COVID in Dubois and Other (Remote?) Possibilities

Is there a threat? And if so, what?

“I’m so glad to be done with all this hand-washing!” said the woman next to me in the restroom at the Riverton airport.

“Me too,” I said. “I will feel so much safer back in Dubois.”

Returning from a visit to family in Austin, Texas (right next door to San Antonio, where those first cruise-ship cases were quarantined), I’d been careful to stop at women’s rooms in all three airports for a 20-second scrub.

The beautiful Denver airport was a bit scary this time. Who knew where all those other people had been?

“You must be really protected in Dubois!” said the woman at the next sink, and then added: “I came over there once to look at the bighorn sheep.” (As if it’s a long road trip from Riverton.) “They were really spectacular.”

There are some advantages to being perceived as remote, I told myself. The COVID pandemic must be one of them.

An hour later, back in Dubois, I found the snow shrinking back, the temperatures above freezing, and the snowmobile rigs largely gone from the highway. As they depart, Lava Mountain Lodge up toward the pass will be closing for the season at the end of the week.

We’re entering that quiet time when there’s not enough snow for snowshoes or snowmobiles, and way too muddy and slushy to hike. The town belongs to us alone. Almost no visitors.

A friend from far away has called to ask how we are doing in the COVID crisis. Nothing to report.

“I figure we’re pretty safe until the snowbirds return in late June,” I told a friend last week. “By then it may all be over.”

I had just had a flawed communication with her, because of the pandemic. Should we cancel our date for a get-together, she asked, if she was coughing and sneezing?

Because I didn’t want her to overdo it until she felt really well, I said no. I knew she had been here while I was away, and never thought about the Corona virus. Be she thought I was one of those who are panicking about it.

Obviously not all of us are immune to that panic, even here. The clerk at Family Dollar told me that hand sanitizer had run out days ago, and when she found another supply in the back, that ran out right away too.

Another friend suggested stocking up on toilet paper. What’s the last thing you want to run out of, after all, if supplies are interrupted?

I’m a bit more concerned about the less obvious threats. For instance, what’s happening to the motel bookings just now?

From a visitor survey I helped to conduct a few years ago, I know that this is the time when most Americans are planning their summer vacations. Early July to mid-September is when people flock to and through Dubois, many on their way to Yellowstone Park (normally one of the most crowded destinations in the country).

Ever since the sawmills closed decades ago, that’s been our economy. Let’s forget about the toilet paper problem!

Our new National Museum of Military Vehicles stands with flags flying east of town, nearly ready for its opening on Memorial Day. Some people have worried that it will overwhelm Dubois with new visitors, just when the town is beginning to be overrun. But maybe this will be a truly soft launch, giving us plenty of time to prepare for next year.

It’s kind of difficult to know what to worry about — or hope for.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Dead of Winter in Dubois: Dreams and Games

Snowbirds depart this time of year, but I wouldn’t miss it.

It’s not just the ranchers: Many among us have saved this time of year for projects we know we’ll be too busy to finish when the weather is warm, the days are long, and we stay outdoors as much as possible.

The remote workers among us must count their lucky stars right now that they don’t have to leave the house to go to work. The quilters and painters are busy indoors, I’m sure. I saved my pile of mending for one Saturday in mid-February, and I began practicing my mandolin again.

Not that February here is as bad as it may seem on the weather app. The arid climate makes sub-freezing temperatures fairly tolerable. I stepped outside in my shirtsleeves to snap this image of the thermometer outside the garage.

Dubois belongs to us these days, except for the snowmobilers from the flatlands to the east, who travel in procession up-mountain every day trailing huge rigs behind their pickups. When time permits, we like to snowmobile or ski or snowshoe ourselves.

It’s never as cold as I expect out there. I always over-dress and have to strip off the hat and mittens.

For some others, this is the time to start grander projects, which promise to offer us more to do on frigid winter days in the future.

The local newspaper has confirmed rumors that someone is planning to open a bowling alley just behind the grocery store (which, ironically, used to be a bowling alley). And a group of eager volunteers is soliciting ideas for a new recreation center. They’ve asked permission from the town to place it on empty land next to the new wetland park at Pete’s Pond.

While others elsewhere may spend their leisure time staring at small screens, some of us who are feeling cabin fever long to get together with others. In the warmth and the glow of lamps, we enjoy amusements that some poor folks play only with invisible opponents online: Poker, bridge, Scrabble.

Last Sunday, we dragged out one of the foreign-language Monopoly sets that we’ve collected during our travels, and took it to the monthly board games night at the church hall. We laughed as we read the street names on the deeds in bad imitations of a Mafioso accent.

First we prayed to stay out of Prigione so that we could buy our properties. Later, we blew on the dice hoping not to roll doubles so that we could stay in Prigione as long as possible and avoid landing on someone else’s.

It had been years since any of us had done this, and it was great fun.

Many “snowbirds” can’t or won’t stay here during the winter. If you’re not accustomed to a cold Northern climate, I can understand that. But I wouldn’t miss any of it — the sparkling vistas, the bright blue skies, the brisk air, and the many little pleasures of the time when our days are slow.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Life in Wyoming, With All Those Guns

Have I moved to the most dangerous place in the country?

“Be open and honest about the gun culture in your region,” urged a comment to one of my posts to a remote workers’ group on LinkedIn. It came from a manager with a global retail company.

“When we travel internationally, to European or Pacific locations, the first question we are asked when we say we are American is: Does everyone really walk around with a big gun?”

This inspired me to look at our small Wyoming town with a different set of eyes — the eyes of a stranger passing through, or perhaps my own eyes of 20 years ago, long before I left New York City to move here.

If we want to attract more remote workers to Dubois — and we should — it’s crucial to address this issue. I won’t discuss gun control here. I want to talk about the culture and the facts beyond the first impressions.

Guns are sold at auctions here and raffled off at charity benefits. You grow accustomed to the sight of rifles lined up on tables. One of the motels has a gun shop.

For someone who spent her whole life in New York City, this was somewhat disquieting at first.

These days I might not even notice someone wearing a gun in a holster. But I don’t think I ever see that, except for the sheriff. To be frank, I have no idea who’s walking around with a gun, because concealed weapons are allowed in Wyoming.

I do know that many people here own guns. Lots of my friends hunt. For some of them, that’s how they can afford meat.

Judging from some statistics, you might think I have moved from the safest place in the country to the most dangerous. Per capita gun ownership in Wyoming is far and away the highest in the entire nation. (That’s the tall bar at left in the graph.) My former state of New York ranks at the farthest right end of the scale.

Although it’s difficult to discredit the source of the data, that 230 per capita for Wyoming is astonishing and difficult to believe. Other studies show that barely half of Wyoming residents are gun owners. The figure is 53%, nearly the same as for neighboring Montana which is 16th from the left on that graph. So who has all those guns? Did they count the firearms museum in Cody?

The firearm mortality rate for Wyoming is also sobering at first glance. Wyoming ranks 8th among the 50 states. Alaska is first and Montana is third.

But the homicide mortality rate for Wyoming is so low it falls off the map. See that range from 0-26 on the image? Wyoming is the zero, with a rate that rounds to nil.

Wyoming also gets a score of zero on the database of mass shootings in the US, which is maintained by the nonprofit organization Mother Jones. Here’s what happened when I searched for mentions of Wyoming on its downloadable spreadsheet:

So what accounts for the difference between firearm mortality and homicide mortality in our state? Suicides, alas, which would justify another article. Like many rural regions, Wyoming has a high rate of self-inflicted death as well as firearm ownership, and the correlation is obvious. The reasons must be complicated and tragic, but I don’t feel personally threatened here.

Compared to New York City, Dubois is a very friendly place. It’s also laid-back and low-stress. I think this may explain why there is so little actual aggression here, despite the high rate of gun ownership.

I’ve never seen anyone brandish a firearm anywhere in Wyoming, except at a target range. I’ve never heard of anyone being robbed in this town, at gun point or any other way.

To be frank, the prevalence of guns probably deters a lot of crime. And in the state with the second-lowest population density in the country (below Alaska) it’s not surprising that we don’t expect to dial 911. Law enforcement is spread thin, and people need to be self-reliant. That’s the character and the reality of the West.

There are no street brawls here these days, and I can’t recall hearing a loud argument in public. It’s the kind of place where people leave their cars unlocked with the ignition running on a cold day (but probably not in high tourist season).

Obviously, the classic Western films are implicated in giving this region a falsely dangerous and badly outdated image for violence. The same kind of problem affected my former home town: Some tourists arrive (or never go to New York City at all) fearing a Mafia shootout or a rampage in the subway.

I guess if you base your decisions on what you see in the movies, you get the result you deserve.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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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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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

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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

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Rethinking Remoteness

Desolate? Isolated? Not the right image at all.

Like others, I have often described Dubois as remote. But a trip to Laramie last week has inspired a change of perspective. I may have been giving a false impression all this time.

Perhaps when I write “remote,” readers who don’t know the area have a mental image that is completely mistaken. Let me describe that kind of remote more precisely. That is what I drove last week, and not at all what defines Dubois.

It’s a five-hour drive to Laramie, where I had a meeting at the University — down 287 to Rawlins and then across I-80 eastward for about 80 miles. To most Wyoming residents, this is not a great distance.

I’ve come to enjoy knowing the names of the landmarks as well as I used to know the names of subway stops on the F train in Manhattan. They are so evocative: Burris. Crowheart. Lander. Sweetwater Station. Jeffrey City (of which more later). Split Rock. And perhaps my favorite: Muddy Gap, which has almost nothing to commend it except a descriptive name and a turn in the road.

Most times I enjoy driving across the rather desolate expanse between Lander and Rawlins, but in December it’s no trivial undertaking–especially if you’re driving alone.

The crosswinds out of the West between Sweetwater Station and Muddy Gap are often arm-numbingly strong, with nothing on that high prairie to stop them. I checked the weather apps carefully before committing to the trip, and made sure I had plenty of gas before heading south out of Lander.

This is the same country where scores of Mormon pioneers perished when they were halted by snow in November 1856 during their westward trek toward Utah. (The exact number who died at Martin’s Cove near Split Rock along today’s highway 287 is unknown.)

After Rawlins, I’d head east toward Laramie on Interstate 80. I have a sort of pity for people who say they have been to Wyoming, when all they have done is drive Interstate 80 between Cheyenne and Salt Lake City. Hugging the southern border of the state, it travels through almost nothing but sand and sagebrush. You see nothing of the spectacular beauty of our state on that long, boring journey.

The trip toward Laramie was uneventful, and I had a very pleasant stay. But the return trip on Friday the 13th was a different matter. The forecast called for no snowfall, but it did warn of high winds. And the road was slick. There were signs forbidding travel by light high-profile vehicles.

We crawled at 45 miles per hour most of the way west toward Rawlins and even slower in the first few northbound miles on 287. Sometimes vision was obscured by clouds of windborne snow. I saw two semi trucks blown over on their sides. I nearly turned back to spend the night in Rawlins.

I’m glad I didn’t. Somewhere before Muddy Gap, I noticed that the sedan ahead of me had gained lots of distance. The road was dry, and the wind had forgotten to blow. I turned Sirius XM back on, and after a while I noticed that I was sometimes driving with one hand.

As I was passing Split Rock, and thinking about the Mormons, I began to muse about that idea of remoteness. Just ahead was Jeffrey City, a former uranium mining town that nearly died but began to revive recently. The motel has reopened, but someone told me today that even if he had no choice, he’d drive on.

I pulled off to take just the right picture. Now this may be what people think of when you hear the words “remote” and “Wyoming” in the same context.

See the abandoned apartment buildings. Feel the wind howling across the empty prairie. Hear the coyotes at night under that huge, boundless sky. Imagine the drive north to Lander or south to Rawlins, the next places to buy gas or groceries.

In the long run, it wasn’t a bad drive at all. Rather than the dirty gray walls of a subway tunnel, I saw cattle crowding a gate waiting for their feed. I saw many large birds riding on the updrafts. I saw a large herd of wild horses on the right, not long after I stopped to take this picture.

Well before sunset, I reached the welcoming streets of Dubois, which were lined with open shops as usual, and busy with cars on a Friday evening. Our town is cradled in a narrow valley between two mountain ranges, which may funnel the wind but also give a sense of shelter. It is little more than an hour’s drive to any of 3 larger towns, and those drives are both beautiful, with varied landscapes and visual landmarks to engage the eyes and the mind.

I think I will stop calling Dubois remote. Maybe it felt remote when I first came here from the city, but it doesn’t any more. There’s a much better term, and finding it will require further thought.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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