Sunday, January 3, 2021

"I am a legend, a beloved legend"—RIP, Bert Raynes

Bert Raynes

   I was sorry to hear that Bert Raynes died on Friday, at the ripe age of 96, after a life well lived in nature.
    When the boys and I went on our big trip out West in 2009, we were lucky enough to run into Raynes at the 4th of July parade in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A legendary columnist who always wrote "whatever suits his fancy," Raynes only spoke with us for a few minutes, but they were memorable ones. 
     This excerpt is from my unpublished memoir of that trip, "The Quest for Pie."

     The next day was the 4th of July, and there is no better dramatization of the blend of Old West rawhide nostalgia and affluent modern herbal tea ease that characterizes mountain resort towns such as Jackson than to watch the Independence Day parade go by.
     There was a grey-bearded prospector driving a Conestoga wagon and a clean-shaven guy driving a Mercedes gull wing sports car. A rifle-toting cowboy in chaps and an elderly gentleman sitting in a brown recliner in the back of a blue pick-up. Beauty queens wearing cowboy hats and holding American flags, their sequined gowns fanned out over the flanks of their horses, and a squad of unicyclists. Girls in pigtails were riding with both the 4H Club and with the Therapeutic Riders Association (slogan, “Horses for Healing”). There was a float for a dude ranch and a float for Compassion Moves Mountains, the umbrella group for social service agencies in Teton County.
     A hundred years ago the parade would have been freighted with civic societies—the Masons, the Lions, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Now they were mostly businesses, like the Barker-Ewing White Water Rafting Outfitters, which featured employees rowing a big inflatable raft and spraying the crowd with Super Soakers. There was exactly one marching band, though it did not march—the musicians played their instruments while sitting on folding chairs, arrayed on a wide trailer pulled by a truck. There was something sadly supine about that.
     Before the parade began, rather than claim one spot, we explored the downtown strip of shops. From snatches of conversation, filtering in from the crowd, stray words like cricket chirps, I got the impression that Dick Cheney, the former vice-president under George W. Bush, was somewhere nearby, and the boys and I worked our way toward the thickest part of the crowd—his position clearly marked, ironically, by the big security agents milling around him. We’d have never noticed the man otherwise. Cheney was sitting in a chair, wearing a beige suede leather jacket and a white Stetson hat—he has a house around here—and I figured the boys might enjoy saying hello to such a prominent political figure.
     “You want to meet Dick Cheney, the former vice president of the United States?” I asked them. Kent made a face as if he had eaten something bad.
     “No!” he said.
     “Why would we want to do that?” asked Ross, genuinely puzzled. We moved on. I was proud of them for snubbing Cheney—me, I’d have said hello, just for the bragging rights, but I could also pass him by with only a faint regret. 
     The guy in the brown vinyl recliner in the back of a vintage blue Dodge pickup was a different matter. He intrigued me—an elderly gentleman, wearing a brown cowboy hat and a bright red zippered fleece. The only identification of this enigma was a large white sign that read simply, “Bert.” As he passed, the crowd cheered and chanted, “Bert! Bert! Bert!”
     “Who’s Bert?” I asked the lady beside me. She shrugged—another tourist. Jackson has only 8,500 full time residents (the town itself is “Jackson,” the town and the surrounding area are known, together, as “Jackson Hole.”)
     “Must be some beloved local,” I told the boys.
     After the parade ended, we wandered, looking at the shops selling t-shirts, selling knives. We noticed the blue Dodge pickup truck parked at a corner so Bert could watch the end of the parade. Here was my chance; I went over and complimented Jackson Hole.
     “Thank you,” he said, regally, as if he had built the place himself. “We like it.”
     One of his companions whispered that this is Bert Raynes. I observed that, given his reception, he must be some kind of luminary.
     “I am a legend, a beloved legend, no doubt about it,” said Raynes, a newspaper columnist, whose column, “Far Afield,” has appeared in the Jackson Hole News & Guide for the past 37 years. Raynes arrived here 50 years ago, drawn by photographs in National Geographic.
     When I asked, with requisite apology, how old he is, he smiled enigmatically and said, “Very.”
     The local perspective is different than a visitor’s. A tourist comes for a couple of days, hikes in the summer or skis in the winter, then leaves, wondering: what’s it like to live here year-round? I posed the question to Raynes.
     ”The sex is great,” interjected a 60ish woman standing nearby. A comment I paused at then decided was best to ignore.
     “The living is easy,” Raynes replied. “Even though it’s a boom town now, it’s still easy to make friends. You can walk up to anybody and say, ‘I’m a little lost—can you help me?’”
     In that spirit, I told him what we planned to do while in town—hike around Jenny Lake, maybe raft the Snake River—and he gave us a few tips.
     “Keep an eye out for thunderstorms,” he said. “They can come up fast.
     One doesn’t run into a fellow newspaper columnist very often—we’re a dying breed—so I took the opportunity to talk shop.
     “I don’t type,” he said, with pride. “I still write my column by hand, with a ball point pen on yellow paper.”
     How does his column get into the newspaper? I asked.
     “Some poor guy back at the office gets the short straw and has to type it up,” he laughed. “If he complains, they tell him he’s lucky to have a job.” A common refrain in the profession.
     At lunch, I plugged five dimes into an outdoor newspaper box for a copy of the Jackson Hole News & Guide, and read Raynes’ latest column at a diner counter as we gobbled our burgers.
     The column was about vultures, and begins: “A while back—say 20, 30 years ago—a turkey vulture (a large scavenging bird) in Jackson Hole was a rare sight. Just didn’t seem to happen, even in those times of year when lots of carcasses or parts thereof are available in quantity.”
     Now vultures were being observed “fairly often.” I learned something about vultures I had never even thought to wonder about, but seems worth knowing—why they have “unfeathered, naked heads.”
     “This feature evolved in response to a vulture’s method of probing with strong, white-tipped bills to feed upon the often decomposing entrails of carcasses,” Raynes writes.
     That would also explain why so many journalists are light in the hair department. Raynes’ column was packed with interesting vulture information, and has a “Field Notes” section at the end where readers share their own observations and are credited. “Rufous hummingbirds are back (Dick Hobbins, Mary Louis, Roger Watson, Amelia Gelssler, others).”
     I smiled, thinking: I might have to borrow the Field Notes idea and transplant it to Chicago: “Hector Smith reports that the tin-whistle-blowing lunatics usually roosting on North Michigan Avenue in warm weather have been migrating down to Congress Parkway this summer.”
     It’s incredible—almost unbelievable—that a columnist at such a small paper would have more than four readers contact him regarding rufous hummingbirds. He must have his audience well-trained.
     We wandered over to the Snow King Lodge to take a gander. Though the Virginian was completely adequate—stripped down and aging, but clean— a pal back in Chicago had nabbed us a fancy condo, gratis, at the Snow King, and we decided to relocate there.
     We checked in, sprawling happily in our fancy new digs. The boys would have their own bedroom, and we had a deck to watch the fireworks that evening.
     Edie phoned. Ross talked to her, and I couldn’t help noticing that, in describing Jackson Hole, Ross did not mention the glory of the snow-capped Tetons, nor the cherry-paneled luxury of our brand new condo at Snow King Lodge. He did not mention that we saw former Vice President Dick Cheney at the parade. What he said was:
     “Mom! There’s a columnist here who’s actually respected!”


  1. “Mom! There’s a columnist here who’s actually respected!” apples not falling far from trees, it would seem.

  2. I was driving into Jackson in a futile attempt at late November skiing. The foggy mist along the gently winding two lane road didn't offer much hope, but I remember the trip more than most of my ski trips. I was following a flatbed stake truck piled high and neatly with hay, 4 or 5 bales high, about 9 by 15 feet in area on the top level. As the truck took the curves the tightly packed load shifted side to side like a flagpole bending in the wind. Riding atop the cargo was a 50 pound mixed breed dog, scampering about the bales to catch the sights along the roadside. Or maybe it was seeking an avenue of escape. I'm not sure which was the more colorful character, the driver or the dog. Maybe Bert wrote about them.

  3. Was Cheney by chance sporting a cigarette in a cigarette holder? Visions of Burgess Meredith's the Penguin always comes to mind when I think of the ex Veep. So do vultures.

  4. Hello, Mr. Steinberg. Thanks so much for your remembrance of Bert! Strongest positive argument yet for letting people read their obituaries before they pass on. Bernie McHugh here, Friend of Bert (FOB), member of the "Deaf As A Post Lunch Bunch" Bert Raynes, Founder) and Secretary of the JH Bird & Nature Club (Bert Raynes, President Aeternitus). Etc. One of Bert's friends created a tribute website( and he's added a link to your remembrance. Just wanted to check if that's okay with you. As a side note, the Visitor's Center here had a wildlife viewing platform named "Bert's Bench". Plans call for it to be expanded and improved with interpretive materials added. So, come visit again!

    1. Sure, I'd be honored, and thanks for asking. Yes, it's too bad he didn't get a chance to read it. He almost did—my agent did farm the book out, but the demand for gentle travel memoirs by guys in their early 50s just is not that great. I certainly hope to get back to Jackson Hole one of these days.


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