Our Remote Team Meetup: The Good, the Bad, and the Lovely

On the mismatch between Zoom and “real life,” and more …

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of another team that formed and worked entirely on Zoom and Slack, without anyone meeting in person for the first six months,” Dennis Ellis of Microsoft said to me two weeks ago.

Images from numerous WTCC projects.

Ellis was referring to the leadership team of the Wyoming Technology Coronavirus Coalition (WTCC). Created last March, the all-volunteer group of several hundred tech-savvy people (including me) has been able to engage online in the most sparsely populated state in the nation, remaining productive in coordinated activities to address the pandemic, rather than just fretting about it.

We’ve made masks. We’ve made maps. We’ve built apps. We’ve prepared white papers on wastewater testing. We’ve kept very busy.

Meanwhile, during a time of tremendous divisiveness, somehow we have remained cohesive and cordial, whatever our differences in age, gender, profession, and politics. I can’t recall a single meeting when we did not resolve disagreements easily and reach consensus without conflict.

I met Ellis during coffee break at the Wyoming Global Technology Summit in Jackson Hole. All but one of the original leadership team had signed up to attend. (Nicholas was engaged elsewhere, managing a hackathon.) As a result, we had been invited to make a presentation. So in a sense the occasion was serendipity.

Most of the team drove to Jackson from Cheyenne and Laramie, in the tech-heavy southeast corner of the state. Jeremiah flew down from Cody in his own small plane, and I drove over Togwotee Pass from Dubois. Until we joined up in Jackson, we had never laid eyes on each other in the same physical space.

Governor Mark Gordon acknowledging WTCC’s creation of an online map of COVID testing sites in Wyoming.

We had met virtually however, twice every week since mid-March, on Zoom. During those meetings, the team worked together to plan many efforts that helped Wyoming to meet the COVID-19 crisis head-on at its start.

Long before the presentation at the Summit, we had already won public recognition from the Governor, during one of his many COVID press briefings.

Thus, despite all the debate about the practicality and effectiveness of all-remote teams, I believe we’ve shown that it’s possible to make great achievements in the purely digital space, if members are sufficiently committed, collaborative, and comfortable with the technology.

On the evening before the Summit, I was first to arrive at the restaurant where we would meet for dinner. Eager to meet my colleagues at last, I felt as if I was awaiting a family reunion, or even better than that.

I was delighted to see Lars and Tyler approaching me, in the company of a stranger. It took a few moments to register that the third man was Jeremiah, whom I knew just as well. Later, we spoke about the slight mismatch between Zoom and “real life,” and decided that it could relate to camera angle. Unless the camera is directly face-on with your face, we decided, you may seem less involved in Zoom meetings and a less-familiar member of the team..

As we all agreed afterwards, we didn’t spend enough time networking during the Summit. At the networking event after the sessions closed, we spent most of the time hanging out with each other on the terrace, rather than joining the (largely un-masked) crowd inside to make contacts.

WTCC’s core leadership team, minus Nicholas. I’m the one holding wine glass and mask.

We also chose to skip the networking breakfast at the end of the Summit, quickly agreeing that we would rather go on a hike together before driving home.

“I just said, heck, I would rather hang out with these people I’ve spent six and a half months with,” acknowledged our leader Eric Trowbridge, who is the founder of the Cheyenne-based Array School of Design and Technology. Clearly the rest of us felt the same.

On a glorious, golden Indian-summer Wyoming morning, we chatted, stopped to take pictures, and tried to avoid tripping over Tyler’s dogs as we hiked a trail at the base of the Grand Tetons. It was easy to keep a sociable distance.

During online seminars this year, I’ve heard many remote-work experts say that holding a team retreat is important to a team’s success. Of course, ours wasn’t a typical “corporate” retreat, because we spent nearly all our time together socializing. As far as I know, there was almost no talk about our business agenda.

That said, the major purpose of remote-team retreats is similar, giving coworkers who are rarely together a chance to soak in body language, subtle facial expressions, and the other kind of interpersonal impressions that happen only in person.

“We focus on the social and the casual,” said Natalie Nagele, founder of Wildbit, when she spoke during an online 2020 Running Remote conference about her own team retreats. That means replacing conference tables with couches and sofas in a communal living space somewhere, she added, and preferably not in a city where there are “so many distractions.”

Scene from a regular WTCC Zoom meeting.

My small, rural Wyoming town of Dubois would be ideal: remote, beautiful, with plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy together (and an easy drive from Jackson). In fact, I wish the WTCC team had met in Dubois before the Summit, rather than during the conference, which was a distraction too.

It wasn’t easy to say goodbye to my new old friends after the hike. But at least unlike an ordinary family reunion, I knew we’d see each other again in a few days, back on Zoom. Now the regular joke about disagreements between me and Lars feels much easier, because I know we are friends.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

Thanks for reading! You can see every new entry of Living Dubois by email if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com. Who’s writing? Check outAbout Me.

An Exclusive Club for Certain Remote Workers

It’s not easy to get in, but members are glad they did.

rocking chair and view of ocean

“Can you do better than this?” somebody posted on LinkedIn. There was an image of a beach, and text about going out to surf in the morning before starting work at a home office.

“Sure, I can,” I wrote. “How about this?”

… and then I clicked away to find exactly the right previous post from this blog, intending to add a link to it. Surely, many times I have written about my custom of signing off and shutting down at 3 PM to go for a hike in the nearby national forest.

I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and by clicking away from his post, I lost it and could not complete my reply. Oh, well.

The sun was beaming through the window over my shoulder, moving slowly down toward the back side of the ridge. I noticed that it was about 3 PM.

These heavenly mild autumn days will not last forever, I said to myself. I signed off from LinkedIn, shut down, called the dog, and headed outdoors.

The aspen are going out in a blaze of color, the same hue as the stripe down the middle of the highway, the leaves like fragments of the sun quaking in the breeze. Out there, my worries slip away.

“Work From Home is more accurately titled Work From Anywhere,” wrote Jocelyn Kung in Entrepeneur, “a cafe, a beach, a different country. People can choose where they live based on their desired quality of life without sacrificing career opportunities.”

The pandemic has made this option ever more obvious and appealing. Survey after survey has shown that a large majority of the people allowed (or forced) to work from home want to continue doing so.

And many of them are reconsidering where “home” is going to be. If they don’t need to go into headquarters, then why must they live nearby?

“The allure of the city has been eroded by technology,” wrote remote-work advocate Chris Herd on LinkedIn, listing observations based on his recent survey of about 1,000 companies. “You can easily spend time there without living there … Cost of living has made [cities] irrational.”

Under the heading “Rural living” he added that “world-class people will move to smaller cities, have a lower cost of living & higher quality of life.”

These advantages came up in conversation a few weeks ago, during the first online meetup sponsored by Wind River Remote Works, our new organization dedicated to promoting remote work in this area. But with a local population that tops out at about 3,000 in the height of summer, Dubois is hardly what he would call a “small city.”

Downtown Dubois, Wyoming

How can we ever hope to attract new residents if we don’t (yet, at least) provide the amenities so many remote workers expect from urban life, like microbreweries and communal work spaces?

The remote workers who live here already offered some fresh ideas at the meetup.

We should “own” our lifestyle differences, suggested one.

Make the challenge of finding and living in Dubois an advantage, agreed another. (He had just been contending that it was not much of an inconvenience to drive 80 miles to the airport.)

“It’s not an easy place to live,” he added, “and if you live here, you’re in the club.”

He’s one of countless residents who, once he got to know this out-of-the-way village, couldn’t get Dubois out of his mind. He and his family moved here two months ago.

I was one of those as well. But I’ve lived here so long now that the special-ness of achieving that goal has faded. I’d never thought to describe living in Dubois from his perspective, as a community of independent spirits who can recognize a diamond in the rough and then embrace isolation and inconvenience in order to obtain it.

He’s very right: Dubois is an exclusive club. Those of us who live here do recognize that, even if we don’t describe it as such.

The membership criteria include first understanding and then embracing our unique culture and our lifestyle. This goes far beyond the mere pleasures of effortless access to beautiful wilderness.

But how can we ever convey that elusive reality to others–deliver to them such a vision of an authentic Western village (quite different from so many “tourist traps”) that they will be compelled at least to visit and begin to discover it? That’s our challenge now.

“It is too bad … that America knows the West from the roadside,” wrote the great chronicler of the West, Wallace Stegner, in The Rocky Mountain West, “for the roadside is the hoked-up West, the dude West, the tourist West ….”

“I have taken to traveling whenever possible by the back roads, and giving up the comforts along with the billboards,” he went on. “That is one way of getting behind the West’s roadside face.”

“Another is to live in some part of it for a while, sample it as a human dwelling place, as the formative stage of a unique civilization, as a place to go to, not through.”

(Digital nomads: Are you listening?)

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Spotted While Hiking: Cables and Cabins

Bright and promising, in place of the old and familiar.

The wind has cleared away the choking haze from the Lone Star fire in Yellowstone, and yesterday we could rejoice once more in a splendid, bracing Indian summer day. Time to get back outdoors.

Tramping around in the woods, I got slightly and happily lost. I generally knew my way, because this is one of my favorite stomping grounds.

A few years ago, these woods were cleared in places by our own Lava Mountain fire. I mourned the “burn,” because it eliminated some of my favorite paths and views. But as a tourist pointed out to me last week, around here you don’t run out of places to hike.

Emerging into the clear, I found this glorious sight: A new aspen grove springing up among the charred trunks.

That’s the way it goes sometimes. The old and familiar is destroyed. Then, a while later, something bright and promising emerges.

Just as I was putting the phone away after snapping this image, I was startled to hear it ring. I haven’t had signal in that area before.

A cellphone call can spoil the contemplations of a hike, but I took this one. In conversation with a friend, I led the dog on up the dirt road toward the creek, where I stumbled on something equally startling.

I’m accustomed to seeing the huge spools of orange cable sitting beside the highway or traveling on the back of a truck. But I’ve never seen those cables lying on the ground in the forest, in one of my go-to hiking spots.

They trailed on up toward the creek, partly buried already.

Look how healthy the trees are right here, only yards from those charred trunks. Among other features of our landscape that were spared, the firefighters worked very hard to save the campgrounds in this forest.

Both locals and national experts about wildfires say that one reason our forests keep burning nearly out of control is because, long ago, the Powers That Be killed off most logging activity. The result was large, dense stands of aged trees that are now vulnerable to disease and fire.

The lumber mill in Dubois closed nearly a half century ago. Our town has hung on by its fingernails ever since, taking advantage of its tourism assets while awaiting a new lifesaving industry that would bring back the year-round jobs.

So I saw those cables-in-waiting as both a sign of loss and a sign of hope. For me personally, it could mean losing another isolated hiking spot close to home. But for our region, it is reason for optimism.

Certainly, good broadband will soon reach much farther up-mountain. There could also be a Wifi hub right next to the pit toilet near the campsites. That would give digital nomads — those full-time Internet workers who haven’t yet decided to settle down — the opportunity to hang out for a while in our wilderness, while discovering the joys of the Wind River region.

Here’s another go-to hiking spot that delivered a surprise, back in the summer. This is a valley where the dog and I love to hike, also not far from home. When I first saw the view you see in the image at left, I gave a sigh at the sight of those ridges pointing off toward the far distance, on either side of that empty plain.


To judge from the picture on the right, others have had the same reaction. The circles are new cabins. The dirt roads that lead to them must be pretty rutted right now, but I’m sure that will change. I’m also fairly sure these people will soon be served by another orange cable–if they aren’t already.

Do they already know, or will they soon discover the fact? This is an ideal place to pursue what is now called “remote work” in a truly remote location.

Last week, some plein air painters from the annual Susan K. Black Foundation workshop set up on our back porch. It looked like they were either peering through the smoky haze or just trying to imagine what lay beyond, as they worked to capture the image of those mountains on canvas.

Meanwhile, an instructor used our broadband to live-stream a painting demonstration for artists elsewhere who had opted out of traveling to the workshop this year, because of COVID.

The Foundation has been holding workshops here every summer for 20 years, one member told me, because they love the scenery, the serenity, and the down-to-earth people.

She nailed it. This year, they also appreciate the terrific broadband, out here in the wild at the base of the mountains.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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The Cost of Suffrage in Wyoming

It’s not about strong women after all. That should have been obvious.

One hundred fifty years ago today, on September 6, 1870, in Laramie, Wyoming, 70-year-old grandmother Louisa Swain was first woman to vote after passage of the Wyoming Suffrage Act of 1869.

A celebration and re-enactment is underway in Laramie as I write this.

When I learned that Wyoming was the first state to give women the vote, I was quietly pleased. Who knew? It was one more reason to be proud of my new home state.

I credited this to the independence of the strong and determined women who preceded me here more than a century ago. Living very comfortably in my well-chinked log house with electric heat and indoor plumbing, I am fascinated by their accounts of trying to sweep a dirt floor clean, of cooking over a wood fire in old tin cans, of chasing a bear out of the kitchen with a broom.

Why shouldn’t these great women be enfranchised?

In her book Absaraka: Home of the Crows, first published the year before suffrage was enacted here, Margaret Carrington describes her journey to Wyoming territory as a young military bride, the outcomes of many skirmishes with the local native tribes, and the privations of winter life in the wilderness. Traveling north with her husband’s troops to build Fort Phil Kearney just south of the Bighorn Mountains, she writes of “the snapping of a tent-pole at midnight under three feet of snow” which can also creep in and “sprinkle” your bed and your clothes, the risk of the tent catching fire, and the challenge of “frozen-up” kettles and pots in the morning.

I ordered Carrington’s book after I discovered her in another wonderful book that somehow recently fell into my hands. In “Gentle Tamers,” Dee Brown chose an interesting title, because most of the women he describes are far from gentle.

How old is this book, I asked myself during the first chapter, because some of the words he chose would not pass muster in today’s self-conscious culture. (The book was published in 1958.) But it is a great read.

Brown takes a comprehensive, unflinching, and unsentimental look at the lives of the early female migrants to the West, from homesteaders and schoolteachers to prostitutes. She devotes an entire chapter to Esther Hobart Morris, a resident of the mining camp at South Pass City near Lander, who was the nation’s first female justice of the peace.

Morris is often credited with successfully negotiating for women’s suffrage in Wyoming. Indeed she was a proponent of women’s rights, and it was her neighbor, William H. Bright of South Pass City, who introduced the suffrage bill into the Wyoming legislature.

Why was Bright motivated to do so? Little is known about him, but a 1973 article in American Heritage suggests a possibility: The Fifteenth Amendment giving black men the right to vote had been introduced into the US Congress earlier that year.

“Bright was appalled,” says the author, Lynne Cheney. “A native Virginian, he thought the black man was not up to the franchise.” (If a Negro could vote, why not his wife?)

This introduction of racism into the matter was not the first shadow cast across my enthusiasm for the suffrage act. Dee Brown devotes a whole chapter to “The Great Female Shortage,” and his account of Morris and the Wyoming Suffrage Act comes next. If the juxtaposition was inadvertent, it’s ironic nonetheless. But I didn’t catch it either.

The penny didn’t drop until last month, when I heard a report on public radio, aired on the centennial of the 19th Amendment that gave all women in the US the right to vote. The story about Wyoming is not one about strong women after all, and the reality should have been obvious.

The golden spike had been driven at Ogden, Utah, exactly 7 months before passage of the Wyoming Suffrage Act. Miners were prospecting for gold, homesteaders were beginning to plow the soil, ranchers were grazing cattle, and forts were being built to protect all those settlers.

“Territories like Wyoming wanted more white settlers, so they figured they could bring more white women out by allowing them to vote,” said the report on Wyoming Public Media (Why Did Western Women Gain Voting Rights Earlier Than the Rest of the Nation?).

To the men who governed Wyoming 150 years ago, the Wyoming Suffrage Act of 1869 (at least to those who didn’t take it all as a big joke) was a step toward settlement and statehood. The granting of voting rights to women settlers in the West derives directly from the need to deprive the rights of natives who came here first.

Though the mining region where Esther Hobart Morris lived was subject to repeated attacks by local natives, there is no evidence that she herself linked the fight for suffrage with the demand to increase the white population. It seems that her chief motivation really was to assert women’s rights, although exactly what she did to achieve that in Wyoming is not clear.

Her contemporary Margaret Carrington, whose husband was commander of a fort being built to create a safe route north from Cheyenne to Montana gold mines–and who witnessed numerous raids and attacks intended to prevent that from happening–had a different perspective. Although her husband was relieved of command at Fort Phil Kearney after the disastrous Fetterman massacre, and the entire outfit including Margaret and other women had to leave it in a grueling midwinter journey, she evinced understanding and some concern about the interests of the original inhabitants of the land her people had invaded.

“[T]here comes the inevitable sentiment of pity, and even of sympathy with the bold warrior in his great struggle,” she wrote, “and in a dash over the plains, or breathing the pure air of the mountains, the sense of freedom and independence brings such contrast with the machinery and formalities of much that is called civilized life, that it seems but natural that the red man in his pride and strength should bear aloft the spear point…”

Another phrase in Carrington’s book caught me like a slap in the face this morning. Writing about people in the East who had never been to Wyoming and yet held strong opinions about the massacre, she scorned the “great delight of their own complacent souls” and the “wonderful wisdom of absolute ignorance.”

I still take delight in the strength and courage of the women who settled this land. But my ignorance is no longer so absolute.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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The Sorrow of the Late Summer Sky

This time of year the sky can be troubling, fascinating, or soothing. It depends…

This morning, at last, the air smelled fresh and clean. I caught the fragrance of new-mown hay. The subtle but disturbing smell of wood smoke was finally gone.

It’s that time of year when we expect the sky to turn the pale gray color of skim milk and the eyes to burn by day. Of an evening, the light show in the sky is as troubling as it is fascinating, as flashes of cloud lightning circulate the perimeter of our view. Any of them could become a fire.

Going outdoors gives us a constant reminder that there are fires out there somewhere. So far this year Dubois has been spared, but others elsewhere, we can easily tell, have not.

The tourists exploring our town don’t seem troubled at all by the close atmosphere and the hot haze. Perhaps they don’t know about the blue sky and refreshing air that they are missing.

Last week we drove over the mountain to Jackson. Those grand Tetons had entirely disappeared behind the airport. It was as if someone had dropped a huge light-gray blind in front of the mountain range. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

A plane glided down toward the runway, and I thought about the disappointed tourists inside, unable to have a first glimpse of the legendary mountain range they had come to see.

Especially this difficult year, the days of late summer arrive with a tinge of regret–for the lovely days lost to working indoors, for intentions unfulfilled and friends not seen for months, for the simple inexorable passage of time.

Days are shorter now, as the light begins to fade ever closer to dinnertime. But there are compensations. Now I can sit on the back porch and watch the stars without staying up past my bedtime.

On any relatively moonless night in this dark environment, the sky is freckled and sequined with them. The real star-spangled banner is the Milky Way, spreading lazily and visibly across the entire sky above our house.

My view of the night sky is to the north, which is where the action is, both in legend and in reality. There’s a domestic drama up there: Casseiopeia sits eternally on her throne (or rocking chair, in my impression of the image) just to the west of her husband Cepheus. Casseiopeia angered the god Poseidon by bragging too outrageously about her own beauty and especially that of her daughter Andromeda, whose constellation appears just below Casseiopeia.

As the story goes, Andromeda’s venal parents cut a deal with Poseidon: He would back off if they allowed him to chain beautiful Andromeda to a rock in the sea. Perseus cut her loose, rescuing her from a sea monster, and married her.

His constellation appears to the east of Andromeda, living forever below his inlaws and anchoring one end of the Milky Way. In that direction, if you’re lucky, for about a week this time of year you can see some real action: The Perseid meteor showers, which are remnants of a comet falling across the sky.

I wasn’t either patient or lucky this year, and I caught sight of only two or three faint “falling stars” while watching for a few minutes. But on other evenings I have watched some very bright meteors blazing across that sky: So. Slowly. As. To. Beg. A. Wish.

If I take time to rest and watch for a while, I see other bright spots moving across and between the constellations. These are either satellites or airplanes, too distant to hear but recognizable by the rhythmic flash of their light. I lean back on my porch and send a wave of sympathy to the people inside that metal tube, doubtless tired and eager to return to earth.

Around me, all is silence. The deer are settling down in their nests of trampled grass. The hawks must be resting on branches out there somewhere.

I am resting too. My mind is wandering somewhere in the black, silent, and incomprehensibly distant depths, where my insignificant regrets and disappointments vanish.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Building Youth for the Future in Dubois

Even in uncertain times, Dubois digs deep when it matters.

Madison Harper gave a theatrical gasp and wiggled her hands as if pounding a silent drum roll. “And the total is — ” (wait for it) “– sixty-six thousand dollars!”

People attending fundraiser for Dubois WY Boys & Girls Club

This was $6,000 more than the goal for the morning’s event.

The 75 people spread out around folding banquet tables erupted into applause. Who would guess that we could raise that much while meeting outdoors for breakfast in the desert chill of a very early August morning, in the midst of a national political crisis and a pandemic?

When I heard the size of the “ask” I was dubious that we could reach the $60,000 goal that morning. I envisioned Madison and her team hitting the phones as soon as they had cleared the tables, working to meet the shortfall.

“Well, that’s typical of Dubois,” remarked a friend afterwards. “We may not be on speaking terms with some of our neighbors, but we will still come together to support a local need.

The need in question that chilly morning was to fill a budget gap for the Boys & Girls Club of Dubois, which provides after-school and summer activities for the youth of this small remote town. Madison Harper, she of the bright smile and seemingly boundless enthusiasm, is the Director.

The Club reopened in June when pandemic restrictions were eased, and set about finding ways, as Madison put it, to help its young members “release their emotions in a safe place and learn how to process everything in a healthier way.”

Around Dubois, that involves going fly-fishing, driving up Whiskey Basin to look at petroglyphs, riding horses near a lodge up-mountain, gardening behind a church and tending bees at an apiary, floating on the river, and playing at the golf course. The options for healthy activities here are considerable.

“I am so thankful that the Club is open,” said a 9-year-old at the fund-raiser. “It has really helped me socializing with other kids, because COVID-19 has been driving me crazy.”

Having no young children, we’ve had little to do with the Club directly, but of course I’ve noticed the children around town. They remind me of my own early childhood in small towns in the Midwest, where I was free to roam — so different from the city life my own children experienced.

That’s why we came to Dubois on vacation in the first place, actually, and kept coming back. It was somewhere the children could run free for a while.

Kids playing in a back yard in Dubois WY

But I have no illusions about the hazards that small-town life can present to kids who have nothing to do.

The organization was born 12 years ago as Dubois Youth Activities, shortly after my husband and I moved here, to give kids in this frontier village some healthful ways to spend their spare time. It has grown and thrived since, serving more than 600 children over the years. It currently serves 126.

The pretext for the fund-raising event was to present an award to Budd Betts, who runs a local guest ranch that serves worthy groups such as cancer survivors and veterans with PTSD. “Most certainly give, give all you can,” he urged as he accepted the award. “Pick a cause, whether it’s the Boys & Girls Club or anything else that’s close to your heart.”

Fortunately, there are still some deep pockets in Dubois, and typically the hands that reach into them are discreet. We were asked to fill out donation cards, and these were collected in baskets.

It was so unlike the school fund-raisers I remember from New York, where parents at auctions would vie loudly to outbid each other with outrageous amounts for weekends on someone’s yacht. You always knew who had the big bucks, and they knew you knew it.

I learned only after the event that Madison Harper began her career by working for several years at Betts’ ranch. The only words on her “About” page on LinkedIn are a quote from Charles Dickens: “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”

In her own remarks that morning, Madison cited a different quote, from FDR: “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” In these sobering times, that is a heart-warming goal to have.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Flag and Fever: The Rest of the Story

Relieved on two fronts — but only somewhat

It took a long time to restore the Stars and Stripes to the flagpole in our driveway, after the wind captured and snared the far end of its tattered predecessor to create something that looked like a symbol of anarchy, hanging twisted and partly upside down.

My husband first tried to tear it loose by yanking on the cord, but it was too tightly caught in the finial at the top. Then, one Saturday morning, he asked for my help.

He had driven our little RV around and parked it adjacent to the flagpole. First, he duct-taped together two long poles, and attached a knife to one end. Using the ladder at the back of the camper, he climbed to the roof and asked me to hand the pole up to him.

Not surprisingly, it wobbled wildly. He could not get it in position near the finial, much less create the pressure at the top necessary to cut the flag free.

Next, I helped him to lift a stepladder to the top of the camper, and then climbed up there myself. He put the ladder in position, grabbed the long pole, and put his foot on the first step of the ladder. I grabbed the uprights of the stepladder and braced my legs.

In decades of marriage, you learn some things you should not say to your husband. Instead I began to pray. Fervently.

Then he stood back. “You know,” he said. “This is insane.” I breathed out.

Back in the house, he identified someone in town who could bring out a cherry-picker to solve the problem. He couldn’t make it before Tuesday.

I was relieved, but only somewhat. Friends back East were remarking that they are so upset with current events that they just wanted to leave the country — and they didn’t mean “leave for the country” as we have.

In this political climate, displaying a distorted flag even inadvertently made me very uncomfortable.

The next day, we took a long hike up Bonneville Pass with some friends. What a splendid way to escape the heat (in more senses than the obvious one).

The wild flowers were a riot of red and yellow. There were still patches of snow here and there. As we reached the valley at the top of the Pass, quite a wind kicked up.

Pulling into the driveway, I saw to my relief that the same wind had ripped the end of the old flag loose and it was flapping free, albeit raggedly. That’s kind of the way I feel myself these days. The old flag will go to rest at the VFW, where they take proper care of them. Call me Pollyanna, but the clean new flag looks like a symbol of hope.

On another front, for regular readers I should set the record straight about my brush with high fever and exhaustion, which I assumed were a sign of Covid-19 infection, until the tests came back negative.

“Could you have been bitten by a tick or another little critter?” commented a former coworker from Connecticut. I asked to be tested for tick-borne diseases, and the results came back strongly positive for Lyme disease.

Ixodes pacificus, the kind of deer tick that
spreads Lyme disease out West.

Earlier this spring, I shed plenty of ticks after hiking. I never noticed a bite or the tell-tale bullseye rash that is the classic sign of Lyme disease. But while being very vigilant about the pandemic, it looks like I was too careless about something else.

Isn’t that a creepy critter?

How ironic! After working and spending weekends in Connecticut for years, Lyme got me in Wyoming.

Unlike Covid-19, at least there is a good treatment for this. Although my “flirtation” with Coronavirus delayed treatment somewhat, thanks to my friend Natalie I got it soon enough to avoid major consequences, and now I feel fine.

Except whenever I read the news.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Dubois, Distant and Divided

Reflections on an Independence Day that was painfully different.

It has been quite warm outdoors, but there’s a stiff wind that carries a distinct chill.

That’s like Dubois these days. Warm beneath, but a chill blowing through.

A gust caught the far end of our flag and trapped it ridiculously upside down. A day with strong gusts is not the best time to climb a tall ladder, so it still hangs like that.

I hope people don’t think this is some strange expression of anarchy. You never know how people are going to take things these days.

Probably we won’t hear about it. Like cowboys, folks in Dubois are given to expressions of opinion that are strong, but silent.

A realtor at the main intersection has posted banners reading “Red State Real Estate.” One horse in the Independence Day parade had the word “Trump” painted on its rear flank.

Our Black Lives Matter protests, two of them, took place quietly and without confrontation. A few high school students stood silently on a corner with signs. Marchers processed around a pond in a park, not on the street.

We have noted with regret that on July 4, shootings in our former hometown of New York City were up 160% over last year. At our July 4 parade, the only threat of violence was the usual risk of dousing from the fire hose, but even that child’s play seemed rather somber.

Nobody tossed a small firecracker our way. We heard no music at all, and no announcer with a sound system because the organizers wanted to avoid crowding. The announcements live-streamed on a phone were never going to be as good as last year. We didn’t bother with it.

Tourists had lined the main street, as always, but my husband and I took care to isolate ourselves this year along an extended parade route that wound through the side streets in order to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. We were far from alone back there, but everyone else was just as careful to stay six feet apart.

By contrasting our Independence Day with New York’s, I don’t mean to suggest that we have no differences in Dubois. We certainly do.

But the only shots fired here since George Floyd died have sailed across the letters page of the weekly newspaper. Some writers have accused others of being too divisive.

With hardly any resident who doesn’t descend from white Europeans, our differences about civil rights tend to focus on the wearing of masks, not on law enforcement officers.

Meanwhile, we are no longer left to ourselves, and this complicates the matter of estrangement and distancing. Our local economy relies on our tourist visitors, but in these days of pandemic the strangers seem stranger than usual.

Expedia recently designated Dubois as the best place in Wyoming for an escape, and that message seems to have reached people who have been trapped at home for months. The town is as packed with outsiders as any other year. The RV parks are quite full. Thank heaven. (Or not?)

It has always been our instinct to to give any of these strangers a warm smile and a welcoming greeting. This showed up in our surveys of tourists passing through. Friendly, nice, and people were among the words they used most often in describing Dubois.

These days, our smiles disappear behind the masks we wear to protect ourselves and our neighbors from the danger they represent to us.

These tourists passing through come from who knows where, I said in a letter to the newspaper, and they don’t care much about us. As I predicted, very few of them wear masks. Which of them, feeling fine today, is about to notice the first symptoms as they head over the Pass toward Yellowstone, having left some of that virus behind with us? Therefore I am inclined to mistrust them.

That said, I have had a few friendly encounters while walking the dog in the Town Park with my mask off, standing well apart. During the past week, twice within two days, I heard almost exactly the same remark from two different women who had arrived here in an RV: “I just love America. Everywhere we go, people are so kind and friendly.”

“That’s the real America,” they said. “So what is going on with this divisiveness? Why aren’t the true voices being heard?”

They know the answers. So do I. What we don’t know is what can be done about it.

I do defy social distance when it comes to other creatures.

For some reason, a small bird has taken a a shine to me. Sometimes he perches on the clothesline when I am sitting on the side porch. I speak with him and he chirps back. He allows me to approach much closer than six feet, and will chat with me like this for a few minutes, turning his head back and forth to look at me. Then he decides “We’re done,” and swoops away.

Also twice recently I have been rushed by large, extravagantly beautiful butterflies that sailed past so quickly I had to duck to avoid being hit. This has never happened to me before.

Twice from strangers the remark that most of us are not like the voices that darken our view of the present. Twice the butterflies.

This brown and gray beauty clung to the garage door for several hours, deterring me from whatever chore had sent me in that direction. I left it alone, and eventually it left me alone as well.

Butterflies are said to be a symbol of rebirth and renewal. I’m not inclined to pay attention to such “signs,” but this time I would like to believe. What other option is there?

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Escaping Home on the Range

Sometimes I need to be even more remote than I already am.

“They don’t even talk about Yellowstone,” said someone about the couple who were staying in her rental cabin in Dubois. “They just want to escape because they’ve been cooped up for four months.”

Although I live in the very place where they have come to escape, I do sympathize. But it’s not four walls I want to be away from. It’s four mountain ranges, the ones that surround our home–the Winds, the Absarokas, the Tetons, the Owls.

I need to be even more remote than I already am. Completely off the grid for a while. To see canyons I never saw before and hike trails with unfamiliar views in a different world. That’s it, I realize: I want to live in a different world for a while. To escape the news of pandemic and panic, of pillagers and police.

We pack our toothpaste and face masks. We shut down, turn off, lock the doors behind us and head off toward the Bighorn Mountains, to camp out where we are distanced in earnest.

Soon we’re shooting northward out of the top of Wind River Canyon and onto the huge, flat plain called the Bighorn Basin. Ahead, off in the distance, are unfamiliar ridges and ranges.

Reading Roadside Geology of Wyoming as we cross the flats, we learn again about folding and faulting, and recall the reasons why the oldest rocks are at the peaks of mountains, not in the valleys below. We read why this barren desert plain is a vast oilfield now: because once, ages ago, it was all a huge seabed.

Or so we thought. Then a brown sign on a nearly deserted highway near the base of the Bighorn Mountains grabs us and turns us around. Dinosaur tracks! Now there’s something new to us – and like most of Wyoming, of course, also very, very old.

We rumble five miles down a gravel road past beautifully striped badlands (not that different from the ones near home, but smaller) to reach the Bureau of Land Management Paleontology Area near Red Gulch.

It’s one of those spots that only locals knew about, until four hikers noticed three-toed impressions in the rock at their feet, recognized what they were looking at, and told the experts, who ventured out here, found more, and put up lots of signs.

We learn that that this spot has overturned the accepted concepts about that ancient prehistoric seabed. In Roadside Geology we read that back in the Jurassic era about 160 million years ago, before the continents split apart, all of what is now the Rocky Mountain region was submerged under a vast inland sea.

But here’s something old and new: In this particular location, now near base of the Bighorn range, there must have been a reef-like island with wet sand at its edge, where dinosaurs once walked back and forth.  

We too walk back and forth along the ancient draw, where the silt long ago turned to stone, and we begin to see the three-toed tracks for ourselves, as well as others that seem to include the imprint of a bony heel. The longer we look, the more we find.

This has a way of distancing one from the concerns of the moment.

Fast forward 100 million years. This was still before the huge volcanic pile that we can see from our living room, the Absarokas, formed after a huge eruption. About 60 million years ago, the foundation of the land at that spot we had left behind was driven eastwards by an underground collision from the west, slowly grinding its leading edge beneath the basement of the land that we were about to ascend, which rose to become the Bighorns.

What was once deep, fundamental, and subterranean eventually became lofty and ascendant, pointing right to the sky. How long, I wonder aloud, did this take?

A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone, short as the watch that ends the night …

“I think modern humans have no concept of the mountain-building that is going on right now,” replied my husband. Or of their destruction, I think, as right now, when  the Wind River turns the color of caffe latte, bringing some of those mountains down.

Leaving the dinosaur tracks behind, we climb a long chain of switchbacks up a granite-rimmed canyon toward the meadows at the summit of the Bighorns. Some of the oldest rocks on earth rise from these meadows, white boulders sparsely draped with evergreens. The meadows themselves are a carpet of spring green just now, decorated with large patches of blue lupine and yellow asters.

Next to our campsite rises an imposing jumble of granite blocks. This is home to  a russet-colored creature with a fluffy tail that clambers cat-like across the boulders: A marmot. We learn that it likes walnuts, and will come quite close to retrieve them.

We seem to spend a fair bit of time gazing. We gaze at the marmot resting on a warm rock in the sun, and it gazes back. We gaze at moose as they chew placidly on willows near streams, ignoring us. I spend long periods just gazing at the forest across the stream beside the campground, listening to the birds.

It occurs to me that though we have no signal, I might actually work. Even write this. My laptop is in the camper, and its battery is charged. But I resist.

Instead, I hike to exhaustion in order to reach a tall formation of ancient lava, and follow a moose trail toward its top.

Leaving the campground, we grind slowly back down the switchbacks. Long before we reach cellphone signal, I sense a subtle groundshift, a change in perspective.

Obligations that seemed daunting a few days ago now feel workable. I find later that certain problems have resolved in my absence – not the monumental problems that have been troubling everyone, but a few smaller ones that had puzzled me. Meanwhile, some interesting new challenges have materialized.

During a miniscule sliver of geologic time while I went out of range to find repose at the top of a distant range, the world kept spinning without my assistance. The mountains are rising and falling, the flowers keep blooming in the high meadows, the wildlife are living their wild lives, and they will continue to do so whatever I decide to worry about.

What a relief.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

Thanks for reading! You can see every new entry of Living Dubois by email if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Who’s writing? Check out About Me.