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

Independence Day In Dubois (A July 4 Scrapbook)

Lucky tourists stumble on our charming parade. Some folks travel a long way on purpose to see it.

Dubois July 4
Slow, but far quicker than the original, a Conestoga wagon starts the parade.
Dubois July 4
“Dudes” from the CM Ranch, the first guest ranch to be established in the upper Wind River Valley, join the Independence Day parade every year.

The thing to do on July 4 in Dubois is to catch the parade, which must rival any in the United States for charm and originality.

Another thing to do is find a spot under an awning, or bring an umbrella. The volunteer firefighters come by near the end of the event to offer a refreshing shower — or a moment of embarrassment for the unprepared.

The parade is a lucky find for visitors who happen to be in Dubois that week. But some out-of-towners travel quite a distance on purpose, just to experience it.

Dubois July 4
The CM Ranch also likes to feature its vintage fire engine. Behind it you can see the Twin Pines Lodge (and cabins), which is about as old and venerable the CM Ranch. The “vacancy” sign is often dark.

We met some people from Cody who had come to Dubois just to catch the parade. They said that to get a decent viewing spot in Cody you have to stake out your location days ahead.

Dubois July 4
This “race car” powered by a custom-restored antique agricultural “hit and miss” engine makes its way along the parade route every year at a suitably moderate speed.
Dubois July 4
Another interesting mode of transport, brought to town by someone proud to show it off to neighbors again this year.
Dubois July 4
Deb proudly shows off her own means of independence, representing the new assisted living facility, Warm Valley Lodge. The Lodge itself represents independence for many long-term residents of this warm valley, who no longer have to decamp to a large city somewhere else when they begin to need help day to day.
This wonderful vintage ambulance was one of several military vehicles in the parade. Sorry we didn’t catch pictures of the authentic WWII tanks also owned by a resident of the valley. There’s easily enough space out here to store vehicles like that year round, out of sight.
Dubois July 4
After the parade, St. Thomas Episcopal Church sponsored its annual ice cream social (handmade vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and cherry). The line of hot and hungry spectators reached all the way to the corner. (Here you see the last of those served.)
Dubois July 4
Here’s what I brought to coffee hour at St. Thomas church on July 5. The color scheme was complete serendipity: As I pulled the third item out of the oven, it suddenly dawned on me what I had created.

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