A New Kind of Pioneering

How many remote workers have the true vision of remoteness?

January 27, this past Monday, was the 100th anniversary of the day that Wyoming ratified the 19th amendment allowing women to vote. That was more than 50 years after the newly formed territory of Wyoming enacted women’s suffrage in its own right, in 1869, making it the first state or territory to do so.

It was a pioneering act, but then this state has an august history of women pioneers: The first woman to be elected justice of the peace. The first woman in the United States to vote. And countless pioneering women who left comforts back east to homestead here, alone or with companions.

It was all tough — the life, the travel, and the women themselves.

I used to muse about these pioneer women as we drove the long commute between New York and Dubois, back before we sold our house out east. Our route crossed the Oregon Trail.

I sometimes wondered what they would have thought if someone had told them, as they bounced along on wooden wheels or walked the dusty track beside the mules, that someday one would be able to make the same journey in a mere four days, using a keyboard on the lap (and what’s a keyboard, exactly?) to type messages that coworkers thousands of miles away could read in an instant.

Of course I hold these pioneer women in awe. The first non-native woman to settle in this beautiful valley, Mahalia Burlingame, lived alone for long stretches with her children when her husband, who was the only fiddler around, traveled off to play for country dances many miles away. She made toys for the kids out of twigs.

Alice Welty looks delicate in her photographs, but after she moved to Dubois from Baltimore with her husband in the late 1880s, she learned to rope and shoe horses, and once drove a grizzly out of a campsite. I would have gone into child’s pose and played dead.

After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, Mary Back moved to Dubois in the 1930s with her husband Joe, where they bought an abandoned ranch west of town. Their first sofa was the front seat of an old Chevrolet, their pillows were sugar sacks filled with elk hair collected off the property, and their kitchen cabinet was made of apple boxes.

That delightful person Esther Wells, whom I knew all too briefly before her death at age 105 or 106, once said that they were never warm during the long winters of her childhood at the homestead, unless they were right beside the fire. Back then there was no fleece–just stiff cotton canvas or itchy wool.

Her mother’s best friend was a neighbor who would often come by to borrow cooking pots, because she had only tin cans to cook in. They were poor because the husband didn’t work much on the homestead; he was always away prospecting for gold, to no avail. Esther herself once shooed a grizzly bear out of her ranch house kitchen with a broom.

Many of the homesteaders of a century or more ago left behind the crowding, high cost, and unclean realities of industrial cities with hopes of a better new life out West. On the day of that suffrage anniversary this week, I realized with a jolt that in a sense some of us out here are new kinds of pioneers, drawn here by the same kind of urge.

Of course, I have had it vastly easier than those women I so admire. But more than a decade ago, when my husband suggested moving to this place, at first I thought it was a crazy idea. After further thought and some research, we set off hopefully but perhaps too impulsively to start a new kind of life in this small village out West. Like the old homesteaders, we had no promise that the idea would work.

With considerable trepidation (because we had already bought our house in Dubois), I asked a boss in division headquarters in Connecticut whether I could work from Wyoming part of the year, as I had already proven I could work reliably from my home two hours away in Brooklyn. My good fortune was that he had the vision to accept my wacky proposal.

I wasn’t worried much about being attacked by dangerous animals or hostile natives, but I did have concerns. Would I be able to get good vegetables? (Yes.) Where would I find Thai food? (Next town over.) Would I be lonely? (Heavens, no.) Would it be frightening out there? (Not at all, and unlike New York City not in the least stressful.)

And very importantly, would the Internet be good enough? (Oh, yes it was, and increasingly so also during the long road trips when we traveled).

“The popularity of remote work has been climbing at a rate of nearly 140% for the past decade,” wrote Laurel Farrer, a consultant and champion of remote workers, last year in Forbes. But I’ve been looking into it, and for all that states like Utah and Vermont are actually paying remote workers to relocate there, I do not see in the online chats among remote workers and the wannabes the same vision of a radically new life that drove the original pioneers to places like Wyoming.

They want to work remotely, as in remote from company headquarters. But few as yet seem to want to live remotely. They simply seem to flock to smaller cities, which then become more crowded, chaotic, and costly.

Despite modern comforts like Amazon and Pandora, I’m sure it’s scary to become a true digital pioneer: to abandon the security of a regular job and the easy, familiar conveniences of urban life.

Perhaps it does not require the courage of Alice, Mary, and Mahalia. But for most city dwellers with a high-tech mindset, it must be a challenge to envision and appreciate the unique freedom, simplicity, and peace of a truly rural environment, especially one at the edge of wilderness, and then to seek it out.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Who’s writing? Check out About Me.

Everywhere and Nowhere, in Wyoming and Cyberspace

Not only our skies are endless. Now, so are the possibilities.

“I think in 10 years the meaning of cities will change,” David Tabachnikov is saying. “Today, cities are focused on as places of work. The faster data improves, the more you can work remotely.”

Ah, yes, places of work. My mind wanders back to noisy newsrooms in the suburbs, and to skyscraper offices with an eagle’s view over the city to the river. Back over the miles and the years, to the place where “So what do you do?” was the first question, and the answer was always full of portent.

David is speaking with a Russian accent, but he’s somewhere in Belgrade, Serbia. I am sitting in my office upstairs in rural Dubois, Wyoming, looking at my monitor all morning for a second day. I’m bounded on all sides by a frame of large logs made of lodgepole pines, but I’m not really here.

Screenshot from 6nomads.com online Remote-first Conference
https://6nomads.com/remote-conf

As David speaks, the other participants in the Remote-First Online Conference chat with each other soundlessly, filling in a stream that flows down the right side of the screen. We are in Portugal, in China, in Virginia, in Moscow, in Brazil, in South Africa, in Utah, in the Ukraine. Everywhere and nowhere, because we could be anywhere. We’re in cyberspace.

“People can have the benefits of the city while far away from the city,” David continues. “You drive to a city an hour or so away two or three times a month to go shopping. But your cost of living is way lower. And your quality of living is way higher.”

Precisely.

“And it’s not just computer engineers any more,” he adds. “It’s architects. Psychiatrists. Even fortune tellers work on Skype. The most amazing this is that even medicine goes in this direction.”

(One of our family practitioners does telemedicine, I type down the chat stream. So does our drugstore.)

Being in rural Wyoming, I’m the novelty in this online conference of “digital nomads,” most of whom seem to be sitting in some city or other.

How matters have evolved since I first began to explore the telecommuter community about five years ago! Back then, there were a few weekly “tweetups,” where a host would struggle to inspire a few lonely outsourced freelances in chats dominated by marketing messages from startups that hoped to sell them software.

This year, there are at least 3 “off-line” (e.g., participants physically present) conferences specifically for remote workers. One begins tomorrow in Chang Mai, Thailand. A second will be in Austin, Texas, in April and a third in November in the Canary Islands.

Ad for Running Remote conference 2020 Austin Texas
https://runningremote.com/

The chat turns to climate–to how cold it is right now, in late evening in Moscow, compared to afternoon in Montreal. I lean back, rest my feet on the heated baseboard, and look away briefly, out the window. The ideas that keep floating toward me through the ether almost take my breath away.

For instance: Some new Internet companies explode the barriers of space and time, because by having people work across many time zones they can have 24/7 productivity all year. Hiring remotely allows them to find the best employees regardless of where people live, rather than competing in the relatively small talent pool wherever the firm is located.

Part of table showing information about remote-work employers

Salaries for computer engineers who work remotely from, say, India, are considerably higher than their own local firms will pay, because most companies that employ remote workers pay close to US salaries. (I type into the chat stream: What are the implications for third world economies?)

Someone types in a note of sympathy for our moderator over there in China, charming Ksenia, whose accent suggests Eastern European origins. Working for the second day at 3 AM, she’s looking tired. We wish her a cup of coffee. She says she doesn’t drink coffee; she likes tea. We ask her to hang in there. Someone recommends trying loud background music, and she asks what kind we’d like to hear.

Teamwork takes on a different form for digital nomads. Many of the speakers stress that good communication is of paramount importance, and technology to enhance it is evolving rapidly. One speaker demonstrates his new app, an online whiteboard. We try it out together, posting our ideas on virtual multicolored “Post-Its.” The chat stream applauds it loudly with emojis.

New forms of mingling go far beyond online meetings. I hear about an online pizza delivery service that will send pizzas to whole teams of remote workers, wherever they are, at the same time. Some remote-work teams have after-work happy hours on Zoom or Skype, when everyone brings a drink to the webcam.

The most successful all-remote firms, I hear, get together once or twice a year in what they call “off-site” retreats–an odd term for companies that no longer have a site. The idea of physical retreats may seem counter-intuitive for remote-work employers, but they do have benefits in terms of productivity. Communication improves greatly, speakers say, after people have spent a week in each other’s presence discussing the past year, planning the next year, and then getting outdoors together.

How it would inspire communications to hike in our wilderness! My best ideas don’t come during hikes, but they surely help to clear my head and I have some great conversations with my hiking buddy who likes to talk philosophy.

Canyon east of Dubois Wyoming

I think in 10 years the meaning of a mountain village will change too. We will no longer be a mere gas stop on the way to Yellowstone Park. The Park will just be one of the jewels in our crown, an ace in our hand.

Another will be our flawless Internet service, which is already world-class. A third will be that same beautiful seclusion that for so long has seemed a problem. Still another could be the very fact that we are not a city, not just a “place of work.”

Our industry will not be hewing giant logs from the forest, as it once was, but hewing concepts and designs from thin air and floating them down quite a different kind of stream to be processed further. This is quite clear to me now.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

Thanks for reading! 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.

Who’s writing? Check out About Me.

Road Trip 1/2020: Scenes and Screens

Launched back into that landscape of anonymity.

Yes, I told the friend we were visiting for the past few days, I am still writing my blog. It’s just not so easy when we’re away from home.

“This reminds me of Oman,” my husband said a while ago, as he was driving. “Mountains in the distance, development nearby. Desert. Irrigated fields.”

But we’re not that far away. Just another road trip, this time visiting family and friends over the holidays. Home soon.

We brought along many ways to access information: laptops, tablets, cellphones, and our Garmin navigator. On the road, I log in to check out what’s the best motel for the price, why they have changed the name of that road, what cataclysms built the silty jagged peaks we are seeing around us.

And, it should go without saying, how to get from here to there.

I also use them to read e-books aloud as he’s driving. Now I’m writing.

Probably I spend too much time staring at this small screen, and too little gazing out at the vistas we are passing.

How vastly different from the travel a few years ago, when one spent so much time uncertain about things! It was far less convenient, but on the other hand you were far more likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger.

You don’t get lost. You don’t ask others directly for recommendations of motels, restaurants, or local attractions. Especially when everyone at the next table in the restaurant is staring at their own little screen, this can discourage those wonderful moments of serendipity that add to the joy of travel.

The anonymity makes me miss the casual cordiality of home, the easy conversations in the post office and the banter in the corner coffee shop. How can we extend our town’s reputation for friendliness and welcome in the way we set up a coworking space for digital nomads? Now there’s a challenge to think about …

“Actually it’s kind of pretty here,” my husband says, interrupting my train of thought. I look up to consider the merits of the vista before us: soft green mesquite, rosy mountain ranges and pale blue January skies.

“I wouldn’t call it pretty,” I say (not being fond of southern Arizona, where everything is pointed and prickly).

“Well,” he asks, “what word would you use for that landscape of sand and sagebrush south of Lander that you love so much?”

I ponder for this for a few moments. “Restful,” I reply. “Dramatic. Compelling.”

Later, in an area on the outskirts of a huge metropolis, he falls silent and his gaze hardens. The traffic has grown thicker and less predictable. We stop for a break at the most overrun rest stop I have ever seen, and then launch ourselves into six lanes of erratic behavior by rude strangers driving through the dark at rush hour.

I have a word for this environment too: Stressful.

“I have to drive this for another hour,” he says, “I’m going to be really exhausted afterwards.”

We made it through, using 3 navigation sources: The Garmin, an old-fashioned paper atlas, and my phone to check for traffic slowdowns.

It’s always enjoyable to travel and see different places. But travel also serves to remind me of many things I appreciate about Dubois.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

Thanks for reading! You can see new entries of Living Dubois every time they appear, if you sign up at the top of the right column on www.livingdubois.com.