front. (Clean out your storage sheds, Dubois! This is your chance.)
He also confirmed that the buyer is his son. Joe has no idea what is planned for the space.
So why is that big For Sale sign still out there? “I haven’t gotten around to taking it down,” he said with one of his smiles–and then he offered to sell it to me.
Which of this news is good, or bad, and which is scary? It’s a matter of opinion — and there are plenty of those in Dubois, any time of year.