September 21, 2004
Filed under Travel
It was cold, cold and beautiful along the Wind River. Yesterday’s snow was shining on the high peaks of the Absaroka Mountains. Under my feet were the sounds of autumn and over my head were its colors. It was not yet October, but here in Dubois, it was a day that could well pass for the first one of winter. Across the road are the badlands – named by cowboys, because nothing grows there that cattle will eat. They are multi-colored cliffs of fossil shellfish that lived when this land was an ocean bottom. I watched deep shadows of rust form in their fissures as the sun shone upon them. I arrived yesterday with just enough light left in the day to find a campground and settle in. With my dog, Rusty, I ambled
along the river before going to bed. I didn’t discover much about Dubois, just affirmed what I had been thinking: This place, this Upper Valley of the Wind River, is wonderfully removed, even richly isolated, from the terrorism threat that infests much of our world.
After breakfast, I walked up Ramshorn Street. If this were not Wyoming and if Whiskey Mountain were not the edge of town, convention would dictate that this be called Main Street. But convention does not have the clout in these parts that Whiskey Mountain does. Up in its rugged desolation is a huge herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, maybe the biggest herd in the whole country. What more fitting name for the main street of Dubois than Ramshorn? Nobody was out and about, except for those having breakfast at the Cowboy Café and those serving it. So I just read signs, looked in store windows and read a castoff copy of the Dubois Frontier. In a gas station, I pored over a map of the area with commentary added by the attendant, a member of the senior class at Dubois High.
He made the point that Dubois, population 1,000, is about as far from an interstate highway as you can get in our country. And it’s because of that herd of bighorns that the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center is located here. He said that wolves are a serious problem around town. A pack literally tore apart a Rottweiler a few days ago, and it wasn’t the first dog or colt to be brutally killed by them recently. It’s always been a dirt-street town, and it took hold in the 1870s. The first residents trapped, hunted, fished, cut hay, raised children and gathered wild horses. All that continues, except that the wild horses have been gathered. How about an engraved whiskey flask for 600 bucks? You can buy it here, as well as a doorknob made from an elk antler for $9. For that pack trip into the mountains, you can hire some goats here to haul your stuff.
The high country northwest of town holds the headwaters for three major rivers: the Colorado, the Missouri and the Columbia. And, if when walking around town, you run into a guy who looks like the Marlboro Man, you can bet that’s who he is. Those whiskey flasks are engraved by Elizabeth Dolbare, a local artist, who will engrave a grizzly bear – or the face of your dog, for that matter – on a knife or a shotgun or even on the hubcap of your Harley-Davidson. Or, using scrimshaw techniques, she will personalize a piece of ivory, bone or an ostrich egg to your liking. Elizabeth, in her 30s, works nine-hour days in her home studio, where we visited. “In this profession, you’re not an engraver, you’re a tool sharpener.” While I watched her work, she stopped every five minutes to sharpen a tool with a diamond grinder.
She also uses what she described as a miniature jackhammer that runs on compressed air. “Mistakes?” I asked. “Ya hope you don’t screw up. If it’s a face, it becomes one more wrinkle. If it’s a landscape, what’s another blade of grass either way?” Claire, her yellow lab, keeps her from spending too much time at the bench. “Claire lays her head on my lap, which means break time. We walk or go for a bike ride.” Later I went into the Two Ocean Books bookstore of Anna Moscicki’s. Anna mentioned that Dubois had received an award for the second-most scenic city dump in the country. (First prize went to Moab, Utah.) I definitely had to see it, so she gave me directions. They took me up Dump Road, which is dirt, of course. Coming at me in a dust cloud were vans, horse trailers, trucks and even an ambulance.
When I got to the dump the attendant told me, “It’s all them comin’ off the Marlboro Man picture takin’. They start before the sun’s up and quit before dinner. Short days they get.” “Looks like lots of people.” “You bet. Wranglers, handlers, guys to shine the light right and brew up coffee, women to make the Marlboro Man look proper. You’d think they was makin’ a John Wayne western.” We toured the dump. There is a special place for washers and dryers, and another for dead horses. The dump is not all that scenic, but the view from it is gorgeous. As for the Marlboro Man, he is no actor. He is a cowboy who hangs his hat in nearby Riverton. I got the chance to meet him. His name is Billy, and he told me that he was expecting to be a grandfather “any day now.”
Bill’s e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org