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.
Another piece has torn away from the wonderful crazy quilt that is Dubois. It’s difficult to believe he’s really gone.
His particular fragment in that work of art was frayed at the edges and rather dark. But at the center, it was lustrous and elegantly patterned.
Patrick would probably be unhappy if he could know that I am posting this. He was certainly a private person. But as I write that, I can hear his gruff laugh sounding from a distant place. “I don’t care what people think,” he would say. (Was it true?)
Many people knew him only as a chef, which indeed he was, par excellence. I must have met Patrick first (but not formally) when he was running the restaurant-deli called Paya with Barbara. That was when we first moved to Dubois.
Its Facebook page is still live, with tempting pictures and descriptions of that day’s offering on the steam table, and the comments.
“Best pizza in Wyoming.”
“There is no lunch like this anywhere.”
On this very blog, I myself said that Paya’s pizza was better than any I had found in Brooklyn.
They held on for years, but managing that busy main-street restaurant slowly ran them (and, I presume, their marriage) ragged. One of the last Google reviews was a complaint that vividly reveals Barbara’s frayed nerves. Paya closed in 2014.
Afterwards, Patrick tried opening another deli with another cook. When that didn’t work out, he had a succession of jobs in restaurants around town, did occasional catering, and then just stopped. He loved to prepare food, and to talk about the preparation of food, but he wasn’t on duty any more.
I would see him on the street, at the coffee shop or in the supermarket. Often, he would make some random comment that sounded nasty. I found his acerbic behavior interesting. It was as if he was testing to see if he could drive me away. I got to throwing it back at him.
At least once, Patrick complemented me about my residual New York City attitude in the course of saying that it must alienate some others. In a way, I felt like a kindred spirit. In another way, I wanted to defy his challenge.
We began to meet for lunch, and gradually I learned about his past. His mother had been French. His parents were diplomats. He had lived somewhere in Africa as a child, and in Vietnam as a teenager during the war. He well recalled their escape as US forces left the country. I wish I could remember more details about his past. He would surely tease me for forgetting them.
Patrick said that he was often dizzy and no longer had the stamina or the focus to work, which sounded like malingering. But he began to share details of his long series of visits to doctors in search of an explanation, and eventually I learned the truth. He had difficulty describing the diagnosis, but he handed me a scrap of paper on which he had written the name.
That’s how I learned he was having a series of small strokes, perhaps a hereditary problem but certainly one aggravated by his smoking. “I’m not going to stop,” he said several times, defiantly. “It’s about the only thing I can enjoy now.” The prognosis was not good, and he knew it.
By that point, he could no longer focus his eyes well enough to read or watch a screen. He never knew when he would have enough energy to cook, which he would have loved to do. Basically, all he could do any more was sit around the apartment, and he felt trapped in his life. About the only thing he could be sure to do would be to take his dog, Jasper, down by the river for a run.
When Patrick finally welcomed me to visit him at home, I felt I got to know him. You would never have guessed what was in his rooms above the laundromat: The little cast iron ship sitting on the woodstove humidifying the air through its smokestacks. The African face mask. The vast art deco armoire. I could see the fine antiques and paintings, the eclectic objects he had discovered at the Opportunity Shop, and his beloved jungle of houseplants.
I’d admire one painting, and he would tell me its history. “You must see this,” he would add, pulling something off a shelf to show me, or leading me into a back room to see another painting.
One recent Tuesday, I walked up the narrow stairs and opened the door to confront the usual rambunctious greeting from Jasper. I was expected, but Patrick hadn’t come to the corridor to greet me as usual. I found him sleeping soundly in his big chair.
I made plenty of noise as I calmed Jasper down, hoping to disturb him to alertness. But when I walked back to the chair, he was still breathing deeply. Needs his sleep, I told myself, and left quietly. I could return when he was awake.
“I stopped by,” I texted a few minutes later, “but you were sleeping so soundly I didn’t want to disturb you. Phone when you see this, please.”
He never called. I decided he must be in one of his moods, and I called to leave a voice message. Late that afternoon, someone called me with the most unwelcome news.
In the days that followed, when I said that I was sad, I began to learn about other people who had also cared about him. I had had no idea how many there were, and I suspect he didn’t, either.
Unlike Stuart’s party, we had a guidebook and a topo map. Nonetheless …
This happened a while ago. It was one of those warm and sunny late-autumn days that call out “Last chance?” and propel you to get outdoors right now, and go somewhere, anywhere.
We had chosen to drive beyond Lander and then southwest. We were going to find the spot where, 209 years earlier almost to the day, Robert Stuart and his fellow explorers had camped for the night after they finally reached the legendary “shorter trace to the south” across the Rockies. Now known as South Pass, what Stuart called a “handsome low gap” leads widely and gradually over the Continental Divide, accessible to wagons and therefore, much later, to hundreds of thousands of emigrants heading west.
It had not been easy to find. Returning to St. Louis from the Northwest, Stuart and his band of Astorian fur traders had a long and arduous journey, traveling on foot when they could not obtain horses. They endured periods of starvation, angry disagreements, unsettling encounters with natives, misdirections (intentional or otherwise), and perilous, unnecessary detours.
We’d learned about all this in detail fromAcross the Great Divide, the biography of Robert Stuart written by his descendant, author and chronicler of Wyoming history Layton McCartney, a former part-time resident of Dubois whom we got to know briefly after we moved here from New York City. We now live close enough to see the exact historic spot he had described, and we set out to find it.
Unlike Stuart and his fellows, we knew the way in general, having driven the highway from Lander to Farson many times. But we had never crossed any part of that familiar sage and sand plain on foot. Nor had we ever before paid any particular attention to the Oregon Buttes, the huge rocky formations that were a landmark to all those westward-bound pioneers who passed by along the Oregon and Mormon trails.
“Follow the Oregon Buttes Road 2.9 miles to the crossing of a small, dirt two-track road,” directed our little red guide book, Day Hiking the Wind River Range. “Park here and begin walking to the right (west).”
Simple enough instructions, it seems. They were certainly much clearer than the ambiguous directions in reports from earlier explorers and rough translations of communications from natives, which were all that Stuart and his crew of explorers had to aid their search for an easier passage back east. We had the little guidebook, the biography, a topo map, and a general feel for the area (but no GPS, lacking signal). Nonetheless, we were puzzled from the outset.
The dirt double-track that headed west from Oregon Buttes Road was actually 2.1 miles south of the highway, not 2.9 miles as the guidebook said. There was no such track at 2.9 miles. So we got out of the car at 2.1 miles and walked west, already uncertain (as Stuart and his party almost always were) whether we were going the right way.
To our right, we could easily see what Stuart called the “southern terminus of the mighty Wind River Range”—the same range that towers over Dubois.
After a few hundred yards, another track took off to the left. We chose that direction, partly because we saw RVs parked farther along the other track, to the right.
We were looking for trail markers, not campsites, and there were good signs off to the left—specifically, these concrete markers which seemed designed to point the way to the old pioneer trails.
Our guidebook promised an easy 1.5 mile hike, marked at the 0.7-mile point with a fenced area surrounding two stone markers erected to designate the actual pass and the Oregon Trail, and another commemorating Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding, the first women on this trail, who came this way with their husbands in 1836.
We didn’t have pedometers, but we did have a general sense of how long it takes to hike ¾ of a mile on the flat. We passed through a gate in a barbed-wire fence, and we had seen the trail markers. But there was nothing like a monument to pioneer women.
However, looking at the map, we could easily identify our original goal: the eastern slope of a hill immediately northwest of present-day Pacific Springs. There, the Stuart party were forced to camp. As McCartney wrote, “the wind and snow hampered their progress” when, after a 15-mile hike, they could easily see the gap between the mountains just ahead.
We stopped to consult the map, still trying to decide where we were compared to where they must have been. Pacific Springs was clearly marked. The east-facing slope in question had to be the shallow one, distant but easily identifiable, off to our right and ahead.
It must have been disheartening beyond description for the men to reach that spot, finally to see the gap ahead, and not be able to attain it because of the Wyoming’s unpredictable autumn weather. In passing, it left a layer of snow on their blankets that vanished the next day. We recognize this weather pattern.
I took a picture, and we traveled on. But where were the legendary deep tracks of the Oregon Trail? We abandoned the track we had been following and walked overland across the sagebrush flats, in the general direction of that slope, heading toward a deep culvert on our side of the ridge.
And there, just up a rise, we found the fence, the two rough stone markers, and the unmistakable deep ruts of the original Oregon Trail. This is only one of many sets of deep wagon ruts in the area, we learned later, because of course not all of the 19th-century migrants followed exactly the same path westward across this desolate, flat country.
I hiked the deep ruts back toward our car, passing a fifth-wheeler and a pickup along the way. More recent off-road vehicles than covered wagons must have helped carve these grooves, I decided.
When the Stuart party crossed here, they took one last unfortunate detour. The path not chosen would have led them relatively straight northward to the Sweetwater River, and on toward the Missouri River and St. Louis. Unfortunately, near their camp they had discovered a fresh and easily identified trail left by Crow natives, whom they had reason to fear. So they turned south instead.
After taking time to climb one of the Oregon Buttes, which are much larger and more imposing than they appear from the modern highway, the men headed into the Red Desert. Layton McCartney depicted this as “four and a half million acres of rainbow colored badlands, towering buttes, high desert, and shifting, 10-foot-high sand dunes.”
This vast and forbidding terrain is basically a huge bowl created as the Continental Divide splits and then rejoins, noted on Wyoming maps as the Great Divide Basin. It has no outward-bound watersheds and is remarkably barren–nothing like the rolling, high plains the party had anticipated from the reports of other explorers.
“Stuart and his companions might have been in the Sahara Desert,” McCartney added. They wandered for many days without water, before finally turning northward to find a stream that led them to the Missouri, and civilization.
Having returned to our car after a pleasant jaunt on a lovely afternoon, we headed briefly in the direction of the Red Desert. The dirt road led bumpily downhill and quickly became impassable. We turned back toward the highway, going in the direction Stuart should have chosen.
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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.
… but you have to get lucky and be far from town on a chilly autumn afternoon
An adolescent girl, perhaps the one in this picture, climbed the slope toward the irrigation ditch near the fence where I sat, at the edge of our property. “They told me to tell you you’re not allowed to take pictures,” she said.
Returning from a hike on a raw and cloudy Sunday afternoon in October, I had heard whoops, hollers, and bellows from the valley just below. I guessed what was happening. It’s a sure sign of autumn when the cattle crowd that corral. I had stopped to watch the people racing around on horseback, driving the cattle in.
“Who’s in charge?” I asked. She mentioned two names I didn’t recognize.
“We’re rounding up the cattle in this valley for the people who own them,” she went on. “They do this every year.”
“I know,” I said. “I live here.”
I stopped taking pictures after that, and nobody in this one is identifiable. (I took the rest of these at other times.) But it’s difficult to imagine that I’m forbidden from taking pictures of the landscape adjacent to my own property. If the cattle have an issue, they may consult legal counsel.
I wonder why these folks objected. Perhaps they thought I was an animal-rights activist.
The reason for my interest is outright ignorance. I see cattle every (nonwinter) day from my windows, and I have seen cowboys in many movies riding around among cattle. But I have never watched an actual roundup in action. As you may recall, I was a city girl.
Tourists sometimes stop in town to ask where they can see real cowboys at work, and we locals glance at each other before responding politely. You’d have to get lucky, be fairly far from town, and probably not go looking for them on a lovely afternoon in midsummer. I got lucky one chilly Sunday in October, and I had that privilege.
They must have been rounding these cattle up all day, I thought. It’s a very long valley.
The neighbor’s five horses and a mule had gathered between me and the corral, sometimes looking up at me as they grazed. A woman bundled up in parka and scarf walked a toddler around by the hand among the three livestock trailers parked near the corral. Two small dogs trotted around outside the corral, busy as if on errands.
It was loud where I sat many yards away, so it must have been almost deafening for the people helping to herd the cattle. (I don’t say “cowboys” because a few of them were women and the others were not boys). The cattle were objecting loudly to being penned inside the corral, of course, not to mention the whinnying of the horses and the cowhands’ own yells and whistles.
As I took my perch on the fence, two men on horseback were expertly cutting one huge black beast out of the herd as the others were trapping the rest of the animals inside the corral. They drove it off to one side and out the gate. It went in the wrong direction, and they barked and shouted as they wheeled around and galloped toward it. It leaped one fence with surprising agility, then another, and wandered off toward the river.
Meanwhile, the other cowhands busied themselves inside the corral, urging their captives into one pen or the other. One of them galloped back and forth inside the pen, cleaning cows out of a far corner. After a while, only he was on horseback. The others just walked behind the cattle, sometimes urging them forward with lazy sweeps of a rope.
I wondered why they had divided them into groups, only to open the gates and let them crowd back into the largest pen together again. Then I overheard a shout: “Write down 112!” They had been counting, of course.
Soon after, I heard someone call out “115”.
By historic standards, just over a hundred head is a fairly small herd for this region. Frank Welty, Sr. (1874-1958) reports in Recollections of the Upper Wind River Valley that he had a herd of 1800 head in 1919, but a drought followed by a hard winter reduced the herd to 150. That was “a sad end to a big business,” he said. I won’t attempt a digression now into the current economics of cattle ranching in this valley and why herds are smaller now. As I said, I’m ignorant.
Eventually, someone got into a pickup and backed one of the three livestock trailers toward the corral. The cowhands separated three or four of the cattle, closed them beyond a gate from the rest of the herd, and drove them into the trailer. The truck and trailer lumbered toward the highway and went off. (Were these few, I wondered, part of the wages?)
After a while, two men mounted their horses, headed back down the valley, and surrounded one of the few cattle that were still grazing out there. Is this the one they had cut out before? Why, I wondered, did they do that in the first place?
Now they turned it around, and it loped toward the corral, objecting. Handily, they steered it into the empty pen closest to the valley, then coaxed it into the largest pen with the rest of the herd.
There seemed to be a lot of standing around afterwards. Saddles were slung into pickups. Some of the horses were led into another trailer and driven away. Others were tied to the remaining trailer. People walked back and forth.
Sometimes, all at once, the cattle fell silent. Then one would moan and the others would start up again.
A few of the cowhands walked over to a fence near the corral and engaged in a long conversation with two men who had been watching from the other side. I could hear their voices, but not what they were saying. Negotiating terms or just shooting the breeze?
I waited for rest of the cattle to be driven into the other trailers. How would they all fit? Then I realized (knucklehead!) the trailers are for transporting all their horses, not for cattle. It’s their job to round the cattle up, not to transport them somewhere else—especially not after they have spent all day chasing them out of the valley. Others would pick up the rest of the cattle the next day, no doubt. (And sure enough, the cattle were still there the next morning.)
It was growing more breezy on my perch at the property line, and my gloved hands were cold. I gave up waiting for them to load the remaining horses into the last trailer, and headed home.
By the time I was seated by the window with a cup of tea, our neighbor’s five horses and mule had returned to the meadow by the aspen grove. I guess the show was over.
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.
I wish I could show you my night sky. My camera is not good enough.
No camera is good enough. So I will use words instead.
A picture’s worth? A thousand is more than I need.
But far too few for the stars. I do not know how many there are. I do not know their names, but there must be names for all of them. Or numbers, at least. Think of that.
I have to be very patient. Some appear only slowly. They come and go. I see some only out of the corner of my eye. One peeks out from the edge of the mountain range at the north, and disappears. It blinks on and off, then returns, and slowly rises.
It doesn’t rise, in fact. We slowly bow to greet it.
The Milky Way washes from north to south, a frayed bright smudge across the dark sequined drape.
The galaxy on edge. I know this, but somehow the words have no meaning.
Up above the world so high. So high! So many. So vast. I am so small.
It doesn’t matter. Nothing that matters to me really matters.
One falls fast and vanishes. That is not a star, I know. I try to conjure a wish. I have no wish. I need no wish. I am content.
Other bright spots that move are also not stars. They move sideways. The steady crosswise traveler may be a satellite. The bright flashes: an airplane. Toward Anchorage? Toward Moscow? Up there, shades are closed, people try to sleep. (So glad I am here.)
What is that bright glow to the northeast? I triangulate. Could that be Cody? (Poor Cody; that many lights at night? Can they see my sky?)
After a time the glow brightens suddenly, sharpens, focuses. Not Cody at all.
It is the moon, rising over a gap in the ridge. A face slowly takes shape.
Not really a face, of course. This has always seemed to me a sign of grace, that it glows at us from up there, looking to us like a face.
A joyful cry, a reckless run, and at the end a silent drive home.
Our oldest grandchild came for a visit last week. He has refused to accept my statement that everything he saw here – not just our house – is called “Wyoming.”
This was his first time away from home without his parents.
He is not yet four, but we can already see who he is becoming.
At least right now, he’s fascinated with airplanes. Flying here was a huge excitement for him.
Misty and Mike Cavanagh kindly let me bring him to visit their hangar up at the small Dubois airport, where he was fascinated with the aircraft, but even more so with all the tools.
The airplanes were a bit scary. The tools were not, being much more familiar. “Here’s a screwdriver,” he said, handing one to Misty. Our son-in-law is in construction.
After leaving the hangar, he suddenly burst into tears.
“I want to see my Daddy!” he moaned.
“Soon,” I said. “Not just yet.”
He’s such a bundle of apprehension and courage, confusion and acceptance.
I saw all of these in the Denver airport, as we endured the security line and raced toward the plane that would bring him home. The rushing crowds. The scary escalators. The noisy terminal. The frightening little gap between jetway and airplane. The startling chimes from above and the bumps when we were in the air.
He was very good.
Then the long trek from the gate to the curb, and at last, the sight of the big black pickup, the cry of joy and the reckless run toward Daddy’s big embrace. A woman waiting nearby called it a multi-hankie reunion.
We had been dry-camping, and my phone began to run out of juice. Then I didn’t take the right power cords along to the airport. (Corralling a 3-year-old has a way of distracting you from other realities.) So I was mostly on childcare duty and off the grid, saving phone power for important messages. For a few days, I left the world behind.
My return journey after dropping him off with his father was more restful, of course. As the plane slowly descended toward Denver from the west, I watched the vast, rumpled mountain carpet of peaks and furrows as they passed below. It was a calming sight. They looked untouched and unapproachable.
Gazing out the passenger window the next morning as we drove north, I saw the suburbs spread out at the base of the same Front Range I had flown across the day before. Many of the people in those houses came here to be near that wilderness. But how close can they get, how often – and driving through what kind of traffic for how long?
Denver always makes me yearn for home.
As almost everywhere during that trip last week, the rural road we followed was lined with sunflowers. As you see, it was a beautiful day just short of autumn.
This feels like the most hopeful time of year, full of the promise of new projects, the days brightened by the shimmer of glowing aspen leaves and the enchantment of clean, crisp air. Those masses of yellow blossoms seemed to be bright faces nodding at me as we sped by, headed for home.
Finally, I picked up my phone and checked back into the world of adulthood.
A long list of emails, including this, from the Governor’s office:
That announcement brought a jolt to the heart. World news is not supposed to come this close.
I had to wait for signal to return before I could learn more about the late Lance Corporal from Wyoming. He had been guarding the entrance to Kabul airport in that mayhem during the evacuation. He was 20 years old.
To my grandmotherly eyes, the person gazing back from the news photos looked like a mere boy. But he was a man in every sense. He chose to serve our country, knowing he might give his life, and he did. His young wife is expecting their first child in a few weeks.
Arriving in town late in the evening, we made a quick stop at the grocery store.
The cashier and the customer ahead, both of whom I know, were fixated on each other in in an intense conversation. The customer had been crying. Being only a few feet away, I could not help overhearing.
She said something about babysitting and playing together, and that she was sad about how her son must be taking the news.
“You mean he lived in Dubois?” I asked, not needing to specify who I meant by “he.”
She nodded. “Before they moved to Jackson. When he was real small.”
It was Rylee’s lifelong dream to become a Marine, his father told reporters. Ever since he was 3. That number jumped out at me, of course.
One pleasure of being in this remote town is our distance from the existential crises of the world at large. We look to the mountains from whence cometh our help, but not always, not always quickly, and not for everyone.
We drove silently home. As I walked toward the door with the groceries, I heard my husband say, “I ought to put the flag at half-staff.”