Dubois and the Myth of Remoteness

Is Dubois really the most remote town in the lower 48?

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I’ve been in recovery this week after supervising Frontier Fest. So for the first time I will repeat an earlier blog in this series, for those who missed it 18 months ago.

Here, I ponder the assertion that Dubois is the most remote town in the lower 48 states. What I don’t explore here are the implications of that word “remote,” which is a subject of other blogs and one I’m still pondering. In my opinion, Dubois is just remote enough but not too remote. I can leave the world behind but still buy a mocha frappe or a tuna sashimi.

HighwayGoogle “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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Telecommuter Appreciation Town: Dubois WY

Tools down, but back up leaving time for a hike.

ModemWho knew that I had chosen to down tools and leave town during Telecommuter Appreciation Week, which is set for the first week in March? Instead, I’m celebrating TelecommutING Appreciation Week.

I returned to find that my best tool, the Internet, was also surprisingly down. I recycled the modem several times, but that little light never flashed. My husband settled down to watch ordinary cable.

“Customer service won’t answer in the evening,” he said, but he was wrong. A nice fellow speaking from somewhere else walked me through the usual user-error tests, declared me correct, and gave me a work-order number.

“They should call you by early afternoon,” he said.

“Early afternoon? Forget that!” I replied. “I’ll just call DTE myself at 8 AM.”

But I never did. A nice rep from the local DTE office reached me instead, at 8:10. “I hear your Internet isn’t working?”

I laughed, and told her the last thing I’d said to the man from customer service.

SheridanSlush“Yeah, we upgraded your broadband, and your old modem won’t work any more,” she said. “Can you drop by to pick up the new one? Just give me a name and a password and we’ll set it up for you.”

I know I’m not the only lucky person who benefits from this kind of service. There are dozens or scores of others clacking away in these hills. DTE knows who they are, but won’t tell, of course. And we “digitanomads” aren’t much for socializing with each other.

Back to the routine: Early workout, then hit the desk. Work through until about 3:30 and then get out for a hike while it’s still light out.

There was a melt while we were away. The back road is packed by snowmobile tracks, but still really slushy. A much better workout than the elliptical, as usual.

As I trudged along, I heard the exuberant roar of snowmobiles up in the hills.

The dog zoomed around too, joyous in his untethered freedom. After a while, I caught up and found him enjoying a very large treat.

(Benny appreciates telecommuting too.)

BennywithCarcass
© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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Small Town Small Talk in Dubois

knightdedication“I’ve had enough of small towns,” said our dinner guest last Tuesday, a friend of a friend. “I know what they’re like. I grew up in one. Small-minded people with boring lives.”

How many people, we asked, do you know in Dubois?

“Oh, not many. I mostly go to the Superfoods and the post office, sometimes the Cowboy. And then home.”

You should try to meet a few, we suggested.

“How would I do that?”

Oh, maybe go to Happy Hour. Or volunteer for something. There should be some way you could help out.

pict0113One day later, invited to dinner at someone else’s home, we noticed the photos of Italy rotating on the digital frame on her kitchen’s island. And then a few from somewhere in eastern Europe.

What is it about Dubois, we asked ourselves. So many people here with so much interesting history. There are so many fascinating back-stories, once you start to ask. For instance, these weren’t vacation snapshots. She worked for a federal agency and traveled the world on business.

Someone in New York asked me once if there’s diversity in Dubois. Well, not in the usual politically correct sense of the word. Our minister is a black woman, but she doesn’t feel like “diversity” because she grew up here. You don’t see Latinos on the street every day, or people from China or Korea or even Native Americans. But yes: There is tremendous diversity in another sense.

We lived many kinds of lives in many other places, and then at some point decided to take that crazy leap and follow the dream that we had been cherishing for so many years. And here we all are.

billyshouse101515Those who have always lived here are just as worth engaging in many long conversations: The orphan wrangler who married the debutante from out east, and happily settled down on the ranch. The logger who kept on lumbering and built a life after the sawmill closed, because leaving was just not an option. These are just the first two who come to mind.

It’s also great fun to talk to the younger people who have landed here for one reason or another. So many hope to find a way to stay.

This evening I went for a book signing, to celebrate a new biography of local artist and historian Tom Lucas. It’s written by someone who moved here a few years ago (she and her husband just couldn’t stay away), became intrigued by his life, and decided to document it all.

lucas-bookAs I expected, the event was packed, with people spilling out from his gallery onto the sidewalk and lined up inside to buy the book. I can’t wait to read it, even though I know Tom well and count him a good friend. There must be lots I still don’t know.

Tom is a remarkable person, and well deserving of this distinction. But come to think of it, so many fascinating biographies could be written here. The mind boggles.

 

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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A Perspective on Distance from Dubois

Thoughts during a long visit with my aged mother back East.

LeslieGwynedd051316_2
Mom in her room

I’ve been back East for a long visit with my aged mother, which is how we will continue contact after  the great leap westward. Instead of driving from New York once a month, I’ll fly out from Dubois to see her regularly, and stay for a while.

Of course there are trade-offs to choosing a life in Dubois, however wonderful its benefits. This is one of them.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t think of bringing your mother with you!” said a good friend when she heard about the move. This sent me into a frenzy of inquiries.

No, I hadn’t considered it. Mom is no longer mobile. The nurses use a lift to transfer her from chair to bed.

Just transporting her to Dubois, I found, would probably require a medical airlift. Then how would we care for her? Dubois has a wonderful assisted living facility, but the nearest skilled nursing units are an hour away (and have waiting lists with indeterminate endpoints). Finding or importing private day nurses  would be a tremendous chore–not to mention an impossible expense.

I agonized for a while, and then decided it truly doesn’t make sense. Mom lives in an exemplary facility. She chose this retirement community for herself to limit the burden on me, her only child, after living with our family for decades. Back when it would have been possible for her to rejoin us, Mom wanted to be independent. Now that she can’t be, it’s no longer possible.

MarkLesKatieLazyLB
Mom on a visit to Dubois with the family, years ago.

I chose to extend my visit through Labor Day weekend, to see how she fared over a holiday break. (The usual staff weren’t all replaced with strangers, and the weekend was fine.) What I saw was what happens when adult children stop by for the day to visit to Dad or Mom, as we used to do before the move.

The usual peace and quiet gives way to a frenzy of activity. There are earnest, all-too-public updates on events in the family and entreaties to finish meals. There’s a pause from the TV noise in the lounge while someone’s daughter plays piano, too loudly and too long. (“This is truly awful,” remarked one resident who usually can’t find the right words.)

Today it will return to the day-to-day rhythm of events, and the regular flow of visitors. Some residents go for weeks without seeing anyone from outside the unit. A few, whose spouses live elsewhere in this planned village, have a visit every day.

LesKerchief
A new find: Mom and me.

It’s not necessarily uncaring neglect that leaves some residents without visitors. One woman here has a son whose job took him to the West coast (and who phones often). Her widowed daughter-in-law comes as often as she can, while also tending to her father who has dementia. An adult grandchild lives nearby but is institutionalized with a severe disability.

I will continue my flying visits as long as Mom needs me. It’s one cost of living in Dubois that I will gladly pay.

I’ve spent the past month going through photo albums with Mom, discovering heart-stopping old snapshots I never knew existed. We’ve eaten many meals together (although I eat far more than she does). I’ve been reading to her (either from the Bible or a travel book, as she chooses), bringing her wildflowers from the roadside, taking her outdoors in her wheelchair, talking to her (and interpreting for her in conversations with others now that she can’t speak for herself), and reading what she writes to me in her notebook.

The words “remote” and “distance” have two meanings, it occurred to me. One of them describes my relationship to my mother. The other does not.
© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Nabokov and Lolita: Another Dubois Love Story?

He visited Dubois while taking notes for the novel. What entered his mind?

Back briefly in New York City on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I’m doing what I always do: Browsing the trivial special sections of the Sunday New York Times to read about, say, homes of the rich and famous and travel to places I’ll probably never see.

I idly turn to the inside page of the travel section, and–what???

Nabokov

Spread out across the fold is a huge picture of those familiar, fabulous red rock formations east of town. Not east of New York City, of course. East of Dubois.

Naturally I turn back and begin reading the article about Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita (not my usual choice in reading). The author of the travel article and his wife have driven West, following the footsteps of the controversial 20th century Russian-born novelist. And those footsteps led them right to Dubois.

Landon Y. Jones informs me that Nabokov and his own wife Vera road-tripped across the American West from 1948 to 1953, during which the author took copious notes for his novel Lolita, which itself describes the protagonist’s road trip across America (including parts of the West) with his pubescent heart-throb.

Officially Nabokov, who was also an expert on butterflies (who knew?) was traveling Wyoming in search of interesting lepidoptera, not female human “nymphets.” He hunted for butterflies along the “gorgeous Wind River,” Jones writes in the New York Times, and they stayed in what is now the Longhorn Ranch Lodge and RV Resort.

RamshornThe Joneses stayed there as well, and remained in town long enough to notice the oversized jackalope and eat at the Cowboy Cafe. “On the way,” he adds, “we found ourselves on a busy, motel-strewn street called Ramshorn — the name Nabokov modified into Ramsdale, the name of Lolita’s fictional hometown.”

For the second time: what????  Our town’s favorite landmark was the inspiration for the home of the little sexpot in that classic bumpy-covered novel?

This sent me scurrying off to my Kindle to (improbably) download Lolita, in search of references to Ramsdale. Not much like Dubois: He described it as a leafy town with languid, humid summers, a lake, and a street named Lawn Street.

Next stop: Google, to find the basis for Jones’ assertion. I could find none. There doesn’t appear to be any town anywhere with the name of Ramsdale. Nabokov’s biographer, Dieter Zimmer, spent a fair bit of time speculating about the identity of the town that “Ramsdale” might actually represent, which he placed somewhere in New England.

So I tracked down and emailed Lanny Jones, who had said at the start of his article that he and his wife have road-tripped from New Jersey to Montana for the past 15 years (nearly double our own track record taking basically the same jaunt). Like us, they’re baby boomers. In fact, Jones himself is the originator of the term “baby boomer,” in his book Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation.

Thus began a fairly lengthy and interesting exchange. If he Googled me in return, he learned that we have still more in common: We have both worked for Time Inc.

“My linking of the names of your main street and Lolita’s home town is basically a speculation on my part,” he confessed. “It’s just hard to avoid. I probably should have qualified it as ‘may have modified’ or even ‘surely modified’ … What do you think?”
I demurred about the last question, finding it extraordinarily difficult to be objective. But I did answer a later question: In pronouncing Dubois, the accent is on the first syllable, not the second as he wrote in the Times.
Brooks082815_2In the end, I’m not sorry I scanned through Lolita. The story left me cold, or much worse, but Nabokov does write quite beautifully about my favorite haunts: “red bluffs ink-blotted with junipers, and then a mountain range, dun grading into blue, and blue into dream.”
I agree with Jones that he may have had Togwotee Pass in mind when he wrote of “heart and sky-piercing snow-veined gray colossi of stone.”
I was also amused to read that, 60 years ago, he described Jackson as “construction hell.”

 

 

 

Winds of Change in the Warm Valley

The wind is up again, driving the snow flurries sideways. Is this depressing, or exciting?

RamshorninCloudThe wind is up again, driving the snow flurries sideways. It has pushed a steady bank of snow clouds across the Absarokas, and the Ramshorn peak up the valley has vanished again.

The trucks struggle even harder up the hill. Birds flap valiantly to stay on course, and soon drop out of sight to rest somewhere. The shingles on our roof rattle, and some of them fall.

It creates remarkable drifts in the snow, so deep that our dog may almost lose himself briefly while trying to run across an open field.

Full disclosure: Of course we have winds here. They did call it the Wind River Valley for a reason.

Here’s a local version of a verse from a popular folk song:

From this valley they say you are going.
Please do say it’s not something I said
But the fact that it never stops blowing
And you can’t keep your hat on your head.

Like much doggerel, those words are somewhat in jest. These are not the unceasing winds of the dust bowl.

About 15 years before that infamous dust bowl of the 1930s, in his novel The Prairie Wife,  Arthur Stringer described the prairie wind like this:

“Oh, such a wind! It made a whining and wailing noise, with each note higher, and when you felt that it couldn’t possibly increase, that it simply must ease off or the whole world would go smash, why that whining note merely grew tenser and the wind grew stronger. How it lashed things! How it shook and flailed and trampled this poor old earth of ours!”

It usually isn’t like that here. In the Wind River Valley, much of the time there is almost no wind at all. We know to expect it around 11 am if it’s going to blow up, and we know that it usually dies down in the evening (if not sooner).

flaginwindLike the bears in summer, the wind in winter is a factor in where I choose to hike. I know there’s much less wind in the tree-sheltered back roads along the river across the highway than on the high flats of the scenic overlook in town.

Writing in 2001 in the Great Plains Quarterly, cultural geographer Cary DeWit described his field studies of modern women living on the high plains of Kansas and Colorado. The wind bothered many of them a great deal, he reported, and much more than it seemed to trouble the men (unless it hindered their ability to deal with crops or the stock).

“I always hated the wind,” said one woman. “I like to say it blows cobwebs around in my mind.”

“I don’t like the wind,” another told him. “It doesn’t just mess up your hair; you have to hang on to your car door. It makes me grumpy and makes me angry.”

One of the first comments I ever received to an entry in Living Dubois also mentioned the wind, as one factor that drove its author (a woman) away from town. “I raved like this for my first three or four years in Dubois, until what you call a steady breeze nearly drove me out of my mind.”

FlyingSheetsAs for me, in a way I enjoy the wind (which I can hear even as I write). I’ve lasted nearly 10 years now, and it still hasn’t blown me away. Far from it.

The wind isn’t always pleasant, no more so than any other potentially dangerous and adverse weather phenomenon. You have to treat it with respect, for sure.

I’m glad very glad that our chinking is sound and that I don’t have to sleep outdoors in a tent during this wind. It worries me greatly when there are forest fires nearby.

We often choose to avoid driving northbound between I-80 and Lander, because out there on the sage flats the wind is often so strong and incessant that your hands eventually cramp holding the steering wheel.

But here in Dubois, especially in mild weather, I actually find the periods of wind a little exhilarating, as I might if I were on a sailboat in a sheltered bay somewhere.

Here’s what I feel about it: The wind will always bring something new from the horizon. It drove these clouds in, and it will drive them away, sooner or later. Then it will surely blow away itself.

@ Lois Wingerson, 2016

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The Great Migration: Why Bother?

Once Dubois WY was the place we went in the summer to avoid heat and humidity. Now it’s the place we leave and return to, even in the winter.

RidgelineRearEnd “Did you decide when you’re coming back?” my good friend Karen texted yesterday.

“Oh good!” she responded  after my reply, adding a smiley face. “Everyone keeps on asking when you are coming home.”

She’s got it right: home. At first, we viewed Dubois as the place we could go in the summer, to avoid the city heat and humidity. Now it’s the place we leave and return to.

Here in Brooklyn, our Wyoming plates no longer attract much attention from neighbors. People may comment on our absence, but rarely with as much fondness as my Dubois friends like Karen express.

None of them has responded to our repeated invitations to visit us out West. (All it takes is a flight to Jackson. We’ll take care of the rest. There’s so much to do and see!) It’s a tough sell here in Brooklyn, which considers itself the coolest place on earth.

Do they think we’re nuts to keep going back and forth like this?

Quite often, despite what’s clearly visible on our license plate, neighbors ask when we’re planning to go back to Montana.

I continue to wonder why Wyoming has such a low profile. After all, last year the financial planning website bankrate.com declared Wyoming the best state in the nation for retirement, not just for its uniquely low cost of living, but also for its natural beauty and low crime rates.

highway2The long commute to and from Dubois takes three and a half days in the summer when days are long, if we’re in a hurry. If we’re not, we mosey. Once we stretched it to 10 days with a detour to Austin and New Orleans.

En route, we’re totally wired with broadband, with 3 or 4 devices (phones, tablets, a laptop) to consult. Often it feels I spend the entire trip looking at a screen to check the weather (most importantly in winter) or the price of gas, or to look for a good restaurant or motel.

Why do we drive rather than fly? Partly because we always seem to be transporting stuff back to Dubois (much of it donations for the Opportunity Shop) but also, importantly, because of the dog. I never wanted to put him on a plane in the first place, and now I definitely won’t, after a Dubois friend told me at happy hour that her dog became lost luggage. (It survived.)

My husband and I like each other’s company, and we truly enjoy the trip. It’s a privilege to watch the nation unfold before us, to see the well-kept farms of the Midwest (or the sad abandoned clapboard farmhouses) giving way to huge skies and broad prairies, and them being gradually overtaken by outrageously huge natural sculptures of rock.

To answer the first question: Why bother (especially in winter)? We have needed to return east to check on our rented house and to visit family. Now we absolutely must go home to Dubois.

By why in the winter?

For one thing, because it’s home. Also, we will leave the view at left for the one at right. Any other questions?

WinterinBrooklyn

RamshornInSnow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Lois Wingerson 2016

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