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Answering the Call of the Wild West

A fashion-obsessed city girl falls for Wyoming’s sagebrush flats, glacial lakes, craggy badlands — and, yes, even its square-dance nights

spinner image illustration of wood cabin surrounded by trees overlooking river with mountains in the distance, and sign indicating distance from Dubois to Paris, NYC and Dallas
Illustration by Chris Lyons

For 40 years, I spent my life in cities, wearing clothes that cost too much and shoes that made my toes cramp. As the fashion editor of the Dallas Morning News for nearly three decades, I traveled to London, Milan, Paris and New York; shopped with Andy Warhol; and interviewed designers from Tom Ford to Halston to Karl Lagerfeld. A late-career opportunity to join storied Dallas-based specialty-store Neiman Marcus as editorial director opened a new range of fashion opportunities, as I took full advantage of employee discounts and designer sample sales to amass a wardrobe worthy of a magazine or museum.

Now I spend roughly half the year away from Dallas, wearing Carhartt coveralls and Birkenstocks — or something similarly cheap and functional — breathing air scented with sagebrush, 80 miles from the nearest dry cleaner. The only grocery store in town has never heard of Vogue, much less sold it. And yet, in a 950-square-foot cabin on the shoulder of the Wind River mountains, just outside the tiny town of Dubois, Wyoming, I have found my happy place. (That name Dubois, for the record, is not pronounced à la française. As any of the town’s 971 residents will quickly tell you, it’s DEW-boyz. À la Wyoming.)

spinner image author Tracy Achor Hayes wearing hiking boots and casual cloths, sitting on deck of cabin next to wood-burning stove
Tracy Achor Hayes in her Dubois duds on the deck of her cabin, which affords views of the mountains that rise behind the Bitterroot.
Courtesy Tracy Achor Hayes

The Cowboy State has been part of my life since the mid-1980s, and part of my husband’s since childhood, when his parents hauled him and his two brothers across country in an un-air-conditioned Ford Galaxy 500 each summer to visit their grandparents. My family always vacationed in northern New Mexico, where my anthropologist mother had attended an archaeology field school in the late 1960s and fallen under the spell of Taos Peak, revered (in our family anyway) as “one of the seven spiritual centers of the Earth.” I fell in love there, too. With the hippies and hot springs. The turquoise and silver. The sunbaked adobe. The thin, dry mountain air. The West with a capital W. Turning east toward Texas at the end of our visits always made me teary — and not just because the speed limit was 55 and my parents stopped for every historical marker.


Horsing around

Persuading me to forsake New Mexico for Wyoming was never going to be easy. But my husband, Van, came up with quite an effective lure: the chance to rekindle a girlhood obsession with horses at the guest ranch of my choice. That turned out to be Bitterroot Ranch — and the Bitterroot changed our lives.

“We don’t have to stay if you hate it,” Van told me as we bumped down the 16-mile washboard road to the ranch for the first time, in August 1987.

He needn’t have worried. Cantering across sagebrush flats, smelling the warm scent of sweaty horses, cresting a ridge to see a herd of elk, I rediscovered my joy. The fact that legendary French futurist André Courrèges was a longtime ranch guest only further cinched the deal. We returned the same week each year like kids to summer camp, as delighted to reunite with horse friends as human ones.

Of course, fashion didn’t entirely exit my life in Wyoming. My wardrobe simply expanded to suit the new locale. Gaultier and Gucci stayed home in the closet. Into the suitcase every summer went vintage bandannas, snap-front shirts, riding britches and Ralph Lauren sweaters scored at the brand’s outlet store (regrettably now a T-shirt emporium) on Jackson Hole’s town square. The Italian brand Miu Miu became an unexpected, if ridiculously expensive, source for Wyoming-appropriate footwear. The morning I woke up to find a field mouse nesting in one of my embroidered suede Miu Miu moccasins I had to respect her taste level — those moccasins cost more than most mice make in a lifetime. But I evicted her nevertheless.


Hard to say goodbye

Friends and colleagues find all this a bit curious. Understandably. For those who know me chiefly from a world of air kisses and shopping sprees, photo shoots and fundraising galas, it’s hard to envision me do-si-do-ing at the Tuesday night square dances at the Rustic Pine Tavern, or digging through musty T-shirts at Dubois’ Opportunity Shop thrift store, aka the Opp Shop. But with each visit to Wyoming, saying goodbye only became more difficult. Boarding a return flight to Dallas I once cried so hard an attendant stopped to ask if she could help. When I explained I was just sad to be leaving, she leaned down and gently asked, “If you love it so much, why don’t you stay?” Upon which I turned to my husband with an accusatory stare and wailed, “Yes, why don’t we?” I don’t recall his exact answer, but it likely made note of Wyoming’s greater call for forest rangers than fashion editors.

Though I still relished my work, the pull of the West followed me even on biannual trips to cover the seasonal designer collections in the world’s fashion capitals. In Paris one year, I distinctly remember walking the cobblestoned streets from a Chanel fashion show in the Cour Carrée du Louvre to my Saint-Germain-des-Prés hotel marveling at the City of Light’s beauty. Immediately followed by the thought But it’s no Wyoming. I was utterly serious.

“When we headed to Wyoming that July, Van once again told me not to worry: If I got bored, or missed restaurants, friends and stores too much, he’d simply drive me to Jackson and put me on the next plane back to Dallas. But that never happened.”


A cabin in the woods

Van loved the West at least as deeply as I did, but horses not so much. Around our 15th trip to the Bitterroot, he made the offhand comment that, for all the money we spent to get there, we might as well be paying a mortgage. That was all the opening I needed. The very next summer, in 1999, we spent exactly one day looking at real estate, then used the money saved for the college education of the child we’d never had to make a down payment on a very humble cedar-plank cabin advertised — quite accurately — as having one of the valley’s best views. Sheltered from Dubois’ notorious wind by robust Douglas firs, limber pines and one glorious aspen, the cabin sits just a half-mile from America’s first national forest, the 2.4-million-acre Shoshone. The “view side” looks northward across the Wind River Valley to the imposing Absaroka Range some 70 miles away. In the near distance are Dubois’ cinematic badlands, a craggy geology of vermillion-, mauve- and verdigris-banded buttes worthy of John Ford or Georgia O’Keeffe. From our deck, I can see the mountains that rise directly behind the Bitterroot, a mere hour’s drive away.

For the first 15 years we owned it, we spent no more than a few weeks at the cabin each year. I’d head to the Bitterroot to ride, leaving Van to stain the deck, replenish the woodpile, or tackle any of the countless other chores that come with home ownership. But at least three or four days we always spent exploring together. Free of TV or internet (but eternally grateful for Wyoming Public Radio), we’d drive the 80 miles over Togwotee Pass into the Grand Tetons or Yellowstone, or pack a lunch and bear spray for a hike to a nearby glacial lake. (Key to the successful use of bear spray, according to the clerk who sold us our first canisters: “Spray it on the bear, not on yourself.”) When the sun and temperature dropped, we’d build a fire, play CDs, read books. It was as idyllic as it sounds. Who cared if there was no dishwasher or mail delivery, and “emptying the trash” required a 12-mile round trip to the dump? Not us.

spinner image author Tracy Achor Hayes with husband Van dressed up in art gallery
Hayes and her husband, Van, decked out in Dallas.
Courtesy Tracy Achor Hayes

The idea that we might someday spend an entire summer in Dubois was almost too delicious to imagine — until 2017, when my husband retired from his graphic design job in the marketing department at the Dallas Morning News and I found myself laid off from the editorial director position I’d accepted the year before with the edgy Dallas fashion retailer Forty Five Ten. When we headed to Wyoming that July, Van once again told me not to worry: If I got bored, or missed restaurants, friends and stores too much, he’d simply drive me to Jackson and put me on the next plane back to Dallas.

But that never happened.

In fact, we extended our stay each year, from six weeks to 10, then 12, then 16. “Summer” now stretches into mid-October. We’ve put in a garden, taken up kayaking, and for my 65th birthday, went to the rock yard and picked out four huge granite boulders to anchor the landscape. I still ride at the Bitterroot, but also now volunteer there each Sunday to greet guests — a role as satisfying as any fashion scoop or photo shoot. Bonus: It’s the one day of the week when I have a semblance of a reason to “look cute,” maybe even put on a dress and a little lipstick. Nothing too fancy, though.


Putting differences aside

The past four years in Dubois have also imparted a valuable lesson that involves neither the grandeur of nature nor the safest way to secure a kayak to a roof rack: People who vote differently from me aren’t my enemies. They’re the neighbors who offer to lend a chain saw, share firewood, or simply wave a friendly hello at the post office. They’re people who love this corner of the world deeply enough to live here year-round, shoveling snow long after we’ve drained our pipes and hightailed it back south. I like to think we all gain perspective from knowing someone “other.”

As I write this, it’s mid-October and I’ve been back in Dallas less than a week. Yesterday, I put on a Dries Van Noten dress and drove downtown to meet girlfriends for lunch at the flagship Neiman Marcus store. Tomorrow, I’ll have my first haircut in months and Van and I will join friends at a favorite Vietnamese restaurant for dinner. The city has its charms. But at night, lying in bed, I hear the hum of the air-conditioner punctuated by occasional sirens and drag racers. The vast Milky Way is visible only in memory. With eyes closed, I picture the Dubois cabin. Above our sofa hangs a giant metal W salvaged from some long-forgotten sign. Most people assume it stands for Wyoming, which it does. But also for the Wonder of nature and the Wisdom of age.

I’m so grateful for all three.


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