A Perspective on Distance from Dubois

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

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.

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.

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???


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?










© Lois Wingerson 2016

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Dark Days in Dubois

It gets dark early this time of year everywhere on this side of the equator. How is this different in Dubois?

These are the gloomy days now, when there’s often just barely enough snow to be a nuisance. The darkness begins to descend in mid-afternoon and doesn’t lift until well into the morning, by rural standards anyway.

DuboisWebcam121715On the webcam that shows the center of town, I saw that it was snowing lightly this morning at 7:45 am. Only two vehicles approached the intersection on the one highway that passes through town. Soon after, someone crossed the highway on foot. I could see that it was slushy.

Of course, on this side of the equator it gets dark everywhere this time of the year. So how is Dubois different?

Because it’s so far from everywhere, in Dubois it is profoundly dark. This is not all bad, mind you: When it’s not actually snowing (which is often), the show of stars is beyond describing in the winter, biblical in brilliance and magnitude.

Just as unforgettable are the snowy nights with a full moon. I love to look across the valley at bedtime on such a night, when the light bouncing off the field of snow is almost as bright as day, but also eerie and ghostly. Features of the landscape show up vividly that I feel I’m not supposed to be seeing at night.

DuboisWinterMoonHow many people in the modern world ever see this? If you’ve been a city dweller all your life, the mere thought of it haunts you. On those bright and snowy nights I also think of the animals sleeping outdoors, and the ones that are awake and hunting.

Despite all that, and however many Christmas carols we may sing at church, this is not the time of year that makes the heart sing. How fondly I remember those days last July when I had to shield my eyes from the setting sun while driving home from the square dance or the rodeo at around 9 PM!

Long after dinner, while we were beginning the slow, calm slide toward the pillow, we would watch the moon rise to the east in the slow waning of that brilliant blue.

So what is there to do in a tiny, isolated village like Dubois on a day like today, when the sun will set at 4:43 PM and dark will fall at 5:16?

DuboisQuiltShow080815_2I wonder whether this season and this isolation play a large part in the creation of the splendors we enjoy in mid-summer at the annual quilt show. (I know you’re reading, Eileen. Do you think winter and the solstice create the desire–perhaps the need–to quilt?)

One of our master quilters, Eileen responded:

You’re correct, Lois. We get a lot of quilting done during these days. Every Thursday I have a group of from 8 to 12 women come to my house to quilt. Some even leave their second machine here so they don’t have to cart them each week. Many of us have been working on our 2016 raffle quilt part time (almost ready for the long-arm quilter!) while others work on their individual projects. We affectionately call ourselves the “TQers” (Thursday Quilters). We start around 9 a.m., go out to lunch together at noon, and then return to our projects until about 2:30 or 3 p.m. You can always count on free advice when you have a problem, learn the latest news and laugh a lot! No winter doldrums here!

dinnerJust the other day I learned that we missed a neighborhood dinner party held back home in Dubois during our absence for the holidays. I can’t recall when I’ve regretted missing an event more deeply, as I thought of those good friends enjoying each others’ company on a dark winter evening.

This brought back thoughts of the last potluck dinner we attended before leaving in November. That’s my foodie picture at right: Grilled salmon, grilled asparagus, pasta with fresh-made pesto (my contribution, having harvested the last of the basil from the indoor window box). The company was even more enjoyable than the cuisine.

CAM01090After we return to Dubois in a few weeks, I know these will be our times for jigsaw puzzles, popcorn and Scrabble, and old movies on TCM. But now I wonder: How do our neighbors in Dubois spend those long and perhaps lonely winter evenings?

Are there projects you save up for these winter evenings? Does this become the time you connect with friends you were too busy to see during the high season of summer?

Are there activities in town scheduled for winter evenings that you especially enjoy? Are there any that used to happen which you wish would be revived?

Especially if you’re a reader from the upper Wind River Valley, please enter a comment (be sure you’re on the page for this article, not the home page, and scroll to the bottom to find “Reply,” below the other comments).

I’d really like to know, and so would others.

© Lois Wingerson, 2015

Our local wildman and Scout master Joe Brandl responded, far more beautifully than I could ever have written:

Ahhhhh…the winter months of Dubois. It is these months that the Bighorns are easily observed banging heads along Torrey Creek, a large herd of elk can be spotted up on Windy Mtn, big browns are hungry in the Wind River which never freezes, for the adventuous souls, ice climbing at the Natural Bridge, the sun rises are the most colorful with ice crystals in the air, numerous mule deer does lead their fawns down to the river, the large bucks hang out together in the nearby hay fields, mergansers and golden eyes float the ice free river alway diving for a meal, some nights there is little wind and the snow falls so lightly, covering the streets and we know it will gone by noon the next day when the sun comes out, Christmas day sitting on Torrey Lake ice fishing……in a tee shirt, bald eagle hunt for ducks along the river, the smell of wood smoke from the logs cut in early fall, moon light snowshoeing or skiing on Two Ocean, no tourists to wait behind at the Bistro or crowd you out of a table at the Cowboy, we sweep our porches of snow, shovels only needed in May, hundreds of chickadees, pine siskins, rosy finches and a few remaining doves keep us refilling the bird feeders, more candlelight dinners with friends, the famous Claar Christmas Eve dinner which brings friends together and so much food they provide “to go plates” for you to take home, countless goodies left in your vehicle by someone just wanting to share with you, moonlit nights so bright you can read a newspaper and stars….wow, the stars, millions and millions of them and you can still see them downtown, but on the overlook or up on Togotwee Pass…..well, you just have to experience it! We love the winter because we know spring and summer however short is seems is just ahead. But, for now, we enjoy our winter!

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Missing Dubois at Christmas

Back in New York for the holidays, amid the clamor and energy, I long for what’s going on in my Wyoming home.

Selfie_1215Bklyn We’re back in New York City for the holidays. Because most of our family here has vanished (either deceased or otherwise departed), ours will be a quiet Christmas in a noisy city.

I discover that my new glasses, which looked so dorky in Dubois that I never wore them, are un-remarkably trendy here. I take a selfie on the street one evening, and surprise myself by what I see.

With a change of glasses, coat, and scarf (and facial expression) have I become someone else? Hardly.

Amid the clamor and the energy, I miss being in Dubois–even more so when friends let me know how much there is to miss. My friend and neighbor Karen McCullough sent these pictures, which make the loss all the more obvious.

She included the picture at left below, and I sent back the one at right. To be fair, she took hers first thing in the morning and I took mine at noon. I know that the temperature in Dubois often also gets near 50 at midday in the winter. It can be darn cold here too, especially around the holidays.

Back in Dubois, Karen told me, nearly all of the Christmoose cards are already gone from the little trees in Dubois’ two coffeehouses (the Perch and Kathy’s). For more than a decade, this has been the town’s version of “secret Santa.”

Christmoose1Each card contains a wish list for an anonymous needy child, identified only by age and gender. Forms to create a wish list are available at the food bank and the Opportunity Shop.

Donors take away a card, buy the gifts on the list, and return with the gifts to be distributed (also anonymously) on December 19.

Mary Ellen, who runs the program, told me today that 30 cards have been taken away. Can people guess the identities of the children from the lists? I wonder, but it doesn’t really matter. In a town as small as Dubois, it seems to me, even a secret Santa may feel quite personal.

She also reports that donations to the Salvation Army, which she and Mayor Twila Blakeman collect at the supermarket, are running particularly strong this year.

ChristmasConcert2015Speaking of Christmas spirit, here’s the scene at the Spirit of Christmas concert on Saturday evening at the Headwaters, sponsored by the Museum, the Library, and the Friends of the Library.

It shows one of the great facts about town: Given the opportunity, people actually dance together. And they donate tempting baked goods. Look at the spread they laid out for this event. I gain weight just thinking about it. Goodies

Imagine the bustle that must have preceded this scene, as Tammy worked with volunteers to set up the stage and reposition the furniture after the High Country Christmas Extravaganza on Friday.

There, I could have bought a Christmas tree already decorated by friends at the Kiwanis Club (at left, below), or one from the Chamber of Commerce with handmade ornaments showing some of the many ways you can amuse yourself in Dubois.

I would also have been tempted by the handmade toys, wreaths, and gingerbread houses. Of course there are craft fairs like this at many churches in the city, but not knowing the vendors or anyone else in the crowd, I’m rarely moved to stop by. Back in Dubois, I am always curious to see who’s been busy making what.

Naturally, I also have good friends in New York City, and it’s lovely to see them. But here the season brings traffic, bustle, incessant impersonal holiday music in the shops, noisy bars, over-hyped squalling children on the crowded sidewalks. The spirit? Entertain, or be lonely. Buy lots of stuff, or be square. Get down deep at the Christmas Eve service, but never set foot there the rest of the year.

This season is hardly a community event here. Seems in some ways it draws us apart rather than together. In my experience, the significant community events in the city are the disasters, like blackouts, big storms, or terrorist acts. Christmas is just yet another thing that turns up predictably every year, something else to amuse the children.

Tp be fair, you can’t blame the city for being a city. But at my stage in life, Christmas in Dubois seems to be much warmer, whatever the thermometer says.

© Lois Wingerson, 2015

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Dubois: Middle of Nowhere, and Everywhere

Dubois WY
The road to Evanston, October 21.

One of the great things about Dubois is how great it is to get away.

Please don’t get me wrong. There’s probably not a minute when I want to escape.

A few weeks ago my husband asked whether I’d mind missing our annual road trip if he couldn’t fulfill his commitments before the holidays. I said I really didn’t mind.

Living in Dubois is sort of like a vacation anyway.

We did get away after all, and we chose the right time. Whatever it may say in “Home on the Range,” the skies were predicted to be cloudy all day on the day we left, and they did stay that way all day as we headed south.

Source: US Geological Survey

What I meant in the first sentence was that it’s almost the perfect place to start from on a road trip to somewhere else in the American West. Especially for someone like me, a retired Easterner who saw the West only via airports during business trips, it’s the ideal jumping-off point from which to explore.

Here’s a map of places we’ve visited by highway since moving to Dubois. The red line heading straight east is sort of a cheat, because it roughly describes the commute back to New York City which we take now and again. But those are road trips too, and I enjoy them.

jordanelleSkies were clearing as we reached our first campsite, in northern Utah.

Since then we have seen massive 1000-foot ridges of red stone that stayed with us for hours. We’ve dropped through vertiginous canyons and followed tortuous switchbacks. Nothing thousands of other tourists haven’t done — but it’s so easy to get home!

En route I’ve met several people who have taken months away from whatever to tour the American West by car. Lucky, lucky me. I can do it at my leisure.Flagstaff1

I can also take great hikes in a different location. The pictures at right are from a 3-mile loop the dog and I reached out the back entrance of our KOA campground in Flagstaff. It was a magical uphill scramble over many boulders, along a very well-maiintained trail, with the reward you see at the top.

On the left there you can see a long-dead, black volcano.

So much for what I’ve done on my vacation. What I’ve learned on my vacation is this: You can drive for many days around the American West, and see many unforgettable sights.

But I have yet to see any location in the American West that has so many of those remarkable sights — red rocks, massive vistas, huge rock formations, deep canyons, dark pine forests, hidden lakes — within such a relatively compact space.

In Sedona, all you see is red rocks. In Crater Lake, what you see is a high mountain lake. In Dubois, I can hike the red rock badlands or the pine forests. It just depends which way I turn onto the highway.

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© Lois Wingerson 2015

Two Beautiful Days in September: 9/11/01 and 9/28/15

Like 9/11 in Brooklyn, this was a beautiful day one moment and in the next, devastation. How was it different in Dubois?

Both days began the same, wonderfully–a flawless blue sky and the kind of mildly warm weather that make you wistful at the loss of summer. One moment, it was a bittersweet and beautiful day. In the next, I saw devastation.

National_Park_Service_9-11_Statue_of_Liberty_and_WTC CrookedCreek1Both times the sign was a column of smoke.

On that first September day, 14 years ago, I turned a corner in Manhattan and watched, dreamlike, as the huge cloud of smoke surged up into that blue sky. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, but I also couldn’t watch too long.

Last Monday, I was on the phone at my desk. I turned toward the window. This cloud of smoke didn’t so much surge as billow upwards. After a summer of fire catastrophes in the West, forest fire had come home to me–or nearly so.

Much as I loathe using the Nazi Holocaust as a literary gimmick to generate pathos, I resist comparing these two fires. Nothing in my life compares to 9/11. However, experiences during one inevitably bring back images and emotions from the other.

First, the smell. In both cases, our house was downwind only a few miles from the fire. The days and months after 9/11 were redolent with the inescapable odor of burning plastic and something else, unidentifiable and acrid. As Ground Zero smoldered, seemingly forever, we could not get away for a moment from that reminder of tragedy, and the knowledge that life had changed incalculably.

BeetleKillThe smell of this week’s Crooked Creek fire was, of course, burning wood. Even as I was hosing off our shingle roof to deter sparks from the fire that could in theory destroy our log house, I was smelling memories of campfires, of sitting around the firepit on our own deck with a glass of wine.

This was threatening to be sure, and a call to urgent action by me and–far more important–a small and well-organized battalion of brave firefighters. But it was also, most of us assumed, merely the result of one human’s careless action combined with the results of misguided forest-management policy. Nature, benign and dispassionate, combined with mere human stupidity. Not colossal malevolence.

Next, the airplanes. All that night, September 11, I could not sleep for the sound of airplanes clattering over the house. I knew these were military aircraft, that all other flights over the area had been banned. Still, I found the sound deeply frightening. Even now, when I see a commercial jetliner soaring high over Prospect Park in Brooklyn, I remember how that looked to me in the months after that event.

CrookedCreek3Two days ago, my annual autumn hike up the tall ridge beside our valley was unusual for the constant sound of aircraft nearby. The noise went on all week, small planes and helicopters doing reconnaissance, dropping off fire jumpers, lobbing “bombs” of fire retardant slurry over the fire that puffed and fumed two ridges away, off to the southwest. I could easily see them, flying low and circling back, over and over. The sound of planes was reassuring, wonderful.

And above all, the nature of the fear. Fourteen years ago I lived through days and months of gradually waning terror. I’ll never forget the sight and sound of deserted Manhattan that evening, as if someone had dropped a neutron bomb and only the (rest of the) buildings survived. All of the people had gone underground, or at least home. There was almost nobody on the streets. Midtown Manhattan, the city that never sleeps, was literally silent.

We didn’t see the cleanup crews. Who would enter that area voluntarily, even if we could? In a sense, in the following weeks, we also didn’t see each other. Yes, the city pulled together as it always does in crisis. On the other hand, back then you wondered who the other person really was.

CrookedCreek4This week, the first responders were, of course, our own highly prized volunteer firefighters. We know who they are. They’re friends. And look at this: The teams that came in later put up pup tents in our town park and ate their meals in the same Headwaters Center where we have our own community events, all the time.

They didn’t camp in the ball field, so as not to interfere with practice. The cost unit leader for the incident management team actually lives in town. I see her at church. The public information officer for the team comes from Melrose, Colorado, but he has come here to fish.

The team had nearly vanquished the Crooked Creek fire when I took this picture in the park, and a few days of rain have certainly doused it for good. It’s all over, I’m sure.

That’s the real difference between those two different events on two beautiful September days. This one is certainly over, thank heaven. I wonder if that other one will ever be.


Want to read more about living in Dubois WY? You can read weekly updates via email using the link at the top of the right column.

© Lois Wingerson 2015

Guns, Murders, and Schizophrenia in Wyoming

Yeah, lots of people out here have guns. Look what we’re (not) using them for.

camovestsMost of the “snowbird” summer residents are gone now, back to warmer climates. But the motels still have the No Vacancy signs on. With cooler weather, hunting is in season.

Time to change my ways. My hiking range is more confined. I have to add a vest of bright orange, a color no game would wear.

Am I annoyed? Not much.

Once I was flat-out, knee-jerk anti-hunting. I still have some trouble with the idea of flying off to an exotic location to stalk and decapitate a trophy animal. But now I have too many friends who need that license for their daily meat course to claim the moral high ground here.

Someone killed a fellow creature so I could have chicken breast, too, and I didn’t have to do it. I didn’t even have to watch. The sight of the deer carcass hanging in Pete’s garage is startling, yes, but I hardly disapprove.

Miss-Annie-Oakley-peerless-wing-shotLiving part time in Dubois and part time in Brooklyn has made a schizophrenic of me, but (I would argue) not a hypocrite. Back East, I am a staunch supporter of gun control. In that high-pressure melting pot metropolis, anything that makes it more difficult to retaliate with escalating violence in a New York minute seems like a great idea to me.

But Dubois, as I often say, is the perfect contrast. I’m hardly Annie Oakley myself, and would most likely shoot off my foot rather than any target I might aim at. But here, I do support the right to bear arms, if only so that those who know how to use them can feel safe while hiking deep in grizzly country–let alone putting meat on the table the way people have done here for generations. It’s not the same place at all.

Only a few months ago, I found good, rational support for my my split personality about gun laws. I saw an article in a local news site, bemoaning the fact that Wyoming has eighth-lowest record in the nation for carrying out mental-health background checks before issuing gun licenses.

What does this really mean? Seeing that report, I thought about other the weekly news I read here in the Wind River Valley, compared to that I see in New York City. Then I decided to dig up some context. Here’s what I found (according to recent data from the US Census Bureau and the FBI as quoted in Wikipedia). I turned the data into a graph:


Sorry if the image is difficult to read. That’s gun-related murders per capita, by state. Wyoming is the pair of bars at the far right of the graph.

The orange bars are gun murders/100,000 residents, and the blue bars are the percentage of state residents who own firearms.

The tall orange bar in the middle is Louisiana.

Even at a glance, you can see that even though it has the highest rate of gun ownership in the country (60%), Wyoming has one of the lowest gun-related murder rates (1.4/100,000 population, or #46 out of 51, including the District of Columbia).

So you’re very likely to own a gun in Dubois, as I suspected. But you’re extremely unlikely to have another human being as your target.

I couldn’t include Washington DC in the graph. The stats for DC are so far off the charts that the other bars would have shrunk to invisibility on the same scale. DC has the lowest rate of gun ownership in the nation (3.6%) and by far the highest murder rate involving firearms (16.5/100,000).

Pay no attention to what the screenwriters portray on the latest series of Longmire on Netflix, therefore.  Read the books by Craig Johnson instead.

Want to read more about living in Dubois WY? You can read weekly updates via email using the link at the top of the right column.

© Lois Wingerson 2015

Fall Comes to Fremont County


Last year about this time I wrote a poem. (It’s the last entry in my print journal, which I suppose this blog has replaced.)

This spectacular country reminds you
matter-of-factly, persistently,
that death
is a fact of life.

If nothing else, you cannot miss
the landscape mellowing
from green to gold to gray.

The aged, tapped-out cowboy
hitch-hikes through Yellowstone
to see a friend once more
in Montana
and regrets the effort.
The pain has driven him back.

The friend drives him back.
He has to cowboy up to reality, at last

Not least there are the dried-out bones
and those still wet with sinew
that delight the dog.

The bluebird soars joyously
into the plate glass image
of endless sky
and — gone! — plummets.

Coyotes yap at night
in celebration.
We know why.

Even the mountains melt or crumble
in their time.

The iridescent night sky,
endless, deep beyond measure,
reminds you that your time is small.

Want to read more about living in Dubois WY? You can read weekly updates via email using the link at the top of the right column.

© Lois Wingerson 2015

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