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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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Coming to Wyoming part 1

How did you get to Wyoming?

Of course, I am asked that question regularly.  And, there is the short answer and the long answer, but both replies are more full of questions than answers.

Long ago, a few lifetimes in my personal history, I spent several weeks backpacking through the Tetons with two girlfriends.  We were hitchhiking through the West in a summer between high school and college.  After a fine time, with many adventures, we were ready to put out our thumbs and head back to California, when a driver who picked us up asked “Have you girls been to the Wind Rivers?”

“No, where’s that?”

“Just an hour east of here.  You must go.  I’ll drop you off and you can backpack there.”

The Winds, as aficionados and lovers like to fondly call them, have several put-ins on their western front, all at least 10 to 15 miles from the hiker’s main destination—the rugged base of the Continental Divide.  But after several days of being eaten by mosquitoes, (with thousands of lakes the Winds are notorious for their bugs) and never quite making it to the divide, we called it quits.  But you could see those tantalizing mountains in the background and I swore to myself that I’d come back someday.

Flash forward 27 years.  I’m a single mom newly divorced with a nine-year old.  Close friends are going to visit their son in Yellowstone who is a seasonal worker.  They have a nine-year old too and invite us along.  We fly into Salt Lake and drive the rest of the way.  After a week in the Park, I see my opportunity and jump on it.  They drive home with my son and I arrange to fly out of Jackson, rent a car, and put in at Big Sandy for a modest 5-day hike.

In those 27 years inbetween, I’d had some serious back injuries and was not even sure if I can backpack anymore, but this is my first time in years so I pick a fairly easy route.  The hike is about 5 miles to Big Sandy Lake, the shortest distance to the Winds from any trailhead.  It’s a well-traveled route, because its also the quickest way to the Cirque of the Towers, a massive granite glacial cirque treasured by climbers from all over the world.

Mission accomplished, I was able to complete the trip, and so began coming back every summer for a seven day backpack over the course of more than eight years.  During that time I usually hiked about 40-50 miles and eventually completed most of the Highline Trail, a glorious trail that traverses a north/south axis through the Bridger-Teton wilderness.

When my son was about 15, and I’d finished another solo trip to the Wind Rivers, I started to wonder why I was coming home so soon.  Couldn’t I find a summer rental in Pinedale or Lander?  I tried but it wasn’t so easy.  Wyoming isn’t Tahoe and summer rentals are not the norm in these small towns.  Jackson would be out of the question over-my-head expensive.  Rental hunting led to the idea of just buying a small 2nd home or piece of land.

One time while hiking in Wyoming, a fellow hiker asked if I’d been to the Beartooths.

“Where is that?”

“Charles Kuralt called the Beartooth Highway the most beautiful highway in America.  You’ve got to drive home that way.”

But it wasn’t on my way home, and I was always in a time constraint.  So the following summer I decided to hike, with a few friends, into the Beartooth Range instead of the Winds.

It was a rainy experience and crowded, although spectacular.  But I missed my Winds.  So I decided to take a short trek to the Winds from the Eastern side, the reservation side.  This required me to head home via Cody.  I’d been thinking about towns to live in.  Pinedale had been tops on my list.  Little did I know that Pinedale can be the coldest town in America at times.  I’m really not a great researcher of these things.  I was just going on my gut and on my love affair with the Wind Rivers.

But when I drove into Cody, I immediately knew this was a town I could live in.  I was attracted to it.  It felt like a real town.

In the winter of 2005 I contacted a realtor via the internet in the Cody area.  Since I really had only been to Cody one night, I arranged to fly into town in the February break, with my son, and have him show me areas around the town.  Then my son and I would snowmobile into Yellowstone for a vacation.

I had a vision in the back of my head of what I wanted.  Either a place to fix up, or land to build.  It needed to have trees but not be ‘in the trees’;  there must be a creek on or near the property; somewhat isolated but not too isolated.  I was figuring I’d live around town on the outskirts.

My realtor Al showed me the North Fork area, which is the North Fork of the Shoshone, the road that leads into the East entrance of Yellowstone.  Expensive lots and homes abound in this breathtakingly beautiful valley.  He showed me the South Fork of the Shoshone, a massive wide valley that dead ends into trails to the Thorofare of Yellowstone.  These areas all had lots and cabins, but what I didn’t account for was that way back when, when the government was giving out homesteads and people were settling here, the government took the timbered areas while the homesteaders built and farmed in the low, open, praire parts of the valley.  All these homes, excepting the giant ranches, were subdivided 20 and 40 acre lots of bare ground usually with a well.  A housing boom of retired Floridians and Californians who’d made money selling their own homes had changed the valley as well.  The houses were in general exposed to each other, sometimes even with little subdivisions of lesser acreage.  For a million dollars plus I might find something special, but I didn’t have that kind of money.  The image in my mind of what I wanted was just not available here.

“What you want comes up every ten years or so,” Al said.

Al took me to Clark, an unincorporated town on the far outskirts, situated at the base of the Clarks’ Fork canyon, the town was smack in a wind tunnel.  It had a strange displaced aura about it, a town without a town, with stories of transients, drug runners and government haters.

He drove us to the nearby town of Powell, a farming village that felt quite settled and sensible.  Powell was a nice town but not what I had in mind.  I left feeling quite discouraged.

That summer I took my son for the first time with me to the Winds.  The whole experience had changed from one summer to the next.  Cheney had pushed through drilling on public lands without the need for the same limits and waiting periods as previously.  Wyoming was a boom state.  There was not a hotel, motel nor campground space between Salt Lake and the Pinedale turnoff at Green River.  My son and I slept on the side of the road south of Big Piney after driving for 25 hours.  The Persius meteor shower was a brilliant consolation in the clear open desert sky.

Pinedale had transformed itself as well, with large hotels.  The Jonas field was fueling the economy.  Ticky-tacky houses were springing up everywhere.  “Thank God I didn’t buy here” I told myself.

We had a rainy but beautiful adventure in the Winds, and I was reminded how much I love Wyoming, and that I hadn’t heard a peep from Al.  He had never shown me even one house, just neighborhoods.  I called him when I returned.

“Everything that was in the book last February has sold” he said.  “Like I said, what you want comes up every ten years.”

That was August.  In September I got a call from Al.  “I have a house that fell through.  It will be re-listed in a few days and its’ gonna go quick.  I think it’s what your looking for.  There’s 40 acres, a creek, cottonwoods, and an old homestead on it, a new well and electricity.  You better come right away if you’re interested in seeing it.”

I booked a flight to Cody.  Being in a busy work season, I made arrangements to come into town on the 5pm Wednesday flight, and leave the next evening back to San Francisco.

What a disappointment the property was.  Yes, it had all the elements I asked for, but the ‘feeling’ just wasn’t right.  The land was broken, neglected, desolate and tired.

The house on the neglected land

The country around the other house

“Well, I’m here and got a few more hours till my flight.  Is there anything else you want to show me while I’m here.”

“There is one place, up in Sunlight Basin, but its not on the market.  The parents died and the kids now own it.  They’ve been squabbling for over a year as to whether they want to sell or not.  But I’ll be their listing agent if they do.”

“Show it to me in case they ever do.  Where is Sunlight?”

I’d been wanting to be within 20 minutes of town.  Sunlight was an hour northwest, over an 8500 ft. pass.  I was skeptical, but I was here so why not.

As soon as we turned off 120 highway onto Chief Joseph Scenic road, I was mesmerized, hooked.  From Dead Indian pass, you could see the entire country for millions of miles.  West to Yellowstone, northeast to Beartooth Plateau, below to the stunning Clark’s fork canyon 900’ deep, and across into the wide glacier valley of Sunlight.  I’d never seen a landscape more varied geologically, nor more breathtaking that this view.

We got to the cabin—a run-down summer cabin built in 1959.  Cluttered with too many old couches and chairs, a tacked down orange shag carpet brought out from Washington state by the owners when it no longer was in style in their main home, animal heads on the wall, 50’s linoleum that was coming apart, original windows that questionably opened, and the entire back area of the house was unfinished with open joists and studs.

First glance at what would become my cabin...too much furniture

Unfinished ceiling. Warped cheap paneling

the bulging paneling alongside the shower

I stood on the porch and looked east at a massive ridge jutting into the horizon.

“I could die here.” I said aloud.

“I’d buy it if I could,” said Al.

I asked Al what the comps were, and told him to offer just a bit more, and that was my final price.  I was nervous, I was firm, I’d never put myself out on a financial limb like this before, was I making a mistake….mostly I was just going by my heart.  I’d put it out there and see what they said.  The reality was…this house wasn’t on the market and the three children hadn’t decided if they were selling.  The reality was…I’d seen only two homes around Cody, both today.  The reality was…I hadn’t even done any homework about this place, its weather, anything. But I was already in love, and when you’re in love you usually act before you think.

Living and working in California, I slowly fixed my little cabin up to be livable anytime of the year.  I dreamed of coming here in the summer, watching the weather, and when it was good, going hiking in the Winds.  I thought about spending Christmases here in the snow with family.  Oh, but I’d have to winterize it as well as lots of other things.  That meant lots of work and all that cost money, money that I had only bit by bit, little by little.   So that’s how I fixed it up, little by little, over several years.

New T&G bluestain pine with my California crew

Never did I think about moving here permanently.  But once this place was mine, strange coincidences conspired, over and over, to point the way here.  For some reason, this place in Sunlight was calling me, suggesting it was the center of my universe, the place of peace for me.  Over time it became an irresistible urge.  My journey was just beginning.

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3 Responses

  1. Thank You Thank you. I am currently stuck where I do not feel at home in another state. I have been to all the places you mention and you make a movie for me. I am so glad your cabin found you. I lived in one by Joliet, Montana for lots of years. Just enjoy your views and country double for me won’t you? and thanks for the wonderful new year read. Happy 2011!!

    Like

  2. It’s truly wonderful when you can find the place you can call home. This was a very revealing tale. I’m glad you shared it.

    Like

  3. ty for sharing……….wonderful story………..it was a pleasure to meet you……..and your home is where the good Lord lays his head to rest! happy new yr!!!

    Like

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