“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?)
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.
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.
At 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.