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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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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A New Love Late in My Life

A true story about small miracles

Let’s talk about something else. I’m so weary of that topic, aren’t you?

Here’s a nice true story.

Once upon a time before all this, I was walking the dog with a good friend. She asked me whether I knew someone who could provide a good home for a piano.

I cast my eyes heavenward and replied, “Ye-AH-ah!”

It would take too long to explain why, but our decision to move to Wyoming forced me to sell my beloved piano in Brooklyn (the one in the picture). This made me very sad, because playing it had brought me great joy for all of my married life.

I am an amateur musician (both my parents were professionals), and I did have piano lessons as a child. I’m not a skilled pianist now, but I still love practicing to create the sounds that the composers intended to be beautiful.

Like my friend the software designer who relaxes by writing code when he’s feeling stressed, I relax by reading music using the keyboard. I also play the flute, the violin, and the mandolin, but none of these can provide the full harmonic richness of piano music.

I had chalked up the sacrifice of my piano as one of the few downsides of living in wonderful Wyoming. What were the odds of finding a good piano for sale in a tiny town in the wilderness? And was it worth transporting one here from somewhere else, just for a hobby?

Now my friend needed to find a home for her late mother’s piano, which was a century old. It had spent the past 20 years in the home of a man in town whose mother had just passed away. He wanted it moved out so he could have his own mother’s piano instead. My friend had no room for it in her house, and said she wouldn’t play it herself anyway.

I was thrilled at her question–provisionally. Of course I wanted to see and play the piano before committing. After all, it could easily be like the ones you see in the taverns in old Westerns, with a tone more like a xylophone than a Steinway.

We drove over to check it out. It was love at first touch.

It did look a bit like a honky-tonk, scratched here and there and the keys all discolored. But it was a deep pecan color with a lovely grain, and despite its Victorian-era provenance, a no-frills design.

What mattered far more was how it sounded: Rich and deep, and barely out of tune despite heaven knows how long since its last tuning. I shook the man’s hand, we agreed to share the cost of moving it to my house, and a few days later there it was.

The dirty keys cleaned up beautifully with a damp sponge and paper towel, and scratch remover took care of the scars.

My online search to learn how much to pay my friend for this wonderful windfall revealed how lucky I had been. The piano tuner confirmed this once he heard it and saw behind the music rack. He couldn’t stop interrupting his work to tell us what he had found.

The instrument was manufactured in Toronto by a company renowned in its day for striving to make top-quality pianos. It was advertised then as an “upright grand,” and that term is still used by many sellers online.

The piano tuner pointed out some features he had never seen before in an upright, but only in grand pianos. What he said explained why it caused four burly men to groan and sweat while moving it, and why it stays so well in tune: It has a huge cast-iron frame, just like a grand, and instead of being held in place by pins the strings are run through channels cast right into the frame. The wooden keys are shaped to make them weightier at the back end, so that they hit the hammers more firmly and create a richer sound.

I am indeed in love with my new piano. I almost can’t pass it without stopping to play.

How we made space for it is another charming who-would-have-guessed Dubois story. We wanted it in a side room on the main floor, where I could close the door and play in seclusion if that was desirable. But what to do with the huge old pump organ that dominated the room?

It had come to us along with the furnishings in the house, but was no particular fun to play. You have to pump with your feet to keep the sound going, and it has quite a reedy voice. Most of the time, I rested my electronic keyboard right in front of it.

An antique-dealer friend had no interest. “They’re impossible to get rid of,” he said bluntly.

My husband suggested donating it to a church. But what church would want a heavy, cumbersome white elephant that you had to pump to play? Like me, they’d rather use a Casio keyboard.

“Put an ax to it,” I said. My husband was horrified, and suggested at least advertising it somewhere.

As a first resort, I sent an email to the Roundup, our local shopping sheet, to post among the giveaways. Then I totally forgot about it. On the morning after the posting appeared, I got a call from a newcomer to town who asked if it was still available.

An amateur musician like myself, he enjoys playing antique instruments. By profession, he is a leather-crafter. When he came to pick up the pump organ, he told me he plays the bagpipes. He had always wanted a pump organ.

We found each other in tiny Dubois, in the middle of the wilderness and hours from any Interstate. Can you believe it? Truth is stranger than fiction.

When my new love was settled in place, I sent my son a joyful text with the astonishing news. “You should have a piano,” he replied. “We always had one.”

Since then, I sometimes send him a small recording late in the evening, as he goes to sleep sheltering in place in his Manhattan apartment. (Oops, sorry. We weren’t going to go there this time.)

He thinks that his beloved Grammy (that’s her in the picture, playing my Baldwin long ago) is responsible for all this. During a break in rehearsals for the heavenly choir, she overheard my friend’s mother in conversation with the man’s mother. 

Of course they’re all together in the heavenly choir. By definition, all three were music lovers, after all. (My mother was a professional mezzo soprano, and any choir would be lucky to have her. I heard the angels cheering when she arrived.)

“Your daughter needs to find a home for her piano?” she said to my friend’s mother. “My daughter lives in Dubois, and she dreams of having a piano again. I think we can arrange a miracle.”

Hearing that, in my version of the story, the man’s mother (who was a newcomer to the group) just smiled.

© 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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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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Background Checks

Dubois, by way of Abu Dhabi, Pakistan, and more …

More on the theme of misconceptions about Dubois, from a post written several years ago. Until you spend time here, it’s difficult to grasp the true nature of what looks at a glance like an old “cow town,” and often intentionally bills itself as such, because that pleases the tourists. But that’s hardly the whole story …

JacksonArch_editedThe man who had ordered the lattes was tall, patrician, lantern-jawed. He wore a fitted, aqua-blue down jacket. His female companion wore her hair cut blunt to the chin. I didn’t believe we had met.

“Where you from?” I asked (always eager to welcome visitors or newcomers).

“Jackson,” he replied. He seemed un-motivated to continue the conversation.

I explained the reason for my approach: We’re surveying tourists about how they plan their vacations. “I guess you didn’t have to do very much planning to drive over the Pass,” I said.

He gave a little laugh. “Nah. I’ve been coming out this way for years. In fact, my family is from Dubois.”

“Quite a bit different in Jackson,” I ventured.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I could never come back here. Not enough cultural interest.”

It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this kind of comment from someone in Jackson. The slight double-take when you say that you’ve come over from Dubois, that dull little back-country cowboy town.

His remark brought to mind the memory of breakfasts on road trips, at a diner in some small farm town. The old men in suspenders and baseball caps trading barbs with the waitress. The sense of inexorable boredom.

“You’re right,” I told the man. “You’re not likely to find a string quartet here in Dubois. I do enjoy coming over to Jackson for the summer music festival.”

JacksonSmiths“Yeah,” he said. “I hear it’s nice.”

This made me wonder exactly what he meant by the “cultural interest” he enjoys over there in Jackson. Maybe he meant the Asian tourists who crowd the Thai restaurants in off-season. To judge from the folks I see in the supermarket over there, it’s not exactly a melting pot.

I also wondered whether the owner of the coffee shop in Dubois had overheard the man’s remark as she was preparing his latte, and if so, what she was thinking about it. Being shy and soft-spoken, she wouldn’t join the banter.

As it happens, she comes here from the Philippines by way of Abu Dhabi.

Before the couple walked in, I had been telling my neighbor, a biology professor who runs the wildlife education program here. about someone she hasn’t yet encountered in town. A retired nuclear physicist, he always goes to Nepal for fun and has hiked Mount Everest several times.

One of my best friends in Dubois grew up in Pakistan and Singapore. A woman who lives up-mountain used to work for the Fed. The yoga instructor used to head a wilderness program for kids with learning disabilities. The man who takes the terrific nature photographs actually designs medical equipment by profession. Another man who worked for a long time here as a wrangler actually comes from Sweden.

Dubois1913“Tell me about yourself” usually starts a conversation well worth the time.

Dubois is in the middle of wilderness, true. Our most famous cafe is named Cowboy, and we keep our main street looking like something out of an old Western.

But there’s far more to it than you can see at first glance. One of the joys of being here is what we see as it reveals itself, but only slowly.

Time Warps in the Old West Times Square

Dates and timelines offer up curious parallels.

Away from my desk for a while. So I’m offering up some previous posts you may not have seen. This one published last year is completely relevant, because thoughts of our life left behind in the Brooklyn house still pop up now and then. Enjoy!

BanksWarmValley_croppedLocal historian Steve Banks gave another riveting talk a few weeks ago, this one about the history of traffic across this valley. Since then, I’ve been caught up in a sort of time travel.

I used to have the feeling that this Old West was much younger than the Back East I left behind. It must be part of the pioneer spirit you still feel out here, a sense of freshness and opportunity that reaches back from today’s new arrivals to the first intrepid white explorers.

Lately, I’ve been checking dates and making timelines. They parallel each other and resonate in very odd ways.

These four walls account for part of my confusion about time. They’re  made of huge logs felled nearby and chinked warmly together, much as the original settlers made their cabins. Our new house looks historic, but it is only decades old — far younger than the Victorian brownstone we left behind, which was built in 1880.

BrooklynHouseThe brownstone is 4 stories tall, has 4 bedrooms, and originally had a dining room and a receiving room for guests waiting to be admitted to the living room. It was remarkably modern for having central heating, fired by a coal furnace at the bottom.

In or around the same year it was built, Oran M. (“Old Man”) Clark, the first settler in this Wyoming valley, built his the first log cabin here — a windowless, one-room structure near the confluence of the Dunoir Creek and the Wind River. It too had “central heating,” People recalled that he often left the door open in winter so that he could run a huge log right across the middle of the room into the fireplace on the opposite wall. He would shift the log forward as it burned.

Clark didn’t file a homestead claim when he built the cabin, but he did claim to own the valley. Legend has it that in 1883, he raised his shotgun and ran off a party that included President Chester A. Arthur. He reportedly said that he had to give permission for anyone to enter the valley, and they didn’t have it. Wise men, they went to Yellowstone by another way.

For some reason he did, however, welcome John Burlingham and his son, who had come to Dubois to guide some dudes from Back East on a fishing trip. In fact, he coaxed the two men to return with their families, which they did in 1889.

For the first winter, the entire party stayed in Clark’s small, windowless log cabin. The following year they completed their own cabin, a few miles down the river. It was also windowless, with a dirt floor and a camp stove served by a pipe through the roof. A year later, Mahalia Burlingham gave birth to a stillborn daughter. Her husband John became the sought-after fiddler for dances across the entire region. He often left Mahalia alone with the children for months on end.

MabelsHill_1017According to Steve Banks, the first white man to visit the valley was probably a Kentuckian named John Dougherty. A fur trapper and trader, he fled south in 1810 from what is now Montana to escape an attack by Blackfoot Indians, crossing Shoshone Pass close to Ramshorn Peak and continuing down the Dunoir Valley to the Wind River. (This picture shows that valley.) A bullet from the attack remained in his side for the rest of his life.

Steve says that location, at the confluence of the Dunoir Creek and the Wind River about 12 miles west of the current town of Dubois, was like the Times Square of the Old West. The Valley of the Dunoir had been the north-south artery toward the crossroads of a  trade and migration route used by native Americans for time unknown. (The area has been part of the migration route for ancestors of the Shoshone for thousands of years.)

Early fur traders and explorers — men such as John Colter, John Hoback, and Jedediah Smith — passed this way, often guided by the natives.

WilsonPriceHuntIn 1811, a year after John Dougherty came down the Dunoir Valley with a bullet in his side, Wilson Price Hunt came through with a party of 68 people and 200 horses. Hunt was a co-owner of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, headed toward Fort Astoria on the Columbia River in the northwest, hoping to establish fur trade with Russia and China.

Steve pointed out that Hunt’s party and their horses would have filled two Greyhound buses and 6 semi trucks. It was probably the largest single group of people ever to visit this valley. No settlement existed here at the time, except for a small Shoshone village.

The party had run out of food by the time they reached the base of the Dunoir. The natives, ill-prepared to feed them, advised Hunt to continue southward, crossing the Wind River, and over the mountains toward the Green River, where there were plenty of bison. The hunting detour cost them two weeks of progress; they should have headed west, upriver, where a friendly fort was only a few days away.

Frontiersman and explorer Jedediah Smith came this way about a decade later, in the winter of 1823-24. He brought with him a fur trapper named Daniel Potts, whose family owned Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. Potts was the first man to record a description of the geysers in what is now Yellowstone.

RiverHe also described our valley. “From thence across the 2d range of mountains to Wind River Valley …” he wrote in a letter on July 16, 1826. “Wind River is a beautiful transparent stream, with hard gravel bottom about 70 or 80 yards wide, rising in the main range of Rocky Mountains … The valleys near the head of this river and its tributary streams are tolerably timbered with cotton wood, willow, &c. The grass and herbage are good and plenty, of all the varieties common to this country. In this valley the snow rarely falls more than three to four inches deep and never remains more than three or four days, although it is surrounded by stupendous mountains.”

The West was younger, yes, but not by as much as I thought. As Dougherty was fleeing down the Dunoir and Hunt’s party was pleading for food with Shoshones in a mountain village a year later, my former home town of Brooklyn was just a small settlement across a wide river from Manhattan.

It didn’t incorporate as a village until 1817, only about seven years before Potts crossed this valley and saw the geysers. In 1898, Brooklyn was swallowed up in the creation of the great city of New York.

OMClark_graveTwelve years after that, “Old Man” Clark froze to death, alone in his cabin, during a winter storm. His grave sits atop a small hill, marked by an obelisk and surrounded by a wrought iron fence.

He had left money to buy ample whiskey for a wake. It took many tries for the mourners, who had stoked themselves well with his whiskey in front of his fireplace, to succeed  in sliding his coffin up that slope over the icy ground.

But they did. Here is his grave.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.