The Great Grandmother
Mountain roads wind down through the Tetons and the landscape blends slowly from wilderness to ranches. The beginnings of human settlement begin to blend into view like an ombre back into civilization. The drive through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons takes several hours straight through, which presumably no one has ever done because the path is dotted with iconic sights and hidden gems that beg to be explored. At the end of the drive, out the southeast exit of Americas most famous wilderness, sits a small town styled after an imagined wild west from midcentury. Timber faced buildings, charming taxidermied kitsch, and a proud century-old donut shop contour a town so defiantly salt-of-the-earth, its French spelled name Dubois is wrestled flippantly into “Dew-Boyce” on the town’s cowboy tongues.
I met Billie by recommendation from a shopkeeper on the main street. Minutes before the Independence Day parade washed through the town, a kindly woman behind the counter of a trinket and antique shop jotted down a home phone number on a small blue post-it note. The first float rolled past.
The town soaked in the excitement of the parade, showing off classic floats, spraying people from the firetruck, rolling an impressive array of old tanks down the street. Everything draped and dressed in American flags, the town holds tight to a memory of its golden time. 1970s era America is the aesthetic language of Dubois; it’s when the town boomed biggest. By the 1980s it had finally, briefly reached a four digit population. But that time is receding into the distance. The town is getting older. The median age is now well over 50, and the character of the town shows the gleaming nostalgia of its population. Billie rode that wave as the town swelled and returned later in life to enjoy it in retirement.
Billie and her husband Charlie were members of an America that got things done and were rewarded for it. Their time in Dubois was a stepping stone for bigger and better things a little further west. The firm offered them a chance to move to California for more work and a rich local rancher bought their dry cleaner off them to give to his daughter as a gift. People like Billie and Charlie had little trouble landing on their feet in California, even on shaky ground.
More than the rewards it reaped, Billie’s stories revealed a slice of America that got things done because it was the only option. Whether things were tough or uncertain, they made it work
As Billie holds up the rear view mirror to a history beyond most memories, it’s hard to not look at the time with pride and envy of the grit of Americans from that time. But when we talked about freedom, she said something peculiarly revealing about the other half of this equation for American success. People like Billie were people that got things done because they could.
As we finished, she offered one more mournful hope for our conversations with each other as Americans