Remotely and Wildly True: Of Dubois and Distance

Did National Geographic really call Dubois WY the most remote town in the lower 48? How remote is it, actually?

[Taking the chance for a spring break, I’m re-posting this piece of barely investigative journalism from a while ago, which inquired into a popular bit of rural mythology.]

Highway

Google “Dubois WY” and you’ll soon encounter a statement that it has been designated the most remote town (or sometimes the second remotest town) in the lower 48 states. Often this distinction is attributed to National Geographic.

When we moved to Dubois, my husband and I quickly took up calling it one of the most remote towns in the lower 48 when we described it to friends. We even trotted out some criteria, whose origin I no longer recall: Farthest from the nearest Interstate, fewest traffic lights (none), fewest number of highways that run through it (one), distance to the nearest large town (about 70 miles), or proportion of land within a 360-degree radius that is publicly owned (who knows, but lots).

But is this distinction actually deserved? How remote is Dubois, and compared to what and by which criteria? Last summer I began to study the question, with interesting results.

First, I couldn’t find any such statement about Dubois in the archives of National Geographic. And many other towns lay claim to the distinction of being most remote.

I turned to local sources, Dubois town hall and the library. Sandy Hurst at town hall offered up text from a 2011 press release about Dubois:

“A place considered by National Geographic as the most remote town in the lower 48 states…  it perches on the edge of several wilderness areas and is surrounded by national forests.”

This traced back to a strategic plan for Dubois by the Foundation for Urban & Neighborhood Development of Denver, Colorado, dated 1986. The report said that Dubois had been “recently identified in national news media coverage” as the most remote location in the lower 48–the same unconfirmed designation that I was already seeing, albeit even older.

Anna Moscicki at the library turned up a wonderful quote from the memoir of Ethel Waxham, mother of the geologist David Love who defined the geological history of the Yellowstone region. Waxham wrote about her arrival in Wyoming by stagecoach in 1905:

“The other passenger beside myself was a woman of fifty or sixty, white-haired, face weather worn, bright brown eyes, Mrs. Welty. She was post mistress at Dubois, the post office farthest from the railroad of any in the U.S.”

Delightful, written when the railroads were still expanding, and perhaps an insight into the town’s perception of isolation. But not that relevant today.

In the course of promoting Living Dubois on Twitter, I was fortunate to gain the interest of Marilyn Terrell, chief researcher for National Geographic, who has also been unable to find any source for that attribution of Dubois’ remoteness by her publication (so we ought to stop using it). But she did point me to an article in Smithsonian magazine describing what truly may be the most remote settlement in the lower 48: the community of Supai, Arizona, located at the base of the Grand Canyon. At the bottom of that 3,000-foot crevasse, it is reachable only by mule train, which is how they get their mail.

But Supai isn’t really a town: It’s designated by the US Census Bureau as a “census-designated place,” which is the Bureau’s term for a populated place that is not an incorporated village and has no municipal government. So does Dubois still qualify?

Overlook7Author Henry Grabar on the website citylab.com looked into which towns were most remote by the criterion of being farthest from the nearest Interstate highway, honoring Key West, Florida, as being farthest as the crow flies, and Copper Harbor and Eagle Harbor, Michigan, (251 and 238 driving miles from the nearest Interstate), with an honorable mention to Paisley, Oregon (209 miles) due to the sheer difficulty of driving to the big highway.

Dubois is “only” about 173 miles from the nearest Interstate, at Idaho Falls, and is interestingly equidistant from Interstates at Rawlins, Casper, and Livingston MT (200, 199, and 199 miles, respectively). But considering only towns that are completely surrounded by Interstates (rather than having a national border or large body of water on at least one side), I do wonder whether Dubois might qualify as having the largest average distance to the Interstate in all 4 directions (193 miles).

If you aren’t familiar with Dubois, please be assured that you can buy plenty of groceries and hardware supplies in town, and it’s even easy to find a cafe latte. And by that other criterion of remoteness, Internet access, Dubois is marvellously well-connected. You feel the remoteness mostly by your proximity to all that wilderness.

Speaking of which, there is one remoteness criterion Dubois can legitimately claim without dispute: It is TwoOceanPasscloser than any other town in the United States to the spot in the lower 48 that is most remote from any road, and therefore reachable only on foot or by horseback. This is Two Ocean Plateau in the southeastern corner of Yellowstone Park.

This spot has been designated by the United States Geological Service as the location in the “coterminous” United States that is most distant from any road (the trailhead is at Moran, an unincorporated community). Dubois is 44.1 miles from Two Ocean Pass as the crow flies, and the plateau is farther north. Jackson is 48.8 miles away.

There is one criterion for remoteness by which Dubois fails miserably. The residents are hardly remote in their behavior toward other people. It’s one of the friendliest places I’ve ever encountered, which is one reason we go all that way to get there.

@ Lois Wingerson, 2016

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A Surprise Visit to the Cemetery

We welcomed the arrival, with concern

bighorn sheep Dubois WY

One day last week, some bighorn sheep wandered into town. This was astonishing.

Many deer live in town year-round, but the sheep live up-mountain, off in the wilderness. The Bighorn Sheep Center offers guided tours up Whiskey Basin to look for them, but they’re not supposed to be easy to find.

People are used to spotting them on the cliffs across the river from the Painted Hills subdivision, or sometimes down on the highway by the red rocks at the edge of the Reservation. They may be the mascot for the school’s sports teams, but we don’t expect them to show up down here in town.

I was inside the hardware store when they came past. “Aren’t those sheep?” someone gasped, and we went outside. There they were, ambling unconcerned across the slope beyond the yard

Many people told me they had never seen the sheep in town before. Someone in the supermarket had a great shot of the herd behind the big brown “Dubois Wyoming” sign beside the highway east of town. Later they were spotted in the cemetery.

bighorn sheep statue

Why did they come down to visit? Sara Domek, the Executive Director of the Sheep Center, chuckled at the question, in the same bemused way a parent might talk about a toddler: Who knows what they’ll get into their heads?

It’s anybody’s guess, she said. Maybe they liked the grass in the cemetery. Maybe it was because of the cold snap. Or predators could have driven them down.

Predators were the favored theory in town, but in truth nobody really knows what’s going on with the sheep. Their numbers are declining, though, and nobody is more concerned about that than Domek and local wildlife experts.

The Bighorn Center has launched a series of forums in town, in collaboration with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and other agencies, to help seek explanations for the troubling decline in the survival of bighorn lambs.

bighorn sheep

Game and Fish has donated $300,000 to a study of bighorn sheep lamb mortality. “We are at a critical point,” said biologist Greg Anderson at the last session on February 11, as quoted in the Dubois Frontier. The sheep “are not in a good condition,” he added.

The department is focusing on three major suspects in the early death of lambs: habitat and nutrition, disease, and predators.

The excursion to town might be one of the “behavioral changes” in the lower winter range than Anderson said predators are causing. But whether that is linked to actual mortality is unknown, at least for now.

So if the visit from the bighorns was a charming surprise, it was also rather sobering.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Amazon CEO: Dropped NYC? Date Dubois!

Can you see past the superstars?

Lower Manhattan skylineDear Mr. Bezos:

I hear that you decided to dump the Big Apple. Sounds from your sad little blog post on Valentine’s Day (how poignant!) like you’re not planning to open a different HQ2 at this time. You sounded a little broken up about the break-up.

But you didn’t sound nearly as grief-stricken as Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal last week. She mourned not only the loss of those 25,000 jobs, but “all the construction, and the signs and symbols of a coming affluence … the sidewalks busy, shops and restaurants humming, hiring.”

I understand about falling in love with NYC, Jeff. I actually got a bit choked up about it last week while driving across the reservation on my way to Lander. The theme from the movie “Arthur” came up on Sirius XM. You’ve probably heard the chorus:

When you get caught between the moon
and New York City
the best that you can do (best that you can do)
is fall in love.

That brought it all powerfully back: The lights, the buzz, the sounds, the gorgeous, cosmopolitan, purpose-driven people. It was all so thrilling!

But I got over it too, eventually. Believe me, I can understand. All those spats about how she was offended that you wanted a few accommodations in exchange for moving in could totally kill the magic before you got to the altar.

Here in remote little Dubois, we hope for the same pleasures whose loss Peggy Noonan was lamenting: busy sidewalks, shops and restaurants that are humming and hiring. And not just in midsummer.

Downtown Dubois, WyomingDon’t get me wrong, Jeff: I’m not suggesting that you consider Dubois for your next engagement. We couldn’t sustain another 25,000 jobs, even if we had the workforce.

We certainly wouldn’t want to balloon our population by 2500%. It would utterly destroy us: our magnificent environment, our way of life, and our beloved small-town character.

All we’re asking is one date. Surely among the other educated, skilled people who seek a new life in our truly remote (and tax-free) location, we could spare a place for a few, or a few dozen, who qualify for those “remote” jobs that you regularly post online.

Why do companies like yours always gravitate to the big cities? Working on our flawless Internet here at the edge of wilderness in Dubois, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering that.

According to a recent article in the New York Times titled “In Superstar Cities, the Rich Get Richer and They Get Amazon,” you want to be in locations where there are already lots of tech workers, because you think that grouping innovative people in one location will stimulate more innovation.

Admit it: You guys are always seduced by the divas. Maybe you just can’t help it.

“It’s just absolutely hard-wired into technology economies,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in that article. “It’s not just a sort of interesting thing that happens — it’s inherent to the technology.”

But at least one other person — Dartmouth University’s online education expert Joshua Kim — thinks there may be some superstars who actually don’t want to live in “superstar cities.” In an article titled Corporate Welfare, Superstar Cities, and the Tyranny of Geography,  he wrote: “I have a hard time believing that all the best talent wants to live in Seattle or NYC or Northern VA.”

DTECoils2Besides, is it all about “superstars?” Countless successful people aren’t superstars (including many of your employees), but are productive and vital to our local and national economy  nonetheless.

I know some people like that, right here in little Dubois. They work on our Internet, which never fails. They come here partly for the fiberoptic power that comes right to their door. But that’s not the only reason.

Some of them are very unusual telecommuters, people who want to find mountains and wildlife outside their front doors rather than art-film cinemas and Starbucks. In their spare time, these people who spend all day at their keyboards want to hike, rock climb, snowshoe, or go fishing rather than hanging out in bars. They prefer the shadow of the starlight to the glare of city lights.

Maybe some of your own employees dream of raising their children in a safe and very healthy place where class sizes are small, college acceptance rates are high (because small-town Wyoming is under-represented in their mix and  also very interesting), and scholarships actually go begging.

Can you help us find some of those people, Jeff, and tell them that we’re here?

Thanks sincerely,

Dubois

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Memento Mori: The Estate Auction

Unintended intimacy with someone I scarcely knew.

The electronic zipper sign on Stalnaker Street said the chariot races had been cancelled. On a frigid weekend in February, there was not much else for entertainment. So most of us turned up at one point or another at the preview of the big estate sale.

Many of the people there, I suspect, were (like me) more curious than actually acquisitive.

These were the belongings of a wealthy rancher who passed away suddenly sometime last year. I met him only once, briefly. Sometimes I saw his helicopter churning along, low above the valley on a summer morning, checking on his longhorns.

The lots to be auctioned were spread across two adjoining barn-like buildings. “Yes, all items will be sold!” called out the estate sale manager on a bullhorn. “Everything has to go!”

We wandered up and down the aisles between the tables, perusing what he couldn’t take with him.

Four or five saddles. Shelf after shelf of ammunition, and rifles to match.

Many pieces of heavy furniture made of lodgepole pine. Quite a few leather recliners.

One or two machine-made quilts, with matching shams. Lots and lots of dishes. A box of mugs imprinted with the logo of his ranch. Disposable aluminum trays filled with kitchen utensils.

Many unopened boxes of doorknobs. (Why?) Dozens and dozens of identical brand new 8 x 11 wooden picture frames. (Why?)

A nice hand-painted salad bowl. A charming small cutting board. An interesting little sculpture. But I didn’t need any of it, and I knew I’d probably have to buy an entire lot to gain a single vaguely tempting item.

It felt slightly voyeuristic to examine all this stuff. A kind of unintended intimacy. But hey, he’s gone.

“You know what the lesson is?” Dale asked as I squeezed past him. “Don’t die.”

“No,” I replied. “The message is: Die suddenly so that you don’t have to worry about it at all.”

When I came out of the bedroom on Saturday morning, the first thing my husband said to me after “Good morning” was “I’ve decided not to go to the auction.”

All he might have wanted were some of the metal baker’s racks that he had seen, disassembled and stacked, with the poles piled separately. They would have come in handy in the storage unit. But if he bought them online instead, he could be sure the parts matched.

I hear that about half the town turned up at the auction, and that it took all day. We went up-mountain snowshoeing instead. It was beautiful, and made me feel very much alive.

The dog was happy too.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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The Governor, Dubois, and Deadwood Gold

But for Dubois, Mark Gordon might have been a New Englander

Last weekend, I heard Wyoming’s new governor delivering an address at a conference. Mark Gordon began with a virtual driving tour of the scenic wonders of our state. People would whoop as he mentioned their regions – Devil’s Tower, Thermopolis, Lander.

What better way to endear yourself to a Wyoming audience than to extol the beauties of our state? Gordon was preaching to the choir, for certain.

I waited for a mention of Dubois and a chance to call out. But on his imaginary counter-clockwise circuit, Gordon  veered away and entered Yellowstone from the north.

I sat back and sampled the little fruit tart in front of me.

Eventually, near the end of the speech, I did have a chance for my shout-out and it took me by surprise. Gordon drew toward his close by alluding to his father, and it was not the history I would have imagined. Fundamentally, Mark Gordon–the epitome of a devoted advocate of the spirit of the American West– is in Wyoming because his father fell in love with the West in Dubois.

Crawford Gordon (1917-2014) was given one of those patrician East-Coast names made up of two last names joined together. He grew up on a farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and went to Harvard University, where he earned a degree in economics.

The young Crawford could easily have taken a bank job and stayed on out East, and his son could have been born in Massachusetts. But he chose the tougher life of ranching in Wyoming. That’s because at  the age of 15, Crawford visited CM Ranch in Dubois, where he developed a passion for the cowboy spirit and for rodeos. He had begun the evolution to the “Crow” Gordon he would be for the rest of his life.

For a while, young Crow Gordon rode the rodeo circuit. He won prizes at the Johnson County Fair and Cheyenne Frontier Days. I wonder what his parents thought.

That was long before Jerry Jeff Walker recorded these lyrics:

Why does he ride for the money?
Why does he rope for half share?
He’s losing his share, and he’s going nowhere …
He must have gone crazy out there.


At the age of 30, Gordon settled with his wife and began ranching near Kaycee, Wyoming, in the northeast of the state. The new governor grew up on that ranch.

I had a brief conversation with Mark Gordon last weekend. He is urbane and engaging, but he also has the demeanor of a Wyoming cowboy – soft-spoken and easy-going. Without inquiring, I took him for a rancher, that combination of businessman and farmer that is so prevalent among Wyoming politicians.

But like his father, Mark Gordon was educated back East. He  went to boarding school in New Hampshire and college in Vermont. After graduating — and I’m sure skipping his father’s dude ranch step, as he did grow up out here — he returned to Wyoming and began ranching.

When I spoke with the governor, of course I said I was from Dubois (not, strictly speaking, the truth). “You know,” he said, “my father created a silent film when he was at the CM Ranch. You should ask Twila Blakeman about it.”

I called the former Mayor yesterday, and she welcomed me to drop by for a copy of the film. When Gordon gave it to her, she uploaded it to her laptop, and then gave copies to the Dubois Museum, the CM Ranch and, yesterday, to me.

Called “Deadwood Gold,” the film shot in the 1930s is grainy and funny, impromptu and crowded with extras. Evidently Crow Gordon had inspired everyone staying at the ranch to dress up and pitch in.

It’s a 30-minute shoot-em-up Western that has all the classic features: a stagecoach, a gold find, a villain and a sassy lady, and a posse that leap into the stirrup, always galloping on the run off into the hills or back into the corral.

One of the “stars” is the founder of the CM Ranch, Charlie Moore, who was the son of a local old-timer. He went to the University of Michigan (my alma mater) for law school, hated it, and returned to open a ranch where he could impress young boys from the East with the independence and adventure of the West.

I don’t know precisely how Crow Gordon came to stay at the CM Ranch. Very likely his parents were among those whom Charlie Moore met during his business trips back east to promote his ranch.

In the case of the elder Gordon, he clearly achieved his objective. According to an obituary, Gordon’s passions were horses, ranching, rodeo – and opera. Like Charlie Moore and like so many who live out here (including his son, the new governor) he was obviously a fascinating hybrid of the rugged and the refined.

So often you find interesting little surprises as you learn about these Wyoming people. I’m still learning that lesson myself.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Saturday Stalkers in the Snow

A happy morning exploring and pondering puzzles.

I chuckle inside whenever someone says: “Wyoming! How can you put up with those brutal winters?”

Sure, once in a while there are days when we really prefer to stay indoors. But often, like today, it’s clear, bright, windless, and we yearn to be outside. Wear the right layers, and you’re perfectly comfortable when you go out exploring. Soon you’ll shed the hat and gloves.

One of our favorite pastimes is pondering the puzzles that hint at stories in the snow. The image above is my trophy. Some friends gasp a little when I show it.

“You got a bird print!” You can clearly see the marks of the wings. Is that a head and a beak at the center? And if so, why did it come down sideways?

This isn’t as prized, however, as an imprint of a bird nose-diving into the snow to catch its prey.

What happened here? The tracks at the right went nonchalantly past, either before or after the bird alit. But a few yards away, on the other side of those willows at the upper left, I found clear signs of a scuffle. Alas, the dog tramped all over them before I got there, so I was never able to decipher what kind of creature this bird might have stalked and then caught.

That was a while ago.

On a day like today, how could I resist when a friend texted with an invitation to join her and two other women on a snowshoe trek? We arrived to find the surface clean and newly groomed by the volunteers with DART.

I was glad for sunglasses. The sunshine was almost painfully brilliant. Not a cloud in the sky.

Squirrels chattered overhead, and we could see their tiny tracks everywhere, crossing and recrossing the trail. I recognize the rabbit tracks in my driveway, but in the woods, in general, I don’t know what I’m looking at.

Unlike my friends, I’ve not yet joined an excursion with naturalist Bruce S. Thompson, who can read the animal tracks like a book. He’s the founder of an invitation-only Facebook page, Togwotee Trackers Exchange, where members pursue what he calls “foot-writing analysis” based on images of what they have seen on the ground.

We’re just discussing the shapes of tracks when K turns and points her pole at these strange hourglass-shaped traces of a passerby. “Snowshoe hare,” says K_, who has been practicing this for a while.

“Right,” says A_. “Not a weasel. They’re shaped more like a dumbbell.”

“I wonder why they call them snowshoe hares,” I say, looking down at my own boots clamped into cumbersome contraptions.

“Perhaps because they can walk across the top of the snow,” says A_, who is an amateur naturalist in her own right. “Or maybe because their feet stay white all summer.”

The conversation drifts to tales of other creatures we have seen while trekking in the winter. Meanwhile we peruse the field of white for other signs of life gone by. Someone mentions a sage grouse. “In the winter?” I ask.

“Come back this way!” K_ calls out, and we trudge back up a slope. “What’s this?”

There you see it, at the far left next to the shadow of a branch. Something has landed in a splotch, and then headed off to the right. The tracks are three-toed, and slender.

“Good for you!” says A_. “I think that must be a grouse.”

She turns around, and we can follow the traces on the other side of our own trail, up the slope and off toward the cliff and the fabulous long vista over the valley, which is carpeted in pines and blanketed with snow.

K_ leans over and grabs a shot with her IPhone. No doubt she will post it on Bruce’s invitation-only Facebook group, where we share puzzling and amusing tracks and debate what they might be portraying–or just document what we ran across.

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” drawls A_. “To take a look at the view.”

Many yards later, after navigating over several downed trees, we stop for a long chat with our Forest Service rep L_ (who’s out on Nordic skis on Saturday checking the trails, government shutdown or not). A_ recalls the time that she was out with another group on a day just like this, also standing around, yakking.

Suddenly, in the middle of their circle, a weasel pops up out of the snow. It looks around amazed, left, then right, and pops right back down again.

As we near the highway and the parking lot, K_ calls out again, “Come back!” She points with her pole to something beside the trail.

“Oh my gosh,” says A_. “I think that’s a weasel. What else could it be?”

K_ whips a small measuring tape from her pocket, spins it out beside the track, drops her glove next to it for perspective, and takes another shot with the IPhone.

Another post for Bruce, no doubt.

But then A_ calls us to turn around. “There’s the hole back to his burrow,” she says. “And this is on a cattle guard. Perfect.”

It’s the dark image in the center of the picture below. The slots in the cattle guard, now buried in snow, offer easy access downward for a small, slender critter.

Beneath our feet, A_ says, lies a world we cannot see. It’s called the subnivean zone, an open layer between the surface of the ground and the underside of the snowpack. In that vast chamber, beneath that roof, small animals like voles and mice live out the winter protected from the cold, from predators, and from noisy interlopers like us who crunch deafeningly overhead on snowshoes. (Who knew?)

We trudge back to the car. Two and a half hours. Maybe a mile and a half. Who bothered to click that app on their Apple watch? Who cares? (We stopped a lot.) We’re pleasantly tired and happily edified. Lots of vitamin D through our faces. Clean, fresh air in and out our lungs.

Back in the day, back in the city, I might be sitting in a bistro on a beautiful Saturday like this, lazily downing eggs florentine and a mimosa, talking nonsense.

That never gave me this kind of buzz.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Dubois Enters a New Year, and a New Era

As our national government writes, Dubois passes the mantle.

The first business day of 2019 dawned bright and clear, with one of those impossibly blue skies above the blinding white of the snow. The cold snap has eased. We headed into town for the investiture of Dubois’ new mayor, John Meyer.

As our national government writhes in conflict and dysfunction, how does little Dubois handle such a solemn occasion? I was curious what would transpire, as the mantle passed from the mayor of eight years’ tenure, Twila Blakeman, to a man who served a brief stint as a substitute in the Town Council a while ago, but who has kept a modest profile in town until he stood for the recent election.

After two terms in office, the former Mayor didn’t take an active role in last fall’s mayoral campaign, intending (she told me) to leave the outcome in God’s hands.

God and the town citizens had chosen. When we arrived at Town Council chambers, Twila stood cheerily at the side, waiting to call the proceedings to order.

Only about two dozen people were in attendance, including two newly re-elected Council members (Pat Neveaux and Bruce John Thompson) who also needed swearing in, and a handful John’s friends from out of town. The incumbent opened the meeting promptly at 10 AM, ready to swear in the new Mayor and give him the keys to the town.

John Meyer, looking entirely the role of a Western small-town mayor in a black vest and white shirt, stood up to read the pledge of office, which mostly attests that he didn’t engage in any dirty shenanigans during his campaign.

There was a smattering of applause as he signed it, and John reached over to embrace Twila. Then he reminded her that she still needed to hand him the keys to the town. Everyone chuckled, and she did.

Next the new Mayor swore in the two re-elected Council members. One was wearing jeans, the other a Volunteer Fire Department sweatshirt. Councilman Thompson raised his hand and began to read the statement. He stumbled over a few of the words.

“I forgot my glasses,” he said quietly. Mayor Meyer handed him his own, and we chuckled again.

Thompson handed the glasses back, signed the document, and that was it. “I just want to say thanks, that I appreciate your support and that I look forward to serving the town,” said the new Mayor. “There you have it.”

What changes will this bring? I have heard many people speculate. John, always amiable, has been silent on the question, except to repeat his campaign pledge to work for economic diversity.

Mostly, as far as I can see, he has been listening: Attending Town Council meetings, cosponsoring a Town Hall meeting at the Library with our representative to the State legislature, holding private meetings with Mayor Blakeman to learn the many details that are involved in running even a town with a population of a mere 1,000.

During the past eight years, among many other routine activities, Mayor Blakeman has arranged the EPA cleanup of a brownfield site on the location of the former sawmill, which has been converted to a new town park; the erection of a Veterans Memorial, achieved using only local funding; the repaving and restoration of water lines beneath several streets; and the repair of a bridge with a $240,000 grant from the state government.

What new ideas will the new Mayor present to Dubois? And how will he fare in trying to accomplish them? Eagerly, calmly, and in solid civic order, we await the coming year.

©Lois Wingerson, 2019

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.