Dubois in Pandemic: Where’s the Nearest Human?

An unexpected reason that I’m pleased we left the city.

“I am vilified for being motherly,” I texted my son in New York City. Not vilified, probably. But I think I have become a laughingstock of sorts.

I paid an outrageous amount to send him a four-pack of toilet paper by Express Mail, and other people in the Post Office overheard my remark about the cost.

He was running out, and he said there was no more to be had anywhere reasonably nearby in Manhattan. He’s not supposed to be wandering around looking for it, anyway.

I don’t really care if some people in this little town out west think I’m a little nutty. I love him and want to do what I can to help in a terrible situation. If all I can do is ship toilet paper, that’s what I’ll do.

“Maybe they will understand how bad it is here,” he texted back. “People are just dying.”

It’s true. Nobody has died from COVID-19 yet in Wyoming. But he says he has two friends who have lost their fathers, and he’s just one of how many thousands of people in the city?

He is anxious about his distant parents, who might be at risk in this pandemic. “Don’t go outdoors!” he orders via text message. “Don’t be in contact with anyone! Disinfect all surfaces at home!”

I can understand why he says this, trapped in his typically tiny apartment in Manhattan. Like so many people elsewhere, he has absolutely no concept what it is like where we are.

“I’m taking my life in my hands and going out to walk the dog,” I texted my son yesterday.

“As long as you’re not within 6 feet of anyone,” he wrote back.

Across the highway, I sent back this picture. “Nearest human,” I wrote. “Can you find him?”

He didn’t reply, so I don’t know whether he was able to find the man working up the ladder on that new cabin perhaps 200 yards away.

This week, I hosted a video call with a former team of coworkers whom I managed during the 9/11 crisis in New York. I thought it would be interesting to compare the experiences.

It was so good to see them again!

Over the years, I’d totally forgotten what Josh was like. On the video we saw him taking his temperature now and again, as he proudly told us about his real estate coup. He and his wife had scored a penthouse atop a large apartment building, not far from our former home in Brooklyn.

Unlike most others living in the building, they have a large outdoor deck that allows them to get outside under New York’s lockdown conditions.  But as elevator trips are limited to one family per ride, the waits are interminable and he has taken to walking up and down the 17 floors when he needs to pick up a delivery.

Immediately I thought of the others trapped on the floors below, without roof decks,  and those in the countless other high-rise buildings in New York City who live in small apartments that are stacked up like shoeboxes on shelves in a warehouse. Many of them have children who are confined inside, kept home from school. And as we know, they are running out of toilet paper.

And then there’s where I live.

A recent article in the Washington Post infuriated me so much that I actually posted on Facebook about it, which I normally resist. It described a geotargeting study based on cellphone data that claimed to measure how well people were complying with social distancing, by analyzing how much their movements have changed since the pandemic began. It graded all of the states. Wyoming got an F.

That’s yet another example of how the rest of the world has no clue what it’s like here, I wrote. Have ranchers changed their rounds when they feed the cattle? Have folks like us who live outside town changed our habits about driving in for mail and groceries? Have I suddenly stopped driving 10 minutes up-mountain to go walking with the dog at Sheridan Creek, just beyond the boundary of the Shoshone National Forest? Would it even make a difference?

Wyoming is the least densely populated state in the nation, and it has the second-lowest number of COVID-19 cases (after South Dakota). There are currently 70 cases in the state, and no deaths. The nearest documented cases are 75 miles away, and they are in a town of some size worth talking about. We are in a tiny village, at the edge of the wilderness.

Two friends Dubois who are sick may be affected and are quarantined, but we don’t know because they can’t get tested yet.

One of my quarantined friends lets her dog out the door and looks across a long lawn shaded by huge trees toward the river. The other looks out her window at the mountains in the distance and the field between, where she can watch the new calves as they romp.

Many people in this town can’t work just now and are doubtless concerned for the future. The Governor has ordered us just to stay at home. We don’t always.

We go for hikes alone on the Scenic Overlook or stroll on the riverwalk, and chat from several feet away if a friend appears coming in the other direction. We wave from our cars and sidle past each other somewhat awkwardly when saying hello in the Post Office and the supermarket. It’s strange, but it’s not awful.

As usual, whatever the current uncertainty, we are protected from much of the stress that currently darkens the lives of people who are living in cities.

Whatever my pleasure at being able to hike as far as I want in the sunshine outdoors, I feel sad to call this a “joy” of living in this remote wilderness location, because there actually isn’t much joy in the current situation. But it is certainly a comfort at a difficult time.

© 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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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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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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