“Wilderness” is a word of purity and desire. Dubois, Wyoming was named the most remote town in the lower 48 by National Geographic 10 years ago, some residents boasted. About an hour east from the Tetons, and surrounded by three national forests, framed by the Wind River, Absaroka, and Gros Ventre ranges, Dubois was as wild as it could get and still be a town of just under a thousand. The people of Dubois talked about their place being the divide between “two oceans.” Treading the ridge of the continent, locals boasted that waters from one side of town would flow down into the Pacific and from the other side down into the Atlantic. Marty, the local scrimshaw-and-tatoo artists said, “This would’ve been Oregon, if the first explorers had never discovered South pass or listened to the Indians who told them about Togarty pass.” Meaning the western edge of these United States of America would have been drawn right there down the middle of Wyoming. “There’s no way to cross these mountains,” he said.
Conversations with Marty were tangled up in local history. This was where Butch Cassidy acquired the nickname Butch. This was near where America’s first oil field was developed in the 1800s. It was set afire by the native Indians and then kept burning for 80 years. Now again, it was being drilled. Marty showed us the picture of a man he had tattooed with the words “oil field trash” across his back. On another’s arm was a picture of an oil rig. This was a place that could make or break a man. A few years ago, the whole town had come out to see the movie Taking Chance, because it was based on their own Dubois boys, one who was killed in Afghanistan, and his friend who brought his body back home to be buried and honored.
At the bar across the street, we were joined by Marty’s wife Audra, who wore an eyepatch over her right eye. “We can’t live like this anywhere else. This is the last wild place in America,” they told us. They had lived and worked various jobs all across the country, but nowhere else could they ride a horse to the library. Talk turned to what being a cowboy meant, and they both became passionate and tried to outtalk each other. Gesturing loudly, Audra talked about values that were true and a self-sufficiency that was rare—a lifestyle of the west that is hard to find in the east. Marty said with a wry smile, “and you know how sometimes you just don’t give a fuck.”
Marty spent the evening telling bear stories, hunting stories, mountain stories. He talked about a friend working for Fish and Game who got stuck in a bear trap with a sleeping bear, and having left his gear belt outside, he tried to kill the bear by suffocation—stuffing all his clothes into the bear’s mouth. But when the bear kept breathing, he thought, “Fuck I don’t want to die naked,” pulled his sodden clothes out of the bear, and put them back on. He only had a pair of nail clippers on him, and with energy and madness driven by frantic desperation managed to kill the bear by cutting his throat with that nail file.
Talking to Marty, one got the sense of his pride of place. He was proud to be in the middle of a force of nature that was wild and untamable. Man could go into the mountains, but he was always in the presence of something bigger, something dangerous he could not control. He can never truly conquer, only defend. He must be filled with awe in the face of all that is around him. Nature is ancient; it swallows histories and civilizations. There are of course impacts from humans—Wind River was now experiencing acid rains from polluted drifts coming in from California and Utah. But nature buries those that exploit it. The climate crisis is nothing new, Marty cautioned us, we’ve gone through it before: the Mayans, and other long lost peoples. There are stories of great deluges. We become proud of what civilization can do, but in that pride we forget how quickly it can all be taken down. The mountains are full of petroglyphs and fossils. “And now,” Marty reminds us, “these fossils give us fuel.” Fossils that fuel great livelihoods and power the nation.