Dubois’ Delightful Toxic Waste Site

The health care facilities are merely useful. This will be magic.

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PetesPond_WillowForegroundAs spring brings life to the valley, an enchanting new creation is unfolding beside the highway, just east of the rodeo grounds. What makes the place seem even more magical is that it used to be a toxic waste site.

It’s difficult to imagine what might have been toxic about the sawmill that gave life to this community, until it closed in 1988. But an EPA document describing the “brownfields” cleanup project says the site was contaminated with petroleum byproducts including benzene and diesel fuels.

PetesPond_RiverwalkTen years after the mill closed, a local family bought the site and donated it to the Nature Conservancy, stipulating that it should be used for the “health and enjoyment of the citizens of the greater Dubois community and its future generations.” After the town gained numerous grants, the cleanup began five years ago.

The medical clinic, fitness center, and assisted living facility on the site clearly qualify in the health category, but as mere buildings they would not inspire the words “enchanting” and “magical.” As the dog and I enjoy the eastern end of the river walk, I’ve seen something emerging that will clearly deserve that description.

PetesPond_BenchViewThe good folks of Dubois Anglers and Wildlife Group (DAWGS) are busy completing Pete’s Pond, the dream of Pete Petera, a former director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department who retired to Dubois. I knew the bright-eyed gentleman all too briefly before he passed away, too early to see the project begin.

Pete wanted a place where children could enjoy fishing safely. The need for this becomes clear as I follow this part of the river walk in late May, watching the surging water breach its banks and crash past, frothing and muddy.

PetesPond_RiverFlowDAWGS long ago made the river accessible for handicapped anglers along this riverwalk. Now, on the landward side of the walk, they’re busy with backhoes creating not just a pond, but a whole new park. There’s a small stream at the inlet, and islands in the center of the pond.

What astonishes me is the sylvan aspect of the scene, where a few years ago this was hard-packed tan dirt overgrown with weeds and sage, the kind of desolate landscape so many people think of when they hear the word “Wyoming.”

PetesPond_ReflectionsIt’s a pleasure to think that this is what future travelers will see first as they pass into Dubois headed toward Yellowstone and Jackson. After that long desert drive from Rawlins or Casper, they will be enticed as they reach Dubois to stop and enjoy birds and gently lapping water, lined by trees and bordering the river.

It doesn’t yet look as green as it will, because it’s only early spring here, and the work is still under way. But I can already hear the laughter of the children.

Somewhere over there under the water is a ball that the dog lost in the weeds last summer. He’s certainly forgotten about it.  I’m very pleased to make the sacrifice.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

My Yellowstone Bison Adventure

I know it’s sentimental, but I felt he was guarding me.

BisonandGeezer0518“Is that one of the geezers?” said the man at the pullout.

I smiled. “I love the way you English people say that word,” I said. “Here we pronounce it ‘guy-zer.’ In American vernacular, a geezer is — ”

“I know,” he said. “An old guy. But is that one of them? Is it Old Faithful?”

He didn’t mention the bison I was watching as it grazed nearby. Nor did he tell me he was Irish, not English, which I learned later on.

“No,” I said. “You’ll see the signs for Old Faithful about five miles further south.”

Recently I read that, while the TripAdvisor experts recommend taking three or four days to tour Yellowstone, about half of visitors come all this way just to see Old Faithful. That’s a fairly short drive up from the South Entrance, which wouldn’t open for another week EastEntrance0518yet.

We ourselves had come in last Saturday from the north. We wanted to visit the Park before the hordes began to arrive through the South Entrance. We’ll see them approaching shortly, via Dubois.

That morning we had sailed through the East Gate entirely unimpeded, only one day after it opened, after driving all the way around through Cody.

AvalancheSign0518Only a few days into May,  the northern regions of the Park were still blanketed with deep and drifting snow. A road sign just a few miles inside the entrance warned us of avalanche risk.

Pulling into an overlook, we saw that Yellowstone Lake was still almost entirely snowbound.

Farther on, people had stopped to walk on the shoreline, where the ice had melted back a foot or two.

BisononRoad0518On the second day of opening, it was about as crowded as you would want for a visit to a public park. We had a little company–just enough to feel pleasantly surrounded, not too isolated in the wilderness.

On the north side of the Lake, we encountered the first of several small “bison jams.” We had to slow down briefly when two or three cars stopped shortly ahead of us. As so often happens, a bison was ambling right down the middle of the road.

TripAdvisor experts warn visitors to anticipate lengthy delays for bison jams. That day, after a moment, the car ahead moved on and then we drove slowly past.

FromVespa0518Besides a chance to visit that overly popular Park minus the crowds, this was a dry run for our small RV and our Vespa motorbike. We don’t use the Vespa much near home, because it wouldn’t feel safe in the traffic that zooms past at 70 mph, much of it either hurrying toward the Park or home afterwards.

Inside the Park, the speed limit is a comfortable 45.  On that early-season day, we figured, even inside Yellowstone the traffic wouldn’t be too heavy.

It was very pleasant to zip around those winding roads that were nearly empty. We’d pull over every so often to let cars pass, and then continue on our leisurely way.

Vespa_at_Lodge0518We drove into the parking lot at Old Faithful and stopped the bike. It looked like rain, so we went inside the Lodge to get a drink and maybe wait out the weather.

It was surprising how many people were already wandering around inside. The building is fanciful on an oversized scale, like a Norseman’s lodge gone mad (as my husband put it).

LodgeInterior0518As I sipped my beer near the huge fireplace in the lobby, a decent-sized group listened to a tour guide.

“You want to see Old Faithful?” my husband asked as finished our drinks.

“Nah,” I said. “I’ve seen it before. Probably no different today. I’m sure it will keep going off without us.”

The conversation about the geezer happened shortly afterwards, as we headed back northward toward the campground on the Vespa. We had spoken about how it wouldn’t be safe to stop close to a bison while driving the motorbike. But I asked to stop at a pullout when I spotted one close enough to the road to catch a picture on my IPhone but far enough away to be safe.

My husband turned off the ignition so I could climb off the Vespa and catch the shot. Then it wouldn’t start again.

When the Irish couple drew up to look at the geyser a few minutes later, I was standing beside the bike watching the bison. My husband stood a few yards to the north with his thumb out, waiting for a quick lift back to the campground so he could drive back with the RV and install the dead Vespa on the rack at its rear.

I was amazed how many cars drove past without stopping.

“Poor fellow,” the Irish man said with a chuckle, looking back at him. “Nobody’s going to stop for him.”

“That’s my husband,” I said, and explained the situation. Quickly, and kindly, they offered the ride we were waiting for.

BisonCloseupMeanwhile I turned to watch the bison grazing as I continued to wait. He lifted his head to watch me in return, as I stood silently beside the odd red object. Slowly, he turned in my direction. I caught my breath.

Then, ungainly, he sat down and resumed staring placidly at me.

After a while someone else pulled up to look at him. “You waiting for someone?” the woman asked, and I explained.

“What a place to be stranded!” she said.

It was an odd and fairly lonely vigil, as the other tourists sailed past unconcerned. It must have been 25 minutes before I saw our little RV approaching from the north. Most of that time, the bison and I had been gazing at each other from a certain distance.

My husband and I busied ourselves reinstalling the Vespa on the back of the RV, and then climbed into the cab. “Oh, look,” he said. “The bison has turned away.”

YellowstoneRain0518I know it’s sentimental, but I fancied that, rather than being a threat, he had been guarding me.

Just after we pulled onto the road, the heavens opened. Other campers told us later that we had missed a rainstorm at the campground. Amazingly, during the whole excursion, neither of us felt a drop of rain.

CamperWithVespaAs night was falling, I enjoyed myself for a long time beside the campfire, looking over in the direction of the Vespa on the back of the camper–both of us sitting at rest and doing absolutely nothing at all.

What a delight to have such a peaceful day in Yellowstone Park! The woman was right: It was a great place to be stranded–and a privilege to spend a little time up (almost) close and personal with one of the few wild creatures in our general neighborhood that would never be seen passing within view of my dining room window.

I’m so grateful to my husband for suggesting that brief getaway, the perfect start to another busy summer season.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Tiny Signs of Spring in the Big Valley

The signs are subtle, but unmistakeable.

“Welcome to Dubois!” read the scrolling digital sign in town last week. “Spring is almost here.”

Nonsense. Spring is already here.

We’ve waited so long for the days to lengthen and the breeze to feel more gentle. There’s no question now that the vigil is ending.

Back in Brooklyn, spring burst in with a gaudy show of flowering trees. Here, the signs are more subtle–but unmistakeable nonetheless.

Sheridan Creek WY
Last week I took a hike at Sheridan Creek. The hills were still half-covered with snow.
TinyFlower_0518
Near the creek, I spotted my first tiny, indisputable sign of spring.
Wildflowers Dubois WY
Later I saw more tiny clumps of them, harbingers of the riot of wildflowers to come.
Wheelbarrow_Stalks
Time to get the garden ready for planting. These are the stalks from last year’s hollyhocks.
CattleandCalves
I sat down to relax, and watched a calf over in the valley, searching for its mother. Finding her, he bounded over and began to suckle.
Bluebird Dubois WY
The bluebirds have returned. This one sat for hours guarding a nest (I hope).
Moose Dubois Wyoming
Best of all, driving back from town I spotted this lanky lady. (Footnote to real Neyawkers: It’s a moose.) She saw me too, and ran off. I wondered where junior was hiding.
SnowflakePines
Snow still comes, but not in earnest. The spots on the picture are snowflakes. But see the blue sky?
HalfandHalfSky
Later, back at the highway, I watched the weather coming in again. But it won’t last.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

The Beauties of the Road Less Traveled

The rewards of the long escape from the hurry.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost

OpenRoad1“I’ve always wanted to visit Wyoming,” said a few people I met during my road trip this month. Spoken with a sigh, as if this was some impossible dream.

Some people vow never to return to Wyoming, having traveled only the breakneck road race called Interstate 80 that hugs the flat, featureless southern margin of the state. Or, never having visited at all, they envision a place where dirt roads head off into nothingness.

Homeward bound, after the long, long climb up out of Utah, we take one of the first exits heading north from I-80, into this nothingness. We enter a gently rolling ocean of grass and sagebrush. Almost instantly, stress flows away and vanishes.

The road heads forward, so straight and empty that it’s quite safe to take photos from the driver’s seat. As I drive, I begin to pity those travelers who arrive by air from the East Coast (as I did, on my first visit)  and set off straightaway in their rental cars toward the maelstrom of Jackson and the national parks.
OpenRoad2
Here, you can still see the ruts from the mule-drawn wagons that once brought people ever so slowly along the Oregon Trail. That makes you think, too. Out here there’s no signal, and nothing but the sound of your tires to distract you.

Geology presents itself off to the east: A knife-sharp ridgeline. I can almost feel the motion of the sub-surface tectonic plate pushing the land mass upward.

This is open rangeland. The only billboards are clever warnings from the Game & Fish Department. “Caution: Slow moving traffic ahead,” reads one, with an image of a cow. Obligingly, a herd of cattle appears on the left.

“Antelope entering highway at 55 mph,” reads another. Later, we do see a small herd of pronghorn antelope some distance away. Two of them are engaged in a high-speed chase.  We’re at 70, and if they weren’t intent on running vast circles on the empty plain, they could almost keep up.AntelopeSign

Somewhat farther on, I see some border collies on the shoulder, and slow down. One is just sitting on the pavement; another is barking at the passing cars.

As we come even with them, we see men on horseback nearby. They are busily herding a huge mass of sheep, which are nearly invisible against the sandy landscape, toward the wagon where they will be sheared.

Now and again, ranch roads peel off enticingly at right angles. The onboard navigator is totally lost. In the distance across the moonscape, we see a small Mount Rushmore, with faces carved by the wind.WindsfromFarson

Eventually we can see what looks like a long, low bank of clouds ahead and to the left. That’s the snow on top of the Wind River Range. Our beautiful valley is on the other side of those mountains.

Coming from the Interstate to reach Dubois–the place Expedia has called the best escape in Wyoming–still entails an hours-long drive across the wilderness. Like any goal worth attaining, it does require some effort.

It’s difficult to convey to people on the TripAdvisor forums how very long this journey takes–and how rewarding it can be, if you are willing to let go of the reasons you’re always in a hurry.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Wildlife, Up Close and Personal

Pronghorns and coyotes and bears? Oh, my.

We took my infant grandson to the zoo in Arizona. I wanted pictures of the little fellow in the same frame as the big creatures we read about in his board books, to give him evidence that they’re real.

Cows and cats, dogs and horses, no problem. But lions, tigers, and bears? Oh, my.

“We can skip the pronghorns and the deer,” I said to the woman who showed me the zoo map. “We’re from Wyoming.”

TigerThe first cage we came to held the tiger. It roared as soon as it saw the baby. (Feeding time.) We jumped, but the baby didn’t react.

The creatures in this lovely zoo are rescues, brought in by Game and Fish when they’re injured or orphaned, transferred from other zoos that have gone out of business, or confiscated (like the mountain lion) from people who tried to keep them as pets. It’s a wonderful little zoo that does as well as possible, but I felt sad for the residents.

I saw a bald eagle in a small cage, perched motionless on a branch that was almost close enough to reach. One of its relatives likes to perch on a gate in the field beyond our buck and rail. We watch it through our binoculars. I had no idea they are so huge.

Farther on, a coyote sat forlornly on a rock inside its enclosure. It looked like my dog when he’s bored on a hot day: No reason to run, no pack to run with. We almost never see coyotes at home, but we hear them often, rejoicing over a capture. I felt bad for this little fellow who lost his mother too young.

Antelope_100617The pronghorns were wandering around a space smaller than someone’s back yard. I had never before seen one up close and personal, how its horns seem to spring directly out of its eyes. I usually see them in the near distance somewhere nearby, grazing on a plain. They sometimes hang out in the pastures around town when food is short elsewhere.

I have read that they can run as fast as a car. I’ve never seen this myself, but out there, they actually could if they felt the urge.

We didn’t bother to take a picture of the baby near the mule deer. We can show him plenty of those near home.

BearOn seeing us, this huge black bear lumbered out of its man-made cave, approached the fence, and sat down — more sociable toward the baby than my own dog is.

“Bear!” we said to the baby. “Here’s a bear!” This time he paid attention.

Just what we wanted; close, but safe on the far side of a big fence. Then it waddled slowly over to its wading pool and demonstrated how to lounge in the bath. The baby could relate to that.

This brought back a memory: hiking with the dog near the Wind River, I saw what I thought at first was a father and son, both in dark raingear, fishing together. After a few steps, I turned quietly around and walked the other way. That’s as close as I’ve come to a bear – until yesterday.

071317_5We know from surveys that “wildlife viewing” is one of the main reasons people come all the way to the Dubois area for a visit. Going to the zoo for the first time in years helped me understand this better.

We don’t just live in a postcard, as someone once said to me. We live in an actual habitat.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018

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Time Warps in the Old West Times Square

Dates and timelines offer up curious parallels.

BanksWarmValley_croppedLocal historian Steve Banks gave another riveting talk a few weeks ago, this one about the history of traffic across this valley. Since then, I’ve been caught up in a sort of time travel.

I used to have the feeling that this Old West was much younger than the Back East I left behind. It must be part of the pioneer spirit you still feel out here, a sense of freshness and opportunity that reaches back from today’s new arrivals to the first intrepid white explorers.

Lately, I’ve been checking dates and making timelines. They parallel each other and resonate in very odd ways.

These four walls account for part of my confusion about time. They’re  made of huge logs felled nearby and chinked warmly together, much as the original settlers made their cabins. Our new house looks historic, but it is only decades old — far younger than the Victorian brownstone we left behind, which was built in 1880.

BrooklynHouseThe brownstone is 4 stories tall, has 4 bedrooms, and originally had a dining room and a receiving room for guests waiting to be admitted to the living room. It was remarkably modern for having central heating, fired by a coal furnace at the bottom.

In or around the same year it was built, Oran M. (“Old Man”) Clark, the first settler in this Wyoming valley, built his the first log cabin here — a windowless, one-room structure near the confluence of the Dunoir Creek and the Wind River. It too had “central heating,” People recalled that he often left the door open in winter so that he could run a huge log right across the middle of the room into the fireplace on the opposite wall. He would shift the log forward as it burned.

Clark didn’t file a homestead claim when he built the cabin, but he did claim to own the valley. Legend has it that in 1883, he raised his shotgun and ran off a party that included President Chester A. Arthur. He reportedly said that he had to give permission for anyone to enter the valley, and they didn’t have it. Wise men, they went to Yellowstone by another way.

For some reason he did, however, welcome John Burlingham and his son, who had come to Dubois to guide some dudes from Back East on a fishing trip. In fact, he coaxed the two men to return with their families, which they did in 1889.

For the first winter, the entire party stayed in Clark’s small, windowless log cabin. The following year they completed their own cabin, a few miles down the river. It was also windowless, with a dirt floor and a camp stove served by a pipe through the roof. A year later, Mahalia Burlingham gave birth to a stillborn daughter. Her husband John became the sought-after fiddler for dances across the entire region. He often left Mahalia alone with the children for months on end.

MabelsHill_1017According to Steve Banks, the first white man to visit the valley was probably a Kentuckian named John Dougherty. A fur trapper and trader, he fled south in 1810 from what is now Montana to escape an attack by Blackfoot Indians, crossing Shoshone Pass close to Ramshorn Peak and continuing down the Dunoir Valley to the Wind River. (This picture shows that valley.) A bullet from the attack remained in his side for the rest of his life.

Steve says that location, at the confluence of the Dunoir Creek and the Wind River about 12 miles west of the current town of Dubois, was like the Times Square of the Old West. The Valley of the Dunoir had been the north-south artery toward the crossroads of a  trade and migration route used by native Americans for time unknown. (The area has been part of the migration route for ancestors of the Shoshone for thousands of years.)

Early fur traders and explorers — men such as John Colter, John Hoback, and Jedediah Smith — passed this way, often guided by the natives.

WilsonPriceHuntIn 1811, a year after John Dougherty came down the Dunoir Valley with a bullet in his side, Wilson Price Hunt came through with a party of 68 people and 200 horses. Hunt was a co-owner of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, headed toward Fort Astoria on the Columbia River in the northwest, hoping to establish fur trade with Russia and China.

Steve pointed out that Hunt’s party and their horses would have filled two Greyhound buses and 6 semi trucks. It was probably the largest single group of people ever to visit this valley. No settlement existed here at the time, except for a small Shoshone village.

The party had run out of food by the time they reached the base of the Dunoir. The natives, ill-prepared to feed them, advised Hunt to continue southward, crossing the Wind River, and over the mountains toward the Green River, where there were plenty of bison. The hunting detour cost them two weeks of progress; they should have headed west, upriver, where a friendly fort was only a few days away.

Frontiersman and explorer Jedediah Smith came this way about a decade later, in the winter of 1823-24. He brought with him a fur trapper named Daniel Potts, whose family owned Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. Potts was the first man to record a description of the geysers in what is now Yellowstone.

RiverHe also described our valley. “From thence across the 2d range of mountains to Wind River Valley …” he wrote in a letter on July 16, 1826. “Wind River is a beautiful transparent stream, with hard gravel bottom about 70 or 80 yards wide, rising in the main range of Rocky Mountains … The valleys near the head of this river and its tributary streams are tolerably timbered with cotton wood, willow, &c. The grass and herbage are good and plenty, of all the varieties common to this country. In this valley the snow rarely falls more than three to four inches deep and never remains more than three or four days, although it is surrounded by stupendous mountains.”

The West was younger, yes, but not by as much as I thought. As Dougherty was fleeing down the Dunoir and Hunt’s party was pleading for food with Shoshones in a mountain village a year later, my former home town of Brooklyn was just a small settlement across a wide river from Manhattan.

It didn’t incorporate as a village until 1817, only about seven years before Potts crossed this valley and saw the geysers. In 1898, Brooklyn was swallowed up in the creation of the great city of New York.

OMClark_graveTwelve years after that, “Old Man” Clark froze to death, alone in his cabin, during a winter storm. His grave sits atop a small hill, marked by an obelisk and surrounded by a wrought iron fence.

He had left money to buy ample whiskey for a wake. It took many tries for the mourners, who had stoked themselves well with his whiskey in front of his fireplace, to succeed  in sliding his coffin up that slope over the icy ground.

But they did. Here is his grave.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Mud, Slush, Trash, and Treasures

It seems a shame to call them “bad lands” when they are so wonderful.

DaybreakIn March and April, the town is ours at last. We see few out-of-state license plates, except for the spring snowmobilers heading up the pass.

Down-mountain, the snow may turn up now and then, but it doesn’t hang around very long. Everyone living nearby seems to have a new pond in their yard that freezes over and then thaws.

The streets are quiet. For motel owners who stay open all winter, this is the time to enjoy sleeping later and making repairs. You can probably count on a table at the Bistro without a reservation.

IMG_0196Some days it’s really cold; other days it’s mild enough to go out without a coat, especially where it’s not windy. Today the thermometer reads 20 degrees, but I’m quite comfortable in a denim shirt and down vest.

Still, the repeated melt and freeze are a challenge for a hiker. I have to strategize in order to avoid having to give the dog a bath after our outings. That’s why I revisit the badlands when early spring comes around.

BadlandsPlant2It seems a shame to call them “bad lands,” when they are so wonderful. Later in the spring, they will erupt with small wild flowers and the sage will turn green and fragrant.

Just now, the ground is barren, but it’s also fairly dry and rarely muddy. Each turn up a draw is a new adventure.

The views, as ever, are splendid. I heard somewhere that Dubois was voted as having the most scenic drive to the town dump anywhere in the country. Whether or not that ever happened, I believe it could be true.

GreenandRed_editedThe road beyond the dump heads over the badlands and on up toward Table Mountain where at some places the scene over the edge looks like a miniature Grand Canyon. Hiking closer to the dump today, what I notice are the ever-changing colors of the soil — which is the most striking feature of the badlands in any case.

Returning down a draw after an hour’s hike across this vast expanse of  wrinkled ridges, I come across a spot where the ground turns suddenly from badlands green to badlands red. I’m used to seeing this as changes in the stripes on the slowly melting slopes, not as fields of red or green, like this. I wonder what caused that transformation. (You can see the buildings of the dump ahead, at the top right in the picture. The white patch to its left is a snow-covered slope in the distance.)

BadlandsCarcass080616This close to the dump (and the start of the road) you always encounter some trash in the terrain: empty beer cans, cardboard, construction debris deposited out here for free (rather than paying the fee, at the dump). The ground is cleaner farther out the road.

There’s always some of the kind of refuse that my dog appreciates, the kind predators leave behind.

That’s another good reason to bring the dog here during mud and slush season. The bones are clean and dry, and won’t cause him any problem if I take them away before he chews off a chip. He just likes to carry them around like trophies, anyway.

Usually I follow the abundant game trails through this labyrinth, but seeing my car in the distance, I decide to strike out overland, crossing a draw and climbing a fairly steep slope on the other side.

RockerBadlandsNearing the top, I encounter a very large discarded object. Someone wanting to avoid the discard fee must have pushed this over the edge just beyond the dump, driving no farther than necessary on the rutted road in order to avoid being seen.

The wood is weathered, and most of the nails have pulled free. Nevertheless I turn it back upright, and tug at it. Wouldn’t it be great in our back yard come summer — bolted back together, given a new seat and left out behind the house, facing up our valley?

Alas, it proves too heavy to drag even a few yards uphill.  I leave it turned toward the distance. Fine old chair as it once was, it at least deserves to crumble facing out across the same uplifting terrain I have just enjoyed.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.