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JacksonWyoming

Postcard of Jackson, Wyoming (circa 1924) courtesy of the University of Wyoming, American Heritage Center.

By Bill Deverell

 

My mother always said, “it’s good to go away, and it’s good to come home.” Our last few days in Wyoming were magnificent. John and I met up with our friends Sage and Sassy, from the ranch, on Thursday in Jackson. That was fun, just hanging out. Sage is, well, a sage. She knows Wyoming, she knows the fissures of class and tourism and tectonic economic change, and she has a way with words. Sassy — she of the new purple hair — is fun and ever lively, a great Wyoming pal for my city-boy son. The town is more crowded this summer than I’ve ever seen it. Lots of factors to explain that. Cheap gas. Stock market up. Eclipse coming. National Parks inundated. European and Asian tourism looks (and sounds) to be up. The little town struggles with it all. Housing is a mess: anyone not really wealthy struggles to find places to live within reasonable distance. Many workers in town live well south of Jackson or up and over Teton Pass in Idaho. I grew up in Colorado, and I recognize the “Aspen Syndrome” or the “Vail Paradox.” Tourists come and keep coming. Fine dining and shopping pops up to cater to them 12 months a year. But where do the workers who stock those shelves or cook those lamb chops or make those lattes live? And how much must you pay them to give them even a faint shot at reasonable housing? This isn’t a new set of challenges to Jackson, to be sure, but the pressure and the scale of the challenges only seems to be more pressing each time I go there.

On our last day in Wyoming, John went off to camp and the high-ropes course at Teton Science School. After my last day at the gym (if you go to Jackson, if you like gyms and gym rats, and if you don’t mind getting intelligently beat on in a training-session hour, go to Wright Training and tell Crystal Wright I sent you), I had the distinct pleasure of spending mid-day with folks from Teton Science School as they showed me the Murie Center, inside Grand Teton National Park. I knew of it, but I had never been there. What a revelation. The Center, which is a former dude ranch from the early 20th century, later became the home of two pairs of husband and wife conservationists: Olaus Murie and his wife Margaret (Mardy) Murie, and Olaus’s half-brother Adolph Murie and his wife, Louise, who was Mardy’s half-sister, if you can believe it.

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Olaus and Mardy Murie. Photo courtesy of the Murie Center.

These folks belong in the same hushed sentences, and in similar legacy lore, as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, David Brower, Wallace Stegner, Ansel Adams, and lots of Udalls. They are heroes and heroines of the latter-day conservationist movement in America. Because of Olaus and Mardy, the Wilderness Society was headquartered here in the years after World War II, and it was here, in these cabins and on the Muries’ very front porch, that the Wilderness Act (1964) was imagined and conceived. That Act made law and landscapes out of a simple, profound declaration: that there exists, and ought to always exist, places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The Muries, their ranch, their ideas, and their courage made that happen. In honoring their legacy, the Murie Ranch was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006. More recently, Teton Science Schools has forged an innovative relationship with the Murie Center to keep those intellectual flames burning. As TSS states, “The Murie Center is dedicated to bringing people together to inspire action that protects nature – an opportunity and obligation passed on through the legacy of the Muries. The Murie Center continues to play an important role in ensuring the betterment of the future for all life, because when nature thrives, people thrive.”

My few hours there were inspiring beyond measure. Plenty of “history happened here” feelings to keep an historian happy. But — more than that — a spiritual feeling about the place, too. Commitment to work, commitment to nature, commitment to a beloved partner (what a love affair Olaus and Mardy had!), commitment to leaving this world just bit better off — here’s a place to breathe all that in and be renewed by it. My new friends from TSS and I are thinking about what we might do together there at the Murie Center. How I would love to bring students there — graduate students doing western history doctoral work, undergraduates, or even a freshman seminar. Stay tuned, I think we’ll find a way, and I want especially to thank Josh from TSS for his warmth and hospitality in making my visit happen with such decency and kindness.

John and I soon departed. Off to Salt Lake by way of up and over Teton Pass (glorious), on through Idaho (same), and to downtown Salt Lake to stay where we always stay. Dinner at Red Rock, and the great Farmer’s Market in Pioneer Park the next morning before heading out again. On to St. George, arriving in plenty of time for dinner (again!) at Painted Pony, which is uniformly, always superb. Up this morning, point the car south on I-15, and, by early afternoon, home in Pasadena.

A glorious trip.

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Just thinking in Wyoming. Photo by Bill Deverell.

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The Tetons as a summer storm rolls through. Photo by Bill Deverell.

By Bill Deverell

Up through Hoback Canyon and on to Jackson Hole. Sometimes the West challenges conventional ways of thinking about time and space in American history. A case in point is the landscape John and I drove through yesterday on our way to Jackson Hole. From outside Daniel, we drove through Bondurant, a crossroads town on either side of the state highway. A year ago, we had driven through here just as a lightning strike caused a fire in the National Forest. Within hours, the road to Jackson was closed, and the fire eventually grew to more than 30,000 acres. Firefighters fought it near buildings and campsites, and they allowed it to burn in unpopulated areas as part of the ecological management of the forest. It did not go out until precipitation knocked it down completely in September.

As we dropped into Hoback Canyon, we could see the burn; it looked like it had gone through yesterday, not a full year ago. Beetle kill of the pines makes them especially susceptible to fire, and this one of 2016 clearly was opportunistic in that way. Hoback Canyon, alongside the Hoback River, is one of the prettiest drives I know in the West. The Hoback is a tributary of the mighty Snake, and once we run into the Snake, I know we are getting close to Jackson.

The Hoback is named for John Hoback, a trapper and mountain man who wandered through this area more than 200 years ago. He was, like many a mountain man of his time, from Kentucky. In 1811, Hoback and two other mountain men guided a group of trappers headed to the mouth of the Columbia River through this landscape. The group headed to the Pacific Coast was the Astorians — men sent by John Jacob Astor to establish a fur-trapping and fur-trading entrepôt at the far end of the continent by way of Astor’s Pacific Fur Company. These men were one-half of a two-pronged scheme; the other group left for the Pacific Northwest coast by sea, carrying the material needed to build the operation. The overlanders were tasked with establishing fur trading and trapping operations in the Rockies and west from the Snake to the Columbia.

Hoback and his companions guided the Astorians (led by wilderness novice Wilson Price Hunt of Trenton, New Jersey) across this landscape we drove through yesterday, from the river now bearing Hoback’s name to its confluence with the Snake. The group went on up into Jackson Hole (the “hole” is the valley between the Teton and Gros Ventre ranges), climbed up and over the Tetons, and made it to a fort in Idaho. On the way back east in 1812, a remnant party of Astorians found South Pass in the Wind River mountains, a relatively easy crossing of the Continental Divide, thus marking the landscape for the Oregon Trail migrants who would come a generation later. We could probably say that was their greatest success; the fur trading empire Astor envisioned fell apart for any number of reasons: mismanagement, squabbling, poor relations with native peoples, the coming of the War of 1812. John Hoback left his mark, too, in this canyon and on this river. That carries his name forward, well beyond his own 1813 death by Indians near what is now Boise.

The time bending aspect of this story comes from just thinking about these continental ambitions way out here, so early in the history of the Republic. When Kentuckian John Hoback guided the Astorians through this landscape, another Kentuckian, Abraham Lincoln, was a two-year old toddler. James Madison was President of the United States, all fifteen of them. John Marshall was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The Battle of Tippecanoe took place that year. The nation was thirty-five years old.

We made Jackson by dinnertime. As dusk came, so, too, did a big thunderstorm and lightning display. We sat on the deck of the house, huddled under the eaves, and watched as the lightning lit up the sky and everything around us through the pounding, cold rain. My son starts camp tomorrow at the wonderful Teton Science School, where he’s been a summer student each of the last four summers. I’ll go to the Teton County Public Library — a special place in my heart — to get some work done. At night, rain or not, we’ll sit on the deck some more and just watch mountains.

By Bill Deverell

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Very rare glass plate stereoscopic views c. 1859 taken by Albert Bierstadt, courtesy of Wyoming’s Museum of the Mountain Man.

Today I saw a landscape that blew my mind. This is not unusual out here; the rolling ranch lands of Sublette County, with the Teton and Wind River ranges perched on separate horizons, provide vistas of awe in every direction one looks. Up close, grasses and wildflowers, pronghorn antelope, deer, rabbits, smaller critters. We have a lone wolf and a mountain lion on prowl near the ranch, which has sent the dogs into fierce barking in the wee hours of each night. I haven’t seen them, and I don’t expect to. John and I have seen one wolf on our annual trip, a few years ago, atop a mountain pass: a big, black male with a limp running across the open terrain in the rain.

This landscape I saw today wasn’t on a hike, or from the ranch house, or from the car. It was in a museum, the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale. This charming history museum is a winner: great artifacts of the fur trade, good displays of the lure of the beaver and its sumptuous pelt, indigenous artifacts and stories woven into the mountain man lore with appropriate complexity. Downstairs, tucked away in a case at the far end of an anteroom, were two blown up black and white photographs. One showed a line of wagon trains working across the face of a hill, the other showed encamped emigrants on a wide expanse of grassland, their cattle in the foreground, snowy mountains in the back.

Emigrant or overland wagon train imagery, at least before the Civil War, is rare – really rare. I don’t know if I’ve seen any at all. I looked at these blown up images and thought, at first, that these were either post-Civil War or, more likely, film stills from some early 20th century western.

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Very rare glass plate stereoscopic views c. 1859 taken by Albert Bierstadt, courtesy of Wyoming’s Museum of the Mountain Man.

Nope. These were 1859 glass plate stereographic images of overlanders cutting right through this part of Wyoming, no more than about twenty or thirty miles away. John and I had come through this landscape the other day, and I had noted a few historical markers touching upon the wagon trains, their campsites, even the continued presence of wagon ruts etched into the soil. But photographs? I’d never seen any this early before.

The story gets better. The photographer was Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), the great landscape painter whose huge Romantic paintings of western scenes, skies, and indigenous inhabitants of the land excited American and European imaginations of sublime possibilities of experience and awe in the era of Manifest Destiny. We know Bierstadt as a painter, and as a painter of huge canvases fixed in gigantic frames. But a photographer? Maybe I knew that once, a long time ago, and I think I knew that he had a brother who was a photographer. Given the scarcity of any of Albert’s images, I guess I forgot or never knew in the first place that he took pictures, too.

The story gets even better. These images came to light by way of … eBay. Yep. And thanks to the sharp eye and historical sleuthing of Clint Gilchrist, now the museum’s executive director, they have come to reside here. Clint thinks that they are the earliest wagon train photographic images known, and I don’t doubt that he’s right.

Could the story get any better? Yes! Clint very kindly showed me the two glass plates, with their nearly identical positive images paired up side-by- side, two to a plate. Stereographic photography uses two images in which the photographic vantage is different only by a few degrees; these plates would have been used to print cardboard mounted images which, when put into a binocular viewer, would have created the illusion of three-dimensional depth. The viewer’s eyes and brain would overlap the images so that the picture would hover just in front of them, as if they were looking out a window at the scene itself. They were all the rage in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Clint even found the spot near the Big Sandy River where Bierstadt made the image of the cattle and encamped emigrants. He showed me on his computer how he merged the modern and 1859 pictures. The snow-capped mountains align perfectly, and Clint even filled the grassland with modern cows and their overland ancestors scattered here and there. It was awesome.

I want to thank Clint for a memorable visit to this museum and to the past. You really do learn something new every day, and thank goodness for it.


These two rare images of an emigrant wagon train, as seen at Wyoming’s Museum of the Mountain Man, can be found on the University of Wyoming’s web site.

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Outside Eden, Wyoming. Photo by Bill Deverell.

By Bill Deverell

In the paths of the overlanders. We left Rawlins yesterday morning headed for a ranch outside of Daniel, Wyoming. Our route took us right by the spot where Butch Cassidy and his gang allegedly blew up a rail car with a too-enthusiastic load of dynamite. Before long, we were in Rock Springs. This gritty railroad town in Sweetwater County (the fourth biggest city in sparsely populated Wyoming) shares an ignominious history with Los Angeles – both have notorious Chinese massacres in their past. In the fall of 1871 Los Angeles, a mixed mob of Caucasian and Latino men attacked the Chinese near the Plaza, shooting and hanging men and boys (and defiling the corpses post-mortem) in an orgy of racial enmity and fury. Fourteen years later, the massacre in Rock Springs looks depressingly familiar. White coal miners and railroad workers, infuriated that the Union Pacific hired Chinese workers over them (because it paid them less), rioted and a pitched battle took place. When it was all over, nearly thirty Chinese had been killed. I told my son about this place and what it sadly shared in common with our home in Southern California; he was puzzled as he thought about how this little railroad town in western Wyoming could possibly be mentioned in the same sentence with the big metropolis of our home on the west coast.

On through the spectacular treeless landscapes. Rivers – full to their banks by way of a spring run-off still flowing – cut through here and there, divine trout water. It’s nerdy to say it, but you can feel the past out here. Overlanders came through here – migrants from Joplin and St. Louis and elsewhere who wagon-trained it out here in the 1840s and 1850s, bound first for Oregon and then, in the flash of gold fever, increasingly made their way to California.

A wonderfully talented former graduate student of mine, Sarah Keyes (now on the faculty of the University of Nevada, Reno) wrote her thesis on these people. Who they were, what they did on the long months of their tough journey, how they interacted with the indigenous peoples, and, most tellingly, how they died out here in the big sky country of the West. Sarah’s contention, and I think she is right, is that we have cleaved this westering experience off from the rest of American history and culture in the period; we’ve made it into its own thing – the Overland Trail – without interrogating it for what it can tell us about everything else other than that long walk and ride west. What intrigues Sarah most are the rituals and meanings of death on the trail, and she’s on to something big. Think about it: the overland experience took in several hundred thousand people, vast numbers of them wrote about it as participants or afterwards, and many an emigrant died before getting to Oregon or California. Disease took them. They drowned (a lot of them drowned). They died from accidents. They shot themselves, deliberately or not. They killed one another. Just before the Civil War, this was the biggest mass experience with death in American history, and Sarah’s about to publish her book about all that. I recommend it highly.

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On a ranch in Wyoming. Photo by Bill Deverell.

We pushed on into Sublette County – named for one of the famed Sublette batch of five brothers (William, Milton, Andrew, Pinkney, and Solomon), trappers and mountain men of the early era all. Into Pinedale, the county seat and a great little town, with river and creek waterways cutting here and there through it. On to a spot marking the Green River Rendezvous, the fur trapper and trader “fair” (“bacchanal” may get a bit closer to the ambience) which took place each spring. Anne Hyde, a brilliant historian and dear friend, has written of these events (surely the most culturally and linguistically diverse gatherings of the era) in her magnificent book Empires, Nations, and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800-1860.

Through Daniel, a spot-in-the-round with not much more than a store, a bar, and a post office (I expect to patronize all three), and then to our ranch destination. No trees, vast vistas, sand hills, the soul of a wide-open space. Ranch dogs – Rooney, named for the British soccer star Wayne Rooney, and Humungous, named for his own self, an Italian sheepdog of great heart and proportion. Oh – and Sassy, an aptly nicknamed ten-year old girl who lives here on the ranch, a boon companion to my boy for our visit over the next several days.

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Bill Deverell and his son stop for dinner at Buck’s Sports Grill in Rawlins, Wyoming.

By Bill Deverell

Rawlins, Wyoming. Drove up here yesterday from Colorado Springs, right alongside Front Range. These are the baby Rockies that, in their north/south alignment, help create landscapes of great beauty and attraction up against their eastern-facing flanks. The Front Range, I learned as a kid, is where all the people are and hardly any of the water, and that’s even more true today.

We took the back road, state highway 287, from Ft. Collins (home to CSU and a superb history department) on up to and across the Wyoming border. This is a glorious drive: rocky canyons of red soils, vistas of fifty and sixty miles, every now and then a one-room church with a little steeple sitting in vigil on the open range. French place and river names are flecked here and there, leftovers from the early 19th century when French trappers and traders came through. Best known in these parts is probably the Cache la Poudre River, so named in the 1820s when French trappers got caught in a snowstorm and buried some of their gunpowder on the river’s banks. We hit a big rainstorm at the border, just before Laramie. Because you can see so far out here, the rainstorm sat on the horizon in sheets and sheets — lightning shooting down in big bolts every few minutes — for a long time before we drove right into it.

We made Rawlins by dinnertime, getting a little further than I thought we would. That will make today’s drive to our fishing range destination, near Daniel, Wyoming, a snap. Rawlins is a tough place — the Wyoming State Penitentiary is here, along with its maximum-security inmates. A precursor facility, the Wyoming Frontier Prison, sits in the center of town. It is the 1901 re-do of an 1872 prison. Tours run regularly through the castle-like structure, which, as we drove by at dusk, looked nearly as ominous and imposing as it no doubt was in its heyday. Especially “incorrigible” prisoners were housed in the “dungeon house” portion of the penitentiary. Many an inmate was executed here, mostly hanged from gallows or killed by gas. The last woman inmate, who had murdered her father with a poison plum pie, arrived for a brief stay in 1909, before being transferred to another site. A quick glance at the website describing the history and tours (and urging visitors to “Come Hang With Us”) gives a little sense of the context of the prison’s early years. Train robbers were behind bars here, as were men on either side of the often-bloody range wars that pitted cattlemen against sheepmen. Rawlins is a fascinating place — those early days peek around the corners of its buildings and storefronts to this day, the U.P. railroad tracks run right through town, and this haunted hulk of a prison is still telling stories.

Dinner for us was at Buck’s in town (the menus are big!), a boisterous and friendly place with all kinds of Old West paraphernalia on the walls. I spy Butch Cassidy’s prison mug shot on the wall. Born in Utah 1866 as Robert Leroy Parker to Mormon emigres from England, Cassidy took the name of a ranch hand mentor and put together a notorious band of outlaws late in the century. There are pictures of some of his “Hole in the Wall” gang up as well. The “Hole in the Wall,” a secluded pass through a rocky mesa about 200 miles north of here, was a notorious outlaw hideout, ca. 1880-1910, and Cassidy apparently knew it well. I don’t see Etta Place up here, but I bet she’s somewhere. A Denver schoolteacher, Etta was the girlfriend of Harry Longabaugh, Cassidy’s sidekick, better known as the Sundance Kid. She went to South America with the outlaws in the early 20th century, when things got way too hot for them in Wyoming and the Great Basin. She supposedly returned to Denver to undergo an appendectomy, at which point she disappears into history’s mists. Cassidy and Longabaugh, as the great Paul Newman/Robert Redford film depicts so movingly and well, look to have been killed in a shootout with authorities in Bolivia, though Butch may have somehow avoided that fate, as many still claim.

Not far from Rawlins — we will drive right by it this morning — is the site of one of Butch Cassidy’s signature train robberies made famous in the film. Having stopped the train, Cassidy and his men then blew up the baggage car to smithereens with dynamite, prompting, in the film, Redford (as the Sundance Kid) to ask, “Do ya think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?”