Dining Out in Dubois: Not Badlands!

Bistro, steakhouse, cafe, barbecue. How much more do we need?

bistro5I sat at the Nostalgia Bistro one recent evening, waxing nostalgic about our wonderful trip to Sicily. I was remembering another restaurant, in the ancient city of Siracusa. We had been celebrating our 40th anniversary.

Travel-weary, happy, and a little tipsy that memorable evening a few years ago, I sat idly enjoying how the wait-staff danced around each other, pirouetting with huge heavy-laden trays or scurrying past to take an order. They never came close to colliding. They made me think of  a finely tuned machine or a well-planned military maneuver.

Same here, I thought while sitting at the Bistro. The service there is equally adept and seemingly effortless, however busy the night. But they remind me more of a busy family.

bistro2Unlike that night in Sicily, at the Bistro I always recognize the person who’s “going to be my server tonight,” and they recognize me. I can joke with Bigi or talk with Norman about something that has happened recently in town. They’re friends.

Back when we lived in Brooklyn, we enjoyed an embarrassment of riches when it came to fine restaurants. Deciding where to go out for dinner usually entailed a rather long conversation.

But after spending some time in Dubois, we realized that in Brooklyn we would almost always wind up at one of 4 or 5 favorite restaurants nearby. We seldom traveled more than a few blocks to have dinner out. So being in Dubois isn’t all that different, in fact.

The Bistro is our go-to place when we want to eat out after Happy Hour, to dine with friends, or just not to cook for ourselves that night. It has an inventive fusion menu, with a mix of comfort food like saucy ribs, delicate light fare such as tender fresh fish, and variations on international kinds of cuisine. (Shannon obviously knows what he’s doing.)

bistro3My husband has observed that Dubois is missing a Thai restaurant. But I like the Thai steak salad at the Bistro so much that I have to resist defaulting to that order every time.

The restaurant would probably succeed in the culinary battleground of our former neighborhood in Brooklyn. But it’s not our only option here, by any means.

For a change of pace, we can choose the steakhouse next to the Rustic Pine Tavern.

Is it Wednesday? My husband has to decide whether to resist the lure of going a few minutes up-mountain for the weekly prime rib special at the Wilderness Boundary Restaurant. I’m not usually a red meat eater, so I prefer their little thin-crust pizzas and their hearty soups du jour.

Football Saturday? We’re going to want the barbecue from the place near the KOA and the wings from El Jarro.

In a hurry or want take-out? It took us quite a while to discover that the kitchen at Taylor Creek Exxon west of town prepares a variety of really good meals. You’d never go to the gas station for food in Brooklyn but, hey, this is Wyoming.

PassHighway022514_4For a larger variety of choices or a more exotic option, we can always travel to Jackson or Lander, which takes about an hour – not that much longer than a trip into midtown Manhattan from our former home in Brooklyn. But there’s no reason to travel all the way to Jackson to spoil ourselves. The new restaurant at Turpin Meadows Lodge, closer than the entrance to Grand Teton National Park, served up the best meals we’ve ever had on that side of Togwotee Pass.

All of these are only counterpoints to the classic option, the Cowboy Café. It’s the obvious choice for a hearty breakfast. Later in the day, I like their sourdough sandwich with pesto and chicken breast. But when I’m feeling really peckish I go for the elk sausage and home fries.

One benefit of spending all year in Dubois is that we can easily get a table off-season.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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What Home Feels Like, Reconsidered

Why do so many of us fall in love with the wide open spaces? There’s a theory.

FoulkewaysAugust01Back east visiting my aged mother, I find myself again in that verdant country in high summer.

Once long ago, growing up in the Midwest, I loved these steamy late-summer days. They spoke to me of indolent lassitude, of the seemingly endless stretch of uncommitted time. I tried not to think of the start of school, only weeks away.

One of my favorite songs paints a word picture of this pleasant torpor induced by humid heat:

It’s a lazy afternoon
And the farmer leaves his reaping.
In the meadow cows are sleeping,
And the speckled trouts stop leaping up stream
As we dream

FoulkewaysAugust02Today, I took a short hike in the woods behind that meadow. For many years, it seemed like a luxury to take a long walk under such a canopy of trees, with the crunch of dead leaves underfoot and the wisps of fragile greenery brushing at my ankles.

I texted these pictures to my daughter in Florida. “I miss forest,” she wrote back.

“I miss mountains and sagebrush,” I replied.

After spending several summers in our Wyoming house, I realized that the tree-lined New England back roads that I used to find charming had begun to close in on me and now seemed vaguely threatening. I was amused to find that another Wyoming transplant, the writer Annie Proulx, had the same reaction.

“Trees bothered me,” she wrote about Vermont in an essay after she moved  to Wyoming,  “their dense shade, their impenetrable jungles of seedlings, the claustrophobic looming that cut off all but a small piece of sky.”

WheelbarrowsA few years ago, shoving our rusty wheelbarrow across the rocky ground beside the house, I suddenly had a vision of an old picture I had seen of my grandmother. She was a Nebraska farmwife, and told me about the land of coyotes and rattlesnakes, and about leading my young mother and her brother on hikes for picnics on top of the tall bluff. I learned a few years ago (to my surprised delight) that her husband, my grandfather, grew up in Casper, in northeast Wyoming.

Is it a mere coincidence that I experienced a conversion, late in life, to a deep love for that desolate scrub-covered landscape beneath mountains and under an endless sky? Or is it written somewhere in my genes, inherited from that grandfather and grandmother?

Being a retired science writer, I couldn’t resist looking it up.

GreenGenes082815I found this review article, which I got around to reading while my husband was somewhere out there on Brooks Lake fishing with friends.

“[I]t is commonly assumed that restorative responses triggered by exposure to natural elements and settings are ultimately adaptive traits originating from our species’ long evolutionary history,” wrote Joye and van den Borg in 2011, in their analysis of the psychology of landscape preferences.

One theory, they said, is that we humans like wide-open spaces surrounded by a defined border because, harking back to our distant ancestors on the savannah, we find them non-threatening. They are not frighteningly endless; they have a boundary, and the trees have the promise of forage. But being able to see open land around us, according to the theory, gives us ample opportunity to detect threats. (Anyone who has hiked in grizzly country can appreciate this.)

This doesn’t account for my exultant sense of the transcendent as I watch a leaden bank of storm clouds move across the mountain peaks, followed by a rainbow. I wouldn’t see something like this in Connecticut.

Whatever the reason, I’d far rather be in this kind of landscape now, whatever the season. No contest.

RainbowView

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Adventures Away From the Fire

Discoveries in a tiny “wilderness” close to home, but beyond the smoke of a forest fire.

One gratifying fact about our wilderness is that there’s always somewhere else to go.

Mercifully, the Lava Mountain fire is almost history now, and the heroic crews have gone elsewhere to defeat other flames. But back in the day, a few weeks ago when we had no idea which way the fire would go, I needed to escape the smoke and the threat.

Hike072516That day I chose a trail I had scarcely explored before, although it’s on public land very close to home. It’s a very tiny “wilderness”close enough to hear the highway, and far too small an area to entice me most days. You either quickly run into dense undergrowth or are forced uphill toward a steep back road that I know all too well.

No mysteries, or so I thought. On that day, though, it passed the most important challenge: It was not down-wind from the fire.

We set off down the trail, dog and I, in search of new discoveries–he in search of scents and with luck carcasses, and me of new sights. Especially, I wanted to find a route to the river this time.

Before, I had always failed to reach the riverbank here. Wherever I walked, it was  hidden beyond dense thickets of underbrush or too far down a rocky slope to reach on foot. (What drives me to set a goal of reaching the riverbank? Food for thought some other day.)

TreeandRockI decided to deviate into a small thicket of trees, off the trail, where we’d never explored before. We scared up a few deer and a rabbit, but came quickly back to that steep slope toward the well-known road.

So I turned the other way, and quickly found a narrow game trail leading up the side of a steep ravine.

What was that interesting shape foundering at the edge of the ravine? We soldiered on, dog and I, and came to a wonderfully gnarly old tree that had spent its life in combat with a boulder.

Life often persists and triumphs out here despite daunting odds. Reminds me now of the firefighters who finally brought the Lava Mountain Fire to 90% containment, driving it off into the wilderness, without the loss of a single structure or, more importantly, a life. (But I didn’t know that then.)

I could clearly hear that elusive river, chattering along below.

We returned to the meadow at the end of the main trail, and set off crashing in the general direction of upriver. The dog was hoping for a way to charge toward the water — no hike is complete for him without a swim — and I kept directing him away from banks that looked to steep for him to climb back after his dip.

WatergateEventually, a small break in the brush appeared, with a rocky descent of just a few feet down to a nice beach. I urged him on, and followed carefully. After he had paddled back and forth and explored for a while, he bounded back up the slope.

Not so easy for me; I had to grab at some tree roots and hope for the best.

That was how, on all fours, I came to notice this ancient water gate just upstream, rusting and hidden deep in the undergrowth–a relic of someone’s efforts to manage the river, long ago.

Why does this seem a treasure? Because it’s something I found that few people must know about these days. I won’t be able to travel that nearby section of road without thinking about it.

Back in the meadow, I looked up at the sky. No smell of smoke, but there it certainly was, still invading a typically heavenly day in July in Dubois.

However, I was content. We’d gotten away, explored, and made discoveries within a few hundred yards, only a few miles from home. All would be well, I felt at that moment. And eventually, it was.

FireClouds072516

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Summer and Smoke

Adjusting to the reality of wildfire in the National Forest nearby.

It’s high season again in Dubois. There’s almost too much going on: Museum Day, the art show, the Day of the Cowboy, the square dance, the rodeo. The town is packed with strangers, there’s lots of traffic, and the joint is jumping.

But the one event on nearly everyone’s mind is …

IncidentBase

… the Lava Mountain fire. To fire officials, it’s another “incident”, which seems far too benign a word. Nearly 600 acres have burned so far, not far from all those ranches about 30 miles west of town, on the way to the pass. And there’s no end in sight.

It began with a lightning strike 4 days ago. The first flames were too remote to reach in that forest wilderness. It’s too dense and hot for firefighters on the ground to approach the epicenter, so they’re hitting the edges from the air, while the ground-based firefighters focus on protecting structures that might be in harm’s way.

We see helicopters every afternoon, trailing buckets of water on very long lines, and fixed-wing aircraft that circle and drop orange clouds of retardant. (Why wait until afternoon? Because that’s when the wind blows up and the fire starts to move again.)

There’s no rain in the forecast.

FireCommand071916

Here’s the camp they have set up in the town park for the firefighters. The experts have descended from Montana and other places.

I saw a truck for rodent control, and wondered why it was there among the emergency vehicles. Do they try to protect the ground squirrels as well? The poor ground squirrels …

Smoke has already been a feature of our lives for part of every summer. Even fires from Idaho and Oregon send yellow clouds our way and make our noses tickle. This year, it’s closer.

In New York City, people adjust their lives to avoid crime. In California, they worry about earthquakes. Many people in other places somehow going on living with the fact of war or terrorism. Here, amid beautiful historic forests, we have to expect wildfires. This is our reality.

What effect does this have on us?

Last year, we pulled a lot of weeds and laid gravel around the house. Yesterday, we ordered 2 air purifying machines on the Internet.

DumpHike1We’ll need to adjust our schedule to account for the smoke that hangs in the valley in early morning, clears in late morning, and billows again in mid-afternoon.

Among other inconveniences, the fire has ruled out some of my go-to hiking trails west of town. I’ve always hiked in late afternoon, when the air cools. I’ll have to rethink that.

Yesterday morning, I had errands in town (miles farther east, away from the fire). Afterwards, the dog and I set off for one of my other go-to hiking haunts: Behind the town dump.

I believe the plateau beyond the landfill has the most spectacular views in the area. Turn in any direction, and the view is fabulous. You feel you’re on top of the world.

DumpHike4

Someone told me that somewhere Dubois has been granted the distinction of having the nation’s best road to the dump. The road beyond, although rutted, is even better. It leads on and on for many miles. I’ve been briefly lost up there.

Here you see my dog in the foreground with some long-dead nonhuman remains. The landfill is in the background, at center. (It’s not really visible in this picture, but that’s where I saw it when I took the shot.)

Way out beyond the landfill you can see teepee rings, evidence of people who lived there many centuries ago. They circles are hard to identify among all the other rocks lying around. It was years before I could persuade a friend to take me up there and point them out.

DumpHike6

I found yet another promising trail behind the dump. It led over the knife-sharp top of a ridge, and sank promisingly into the folds of the badlands. I couldn’t spare time to follow it very far yesterday. (A tempting prospect for the future.)

The badlands are always fascinating to explore. I love to follow the draws to the top, and to rest in the shade in the overhangs.

How I wish there was a way to capture depth in these images! You can’t see how  high I am, and how far we will clamber down someday to reach the bottom.

My route  home took me right toward the location of the fire (though not anywhere near it). From the highway, you’d have no idea there was a raging conflagration somewhere out there, dead ahead. Just billowy summer clouds, and that beautiful valley. This was at 1:45 PM.

Hwy26_071916

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Another Hero Epic from Dubois: The 21 Lifesavers

A life-and-death challenge faced us yet again. People stepped up quickly to conquer it.

One day last spring, I stopped into Mayor Twila Blakeman’s office to chat about some business.

“Please excuse me,” she said calmly. “I’m a bit distracted. The county has just decided to shut off our ambulance service.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “What? Can they do that?” I asked.

TwilaZimmerThey could, and they tried.

It seemed the ambulance system was getting too costly for the county budget. Compared to the other towns in Fremont County, Dubois was just too small. We didn’t use the services often enough to justify the cost of emergency care.

Thus began a long series of trips down-county for our fearless Mayor, who is 80-something, nearly always good-humored, and definitely a force to be reckoned with.

My husband and I headed back to New York for our annual spring break, much downhearted. While away, we came up with several ideas that might help the situation. Once back, I stopped by Twila’s office to propose them.

“Oh, that’s all solved,” she responded, airily. “We’ve appealed for volunteers to train as first-responders, and 21 people stepped up.”

I just had to smile, and cheer inwardly. In a village that runs on volunteerism, where most regulars are already tapped out, 21 people had agreed to go the extra mile (in the middle of the night, or interrupting dinner) to deal with God only knows what disasters.

Within  6 weeks of the appeal, 3 people had been fully certified as EMTs. By last June, 18 had completed the course and graduated as qualified first responders

DuboisRisingIs it any wonder that one float in last year’s July 4 parade bore the title “Dubois Rising”? The metaphor  was obvious–rising from the ashes of the January fire. But the ambulance crisis was more recent, and was doubtless on everyone’s mind a year ago.

Today, July 1 one year later, is the official start of an important new era for Dubois. The town will now be staffed with full EMS service, featuring two full-time emergency personnel (one first responder and one advanced EMT or paramedic) at all times, 24/7.

Guardian Air Medical Services, which also serves remote areas in Alaska and other states, will be assuming responsibility for emergency services throughout Fremont County. How well this five-year contract to privatize EMS will succeed in the long run is anybody’s guess, but the current arrangement certainly beats having no ambulance service at all.

I will spare you all of the political and administrative maneuvering that has accomplished this, except to say that the person originally brought in to solve the EMS financial crisis,  Joseph Zillmer, was summarily dismissed without explanation in May 2015.

Besides Dubois’ debt to the volunteers who have served so effectively for the past year, we owe immense gratitude to part-time residents Daniel and Cynthia Starks, who put up the funds to keep emergency services in effect in the Dubois area while the problem was being ironed out.

AmbulanceMatt Strauss, Guardian’s program director for flight and ground emergency services in Fremont County (where many calls require airlifting), said that services will be much easier and quicker when ambulance calls no longer bring volunteers away from home. Paid staff on call from a permanent base will be answering emergencies from the center of town.

Before, Strauss said, it could take 15-30 minutes for responders to collect their equipment and arrive at the scene. Now “you will have the ambulance rolling out of the garage in 2 minutes, and they will be on the scene within 5-10 minutes,” he said, at least for people who live right in town.

What’s more, this brings 3 new full-time positions to Dubois for qualified emergency personnel, Strauss told me, and some volunteers have expressed interest. The objective is to have the service “fully staffed with people living there,” Strauss said.

“Oh, yes,” Twila added when we spoke about it recently. “We need ambulance staff who know the community, and know the people.”

… if only, I might add, to assure that they treat our townspeople with the respect they so richly deserve.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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The Provisions Problem Way Out in Wyoming

Question: How do you get food out there? Answer:

Superfoods6Sometimes you just have to chuckle. An acquaintance from New York City this week cautioned me against opening our bedroom window at night because of the risk from all those white supremacists out in the West.

A more common misguided concern about our lives in remote Wyoming is that we must find it difficult to get groceries. I politely explain that, while we do live 15 miles away (not a block, as in Brooklyn), there is a good grocery store in town.

Proprietor Steve Williams calls SuperFoods a “country store.” This is true, strictly speaking. But the cracker-barrel gestalt must have gone away more than 40 years ago, when the Grubbs split off the grocery business from the rest of the old Dubois Mercantile general store.

They reopened it in the former bowling alley up the road. This tips you off that SuperFoods is a supermarket, not really a “country store”—and a surprisingly large one for a town the size of Dubois.

Superfoods3But it still is a small-town store, or as Steve’s business card puts it, “Your friendly home-town grocer.” To survive, he has to meet two challenges: Competition from the larger supermarkets down-county in Lander and Riverton, and what he called the “Tale of Two Cities” problem.

“There is the crazy busy summer months when Dubois mushrooms to over 3,000 people and then shrinks back down to 950 or so when the tourists and 2nd home owners leave,” he wrote, in an open letter to the community prompted by some critical posts on Facebook. “How does a business triple their staff and capacity and cut back by 70% in the winter?” A motel can close some rooms in the slow season. But can the supermarket shut down from Monday through Wednesday?

Superfoods’ response has not been to cut the quality or quantity of goods in the slower months, let alone eliminating open days. Quite the contrary.

A few weeks ago, I comparison shopped while running other errands in Riverton. The prices on the produce were not uniformly lower at Smith’s or Safeway, and the quality was no better. Safeway didn’t even have any fresh ginger root (I inquired of the produce manager), which I never have trouble finding at Superfoods.

Yes, pistachio nuts were less expensive down county, but the stuff you can’t wait to buy was not.

And among the 20,000 items Steve says he has in stock, I’m seeing more of those tasty gourmet condiments you wouldn’t expect to find in the back-and-beyond.

(If what I’m after is elk or venison or even smoked mozzarella, of course there’s Wind River Meats just up the road.)

Superfoods1We used to take hour-long trips down county with our big cooler to buy produce in Riverton. No more.

Dubois SuperFoods may not have the rare mushrooms or huge bins of fresh green beans we could find in a Korean vegetable store in Brooklyn. But even if I can’t always find exactly what I want, what I do find is usually fine–even in the slow season.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Close Encounters of the Herd Kind

How do you know it’s spring in Dubois WY? You see neighbors that don’t usually turn up nearby.

Sheep060816_4How do you know it’s spring in Dubois?

The animal neighbors turn up nearby, joining the livestock to sample the new grass.

Later on, most of them will vanish up-mountain. But for now, we get to enjoy their company.

Many of the creatures we are delighted to see are quite young. It’s that time of year too.

Last week, returning from Fort Washakie, I passed a herd of 17 bighorn sheep right beside the highway, just west of the red rocks.

This was a red-letter day for me. In nearly a decade here, I’ve only seen these wild sheep once or twice, and then only one or two at a time.

ISheep060816_3t was also troubling, because they were within feet of the highway. I pulled off to the shoulder and tried to motion passing cars to slow down.

When it was safe, I pulled a U-turn, got out of the car, and herded the sheep over the fence by approaching them. They say it’s not possible to herd bighorn sheep. Maybe I’m just a really scary person.

Of course I knew that when I continued on toward Dubois, they would leap back over the fence and keep grazing.

Calves2Last Thursday, heading toward town for a meeting, I was startled to see several calves wandering toward the highway near town, spilling out from a road that led into one of the fields. Slowing, I could see that the gate had been left ajar.

Again I pulled a U-turn, and again I got out and shooed the creatures back to the safe side of the fence. This time, after closing the gate, I could be certain I’d left them safe.

Two evenings ago, my husband called me to the window to watch two eagles and another large bird, perhaps a hawk, hovering over the aspens. Then he gasped as one of the eagles took a plunge toward the treetops.

BeaverTreesThe other, considerably smaller, bird was attacking the eagles repeatedly in mid-flight. Eventually the eagles  descended into the land beneath the grove. We wonder whether they found the hawk’s nest, or just gave up.

Yesterday on a hike in Long Creek Valley, we never saw any beavers. But we certainly saw what they had been up to.

As we stood contemplating the perfection of this lumber work, wondering what led the animals to stop midway, one of us turned around and spied the work in progress. What an engineering feat!

Sad to think, as someone remarked, that the Game & Fish people are sure to disassemble this. How lucky we were to find it!

BeaverDam1

A few weeks ago, we saw hundreds of elk loitering uphill from our house, easily visible, en route up the Dunoir Valley back toward Yellowstone, thick as aphids on a leaf.

I don’t have a picture of that. I just couldn’t tear my eyes away.