By Marit Gookin, Staff Writer
A quintessential storyteller, Ginny Isabell didn’t just have a story for every occasion; she had a unique ability to find an occasion for every story. The adventures of herself, her mother, and her grandmother all wove into a tapestry of both her personal family history and the history of the Lander valley, and she always captivated her audiences.
“My brother drove her down to Denver once,” remembered her friend Nancy King. “And he said ‘I don’t think I had to turn on the radio one time’ … She always had another story.”
Isabell was born in Lander on September 25, 1942, and seemingly packed as much life as possible into every minute after. She ran barefoot on unpaved Lander streets and went out to visit her grandmother at her house at Johnny Behind the Rocks – “the real Johnny Behind the Rocks, not that place they call Johnny Behind the Rocks now,” she always insisted – which she described as “rattlesnake city.” As teenagers, Isabell and her friends rode horses, attended rodeos and drove out into the desert or up to Sinks Canyon, where they would park the car, crank the radio and dance in the headlights. “Somewhere, she’s dancing in the headlights,” her grandson Jeremy Farley described at her memorial service this past Saturday.
She graduated from Fremont County Vocational High School, and although she lived many places afterward, Lander is where her heart remained – and where she raised her two children, Kim and Cully. As a single working mother in the 1960s, she had to work hard to make ends meet at times, and get creative when things wouldn’t quite come together. More than once, she told the story of the old jeep she relied on to commute to her job waitressing at the Maverick. The jeep’s brakes didn’t work, but she couldn’t afford to fix them, so she kept a brick tied to a piece of rope on the passenger seat. When the car came to a light or a stop sign, she would lean out of the window and toss the brick out in front of her tires to stop the jeep.
No matter how creative she had to get with her car, though, she always made sure that her kids were well taken care of. “If it was Christmas time, you couldn’t get in the front door of that trailer, the tree was so big,” described her son Cully Goehring.
Isabell worked for the Lander Journal as an advertising representative for many years, and was passionate about her work. “She was the life of the newsroom,” remarked Ernie Over. “She always had a smile, always had a hello, she was just a joy to be around … To her it was like an ad was a very personal thing, because she was representing her client.”
Everywhere she went, Isabell made connections; she worked hard, but the earnest passion she brought to her work made her easy to like. “When I would come to Lander in the summer, my first stop was always Judd’s Grub, and pretty soon the whole town would be there,” Jeremy Farley described. It seemed like everyone in Lander knew and loved Isabell; you didn’t need a cellphone to find out your grandson had made it into town and to his favorite restaurant, he said, when you had an information network like Isabell did.
Given her experience with a jeep as a young woman, it is either surprising or entirely unsurprising – depending on how familiar you were with her adventurous spirit – that jeeping became one of Isabell’s passions. Along with her partner of many years in her later life, Jimmy Smail, she would travel down to Moab to crisscross its many jeep trails and venture into the mountains closer to home. In the winters, they would go snowmobiling; the two were known for their involvement in Lander’s snowmobiling community, clearing trails and even lending a hand with Lander Search and Rescue.
For the last few years of her life, Isabell worked at the Lander Pioneer Museum.
“She loved [that] place,” her daughter Kim Farley said. “Every time she would come down [to Colorado] to visit, she would bring a stack of fliers.” She described how Isabell would visit her doctor’s office in Colorado, armed with informational pamphlets about the museum, and hand them out to the nurses, the doctor, other people in the waiting room – everyone she came into contact with.
After a lifetime of love, laughter, service and jeeps – with brakes and without – Isabell passed away on December 14, 2022. Her friends and family gathered at her beloved Pioneer Museum to honor her life this past Saturday. “God, and Wyoming winters, didn’t want [the memorial service] to happen until now,” Kim told those in attendance. Her children and grandchildren expressed their gratitude for Isabell’s community of people in Lander who helped her as she grew older. But the gratitude is all ours, for the community Ginny Isabell drew around herself everywhere she went and the stories she always had to tell to brighten your day.