Day 13: A Lack Of Jobs And The California Boogeyman

Sep 14, 2020
Originally published on September 22, 2020 1:40 pm

Nate Hegyi, rural reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, is embarking on a 900-mile cycling trip crisscrossing the continental divide in August and September, interviewing and listening to Americans ahead of the 2020 election. You can follow along on social media, an online blog and this "Where Is He Now?" map.

September 8: Stuck in the snow in Dubois, 0 miles

An important note here: These are my first-glance takeaways. Think of this as a reporter's notebook. A mosaic of voices over the next few weeks, cycling 900 miles across four states and dozens of small towns.

I wake up to six inches of wet, heavy snow blanketing Dubois. The storm killed power across central Wyoming and the motel room is dark. I pull out my propane camp stove and heat some water for instant coffee. The room is cold and cell service is minimal. It’s nearly impossible to ride in snow. Not to mention the cold. Temperatures aren’t expected to rise above freezing until tomorrow, so I’m staying put.

If you’re not from this part of the world, let’s talk about Wyoming weather. It can feasibly snow here almost any month of the year. But a storm of this magnitude, this early in the year, is pretty rare.

Luckily, I was prepared for Wyoming’s fussy nature. I have a puffy jacket, long johns, pants, gloves, wool socks and a beanie – part of the reason why my bike trailer is so heavy. But my trail running shoes are made of mesh and my feet quickly get wet from the melting snow as I walk along Dubois’ main drag.

The town strikes me as a small mountain community typical of the region. It was a former logging town that transformed in recent decades into a service hub for tourists driving to the nearby national parks. It’s buttressed by forested mountains on one side and rolling, red rock hills on the other. There are saloons, art galleries, a Western clothing shop and a cute bookstore where Stephanie Arrache is in a wheelchair shoveling snow off the sidewalk.

I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I ask if I can help her shovel the sidewalk. She smiles and says she doesn’t need the help.

Arrache has been wheelchair-bound for seven years, ever since a surgery to remove a tumor in her spine left her paralyzed. But she hasn’t let it slow her down. She’s a former criminal defense attorney from Palm Springs, California and a paralympic athlete on the U.S. national wheelchair karate team. I’d never heard of that before but yes, it does exist – how cool! Arrache purchased this bookstore with her husband a little less than a year ago.

“Where I’m from, in California, it’s 120 degrees right now,” she says. “I’d much rather be bundled up shoveling snow than sweating.”

I’ve met a lot of California migrants on this trip. Their reasons for leaving are myriad – liberal politics, violence, unaffordability. For Arrache, she says she left after burning out as a criminal defense attorney. She has a young son and wanted to be around to hang out and raise him. So after her husband, a former teacher, secured a job at a new military vehicle museum near Dubois, they made the move and bought this little bookstore.

“I love the small town vibe. Everyone here is so friendly. Everybody looks out for each other,” she says. “My grandpa came from Spain – he was a sheep herder – so I feel like ranching and rural towns are kind of in my blood.”

But despite ranching being in her blood, migrants from California have long been denounced or castigated by those living in the intermountain West. Californians are our region’s boogeyman, because they are often seen as trying to change the way of life of a town (read: making it more liberal, more unaffordable, or more “big city” like). Dubois is no different.

“Dubois is a cowboy town,” Arrache says. “I think they’re worried that if so many outsiders come in then it’s going to change that kind of feel. But we were new here and a lady I knew was right on the river and they had flooding. So we were down there helping them with sandbags.”

That’s how Arrache and her family proved their worth to the town, she explains.

“It’s not about politics or anything like that. It’s like, ‘Are you going to pitch in and help your neighbor when they need help?’” she says.

Like all towns in America, these are the kind of people residents in Dubois told me they want coming here. But it’s hard to attract community-oriented, working-age people because there aren’t a lot of good paying jobs or available housing in Dubois. A couple of restaurants, for example, have had to close their doors a couple of days a week because they can’t find enough staff to keep things running.

Logging used to play a big part in Dubois’ economy, but once the nearby national forest management plan changed it became unsustainable, according to local realtor Michele Burdick.

It was a loss and a gain, she says.

“The town had big logging trucks going through and the air was polluted with the belching of smoke,” she says. “I kind of like it this way without the sawmills but some people had to leave. But I think Dubois is reinventing itself.”

It’s attracted more tourism and is developing more recreation trails for snow machines, mountain bikes and cross-country skiing. Still, the jobs aren’t here. Burdick once served on a state rural economic development group. She says towns like Dubois could gain from attracting light manufacturing – think small businesses that build trailers, bicycles or hunting gear.

“In a big city, if you employed five or 10 people, it’s not going to have a huge impact,” she says. “But in a town of this size, if you employed five or 10 people, that is huge.”

Burdick and other residents are excited that the new military vehicle museum – the one that brought Stephanie Arrache’s husband to town – was constructed recently near here. Think big tanks from a century or so of warfare. It promises a few good-paying jobs and could be another tourism magnet for the town. But she worries that Dubois is walking a tight-rope between sustainable growth and transforming into another retirement community in the West.

“We have a lot of retirees moving here,” she says. “Which is surprising considering their age, that they are from big cities, and that we don’t have the medical. If someone is not well or goes to the doctor a lot or goes to hospitals a lot, this probably wouldn’t be a good place to live.”

Dubois is remote – you can feel it when the power keeps shutting down across town due to the winter storm. The electric hum that plays like an organ underneath our daily lives goes quiet, and air is still. Gas pumps stop working. Convenience stores become cash-only. For lunch, I buy a bag of Fritos and some bean dip and sit in the motel room, hoping the power will kick back on so I can upload some audio for work.

When it finally turns on, I feel a sense of relief. The heater is working, I can take a hot shower and I can get my edits done on time.

Tomorrow I’ll make a big, 74-mile push to Lander to make up time lost by the storm. The sun should be out and the snow should be melting by then.

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