My hiking buddy bailed, so I decided to do the go-to workout in the middle of town. I’ve often tramped that steep dirt road up the Overlook before, seen that red dirt and those rocks.
Just back from a hiking trip to the top of the Yorkshire Dales, I’ve been slow to regain my enthusiasm for hiking here. But at least it’s exercise, I told myself. And around here you never know what you may find.
It’s a fairly steep climb up the dirt road to the plateau halfway up, with the chariot racetrack off to the east. From that point there’s a brief stroll across fairly level ground (the middle part of the picture above). Then you have the option of continuing along the road or taking a shorter but steeper trail to the top.
That last part of the hike up the trail, which you can see at the lower left in the picture, is usually slick with loose pebbles. Always risking “rock and roll,” you want to go slowly and step carefully.
I left the road. Just starting up that final climb, I heard someone yelling behind me – the kind of shout an angry parent uses for a disobedient child. But this wasn’t one shout; it was repeated and insistent. I turned to look.
A pickup was coming slowly up the road. An arm waved out the driver’s window. Two dogs – one brown, one white – were trailing behind, detouring to sniff and explore. The yells went on, and the dogs followed in stops and spurts.
I went on uphill. A few feet up the pebbly trail, I heard barking close behind me. A handsome young white hound was trailing me, a few feet behind. Its gaze was interested, not hostile.
“Go back,” I said, waving toward the pickup that was headed along the road toward the top. “Go on!”
It barked again, then turned and ran toward the pickup. “Good dog!” I called after it.
The pickup was already parked when I emerged at the top of the trail, breathing hard. A woman and the two dogs were standing beside the driver’s door. Two others had stepped away to look at the badlands behind.
The driver caught my eye. “I can’t keep up with them, so I just let them run,” she said. “I bring them up here every day.”
Off-leash dogs are a hot-button issue here, a topic for debate in the local newspaper. Others let their dogs run loose on the Overlook. If there’s a rule about that, it is often honored in the breach.
“Yeah, I used to let my dog run free up here too,” I replied. “I knew he would never hurt anyone.”
“Your dog up here?” she asked.
“No, he’s no longer with us,” I said. (That’s him on the Overlook. I hope he is having many wonderful hikes in his afterlife.)
I approached the white hound dog, my hand extended palm down, and it sniffed and wagged its tail. “You’re a good dog!” I said. “Good for you protecting your owner.”
Her two friends were taking pictures with their cameras. “I always think it’s unfair that the steepest part is at the top,” I said to them as I headed toward the road downhill, having caught my breath. “See you on the way down.”
And I did. Both dogs ran happily behind the pickup. Neither was interested in me now.
Reaching the flat stretch on the middle level, I saw five horses trotting in my direction, tightly reined by a pair of riders. I stepped off into the sagebrush to let them pass.
It’s the week before the Don Scheer Memorial Pack Horse Races, when people compete to be quickest to load the panniers and gear on their horses at the Town Park, race up to the Overlook and away somewhere else, unload and repack, and then return, unload, and pitch “camp”.
I’ve seen riders on horseback along the highway in recent days, training their horses not to be spooked by the traffic. The tourists must love the sight.
“Good luck at the races!” I called out as the two men passed.
“We’ll need it!” said one of them.
“Doesn’t everybody?” I asked, thinking of the man last year whose load slipped off just as he was leaving the Park.
I continued along the double-track that runs toward the dirt road heading down toward the highway. Just as I reached the road, the pickup approached, followed by the brown dog. I couldn’t imagine why she would be coming up from behind, given that she had already passed me.
She stopped and rolled her window down. “Lose one?” I said.
“He got distracted by a coyote,” she replied. “Did you see the coyote?”
“Nope. I was too busy watching the horses.”
“Yeah, I saw them too. But I never heard of a coyote on the Overlook. What was a coyote doing up here, I wonder?”
“My dog once found a dead porcupine up here,” I replied. “I wondered what on earth a porcupine was doing on the Overlook.”
“Yeah. No trees up here,” she said. “Musta been lost.” She waved and drove on.
Sure was a workout, I said to myself as I went on.
It may not have the charm and novelty of the Yorkshire Dales. But still, it’s so much more interesting than Pandora on the headphones and the incline settings on the treadmill.
News from a remote region of North England that resonates with home
While relaxing with a beer after a long hike in England’s Yorkshire Dales, I picked up a copy of the Reeth & District Gazette. What I read was so similar to what goes on back home that I can’t resist sharing it.
Otherwise, the scene is quite different there. The buildings are made mostly of rough-cut stone, and most fields are lined with high stone walls. The thought of the strength and effort required for all that construction with native stone was mind-boggling.
Most of the livestock are sheep, not cattle. Because public rights of way cut right across the meadows (crossing those stone walls with very cumbersome stiles), most hikes lead directly through flocks of grazing ewes and their winsome lambs. All but the bravest lambs skitter off as you approach. The ewes shift a few feet away, if at all.
Cows are still fairly rare. Back in the day when farming rather than tourism dominated the economy, it was an unavoidable but costly requirement to keep one or two cows (never mind a whole herd).
Small stone barns dot the landscape, “cow houses” built to protect that valuable investment from the elements. Some of these structures are now falling to ruin. Others are renovated for use as studios or vacation rentals.
That’s the setting. Here’s the news from the Gazette:
Editor Mike Barden begins the edition by writing sadly of the pandemic, and fretting about impact of the subsequent “frightening price increases” on anyone “just starting out into their own world” as well as on single mums and pensioners. Then he mentions the horrors in the Ukraine and the heroism there that has “so far averted WW3.”
“Can you believe what I have just written about in those sentences?” he adds. “Matters we would have never expected to happen.”
The other articles, interspersed between the small ads, are reassuringly provincial, kindhearted, and oddly reminiscent. To wit:
— The Dales Police report for March consisted of one incident of violence, 2 each of criminal damage, burglary and drugs possession, 4 reports of theft and 5 complaints of fraud (the latter mostly involving phone scams related to Amazon and Ebay). On March 8, an unknown male took 2 bottles of Jack Daniels from the Co-op in Leyburn. Someone stole cooking oil from a pub in Wensley.
— A Community Emergency Plan is being enacted to retrieve “vulnerable people” from their homes in times of power outages or natural disasters and deliver them to community centers for shelter. This is necessary to avoid “long periods of waiting in case the Emergency Services are delayed and cannot arrive promptly.”
— Volunteers are working fast to create new nesting boxes for swifts, swallows, and house martins. The options for suitable nesting spots (“nooks and crannies in cavity walls in buildings, empty barns and window alcoves”) have been declining, presumably due to development. A box-building class is on offer, and contractors are being asked to incorporate nesting sites into new structures “subject to consent.” A bird count is also under way.
— Members of SWAAG (the Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group) have been pondering the origins of a large cross-shaped formation of white pebbles recently discovered on Calver Hill, oriented roughly to the north. Information from Google Maps and the (US) National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, pertaining to the deviation of magnetic north over the past 300-plus years, suggests that the stones were laid in 1945 or 1946. It could be some sort of memorial. The US and UK Royal Air Forces used the area for flight practice back then, but there is no record of a plane crash. The cross remains a mystery.
— In April, Swaledale Mountain Rescue (a team of “highly trained volunteers available 24/7 in any weather, any time”) assisted: (1) an injured hiker near the waterfall above Hawes, who was able to walk out after treatment; (2) a “vulnerable person” who had gone missing after being last seen at the visitor center, and was located with the help of a police helicopter and two search dogs; and (3) an injured mountain biker who was treated and then removed by ambulance.
Swaledale Mountain Rescue is offering to mail prints of the drawing “Sheep at Thea’s Cottage” to people who donate money to the cause.
— The huge, ancient Scots pine in Holy Trinity church yard in Low Row has to be removed because it is leaning dangerously eastward after surviving decades of high winds. The church plans to plant other trees to compensate. (Can’t you hear the grumbling from parishioners and neighbors? Something could have been done!) New trees will be planted to compensate for its loss.
— The Dales also have “badlands.” An expert from the Yorkshire Peat Partnership was scheduled to give an online talk about the restoration of three “moors that are close to her heart” — what might have caused them to degrade, the likely consequences for wildlife and water quality, and what could be done to restore them.
On May 21, a ”Peat and Poetry Event” will contemplate the same matters during a 5-6 mile trek on a nearby moor. There will also be recitals of poems about peat and a visit to the Poetry Postbox. Walkers are encouraged to contribute their own poems to the box.
The Dales are not my landscape, but I loved them anyway. I also love the way the people care about them – and about the strangers who choose to wander across them, and about each other. And about the wildlife.
“This pub has almost as much character as the Rustic,” said my husband, as he sat down with my pint of bitters and his Guiness. We were in Bodmin, a town in Cornwall, on a vacation to England that has been long postponed due to COVID.
Three blokes sat on a bench a few feet away, joking, sharing beer and stories. The aged ranchmen in the Rustic swap memories too, but they sit on high stools at the bar.
“Well, I’d better get along,” said one of the men, while showing no sign of an intention to move. “Time to go home and kiss the dog and kick the wife.” One of the others said something too quiet to hear, and he replied that he didn’t really want to kiss the dog.
I couldn’t resist a chuckle, and he noticed. One joy of traveling in a country where you know the language is being able to get the jokes.
Leaning back, I noticed the flintlocks hanging from the ceiling beams, not on the walls as the rifles do at the Rustic. There was no line of cowboy hats behind the bar.
Cornwall was a Wild West of its own, once a land of outlaws as surely as the cowboy country in America. These outlaws were pirates and smugglers, some of whom lured ships to founder on the rocky coastline in order to plunder their cargo.
It’s the land of the hero Poldark and the villain Joss Merlyn, the brutal landlord of Jamaica Inn on the heights of Bodmin Moor. The Inn, which really exists, was the setting of a novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, which Alfred Hitchcock made into an ominous movie.
It’s an odd name for a hotel in the middle of Cornwall, perhaps given because its founder was a sea-captain who sailed to Jamaica. In the novel, the miscreant Merlyn has bought the Inn, let it fall to ruin, and turned it into a derelict storage space for smugglers’ booty. We are staying there now, as the base for our visit to Cornwall.
It’s charming and rather kitschy today, but DuMaurier made it seem wonderfully sinister in the book. (Do you like the picture? I caught it after sundown.) We are reading the novel to each other in our bright and comfortable room or in the bar, which is dark but hardly scary.
“Jamaica’s got a bad name,” says the coach driver who delivers the heroine, Mary Yellen, to the Inn. “Respectable folk don’t go to Jamaica anymore. That’s all I know. … They’re afraid.”
(Whenever we read the heroine’s name, Mary Yellen, I’m amused to be interrupted with the thought of a dear friend back home: Mary Ellen.)
Mary Yellen clearly finds the landscape forbidding as she approaches in the coach. “On either side of the road the country stretched interminably into space,” du Maurier wrote. “No trees, no lanes, no cottages or hamlet, but mile upon mile of bleak moorland, dark and untraversed, rolling like a desert land to some unseen horizon.”
Sounds rather like that country I love, the miles between Lander and Rawlins. Of course, out there we do have Jeffrey City which might be called a “hamlet”.
This is highway A30 that passes Jamaica Inn today. The modern road, now a divided highway, must generally follow the route of the old “high road” that passed the Inn in the 1820s, when the novel was set. As in Dubois now, there would have been only one proper highway in the entire area.
DuMaurier describes that land as fearsomely forbidding. “No human being could live in this wasted country, thought Mary, and remain like other people; the very children would be born twisted, like the blackened shrubs of broom, bent by the force of a wind that never ceased … Their minds would be twisted too, their thoughts evil, dwelling as they must amid … granite, harsh heather, and crumbling stone.”
A wind that never ceased. Granite and crumbling stone. Twisted minds.
Oh, my …
While some of the land has since become farm fields, the higher elevations of the moor surrounding the Inn remain isolated and desolate. We have hiked some of it. The high parts of the landscape are as rugged as the badlands back home, but in a different way. I loved it. Perhaps my mind is twisted.
Unlike Wyoming, this is wet country, and there are warnings in the guidebooks about sinking into bogs or marshes on lower ground. There’s a framed picture in the Inn of a young man who disappeared while hiking on the moor in the 1930s.
It’s been dry here lately, but we took the advice in the guidebooks and stayed to the high ground. That can have its perils too. I nearly foundered when a sudden gust of wind tried to knock me sideways on the rocky ground in this picture.
As on hikes back home, we passed prehistoric relics — stone circles and stone path markers.
We saw abandoned mines and clambered up to high outcrops of granite.
We also had charming encounters on the moor. We scared up many shaggy, rustic sheep accompanied by their gamboling lambs.
Wild mares wander the moors, followed closely by their foals.
That sight was endearing, but not thrilling like the encounter with a herd of horses from CM Ranch that a hiking buddy and I saw while walking up the road toward Three Lakes, shortly before I left for England.
Unlike the ponies on Bodmin Moor, they did not wander off in another direction. They stood silently and watched us from the ridge, unafraid, and then galloped down the slope ahead.
They weren’t wild horses, of course, but they were literally running wild.
Both times, the sight of the horses free and loose made me catch my breath and stop.
It’s strange, I texted to my hiking buddy back in Wyoming, to feel I am both at home and in a different world.
Musings and images about winter, which is slow to yield …
Winter has come just as the calendar ordered up spring. Days are longer but just as cold.
After teasing us for a few days, Mother Nature blessed us with snow here at the base of the mountain, day after day. (I write “blessed” because we need the precipitation to avoid drought.)
We wish this had happened a while ago.
However, this does give me occasion to share some new poems by my dear friend Mary Ellen Honsaker, who enjoys playing with haiku. Wherever you are reading this, and whatever your weather, I hope you enjoy them.
A bird, refugee in my cold stove this morning, bursts in, illegal
seeking warmth he came only to find dark passage to a strange prison
escape to windows keeping him from sky beyond, settled down at last
we spoke, quiet chirps understanding only voice that sought to ease fear
caught with soft tossed cloth, gentle hand our only touch carried him hidden
out through my porch door opened folds transfixed our eyes a moment, then gone
Did he know my heart would have welcomed the visit for a bit longer?
Asylum granted and promised if ever need wings this way again
So far, from what Rachel Smiley and Brittney Wagler said at the meeting, I assume that none of these sheep that gaze at us in the spring sun are infected. With luck, they never will be.
Smiley and Wagner, both graduate students at the University of Wyoming, are somewhere high in the mountains right now, working to capture female bighorns which will be tested and then released. After a long, slow process, they have amassed enough data points to draw some conclusions about what should be done.
As most locals know, these sheep are just a remnant of the core native herd of bighorns in the greater Yellowstone region. Before 1990, the Whiskey Mountain herd was so large that almost 2000 wild sheep were transferred out of here to populate other parts of the Mountain West. That stopped abruptly after the herd suffered a die-off in the 1990s. It has never recovered.
Scientists and interested local volunteers have spent decades trying to understand the problem. Only in the last few years, with the same DNA technology used to test for COVID, has research identified the root cause: the bacterium Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae. (Researchers shorthand this to “Movi”.)
It affects sheep worldwide, both domestic and wild, causing a form of pneumonia. Movi is easily transmitted and (especially in this area, for some reason) often fatal in bighorns.
The parallel to COVID isn’t lost on researchers, who observe that sheep don’t wear masks, have a habit of sniffing each other’s noses, and behave with the opposite of social distancing. There is no vaccine against Movi.
There’s another poignant parallel for the Sheep Center. Its Director (who is also, like Wagler and Smiley, young and very fit) nearly died last year from pneumonia due to a form of plague that she caught from her sick cat.
Like so many other pathogens, Movi came to America with the Europeans – specifically, with their sheep. It jumped easily to wild sheep. There aren’t any domestic sheep near here these days, but Movi has persisted. It isn’t the only respiratory pathogen now endemic among local bighorns, which may harbor any or all of 5 different varieties. It’s just the most deadly.
Since 2015, a multi-agency project begun in coordination with the Sheep Center in Dubois has been pursuing a coordinated effort to come up with solutions. As part of it, Smiley and Wagler capture ewes in December and March and test them for Movi as well as for their physical condition, having fitted each one with a radio collar and a vaginal implant transmitter (VIT) that signals when they give birth.
Since 2020, they have also been capturing and collaring newborn lambs. Much of the time, off-schedule, they go back in when sheep (or sometimes just their collars) have died. Every reading and result becomes a point in a larger image.
“Every one of those data points has a ton of effort that has gone into it,” said project advisor Kevin Monteith PhD at the Sheep Center Annual Meeting. But he didn’t expand on that. I was able to learn more from a long interview with Smiley and Wagler posted on the Artemis Podcast in 2020.
This was just after they had begun to radio-collar lambs, which in their rugged high-mountain habitat is a matter of tactics, stealth, endurance, and extreme physical agility. Smiley, a recreational rock climber, often relies on those skills.
“Sometimes it seems crazy that they choose to do what they do,” she said. “A cliff edge is their favorite place in the world.”
When a VIT signals a new birth, they have to race to wherever the GPS reads, because both sheep may easily move away. Some ewes favor giving birth near Down’s Lake, at 12,000 feet in the back and beyond of the Wind River range. “We go up on the old Glacier trail,” said Wagler, “steep, steep, steep switchbacks and then across Goat Flat, which is like 4 miles of rock-hopping. By the end of the summer, we’re all pretty just drained of doing this hike over and over again.”
Other ewes seem to want to give birth just after a snowstorm rolls through, so Smiley always waits for VIT signals after a spring blizzard. Occasionally, she has gone out on skis to find a newborn lamb.
Getting there is only part of the fun. Usually a spotter joins two people going out for the capture, all in contact by radio. They need to creep up as close as possible to the ewe and her newborn, then race in for the capture the instant the sheep spot the humans.
Lambs only a few hours old are quite mobile, and can easily dash out of sight in seconds or leap a 10-foot cliff, climbing and scrambling over rocks and steep snowbanks that no sensible human would attempt.
The researchers also have to trek out to retrieve carcasses, hoping to learn the cause of death. Sometimes the remains are too far gone to accomplish this. And sometimes they wonder what’s actually watching them.
Once, Smiley went out alone to pick up a collar only a few miles from the highway up a ravine. She found herself staring up into the steady gaze of the mountain lion that must have just swallowed the collar, along with the unlucky lamb. (She backed away, very slowly.)
All the data points gathered in this challenging effort have documented what the Sheep Center already knew: Nowhere near enough lambs are surviving to guarantee the Whiskey herd a future. Around half to three-fourths of lambs born to the Gros Ventre herd near Jackson survive to adulthood. Last year was a banner year for Dubois: Two lambs actually made it through to winter.
The first few weeks of life are perilous for any bighorn lamb. Although predators do kill some lambs, including some that are healthy, most lambs born to the Whiskey herd die of pneumonia, the team has found.
The problem is most grave in the Red Creek sub-herd, the bighorns that can be seen sometimes grazing dangerously near the highway beside the huge red-rock formations at the eastern edge of the Wind River Reservation.
One member of the herd, Sheep 108, was caught for the first time in March 2019 and twice since then. Each time, she has tested positive for Movi. She has never recovered.
(However, escape is possible: Sheep #1, also a member of the Red Creek sub-herd, has been tested 9 times and never tested positive. Many sheep in herds elsewhere catch the bacterium and do recover. What makes the difference? The team would like to know, and hope to learn.)
Sheep #6 was first caught in March 2015. She tested positive for Movi a year later, and then began to harbor the other 4 pathogens. Although she never appeared sick, she tested positive ever after, and died last December. At necropsy, her lungs were full of tissue killed by pneumonia. She also had a sinus tumor. These tumors, invisible to human observers in the live animal, are known to harbor bacteria.
Among the 10 lambs born to ewes that chronically tested positive for Movi among the Red Creek herd, only one survived to the next winter–and it had been born to a ewe that first tested positive only afterwards. The chronically infected ewes are not contributing to the herd. Instead, they are endangering it.
Obviously, it is not only the lambs born to infected mothers that are at risk of catching Movi. “Essentially any lamb is susceptible to dying of pneumonia if there is Movi in that subgroup,” said Daryl Lutz, wildlife management coordinator for Wyoming Game & Fish, at the Sheep Center meeting.
Over the Zoom screen, Lutz and Monteith looked troubled at times. Beginning his remarks, Monteith signaled the unhappy conclusion that was ahead. “When we engage in working to address difficult questions like this, we often hope to find a silver bullet, and oftentimes things are complex enough that maybe there’s not a silver bullet. I think this is one of those instances.”
After Smiley and Wagner painstakingly laid out the results of their research, Lutz had the more difficult task of explaining the consequences.
The collaborative team had already sought and won approval for its strategy from the Intertribal Council, the elected governing body on the Wind River Indian Reservation, which is part of the herd’s habitat. The jargon they use for the strategy is “test and remove.” It has shown some success in infected herds in Idaho, South Dakota, and British Columbia. (The Sheep Center is hosting a webcast about test and remove on April 9.)
“Remove” means to kill the chronically infected “super-spreaders” – in this case, three who had never produced a viable lamb since becoming chronically infected with Movi — because there’s no good option for actually relocating a very sick bighorn. (Nature has already removed the fourth, Sheep #6.) The team intends to examine the ewes that have been culled, anticipating they will find more sinus tumors.
I think a more appropriate euphemism would be the one we used back when I was doing cancer research on laboratory mice: Sacrifice. That research provided no advantage for the rest of the mice, but in this case the ewes are indeed being killed for the potential benefit of the rest of the herd.
The decision entailed “a lot of thought, a lot of discourse, and also angst on my part and I’m sure others felt it too,” Lutz said, “because what we’re talking about doing is a pretty aggressive management tool.”
Twice he stressed that the decision was not “cavalier,” adding that he hates killing any animal unnecessarily. “But I do think we’re at a point where this is the best thing to do.”
Someone asked whether it might be possible to treat the sick animals and isolate them instead. But there are no effective antibiotics or good place to keep bighorns in captivity, Monteith said. There is simply no time left to take any chances with this herd, Lutz added.
There’s no guarantee that the strategy will rescue the sub-herd at Red Creek, in part because the herd there is already so small. But it may help to protect others nearby, like those we saw last week.
Many questions remain.
Although Movi doesn’t survive outside a living body the way Coronavirus can, the outdoor environment may still play a role. Oddly, bighorns in the Absaroka range just across our valley test positive for the same number and kind of bacteria as the ones on the Whiskey Mountain side. But that herd is thriving, numbering around 1000, while the Dubois herd has been dying off for decades.
One reason might be nutrition. But then why did the Whiskey Mountain herd thrive before the 1990s, and not after?
Smiley and Wagler have found that ewes in the Whiskey herd don’t gain as much fat during the summer as bighorn ewes on the Gros Ventre side near Jackson. They’ve been systematically gathering samples of forage in both locations.
Their initial findings won’t surprise hikers in the Winds and the Tetons: Plant life is much less abundant in the mountains around Dubois than in the greener terrain over the Pass.
It could be that the lambs here are more susceptible simply because they (and the pregnant ewes) aren’t fed well enough. What to do about that, if it’s true, is yet another question to address.
Often, Wagner said during the podcast, people told them that what Montieth had assigned them to do was impossible.
“He just said we’re going to get it done. And yeah, we’re getting it done. It is possible.”
That great writer of the West, Wallace Stegner, once remarked that the West has always been a trail to somewhere else, a place with a literature that is more about motion than about place.
We love to travel the West, always by road trip. When we are in a hurry to get beyond the mundane and reach the spectacular, we pass the time reading. Usually I read while he drives.
Returning from Texas after the holidays this month, we enjoyed Roughing It, Mark Twain’s account of a stagecoach journey from Missouri to California in 1861. The route took Twain past Independence Rock and over South Pass, probably along roads near home that we have often traveled by car.
I was disappointed that he didn’t travel slightly farther north to our own beautiful valley. At least he got to the Continental Divide near Dubois, and he experienced how “it seemed that we could look around and abroad and contemplate the whole great globe, with its dissolving views of mountains, seas and continents stretching away through the mystery of the summer haze.”
Parts of his account of the stagecoach experience made me laugh aloud. For instance, driving into and out of a gulch:
“First we would all be down in a pile at the forward end of the stage, nearly in a sitting posture, and in a second we would shoot to the other end, and stand on our heads. And we would sprawl and kick, too, and ward off ends and corners of mail bags that came lumbering over us and about us, and as the dust rose from the tumult, we would all sneeze in chorus, and the majority of us would grumble, and probably say some hasty thing, like: Take your elbow out of my ribs! Can’t you quit crowding?”
We drove in heated comfort in mid-January, with cushioned seats, armrests, sun visors, cans of seltzer in the cup holders, and cellphones available to help in a crisis (or text the relatives to describe our progress). I could not help but compare our experience to that of Twain as I was reading, and also to that of cowboys along the northbound cattle drives. I had just finished reading Cattle Kingdom by Christopher Knowlton, a history of cattle drives and ranching in the late 1800s.
We would reach home via Denver and Cheyenne, two towns on the early cattle trails. Sometimes on this trek we actually follow an early cattle trail, through the Raton Pass to Trinidad, Colorado, and straight up the Interstate toward Denver and Cheyenne—more or less the 1866 route of the Goodnight-Loving cattle drive. But we prefer US Highway 287, slightly to the east, because it’s less congested, sometimes has a better road surface, and (incidentally) passes through Dubois.
During the cattle drives, which Knowlton calls “the largest forced migration of animals in human history,” some 50,000 cowboys drove about ten million cattle north out of Texas. They had to contend with water that might be toxic or completely absent, cactus and sagebrush that tore at their legs, the risk of stampedes, Indians, and outlaws, and the hostility of farmers along the way who knew that many Texas Longhorns carried and transmitted a disease that could be fatal to their own livestock.
He recounts the “astonishing” number of ways the trip could also be fatal to a cowboy. “You could fall from your horse, you could be kicked in the head while roping a steer, you could be gored by a horn, you could drown while crossing a river, you could be caught in quicksand, you could be struck by lightning, you could be scalped by an Indian, you could be shot by a rustler … “
An Iowan named George C. Duffield kept a journal during an 1866 cattle drive, which is quoted extensively in Cattle Kingdom. “It has been raining for three days … Hard rain and wind and lots of trouble … Ran my horse into a ditch & got my knee badly sprained…. Swam the river with a rope & then hauled the wagon over … Almost starved not having had a bite to eat for 60 hours … Am almost dead for [lack of] sleep. I am not homesick but heartsick.”
The cattle drives took from three to six months, with many detours to find water and grass. The average rate of travel was around 15 miles per day, or about one mile an hour.
Lacking cattle to drive, stagecoaches could be faster. Writing a decade after his trip west from Missouri, Mark Twain reveled in comparing the rate of travel by stagecoach with that of the new transcontinental railroad. He traveled “fifty-six hours out from St. Joe—THREE HUNDRED MILES!” or about 5 mph altogether. The train reached 300 miles west of Omaha in only 15 hours and 40 minutes, averaging nearly 20 mph.
“I can scarcely comprehend the new state of things,” he wrote.
We try to travel at 70 mph, by the way. Even in the short days of winter, we can make it back from Texas in less than three days. Pushing, we can make it in two.
Twain seemed to marvel even more at the culinary difference. At stage stops, he sometimes faced food and beverages so distasteful he opted to go hungry and thirsty. On the transcontinental railroad (according to a New York Times account he quotes), passengers dined on “snowy linen” using solid silver, served a “repast at which Delmonico himself could have had no occasion to blush” (antelope steak, mountain-brook trout, choice fruits and berries and “bumpers of sparkling Krug”) by waiters clad in white.
As a 19th century humorist, Twain could not have had our current mindset about the railroad. (In fact, if I quoted some of his phrases about Native Americans, Facebook might cancel this blog.)
He does not contemplate what immediately struck me as I read the quote above: the ultimate cost and consequences of delivering those passengers at such speed and elegance, not merely in dollars but in effort, anguish, and often lives–Asians and Native Americans and others.
Cattle Kingdom reckons the cost to bison, and thereby to Native Americans. The great transcontinental railroad, Knowlton write, divided the bison into two primary herds and thereby helped to decimate them– a southern herd of some 5 million animals, most of which disappeared by 1875, and a slightly smaller northern herd that largely vanished by 1883.
This was no mere matter of disrupting migration routes. “Railroad management encouraged recreational hunting,” he wrote, “hoping to eliminate the herds that blocked their line. Passengers were directed to shoot at the beasts from the train windows.” Telegraph companies also wanted to see an end to the bison, which liked to scratch themselves against the telegraph poles.
We passed a few very long trains in Texas this month—none shipping cattle, most shipping fuel. Of course, energy sources long ago replaced cattle as the most important commodity produced in both Texas and my home state of Wyoming.
The number of vast wind farms along our route in Texas is noteworthy. I caught this picture near Lubbock. (The train is transporting oil.) Sometimes I see cattle grazing beneath the turbines.
Our only challenge during this trip was the assault by thousands of tumbleweeds, which charged us from the northwest in a steady 30-mph blast as we traveled through Oklahoma and Colorado. They got caught in our grille and our undercarriage, and we sometimes swerved to avoid a tangle of weeds almost as large as a calf. We wonder how much paint they took off the car.
A view of the Park at closing time, with few visitors and many busy bison.
I know that two kinds of people read Living Dubois: Friends and neighbors who are curious what I will say next, and people who either used to come here, come sometimes, or have never been here at all.
This post is for the latter. (I hope the former will indulge me in sharing what they too can see, whenever they wish.)
It’s a good thing we decided to zip over to Yellowstone last Friday for another look around. The Park closed the next day, one day earlier than announced, because of inclement weather. Friday was beautiful, as you can see in the photo.
Any time of year, you have to leave Dubois early to get past the south gate in time to see anything at all inside the Park during a day trip. In summer, that’s because of the long wait at the entrance. In late autumn, it’s because the days are so short.
We turned out of our driveway at first light (this was two days before fall-back into Standard time) and pulled through the South Entrance about 90 minutes later, with no cars at all in sight.
When setting aside this vast region for a park, its early proponents intended to share the experience of wilderness with the general public. Ironically, for most visitors today that experience is often dominated by crowds, traffic jams, and hikes through parking lots.
On Friday, we saw 3 or 4 cars between Grant Village and Yellowstone Lake, where we pulled off for a view. Looking east across the lake, we saw a mirror image of the sky. Looking north, we could see distant mountains capped with snow.
I wanted to see Hayden Valley again, because we haven’t been that way in a while. Swiveling my gaze from side to side as my husband drove, I was alert for wildlife, but didn’t see any. The mudpots were steaming as usual.
Rounding a curve just past Sulphur Cauldron, we came across a herd of bison, as thick on the ground as the cattle in our own valley on any summer’s day.
As you see, they were busy preparing for winter. I stepped quickly outside the car to catch a closeup of the beautiful beasts that were grazing right beside the road. No need for concern about aggression: They did not interrupt their important work to lift their heads and look back at me.
Farther on, the route passes the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We chose to stop and stretch our legs at the Brink of the Falls, having never yet done that (at least in recent memory).
The parking lot was a blank grid of parallel lines. We slid inbetween two of them at the front.
A short stroll down a paved pathway leads to a set of sturdy wooden stairs that bring you down to a wide platform over the cascade. We walked in beautiful solitude. The enchanting view ought to justify a longer hike, I was thinking.
As we returned to the car, someone else was just arriving at the empty parking lot. A man who shares our general demographic profile stepped out of the passenger side.
“Is it worth the walk?” he asked. Incredible. I was shaking my head as we backed away. If he couldn’t bother to actually look at anything, why did he come at all?
As Dunraven Pass is closed to traffic until next spring, we had 3 choices: Retrace our steps south past Yellowstone Lake, exit via the East Entrance and take the long way home through Cody, Thermopolis, and Riverton (there wouldn’t be much Park left to see if we exited by that route), or continue down the familiar route past Madison Junction toward Old Faithful. Because traffic was nil and we had plenty of time, we chose to continue westward and then southward, around the lower loop.
This route passes my favorite feature in the Park: the Artists’ Paint Pots. These are the brilliantly colored thermal ponds that led people back East to accuse the early explorers who described them of either fantasizing or fabricating.
I wish I had caught an image of one of the red ponds to contrast with this blue one, but we had traded crowds for chill and I did not feel like dawdling as long as usual here. The trail around the paint pots is close to a mile, and I was as glad as ever to stretch my legs and stride, but loath to linger.
The surreal green of the moss really leaps out at you against the iridescent colors of the ponds at this time of year, when the rest of the vegetation is brown.
On the west side of the loop, I was interested to see this river, the Firehole, surging almost up to its banks in late autumn.
It provided a startling contrast to the sad, flat muddy ponds we had seen earlier, sitting at the base of what is usually Jackson Lake. Fed by a completely different river system, and its natural waters enhanced by a dam on the Snake River, the lake feeds farms in Idaho.
Just a bit upstream, Lewis Lake was lovely and full. But the rain and snow runoff have been so sparse this year that the marinas on the Jackson Lake had to close because the dammed waters are claimed by the farms downstream. Who knows what this winter will bring?
We stopped at Old Faithful to eat our picnic lunch on a bench near the geyser. All of the concessions were closed, and it was chilly even in the sun. Old Faithful wasn’t scheduled for our lunch break, evidently, so we packed up and moved on toward the exit, headed for home.
I thought we were done with our sightseeing, but not so. At the intersection with Pilgrim Creek Road beyond the south entrance, inside Grand Teton National Park, we spotted this fellow.
There was no bear-jam, but a Park Ranger was on the spot to assure that nobody would approach the grizzly. He’s a young male, she told me, and he weighs about 300 pounds.
I’ve had rotten luck looking for bears from the car driving toward Jackson, although any number of friends have reported seeing them from the highway. Luckily, I’ve never seen one up close. I felt fortunate getting a glimpse of this fellow at this distance.
It’s a pleasure to tour Yellowstone. but most of the drive is like this: A paved channel through columns of tall pines.
Unless you spend all of your time in the concrete jungle, it’s tedium interspersed with moments of interest.
We passed through Grand Teton Park and took the left at Moran Junction toward Dubois.
This is where some tourists make their mistake coming from Jackson, when they miss the turn to Yellowstone and head east toward our house. Beyond Moran, the road widens quickly into broad meadows bordered by forest, with many distant views toward dramatic mountain peaks.
The misdirected tourists must think the gorgeous road over Togwotee Pass is part of the approach to Yellowstone. That’s understandable.
Told their mistake, they usually sigh and turn back. But to my way of thinking, the drive across the Pass is always the best part of the trip.
All summer, tourists pull off the highway to take pictures of these “wildlife.”
Driving west at the edge of town, as usual I looked for the pronghorn. The herd has moved off the field north of the highway that they occupied all summer, the one next to the subdivision by the golf course.
I took the picture here a few weeks ago. That field is now crowded with the large cattle herd belonging to Warm River Ranch (the historic Mockler property).
The pronghorn have relocated to another field slightly to the west of the cattle, just over the fence from the mules and horses in the property beyond. This new field is greener than their previous feed lot.
Yesterday, in the warm sun of a late autumn afternoon, I almost missed seeing them. They were all sitting down.
Pronghorn, also popularly but mistakenly called antelope, are some of the fastest animals on earth. I’m used to seeing them, alert and skittish, roaming the open range on the Reservation. When do they ever sit down together, as placid as a flock of sheep?
“When they’re all full of grain and feeling safe,” said Brian DeBolt of Wyoming Game & Fish.
Although he says the herd has been around here for at least four or five years, living behind the red-rock ridge that shields the rifle range from the highway, I’m fairly sure there weren’t so many of them next to the highway, making themselves right at home all summer, until this year. They must number around 50 when the alfalfa is growing strong.
Despite what the sign says in this picture (which I took elsewhere in the state), these pronghorn don’t ever try to enter the road. They prefer to graze back the distance of a very good punt. In summer, tourists pull off the highway all the time to take pictures of what they must regard as wildlife.
As DeBolt put it, “they’ve carved themselves out a nice little niche.” They have all the food they need, plenty of water, no natural predators in all of North America, and are separated by a fence from the humans passing on a busy Federal highway and from the threat of hunters by the presence of the many houses nearby.
I have seen pronghorn in flight, but never here. They amble like the cattle.
Out of curiosity, I googled “domesticated pronghorn” just now. The only relevant result is from the gaming website Fandom:
“… a domesticated form of the pronghorn. It’s [sic] ancestors were domesticated by Protomen for their meat, horns, and milk.”
Protomen are occupants of the Fandom fantasy world, creatures about 5% smarter than humans. At some point, evidently, they decided to cultivate the species.
Of vanishing produce, disappearing pastries, locusts, picket pins, blue coyotes, and more.
I remember the day when Dubois was a sleepy little hamlet, hidden away in a peaceful mountain valley … like, last April.
Feels like that time has gone for good, along with dial telephones.
Stopping for lunch at the Lone Burrito on Thursday, I couldn’t see a single parking spot anywhere. This is extraordinary.
I found a spot by driving behind the official tourist parking area in Lamb Park and around to the gravel lot at the back of Ace Hardware. I felt very glad to be a local who knows a workaround.
This situation is not unique to Dubois this summer, as many people will tell you. All of the gateway towns near National Parks here out West are overrun. Some visitors from Alpine told me it’s just the same on the other side of Teton Pass, where different tourists are heading to flee the crowds in Jackson Hole.
I went into Superfoods on Wednesday to buy some berries and radishes. The produce shelves were nearly empty. It reminded my of my travels inside the Eastern bloc decades ago, when the Berlin Wall was still intact.
“I know what you’re planning to do with that!” laughed my friend Tammy from the cash register, when she saw me snap this photo.
“Darn right!” I said.
Tammy said the staff were completely at a loss to explain this. They received the usual shipment on Monday, and they have been ordering extra for the season. It’s as if locusts had descended.
The annual Museum Day last weekend was a roaring success. I helped out for a while serving the Indian tacos made with fry bread, which seemed just as popular as the authentic chuckwagon stew of prior years. But I soon left, because it was clear there were plenty of volunteers.
Reportedly there were also a record number of visitors. The guest count was about 500, and revenues were high.
But spooky things were going on.
The buzz around town is about the theft. Someone bought a pie at the bake sale, and asked to have it held for later. The buyer’s name was duly attached using a piece of tape, as usual, and it was stored on a table in the kitchen inside the Dennison Lodge. When he or she returned for the pie, it had disappeared.
“I was very disappointed,” said Mary Lou, who ran the bake sale. “People in Dubois don’t do things like that.” (I ran that bake sale for several years, and I can agree.)
Maybe Dubois people don’t, but there are other suspects. Mary Lou told me that she kept having to shoo the same fat and persistent “picket pin” (AKA ground squirrel, genus Citellus) out of the bake sale prep area inside the Dennison. Finally she gave up, closed the door, and put up a sign that said something like “Please come in. Picket pins not welcome.”
Perhaps the picket pin brought some buddies and dragged the pie away after hours. I wouldn’t put it past them. (Like the tourists, they seem to be around in record numbers this year.)
An unsubstantiated rumor (we specialize in these in Dubois) regards a different bake-sale purchase, a plate of pastries. Reportedly someone substituted a different kind of bar for the brownies, leaving the rest of the plate intact. I can’t imagine blaming the picket pins for that.
In other news:
The Perch is closed this weekend. They’re not saying why, but my guess is Sheila and family are taking a well-deserved break. This proved a good opportunity to try out one of the two new options that have shown up to relieve the shock to our caffeine-addicted system.
The face in the top image belongs to Monica Furman, who serves it up with a smile at the Dubois branch of Pinedale-based Pine Coffee Supply. The truck is parked beside the new fly fishing shop across from the Black Bear Inn, which is owned by her in-laws.
Monica, a wedding planner by profession, grew up in Arizona. She and her husband didn’t expect to find full-time work in Dubois, but he landed a job as the manager at Nana’s Bowling and Bakery (soon to open). She found the coffee job, and now they’re here to stay.
The lower image shows the new tiny-house version of the former coffee shop called Coyote Blue, which closed at the start of the pandemic. That’s its familiar logo to the right of the window.
Ali’s trailer is parked in front of Never Sweat Lodge, just west of the Super 8. She’s serving her signature breakfast sandwiches again, just as she did at her previous location. (You can’t see her here because I snapped this picture late in the day, when the truck was closed.)
Another Dubois rumor holds that Joe Brandl has sold his shop. This I can confirm.
I caught that wonderful guy in town yesterday, spraying weed killer outside the shop. We haven’t seen much of Joe since he moved over to Crowheart, and his talk turned quickly to haying — not antiques and animal hides.
There will be a closeout sale in the fall, Joe told me, and probably a tag sale out back afterwards, for what hasn’t sold up front. (Clean out your storage sheds, Dubois! This is your chance.)
He also confirmed that the buyer is his son. Joe has no idea what is planned for the space.
So why is that big For Sale sign still out there? “I haven’t gotten around to taking it down,” he said with one of his smiles–and then he offered to sell it to me.
Which of this news is good, or bad, and which is scary? It’s a matter of opinion — and there are plenty of those in Dubois, any time of year.
Welcome-home messages (one much more welcome than the other)
Opening the front door after a long drive home from a visit to family in Texas, I heard a text message chime in on my phone. Busy unloading luggage, I ignored it.
When I looked, I saw that it was from our next-door neighbor. Her husband had just chased 4 grizzlies out of their chicken coop. We must have driven in just after he fired the warning shots into the hillside.
“Which way did they go?” I replied quickly.
“Headed your way,” she wrote back. “Or else they went into the aspen grove and on up the valley.”
“Welcome home,” she added.
We looked, but never saw them. A friend told me later that it could be the grizzly sow named Fiona, with her 3 two-year-olds.
Our local bear expert, Brian DeBolt (who identifies himself on LinkedIn as a “Large Carnivore Conflict Coordinator” with Wyoming Game & Fish), said he hasn’t heard the name Fiona. But he added that she’s probably the same grizz who passes through this time every spring with her 3 “kids” — always curious but never confrontational.
He can’t be sure, because when they once tried to fit that bear with a radio collar, she was shy and ran away. “It looks from the pictures like two of the kids had tags,” he added, which seems to tag these as the repeat visitors — but again he can’t be sure, because “we don’t collar the kids.”
The signs of spring are everywhere. It’s warm enough to take my morning bike ride up the highway.
Businesses are reopening, expanding, starting up. A shiny sign announces a new Ace hardware, opening soon. The new Honey House is already in business selling local honey, next to the Rustic Pine Tavern. Studio 207 has improved its branding with bright signs that say “hand-made goods.”
Shannon’s trendy boutique has relocated slightly westward, expanding to add a much-needed sideline managed by her husband: bicycles and bike supplies. Landscape artist Gary Keimig has reopened his gallery in her former location.
Town is already busy with visitors. The cars that passed me on the highway this morning wore plates that read Texas, California, and Florida. At Pete’s Pond this afternoon, the kids who were fishing had come from Utah and Florida.
When a friend told me the cowboy was overrun, for an instant I wanted to ask who it was and who struck him. Of course she meant, being its owner, that the Cowboy Cafe already had a line of would-be diners waiting on the sidewalk.
The wildlife is busy too. We saw robins perform a mating dance in the meadow. The “picket pins” stand upright behind the back porch, as ever in warm weather, guarding the entrance to their burrows. A male bluebird — a favorite sign of spring in this town — is just as vigilant from his perch atop the birdhouse beside the utility pole, watching his mate fly back and forth with twigs to build a nest inside.
Another pair is busy trying to reoccupy the hollow log beside the back door of our new screen porch. They abandoned it last year during the construction, and obviously didn’t welcome my presence as I worked on this laptop at the table inside the porch.
Who knew that male bluebirds have a patch of green on their backs? It was beautiful to see one so close.
However, I’m sorry to say, unless they can decide to tolerate my presence I expect this pair to find a different home. I won’t abandon my new enclosed porch for their sake.
It’s delightful to work there in the morning, with the beautiful view of the ridge and the fresh breeze passing through the doors, and just as pleasant to have tea there in the afternoon, sheltered from the wind that always picks up at midday in summer.
Now that the weather is fine, humans are at work outdoors as well. The roofer is finally working noisily overhead. A team is building a new fence along the highway.
Here’s the very welcome welcome-home message I saw when we first entered the driveway, even before I received my neighbor’s text.
Everyone over in town already has fiberoptic Internet service. Now that the ground has thawed, I guess it will soon be our turn.
The Internet here is already flawless, for our purposes, and has been for years. When that work is done, I guess it will be even better. (But what can be better than flawless?)