Dubois in Pandemic: Where’s the Nearest Human?

An unexpected reason that I’m pleased we left the city.

“I am vilified for being motherly,” I texted my son in New York City. Not vilified, probably. But I think I have become a laughingstock of sorts.

I paid an outrageous amount to send him a four-pack of toilet paper by Express Mail, and other people in the Post Office overheard my remark about the cost.

He was running out, and he said there was no more to be had anywhere reasonably nearby in Manhattan. He’s not supposed to be wandering around looking for it, anyway.

I don’t really care if some people in this little town out west think I’m a little nutty. I love him and want to do what I can to help in a terrible situation. If all I can do is ship toilet paper, that’s what I’ll do.

“Maybe they will understand how bad it is here,” he texted back. “People are just dying.”

It’s true. Nobody has died from COVID-19 yet in Wyoming. But he says he has two friends who have lost their fathers, and he’s just one of how many thousands of people in the city?

He is anxious about his distant parents, who might be at risk in this pandemic. “Don’t go outdoors!” he orders via text message. “Don’t be in contact with anyone! Disinfect all surfaces at home!”

I can understand why he says this, trapped in his typically tiny apartment in Manhattan. Like so many people elsewhere, he has absolutely no concept what it is like where we are.

“I’m taking my life in my hands and going out to walk the dog,” I texted my son yesterday.

“As long as you’re not within 6 feet of anyone,” he wrote back.

Across the highway, I sent back this picture. “Nearest human,” I wrote. “Can you find him?”

He didn’t reply, so I don’t know whether he was able to find the man working up the ladder on that new cabin perhaps 200 yards away.

This week, I hosted a video call with a former team of coworkers whom I managed during the 9/11 crisis in New York. I thought it would be interesting to compare the experiences.

It was so good to see them again!

Over the years, I’d totally forgotten what Josh was like. On the video we saw him taking his temperature now and again, as he proudly told us about his real estate coup. He and his wife had scored a penthouse atop a large apartment building, not far from our former home in Brooklyn.

Unlike most others living in the building, they have a large outdoor deck that allows them to get outside under New York’s lockdown conditions.  But as elevator trips are limited to one family per ride, the waits are interminable and he has taken to walking up and down the 17 floors when he needs to pick up a delivery.

Immediately I thought of the others trapped on the floors below, without roof decks,  and those in the countless other high-rise buildings in New York City who live in small apartments that are stacked up like shoeboxes on shelves in a warehouse. Many of them have children who are confined inside, kept home from school. And as we know, they are running out of toilet paper.

And then there’s where I live.

A recent article in the Washington Post infuriated me so much that I actually posted on Facebook about it, which I normally resist. It described a geotargeting study based on cellphone data that claimed to measure how well people were complying with social distancing, by analyzing how much their movements have changed since the pandemic began. It graded all of the states. Wyoming got an F.

That’s yet another example of how the rest of the world has no clue what it’s like here, I wrote. Have ranchers changed their rounds when they feed the cattle? Have folks like us who live outside town changed our habits about driving in for mail and groceries? Have I suddenly stopped driving 10 minutes up-mountain to go walking with the dog at Sheridan Creek, just beyond the boundary of the Shoshone National Forest? Would it even make a difference?

Wyoming is the least densely populated state in the nation, and it has the second-lowest number of COVID-19 cases (after South Dakota). There are currently 70 cases in the state, and no deaths. The nearest documented cases are 75 miles away, and they are in a town of some size worth talking about. We are in a tiny village, at the edge of the wilderness.

Two friends Dubois who are sick may be affected and are quarantined, but we don’t know because they can’t get tested yet.

One of my quarantined friends lets her dog out the door and looks across a long lawn shaded by huge trees toward the river. The other looks out her window at the mountains in the distance and the field between, where she can watch the new calves as they romp.

Many people in this town can’t work just now and are doubtless concerned for the future. The Governor has ordered us just to stay at home. We don’t always.

We go for hikes alone on the Scenic Overlook or stroll on the riverwalk, and chat from several feet away if a friend appears coming in the other direction. We wave from our cars and sidle past each other somewhat awkwardly when saying hello in the Post Office and the supermarket. It’s strange, but it’s not awful.

As usual, whatever the current uncertainty, we are protected from much of the stress that currently darkens the lives of people who are living in cities.

Whatever my pleasure at being able to hike as far as I want in the sunshine outdoors, I feel sad to call this a “joy” of living in this remote wilderness location, because there actually isn’t much joy in the current situation. But it is certainly a comfort at a difficult time.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Dubois in 5-7-5 Time

Images in words and pixels …

As the snow builds outside and we settle in to await the end of winter, take a deep breath and enjoy a few vivid haiku poems inspired by life in Dubois. Thanks to Mary Ellen Honsaker for the privilege of posting them.

 

 

Fingers spread, stove’s warmth,
curled dog at feet in fire’s glow
log’s gift understood

 

 

 

redrocks

 

Red cliffs lead sheep down
like a shepherd from the fold
watered, fed, they climb

 

Gorge

 

 

 

River, glacier, wind
each flowed through my valley home
sculptors of my heart

A New Image for Dubois: Antiquarian Armory

As the new museum rises, we ask ourselves …

Tanks070417The sight of tanks rolling down the main street of Dubois would be jarring if we did not know the context: the Independence Day parade. Every July, we have been seeing just a few of the tanks, trucks, and ambulances brought out for the day by a local landowner, Dan Starks, an engineer who is fascinated by the machinery and its history.

Starks has about 250 US military vehicles dating back to World War II, the largest private collection in the country and perhaps the world. When he decided to open most of it to public view in a new museum just down the river, this has understandably provoked some conversation.

What effect will this have on our town? How will this fit with our shared image of Dubois: Remote, quiet, rustic, peaceful?

Will this be the “making” of Dubois, as the Buffalo Bill Center of the West made a boom town of Cody? (And are we comfortable with that?)

TankMuseum_1018Will it be the long-sought “draw” that lures people to stop overnight n Dubois on their way to Yellowstone? Will this all overwhelm us, as the Total Eclipse did last year (but only for a few days)?

Whatever our questions, the National Museum of Military Vehicles is rising rapidly from its foundations–all 144,000 square feet of it (so far), to exhibit 107 vehicles from World War II, with a second building coming later to house about another 80 post-WWII vehicles, as well as two additional exhibits, a library, a theater, and two classrooms.  The first building should be completed next May, and some of the exhibits should be more or less in place for a “soft launch” next September. After a winter of finalizing the exhibits and training staff, a grand opening is scheduled for May 2020.

Dan Starks and his wife moved to Dubois from Minneapolis several years ago, finding this to be “a private remote area where we could build a home and have a lot of privacy,” Starks said. “When we first came here, it was for the view, and the privacy, and the freedom.”

Starks said he started his work life harvesting beans and working in warehouses, and eventually turned a bankrupt medical device company into a Fortune 500 firm with $6 billion in annual sales in 130 countries. Starks6He has bought up a great deal of property in the area, and reportedly contributed large amounts anonymously for various charitable causes here.

Gradually, Starks began bringing his collection of tanks, trucks, ambulances, and other military vehicles to his property near town. Some visiting friends who saw them urged Starks to share the huge collection with others, and eventually he decided to do so.

This is not a commercial venture; he portrays it more as a tribute to the troops. “Of course, the place we should be doing this to get the most visitors would be a large metropolitan area,” he said last spring. “The main reason it’s here is because we live here … I sure as heck don’t want to have to travel to see it.”

Starks was speaking at a public forum on May 31, co-chaired by Dubois resident and Wyoming state Congressman Tim Salazar, a member of the legislative task force created to study whether the state could or should be involved in the private enterprise.

Starks very pleasantly made it clear that he was grateful but didn’t really need any help. He said that the project had already cost $20 million and would probably cost $50 million in the long run. He added that he had created a large endowment so that “this asset [will] be here when we’re in our graves.”

Starks2Earlier that day, Starks had welcomed the public to his property, to view at least part of the collection. Speaking in a rapid-fire monologue, and naming the vehicles by model number, he spoke about them with some passion.

He told how the rivets in the earliest tanks could pop inward under fire, turning them into deadly weapons that doomed their operators. He described the progress in tank technology throughout World War II—the lower profile, the increases in the armor, improvements in welding and casting, engines and transmissions and weaponry, and what this all meant to protecting the troops and to victory.

Starks pointed out a tank that was involved in the Battle of the Bulge, and went on to talk about the history of that battle. Because the US military gave most vehicles to the Allies after the war or abandoned them in Europe, he said, it’s rare to acquire one that can be definitively traced to a particular battle in this way. (He is committed to documentation. He has manuals for all vehicles in the collection, and they will be kept in a library in the museum, along with oral history information.)

Starks7I asked about the truck standing next to it, and Starks described why a new delivery/artillery hybrid was needed in the  Vietnam, where it was easy to lob a grenade at a supply vehicle. An onlooker spoke up to say that he had actually used a truck like that in ‘Nam.

“You see, that’s what I’m hoping for,” Starks remarked. He wants to tell the stories around the vehicles, and to prompt memories from veterans who see the displays.

“There’s recognition,” he had said. “There’s honor. There’s remembrance. There’s a level of healing we hope to get at in the modest way that we can.”

Later, I approached a woman standing toward the back to ask what she thought. She paused. “I’m offended,” she replied after a moment. “This is so contrary to the character of the country, to freedom. To the wildlife.”

During the public forum that afternoon, she raised her concern that the museum would glorify war in a landscape of quiet and refuge. Starks (who is not himself a veteran) replied quietly and respectfully, saying that he would like to speak more with her about that in private. A politician at the dais remarked that, done well, the stories behind the machinery could bring to life the true costs of war–and might therefore help to deter it.

Starks13_reworkedThe new curator of the museum, Doug Cubbison, who comes here directly from 5 years at the Veterans Museum in Casper, has been working quietly in town since last August to begin the massive effort of creating and staffing a huge and unique institution in one of the most remote towns in the country.

Already, they have made some firm decisions about what they will not do, Cubbison told me.

  • They will not open a restaurant or lodging as part of the museum complex, to avoid to avoid competing with the businesses in town, and they plan to coordinate with the Chamber of Commerce to direct visitors to services in Dubois. The most refreshment offered in the museum will be beverages such as water and soft drinks.
  • They will institute an entry fee for general admission (veterans excepted), to avoid unfair competition with the Dubois Museum and the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center. (Starks committed to this during the May forum.)
  • The gift shop will sell only books and other objects related to military vehicles and their history, to avoid competing with other shops in town.

“He’s willing to talk to anyone,” Representative Salazar said at the forum last May. “And he’s willing to listen. Someone opening a private [museum] could easily do otherwise.”

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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Dubois and the Myth of Remoteness

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

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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