LARAMIE — At 86 years old, Sadie Dumler lives alone on Fort Buford Lane just shy of city limits, in a cement house built by her late husband, Elmer, more than six decades ago.
Next door is a red shed with no bathroom and no running water — the first place she and Elmer lived following their wedding in 1950.
“Elmer started working on our house after work (and) on weekends,” Sadie said. “He dug the basement — a 25-by-30 foot — by hand. He didn’t have any power equipment to do it. And he made cement blocks on a machine that made one block at a time.”
In failing health, Sadie passes her time watching TV or reading romance and Western novels. Ordinarily, doctors’ appointments are the only reason she leaves the house.
If Sadie has a medical emergency, she will likely die in her house, on the ramp from her front door, or on Fort Buford Lane itself — a caricature of a road made up of water-filled ditches and dirt mounds running parallel to the Albany County Fairgrounds. Even four-wheel drive vehicles have to “slow to an idle” just to navigate the severely damaged dirt road.
“I worry about my mom,” said Sadie’s daughter Marian Sellers, who lives in her own house on the other side of the red shed. “She’s elderly, she’s got diabetes, she’s on oxygen, she has a walker … But if she has another heart attack, or something goes south, and her life depends on an ambulance getting to her fast with help, she will literally die.”
Marian once watched as an ambulance struggled along the one-tenth mile stretch of Fort Buford Lane to her mother’s house.
“Last time I had to call an ambulance, my mom fell and she wasn’t hurt, but I don’t have the oomph to get her up,” Marian said. “And so, they came out and I watched where they turned off down here — I was standing with the flashlights so they know where to turn — but it took them a good five minutes after they got off the pavement to get into the yard.”
Who should be responsible for maintenance of the road is a matter of dispute between Albany County and residents of Fort Buford Lane. Since the road is private, the Albany County Commission bears no legal responsibility for its condition and encourages residents to form a road improvement district to manage repairs and maintenance for themselves.
“From a legal perspective, it’s the property owner’s responsibility,” Albany County Commissioner Heber Richardson said. “I suppose the County Commissioners could choose to appropriate a piece of road and make it a county road but we’re not Campbell County. If we had money laying around, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
Marian said the residents of Fort Buford are too poor to take on such a massive project themselves — and that poverty means it is all too easy for them to be forgotten.
Marian has never been rich. She worked at Monolith Cement for 13 years, then with the University of Wyoming motor pool for 27 years. She said most of her neighbors on Fort Buford Lane are also low- or fixed income and have lived on the road their entire lives, or have no other place to go.
“I can’t afford to buy another place,” Marian said. “This place is paid for. My house and everything is paid for. I don’t have to pay rent. I pay my property taxes, I pay all my utilities and stuff, but I can’t afford to start all over. I’m 68 years old. Would you want to start all over again?”
Isolated from emergency responders, school buses and meal delivery programs, the residents of Fort Buford Lane go without many vital services despite living within eyeshot of city limits.
“Those roads are just giant mud holes,” Richardson said. “If someone had a medical issue in a blizzard, they could die before they got medical attention because you can’t get people in there anyway.”
Transportation and Food
Marian, Sadie and the other residents of Fort Buford Lane are not unique in their isolation. For many Albany County residents, transportation — or the lack of it — can turn an everyday task, such as grocery shopping, into a burden of uncertainty.
According to U.S. Census data, of Albany County’s nearly 38,000 residents, an estimated 32,096 live in the city of Laramie. An additional 5,740 Albany County residents — minus a few hundred living in Rock River, Centennial and other hamlets — live outside city limits.
A recent County Health Rankings & Roadmaps report ranking counties across the United States for health outcomes and behaviors found Albany County had the highest percentage of people facing food insecurities in the state. Roughly 6,620 people — or 18 percent of county residents — do not have access to a reliable source of food, according to the report. The state’s average is 12 percent.
Feeding Laramie Valley is an organization that attempts to address food insecurity in Albany County by collecting, growing and distributing fresh food, said Lina Dunning, the organization’s community engagement manager.
“Everything around food has to do with justice and dignity,” she said. “People have no need to prove to us they need the food in some way or that they’re hungry or deserving. People are welcome just to come.”
Dunning said she knows many people who work multiple jobs but still cannot make ends meet. She said two major barriers for many in and around Laramie is the relative lack of public transportation options and the abundance of areas considered food deserts.
“It prohibits not only access to food, but access to medical care, access to lots of things in Laramie,” she said.
The rampant food insecurity and lack of transportation options put a strain on food pantries such as Interfaith Good-Samaritan, which cannot help everyone in need.
In addition to serving an estimated 1,600-2,000 people, handing out 900 pounds of food a day and utilizing 700 volunteer hours per month, Interfaith writes checks for a variety of housing and transportation needs. Covering hotel rooms for people a “banana peel away” from homelessness is one way Interfaith acts as a community safety net, said executive director Mike Vercauteren. Interfaith also helps fund rides offered by the Eppson Center for Seniors.
“We pay to help people that either don’t have a license or don’t have a vehicle or both,” Vercauteren said. “And so, a lot of people are dependent on the Eppson Center for their transportation, mostly for medical reasons.”
As the Eppson Center’s transportation coordinator, Keith Ash dispatches three vans and one bus to bring several hundred people every month to doctors’ appointments, the grocery store and sometimes to work.
In April, Ash said his drivers provided more than 1,500 rides.
While not exclusively for senior citizens, the Eppson Center’s Public Assisted Transportation Service focuses on the elderly and the disabled. All four vehicles are low to the ground to allow for ramps, so a pockmarked stretch of road such as Fort Buford Lane is off-limits.
“We’ll destroy a vehicle on that road,” he said. “If we have to go down there, a lot of times, I say we can’t because it’ll tear vehicles up.”
Transportation in and out of the city isn’t the only service stymied by the poor condition of Fort Buford Lane.
“We have people down there we (did) home delivery meals to, and the volunteers won’t go down that road,” Ash said.
The Eppson Center stopped delivering food to Sadie in March and while Marian does a lot for her mother, she can’t always put dinner on the table.
“Cooking is not one of my things,” Marian said. “If God had meant for a woman to cook, she’d have never invented restaurants.”
Sadie cooks simple meals, such as casseroles, and since she was cut off from meal delivery services, a church friend, Glenda Hines, picks up food daily from the Eppson Center and brings it out to Fort Buford Lane.
Though Hines’ Pontiac Montana has four-wheel drive, it’s also very low to the ground. While Hines enjoys spending time with Sadie — who she and others call “Bonnie” — she said driving on Fort Buford Lane is nerve-wracking and she must often slow to a creep just to make it without getting stuck.
“It’s a horrible, horrible road,” Hines said.
That generous volunteerism mixes up and improves Sadie’s diet, though she said she could get by — if need be — without it.
“I’m not going to starve,” Sadie said.
A road claimed by no one
If Fort Buford Lane were fixed, Sadie could have her meals delivered and rest easy knowing that an ambulance could reach her house in a timely fashion if need be.
But it’s unlikely the road will be fixed anytime soon.
Richardson and the other county commissioners contend that while the road is in the county, it is not leased to the county. Richardson said if the road were constructed today, the developer of the neighborhood and the subsequent property owners would be responsible for its maintenance.
“The roads were never built properly and those lots probably weren’t subdivided by a developer per se,” he said. “The way we do things now isn’t the way we did them 100 years ago.”
If Fort Buford Lane were deemed a county road — a designation used mainly for large and arterial roads — it would be the county’s responsibility, Richardson said. Currently, the county maintains just under 500 miles of road.
“It’s not possible for the county to take care of every piece of dirt or pavement that’s everywhere in the whole county,” he said.
Marian — a lifelong resident of Fort Buford Lane — claims the county used to maintain the road and its offshoots.
“As far as we know, it’s a county road,” she said. “And it was a county road. They don’t want to take care of it. They take care of miles of Sand Creek Road that nobody lives on, but it dumps out at a ranch out there. But they’ve got these people here that are living along the streets here.”
Sadie said she can remember a time when Albany County did take care of Fort Buford Lane — when the Albany County Fairgrounds emptied to the west and Fort Buford and its cross roads were used for access during rodeos.
“The county doesn’t want to claim these roads — even to do them once or twice a year,” Sadie said. “So, they’re lying in their teeth and saying they never, ever did any work out here.”
But GIS Director Alan Frank said Fort Buford Lane was never a county road. Albany County Assessor Grant Showacre said he could not say if Fort Buford had ever been. Richardson and fellow Albany County Commissioner Terri Jones also said they were unsure.
Sometime before he died in 2001, the ever-resourceful and hardworking Elmer took on the road himself.
“My husband had a length of railroad rail that he fixed up as a drag,” Sadie said. “Two or three times during the summer — he’d drag the road with that piece of railroad iron and smooth it out some. But somewhere along the line, that got stolen. We don’t have that (iron drag) anymore to do it.”
“ — And, we don’t have him anymore to do it,” Marian added. “We’re all low income, fixed income, some combination thereof. And basically, we don’t count politically. We don’t have the money, we don’t have the power. There’s not enough of us.”
Jones said she sympathized with the residents of Fort Buford Lane.
“It would be easy to say, ‘Well, you chose to live out there — you chose to live on that road,’” Jones said. “However, that may have been their only choice because rentals in town are probably much more expensive than the rentals out there. And if you’re on a really tight budget, you’re forced to live where the rentals are within your budget.”
While the residents of Fort Buford Lane could make a special road district — which would allow them to tax themselves for road improvements — many county officials agreed such a plan means placing a burden on a group of people ill-equipped to carry it.
But Jones said the commission could not take over responsibility for the road without being expected to do the same for similarly troubled roads elsewhere in the county.
“Now, if the county was flush with lots of money, it might be a different story,” she said. “But as everyone knows, we aren’t.”
Richardson agreed, acknowledging the residents of Fort Buford Lane lack the financial means to fix the road themselves, but that the county simply doesn’t have the money to step in and do it.
“It’s going to stay ugly until somebody swoops in and saves them,” he said.
Despite the difficulties, Marian is enjoying retirement.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t realize how much stress I was carrying until I got out from under that job,” the 68-year-old said. “I feel so much better now. I got rid of the stress, I dropped 100 pounds. I’m healthier now. Sometimes, I wonder how I had time to work.”
Marian walks 2 miles a day. She goes to Planet Fitness every other day and regularly attends martial arts classes. She is particularly proud of conquering Medicine Bow Peak, which she did in 2016.
“I’m trudging up there one step at a time and here come these college kids leaping blissfully from boulder to boulder like a bunch of flipping gazelles,” she said. “I wanted to push them over the edge.”
Marian was encouraged to get in shape and stay healthy after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a nervous system disease that can cause physical, mental and even psychiatric problems.
“I know other people that have had it and they go to gloom and doom and their life is over, yada yada yada,” she said. “I said to hell with this — I’ve got life to live.”
Even so, Marian still feels the side effects of her disease. She said she travels less than she would like to, because multiple sclerosis can sap a person’s energy without warning.
“I have to watch my fatigue,” Marian said. “I have to watch the heat. Every once in a while I turn into every man’s dream date: a woman who can’t talk — I start stuttering, I can’t get the words out.”
The thing that keeps her going — as always — is her mother. Sadie relies on Marian for rides in and out of Laramie. In many ways, Marian is Sadie’s access to the outside world.
So Marian stays strong. After all, if she allowed the multiple sclerosis to get her down or make her weak, it would be Sadie who suffers most.
“Should something happen to me, I don’t know what would happen with her,” Marian said. “And even if it was something temporary with me, I don’t know what would happen to her.”