How Google Came to Love Dubois (Too)

The real action behind the great Eclipse Megamovie took place right here.

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MegamovieCapture12We knew beforehand that a Google team was coming to Dubois to watch the Eclipse. But only weeks afterwards, when I saw their video on YouTube, did I hear what I had thought was too good to be true.

Our hometown was actually the base of operations for the great Eclipse Mega-Movie project.

Thousands of people around the country took pictures during the total eclipse, and Google has melded them all into one video. The eclipse images submitted by volunteers will offer astronomers unprecedented views of the corona, the edge of the sun, that will vastly increase our knowledge about the sun’s activity.

But the real action took place right here.

“It was part happenstance, part location,” project manager Calvin Johnson told me today. “We were looking for a place that was on totality, where the weather was predicted to be good and where we could hang out beforehand and not spend a lot of time getting ready.” It was important to be in one place in case something went wrong.

MegamovieCapture45But they also wanted to watch the eclipse together in just the right location, “not so much for the project as for the experience,” said astronomer Laura Peticolas of University of California-Berkeley, one of those who dreamed up the project in the first place. (That’s Johnson and Peticolas in the image, watching with wonder from the top of the Scenic Overlook, as totality was fading.)

Lucky for Dubois (and for Google), just as the Google team began looking for the right location, Lisa Bivens was opening the newly remodeled Chinook Winds Motel, and was hoping to fill all the rooms during Eclipse Week. She had the initiative to reach out to astronomers by emailing places like NASA and Sky & Telescope Magazine. The listing made it into an astronomy listserve, where another member of the Google team saw it.

So they took over the entire motel: An engineer, an astronomer, the project manager, some camera operators, a few undergraduates, and some family members. The team stayed in constant contact with engineers at Google’s offices in Mountain View CA during the eclipse, checking to make sure the pictures were uploading and formatting properly and dealing with any technical issues.

If you haven’t done so already, do log onto YouTube and set aside 15 minutes to watch “Chasing Totality: Making the 2017 Eclipse Megamovie,” if only for some of the best images of the total eclipse crossing our valley. About 90,000 other people have already seen it, and they have had a huge dose of what’s wonderful about our town.

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They hear Johnson describing it as a “tiny little cowboy town” about an hour from Jackson, and see Jeda welcoming visitors with her customary enthusiasm. “We still have that old-West mentality of everybody’s welcome at the campfire,” Monte says, and you see him at his piano. Twila talks about the Eclipse as an exciting time for the town.

Meanwhile, the team sits around a campfire. You see some of them throwing horseshoes.

To tell the truth, they actually spent much of their time scouting for locations before settling on the obvious: the top of the Overlook. Some of them went to the Museum. A few rode the jackalope. They all went to the rodeo.  Peticolas called it “amazing, so crazy!” She said she had worried a lot for the riders, but then she added, “I guess they sign up for this.”

The team also drove across the pass to the Tetons, which gave everyone a chance to see more of what we love about our location.

MegamovieCapture44I asked Johnson whether the ride over from Denver had been boring, after he got this side of Rawlins. “It may be boring for you-all that live there,” he replied, “but it was beautiful for all of us. Much more beautiful than Boston [where he lives and works]. I would love to spend unlimited time there.”

“I fell in love with Dubois,” said Peticolas, “the painted hills, the valley, the beautiful mountains. It was so serene at the time of the eclipse.” A “small-town” girl who grew up in Oregon and spent several years in Alaska, she describes her current home town of San Francisco as “all cement and cars.” She says she will definitely return to explore more around Dubois.

“I can’t imagine having found a better place,” she added. “There are a handful of places I want to go back to. Dubois is one.”

© 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.

Why Orange Became My New Black

I enjoyed the venison and elk burgers. I ignored the contradiction.

camovestsIt’s time to wear orange when we hike: Me in my vest and the dog in his kerchief.

It’s that season again. On the highway, pickups now outnumber the huge RVs from out of state. I’ve begun to hear rifle practice in the distance once in a while. The bow hunters have gone up into the hills.

When autumn comes around, I’ve learned, many of my friends will be away for a while. For them, this is not negotiable. Everyone understands.

Everyone except me, that is. Much as I love tramping around in the wilderness, I’ve found it difficult to relate to this custom of going out into the woods, tracking animals down, and killing one.

As the child of two teachers in a Midwestern city, hunting was never part of my experience. I lived for a while in England after my marriage. Over there, I thought of hunting as something done by the nobility (whom I never met), chasing a fox while riding horses (which I had never done).

At the sound of the word “hunting,” I reacted instinctively with disapproval, as if someone had tapped my knee with a hammer.

Then, much later, we moved to Dubois. I made many good friends here–earnest, deeply moral people. Some of them, I soon learned, go out hunting every fall.

As I enjoyed venison and elk burgers, I didn’t spend time thinking about the contradiction–any more than I have thought much afterwards about a conversation with a vegan who discussed the living conditions of the animals that provide the eggs and milk I buy at Superfoods.

There are cattle right over there in the valley out my window. I am aware that they are future steaks. But I wouldn’t want to shoot one or extract the meat. We all choose our own moral imperatives, and this one just doesn’t run very deep with me, one way or another.

Lucas6And I’m very interested in the people who were hunting here as early as people arrived here in the first place. I’ve hiked up to the remains of ancient hunter’s blinds. I’ve visited sheep traps where they presumably bludgeoned wild sheep for their tribe’s dinner.

I’ve heard the artist and historian Tom Lucas describe his decades of effort learning to make some of the swiftest and strongest bows ever made, just the way the native Shoshone must have done it, from bighorn sheep horns.

That’s him in the picture, talking to some bow-hunters who were deeply interested in his craft and skill. Until we moved to Dubois, I had no idea that many people still hunt wild game with bows.

I can’t imagine the skill involved in taking down a huge elk with a mere bow and arrow of any kind. But I’ve come to understand that the passion goes much deeper than mere sport.

“It’s the challenge,” Michael said when I asked him why he enjoys hunting. “I mean, I go way, way up into the wilderness — above 10,000 feet. I set up my little camp, with the tent and the PVC tube running out from a stream for my drinking water.

“It’s wonderful. When I’m out there I don’t see another soul. I don’t even care if it snows. You can’t imagine how many elk I see, huge ones, dozens of them. Until the last day, I just let them pass, because I don’t want to have to go back down earlier.”

gorgeI like the way his eyes crinkle when he smiles.

“So it’s the mountain man thing?” I asked. “The survival?”

“Well, not just that. You know, my grandfather was a commercial hunter. I must have been 4 when I shot my first quail. This goes way back for me.”

So there’s a strong element of family tradition and nostalgia as well. I can relate to that; it’s just not my history.

Also, he actually needs the meat. Like so many here, Michael is in a seasonal business, and his wages don’t come in year-round. Just like the ancient Shoshone, many local hunters are going out to put food on the table. But Michael mentioned that reason last.

“So how do you get up there?” I asked. “Do you go in a four-wheeler?”

“Naw,” he scoffed. “I walk. I love the walk.”

Now that I can relate to.

© 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 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.

Tiny Dubois Shines Through the Great Eclipse

How we conquered the Eclipse invaders

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The emotion was just the same as I had felt while being wheeled into the operating room. This is real. This will happen. This is not just some story we have been telling.
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Would our village triple in size during Eclipse weekend? Would 10,000 people turn up, diverted from Yellowstone? Would nobody come after all? We would shrug our shoulders. Who could say? But we worked so hard to make it a great visit. Only a few dozen turned up on Friday to hear local amateur historian Steve Banks describe how to live like a mountain man.
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But they were clearly captivated, as he loaded and fired an antique rifle and then started a flame, right before their eyes, using nothing more than flakes of rock and dried grass.
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The crowd had grown by Saturday. Tom Lucas had an attentive audience as he told how the ancient Shoshone must have used bighorn sheep horns to make their legendary bows, using water from hot springs and stone tools. Or so he thinks. Nobody knows for sure. They left no records or direct descendants to tell us how. “I never meant to become a bow maker, but somehow I did” said Tom, who is skilled at making Native American crafts but better known for his oil paintings. (The town had run out of folding chairs, so his listeners sat on hay bales and cardboard. Nobody seemed to mind.)
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Meanwhile in the background, the joyful but unfamiliar noise of many children playing at once. The Kiddie Karnival sponsored by the Boys & Girls Club was a brilliant plan to please parents and children who had so many hours to kill while waiting for the Big Event.
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The flow of car traffic passing through town was steady. I actually had to wait several minutes to make a left turn off the highway. But the classic car show had only a handful of entries, and viewers were few. We are a very tiny town, I thought. We’ve done the best we can to amuse you. We are who we are, and proud of it.
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But tempers were also frayed, and old rivalries emerged. This was probably inevitable. We were already exhausted when it came time to set up for the concert, which would take place on that big stage at left. No instructions came along with this huge canopy! We spent a long time figuring out the geometry, then had to take it all apart again to fit the hooks for the canopy into the right little holes! Then we moved it back and forth, unsure where it was supposed to stand. One of the event planners had a family emergency, and disappeared.
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Meanwhile a bomb scare was taking place nearby, when a cameraman from the Google Megamovie Project left his equipment (complete with battery and timer) unattended in the park. Here, the other planner was shouting at the volunteers: “Alternate the Honda banners with the Chance Phelps banners, one per section! Not too low! Make them straight!” I took her aside for a moment, forced her to stand still, and ordered her to breathe deeply from the base of her abdomen out the top of her head, three times. She smiled. We will survive this! Really we will.
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Only a few hundred people turned up to hear our great local guitarist Mike Dowling on Saturday evening, not the thousand we had been hoping for. Some of them seemed to be leaving during the break. I had to leave too, because our relatives from out of state had arrived, so I missed Sarah Darling. Everyone obviously enjoyed the music, but I ached. My muscles ached, sure, but I ached more for those who would have to take everything down afterwards while I was having dinner with family. And the question remained: Where is everybody?
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The answer dawned on me Sunday morning, during this hike in the badlands with my niece. A few people did enjoy the events we had worked so hard to plan. But many more chose to enjoy the entertainments Mother Nature has been providing for visitors long before we arrived. She blessed us during the Eclipse week: The skies were gloriously clear throughout. Our family did not attend any events in town. They went mushroom hunting on Union Pass, which was packed with people out dry camping. Other relatives drove toward Yellowstone, hoping to see bison. Some folks in this picture enjoyed parasailing over our badlands.
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The big day arrived, clear and cheery. Nobody was trying to park on the side of the highway as I closed the gate behind my car, so the dire predictions of hordes descending from Yellowstone had proved false. I raced to town to help Scott arrange the sound system for our expert speaker from NASA, Craig Tupper. Craig was already speaking when I arrived, without benefit of technology. Both he and the eclipse watchers, of course, had arrived early.
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Others chose to skip the play-by-play in favor of a higher elevation. But the view was great from either vantage point.
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So what’s he going to say? I wondered beforehand. “It’s 10% now. There you go, it’s 15%!” But Craig was fascinating. He talked about the shadow bands and the corona. He told why it didn’t make sense to try to take pictures (though people did). He talked about his cross-country cycle trip. He answered many questions. He joked around.
Dubois WY Eclipse
Here, people are watching for shadow bands on a white sheet, as Craig had suggested, as totality approached. (Can you see how the bright sky has begun to dim?) The bands we saw undulating all over that rocky ground were even more eerie.
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A crew from the NBC TV station in Salt Lake City turned up to film the total eclipse from Dubois. Here, the camera turned on Craig.
Dubois WY total eclipse 2017 Craig Tupper
He had realized that he’d been talking about the partial eclipse but never looking. So he paused, put on the glasses, and looked skyward. For all his expertise, he seems just as awed as the rest of us.
Dubois WY total eclipse 2017
“Can you feel a chill?” someone asked. And the sky began to darken. At first, I think we were quiet.
Dubois WY total eclipse 2017
It’s not possible to describe the quality of the light at totality. It’s like twilight, but not really. It seemed much darker than this as I was wandering over the uneven ground, hoping to capture people’s reactions on camera. All around me, I could hear them. Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable. Wowwwww. Amazing! I was probably saying these things myself.
Dubois WY total eclipse 2017
We had barely two minutes of totality. Somehow it seemed longer. It was startling how quickly the light re-emerged. And then it was over.
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The rest of my family were watching from the top of Table Mountain, where the view is spectacular but the viewing point is difficult to reach. I think it rivals the Grand Canyon. I took this shot a week earlier, while we were scoping out the location.
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I suppose this permanent resident of Table Mountain and his relatives went underground for the Big Event.

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At last, we could all exhale. For a day or two after the Eclipse, the stream of cars passing through in both directions was almost uninterrupted. The restaurants in town were still packed. I took the dog and escaped to one of our familiar hikes. As we walked back toward the car, I had to stop often and pull the dog aside to let the departing campers come past, on their way down from Union Pass. I waved each time, smiled, and gave a thumbs up. Everyone seemed to have a great time. And we survived intact.

© 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.

Ordeals, Ideals, and What We Stand For

What’s so special about Dubois? One Saturday in the Park tells it all.

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Here’s the start of a great day in Dubois. I came home at the end of it, full of good feelings, and then read the news about today’s violence at the white-supremacy rally in Charlottesville VA. “This is not what I fought for,” wrote someone on Twitter, “and not what America stands for.” I had been thinking how blessed we are to be far away from so many troubles. We have fires and floods and landslides, but we are spared this kind of hate. Quite the opposite, in fact.
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Here, runners set off toward the grueling 5-mile obstacle course, up the steep and dusty road to the Scenic Overlook, climbing barriers and tromping through muddy ditches. It’s the annual Run4Chance competition sponsored by the Chance Phelps Foundation, in honor of a 19-year-old Marine who gave the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq in 2004.
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There were so many themes I was going to write about today! For starters, how strong we are. Here are some friends, Mary and Larry, smiling after they finished the 5K run/walk race. They didn’t win; they were just glad to have run. My neighbors toss hay bales and ride bucking broncos. They hike for many miles to see wildflowers in the mountains. “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” read the message on the back of one T-shirt. If it’s tough, painful, or sad, they say, cowboy up. Turn out for the race to honor the memory of Chance Phelps.
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Or I was going to talk about our culture of service. We wear ourselves out, week after week, creating fun events like this, and always for a cause. It seems like nothing entertaining happens in Dubois that isn’t being done for a very good reason. Here are Jeda and Callie, who work tirelessly to make a good life for the children in Dubois, as they wait for competitors to return. The Run4Chance races fund getaway weekends for veterans.
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Gradually, the obstacle course runners began to return–exhausted and muddy, but hardly defeated–to mount the last few challenges before the finish line.
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Here’s my friend Sara, crossing the last obstacle but one, smiling as always (but you can’t see that). She won the women’s division in the obstacle race.
Dignitaries
Cleaned up and now quiet, we regrouped this afternoon only a few yards from that finish line to honor Chance Phelps and all the veterans from town. Chance was only one of them, but he has come to represent a culture of public service that is woven into the fabric of the community. These dignitaries (US Senator Mike Enzi, Mayor Twila Blakeman, our Wyoming Representative Tim Salazar, and Randy Lahr, head of the Chamber of Commerce) spoke at today’s dedication of the new Veterans Memorial in our Town Park.
EagleScouts Monument
Culminating the 15-year effort to create the Memorial was the project of our newest three Eagle Scouts. Their names will certainly appear soon on this older memorial, not far from the new one they have created. Funded by local charities including the VFW and the Volunteer Fire Department, the Veterans Memorial was “completely constructed by the effort and generosity of our incredible town,” said Lahr at the dedication.
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A bagpiper played “Amazing Grace,” while some men in the crowd took off their hats. When have we ever heard this haunting sound in Dubois?
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There was a rifle salute, and a poignant rendition of Taps by two trumpeters, echoing each other from opposite sides of the Memorial.
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Finally, the US flag was raised. The piper started up again, and walked slowly off toward the river, the sound of his dirge gradually dying away as he moved off.
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“They say this town of a thousand people can do anything a town of 10,000 people can do,” the Mayor had said as she opened the ceremony.  I wonder how many towns of 10,000 would even have thought to do this. Senator Enzi took up the point: “I wonder if there are any towns of 100,000 that have a Memorial as good as this, created without any Federal dollars.”
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Then we lined up only a few feet farther west for the annual Buffalo Barbecue, a not-to-be-missed event always held this weekend in August in the Town Park. It’s the annual fund-raiser for those others who serve by putting themselves in harm’s way on our behalf: the volunteer firefighters.
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It’s a most serious commitment in Dubois. These volunteers not only protect our homes, they are first into the forest, protecting our precious part of paradise.
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Today they served us in a different way.
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As we were leaving, I recognized the dark-skinned man sitting on the ground at left. I spoke with him at the Post Office yesterday, where he was mailing some packages to himself. “I’m guessing you’re a hiker,” I said, and asked where he was from. He said he really doesn’t have any fixed address right now. I asked where he was heading, and again he didn’t exactly say. “I hope you’ve been having a good time here,” I said this evening, and he smiled and nodded, pointing at his buffalo burger. He seems to want to be alone, and nobody here would want to hassle him as he sat quietly minding his own business. As the NAACP tweeted today, fear doesn’t live here.

© 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.

Wyoming to Africa: The Workday of a Health Information Specialist

At a remote ranch in the US West, helping Africa share its medical research.

Thanks to Julia Royall for this guest blog, part of a series about people who work remotely from Dubois.

Before first light, as I am just beginning my day in Wyoming, my colleagues in East Africa are about to end theirs.  After a first quick cup of tea, I scurry to respond to email messages. Or I take a quick look in the mirror and make the necessary adjustments to ready myself for a video meeting convened by Ernie, our project assistant based in Seattle.  In attendance: Me, in Wyoming, my coworker Becky in Maryland, and our colleagues in Africa.

They are medical librarians in Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Mali–part of a network that has developed important projects, from an electronic training manual to a health information center for Masai people in Kenya.  Currently, they are creating an African Digital Health Library, an online repository of indigenous research, so that people anywhere who want to know about health care research in Africa can find out what has already been done on location.

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My role, for the past 25 years, has been as a facilitator. Starting in 1990 as part of a team enabling some of the sub-Sahara’s first access to the Internet and electronic health information, I have been lifting up African voices by any means possible, to present their scientific findings, their health priorities, and their proposals for new solutions to old scourges — malaria, AIDS, and TB — as well as the chronic diseases of cancer, hypertension, and diabetes.

Today, I’m working with Masimba, a young medical librarian in Zimbabwe whose library features a strong collection.  He is working to build a digital repository joining libraries around his country—and even a mobile app—that will allow worldwide sharing of research in Zimbabwe and Ministry of Health reports, priorities, and guidelines.

Of course, my work isn’t all online. Often I travel from Wyoming to Africa. At the Sheraton Hotel in Uganda, when the security guard at the gate leans into my car to ask my driver who I am, Moses says simply, “Figure 1.” The guard lets us through without a word.

I’m not sure how this code got started, but “Figure 1” is the guard code of a security firm in Kampala. It means either “white woman” or “all is well.” That says a lot about privilege, a concept I have struggled with my entire career of working and sometimes living in Africa. No matter how I cut the cake, I am a seemingly wealthy white woman from the West. The term Figure 1 presumes that as a white female, I could probably do no harm or make too many waves. It is a sign of impotent privilege.

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I was born and bred on the gentle marshes of Charleston, South Carolina, where I first came to appreciate a transported African culture through the Gullah people of the Lowcountry. I now find myself watching the wide sky from a ranch just outside of Dubois.

My husband’s mother bought properties here over 50 years ago (Spring Ranch, where we live, and Ring Lake Ranch, where she started an ecumenical retreat center), when she left the East forever and became a pastor in an even smaller town nearby.  After years of travel and interesting work in research and policy, we too, have left the high-gear life of the East coast to make Dubois our full-time base.

Here, we can watch the badlands turn various shades of red and then fade to silhouette as night begins to fall.  Remote rural silent sunsets here in Wyoming are equal in brilliance to those I’ve seen in African countries, but there is a major difference.

Although both sunsets herald the end of day, the nights are different. In Dubois, night is blessedly silent, and usually domed with a cascade of stars.

The night sky in Uganda is also lit, but with the lights of night life in cities or fireflies in the village. The nights in Africa have a sense of urgency and action and possibility.

Africa is not the “dark continent” many still believe it to be (as evidenced by all the fly-by health mission trips and schools of “global health” that have sprung up with development dollars and under-employed graduate students from the US). If we really believed that African countries had potential, we would be supporting their capacity and their own health priorities, sharing all of our glitzy tools, rather than engaging in “development tourism” and neo-colonial research.

From the serene location of Dubois, using the Internet, I will continue to do all I can to help them move their own projects forward.

Julia Royall retired from her position as chief of the Office of International Programs at the US National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine. She continues to work as a health information specialist from Dubois.