Escaping Home on the Range

Sometimes I need to be even more remote than I already am.

“They don’t even talk about Yellowstone,” said someone about the couple who were staying in her rental cabin in Dubois. “They just want to escape because they’ve been cooped up for four months.”

Although I live in the very place where they have come to escape, I do sympathize. But it’s not four walls I want to be away from. It’s four mountain ranges, the ones that surround our home–the Winds, the Absarokas, the Tetons, the Owls.

I need to be even more remote than I already am. Completely off the grid for a while. To see canyons I never saw before and hike trails with unfamiliar views in a different world. That’s it, I realize: I want to live in a different world for a while. To escape the news of pandemic and panic, of pillagers and police.

We pack our toothpaste and face masks. We shut down, turn off, lock the doors behind us and head off toward the Bighorn Mountains, to camp out where we are distanced in earnest.

Soon we’re shooting northward out of the top of Wind River Canyon and onto the huge, flat plain called the Bighorn Basin. Ahead, off in the distance, are unfamiliar ridges and ranges.

Reading Roadside Geology of Wyoming as we cross the flats, we learn again about folding and faulting, and recall the reasons why the oldest rocks are at the peaks of mountains, not in the valleys below. We read why this barren desert plain is a vast oilfield now: because once, ages ago, it was all a huge seabed.

Or so we thought. Then a brown sign on a nearly deserted highway near the base of the Bighorn Mountains grabs us and turns us around. Dinosaur tracks! Now there’s something new to us – and like most of Wyoming, of course, also very, very old.

We rumble five miles down a gravel road past beautifully striped badlands (not that different from the ones near home, but smaller) to reach the Bureau of Land Management Paleontology Area near Red Gulch.

It’s one of those spots that only locals knew about, until four hikers noticed three-toed impressions in the rock at their feet, recognized what they were looking at, and told the experts, who ventured out here, found more, and put up lots of signs.

We learn that that this spot has overturned the accepted concepts about that ancient prehistoric seabed. In Roadside Geology we read that back in the Jurassic era about 160 million years ago, before the continents split apart, all of what is now the Rocky Mountain region was submerged under a vast inland sea.

But here’s something old and new: In this particular location, now near base of the Bighorn range, there must have been a reef-like island with wet sand at its edge, where dinosaurs once walked back and forth.  

We too walk back and forth along the ancient draw, where the silt long ago turned to stone, and we begin to see the three-toed tracks for ourselves, as well as others that seem to include the imprint of a bony heel. The longer we look, the more we find.

This has a way of distancing one from the concerns of the moment.

Fast forward 100 million years. This was still before the huge volcanic pile that we can see from our living room, the Absarokas, formed after a huge eruption. About 60 million years ago, the foundation of the land at that spot we had left behind was driven eastwards by an underground collision from the west, slowly grinding its leading edge beneath the basement of the land that we were about to ascend, which rose to become the Bighorns.

What was once deep, fundamental, and subterranean eventually became lofty and ascendant, pointing right to the sky. How long, I wonder aloud, did this take?

A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone, short as the watch that ends the night …

“I think modern humans have no concept of the mountain-building that is going on right now,” replied my husband. Or of their destruction, I think, as right now, when  the Wind River turns the color of caffe latte, bringing some of those mountains down.

Leaving the dinosaur tracks behind, we climb a long chain of switchbacks up a granite-rimmed canyon toward the meadows at the summit of the Bighorns. Some of the oldest rocks on earth rise from these meadows, white boulders sparsely draped with evergreens. The meadows themselves are a carpet of spring green just now, decorated with large patches of blue lupine and yellow asters.

Next to our campsite rises an imposing jumble of granite blocks. This is home to  a russet-colored creature with a fluffy tail that clambers cat-like across the boulders: A marmot. We learn that it likes walnuts, and will come quite close to retrieve them.

We seem to spend a fair bit of time gazing. We gaze at the marmot resting on a warm rock in the sun, and it gazes back. We gaze at moose as they chew placidly on willows near streams, ignoring us. I spend long periods just gazing at the forest across the stream beside the campground, listening to the birds.

It occurs to me that though we have no signal, I might actually work. Even write this. My laptop is in the camper, and its battery is charged. But I resist.

Instead, I hike to exhaustion in order to reach a tall formation of ancient lava, and follow a moose trail toward its top.

Leaving the campground, we grind slowly back down the switchbacks. Long before we reach cellphone signal, I sense a subtle groundshift, a change in perspective.

Obligations that seemed daunting a few days ago now feel workable. I find later that certain problems have resolved in my absence – not the monumental problems that have been troubling everyone, but a few smaller ones that had puzzled me. Meanwhile, some interesting new challenges have materialized.

During a miniscule sliver of geologic time while I went out of range to find repose at the top of a distant range, the world kept spinning without my assistance. The mountains are rising and falling, the flowers keep blooming in the high meadows, the wildlife are living their wild lives, and they will continue to do so whatever I decide to worry about.

What a relief.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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How to Endanger Dubois While Feeling Just Great

Where did I get it, and where did I leave it?

I have no idea how I could have caught it, and worse yet, no idea where I left it behind. I won’t even know what “it” is until I can get the results of the nasal swab test I had just this morning.

What I do know is that after going to bed on May 15–the very day that the Governor’s newest order allowed people to gather inside restaurants, gyms, and churches again–I fell ill without warning.

I slept very badly. All my muscles ached horribly, even the ones in my fingers and toes, and no medicine helped for very long. For a while I had chills.

The next morning I had a fever of 102 degrees, and I almost couldn’t get out of bed. I slept through that day, and all through the following night.

I’m puzzled about how I got this, whatever it is. I have been wearing a mask in stores and the Post Office. I’ve used Kleenex to open doors in town, and rubbed my hands with sanitizers before driving home.

There are two possible outcomes to this personal story, neither of which is pleasant.

Either the test is positive, in which case I’m the lucky winner of the First-Confirmed-Pandemic-Case-in-Dubois Prize, and my husband and I are stuck at home for another 14 days. Or it’s negative, I’m still vulnerable, and somehow all my precautions didn’t even protect me from something less virulent than that nasty, extraordinarily infectious pandemic virus.

While I was coming down with this, ironically, I read The Risks: Know Them, Avoid Them by Erin Bromage PhD, an immunologist at the University of Massachusetts. I’m sure she meant to be comforting (in the “knowledge is power” sense), but the scientific reports in her article document how easily the virus can spread to the unsuspecting.

What probably troubles me most is wondering who I endangered over the past days, while I felt absolutely fine but must have been spreading my germs around (whatever they are).

This experience reminds me of bedbugs (alas), and also of true love and parenthood. Until you’ve experienced it for yourself, you can’t really understand the impact.

It looks like I got off easy. My temperature dropped quickly to 99 during the day after the bad night, and a day and a half later, I felt much better. But I’m confined to the bedroom now. I wear a mask every time I leave the room (unless I forget). I wash my own dishes in the bathroom sink.

My husband is sleeping in a guest room. For the moment, I have to work very hard to protect him. This gives me an insight into how easy it must be to share Coronavirus with your family members.

It’s quite a chore to be adequately careful. Inadvertently, I touch a doorknob without reaching for a Kleenex first, and have to circle back and clean it off. I sometimes forget the mask when I walk out to talk to my husband from across the room. (Mustn’t leave my germs in his airspace.)

I simply can’t make my own food or even my own coffee, because it requires too much touching this and that (although I do grab cans of seltzer from the pantry). Here’s a good one: Opening the front door with my gloves on, I realize that I had just worn them while readjusting the filter inside my mask — on the side my breath has been facing.  So I have to spray them as well as the outside doorknob with bleach solution, of course using a paper towel to hold the spray bottle.

For several weeks I’ve been dutifully keeping a paper record of my contacts on the off-chance I might have to give information to a contact tracer. Thinking idly about this as I lay in bed, I realized that I had overlooked several casual conversations that took place with my mask off, because I mistakenly assumed I was no threat.

But I had already read that people can pass the Coronavirus along before they experience symptoms. In fact, some infected people never fall ill at all but can still spread it around; I have a friend living elsewhere in Wyoming who falls into that category. Maybe someone I spoke with infected me. Maybe I have infected them. Who knows?

bluebirdAt least I can be glad that we are no longer living in that tiny garden apartment in the pandemic hell-hole of New York City. There, we couldn’t have escaped each other at all during quarantine (which makes me really sorry for any New Yorkers who are roommates and don’t like each other much).

Here, we have an open-plan main floor with high ceilings, several bedrooms and bathrooms, and a back porch leading to the vast outdoors and paths that go off into wilderness.

I get to step out the back door from our bedroom to enjoy the fresh air and enjoy sights I never would have seen if I weren’t confined. Today, I scared up a whitetail deer that stared at me from just beyond the porch railing before ambling slowly off. Yesterday, I watched a bluebird swooping down feed his mate inside the birdhouse, just as my husband drops off my own next meal.

I’m so fortunate that this is happening to me in Dubois, I think. But then …

I ponder what will happen, now that the doors have opened on our business establishments and there’s a steady stream of cars heading in the direction of Yellowstone. The restaurants and gyms can be as careful as possible, yet it will be very easy for the virus to spread nonetheless, if the rest of us are too easygoing–especially as tourists begin to arrive. In theory, any of them might pass it along to any of us. 

Perhaps because so far Dubois has had the distinction of having a case count of zero, relatively few of our residents are wearing masks in town. I know of at least one who has actually refused to do so. It’s tempting to view this in the light of personal liberty and cowboy courage in the face of danger, rather than in the tradition of community self-help that has always prevailed here in the Mountain West. Perhaps not enough people realize that masks are worn to protect the other guy, as a surgeon does.

If I am the one to destroy our town’s enviable zero-case record, I won’t be apologetic. I did try to protect myself and everyone else. But my experience shows how important–and how difficult–it is to be vigilant enough.

Our best defense is to take this risk seriously, and make effective use of all of the protections we know about: social distancing, masks, and sanitizers.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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First Day of Spring 2020: Sheltered in Peace

You can’t tell Mother Nature to be in lockdown.

After a phone call with a friend who’s in quarantine, I went out snowshoeing.

I had hoped the clouds would part and the sky turn blue, but soon I was actually enjoying the misty sky and gentle snowfall.

It was like an enchanted forest. Wearing a heavy crown of snow, the log-built restroom in the empty campground looked like a hut in a children’s story book. There was silence but for the patter of the snowflakes and the call of a distant duck.

A few days ago, the Governor closed down all public places in Wyoming for two weeks. It seems that nobody informed Mother Nature.

As in the early spring of any year, we are suddenly seeing animals other than the hardy livestock that tolerate cold and snow. Small calves are romping in the roadside meadows now, and I’ve seen my first pair of bluebirds.

Driving down-county last week, going in the direction away from Yellowstone, I had the rare pleasure of catching a glimpse of bison on the open range on the reservation.

The Native Americans have succeeded in bringing them back to the rez, and I always look for them. But I very seldom see them near the highway out there (though other bison are regulars along the route to Jackson).

Unlike what we expect in the summer when we head to Jackson, this time there was no traffic jam. Nobody else stopped to take a picture. Besides, going that way off-season there are hardly any other cars, anyway.

Coming back from dinner at a restaurant up-mountain last week (when dinners out were still allowed), we were remarking what a shame it is that you seldom see moose any more. We turned a corner and there, among the willows: Not one, but three!

We stopped and watched them enjoying their own evening meal. The dark spots at left are the two that are hiding out in the willow bank.

A few days later, taking the same route, I saw one of them again, again a dark shape among the russet willow branches. I pulled over and watched for a long time as it grazed in the late afternoon sunlight.

It stood still for a while afterwards, and then it sat down beneath the willows. I drove on, feeling rather fortunate.

The other day, our daughter spoke some words I never thought I’d hear her say: “I wish I lived in Dubois right now.”

You can go outdoors anytime, she went on, and always find something interesting to do. So true.

If he was older and could understand exactly what she means, this young fellow might agree with his mother. (Now there’s another wild creature I wish I could see more often.)

Out walking the dog yesterday, I encountered a friend and we hiked on together up a lovely country road, socially distant as per CDC advisories, well apart but happily together nonetheless.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Rethinking Remoteness

Desolate? Isolated? Not the right image at all.

Like others, I have often described Dubois as remote. But a trip to Laramie last week has inspired a change of perspective. I may have been giving a false impression all this time.

Perhaps when I write “remote,” readers who don’t know the area have a mental image that is completely mistaken. Let me describe that kind of remote more precisely. That is what I drove last week, and not at all what defines Dubois.

It’s a five-hour drive to Laramie, where I had a meeting at the University — down 287 to Rawlins and then across I-80 eastward for about 80 miles. To most Wyoming residents, this is not a great distance.

I’ve come to enjoy knowing the names of the landmarks as well as I used to know the names of subway stops on the F train in Manhattan. They are so evocative: Burris. Crowheart. Lander. Sweetwater Station. Jeffrey City (of which more later). Split Rock. And perhaps my favorite: Muddy Gap, which has almost nothing to commend it except a descriptive name and a turn in the road.

Most times I enjoy driving across the rather desolate expanse between Lander and Rawlins, but in December it’s no trivial undertaking–especially if you’re driving alone.

The crosswinds out of the West between Sweetwater Station and Muddy Gap are often arm-numbingly strong, with nothing on that high prairie to stop them. I checked the weather apps carefully before committing to the trip, and made sure I had plenty of gas before heading south out of Lander.

This is the same country where scores of Mormon pioneers perished when they were halted by snow in November 1856 during their westward trek toward Utah. (The exact number who died at Martin’s Cove near Split Rock along today’s highway 287 is unknown.)

After Rawlins, I’d head east toward Laramie on Interstate 80. I have a sort of pity for people who say they have been to Wyoming, when all they have done is drive Interstate 80 between Cheyenne and Salt Lake City. Hugging the southern border of the state, it travels through almost nothing but sand and sagebrush. You see nothing of the spectacular beauty of our state on that long, boring journey.

The trip toward Laramie was uneventful, and I had a very pleasant stay. But the return trip on Friday the 13th was a different matter. The forecast called for no snowfall, but it did warn of high winds. And the road was slick. There were signs forbidding travel by light high-profile vehicles.

We crawled at 45 miles per hour most of the way west toward Rawlins and even slower in the first few northbound miles on 287. Sometimes vision was obscured by clouds of windborne snow. I saw two semi trucks blown over on their sides. I nearly turned back to spend the night in Rawlins.

I’m glad I didn’t. Somewhere before Muddy Gap, I noticed that the sedan ahead of me had gained lots of distance. The road was dry, and the wind had forgotten to blow. I turned Sirius XM back on, and after a while I noticed that I was sometimes driving with one hand.

As I was passing Split Rock, and thinking about the Mormons, I began to muse about that idea of remoteness. Just ahead was Jeffrey City, a former uranium mining town that nearly died but began to revive recently. The motel has reopened, but someone told me today that even if he had no choice, he’d drive on.

I pulled off to take just the right picture. Now this may be what people think of when you hear the words “remote” and “Wyoming” in the same context.

See the abandoned apartment buildings. Feel the wind howling across the empty prairie. Hear the coyotes at night under that huge, boundless sky. Imagine the drive north to Lander or south to Rawlins, the next places to buy gas or groceries.

In the long run, it wasn’t a bad drive at all. Rather than the dirty gray walls of a subway tunnel, I saw cattle crowding a gate waiting for their feed. I saw many large birds riding on the updrafts. I saw a large herd of wild horses on the right, not long after I stopped to take this picture.

Well before sunset, I reached the welcoming streets of Dubois, which were lined with open shops as usual, and busy with cars on a Friday evening. Our town is cradled in a narrow valley between two mountain ranges, which may funnel the wind but also give a sense of shelter. It is little more than an hour’s drive to any of 3 larger towns, and those drives are both beautiful, with varied landscapes and visual landmarks to engage the eyes and the mind.

I think I will stop calling Dubois remote. Maybe it felt remote when I first came here from the city, but it doesn’t any more. There’s a much better term, and finding it will require further thought.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Fake News About Dubois, and the Facts

Groceries, grizzlies, antelope farms, and more …

Still away from my desk for a while. Here for your amusement is something I wrote a while ago, when the misconceptions about Dubois began to pile up in my awareness. Can you think of any others? Please send a comment.

Most of what follows is hearsay. In the past few weeks, several people have told me about some remarkable comments they’ve heard from visitors to town. I’ve also run across some other amusing misconceptions on my own.

I decided I should set the record straight:

Outfit1. We don’t dress this way as part of a historic re-enactment. This is really how we like to dress, and for good reason. We wear brimmed hats and long-sleeved shirts for protection against the fierce sun. We wear vests because it’s just enough to keep us warm in the high-desert cool. We wear jeans because they’re comfortable and sturdy. We wear boots because they keep the rocks out. (Here’s what I might be wearing today, if I hadn’t chosen a different shirt, vest, and jeans.)

2. Whatever that person in Jackson may have said, there’s no need to stock up before heading this way. Dubois does have an amply stocked grocery store, a gas station (well, actually four of them), and many places to buy a cup of coffee (or even a latte, a cappuccino, or a chai).

3.  There probably isn’t a grizzly bear in the Town Park just now.  Our bear expert Brian does say that, in theory, except in the dead of winter, a grizzly could be anywhere. But a grizzly doesn’t want to see you any more than you want to see her. We know better than to leave trash around for her to find, and she prefers to be in the forest anyway. Everybody knows how to recognize the signs that a bear has been around, and if any had been seen recently, you can bet that (1) everybody would be talking about it and (2) it would have been taken care of long before they began talking.

Antelope_1006174. We do not “farm” deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, or other animals you may see behind fences near town. This is actually the wildlife you have come all this way to view. They come here of their own free will, probably because they like it around here as much as we do. They leap the fences, live in peace with the livestock, and like to graze our fields. (Please drive with care.)

5. We’re not all cowboys in Dubois. Indeed there are many working cowhands, retired cowboys, former cowboys, and would-be cowboys. But the population also includes (off the top of my head) a computer architect, a designer of medical devices, a lobbyist, and many painters and photographers.

stopsign6. Dubois does have stop signs.“There’s not even really a stop sign in town,” Jeda Higgs said on the video “Chasing Totality: Making the Eclipse Megamovie.” I probably would have been dazzled by the exposure too, but that was hyperbole. More accurately, there is no stop sign, yield sign, or traffic light for cars making the 90-degree turn on the highway as it passes through the center of town. They have the right of way (and locals know it). People do face stop signs as they enter the highway from many side streets in town, and there are more in the residential parts of the village.

7. Dubois is not the most remote town in the lower 48 states. I dealt with this long-held and much-quoted myth in a previous post. The following is true: Dubois is more than an hour’s drive from the nearest large towns. A remarkable proportion of the surrounding landscape is publicly owned wilderness. The nearest Interstate is about 3 hours away. On the other hand, goods and services are easily accessible and residents take the commute to big-box stores and other conveniences as a fact of life (just as people elsewhere endure traffic, which we don’t have). Besides, those “commutes” are unusually scenic. But by any published criterion, Dubois is not the most remote town in the US. Maybe the most interesting or most charming or most authentically Western or most friendly remote town in the lower 48, but not the remotest.

100_06658. Winters aren’t brutal in Dubois (generally). Last winter may have been tough, true. But in general, temperatures here are several degrees warmer than in Jackson. Most of the snow (usually) gets dumped on that side of Togwotee Pass or on the Pass itself, giving us wonderful opportunities for snowmobiling and snowshoeing. The dry climate keeps winter temperatures surprisingly tolerable. And the air is magically clean.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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Field Report: Encounters With Migrating Bipedals

A lone male and a mating pair, taking a break from the Front Range.

One of the migratory creatures most often sighted in Dubois during the summer is that distinctive species, the heavy-laden touring cyclist Homo bipedalist.

As with other wild creatures, it is crucial that drivers be vigilant for the touring cyclist, in order to avoid striking one. Their behavior can be unpredictable.

When possible, courteous drivers give them a wide berth and veer far to the left when encountering H. bipedalist as it travels on the shoulder. As with deer, they often appear in groups, and the first one in view is a sign that others are nearby.

The reason we see so many cyclists is that, as with deer and elk, our region is along a major migration route. In fact, it’s at the crossroads of two: The Continental Divide Trail that runs north and south, and the TransAmerica Trail, heading east and west.

Many creatures have been following these routes for time immemorial. Our local historian Steve Banks says that Native Americans, who often used game trails to guide them, followed the Wind River east and west and the trail down the Dunoir valley and up Union Pass as trade routes and during their seasonal migration cycle. The first European explorers in this area used Native Americans as their guides in turn, passing through the same intersection.

Although I often see migrating cyclists, I seldom have an opportunity to get close. This summer I’ve been fortunate to have two enjoyable encounters, both times with cyclists traveling northward from the Front Range of Colorado. One was a solitary individual following the TransAmerica Trail; the second was a mating pair following the Continental Divide.

The migrating species metaphor isn’t entirely a joke. Although many years ago we took bicycle trips of our own, these individuals do seem exotic to me now. I admire their stamina, their strength, and their determination. I can’t imagine doing what they do.

While driving eastward toward town one day, I saw a lone male heavy-laden cyclist laboring slowly westward. As he did not seem aggressive, I determined to stop for a closer inspection if I saw him again when I came back the other way.

He had progressed only a few miles when I returned. Having no special obligations that day, I decided to save him the hard slog over Togwotee Pass toward Yellowstone Park, if he was willing. I pulled over and approached cautiously.

“Would it be against your philosophy to accept a ride?” I said. He thought about it, smiled, and said, “Not at all.”

After loading his bicycle in back of the car, we set off again.

This wasn’t a race or some sort of personal challenge, he told me. He had come north on his bicycle to escape the dull and stressful routine of his job. He wasn’t using his cellphone for information, but just accepting events as they came along — including offers of rides.

We discussed whether he should venture into Jackson for groceries. I advised against it, as his object was to avoid stress and crowds. Along the way, he realized that by giving him a lift I had saved the need to use the supplies he already had, so he had no need to take the busy road to Jackson and could head straight into Yellowstone.

As we approached the top of the Pass, a thought occurred to me. “How’d you like to cheat?” I said. “I could drop you at the Continental Divide and then you could sail downhill just as if you’d climbed all this way.”

“That would be great!” he said. I was amused that he wanted to unload his gear and set off again without being seen, so we waited for all traffic to pass before we parted.

I encountered the mating pair on Union Pass one day when I went up there for a hike. They and had come north from their home in Denver to celebrate their anniversary by cycling the Continental Divide Trail.

Here, you see them sharing information with a cyclist heading the other direction. (It’s a pretty long steep climb that way, they told him.)

The male had many questions for me: Was there water at the bottom of this slope? Is it fresh? What’s the road like afterwards? How far is it to Falls Campground?

I answered to the best of my knowledge (yes, plenty; absolutely fresh; not bad, just one gentle climb and then a long set of switchbacks down to the highway; not sure but maybe 20 miles along the highway, mostly uphill). A while later, having finished my hike, I saw them again and offered them a ride.

They declined, knowing that it was downhill from there all the way to the highway. “Well if you’d like a drink at the bottom, feel free to stop by my house,” I replied, and told them how to find it.

Not long after I got home, they turned into the driveway. I offered each a beer, and I joined them on the front porch as they took a break.

They noticed that the wind had picked up, and it would be pushing against them as they headed uphill.

“And now I have that buzz,” said the woman, finishing her beer. They didn’t seem eager to start off again. I offered them a ride up to Falls Campground, and they accepted with evident relief.

Suddenly the man leaped up and ran toward the yard at the east side of the porch. “I’ve lost a piece of paper!” he said. (I had just been joking about things that would blow into the next county.)

He returned a few minutes later, empty-handed.

He brushed the loss away with a wave of his hand, saying he could easily make another. But having found the paper a few days ago, snared in a sagebush, I respectfully disagree.

Reading the two-sided document, I could see how much work and care he had put into it as he planned each step of the journey from Steamboat Springs to Whitefish, Montana. I put a red box around their journey so far; they were only about halfway there.

Alas, our meeting as strangers was all too careful. I wished we had shared contact information so I could send him the paper, if only as a souvenir.

Their journey must be long finished by now. I hope they made it safely, and that it has blessed their marriage.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Previous entries are listed in the Archives at the bottom of the right column.

Of Wildlife Trapped in NYC

How ready meals outdo the call of the vast and empty.

crowd beside office doorway in BrooklynRounding a busy corner, during a visit to my old hometown of Brooklyn, I found a small group of people crowding the doorway to an office building and taking pictures on their phones.

As I approached, the building manager passed me, carrying a metal barricade of the kind used for crowd control.

I wedged my way close. This wouldn’t be a beggar, I knew, as those people are not noteworthy and most experence the opposite of attention.

The man installed the barricade across the doorway, trapping behind it the object of interest. It was a hawk, of all things, grounded (like me) in busy Brooklyn.

hawk behind barricadeHugging a corner beside the doorway, it glared back at us.

“Has anyone called the police?” someone asked, and the man nodded. In a New York instant — remarkable response time, considering — an officer arrived.

“Who do you call?” said someone. “Animal control?”

“We’ve got this,” the officer replied brusquely. He turned and strode back across the street to his squad car and returned with a roll of yellow tape.

The onlookers had left the hawk a respectable amount of personal space. It’s easy to zoom in on your phone’s camera, after all. And as we all know, it’s best not to approach wildlife, which can be dangerous.

police car in BrooklynNonetheless the officer ran the crime–scene tape across the forward side of the barricade, further isolating the perpetrator from the crowd.

I bellied up to the building manager.

“How on earth does a hawk wind up here?” I asked.

“They’re all over the place,”  he said. “They nest up there.” He pointed across the street and upwards, toward the ornate cupola at the top of Borough Hall.

“It’s a great place for them,” added a woman who stood behind him. “They have plenty to eat. Rats. Pigeons.”

“Pigeons?” I said.

hawk behind barricade in Brooklyn“Oh, sure. It’s a great life for them,” replied the female variety of that prominent species, the New York Knowitall. “But I wonder why this young one got stuck here.”

“You think it’s young?” I said.

“Of course. Look at the size of those feet!”

It didn’t look so young to me. Just wary and puzzled. I did wonder how it came to be in this predicament. But in true New York City fashion, I felt myself too busy to stay any longer.

So I went on.

I was an Urban Bird myself for many decades, but I never saw a hawk soaring above Brooklyn as they soar across the valley near my home in Dubois. Maybe they’ve lost the urge to soar here, being that it’s as easy for them to swoop down and pick off a pigeon for dinner as would be for me to grab a ready-made meal at Union Market down the street.

Dunoir Valley Dubois WyomingI found myself musing about the odds that somehow this hawk would be transported to Dubois, just as I was not that long ago. Or as Game & Fish sometimes relocates a wayward bear up-mountain.

Or that it might just make the crazy decision to lift off and explore what lies to the west.

Not likely, I decided. It’s too difficult for Urban Birds to grasp the indescribable appeal of the vast and empty. And far too easy just to stay put here, where you can snatch ready meals.

High-rise buildings are springing up here, and the tiny playground where my daughter used to play is packed with toddlers.

The friendly city village that used to be my neighborhood is no more. Too many others have discovered its charms, and consequently those charms have diffused away into the noise, the bustle, the impersonality.

New York license plate reading "FLEE"“Whenever you’re ready,” said the cashier at a sidewalk cafe, abruptly turning away when I took time to count out the exact change. There was no one else to serve; he was just irritated that I was not hurrying.

“So have you had a change of heart?” my husband asked when I returned to the table. “Would you like to have stayed?”

I noticed the license plate on a car parked by the curb. “FLEE,” it read.

“No,” I replied. “Not at all.”

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com

POSTSCRIPT: A neighbor from Dubois, and also my husband, have pointed out that this bird was not a hawk but a juvenile peregrine falcon. “They nest not only on cliffs in mountains,” the neighbor texted me, “but also in cities on bridges and skyscrapers.”

Google tells me that peregrine falcons can be found all over North America but mostly along the coasts. They perch high and dive rapidly to retrieve their prey, mostly smaller birds such as pigeons.

The Yellowstone website says that there are 36 known peregrine falcon breeding areas in the Greater Yellowstone region, where the falcons live from May through October before migrating south for the winter.

Hmm. Unlike us, they’re “snowbirds.” (We stay all year.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Masterworks by Dubois’ Lesser-Known Artists

Danita Sayers bustles about the rooms of the Dennison Lodge, tacking treasures to the folding screens and carefully placing the pieces of artfully painted furniture.

“We paint on whatever we can find to paint on,” she says, as I pause to admire the portrait of a horse standing in a swale. It has greatly elevated  the status of an ordinary TV tray the artist found at the Opportunity Shop.

A giant glider, a sliding bench made from horseshoes and wagon wheels, dominates the room. It’s the creation of a 6th grader.

Danita has spent the month transporting these artworks and displaying them statewide, bringing back the honors and the ribbons that prove their worth. Of 40 pieces submitted to the State Art Symposium this year, 21 won awards.

The Governor’s wife picked 2 from our little school for the First Lady’s Choice Awards. This year, Danita told me, the Dubois school got Congressional Artistic Discovery awards in both the 2D and 3D categories, and one was for a photograph, which is rare. These will go on tour for a year, and then hang in a gallery in Cheyenne.

Now she’s putting them on display, 166 artworks chosen by herself and her pupils (except for those award winners that have been held back elsewhere), during the annual school art show.

The owner of a local curio shop is helping out, while scoping the show for items she might be able to purchase resell in her shop. In other years, Danita says, art dealers and art professors have come from far away to look for acquisitions at this show.

The annual Dubois K-12 Youth Art Show has gone on for decades. This was the first time I saw it–someone who, like most parents, once thought her own young children were truly exceptional artists. What most takes my breath away here are the works by children who are just learning to read.

Dubois has more than its fair share of top-ranked artists and photographers, but its youngest don’t get much publicity and have no commercial websites. Danita, who is the art teacher in our school, bursts with pride in her students and the passion to share how special they are.

The student who created this sculpture was blind, she tells me. Would I believe that?

This peacock was the seventh-grade artist’s first oil painting. “She doesn’t even know it’s good,” Danita says with a smile, and repeats herself.

Slowly, I come to realize why so many locals like to point out the works by their favorite school-aged artists at the national art show that comes to the Headwaters in mid-summer.

These artists are growing up in one of the most remote towns in the lower 48. Some of them go home to ranch chores after school. and think the biggest event of the year is branding the calves.  The  parents are contractors and bank clerks and restaurant owners — precious few with a strong history in the liberal arts. Their home town is a place where kids waste time on a lazy summer Sunday by tooling around the main street on their bikes doing wheelies.

Unlike my children’s classmates three decades ago in New York City, some of these artists may find the thought of even visiting a city a bit frightening. Many have ridden a horse, shot a gun, been to a rodeo, and camped out overnight, but very few if any have seen a renowned painting by a great artist in an art museum.

What they do see every day is the mountain landscape and the wildlife. Instead of visiting galleries, they go on camping trips with botanists to study wildflowers.

In the primary and middle school my children attended, a short distance from the Brooklyn Bridge, the distinctions between the tough guys, the future CEOs, and the arty kids were clearly defined.

Walking past these panels, it is clear that it’s not an issue. Everyone does art, and many do it exceedingly well.

“A lot of our best artists are ranch kids, wrestling club guys,” Danita says.  She points across the room to a landscape. “The guy who made that painting was in wrestling and football. He won a blue ribbon [for the painting], but he also excels in sports.”

My guess is he knows the terrain quite well because he probably goes hunting up there in the fall.

As Danita puts it, at this school art is not placed in a “gentle” category alone. The school mascot is a ram. Clearly they can paint them as well as they can butt helmets on the field.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com

Shocks and Surprises as the Snow Recedes

The rewards for hanging in (and out) in a chancy season.

IMG_2846I returned from a visit to Texas on one of the last days in April. Boarding after a layover in Denver, I saw opaque ice crusting the window beside my seat. We taxied, got de-iced with orange spray, returned to the gate, de-planed, and waited for the weather in Jackson to improve.

Finally we were cleared for takeoff. An hour later, we descended at Jackson in heavy snowfall. I kept waiting for the jolt as the wheels hit tarmac, but the cloud ceiling was actually a few hundred feet above the runway and we came down smoothly.

When I departed from Jackson 10 days earlier, it had been mild, so I left my coat inside the car in long-term parking. Now, at 11 PM, it was snowing hard and I was wearing only a gauze shirt. I ran to the car, dragging my roller suitcase, found the coat and gloves, and scraped the windshield. It was 1 AM when I finally fell asleep in a motel in Jackson.

This is spring in our part of the West. The next day, the road over the Pass to Dubois was nearly clear; just slushy at the top. It snowed hard again that night, and leaving home the following morning I felt it might require a backhoe to clear my windshield. I took the picture above that same afternoon. As you see, the snow had vanished. Typical.

ElkMy husband is away on business, and I seem to spend more time than usual looking out the window. The day after my return, I was startled to see four unusual creatures almost the size of horses, grazing as they ambled slowly across the meadow to the east.

What else could they be but female elk? I actually had to look them up on Google to be sure what a female elk looked like. The usual pictures of elk show a handsome male with a rack, like the picture below.

This picture isn’t clear because she’s so far away.

We’re not accustomed to seeing elk in the valley, not females alone, and not in mere foursomes. They are supposed to migrate across the tops of ridges in large herds, heading westward this time of year, guarded by watchful males.

ElkMaleA friend suggested that these females may have been separated from their herd in the snowstorm. I hope they found their way back.

The next afternoon in the dining room I was startled by an eagle swooping past the window so close that it almost touched the glass. Magpies and swallows fly across the yard all the time, but eagles belong soaring in the updraft hundreds of feet above. I like to watch them across the valley when I’m up on the ridge after a hard climb. What on earth was this?

I raced to the other window to watch. He landed on the buck and rail fence down by the irrigation ditch, soon to be strafed by another eagle that sailed in from the east. They took their dispute on up the hill and out of sight.

hawkThe next day this lovely hawk chose to perch for a while on the balcony railing, just outside the netting that we use to keep the swallows from building mud nests under the gable. I’ve never seen a hawk so close, even in a zoo. Unfortunately the picture doesn’t show the lovely red feathered cap on the top of his head.

Today I was delighted to see a dove-gray female bluebird and her mate, which looked like a fragment of sky descending, as they inspected the birdhouse we have cleaned out for them behind the house.

At the ranch on the west edge of town, three wooly sheep have suddenly appeared in the meadow usually occupied by the cattle, which are now crowded into the next field over. There seem to be a remarkable proportion of calves. Maybe I never noticed them, scattered as they usually are on the large fields to the north of the highway. The other day, I saw a cowboy on horseback in there among them.

cattleThese are sights the tourists would covet — working cowboys, eagles, elk — but the tourists haven’t arrived yet. One joy of being here all year is that I can encounter these sights by serendipity — especially in this season, when so few visitors dare to come because the weather is chancy.

By the start of May, however, the snow is rare. Although days may be cloudy, the weather is comfortable enough in a windbreaker or light overcoat. Suddenly I can venture onto roads that were still snowbound when I flew off to Texas.

This afternoon, I reveled in one of my go-to hikes that has been off-limits until now. It felt great to stride through the sagebrush in my hiking boots, rather than trudging along across heavy snowpack. I didn’t see any wildlife, but then I was enjoying the walk and not paying much attention.

Again, I was startled. It was easy to recognize from these prints who else had followed the trail, and not long before. I paused immediately to look around. Fortunately, sight lines are broad and very clear on this hike, which is one reason I favor it.

IMG_2873A few steps later, I saw where it had come down the same slope I had just descended, but a bit farther to the west.

Another sign of the season. This is a track I have never before seen up close. How huge it is, next to my bear spray!

This was one creature I was very glad not to see. It’s as close as I’ve ever come — and I have no idea how close I actually came.

What a relief that it was heading in the opposite direction from my car.

(Yes, I hear you, honey. I’ll stop hiking alone after the snow melts.)

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Baffling Mystery of Our Dying Lambs

An entire community faces a tyranny of options.

SheepRidgeThey call it Sheep Ridge, the one you can see from the main street in Dubois, but no bighorn sheep have grazed there for a long time.  The herd is still around, but its population is plummeting. Why?

Back in the 1870s, I’ve heard, hunters could find a bighorn sheep in these mountains any time they wanted. Most bighorn sheep in the West came from that original herd as transplants, moved out by the hundreds to other regions of the Rockies during the last century.

Some of those relocated herds have been threatened by the same basic problem, but have bounced back. Not so the bighorns that stayed here.

It’s not that there isn’t any explanation. There are too many. That’s the problem.

Our high school sports teams are called the Rams, and you see their image on logos all over town, but the rams themselves are fragile.  Local taxidermists say some of their skulls are too light to hold screws, and the curly horns are no longer as big as before.

Unlike the herds in Cody and Jackson, Whiskey Mountain sheep keep their weight stable in the winter, but lose weight when they move up to summer range. Is there something wrong with the local wild grasses, forbs, and brush that are central to their summer diet?

Predators like wolves or eagles might play some role in the animals’ deaths. But in those cases they may be only the final blow — not the root cause.

Sheep060816_3The greatest concern is that these bighorns are extraordinarily prey to respiratory infections common among sheep. They harbor a half-dozen strains of the relevant bacteria, while wild sheep elsewhere in the West seem to be hosts to only two or three. Enough lambs are born to this herd each year, but only a handful reach maturity. Many of the ewes live on, chronically ill, to infect again and again.

The infection traces to domestic sheep, which were raised here for four decades starting in 1890, but dwindled as the cattle ranchers prevailed. In 2015, the US Forest Service formally banned domestic sheep from the local bighorns’ range—decades after their decimation began.

It can’t go on. But what to do?

About a year ago Sara Domek, executive director or the National Bighorn Sheep Center in town, approached two experts (wildlife biologist Daryl Lutz of Game & Fish and Steve Kilpatrick, head of the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation) to plan a strategy. The outcome is a series of summits now under way in Dubois, where absolutely anyone who is interested is welcome. I didn’t take an actual count, but scores of my friends and neighbors, have turned up, bringing with them an astonishing wealth and depth of knowledge on the subject.

The biggest challenge is the complexity of the problem. “You came up with 170 issues, so we had a lot of fun categorizing them all,” said Jessica Western of the University of Wyoming at the last session. A soft-spoken, genial person, she is shepherding a large flock of biologists, land managers, outfitters, hunters, environmentalists, ranchers, and other interested residents, toward recommendations to help the Wyoming Game & Fish Department decide what it can and should do next.

BighornDrawing_croppedThe Wyoming Game and Fish Department has won grants from four organizations to support the summits, and commitments of time and expertise from bighorn sheep specialists all over the West. One of the grants brought a panel of eight specialists on the bighorns to Dubois last month, where they shared their knowledge, listened to ours,  and brainstormed.

They brought insights about  bighorn sheep and their habitats in Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington (the state) and, of course, Wyoming. The scientists truly seemed to enjoy themselves, having a rare opportunity to hide away in the wilderness as a select team asked to learn from each other and contribute to a poignantly good cause.

It’s not that nothing has been tried. At the latest summit, held early this month, Game & Fish habitat biologist Amy Anderson described many  efforts to improve the forage in the wilderness, including fertilizers, herbicides, selective cropping, and “range pitting” (dragging an implement across the ground to disturb the ground and encourage growth of new grasses).

Follow-up studies analyzing the forage (quantity, species composition, protein content, and relative food value) found that these tactics didn’t seem to make any great difference, compared to untreated areas, “so I don’t know what we bought with these treatments,” Anderson said. “We’re not necessarily seeing improvement” in the varieties of grass the sheep prefer.

So what’s the problem? Is it the climate? Minerals in the soil or the salt licks? Air pollution coming from Utah or even farther west?

Prescribed burns have been tried in parts of the forest, not only to encourage growth of grasses but also to deny hiding places to predators. Local hunter and taxidermist Lynn Stewart pointed out that Sheep Ridge itself, visible from the middle of town, was bald a century ago. Today it is blanketed with evergreens and sheep won’t go there.  Another prescribed burn is planned for this summer in a spot where conifers now cover a bighorn migration route between winter and summer ranges.

beckiart
Painting by Becki Neidens

Immense interest centers around University of Wyoming biologist Kevin Monteith, who has been pursuing an intensive three-year research project on this herd. His team has implanted monitors like IUDs in ewes, which  send a signal when they give birth. A member of the team will spend this summer camping in the remote, rocky Whiskey Mountain region, waiting. After a signal, she will race over the treacherous ground to find its source, hoping to reach the lamb and attach a motion sensor. This should allow her and others to locate some of the lambs that die and  learn what happened.

At the latest summit, the facilitator Jessica Western assigned us into breakout groups. Our task was to arrive at a consensus about which of those 170 issues she compiled after the previous session deserve the most attention for the future. Inevitably, we also pondered some recommendations. Some of them are controversial, and some unrealistic.

Why not cull the entire herd and start again with healthy bighorns, descendants of the transplants from the original herd? (They’d inevitably get infected too, because the microorganisms do persist in the soil for some time, and anyway, what about the forage issue? Besides, the transplanted sheep wouldn’t know the local migration routes. Studies elsewhere show that sheep lacking this knowledge tend to stay in the winter range all year round.)

BighornStatue2No solution will emerge quickly. We’ll remain in the dark about the root cause of the die-off for at least three years, while Montieth’s team completes its research.

Meanwhile, in June after the workshops are over, the Game & Fish Department will sort through all the recommendations and decide what it can try, what it can’t, and why not. Whatever it eventually does will also take time, as well as funds and personnel. And the clock is ticking for the herd.

Sara Domek of the Sheep Center closed the last summit with a plea for help from all those people with furrowed brows who were sitting on the folding chairs in the audience.

“This is the time for citizen science,” she said. “People want to help. Let’s do it.”

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com .