A unique and extraordinary option for remote-work teams
I kept glancing away from my lunch companion, avoiding her gaze. I felt things had started badly.
During our visit that morning in March, Lazy L&B Ranch had been deserted and silent. Sheets covered chairs. Mattresses leaned against walls.
It felt impossible to convey to Jennifer Pryor the life-changing sense of liberation I experienced in this cabin at that ranch many years ago, back when there was no such word as “workation,” let alone a concept or a hashtag. I was working on a book manuscript. My kids were riding horses. Seeing the vast open spaces breathed life into my work.
It will surely be the same for the many guests who fill Lazy L&B later this year, like all those who have posted 5-star reviews on TripAdvisor ever since we visited long ago. I just couldn’t bring them alive to her on this wintry day.
On this day in late winter, I had the impression that to her and to anyone just passing through, it must seem that this charming village surrounded by wilderness was dying. How unfortunate, and how untrue.
She must have noticed the For Sale signs on several motels. I explained that these aren’t pandemic casualties — the owner of one is retiring, and another relocating for family reasons. But even to me, these sounded like excuses.
Just as we can’t see the buds of wildflowers yet to explode into bloom, no casual visitor can see what Jennifer eventually discovered: Dubois is burgeoning with change. Ripe to reopen.
After lunch, we launched into a busy itinerary. At 3 Spear Ranch, just at the edge of town, Creed Garnick proudly showed us how layers of sheet rock have been cleared away in the main lodge to reveal the ancient logs beneath. The team had just been installing heated flooring beneath a claw-footed bathtub in the latest cabin to be upgraded.
After a few years of soft opening, the ranch is primed to welcome outside groups to an upscale establishment that offers elegant but rustic meeting rooms, as well as so much to do after work, from wilderness hikes to horseback rides to evening dips in a hot spring.
The next morning, Jen stopped by the legendary CM Ranch, which opened more than a century ago and has been offering respite and recreation to many generations of families — just not (yet) to company retreats. (That’s Jen at left, with manager Mollie Sullivan in front of one of the cabins.)
As a resident of nearby Lander, Jen has passed through Dubois often, and stopped for lunch or to let her children use the playground in the park. “I never had any idea how much there was here that you can’t see from the highway,” she told me. We were visiting the gallery of Western art hidden away in an upper floor of the conference facility, the Headwaters Center. She said it would be a great spot for intimate meetings.
Afterwards, we met in the Headwaters lobby with Robert Betts and his sister Lindsey Judd. Robert runs the Cutthroat Fly Shop, which is located in a historic building at the main intersection of town. Lindsey and her husband manage the Absaroka Ranch, which has hosted retreats for nonprofit organizations for many years.
They seemed glad for the chance to see each other, and spoke about collaborating more. Meanwhile, we learned that Robert plans to expand the fly shop this summer, to offer much more gear and to rebrand the business as “booking central,” a one-stop shop where visitors can reserve outdoor adventures such as guided wilderness hikes and float trips.
Next I took Jen to an unmarked building near the west edge of town, which is Never Sweat Lodge. If you hadn’t found it online, you’d never know that behind that red door is a space beautifully fitted out for snowmobile and wedding groups, with lodgepole pine beds, a large kitchen with a huge board table, a bar, a pool table, and 6 bedrooms (with much more lodging available right next door at the Super 8 motel). Owner Logan Vaughan is eager to add remote-work teams to his customer base.
The fortress-like edifice rising next to the Post Office is also not what it appears from the street. Family Dollar is not expanding; Nana’s Bowling Alley and Bakery has been rising behind it. Who knows? Bowling might also have some appeal as a team-building activity.
Personally, I would prefer hiking in the wilderness, as regular readers know. But then, Dubois stands ready to appeal to all sorts of people with many different preferences.
Maybe not surfing, I remarked to Creed Garnick, as he showed us where the swimming hole will fill up at 3 Spear Ranch later this spring, after he drops the dam wall in front of the stream.
“I don’t know,” he replied with a smile. “We’ll look into it.”
So much more gratifying than taking a stroll to the vending machines.
I’m sitting in my warm, bright office under the gable, admiring the view of mountains that look like they’ve been dusted with sugar.
Why would anyone want to live through the winter in Dubois? The question troubled my mind recently, during two days of uninterrupted snowfall and subzero temperatures, but just now the answer seems obvious.
I’m thinking of good friends in Texas whose pipes are frozen today, and I can think of one good reason. We’re prepared to deal with winter here.
In fact, by and large, we enjoy it. That’s why we stay, and we’re hardly the first to do so. For more than a century, some people have chosen to live out their winters in this beautiful, isolated spot.
For many of us, getting outdoors is a priority. That’s why we’re here, in fact, and why it’s such a great location for remote work. Here (as I have said often before) getting away from the desk can be a much more gratifying experience than taking a stroll to the vending machine cubicle.
An article in the Wall Street Journal this week underscores the difference. “For Better Health During the Pandemic, Is Two Hours Outdoors the New 10,000 Steps?” asks the headline.
That’s two hours a week, according to the studies, which for me and most of my neighbors is a laughably small amount of time to enjoy doing what the article calls “forest bathing.”
That would break down to 20 minutes each day except Sunday. Turn back 10 minutes after hitting the trail? Ridiculous.
The article describes a study by a Stanford University researcher who compared the effects of a 45-minute walk on two groups of people. One group went up and down some hills in “nature,” the other walked along a busy but tree-lined thoroughfare.
“There was a massive difference,” in cognitive performance afterward, the researcher said. “It’s not like they were in Yosemite or the wilderness,” but the nature walkers clearly benefited more from their stroll. “A 45-minute walk in nature,” she added, “can make a world of difference to mood, creativity, the ability to use your working memory.”
And how much greater is the benefit when you actually are hiking in wilderness, a short drive from home?
On the very same day I saw that report, I was delighted to learn that the winter outdoor pleasures near our little town of Dubois were the subject of an entire article in Forbes.
Myself, I prefer the more quiet pleasures of trekking on snowshoes, but Wendy Altschuler describes going on a snowmobile tour a bit farther up the pass.
She ends with the moment when her guide stopped at a lookout, suggested turning the machinery off, and asked “Do ya hear that?”
She shook her head no, and he smiled and replied “exactly.”
It’s so easy to get away and forget your troubles, whatever they are, by pondering the flight of an eagle across a vast swath of sky or by following a woodland trail blazed by countless deer and elk.
Is this why a new analysis by the personal finance firm WalletHub ranks Wyoming as the “least sinful” state in the nation? The rankings are based on seven indicators including anger and hatred, jealousy, greed, vanity, and laziness, as judged by all sorts of measures such as health-related habits and crime statistics.
I would rephrase that ranking for our state as “most virtuous.” Virtuous might seem a rather grandiose description for people like me and my neighbors, but to be fair I see little of those vices listed above.
And I would place a lot of the credit for that on “forest bathing.”
Or mountain biking, or rock climbing, or hiking the badlands, or fly fishing. Or, just now, trudging around in the snow all bundled up in sheepskin and wool. Even below zero, with enough layers, I’m not at all cold.
Cancer survivors, veterans, artists, photographers — why not coders and other techies?
The idea is so obvious I’m annoyed that I didn’t think of it myself.
How can we reach remote workers who would be grateful to know about Dubois, our charming Wyoming village surrounded by wilderness, with world-class Internet service?
How, indeed? Invite remote-work employers to hold their team retreats here.
Dubois has all the facilities for these retreats–many different options–and unmatched opportunities for activities to inspire innovative ideas and team-building after the day’s work is done.
The suggestion came from Highest Peak Consulting, a marketing firm that doesn’t actually exist. It was invented as part of a senior-year project by a team of marketing students at the University of Wyoming, whose professor kindly offered me the opportunity to present our challenge to her class.
Four young people put their heads together and came up with a very bright idea.
What’s most irritating is that I already knew what they didn’t: Dubois has been a retreat center for generations. Some groups come back every year, drawn by our very remoteness, our spectacular and varied landscape, and our charming facilities.
Most of these events are sponsored by nonprofits, not businesses. The participants are cancer survivors, veterans with PTSD, songwriters, photographers, dancers, and people in search of spiritual renewal.
Why not also remote-work teams? It is becoming a best business practice to hold remote-team retreats at least once a year, to improve communication and instill collaboration among coworkers who meet most often via email, Slack, and Zoom.
Probably the first “retreat” sponsor in the Dubois area was Charles Moore. The son of a local trader, he returned to Wyoming after graduating law school in Michigan and founded the Ramshorn Ranch and Yellowstone Camp in 1912. Meant to inspire citified boys with the wonders of the West, the ranch sat in a stream-side grove of trees that happens to be visible from my dining room.
Years later, when that burned down, he founded the CM Ranch, a few miles to the east, which has hosted generations of families every summer for welcome escapes from the madness of city life. These aren’t actually retreats; they’re vacations. But the impulse and the outcome are similar.
One of the longest-running retreats in the area is the artists’ workshop run by the Susan K. Black Foundation, held every year in September at the Headwaters Center. After their first workshop in Colorado, they’ve been coming here for 20 years.
The Foundation’s board had planned to travel to a different location every year. But after coming to Dubois, “we enjoyed it so much we never left,” said director of education Wanda Mumm.
What keeps drawing them back? The diversity of the landscape, she said, all the history of the region, the fact that every year she wants to find a different kind of landscape to paint and “it never fails me.”
There’s also the reality that “we need a reasonably priced area for artists who don’t have a lot of money. Dubois allows us to do that.”
Many organizations retreat to guest ranches in the back country. Others, like the Susan K. Black artists, meet at the Headwaters Center and stay at one of the many motels in town. Their annual workshop usually draws about 125 participants, Mumm told me, about 75-80% of whom are repeat attendees.
“They’re always so enthusiastic about coming to the area,” she added. “It’s interesting how even after 20 years, the artists keep looking forward to it.”
For many of them, she said, “It’s kind of like a family reunion.”
Of course, software engineers and IT consultants need to regroup and renew their inspiration and creativity every bit as much as writers, painters, sculptors. The magic in these mountains can work for anyone.
I am writing from a small chicken farm just outside a distant suburb of Austin, Texas, where we have relocated for a few months (for reasons that have nothing to do with this blog or with Dubois).
It’s great to have free eggs from these free-range chickens. But it was a rude surprise to find that here, only an hour from one of the hottest Internet hubs in the nation, the Internet signal in our guest cottage was so weak that I couldn’t use video on a Zoom call.
I don’t merely miss the flawless Internet back home. I miss hiking trails that don’t resemble eroded garden paths for giants with badly hewn stone staircases, where you can never look around because you must always look down. I miss my routine. I miss our community.
Perhaps this is how you feel as a digital nomad, one of those vagabonds who works on the Internet and travels the world with no fixed home. Given the challenges of the pandemic, social media groups about digital nomads are abuzz with the disadvantages of that lifestyle. Sampling vacation spots and writing posts from a beach chair may sound idyllic, but there are realities that begin to pixelate that rosy image.
Even before the pandemic, travel could be a headache. Besides that and the risk of spotty Internet, there’s the inconvenience of packing and unpacking in new places all the time.
Like a perpetual tourist, you never have sufficient time to connect with the local community. Your only community lives on your screen.
In a blog about the future of remote work, one of the original digital nomads, Pieter Levels, talks poignantly about why he gave up the wandering life. He predicts that when the pandemic is behind us, tech workers who are able to live anywhere “will NOT be fast-traveling from place to place, but instead will relocate longer-term to remote work destinations.”
What could this mean for communities like Dubois, which rely heavily on tourism?
Until now, I’ve focused on attracting digital workers who already have a home base elsewhere, and on whether or not Dubois should establish a co-working space for them. But this week I learned of something that reordered my thoughts.
It was an online conversation between Rowena Hennigan, who comes from Ireland but lives in Spain, and Gonçalo Hall, who is in Portugal. Both are remote-work advocates, and I’ve spoken separately with each of them on LinkedIn about our project to promote remote work in Dubois.
In a recent podcast, Rowena interviews Gonçalo about a government-sponsored plan to build a new community for digital nomads on the remote Portuguese island of Madeira, located west of the coast of Morocco. He says that the island is (like Dubois) “practically unexplored by any digital nomads or remote workers.”.
Gonçalo goes on to describe the same kind of loneliness that Pieter Levels portrays so poignantly. “Lisbon has a lot of digital workers just now,” he says, “but it’s not a community, because it’s just too big. I miss being with people. I miss the sense of belonging…. I think other digital nomads and other remote workers miss it too.”
So he intends to build a whole new village for them on Madeira.
The project will be based in the town of Ponta do Sol, which (quite unlike Dubois) has “no life to the village,” except for the tourists who come to see the sun set over the ocean. Afterwards, he said, they go down to the village looking for something, and find nothing.
“It should be full of people living there,” he said. “… We want them to create co-working spaces and co-living spaces. … It’s not just a project, it’s a sustainable future.”
Dubois already has its own case study of a former digital nomad, in the person of travel blogger Di Minardi. Perhaps a few readers will remember her name, because last spring I spent a great deal of effort searching for a place where she could stay.
Di approached me via LinkedIn a year ago, having seen my posts about Dubois. She proposed to come for the summer and to feature the area on her blog Slight North. Because the blog is targeted to remote workers, I jumped at the offer.
Naturally, we kept in close touch after that. Why, I asked, was she interested in Dubois, of all places? (If you don’t know the town yet, check out the link.) Because it sounded interesting, she said–but that wasn’t the whole story.
For reasons related to the pandemic, Di had to cancel the plan, and we agreed to revisit the idea after this crisis is over. She re-contacted me a few weeks ago, but for a different reason: To ask for a recommendation to a program in environmental writing at the University of Wyoming.
During the long, forced pause of the pandemic, Di told me, she began to realize that she needed a real-life community of mentors who could help her advance her skills, in the direction of a career with more impact than just describing places to visit.
Why that particular program? Because of the curriculum and the instructors, but also because of the location. Di told me that she has wanted to visit Wyoming for a long time, and was eager to experience living here.
As a science writer and now a friend, I was pleased to write the letter.
Of course, I’ll invite Di to come to Dubois once the “new normal” sets in. Then I will also ask her what we could do to make Dubois an attractive home base for her, and for other online workers who have tired of the wandering life. How can we fulfill their desires for their own community, not just for ours?
Our basic needs do align: They want something more than just a place to visit, and we want to be that.
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.”
On the mismatch between Zoom and “real life,” and more …
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of another team that formed and worked entirely on Zoom and Slack, without anyone meeting in person for the first six months,” Dennis Ellis of Microsoft said to me two weeks ago.
Ellis was referring to the leadership team of the Wyoming Technology Coronavirus Coalition (WTCC). Created last March, the all-volunteer group of several hundred tech-savvy people (including me) has been able to engage online in the most sparsely populated state in the nation, remaining productive in coordinated activities to address the pandemic, rather than just fretting about it.
We’ve made masks. We’ve made maps. We’ve built apps. We’ve prepared white papers on wastewater testing. We’ve kept very busy.
Meanwhile, during a time of tremendous divisiveness, somehow we have remained cohesive and cordial, whatever our differences in age, gender, profession, and politics. I can’t recall a single meeting when we did not resolve disagreements easily and reach consensus without conflict.
I met Ellis during coffee break at the Wyoming Global Technology Summit in Jackson Hole. All but one of the original leadership team had signed up to attend. (Nicholas was engaged elsewhere, managing a hackathon.) As a result, we had been invited to make a presentation. So in a sense the occasion was serendipity.
Most of the team drove to Jackson from Cheyenne and Laramie, in the tech-heavy southeast corner of the state. Jeremiah flew down from Cody in his own small plane, and I drove over Togwotee Pass from Dubois. Until we joined up in Jackson, we had never laid eyes on each other in the same physical space.
Long before the presentation at the Summit, we had already won public recognition from the Governor, during one of his many COVID press briefings.
Thus, despite all the debate about the practicality and effectiveness of all-remote teams, I believe we’ve shown that it’s possible to make great achievements in the purely digital space, if members are sufficiently committed, collaborative, and comfortable with the technology.
On the evening before the Summit, I was first to arrive at the restaurant where we would meet for dinner. Eager to meet my colleagues at last, I felt as if I was awaiting a family reunion, or even better than that.
I was delighted to see Lars and Tyler approaching me, in the company of a stranger. It took a few moments to register that the third man was Jeremiah, whom I knew just as well. Later, we spoke about the slight mismatch between Zoom and “real life,” and decided that it could relate to camera angle. Unless the camera is directly face-on with your face, we decided, you may seem less involved in Zoom meetings and a less-familiar member of the team..
As we all agreed afterwards, we didn’t spend enough time networking during the Summit. At the networking event after the sessions closed, we spent most of the time hanging out with each other on the terrace, rather than joining the (largely un-masked) crowd inside to make contacts.
We also chose to skip the networking breakfast at the end of the Summit, quickly agreeing that we would rather go on a hike together before driving home.
“I just said, heck, I would rather hang out with these people I’ve spent six and a half months with,” acknowledged our leader Eric Trowbridge, who is the founder of the Cheyenne-based Array School of Design and Technology. Clearly the rest of us felt the same.
On a glorious, golden Indian-summer Wyoming morning, we chatted, stopped to take pictures, and tried to avoid tripping over Tyler’s dogs as we hiked a trail at the base of the Grand Tetons. It was easy to keep a sociable distance.
During online seminars this year, I’ve heard many remote-work experts say that holding a team retreat is important to a team’s success. Of course, ours wasn’t a typical “corporate” retreat, because we spent nearly all our time together socializing. As far as I know, there was almost no talk about our business agenda.
That said, the major purpose of remote-team retreats is similar, giving coworkers who are rarely together a chance to soak in body language, subtle facial expressions, and the other kind of interpersonal impressions that happen only in person.
“We focus on the social and the casual,” said Natalie Nagele, founder of Wildbit, when she spoke during an online 2020 Running Remote conference about her own team retreats. That means replacing conference tables with couches and sofas in a communal living space somewhere, she added, and preferably not in a city where there are “so many distractions.”
My small, rural Wyoming town of Dubois would be ideal: remote, beautiful, with plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy together (and an easy drive from Jackson). In fact, I wish the WTCC team had met in Dubois before the Summit, rather than during the conference, which was a distraction too.
It wasn’t easy to say goodbye to my new old friends after the hike. But at least unlike an ordinary family reunion, I knew we’d see each other again in a few days, back on Zoom. Now the regular joke about disagreements between me and Lars feels much easier, because I know we are friends.
It’s not easy to get in, but members are glad they did.
“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.”
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.”
Bright and promising, in place of the old and familiar.
The wind has cleared away the choking haze from the Lone Star fire in Yellowstone, and yesterday we could rejoice once more in a splendid, bracing Indian summer day. Time to get back outdoors.
Tramping around in the woods, I got slightly and happily lost. I generally knew my way, because this is one of my favorite stomping grounds.
A few years ago, these woods were cleared in places by our own Lava Mountain fire. I mourned the “burn,” because it eliminated some of my favorite paths and views. But as a tourist pointed out to me last week, around here you don’t run out of places to hike.
Emerging into the clear, I found this glorious sight: A new aspen grove springing up among the charred trunks.
That’s the way it goes sometimes. The old and familiar is destroyed. Then, a while later, something bright and promising emerges.
Just as I was putting the phone away after snapping this image, I was startled to hear it ring. I haven’t had signal in that area before.
A cellphone call can spoil the contemplations of a hike, but I took this one. In conversation with a friend, I led the dog on up the dirt road toward the creek, where I stumbled on something equally startling.
I’m accustomed to seeing the huge spools of orange cable sitting beside the highway or traveling on the back of a truck. But I’ve never seen those cables lying on the ground in the forest, in one of my go-to hiking spots.
They trailed on up toward the creek, partly buried already.
Look how healthy the trees are right here, only yards from those charred trunks. Among other features of our landscape that were spared, the firefighters worked very hard to save the campgrounds in this forest.
Both locals and national experts about wildfires say that one reason our forests keep burning nearly out of control is because, long ago, the Powers That Be killed off most logging activity. The result was large, dense stands of aged trees that are now vulnerable to disease and fire.
The lumber mill in Dubois closed nearly a half century ago. Our town has hung on by its fingernails ever since, taking advantage of its tourism assets while awaiting a new lifesaving industry that would bring back the year-round jobs.
So I saw those cables-in-waiting as both a sign of loss and a sign of hope. For me personally, it could mean losing another isolated hiking spot close to home. But for our region, it is reason for optimism.
Certainly, good broadband will soon reach much farther up-mountain. There could also be a Wifi hub right next to the pit toilet near the campsites. That would give digital nomads — those full-time Internet workers who haven’t yet decided to settle down — the opportunity to hang out for a while in our wilderness, while discovering the joys of the Wind River region.
Here’s another go-to hiking spot that delivered a surprise, back in the summer. This is a valley where the dog and I love to hike, also not far from home. When I first saw the view you see in the image at left, I gave a sigh at the sight of those ridges pointing off toward the far distance, on either side of that empty plain.
To judge from the picture on the right, others have had the same reaction. The circles are new cabins. The dirt roads that lead to them must be pretty rutted right now, but I’m sure that will change. I’m also fairly sure these people will soon be served by another orange cable–if they aren’t already.
Do they already know, or will they soon discover the fact? This is an ideal place to pursue what is now called “remote work” in a truly remote location.
Last week, some plein air painters from the annual Susan K. Black Foundation workshop set up on our back porch. It looked like they were either peering through the smoky haze or just trying to imagine what lay beyond, as they worked to capture the image of those mountains on canvas.
Meanwhile, an instructor used our broadband to live-stream a painting demonstration for artists elsewhere who had opted out of traveling to the workshop this year, because of COVID.
The Foundation has been holding workshops here every summer for 20 years, one member told me, because they love the scenery, the serenity, and the down-to-earth people.
She nailed it. This year, they also appreciate the terrific broadband, out here in the wild at the base of the mountains.
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 Heritagesuggests 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.
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.