First Day of Spring 2020: Sheltered in Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Lockdown in Dubois: Old Friends Distant, New Friends Closer

In our small rural town, an irony of the Coronavirus crisis

“New York is going to be on lockdown next week,” says our son on the phone.

“We already are,” I respond.

“How would you know?” my husband quips, and I laugh.

It’s mud-and-slush season, the time of year when our small rural town near Yellowstone Park falls very quiet, even under normal circumstances.

Few visitors pass through. We don’t get out much ourselves. We love to be outdoors, but spring here is just wet and slippery. My hiking boots will hang out outside the front door until mid-June.

Yesterday was typical for mid-March: Bright sunshine interspersed with waves of heavy, wet snow. It will all be gone by tomorrow.

Not so this pandemic, evidently.

The first known case of Coronavirus-19 has popped up in our thinly populated county. It’s the second case in Wyoming. Suddenly all my local meetings are video conferences, public places are closing down, and everyone seems to be staying indoors. (But we would be anyway.)

Taking the dog out for a walk, I chat with a neighbor taking out his garbage. His attitude is typical for rural Wyoming: Either you’ll catch it and survive, or you’ll catch it and die. I wave at another friend who is just back from a road trip. She tells me they have put themselves in self-quarantine after contact with all those strangers.

As for solitude, ironically the odds are good that I will be less lonely than usual as I continue to connect with people from my laptop. I’ve sat in on quite a few online conferences in the past few months, and made numerous new friends on video calls while growing my network of remote-work advocates — people riding the wave of the telecommuter economy.

This pandemic has their community buzzing, as so many public health and corporate leaders are encouraging people to work from home.

A few days ago, I got together for a Google chat with some new friends on GrowRemote, an international collaboration of towns working to take advantage of the growth of remote work. (It began to expand long before the current crisis, and I was part of that long ago).

There I am in the image, saying something that clearly has the attention of the other three on this screen, and it seems to be troubling to them. I don’t recall what it was. We had begun by talking about the current crisis and how each of our own locales was faring.

“We now live in a world in which we have to live in isolation,” Jonny had said.

Someone remarked about the difference between remote-work experts who were offering guidance to companies newly moving to remote work, and those entrepeneurs who were “monetizing” the crisis by promoting their online products to these companies. “We need to be high-minded right now,” he added. “Not individualistic.”

Rose mentioned that some hotels in Ireland were offering to deliver free meals to elderly people. “That’s what we need,” June replied. “Good news, because so much bad news is going on.”

It was very cordial, and although I’ve met only Rose before, by the end of the hour it felt almost as if we were all friends. Or if not exactly friends, at least colleagues meeting for the first time.

I’m invited to a virtual happy hour this Thursday on Zoom, the free video conference app. Besides Mitch and Stephanie from New York, I’m likely to meet Tyler from Fort Wayne, Nico from Tampa, Will from Boston, and Brandi from San Diego. Not to neglect Per in Poland, Bhagyashree in Germany, and Sherisa in Johannesburg.

How Daniel in New York will coordinate the drinking hours is an interesting question. Looks to me like Sherisa could join at midnight while Brandi gets an early start at 3 PM.

Coordinating time zones is one of the challenges of remote work — or, in this case, of relaxing remotely. So is loneliness and isolation. But I suspect my network will grow considerably as more and more remote-work advocates are in lockdown, wherever they are.

Looks like even in my remote, rural village in Wyoming, social events will be dropping away for a while. But if we get lonely, we can still do what we always do anyway: Invite someone out for a hike.

No physical contact, adequate clothes cover, friendly conversation. Good exercise and fresh air. Just clean your boots afterwards.

Actually close friends and new virtual friends. As June says, there can be good news in the midst of bad news.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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COVID in Dubois and Other (Remote?) Possibilities

Is there a threat? And if so, what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Dead of Winter in Dubois: Dreams and Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Life in Wyoming, With All Those Guns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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A New Kind of Pioneering

How many remote workers have the true vision of remoteness?

January 27, this past Monday, was the 100th anniversary of the day that Wyoming ratified the 19th amendment allowing women to vote. That was more than 50 years after the newly formed territory of Wyoming enacted women’s suffrage in its own right, in 1869, making it the first state or territory to do so.

It was a pioneering act, but then this state has an august history of women pioneers: The first woman to be elected justice of the peace. The first woman in the United States to vote. And countless pioneering women who left comforts back east to homestead here, alone or with companions.

It was all tough — the life, the travel, and the women themselves.

I used to muse about these pioneer women as we drove the long commute between New York and Dubois, back before we sold our house out east. Our route crossed the Oregon Trail.

I sometimes wondered what they would have thought if someone had told them, as they bounced along on wooden wheels or walked the dusty track beside the mules, that someday one would be able to make the same journey in a mere four days, using a keyboard on the lap (and what’s a keyboard, exactly?) to type messages that coworkers thousands of miles away could read in an instant.

Of course I hold these pioneer women in awe. The first non-native woman to settle in this beautiful valley, Mahalia Burlingame, lived alone for long stretches with her children when her husband, who was the only fiddler around, traveled off to play for country dances many miles away. She made toys for the kids out of twigs.

Alice Welty looks delicate in her photographs, but after she moved to Dubois from Baltimore with her husband in the late 1880s, she learned to rope and shoe horses, and once drove a grizzly out of a campsite. I would have gone into child’s pose and played dead.

After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, Mary Back moved to Dubois in the 1930s with her husband Joe, where they bought an abandoned ranch west of town. Their first sofa was the front seat of an old Chevrolet, their pillows were sugar sacks filled with elk hair collected off the property, and their kitchen cabinet was made of apple boxes.

That delightful person Esther Wells, whom I knew all too briefly before her death at age 105 or 106, once said that they were never warm during the long winters of her childhood at the homestead, unless they were right beside the fire. Back then there was no fleece–just stiff cotton canvas or itchy wool.

Her mother’s best friend was a neighbor who would often come by to borrow cooking pots, because she had only tin cans to cook in. They were poor because the husband didn’t work much on the homestead; he was always away prospecting for gold, to no avail. Esther herself once shooed a grizzly bear out of her ranch house kitchen with a broom.

Many of the homesteaders of a century or more ago left behind the crowding, high cost, and unclean realities of industrial cities with hopes of a better new life out West. On the day of that suffrage anniversary this week, I realized with a jolt that in a sense some of us out here are new kinds of pioneers, drawn here by the same kind of urge.

Of course, I have had it vastly easier than those women I so admire. But more than a decade ago, when my husband suggested moving to this place, at first I thought it was a crazy idea. After further thought and some research, we set off hopefully but perhaps too impulsively to start a new kind of life in this small village out West. Like the old homesteaders, we had no promise that the idea would work.

With considerable trepidation (because we had already bought our house in Dubois), I asked a boss in division headquarters in Connecticut whether I could work from Wyoming part of the year, as I had already proven I could work reliably from my home two hours away in Brooklyn. My good fortune was that he had the vision to accept my wacky proposal.

I wasn’t worried much about being attacked by dangerous animals or hostile natives, but I did have concerns. Would I be able to get good vegetables? (Yes.) Where would I find Thai food? (Next town over.) Would I be lonely? (Heavens, no.) Would it be frightening out there? (Not at all, and unlike New York City not in the least stressful.)

And very importantly, would the Internet be good enough? (Oh, yes it was, and increasingly so also during the long road trips when we traveled).

“The popularity of remote work has been climbing at a rate of nearly 140% for the past decade,” wrote Laurel Farrer, a consultant and champion of remote workers, last year in Forbes. But I’ve been looking into it, and for all that states like Utah and Vermont are actually paying remote workers to relocate there, I do not see in the online chats among remote workers and the wannabes the same vision of a radically new life that drove the original pioneers to places like Wyoming.

They want to work remotely, as in remote from company headquarters. But few as yet seem to want to live remotely. They simply seem to flock to smaller cities, which then become more crowded, chaotic, and costly.

Despite modern comforts like Amazon and Pandora, I’m sure it’s scary to become a true digital pioneer: to abandon the security of a regular job and the easy, familiar conveniences of urban life.

Perhaps it does not require the courage of Alice, Mary, and Mahalia. But for most city dwellers with a high-tech mindset, it must be a challenge to envision and appreciate the unique freedom, simplicity, and peace of a truly rural environment, especially one at the edge of wilderness, and then to seek it out.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Everywhere and Nowhere, in Wyoming and Cyberspace

Not only our skies are endless. Now, so are the possibilities.

“I think in 10 years the meaning of cities will change,” David Tabachnikov is saying. “Today, cities are focused on as places of work. The faster data improves, the more you can work remotely.”

Ah, yes, places of work. My mind wanders back to noisy newsrooms in the suburbs, and to skyscraper offices with an eagle’s view over the city to the river. Back over the miles and the years, to the place where “So what do you do?” was the first question, and the answer was always full of portent.

David is speaking with a Russian accent, but he’s somewhere in Belgrade, Serbia. I am sitting in my office upstairs in rural Dubois, Wyoming, looking at my monitor all morning for a second day. I’m bounded on all sides by a frame of large logs made of lodgepole pines, but I’m not really here.

Screenshot from 6nomads.com online Remote-first Conference
https://6nomads.com/remote-conf

As David speaks, the other participants in the Remote-First Online Conference chat with each other soundlessly, filling in a stream that flows down the right side of the screen. We are in Portugal, in China, in Virginia, in Moscow, in Brazil, in South Africa, in Utah, in the Ukraine. Everywhere and nowhere, because we could be anywhere. We’re in cyberspace.

“People can have the benefits of the city while far away from the city,” David continues. “You drive to a city an hour or so away two or three times a month to go shopping. But your cost of living is way lower. And your quality of living is way higher.”

Precisely.

“And it’s not just computer engineers any more,” he adds. “It’s architects. Psychiatrists. Even fortune tellers work on Skype. The most amazing this is that even medicine goes in this direction.”

(One of our family practitioners does telemedicine, I type down the chat stream. So does our drugstore.)

Being in rural Wyoming, I’m the novelty in this online conference of “digital nomads,” most of whom seem to be sitting in some city or other.

How matters have evolved since I first began to explore the telecommuter community about five years ago! Back then, there were a few weekly “tweetups,” where a host would struggle to inspire a few lonely outsourced freelances in chats dominated by marketing messages from startups that hoped to sell them software.

This year, there are at least 3 “off-line” (e.g., participants physically present) conferences specifically for remote workers. One begins tomorrow in Chang Mai, Thailand. A second will be in Austin, Texas, in April and a third in November in the Canary Islands.

Ad for Running Remote conference 2020 Austin Texas
https://runningremote.com/

The chat turns to climate–to how cold it is right now, in late evening in Moscow, compared to afternoon in Montreal. I lean back, rest my feet on the heated baseboard, and look away briefly, out the window. The ideas that keep floating toward me through the ether almost take my breath away.

For instance: Some new Internet companies explode the barriers of space and time, because by having people work across many time zones they can have 24/7 productivity all year. Hiring remotely allows them to find the best employees regardless of where people live, rather than competing in the relatively small talent pool wherever the firm is located.

Part of table showing information about remote-work employers

Salaries for computer engineers who work remotely from, say, India, are considerably higher than their own local firms will pay, because most companies that employ remote workers pay close to US salaries. (I type into the chat stream: What are the implications for third world economies?)

Someone types in a note of sympathy for our moderator over there in China, charming Ksenia, whose accent suggests Eastern European origins. Working for the second day at 3 AM, she’s looking tired. We wish her a cup of coffee. She says she doesn’t drink coffee; she likes tea. We ask her to hang in there. Someone recommends trying loud background music, and she asks what kind we’d like to hear.

Teamwork takes on a different form for digital nomads. Many of the speakers stress that good communication is of paramount importance, and technology to enhance it is evolving rapidly. One speaker demonstrates his new app, an online whiteboard. We try it out together, posting our ideas on virtual multicolored “Post-Its.” The chat stream applauds it loudly with emojis.

New forms of mingling go far beyond online meetings. I hear about an online pizza delivery service that will send pizzas to whole teams of remote workers, wherever they are, at the same time. Some remote-work teams have after-work happy hours on Zoom or Skype, when everyone brings a drink to the webcam.

The most successful all-remote firms, I hear, get together once or twice a year in what they call “off-site” retreats–an odd term for companies that no longer have a site. The idea of physical retreats may seem counter-intuitive for remote-work employers, but they do have benefits in terms of productivity. Communication improves greatly, speakers say, after people have spent a week in each other’s presence discussing the past year, planning the next year, and then getting outdoors together.

How it would inspire communications to hike in our wilderness! My best ideas don’t come during hikes, but they surely help to clear my head and I have some great conversations with my hiking buddy who likes to talk philosophy.

Canyon east of Dubois Wyoming

I think in 10 years the meaning of a mountain village will change too. We will no longer be a mere gas stop on the way to Yellowstone Park. The Park will just be one of the jewels in our crown, an ace in our hand.

Another will be our flawless Internet service, which is already world-class. A third will be that same beautiful seclusion that for so long has seemed a problem. Still another could be the very fact that we are not a city, not just a “place of work.”

Our industry will not be hewing giant logs from the forest, as it once was, but hewing concepts and designs from thin air and floating them down quite a different kind of stream to be processed further. This is quite clear to me now.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Rethinking Remoteness

Desolate? Isolated? Not the right image at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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On Learning How to Be

I had so much else to do! And then I saw this sign.

It was Saturday, the last day of November. The next day would be the start of Advent, that season of penance which, in the words of my favorite spiritual guide, is meant “to get you better fit for what’s to come, by cleaning you and trimming you and training you.”

Winter had arrived suddenly, like an unwelcome in-law, dropping nearly a foot of snow. It was difficult to see the lines on the highway as I drove toward town.

This was not what I had planned for the day. I had emails to respond to and documents to prepare. But I found myself diverted, to help a snowbound friend whose car was stuck in her driveway.

I had volunteered to help, but I was rebelling. I had so much else to do!

And then I saw this sign. The complete message used to read “Be alert. Deer on highway.” I don’t know why, but for several days it had been conveying this truncated, existential message. That morning, it gave me pause.

Simply be. That brought to mind the words of author Eckhard Tolle, whose focus is on the meaning of being, and especially of being in the moment.

“Whatever the present moment contains,” he wrote, “accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.”

Maybe I sighed. Anyway, I drove on in a new frame of mind towards Superfoods, to do what my friend had scheduled for that time. I put on the apron and began to greet people coming in the door, to thank those who slipped something into the slot in the bucket and then to ring the little red bell.

Perhaps echoing the next word that was missing from that electronic highway sign, I felt unusually alert.

Neighbors stamped snow off their boots and opened heavy scarves as they passed my stool. There was lots of chatter with the cashiers.

All roads east and southbound, I heard, had been closed by snow on this morning two days after Thanksgiving. Not only was my friend snowbound in her own home; some people who had come to visit our town for the weekend were now trapped here, and kept away from theirs.

There were various responses to this predicament. I overheard one young man who came to visit his parents, and would now have to miss something important back at work. I wished he could have seen that sign. “Worry pretends to be necessary,” Tolle has written, “but serves no useful purpose.”

Someone else inquired how to get a permit to cut a Christmas tree in the forest. “You’ve come all the way from Casper to get a Christmas tree?” I asked, and then realized: Being trapped, he’d decided to make the best of it. I wished him a tree full of good memories.

That day I never did get to those other things I had meant to do. Instead, we tried to dig my friend’s car out of the snow. The drifts were soft as powdered sugar; the snow sparkled as I tossed it off the shovel. Our effort was doomed to failure; her car spun endlessly on a patch of ice concealed by the white.

As the light waned into evening, we made room for her in our own back seat and drove off toward town to enjoy the Christmas concert by songwriter Skip Ewing. Skip and his wife Linda made Dubois their home town last year. Once again, he had decided to welcome the season in our company, among his new friends.

As he introduced his songs, Skip sometimes bragged about the famous people who had recorded them or the famous places they had been performed. He’s so likeable that we are willing to overlook this, because he surely knows his way around a guitar, and something about his manner makes us feel like neighbors rather than an audience. If anything could make me live in the moment that evening, it was his unspoken invitation to add our own voices to his in singing “Silent Night.”

Welcome, Advent. The snow has returned, and with it the long quiet evenings in my home several miles outside a remote small town in Wyoming. As the frantic holiday season approaches, I can mentally rebel against these realities of winter. Or (constitutionally A-type ex-urbanite that I am) I can use them as reminders that there are realities more important than my constant busy-ness.

Like the snow, I can drift sometimes. Perhaps exactly when I feel I have too much to do, I will remember to emulate the brilliant stars in the dark sky outside, and simply be.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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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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