How One (P)lucky Dubois Woman Found Freedom in Remote Work

With a simple set of tools, she built herself a new future …

“You should really talk to Micki about this remote work thing,” said a mutual friend. “She wants to get into that.”

Well, he is a good friend, but at that point Micki Herbert was merely my acquaintance. All I knew about her was that she also came from Michigan, that she had asked me for advice when buying a new laptop, that she made her living as a cleaning person, and that she was concerned about catching COVID when cleaning motel rooms.

I called her right away, and asked what she wanted to know about remote work. Answer: Everything. It had been her dream for years to work from her home—not in other peoples’ homes, and not in motels.

“What kind of job are you looking for?” I asked. “What experience do you have?”

Customer service, she replied, and then elaborated about her history in Michigan before coming to Wyoming. Slam dunk, I said to myself–if she has the grit to do what’s required.

So I gave her a data dump. Showed her how to create a profile on LinkedIn. Sent her some articles I had saved from remote-work influencers online. I emailed her a glossary of remote-work buzzwords from GrowRemote, so she would have the required vocabulary.

Then I left her alone, and didn’t raise the topic again. Now she’s in paid training for a remote job with a global company.

This story is not to boast about myself, because what I did was simple. It’s to cheer for Micki, who obviously has bucketloads of grit. I gave her a simple set of tools, and she built herself a new future–in a remarkably short time.

You’re going to be a poster child, I told her recently. This is what other people could do to keep living here, if they want to overcome the seasonal work problem.

When her marriage fell apart, Micki had been selling cars at a dealership in Traverse City, Michigan. She was “really good at it,” she told me, because she liked to talk to people and hear their stories. She knows how to draw people out, and that can build relationships that lead to productive followup, to sales, and to satisfying customer service. But although she kept at the job for 10 years, she hated it.

“Why don’t you take your own advice,” asked her adult son, “and do what makes you happy?”

So Micki came to Wyoming and took a menial job at a guest ranch, where she could get outdoors and (with any luck) ride horses. One day, squeezed into a day ride with some guests, she found herself at the top of a mountain looking down at a guest ranch that overlooks a placid lake ringed by pearl-white cliffs.

“What’s that place?” she asked.

The first time I saw that view, I felt I was looking into heaven.

Micki finished out the season where she was working, then went to culinary school and got a job at that lodge beside Brooks Lake. Soon after starting there, she drove down-mountain to Dubois to look around, and she saw a woman playing alpenhorn on Ramshorn Street in front of Welty’s Store.

“That made me realize what an eclectic and wonderful place it was, and I wanted to learn more about it,” Micki told me. “After that, I just couldn’t get enough of it. I always returned to Dubois.”

The strategy of working at guest ranches lost its appeal after 5 years. She grew tired of having to move all her belongings every few months, and especially of the communal living that was required for guest-ranch staff, which wore thin for a mature woman.

After a particularly horrible season at a guest ranch in Washington State, she began to dream of finding a way to work from home, on her own terms. Being around Dubois had given her a taste for what she wanted, and what she wanted was more of it.

“I’ve been on snowmobiles on the top of mountains where you can see the curvature of the earth,” she told me. “I never thought I would do that. I’ve cooked on pack trips when I rode 30 miles into the wilderness and stayed for a week. Anything I wanted to do here, I’ve been able to do.”

A dogsled trek is still on her bucket list. But here, that’s eminently possible.

To stay in Dubois, Micki took a job cleaning at a local motel and supplemented it by cleaning private houses. But she continued to dream of finding a way to work from home. What she wanted was to be independent, and to ride horses whenever she felt like it.

A sudden need for surgery forced her to quit working for a while, and the down-time of recuperation gave Micki the swift kick she needed to get serious about it. “The universe was saying: Mick, open your eyes and pay attention,” she told me. “You have all this time to work toward your goal. “

Micki opened the emails I sent her. She got to work creating a LinkedIn profile and applying for jobs—but only, she said, those she thought she would be good at “right off the bat.”

“LinkedIn was amazing,” she said. “I could not believe how many jobs hit my email every day.”

After only a few weeks, she was contacted by a global services firm that provides customer service for Fortune 500 companies. That’s the job she has begun now, providing a modest but steady income as well as another laptop, free paid training (which she is now completing), in addition to health insurance.

The training was “frustrating a first, because I have purposely stayed away from technology,” she told me recently. “But that’s also a good thing, because they don’t have to un-teach me. I’m learning it the way they want it to be done.”

Micki will continue cleaning houses to supplement her income, but now she has a steady base for a year-round living in our tourist-based economy, as well as achieving her primary goal: The ability to do what she wants when she wants to.

At some point down the road, she wants the option to travel and work at the same time, and this job will provide her with the credentials to strive toward becoming a digital nomad.

I do hope she will return to Dubois now and again, because Micki has become a friend and I would miss her.

“I want to be free,” she told me. “That’s what this remote work thing is about: freedom.”

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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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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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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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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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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First Day of Spring 2020: Sheltered in Peace

You can’t tell Mother Nature to be in lockdown.

After a phone call with a friend who’s in quarantine, I went out snowshoeing.

I had hoped the clouds would part and the sky turn blue, but soon I was actually enjoying the misty sky and gentle snowfall.

It was like an enchanted forest. Wearing a heavy crown of snow, the log-built restroom in the empty campground looked like a hut in a children’s story book. There was silence but for the patter of the snowflakes and the call of a distant duck.

A few days ago, the Governor closed down all public places in Wyoming for two weeks. It seems that nobody informed Mother Nature.

As in the early spring of any year, we are suddenly seeing animals other than the hardy livestock that tolerate cold and snow. Small calves are romping in the roadside meadows now, and I’ve seen my first pair of bluebirds.

Driving down-county last week, going in the direction away from Yellowstone, I had the rare pleasure of catching a glimpse of bison on the open range on the reservation.

The Native Americans have succeeded in bringing them back to the rez, and I always look for them. But I very seldom see them near the highway out there (though other bison are regulars along the route to Jackson).

Unlike what we expect in the summer when we head to Jackson, this time there was no traffic jam. Nobody else stopped to take a picture. Besides, going that way off-season there are hardly any other cars, anyway.

Coming back from dinner at a restaurant up-mountain last week (when dinners out were still allowed), we were remarking what a shame it is that you seldom see moose any more. We turned a corner and there, among the willows: Not one, but three!

We stopped and watched them enjoying their own evening meal. The dark spots at left are the two that are hiding out in the willow bank.

A few days later, taking the same route, I saw one of them again, again a dark shape among the russet willow branches. I pulled over and watched for a long time as it grazed in the late afternoon sunlight.

It stood still for a while afterwards, and then it sat down beneath the willows. I drove on, feeling rather fortunate.

The other day, our daughter spoke some words I never thought I’d hear her say: “I wish I lived in Dubois right now.”

You can go outdoors anytime, she went on, and always find something interesting to do. So true.

If he was older and could understand exactly what she means, this young fellow might agree with his mother. (Now there’s another wild creature I wish I could see more often.)

Out walking the dog yesterday, I encountered a friend and we hiked on together up a lovely country road, socially distant as per CDC advisories, well apart but happily together nonetheless.

© 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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Anywhere Is An Option. So Why On Earth Dubois?

From far away, I couldn’t help wondering …

I have been away. Far, far away, and for a long time.

“Nous habitons une petite ville en Wyoming,” I’d say when people asked, “pres de Yellowstone Park?”

By the time I got to that implicit question mark, I would usually see a spark of recognition in the other person’s eyes. But even to me, after a few weeks, the place I was describing began to seem unreal and other-worldly. Which, from that distance, it actually is.

Passing through so many different places, all of them fascinating and enticing, I would ask myself: So what’s so special about Dubois? When we could live almost anywhere, why did we choose there?

One of the reasons came visibly to mind as the home-bound plane approached Jackson: The boundless sky, the bright sunshine, the wonderful sunrises and star-scapes.

Behind me now were the predictably endless gray, gloomy days from fall through spring, which don’t actually deliver precipitation but instead a sort of long-lasting mild depression. I am familiar with this; we lived over there twice. I swore I never wanted to live in Europe again, for that very reason.

In Dubois, I knew, the weather presents an honest challenge. You recognize it when it’s coming, and you may have to deal with it–like now, when the forecast bodes a full week of snow. But then it’s over and the huge blue sky returns. You can often glimpse it beyond the cloud cover.

The weather, however mood-altering, is ultimately trivial. What was it that I found so compelling about Dubois, compared to all the remarkably different places I had seen (and lived)? So long away, I had begun to wonder.

It took a journey through the stack of weekly newspapers that had accumulated ito remind me, as I endured the fog of jet lag. Mercifully perhaps, there wasn’t much local news. But there were profiles.

The school has a new principal, a Wyoming native, who said he has dreamed of holding that job in Dubois ever since he passed through as a child, on a school trip to Yellowstone. After living and working in Korea and Missouri, he finally made it here–joining so many others who have seen Dubois and been tugged back as if by a magnet.

But why? I don’t believe the article even mentioned the magnificent mountains or wonderful wildlife that we enjoy. “The people here, they are good people,” Tad Romsa told the Frontier. “Dubois is a special place.”

He said he loves the “family atmosphere” at the Dubois K-12 school, the high teacher-student ratio, and the “positive energy.”

“It seems like the kids want to be at school,” he added.

I recalled a recent conversation in a small hotel in the Basque region of Spain, when an English wine merchant and his wife wondered aloud why we had landed here, of all places. There are things you can say, but it isn’t simple to explain.

Tad Romsa knew the quiet joys of Wyoming from childhood. For Aaron and Nicole Coleman, profiled in the Frontier the following week, that knowledge grew slowly, after a great leap of intuition.

Nicole has an online banking job, but years ago she began selling crafts online in her spare time. Her husband Aaron, who has degrees in linguistics and international studies and spent a long time in the military, has joined her efforts in the company that evolved from this venture, Shotgun Paul, which makes and sells high-quality durable items such as aprons and bags made from canvas and leather.

As their business began to grow online, they sensed a need for a brick-and-mortar storefront. When their daughter arrived in 2016, the Colemans “were ready to leave the coast, crowds, and lifestyle of California for somewhere more family friendly,” says the Frontier.

Their business was mobile, so they were free to take it anywhere. Where they went was Dubois.

Because Aaron has a lifelong friend who lives in Dubois, they had visited often and got to know others here. “These connections, as well as the high quality of the outdoor life in Dubois, convinced them that the pros of a small, remote town far outweighed the cons,” the article says.

Nicole is often present behind the counter at the shop on the main street, stitching away at something. Aaron comes forward to greet new customers. You hope to find that that curly-towheaded Billie is on duty too, charming the clientele.

Walking the dog in the town park a few days after our return, as so often happens I ran into another dog-and-owner pair whom I’ve never met. This was the pup Sadie, followed on her erratic course by Sarah Walker.

Sarah is director of the Friends of the Bridger-Teton, a nonprofit that supports the national forest just over the Pass. She travels a lot, and works online.

Sarah too could actually live anywhere, but she has insisted on Dubois.

She and her husband discovered the town when he was posted here with the Forest Service. When he was transferred away, Sarah says she told him they had to return after two years; non-negotiable. She found her job with the nonprofit, and he is back at another Forest Service post nearby.

Today, says the nonprofit’s website, “they’re lucky enough to enjoy the Bridger-Teton and Shoshone National Forests just out their backdoor every chance they get.” Another important factor was the flawless high-speed Internet in Dubois.

“I couldn’t live without it,” Sarah called back as she chased Sadie on down the riverwalk.

An invisible glue holds Dubois together, despite our challenges and our differences. For many and the same reasons, when most of us could easily live elsewhere we have chosen to be here, and we all know it.

There’s something very precious about that.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Fake News About Dubois, and the Facts

Groceries, grizzlies, antelope farms, and more …

Still away from my desk for a while. Here for your amusement is something I wrote a while ago, when the misconceptions about Dubois began to pile up in my awareness. Can you think of any others? Please send a comment.

Most of what follows is hearsay. In the past few weeks, several people have told me about some remarkable comments they’ve heard from visitors to town. I’ve also run across some other amusing misconceptions on my own.

I decided I should set the record straight:

Outfit1. We don’t dress this way as part of a historic re-enactment. This is really how we like to dress, and for good reason. We wear brimmed hats and long-sleeved shirts for protection against the fierce sun. We wear vests because it’s just enough to keep us warm in the high-desert cool. We wear jeans because they’re comfortable and sturdy. We wear boots because they keep the rocks out. (Here’s what I might be wearing today, if I hadn’t chosen a different shirt, vest, and jeans.)

2. Whatever that person in Jackson may have said, there’s no need to stock up before heading this way. Dubois does have an amply stocked grocery store, a gas station (well, actually four of them), and many places to buy a cup of coffee (or even a latte, a cappuccino, or a chai).

3.  There probably isn’t a grizzly bear in the Town Park just now.  Our bear expert Brian does say that, in theory, except in the dead of winter, a grizzly could be anywhere. But a grizzly doesn’t want to see you any more than you want to see her. We know better than to leave trash around for her to find, and she prefers to be in the forest anyway. Everybody knows how to recognize the signs that a bear has been around, and if any had been seen recently, you can bet that (1) everybody would be talking about it and (2) it would have been taken care of long before they began talking.

Antelope_1006174. We do not “farm” deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, or other animals you may see behind fences near town. This is actually the wildlife you have come all this way to view. They come here of their own free will, probably because they like it around here as much as we do. They leap the fences, live in peace with the livestock, and like to graze our fields. (Please drive with care.)

5. We’re not all cowboys in Dubois. Indeed there are many working cowhands, retired cowboys, former cowboys, and would-be cowboys. But the population also includes (off the top of my head) a computer architect, a designer of medical devices, a lobbyist, and many painters and photographers.

stopsign6. Dubois does have stop signs.“There’s not even really a stop sign in town,” Jeda Higgs said on the video “Chasing Totality: Making the Eclipse Megamovie.” I probably would have been dazzled by the exposure too, but that was hyperbole. More accurately, there is no stop sign, yield sign, or traffic light for cars making the 90-degree turn on the highway as it passes through the center of town. They have the right of way (and locals know it). People do face stop signs as they enter the highway from many side streets in town, and there are more in the residential parts of the village.

7. Dubois is not the most remote town in the lower 48 states. I dealt with this long-held and much-quoted myth in a previous post. The following is true: Dubois is more than an hour’s drive from the nearest large towns. A remarkable proportion of the surrounding landscape is publicly owned wilderness. The nearest Interstate is about 3 hours away. On the other hand, goods and services are easily accessible and residents take the commute to big-box stores and other conveniences as a fact of life (just as people elsewhere endure traffic, which we don’t have). Besides, those “commutes” are unusually scenic. But by any published criterion, Dubois is not the most remote town in the US. Maybe the most interesting or most charming or most authentically Western or most friendly remote town in the lower 48, but not the remotest.

100_06658. Winters aren’t brutal in Dubois (generally). Last winter may have been tough, true. But in general, temperatures here are several degrees warmer than in Jackson. Most of the snow (usually) gets dumped on that side of Togwotee Pass or on the Pass itself, giving us wonderful opportunities for snowmobiling and snowshoeing. The dry climate keeps winter temperatures surprisingly tolerable. And the air is magically clean.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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