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.
As I wrote last time, it’s difficult to adjust when suddenly daylight begins disappearing before dinner.
November was unseasonably cold, snowy, and depressing. I couldn’t imagine why I ever said winters here are beautiful.
Then, after we flew south to spend the holidays with family, on Christmas morning I came down with the virus I had caught from the five-year-old. The test showed it wasn’t COVID, but it was awful anyway. The cough lasted forever.
Even after returning home, when I felt better physically, I was not well in spirit. Nothing seemed worth the effort any more.
“Come on,” said my husband one evening. “Get out of this post-viral depression. Pull up your socks.”
The next morning, I not only pulled up my socks but put on extra layers before leaving for a meeting in Lander. I wasn’t looking forward to the drive: Dubois had little snow, but everywhere down-county past Crowheart had been dumped on the previous day.
Not a great day for travel in a Wyoming winter. Would drifts block the road? Would I get trapped or need to turn around? I made sure I had blankets, water, and snacks in the car. I allowed extra time, switched on the seat heater, and set off, hoping for the best.
The road was dry as I passed the red rocks. Climbing past the curves, where the highway straightens, I began to cross patches of snow, but the surface wasn’t bad. I felt safe enough to turn the cruise control on.
The highway was empty. Here and there, a few horses stood motionless at fences, waiting for their hay. As I drove, even I wasn’t moving bodily, thanks to cruise control. It felt as if my car was the only movement in a vast, flat channel of white enclosed by distant walls of mountain. I could almost see the silence.
Crossing that corner of the Reservation, I thought: This is part of the small parcel of land we gave back after taking so much more. Suddenly the smooth jazz I was hearing felt wrong, so I loaded a CD by Carlos Nakai, who plays Native American flute on a background of haunting symphonic harmonies.
Just right for a stranger in a now-familiar land. I sat back and enjoyed the sights and the sound.
Rising up from the valley after I turned right where the highways divide, I came to that long stretch across the plain that leads to Lander. This was where I most feared that dangerous or impassible drifts might rise as uninterrupted winds swept the soft snow across the highway.
But the air was still, and the road nearly clear. The only other vehicles I met were snowplows.
The sky ahead, beneath a layer of clouds, loomed softly pink and blue on the horizon. Beside the highway, the white of snow was dappled with the black-green of distant sagebrush and the beige of dried grass. On one side, low hills billowed gently beyond the wide fields. The magnificent Wind River Range rose on the other.
So silent, so beautiful, and I was alone to see it. My apprehension gave way to a sense of calm, and of healing.
Slowing before the small square houses at Fort Washakie, I wondered what life is like for the people who live there. Sharing a heritage of conflict, we certainly see the world from different perspectives. But there is one other thing that we share, I thought. We love this land. We arrived here by different routes. But it sustains us all.
Driving home later, I listened to a CD of Beethoven’s Ninth that our son gave us for Christmas. It was quite a different kind of symphonic harmony than Nakai, hardly as evocative in this landscape. But the long drive was a good opportunity to enjoy the gift.
As I turned down the switchbacks and passed the red rocks again, heading west toward home, Beethoven’s symphony was also nearing its conclusion. The sopranos kept repeating the same refrain, at a pitch that the deaf composer no longer realized that no human voice can reach without strain.
“Alle menschen werden Brüder,” they shrieked at me, over and over.
All people will be brothers. A very lofty idea, I said to the ghost of the deaf, depressed Beethoven who had basically chosen those as his last words to humanity.
Maybe, I added, but maybe not. Always worth a try, though.
It had been a very good meeting in Lander. I arrived home with my sense of hope and purpose restored.
I knew it was not the meeting or the music that had lifted my spirits. It was the drive.
Horses are motionless in the sunless cold. You’ll have to pump the brakes. A stillness descends.
For better or worse, no red wave has splashed across our land. Instead, we have a white one.
As mere ordinary mortals, we can’t control the weather any more than we can control political events. With apps, we can watch a snowstorm coming on days earlier than we can see the leaden cloud bank looming on the horizon, and they are usually better at forecasts than the political pundits.
Still, somehow, the storm comes as a surprise.
Then the reminders begin. The cotton knit gloves just will not do any longer. You cannot just get up and go these days, because it will take far longer to get ready and also longer to arrive. You turn onto the highway to meet shiny, hard-packed snow, and you cannot quickly trust your sense of the road. You will drive 50 or less rather than 70, brake well before any curve, and pump your brakes gently long before you intend to stop.
In the valley below, horses stand motionless in the field, saving their energy in the cold, waiting to be fed. A stillness descends.
“Here we go again,” said the clerk at Super Foods, looking out the plate glass window. Rather, here we stay again.
The mountain pass closes for the day. You call friends who live alone to ask if they need anything. We won’t be packing in for the entire season as the homesteaders did back then, but we will surely spend more time indoors now, in COVID-like isolation.
Darkness falls in late afternoon now. Just at the time of day when I felt busiest and most alive a few weeks ago, I wonder how soon I should go to bed.
The houses of Congress will be deadlocked again. The longstanding Town Council member has won the election, and everything will go on (or remain dormant) as before.
Back East the road crews would spray salt, and the snow on streets would melt to slush. Here they spread dirt. As I drive facing a scene of endless white and gray, the fragrance of fresh soil rises up through the ventilation system, bringing with it the incongruous memory of digging in the flower bed with my trowel.
I waited too long to cut down the hollyhocks. They stand there festooned with snow, looking as ridiculous as dowagers who can no longer see well enough to apply their own eyeliner. Another day, I will have to put on heavy gloves and a scarf and shower myself with snow to carry them away.
Will I take advantage of all those extra hours indoors, working by lamplight to accomplish great new things? Probably not. I sense that we will watch old movies by the fire, eat popcorn, and go to bed early.
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.
News from a remote region of North England that resonates with home
While relaxing with a beer after a long hike in England’s Yorkshire Dales, I picked up a copy of the Reeth & District Gazette. What I read was so similar to what goes on back home that I can’t resist sharing it.
Otherwise, the scene is quite different there. The buildings are made mostly of rough-cut stone, and most fields are lined with high stone walls. The thought of the strength and effort required for all that construction with native stone was mind-boggling.
Most of the livestock are sheep, not cattle. Because public rights of way cut right across the meadows (crossing those stone walls with very cumbersome stiles), most hikes lead directly through flocks of grazing ewes and their winsome lambs. All but the bravest lambs skitter off as you approach. The ewes shift a few feet away, if at all.
Cows are still fairly rare. Back in the day when farming rather than tourism dominated the economy, it was an unavoidable but costly requirement to keep one or two cows (never mind a whole herd).
Small stone barns dot the landscape, “cow houses” built to protect that valuable investment from the elements. Some of these structures are now falling to ruin. Others are renovated for use as studios or vacation rentals.
That’s the setting. Here’s the news from the Gazette:
Editor Mike Barden begins the edition by writing sadly of the pandemic, and fretting about impact of the subsequent “frightening price increases” on anyone “just starting out into their own world” as well as on single mums and pensioners. Then he mentions the horrors in the Ukraine and the heroism there that has “so far averted WW3.”
“Can you believe what I have just written about in those sentences?” he adds. “Matters we would have never expected to happen.”
The other articles, interspersed between the small ads, are reassuringly provincial, kindhearted, and oddly reminiscent. To wit:
— The Dales Police report for March consisted of one incident of violence, 2 each of criminal damage, burglary and drugs possession, 4 reports of theft and 5 complaints of fraud (the latter mostly involving phone scams related to Amazon and Ebay). On March 8, an unknown male took 2 bottles of Jack Daniels from the Co-op in Leyburn. Someone stole cooking oil from a pub in Wensley.
— A Community Emergency Plan is being enacted to retrieve “vulnerable people” from their homes in times of power outages or natural disasters and deliver them to community centers for shelter. This is necessary to avoid “long periods of waiting in case the Emergency Services are delayed and cannot arrive promptly.”
— Volunteers are working fast to create new nesting boxes for swifts, swallows, and house martins. The options for suitable nesting spots (“nooks and crannies in cavity walls in buildings, empty barns and window alcoves”) have been declining, presumably due to development. A box-building class is on offer, and contractors are being asked to incorporate nesting sites into new structures “subject to consent.” A bird count is also under way.
— Members of SWAAG (the Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group) have been pondering the origins of a large cross-shaped formation of white pebbles recently discovered on Calver Hill, oriented roughly to the north. Information from Google Maps and the (US) National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, pertaining to the deviation of magnetic north over the past 300-plus years, suggests that the stones were laid in 1945 or 1946. It could be some sort of memorial. The US and UK Royal Air Forces used the area for flight practice back then, but there is no record of a plane crash. The cross remains a mystery.
— In April, Swaledale Mountain Rescue (a team of “highly trained volunteers available 24/7 in any weather, any time”) assisted: (1) an injured hiker near the waterfall above Hawes, who was able to walk out after treatment; (2) a “vulnerable person” who had gone missing after being last seen at the visitor center, and was located with the help of a police helicopter and two search dogs; and (3) an injured mountain biker who was treated and then removed by ambulance.
Swaledale Mountain Rescue is offering to mail prints of the drawing “Sheep at Thea’s Cottage” to people who donate money to the cause.
— The huge, ancient Scots pine in Holy Trinity church yard in Low Row has to be removed because it is leaning dangerously eastward after surviving decades of high winds. The church plans to plant other trees to compensate. (Can’t you hear the grumbling from parishioners and neighbors? Something could have been done!) New trees will be planted to compensate for its loss.
— The Dales also have “badlands.” An expert from the Yorkshire Peat Partnership was scheduled to give an online talk about the restoration of three “moors that are close to her heart” — what might have caused them to degrade, the likely consequences for wildlife and water quality, and what could be done to restore them.
On May 21, a ”Peat and Poetry Event” will contemplate the same matters during a 5-6 mile trek on a nearby moor. There will also be recitals of poems about peat and a visit to the Poetry Postbox. Walkers are encouraged to contribute their own poems to the box.
The Dales are not my landscape, but I loved them anyway. I also love the way the people care about them – and about the strangers who choose to wander across them, and about each other. And about the wildlife.
“This pub has almost as much character as the Rustic,” said my husband, as he sat down with my pint of bitters and his Guiness. We were in Bodmin, a town in Cornwall, on a vacation to England that has been long postponed due to COVID.
Three blokes sat on a bench a few feet away, joking, sharing beer and stories. The aged ranchmen in the Rustic swap memories too, but they sit on high stools at the bar.
“Well, I’d better get along,” said one of the men, while showing no sign of an intention to move. “Time to go home and kiss the dog and kick the wife.” One of the others said something too quiet to hear, and he replied that he didn’t really want to kiss the dog.
I couldn’t resist a chuckle, and he noticed. One joy of traveling in a country where you know the language is being able to get the jokes.
Leaning back, I noticed the flintlocks hanging from the ceiling beams, not on the walls as the rifles do at the Rustic. There was no line of cowboy hats behind the bar.
Cornwall was a Wild West of its own, once a land of outlaws as surely as the cowboy country in America. These outlaws were pirates and smugglers, some of whom lured ships to founder on the rocky coastline in order to plunder their cargo.
It’s the land of the hero Poldark and the villain Joss Merlyn, the brutal landlord of Jamaica Inn on the heights of Bodmin Moor. The Inn, which really exists, was the setting of a novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, which Alfred Hitchcock made into an ominous movie.
It’s an odd name for a hotel in the middle of Cornwall, perhaps given because its founder was a sea-captain who sailed to Jamaica. In the novel, the miscreant Merlyn has bought the Inn, let it fall to ruin, and turned it into a derelict storage space for smugglers’ booty. We are staying there now, as the base for our visit to Cornwall.
It’s charming and rather kitschy today, but DuMaurier made it seem wonderfully sinister in the book. (Do you like the picture? I caught it after sundown.) We are reading the novel to each other in our bright and comfortable room or in the bar, which is dark but hardly scary.
“Jamaica’s got a bad name,” says the coach driver who delivers the heroine, Mary Yellen, to the Inn. “Respectable folk don’t go to Jamaica anymore. That’s all I know. … They’re afraid.”
(Whenever we read the heroine’s name, Mary Yellen, I’m amused to be interrupted with the thought of a dear friend back home: Mary Ellen.)
Mary Yellen clearly finds the landscape forbidding as she approaches in the coach. “On either side of the road the country stretched interminably into space,” du Maurier wrote. “No trees, no lanes, no cottages or hamlet, but mile upon mile of bleak moorland, dark and untraversed, rolling like a desert land to some unseen horizon.”
Sounds rather like that country I love, the miles between Lander and Rawlins. Of course, out there we do have Jeffrey City which might be called a “hamlet”.
This is highway A30 that passes Jamaica Inn today. The modern road, now a divided highway, must generally follow the route of the old “high road” that passed the Inn in the 1820s, when the novel was set. As in Dubois now, there would have been only one proper highway in the entire area.
DuMaurier describes that land as fearsomely forbidding. “No human being could live in this wasted country, thought Mary, and remain like other people; the very children would be born twisted, like the blackened shrubs of broom, bent by the force of a wind that never ceased … Their minds would be twisted too, their thoughts evil, dwelling as they must amid … granite, harsh heather, and crumbling stone.”
A wind that never ceased. Granite and crumbling stone. Twisted minds.
Oh, my …
While some of the land has since become farm fields, the higher elevations of the moor surrounding the Inn remain isolated and desolate. We have hiked some of it. The high parts of the landscape are as rugged as the badlands back home, but in a different way. I loved it. Perhaps my mind is twisted.
Unlike Wyoming, this is wet country, and there are warnings in the guidebooks about sinking into bogs or marshes on lower ground. There’s a framed picture in the Inn of a young man who disappeared while hiking on the moor in the 1930s.
It’s been dry here lately, but we took the advice in the guidebooks and stayed to the high ground. That can have its perils too. I nearly foundered when a sudden gust of wind tried to knock me sideways on the rocky ground in this picture.
As on hikes back home, we passed prehistoric relics — stone circles and stone path markers.
We saw abandoned mines and clambered up to high outcrops of granite.
We also had charming encounters on the moor. We scared up many shaggy, rustic sheep accompanied by their gamboling lambs.
Wild mares wander the moors, followed closely by their foals.
That sight was endearing, but not thrilling like the encounter with a herd of horses from CM Ranch that a hiking buddy and I saw while walking up the road toward Three Lakes, shortly before I left for England.
Unlike the ponies on Bodmin Moor, they did not wander off in another direction. They stood silently and watched us from the ridge, unafraid, and then galloped down the slope ahead.
They weren’t wild horses, of course, but they were literally running wild.
Both times, the sight of the horses free and loose made me catch my breath and stop.
It’s strange, I texted to my hiking buddy back in Wyoming, to feel I am both at home and in a different world.
Musings and images about winter, which is slow to yield …
Winter has come just as the calendar ordered up spring. Days are longer but just as cold.
After teasing us for a few days, Mother Nature blessed us with snow here at the base of the mountain, day after day. (I write “blessed” because we need the precipitation to avoid drought.)
We wish this had happened a while ago.
However, this does give me occasion to share some new poems by my dear friend Mary Ellen Honsaker, who enjoys playing with haiku. Wherever you are reading this, and whatever your weather, I hope you enjoy them.
A bird, refugee in my cold stove this morning, bursts in, illegal
seeking warmth he came only to find dark passage to a strange prison
escape to windows keeping him from sky beyond, settled down at last
we spoke, quiet chirps understanding only voice that sought to ease fear
caught with soft tossed cloth, gentle hand our only touch carried him hidden
out through my porch door opened folds transfixed our eyes a moment, then gone
Did he know my heart would have welcomed the visit for a bit longer?
Asylum granted and promised if ever need wings this way again
So far, from what Rachel Smiley and Brittney Wagler said at the meeting, I assume that none of these sheep that gaze at us in the spring sun are infected. With luck, they never will be.
Smiley and Wagner, both graduate students at the University of Wyoming, are somewhere high in the mountains right now, working to capture female bighorns which will be tested and then released. After a long, slow process, they have amassed enough data points to draw some conclusions about what should be done.
As most locals know, these sheep are just a remnant of the core native herd of bighorns in the greater Yellowstone region. Before 1990, the Whiskey Mountain herd was so large that almost 2000 wild sheep were transferred out of here to populate other parts of the Mountain West. That stopped abruptly after the herd suffered a die-off in the 1990s. It has never recovered.
Scientists and interested local volunteers have spent decades trying to understand the problem. Only in the last few years, with the same DNA technology used to test for COVID, has research identified the root cause: the bacterium Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae. (Researchers shorthand this to “Movi”.)
It affects sheep worldwide, both domestic and wild, causing a form of pneumonia. Movi is easily transmitted and (especially in this area, for some reason) often fatal in bighorns.
The parallel to COVID isn’t lost on researchers, who observe that sheep don’t wear masks, have a habit of sniffing each other’s noses, and behave with the opposite of social distancing. There is no vaccine against Movi.
There’s another poignant parallel for the Sheep Center. Its Director (who is also, like Wagler and Smiley, young and very fit) nearly died last year from pneumonia due to a form of plague that she caught from her sick cat.
Like so many other pathogens, Movi came to America with the Europeans – specifically, with their sheep. It jumped easily to wild sheep. There aren’t any domestic sheep near here these days, but Movi has persisted. It isn’t the only respiratory pathogen now endemic among local bighorns, which may harbor any or all of 5 different varieties. It’s just the most deadly.
Since 2015, a multi-agency project begun in coordination with the Sheep Center in Dubois has been pursuing a coordinated effort to come up with solutions. As part of it, Smiley and Wagler capture ewes in December and March and test them for Movi as well as for their physical condition, having fitted each one with a radio collar and a vaginal implant transmitter (VIT) that signals when they give birth.
Since 2020, they have also been capturing and collaring newborn lambs. Much of the time, off-schedule, they go back in when sheep (or sometimes just their collars) have died. Every reading and result becomes a point in a larger image.
“Every one of those data points has a ton of effort that has gone into it,” said project advisor Kevin Monteith PhD at the Sheep Center Annual Meeting. But he didn’t expand on that. I was able to learn more from a long interview with Smiley and Wagler posted on the Artemis Podcast in 2020.
This was just after they had begun to radio-collar lambs, which in their rugged high-mountain habitat is a matter of tactics, stealth, endurance, and extreme physical agility. Smiley, a recreational rock climber, often relies on those skills.
“Sometimes it seems crazy that they choose to do what they do,” she said. “A cliff edge is their favorite place in the world.”
When a VIT signals a new birth, they have to race to wherever the GPS reads, because both sheep may easily move away. Some ewes favor giving birth near Down’s Lake, at 12,000 feet in the back and beyond of the Wind River range. “We go up on the old Glacier trail,” said Wagler, “steep, steep, steep switchbacks and then across Goat Flat, which is like 4 miles of rock-hopping. By the end of the summer, we’re all pretty just drained of doing this hike over and over again.”
Other ewes seem to want to give birth just after a snowstorm rolls through, so Smiley always waits for VIT signals after a spring blizzard. Occasionally, she has gone out on skis to find a newborn lamb.
Getting there is only part of the fun. Usually a spotter joins two people going out for the capture, all in contact by radio. They need to creep up as close as possible to the ewe and her newborn, then race in for the capture the instant the sheep spot the humans.
Lambs only a few hours old are quite mobile, and can easily dash out of sight in seconds or leap a 10-foot cliff, climbing and scrambling over rocks and steep snowbanks that no sensible human would attempt.
The researchers also have to trek out to retrieve carcasses, hoping to learn the cause of death. Sometimes the remains are too far gone to accomplish this. And sometimes they wonder what’s actually watching them.
Once, Smiley went out alone to pick up a collar only a few miles from the highway up a ravine. She found herself staring up into the steady gaze of the mountain lion that must have just swallowed the collar, along with the unlucky lamb. (She backed away, very slowly.)
All the data points gathered in this challenging effort have documented what the Sheep Center already knew: Nowhere near enough lambs are surviving to guarantee the Whiskey herd a future. Around half to three-fourths of lambs born to the Gros Ventre herd near Jackson survive to adulthood. Last year was a banner year for Dubois: Two lambs actually made it through to winter.
The first few weeks of life are perilous for any bighorn lamb. Although predators do kill some lambs, including some that are healthy, most lambs born to the Whiskey herd die of pneumonia, the team has found.
The problem is most grave in the Red Creek sub-herd, the bighorns that can be seen sometimes grazing dangerously near the highway beside the huge red-rock formations at the eastern edge of the Wind River Reservation.
One member of the herd, Sheep 108, was caught for the first time in March 2019 and twice since then. Each time, she has tested positive for Movi. She has never recovered.
(However, escape is possible: Sheep #1, also a member of the Red Creek sub-herd, has been tested 9 times and never tested positive. Many sheep in herds elsewhere catch the bacterium and do recover. What makes the difference? The team would like to know, and hope to learn.)
Sheep #6 was first caught in March 2015. She tested positive for Movi a year later, and then began to harbor the other 4 pathogens. Although she never appeared sick, she tested positive ever after, and died last December. At necropsy, her lungs were full of tissue killed by pneumonia. She also had a sinus tumor. These tumors, invisible to human observers in the live animal, are known to harbor bacteria.
Among the 10 lambs born to ewes that chronically tested positive for Movi among the Red Creek herd, only one survived to the next winter–and it had been born to a ewe that first tested positive only afterwards. The chronically infected ewes are not contributing to the herd. Instead, they are endangering it.
Obviously, it is not only the lambs born to infected mothers that are at risk of catching Movi. “Essentially any lamb is susceptible to dying of pneumonia if there is Movi in that subgroup,” said Daryl Lutz, wildlife management coordinator for Wyoming Game & Fish, at the Sheep Center meeting.
Over the Zoom screen, Lutz and Monteith looked troubled at times. Beginning his remarks, Monteith signaled the unhappy conclusion that was ahead. “When we engage in working to address difficult questions like this, we often hope to find a silver bullet, and oftentimes things are complex enough that maybe there’s not a silver bullet. I think this is one of those instances.”
After Smiley and Wagner painstakingly laid out the results of their research, Lutz had the more difficult task of explaining the consequences.
The collaborative team had already sought and won approval for its strategy from the Intertribal Council, the elected governing body on the Wind River Indian Reservation, which is part of the herd’s habitat. The jargon they use for the strategy is “test and remove.” It has shown some success in infected herds in Idaho, South Dakota, and British Columbia. (The Sheep Center is hosting a webcast about test and remove on April 9.)
“Remove” means to kill the chronically infected “super-spreaders” – in this case, three who had never produced a viable lamb since becoming chronically infected with Movi — because there’s no good option for actually relocating a very sick bighorn. (Nature has already removed the fourth, Sheep #6.) The team intends to examine the ewes that have been culled, anticipating they will find more sinus tumors.
I think a more appropriate euphemism would be the one we used back when I was doing cancer research on laboratory mice: Sacrifice. That research provided no advantage for the rest of the mice, but in this case the ewes are indeed being killed for the potential benefit of the rest of the herd.
The decision entailed “a lot of thought, a lot of discourse, and also angst on my part and I’m sure others felt it too,” Lutz said, “because what we’re talking about doing is a pretty aggressive management tool.”
Twice he stressed that the decision was not “cavalier,” adding that he hates killing any animal unnecessarily. “But I do think we’re at a point where this is the best thing to do.”
Someone asked whether it might be possible to treat the sick animals and isolate them instead. But there are no effective antibiotics or good place to keep bighorns in captivity, Monteith said. There is simply no time left to take any chances with this herd, Lutz added.
There’s no guarantee that the strategy will rescue the sub-herd at Red Creek, in part because the herd there is already so small. But it may help to protect others nearby, like those we saw last week.
Many questions remain.
Although Movi doesn’t survive outside a living body the way Coronavirus can, the outdoor environment may still play a role. Oddly, bighorns in the Absaroka range just across our valley test positive for the same number and kind of bacteria as the ones on the Whiskey Mountain side. But that herd is thriving, numbering around 1000, while the Dubois herd has been dying off for decades.
One reason might be nutrition. But then why did the Whiskey Mountain herd thrive before the 1990s, and not after?
Smiley and Wagler have found that ewes in the Whiskey herd don’t gain as much fat during the summer as bighorn ewes on the Gros Ventre side near Jackson. They’ve been systematically gathering samples of forage in both locations.
Their initial findings won’t surprise hikers in the Winds and the Tetons: Plant life is much less abundant in the mountains around Dubois than in the greener terrain over the Pass.
It could be that the lambs here are more susceptible simply because they (and the pregnant ewes) aren’t fed well enough. What to do about that, if it’s true, is yet another question to address.
Often, Wagner said during the podcast, people told them that what Montieth had assigned them to do was impossible.
“He just said we’re going to get it done. And yeah, we’re getting it done. It is possible.”
Unlike Stuart’s party, we had a guidebook and a topo map. Nonetheless …
This happened a while ago. It was one of those warm and sunny late-autumn days that call out “Last chance?” and propel you to get outdoors right now, and go somewhere, anywhere.
We had chosen to drive beyond Lander and then southwest. We were going to find the spot where, 209 years earlier almost to the day, Robert Stuart and his fellow explorers had camped for the night after they finally reached the legendary “shorter trace to the south” across the Rockies. Now known as South Pass, what Stuart called a “handsome low gap” leads widely and gradually over the Continental Divide, accessible to wagons and therefore, much later, to hundreds of thousands of emigrants heading west.
It had not been easy to find. Returning to St. Louis from the Northwest, Stuart and his band of Astorian fur traders had a long and arduous journey, traveling on foot when they could not obtain horses. They endured periods of starvation, angry disagreements, unsettling encounters with natives, misdirections (intentional or otherwise), and perilous, unnecessary detours.
We’d learned about all this in detail fromAcross the Great Divide, the biography of Robert Stuart written by his descendant, author and chronicler of Wyoming history Layton McCartney, a former part-time resident of Dubois whom we got to know briefly after we moved here from New York City. We now live close enough to see the exact historic spot he had described, and we set out to find it.
Unlike Stuart and his fellows, we knew the way in general, having driven the highway from Lander to Farson many times. But we had never crossed any part of that familiar sage and sand plain on foot. Nor had we ever before paid any particular attention to the Oregon Buttes, the huge rocky formations that were a landmark to all those westward-bound pioneers who passed by along the Oregon and Mormon trails.
“Follow the Oregon Buttes Road 2.9 miles to the crossing of a small, dirt two-track road,” directed our little red guide book, Day Hiking the Wind River Range. “Park here and begin walking to the right (west).”
Simple enough instructions, it seems. They were certainly much clearer than the ambiguous directions in reports from earlier explorers and rough translations of communications from natives, which were all that Stuart and his crew of explorers had to aid their search for an easier passage back east. We had the little guidebook, the biography, a topo map, and a general feel for the area (but no GPS, lacking signal). Nonetheless, we were puzzled from the outset.
The dirt double-track that headed west from Oregon Buttes Road was actually 2.1 miles south of the highway, not 2.9 miles as the guidebook said. There was no such track at 2.9 miles. So we got out of the car at 2.1 miles and walked west, already uncertain (as Stuart and his party almost always were) whether we were going the right way.
To our right, we could easily see what Stuart called the “southern terminus of the mighty Wind River Range”—the same range that towers over Dubois.
After a few hundred yards, another track took off to the left. We chose that direction, partly because we saw RVs parked farther along the other track, to the right.
We were looking for trail markers, not campsites, and there were good signs off to the left—specifically, these concrete markers which seemed designed to point the way to the old pioneer trails.
Our guidebook promised an easy 1.5 mile hike, marked at the 0.7-mile point with a fenced area surrounding two stone markers erected to designate the actual pass and the Oregon Trail, and another commemorating Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding, the first women on this trail, who came this way with their husbands in 1836.
We didn’t have pedometers, but we did have a general sense of how long it takes to hike ¾ of a mile on the flat. We passed through a gate in a barbed-wire fence, and we had seen the trail markers. But there was nothing like a monument to pioneer women.
However, looking at the map, we could easily identify our original goal: the eastern slope of a hill immediately northwest of present-day Pacific Springs. There, the Stuart party were forced to camp. As McCartney wrote, “the wind and snow hampered their progress” when, after a 15-mile hike, they could easily see the gap between the mountains just ahead.
We stopped to consult the map, still trying to decide where we were compared to where they must have been. Pacific Springs was clearly marked. The east-facing slope in question had to be the shallow one, distant but easily identifiable, off to our right and ahead.
It must have been disheartening beyond description for the men to reach that spot, finally to see the gap ahead, and not be able to attain it because of the Wyoming’s unpredictable autumn weather. In passing, it left a layer of snow on their blankets that vanished the next day. We recognize this weather pattern.
I took a picture, and we traveled on. But where were the legendary deep tracks of the Oregon Trail? We abandoned the track we had been following and walked overland across the sagebrush flats, in the general direction of that slope, heading toward a deep culvert on our side of the ridge.
And there, just up a rise, we found the fence, the two rough stone markers, and the unmistakable deep ruts of the original Oregon Trail. This is only one of many sets of deep wagon ruts in the area, we learned later, because of course not all of the 19th-century migrants followed exactly the same path westward across this desolate, flat country.
I hiked the deep ruts back toward our car, passing a fifth-wheeler and a pickup along the way. More recent off-road vehicles than covered wagons must have helped carve these grooves, I decided.
When the Stuart party crossed here, they took one last unfortunate detour. The path not chosen would have led them relatively straight northward to the Sweetwater River, and on toward the Missouri River and St. Louis. Unfortunately, near their camp they had discovered a fresh and easily identified trail left by Crow natives, whom they had reason to fear. So they turned south instead.
After taking time to climb one of the Oregon Buttes, which are much larger and more imposing than they appear from the modern highway, the men headed into the Red Desert. Layton McCartney depicted this as “four and a half million acres of rainbow colored badlands, towering buttes, high desert, and shifting, 10-foot-high sand dunes.”
This vast and forbidding terrain is basically a huge bowl created as the Continental Divide splits and then rejoins, noted on Wyoming maps as the Great Divide Basin. It has no outward-bound watersheds and is remarkably barren–nothing like the rolling, high plains the party had anticipated from the reports of other explorers.
“Stuart and his companions might have been in the Sahara Desert,” McCartney added. They wandered for many days without water, before finally turning northward to find a stream that led them to the Missouri, and civilization.
Having returned to our car after a pleasant jaunt on a lovely afternoon, we headed briefly in the direction of the Red Desert. The dirt road led bumpily downhill and quickly became impassable. We turned back toward the highway, going in the direction Stuart should have chosen.
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