In Remote Dubois, a Quiet Revolution

The new economic base, foreseen 25 years ago: clean, quiet, almost hidden.

RodeoGrounds4This is a story of loss, and the signs of renewal.

In the late 1980s, the last sawmill in Dubois closed, plunging the town into economic crisis. (At left, the site as it looks today.)

Possibly that same year–I’ve lost track of the exact date–we came with our toddler son to a dude ranch near Dubois, to enjoy a getaway from two stressful jobs in the big city.

That was back when Bernard and Leota Didier owned the Lazy L&B, two owners and most of a lifetime ago.

LazyL&BHorses

I was awestruck by vistas I had never imagined, let alone seen. I focused on trying to stay mounted on my horse, having never ridden before, while the wranglers loped easily over the endless range ahead.

A tourist enjoying a brief getaway, I had no idea about what was happening in the town nearby. Nor, at the time, did I care.

Dubois had thrived on logging since the turn of the last century, and the tie hacks hewed railroad ties for the transport network that was uniting the country (although the railroad itself never came near Dubois). Now, the industry had abandoned the town, due to a change in logging policy at the US Forest Service and economic realities that eroded its profit.

LazyLB_editedDubois quickly set about trying to re-invent itself. The town sponsored several community projects, hiring consultants who led self-examinations and assessments of the town’s potential.

My favorite assessment was a freelance project. In 1992–exactly a quarter-century ago–an economics professor named John Murdock, who had retired to Dubois, completed an independent analysis of how the town might recover from its devastating loss.

He considered the potential of minerals, oil, and gas (virtually none in that region) and small manufacturing (nil, because of the distance to market).

Murdock concluded that the town’s only hope for economic revival was two sources who would arrive bringing their own income: (1) retirees  and (2) people who would work here remotely, using the Internet.

The Internet didn’t yet really exist.  This was two years before the creation of the World Wide Web Consortium that would set international standards so that computers on different systems could share information.

CemeteryView1_042917

Dubois waited. Retirees always arrived, but predictably, some would leave to be closer to family and others due to failing health.

In the meantime, its lifeline was tourism. The goal has been to attract people like us who wanted a brief escape from “civilization,” and to entice part of the horde bound for Yellowstone to stop here long enough to experience Dubois’ unique, enchanting qualities.

The problem with tourism (which is now the second largest industry in Wyoming) is that it can’t form the basis of a year-round economy in a location like Dubois. In the periods between the snow and the summer, the revenue stops.

We were far away as all this was evolving, and I was experiencing industrial challenges of my own, as publishing began to shift to the Internet. I had to learn how to code content for CD-ROMs meant to be read on a computer. Then I was hired to manage a “webzine” about science. I ran an online news service, and had to learn more coding. Later, I helped create a search engine.

My team was based in New York and London. We communicated by email and videoconference. At my last firm, my boss was based in Denver, with my coworkers in Baltimore, Boston, and San Francisco.

The writing was on the wall–as was a poster of the image below, which I had taken years earlier at the Lazy L&B and moved from office to office. Sometimes, looking up from the screen, I would rest my thoughts on Dubois.

Luckily, my last employer was unconcerned about where I was located while I worked. Our children grew up and left, as they do. Parents aged and passed away. Eventually, when the time was right for us, Dubois called us back.

LazyLBDrawAs we returned, the old sawmill site was being transformed. The EPA now cites it as a case study of environmental remediation.

Cleaned up with help from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, the location now houses a medical clinic, a fitness center, and an assisted living facility. A fishing pond for children should be completed soon.

In my absence, Dubois had been laying the tracks for a new kind of transcontinental network: high-speed Internet. I quickly learned that it was more reliable in Dubois than in the city, where I often had to close my laptop and reboot in a library or cafe when my signal suddenly went down.

When we first moved to Dubois, I met a few other individuals who were making their living here on the Internet. Gradually I met others, but I don’t know them all by any means.

In the past few weeks alone, during the current spring thaw, I have encountered several other telecommuters–a computer coder, a software architect, and a marketing expert–who have newly relocated to the area. All of them chose Dubois in order to enjoy Nature and solitude while earning a good living at their keyboards. Two of them have children they don’t want to raise anywhere near a city.

DTECoils2The economy that Murdock foresaw 25 years ago is in its birth pangs at this very moment. According to a recent report in Forbes, about 40% of employees are now working “remotely” most or all of the time. About 80-90% of employees surveyed say they would like to work from home.

On Twitter, I’ve discovered a thriving separate industry of “remote workers” complete with vendors of supplies and services, support networks, employment recruiters, and professional conferences. A recent article on a jobs site for telecommuters predicts that the new industry will boost employment in rural areas.

Some high-skilled technology workers who work as consultants describe themselves as “digital nomads.” They migrate from one exotic location to another, wherever there is good broadband, enjoying a combination of travel and work as their day-to-day lifestyle. There are travel agents who specialize in serving this market.

The cost of commercial real estate, combined with the exploding cost of living in major cities and long commute times to affordable areas, makes it Downtown3almost impractical to insist that employees who work largely online must come in to an office–especially if the best candidate for an online job doesn’t live anywhere nearby.

Many employees want to live in urban areas anyway. But surely some want to be in a place like Dubois, for exactly the reasons we love it: It’s small, it’s isolated, it’s placid.

The new year-round economic base of Dubois is emerging slowly, one by one and two by two. Like Dubois itself, it is clean, quiet, and tucked away in the wilderness.

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© Lois Wingerson, 2017

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

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Hike. Reach. Step. Relax. Repeat.

yoga4“Someone asked me what kind of yoga I practice,” Becki said recently, during a morning class. “Hatha yoga? Vinyasa yoga? I told them I practice Dubois yoga.”

She didn’t elaborate, but we know what this means. The farthest thing from competitive yoga. Healing yoga. Restorative yoga. Respect your body yoga.

“Any injuries today?” she asks.

I tell her that yesterday I hiked too far, too fast. “Someday you’ll stop telling me things like that,” she replies. If Becki can respect my body, why can’t I?

Becki has said that everyone in Dubois has very tight hamstrings, because we spend so much time hiking uphill. Her gentle “work-ins” are there to help us help our bodies recover from the hard physical work of enjoying our wilderness, whether we’ve spent time pitching tents or pitching hay to horses.

Before she gave birth to her first child and needed yoga to recover, Becki was the head of our local wilderness-adventure program for adolescents, after working as a counselor who took them on treks into wild places. Last year, she took a solo mountain-bike trip from Canada to Wyoming down the Continental Divide.

Yoga2Our tai chi instructor, Matt, is the local plumber. He gladly tells us how he wracked up his body as a younger man working in construction, to the point where he could barely walk, and how tai chi slowly helped him to recover.

He’s giving classes, he says, to make sure he keeps doing it himself.

This isn’t the kind of dance-like tai chi you see in a city park. It’s Tai Chi-Chi Kung, deeply rooted in the martial arts. He translates many of the complex moves into self-defense maneuvers, but the motions he leads us through are not combative. They’re gentle, quiet, self-aware.

Becki helps us to recover from clambering over this rocky ground. Matt helps us to prepare.

“Hiking,” he interrupts himself to say. “You think: This foot first, now that foot. I’m over this foot now. Pretty hard to lose your balance.. I used to turn my ankle all the time. Do this enough, and you won’t.”

MassageCabin

When the muscles get too tight to tolerate, I treat myself to a session with Reenie. Here’s the charming small cabin she uses for therapeutic massage, a setting that is therapy in itself.

That’s a joy of living in Dubois year-round. In high tourist season, you’re lucky to be able to get any of her time at all — and Reenie likes to give it abundantly, and with care.

When I ask her what she’s finding, Reenie always prefaces her answer by saying something like: “Well, I’m not sure I have enough knowledge to advise you about this.” Meanwhile she has found places I didn’t know I had, let alone that they were hurting, and made them better.

I’ve learned more about myself from these three people than from any of the fine doctors I saw back in New York  — and feel much better for it. But then, they probably don’t know much about hiking up rocky mountain trails.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Dubois Gets Lucky, and Gets Fresh

Quiz: What’s warm and green where it’s high and dry?

greenhouse1It could go without saying that Wyoming is not the garden state. We’re high and dry, which is a fabulous climate for people to enjoy in the late spring and summer, but not so much for garden vegetables.

So it was truly big news last week when Mary Ellen Honsaker told me that the Community Garden had been offered the use of a large greenhouse near the center of town.

FarmersMarketHaulHooray! The Community Garden supplies the Farmers Market, which funds the Food Bank. Now the Farmers Market, which opens in June, will be able to offer produce that is larger, more abundant, and presumably also more fresh.

Normally, setting aside the local gardeners who sometimes offer part of their harvest and whatever Mary Ellen brings in by car from other farmers’ markets in Jackson, Lander, or Riverton, the main source for the Farmers Market has been the Dubois Community Garden’s outdoor garden. Located beside St. Thomas church, it’s vulnerable to those enemies of gardeners everywhere: deer and frost.

greenhouse6Proudly, on a gray day in late April, Mary Ellen showed me around the greenhouse, which was warm and already showing many signs of green. Use of the greenhouse is the generous gift of Debbie Phillips, who acquired it with the house she and her husband bought when they moved to Dubois last year.

Debbie put in those scallions a while ago, but the tomatoes at upper left belong to the Farmer’s Market. The Community Garden is free to use the other beds, and will maintain Debbie’s plants in exchange, whenever she is out of town.

The Community Garden’s broccoli plants are barely big enough to see. But much to Mary Ellen’s delight (and mine), we found that the tomato plants are already blossoming.broccoli_tomatoes

© Lois Wingerson, 2017

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Dubois Donkey Dunkers Kick Ass (or Vice Versa)

Not so easy to ride bareback holding a basketball

DonkeyBasketball6“Seriously? You only had to go 10 more feet for a layup!”

The donkey and its rider had been plodding, oh-so-slowly, toward the basket. No donkey will run unless it wants to. The rider shot, but fell short.

Announcer Joe Brandl, beloved ex-scoutmaster and Naked-but-Unafraid wilderness survival expert, kept up a steady stream of banter from the sidelines (I don’t know how he did it!), while sometimes batting back a loose basketball.

What do you do for fun in April, when town is quiet and the snow flurries just don’t stop? You crowd the school gym and watch bareback donkey basketball, of course. (For charity, of course.)

Donkey basketball — that’s right, basketball with players mounted on donkeys — is the occasional fund-raising event for Needs of Dubois (NOD), which helps residents who need emergency assistance in times of trouble. This week, NOD also helped residents who needed a good laugh, and there were plenty of them (both residents and laughs).

DonkeyBasketball2“That donkey has longer legs than you do!” Joe calls out to someone on the students’ team. “How you gonna get on?”  The donkey stands patiently, thank heaven, for what seems an eternity, as she tries to jump on its back. A referee walks over and gives a boost. The student blushes. The first game begins.

There are 3 rounds in this tournament: wilderness program participants versus students, students against teachers, teachers against phone company employees.

The rules, as posted on the NOD website, sound reasonable but are entirely ridiculous.

Players must be riding their donkeys, both feet off the ground on both sides, to shoot baskets or play defense. Players are not allowed to go anywhere on the court without their donkey, but there is no out-of-bounds for donkeys. (It seemed the donkeys knew this rule.)

DonkeyBasketball1You may dismount to catch a loose ball, but you must always take the donkey with you, keeping a hand on a rein, and you must return the ball and re-mount the donkey within 15 seconds or get a penalty.

Have you tried to hurry a donkey? The term “chasing the ball” takes on a whole new context. Not understanding this rule of the game, any donkey dragged after a loose ball seems to be working for the other team.

“Move it!” Joe shouts. “Move it! Clearly, you’re no mule whisperer.”

Bucking broncos we’re used to. But bucking donkeys? Gimme a break. The ass brays,  kicks and rumbles, and throws the player. (Ouch! That’s a gym floor, not rodeo dirt.) The action stops. The mule-buster (typical!) smiles and remounts. We hoot and cheer.

“Meanwhile,” Joe says from the sidelines, “we’re still playing basketball ….”

Until you’ve watched it, you can’t begin to understand how difficult it must be to steer a donkey, bareback, while trying to hold onto a basketball. At one point in the third round, it seems that all of the players are off their mounts, wandering around the court like lost souls. One player regains his mount, and the donkey takes off like a shot — in the wrong direction.

“Complete control,” Joe drawls. “You got this. Thanks for the entertainment.”

Actually there were plenty of scores — nothing in the high double-figures, as in any ordinary basketball game, but enough to keep up the pace. Of course there was a wide range in skill sets, from old-time wranglers to newcomers just relocated West. Adults played better than kids. Teacher Jessica was the slam-dunk champion. Center Craig kept a smile throughout (he had the easy part, always standing on both feet). Hailey looked like she was being a good sport, focused on not falling off.

DonkeyBasketball3The school-teacher Donkey Kongs kicked the phone-company DTE Assets 14-8 in a last-minute surge, to win the championship.

In case you’re wondering about the floor, the donkeys were wearing boots and this event took place near the end of the school year, just before the floor gets refinished.

Although the half-time clowns played around with the idea that something other than a ball might drop, the floor stayed remarkably clean.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Signs of Life and Death, as the Snow Melts

Has the winter’s heavy snowfall hastened growth in the scorched soil?

SheridanSlushFor many weeks, it’s been like this up at Sheridan Creek, one of my favorite hiking spots:  A slow and steady slog through the slush. Not much fun. Good exercise.

I would soldier on, hoping to see whether the creek was still snowed under. The dog enjoyed digging in the snow for buried bones, but would lose enthusiasm long before we reached the creek. Any time he ventured off this surface tamped down by snowmobiles, he’d be buried up to his chin. No fun for him either.

In the valley, most of the trees are still green. But as you head uphill — a point I never reached in the heavy snow, on the other side of the creek — you come to the region of the uncontrolled burn from last summer’s big fire.

Looking ahead to that landscape of black vertical trunks, I wondered what I would find as spring came in. Would the extraordinarily heavy snowfall of the winter just past hasten the growth of life in that scorched terrain?

SheridanCreekDeadTrees042217Don’t count on it, someone said recently. Fire that hot sterilizes the soil for a long time.

But what is the start of spring, if not the dawn of hope?

BearPrintsToday, the dirt road was nearly dry, with a stream of snowmelt running along the side.

My companion, who is fascinated with tracks and always vigilant, quickly noticed that someone large had gone lumbering out that road as we went in.

(A note for readers who live elsewhere: These are not the prints of a barefoot man. They’re the prints of a man-sized bear.)

Immediately we both reached around to locate our bear spray bottles, even though this walker had been headed in the opposite direction. It looked to us like he or she had wandered off toward the willows beside the river, not long ago.

BearPrintWithBoot

Measured against the size of my hiking boot, this is the track of a brown bear, not a grizzly. It’s a true sign of spring. Time for caution; they’re out and about. (Here we were relatively safe, because the vista is open and sight-lines are clear.)

We headed toward the creek, and the place beyond where the road begins to rise uphill. At last, it was nearly clear of snow, and we could walk without much effort.

We crossed the black and red debris of wood-cutting, as well as trees that were felled, not fallen. Obviously the foresters have been out bringing down the dead wood so that hikers like us can pass without fear of being felled ourselves.

The ground beneath the blackened trunks was mostly bare of snow in many places. At last, I could look for signs of new life.

GreenShootsClose to the road, these were easily visible. We saw blades of new grass and sprouts of fern beginning to peek up from the soil.

But as I crossed to where there had been woods last spring, the dirt underfoot was darkly black beneath the bare, standing trunks. The scene was bleak. No signs of green emerged from below.

BurnedTreeWithLichenInstead, I noticed fronds of white extending toward the soil from many of the fallen trunks. I saw these bands of powdery white around the base of many of the dead trees that were still standing.

I’m no microbiologist, but my guess is that this is some sort of fungus. No evidence of new life here. These are signs of decay.

I walked back to the road and on uphill. Turning around to look back, I clearly saw a gray figure about 8 inches long and sleek slithering quickly between the dead trunks and disappearing. A weasel? A stoat? Who knows, but certainly something lively.

GooseTracksAnd who had walked downhill before our dogs came trotting uphill to add their tracks? I guessed it was a goose. (That’s a bear spray bottle to the left, for perspective.)

Two live ones had just swooped past, noisily, not far overhead.

Farther on, my friend saw a gopher and tried to point it out. But I couldn’t spot it. We returned home without seeing any other creatures, except our own lively dogs.

I spent the rest of the beautiful afternoon pulling weeds in the garden beside the house. It took a long time, because there were plenty of them. I was very pleased to rediscover a hollyhock that I thought had been lost in the hard winter. The columbines are back.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Time Travel: Jolted Back to Dubois, 1911

Two PDFs in my Inbox are a trip to the Old West

As a mother, I can’t help wondering how Mr. and Mrs. Leslie of Madison, Wisconsin, felt in 1911, when their 20-year-old daughter Elsie decided to take a job teaching school in a small village in northwest Wyoming. My own grandmother did much the same in 1919 when she moved from Michigan to Scottsbluff, Nebraska. She took along my beloved Aunt Luella, who got her teaching certificate in Laramie and took her first job at a sod-roofed schoolhouse on a ranch somewhere in the wilds of Wyoming.

Thus my own real experience connects weirdly to a history of Dubois that seems, from this week’s new perspective, rather fantastic.

Dubois1913The journey to Dubois in 1911 “must have seemed like a trip to the end of the world,” wrote the late Dubois artist Mary Back, in her 1955 brief biography of Elsie. The new schoolteacher traveled by train to Lander, then by a one-horse buckboard stagecoach to Fort Washakie, changed to another buckboard stage that took her (and the mail) to a ranch on the Wind River where she spent the night.

The next morning, she took a third stagecoach “clear to Dubois.” The driver was a man named Jim Locke. In that alien landscape, Jim must have been quite a spectacle himself: his face “long and tanned to a high color from the wind and hard weather…. a hooked nose and small blue eyes which sparkle like fire and bore like an auger,” as described by Frederick Studebaker Fish, in his account of a 1913 hunting trip near Dubois. (The guide for that trip was Elsie’s soon-to-be husband, Floyd Stalnaker.)

Jim had “a reputation of being a cranky old fool when sober, but rather genial when well seasoned with whisky,” Fish wrote, adding that “his gaze is startling until one becomes accustomed to it.” You wonder whether Jim was sober or seasoned when Elsie met him.

At the time Elsie arrived, Dubois was “a little straggling string of log houses” (as Mary Back put it), with about 60 inhabitants, two stores including Welty’s (still in operation), a hotel, a bank, and St. Thomas Church (still very active). Elsie took up rooms with the Weltys and, schooled with a certificate in home economics from the Stout Institute in Menominee, Wisconsin, began teaching nine pupils.

Weltys CaveShe was a school teacher without a school: Classes were held in the saloon dance hall, up against the cave across from Welty’s Store. The cave was used for wine storage and as a jail. (The cave entrance is near the center of this photo, with the saloon at far left, which is also still in operation.) Elsie had to clear away the classroom any time the saloon held a dance.

“No one, either students or parents, seemed to think school was very important,” Back wrote. “There was often something else to be done, rounding up cattle, hunting or fishing, helping mother.” There were two other schools nearby, she said, one of them taught by a former Dubois student despite “irregular attendance at Dubois [and] lack of educational credits.”

Elsie taught for less than a year, and never taught again. She met rancher and hunting guide Floyd Stalnaker, married him in December, and in due course had their first child. Mary Allison’s Dubois Area History says she brought her sister to Dubois to take over the class. (Again, I wonder how her parents felt, and think of my own Aunt Luella, who was also lured out west by her older sister, also a schoolteacher.)

Although she quickly became a ranch wife and busy mother, Elsie kept up a strong interest in the Dubois school, serving on the school board for many years. In 1939, when she joined the board, the students ate lunch in the Legion Hall, Back wrote, where there was no water, no sewer, and no stove. The children were kept warm with a wood-burning heater, and a wood-burning cookstove was put in for the lunches. “Wood had to be split and carried in, water had to be carried in buckets, dish-water carried out in buckets.”

Before that, Bernice Welty had been making lunches at home, carrying them in baskets to the school along with the dishes, serving the 25 children at their desks, and then carrying the dirty dishes home again.

TheStoneHotelI’ve been reading this week about Elsie and Floyd’s world, thanks to two unexpected gifts that dropped into my Inbox from their great-granddaughter, Gabby Cook. She was kind enough to scan and send me Mary Back’s typewritten biography, as well as the century-old account of a hunting trip that Floyd guided, as told in great detail by Fish.

Thus, in the middle of a busy, mundane week, I was thrust suddenly and vividly back into Dubois of a century ago, a place so like the old Westerns that it gave me the dizzying feeling of being in reality and unreality at once.

Fish describes a visit to that saloon next to the cave during his first evening in Dubois:

“The place was crowded with cow punchers and hangers-on. Everyone seemed to be having a good time for the liquid was flowing fast…One old man kept cussing at the proprietor much to the enjoyment of his drunken friends who were anxious for a fight. It did not take long to start the fracas. Slim, the proprietor, finally lost his temper and came around from behind the bar to throw the offender out. … As soon as they were parted a few hot words were exchanged and then it was decided that the drinks were on the house.”

A dance was on for later that evening, but Fish and friends decided to leave before it started. The next morning, they learned that they had missed “a terrible shooting that almost took place … over the affections of a fair lady.”

The hunters went out shortly after their elk, and for one night stayed at the Stalnaker ranch.

“Floyd has a comfortable and cosy home,” Fish wrote, “a very pretty and exceedingly nice wife and a six month old son.”

“After our delicious meal,” he went on, “Mrs. Stalnaker played the piano. Hers is the third to be bought in this vicinity so it is a very great treasure.” Later that evening, two visitors came by, one of them “a rather odd looking person who put on the appearance of being very important and business-like. He immediately called Mr. Stalnaker into another room and spent several hours in earnest and serious conversation. I afterwards learned that he … spends most of his leisure moments bothering his neighbors with trivial matters of little or no importance.”

StalnakerRanchThe hunting party had to sleep outdoors next to the shed, because the Stalnakers took in lodgers and the rooms were all occupied. (Mary Allison wrote that Elsie was a great housekeeper who often ironed her lodgers’ clothing, if they were bachelors.)

“It was a beautiful cold, starlight night,” Fish wrote, “so sleeping out was much more appealing than in a stuffy room.” This was October. Fish had changed his tune by the next morning, after a bad night during which his friend stole all the blankets.

But that didn’t sour his enthusiasm for the Wind River Valley. An heir to the Studebaker fortune, he was one of those who fell in love with Dubois during a visit, and later returned to live here. He became one of the biggest ranchers in the area.

DuboisMap_StalnakerFloyd worked for many years as a guide and ranch manager. Elsie and Floyd survived the great flood of 1919 despite great losses, briefly became mail carriers (Elsie also drove the Jeep), and then purchased the drug store, which they operated until after World War 2. Their son, Dean, was Gabby’s grandfather. Floyd was working as a carpenter in Riverton when he died of a heart attack in 1948. Elsie died in 1965, ten years after Mary Back wrote her biography.

Many of the town streets in Dubois bear the names of old families. I will probably never again pass the street that leads to the Headwaters and the Visitor Center without smiling inwardly, as I think of the Stalnakers whose name it bears, and all their adventures.

(Thanks so much again for the emails, Gabby! They were a trip.)

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

How My Remotest Dream Came True

A pioneer telecommuter on the trail West

bedroom“Tell your coworkers where you’re calling from,” Ed said at the team meeting.

My heart stopped for a New York second, while I re-played what I had just heard. Was he really asking me to reveal the closely guarded secret?

Following my boss’s orders about teleconferences, I was speaking behind a closed door, from the phone in the bedroom. I was terrified that people back at the Connecticut office would hear the dog or any other noise in main part of our open-plan log house.

But you wouldn’t say no to Ed, the charismatic and innovative new head of the division.

“You really mean it?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Go ahead.” And thus I blew my own cover.

This was a decade ago, in another era, ages before a BBC interview interrupted by the speaker’s toddler went viral online. (As soon as I saw it on Twitter last month, I wrote “Just shows that telecommuting is the new normal.” Several people re-tweeted my comment.)

When I began to work remotely from one of the most remote towns in the lower 48, it was a singular privilege–even at an global communications company where most internal communications were by email.

NorotonI had been commuting two hours each way, by subway, commuter train, and beat-up station car, from our home in Brooklyn to division headquarters in Connecticut. My boss and I were a new product team, just him and me in that office, working on a high-tech online project.

One day he asked me into a conference room. I wondered why we couldn’t talk in my cubicle.

Steve told me that he had gained permission to relocate to California, where his children and grandchildren lived. “That’s great!” I replied. “Does that mean I can stop commuting here from Brooklyn?”

“You know, I never thought of that,” he said. It was just him and me, after all, collaborating mostly by teleconference with some coworkers in Massachusetts and London. I had some esoteric skills that weren’t easy to replace in that corner of Connecticut. And thus I got unprecedented permission to work “remotely.”

Remote from head office in the suburbs, that is. Hardly remote in the other sense–from my home in one of the busiest cities on earth. It’s interesting that “remote work” was forbidden, while the office was in the distant suburbs, because real estate and living costs in the nearest city were so high. The employees with the right skills didn’t all live in that bedroom community. So many of us had long commutes.

Back in Brooklyn, I crowded my laptop desk into a corner of the kitchen, and later moved Nook3to a larger space in a dark, quiet, dusty corner of the basement which I hung with dried flowers to make it look more cheery.

Here in Dubois, I work in a large loft-like space with a grand view out every window.

How we came to be in Dubois is a story for another time. Suffice it to say that for years I had kept a poster across from my desk that showed a view up the draw into the badlands east of here. I used to gaze at it when things got too intense around the office. I also had an envelope full of old sagebrush in my drawer that I would open and sniff at when I got wistful.

I guess that was the start of the dream that we might live in Wyoming someday, although back when I first hung that poster after a vacation, the possibility didn’t even occur to me. It evolved slowly, from a wistful longing to the beginnings of a plan.

I telecommuted (responsibly and productively) from Brooklyn for several years before we bought a second home in Dubois. Luckily, the division head was willing to consider allowing me to work from Wyoming because I was doing well from Brooklyn. (Why did they care where I was, actually?)

But my boss’s rules were still strict, conveyed by phone from his new home in California: Arrive early for teleconferences. Sit in a quiet room where nobody on the line will hear house noises. And for heaven’s sake keep it a secret! Otherwise everyone will want to work from home. He had really gone out on a limb for me.

At first we lived part time in both locations, and took the four-day commute back and forth twice a year. I used vacation time for travel, but slowly I began to witness in person the mind-bending growth of broadband.

RidgelineRearEndI’ll never forget completing an assignment for my graduate course on digital media management, as we were traveling on the Interstate toward Wyoming. I was reading on my laptop, via wireless Internet, an online reference in my coursework which predicted that soon you’d be able to work online while riding in a car. The future was happening, even as I read about it!

Eventually I was able to continue working all the way across the country, while my husband drove. By that time my situation was common knowledge, so I could tell folks back in Connecticut that I was about to enter a dead zone and that I’d get back to them in about an hour.

Visiting the head office from time to time, I noticed that the place was ever quieter, and ever more of the cubicles were empty. Coworkers were being allowed to work from home for all sorts of reasons, at least part of the time. It seemed that many of them didn’t feel the need to say exactly when they’d be back in the office. To someone who used to work in a newsroom full of typewriters, this was rather eerie. That’s only one of many reasons why I preferred my office at home.

Finally we saw no need to continue to tolerate the crowding and noise of New York City and that extraordinarily long commute. The Internet out here is far more reliable, the cost of living is far lower, and the views are indescribable. I get to go hiking on my lunch break. I can be as productive as I want to be, right out here next to wilderness.

cid_836We’ve entered a new era since I became a digital pioneer. These days, social media is packed with content for and by telecommuters: advice about remote work, products to make home-based workers more productive, link after link to articles talking about the “workplace of the future,” which (of course) is already here.

There’s one thing that still puzzles me. Why do so many people still assume that remote workers have to live in cities? (Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?)

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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