Going Wild Between Work and Dinner

The road would end soon, and then there’s only wilderness.

071317_5“It doesn’t get any better than this,” said my friend Ted, visiting from Arizona.

When I didn’t respond, he repeated himself. “It doesn’t get any better than this”–echoing some of the first words I ever wrote on this blog.

“Yeah,” I replied, “when somebody else is doing all the work.”

A bit snarky, Ted. I apologize. Even in this little out-of-the-way piece of heaven, it’s possible to get over-stressed in high tourist season when you actually have to wait a while before pulling out of the driveway, and when you can’t find a parking spot at the hardware store.

IMG_0140The worst of it is when, like so many other people in town, you’re so busy helping out with the events that make this town great in the summer (like Neversweat Rendezvous this month and everything that will happen around the total eclipse in August) that you can’t get around to the pleasures that brought you here in the first place. It gets overwhelming. I want to escape.

Back in New York, when I’d get to this mental place during a work day, I’d head off at lunch hour toward the riverfront, where the sky opens out, and look over at New Jersey or Manhattan. This time, at my workday’s end, I deliberate briefly and decide to go up to the other side of the splendid view out our own window. I put on my boots, call the dog, and start the long drive up to the top of the valley.

071317_2Stopping at a logging road I never noticed before, I park and step out of the car. Immediately I smell horses and notice their tracks. Some lucky folks are off on a pack trip.

The road is gentle and shaded. It takes us downhill toward a large meadow. Beyond the sounds of flies and cattle, the dog and I are completely alone–until the mosquitoes find us, and we turn back.

It’s been a good walk, and I’m much calmer, but I’m not finished yet. I turn the car back uphill, away from home. The road switches back and forth, and keeps rising.

071317_4After a long while, the forest falls away and there they are: The same mountains we can see from our window, but so much closer, so huge and so rugged.

The road would end soon, and then there’s only wilderness. I wish I could walk all the way across, but I can’t. I’m not nearly strong or brave enough.

I think of the Native Americans and Mountain Men who did cross them. I think of geology and eternity. I breathe in the clear mountain air, and notice the lupine and the noisy bees.

Time to head back; there’s salad to be made for dinner. I pause to count my blessings. Here’s where I go to get away from the place others come to as a getaway.

As he said, it doesn’t get any better than this.

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© Lois Wingerson, 2017

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.

Wyoming to Africa: The Workday of a Health Information Specialist

At a remote ranch in the US West, helping Africa share its medical research.

Thanks to Julia Royall for this guest blog, part of a series about people who work remotely from Dubois.

Before first light, as I am just beginning my day in Wyoming, my colleagues in East Africa are about to end theirs.  After a first quick cup of tea, I scurry to respond to email messages. Or I take a quick look in the mirror and make the necessary adjustments to ready myself for a video meeting convened by Ernie, our project assistant based in Seattle.  In attendance: Me, in Wyoming, my coworker Becky in Maryland, and our colleagues in Africa.

They are medical librarians in Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Mali–part of a network that has developed important projects, from an electronic training manual to a health information center for Masai people in Kenya.  Currently, they are creating an African Digital Health Library, an online repository of indigenous research, so that people anywhere who want to know about health care research in Africa can find out what has already been done on location.

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My role, for the past 25 years, has been as a facilitator. Starting in 1990 as part of a team enabling some of the sub-Sahara’s first access to the Internet and electronic health information, I have been lifting up African voices by any means possible, to present their scientific findings, their health priorities, and their proposals for new solutions to old scourges — malaria, AIDS, and TB — as well as the chronic diseases of cancer, hypertension, and diabetes.

Today, I’m working with Masimba, a young medical librarian in Zimbabwe whose library features a strong collection.  He is working to build a digital repository joining libraries around his country—and even a mobile app—that will allow worldwide sharing of research in Zimbabwe and Ministry of Health reports, priorities, and guidelines.

Of course, my work isn’t all online. Often I travel from Wyoming to Africa. At the Sheraton Hotel in Uganda, when the security guard at the gate leans into my car to ask my driver who I am, Moses says simply, “Figure 1.” The guard lets us through without a word.

I’m not sure how this code got started, but “Figure 1” is the guard code of a security firm in Kampala. It means either “white woman” or “all is well.” That says a lot about privilege, a concept I have struggled with my entire career of working and sometimes living in Africa. No matter how I cut the cake, I am a seemingly wealthy white woman from the West. The term Figure 1 presumes that as a white female, I could probably do no harm or make too many waves. It is a sign of impotent privilege.

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I was born and bred on the gentle marshes of Charleston, South Carolina, where I first came to appreciate a transported African culture through the Gullah people of the Lowcountry. I now find myself watching the wide sky from a ranch just outside of Dubois.

My husband’s mother bought properties here over 50 years ago (Spring Ranch, where we live, and Ring Lake Ranch, where she started an ecumenical retreat center), when she left the East forever and became a pastor in an even smaller town nearby.  After years of travel and interesting work in research and policy, we too, have left the high-gear life of the East coast to make Dubois our full-time base.

Here, we can watch the badlands turn various shades of red and then fade to silhouette as night begins to fall.  Remote rural silent sunsets here in Wyoming are equal in brilliance to those I’ve seen in African countries, but there is a major difference.

Although both sunsets herald the end of day, the nights are different. In Dubois, night is blessedly silent, and usually domed with a cascade of stars.

The night sky in Uganda is also lit, but with the lights of night life in cities or fireflies in the village. The nights in Africa have a sense of urgency and action and possibility.

Africa is not the “dark continent” many still believe it to be (as evidenced by all the fly-by health mission trips and schools of “global health” that have sprung up with development dollars and under-employed graduate students from the US). If we really believed that African countries had potential, we would be supporting their capacity and their own health priorities, sharing all of our glitzy tools, rather than engaging in “development tourism” and neo-colonial research.

From the serene location of Dubois, using the Internet, I will continue to do all I can to help them move their own projects forward.

Julia Royall retired from her position as chief of the Office of International Programs at the US National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine. She continues to work as a health information specialist from Dubois.

 

A Refuge From “Grinding Realities”

Not the most comfortable place to make a living, but an exceptionally fine place to make a life.

FirepotPrescott, Arizona. It’s our annual spring get-away, an opportunity to do things we couldn’t do in Dubois.

We try out new hikes in different places. We purchase the items on our long-saved list for big box stores.

We have terrific meals in specialty restaurants that probably couldn’t survive year-round in our tiny, remote village in the wilderness.

We see different views. The vistas back home are spectacular indeed, but there’s nothing anywhere to match the  Grand Canyon–and it’s a mere day trip from here.

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It’s lovely here, and we enjoy Prescott a great deal. It’s cosmopolitan. It’s a college town. We meet many long-term residents who love this more crowded and developed town as much as we love Dubois.

They also tell us how the population has exploded in the past few decades, and how many of the lovely houses are rentals or second homes. (Could this be a vision of Dubois in the distant future? Would that be good or bad?)

This getaway is also a chance to consult with medical specialists of a kind that are few and far between back home, so I take the opportunity to chase down the source of a small matter that has bothered me for some time.

My vitals taken, as I wait in the consulting room, I leaf through the stack of random old editions of People and WebMD. Deep in the pile, I’m startled to find a copy of Wyoming Wildlife from April 2011. It contains a long essay about the bargain geology bestowed upon Wyoming: Scant population, in trade for the survival of native wildlife that was gradually exterminated elsewhere, as settlers moved west.

“Even today, it’s not the most comfortable place to make a living,” wrote the author, Chris Masson, “but it is an exceptionally fine place to make a life.”

WyomingWildlifeToo true, I think, and ponder our good fortune in having settled there. Reading on, I find myself reminded why we treasure the same isolation that sometimes motivates us to leave briefly, for an escape to denser places.

“At the heart of that life is the land,” Masson wrote. “It provides resources that have faded away in most other parts of the country: herds of pronghorn, deer, and elk, bighorn in the high country, cutthroats in the creek, transparent water and air, and unobstructed view of the far horizon. Most of it all, it gives us a refuge from the grinding realities of checkbooks and emails, a place we can to savor the silence.”

Every animal he mentioned, every pleasure of that high and unspoiled country, is a description of our valley. Of course, he didn’t describe everything.

Last evening, coming home from the theater in Prescott, I looked up at the sky and was a bit dismayed to see a display of stars whose number it would actually be possible to count. Not what I’ve become used to seeing at night!

I leaf back to the front of the magazine to read the photo credits, and am in for another pleasant surprise. Cover image: Michael J. Kenney, Dubois, Wyoming. My friend and neighbor, the head of the phone company, who has given us our splendid Internet service.

Every once in a while I have delightful little moments of grace, like this one. Well put, Chris Masson, whoever you are. Thanks for the reminder.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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.

In Remote Dubois, a Quiet Revolution

The new economic base, foreseen 25 years ago: clean, quiet, almost hidden.

RodeoGrounds4This is a story of loss, and the signs of renewal.

In the late 1980s, the last sawmill in Dubois closed, plunging the town into economic crisis. (At left, the site as it looks today.)

Possibly that same year–I’ve lost track of the exact date–we came with our toddler son to a dude ranch near Dubois, to enjoy a getaway from two stressful jobs in the big city.

That was back when Bernard and Leota Didier owned the Lazy L&B, two owners and most of a lifetime ago.

LazyL&BHorses

I was awestruck by vistas I had never imagined, let alone seen. I focused on trying to stay mounted on my horse, having never ridden before, while the wranglers loped easily over the endless range ahead.

A tourist enjoying a brief getaway, I had no idea about what was happening in the town nearby. Nor, at the time, did I care.

Dubois had thrived on logging since the turn of the last century, and the tie hacks hewed railroad ties for the transport network that was uniting the country (although the railroad itself never came near Dubois). Now, the industry had abandoned the town, due to a change in logging policy at the US Forest Service and economic realities that eroded its profit.

LazyLB_editedDubois quickly set about trying to re-invent itself. The town sponsored several community projects, hiring consultants who led self-examinations and assessments of the town’s potential.

My favorite assessment was a freelance project. In 1992–exactly a quarter-century ago–an economics professor named John Murdock, who had retired to Dubois, completed an independent analysis of how the town might recover from its devastating loss.

He considered the potential of minerals, oil, and gas (virtually none in that region) and small manufacturing (nil, because of the distance to market).

Murdock concluded that the town’s only hope for economic revival was two sources who would arrive bringing their own income: (1) retirees  and (2) people who would work here remotely, using the Internet.

The Internet didn’t yet really exist.  This was two years before the creation of the World Wide Web Consortium that would set international standards so that computers on different systems could share information.

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Dubois waited. Retirees always arrived, but predictably, some would leave to be closer to family and others due to failing health.

In the meantime, its lifeline was tourism. The goal has been to attract people like us who wanted a brief escape from “civilization,” and to entice part of the horde bound for Yellowstone to stop here long enough to experience Dubois’ unique, enchanting qualities.

The problem with tourism (which is now the second largest industry in Wyoming) is that it can’t form the basis of a year-round economy in a location like Dubois. In the periods between the snow and the summer, the revenue stops.

We were far away as all this was evolving, and I was experiencing industrial challenges of my own, as publishing began to shift to the Internet. I had to learn how to code content for CD-ROMs meant to be read on a computer. Then I was hired to manage a “webzine” about science. I ran an online news service, and had to learn more coding. Later, I helped create a search engine.

My team was based in New York and London. We communicated by email and videoconference. At my last firm, my boss was based in Denver, with my coworkers in Baltimore, Boston, and San Francisco.

The writing was on the wall–as was a poster of the image below, which I had taken years earlier at the Lazy L&B and moved from office to office. Sometimes, looking up from the screen, I would rest my thoughts on Dubois.

Luckily, my last employer was unconcerned about where I was located while I worked. Our children grew up and left, as they do. Parents aged and passed away. Eventually, when the time was right for us, Dubois called us back.

LazyLBDrawAs we returned, the old sawmill site was being transformed. The EPA now cites it as a case study of environmental remediation.

Cleaned up with help from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, the location now houses a medical clinic, a fitness center, and an assisted living facility. A fishing pond for children should be completed soon.

In my absence, Dubois had been laying the tracks for a new kind of transcontinental network: high-speed Internet. I quickly learned that it was more reliable in Dubois than in the city, where I often had to close my laptop and reboot in a library or cafe when my signal suddenly went down.

When we first moved to Dubois, I met a few other individuals who were making their living here on the Internet. Gradually I met others, but I don’t know them all by any means.

In the past few weeks alone, during the current spring thaw, I have encountered several other telecommuters–a computer coder, a software architect, and a marketing expert–who have newly relocated to the area. All of them chose Dubois in order to enjoy Nature and solitude while earning a good living at their keyboards. Two of them have children they don’t want to raise anywhere near a city.

DTECoils2The economy that Murdock foresaw 25 years ago is in its birth pangs at this very moment. According to a recent report in Forbes, about 40% of employees are now working “remotely” most or all of the time. About 80-90% of employees surveyed say they would like to work from home.

On Twitter, I’ve discovered a thriving separate industry of “remote workers” complete with vendors of supplies and services, support networks, employment recruiters, and professional conferences. A recent article on a jobs site for telecommuters predicts that the new industry will boost employment in rural areas.

Some high-skilled technology workers who work as consultants describe themselves as “digital nomads.” They migrate from one exotic location to another, wherever there is good broadband, enjoying a combination of travel and work as their day-to-day lifestyle. There are travel agents who specialize in serving this market.

The cost of commercial real estate, combined with the exploding cost of living in major cities and long commute times to affordable areas, makes it Downtown3almost impractical to insist that employees who work largely online must come in to an office–especially if the best candidate for an online job doesn’t live anywhere nearby.

Many employees want to live in urban areas anyway. But surely some want to be in a place like Dubois, for exactly the reasons we love it: It’s small, it’s isolated, it’s placid.

The new year-round economic base of Dubois is emerging slowly, one by one and two by two. Like Dubois itself, it is clean, quiet, and tucked away in the wilderness.

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© Lois Wingerson, 2017

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.

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How My Remotest Dream Came True

A pioneer telecommuter on the trail West

bedroom“Tell your coworkers where you’re calling from,” Ed said at the team meeting.

My heart stopped for a New York second, while I re-played what I had just heard. Was he really asking me to reveal the closely guarded secret?

Following my boss’s orders about teleconferences, I was speaking behind a closed door, from the phone in the bedroom. I was terrified that people back at the Connecticut office would hear the dog or any other noise in main part of our open-plan log house.

But you wouldn’t say no to Ed, the charismatic and innovative new head of the division.

“You really mean it?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Go ahead.” And thus I blew my own cover.

This was a decade ago, in another era, ages before a BBC interview interrupted by the speaker’s toddler went viral online. (As soon as I saw it on Twitter last month, I wrote “Just shows that telecommuting is the new normal.” Several people re-tweeted my comment.)

When I began to work remotely from one of the most remote towns in the lower 48, it was a singular privilege–even at an global communications company where most internal communications were by email.

NorotonI had been commuting two hours each way, by subway, commuter train, and beat-up station car, from our home in Brooklyn to division headquarters in Connecticut. My boss and I were a new product team, just him and me in that office, working on a high-tech online project.

One day he asked me into a conference room. I wondered why we couldn’t talk in my cubicle.

Steve told me that he had gained permission to relocate to California, where his children and grandchildren lived. “That’s great!” I replied. “Does that mean I can stop commuting here from Brooklyn?”

“You know, I never thought of that,” he said. It was just him and me, after all, collaborating mostly by teleconference with some coworkers in Massachusetts and London. I had some esoteric skills that weren’t easy to replace in that corner of Connecticut. And thus I got unprecedented permission to work “remotely.”

Remote from head office in the suburbs, that is. Hardly remote in the other sense–from my home in one of the busiest cities on earth. It’s interesting that “remote work” was forbidden, while the office was in the distant suburbs, because real estate and living costs in the nearest city were so high. The employees with the right skills didn’t all live in that bedroom community. So many of us had long commutes.

Back in Brooklyn, I crowded my laptop desk into a corner of the kitchen, and later moved Nook3to a larger space in a dark, quiet, dusty corner of the basement which I hung with dried flowers to make it look more cheery.

Here in Dubois, I work in a large loft-like space with a grand view out every window.

How we came to be in Dubois is a story for another time. Suffice it to say that for years I had kept a poster across from my desk that showed a view up the draw into the badlands east of here. I used to gaze at it when things got too intense around the office. I also had an envelope full of old sagebrush in my drawer that I would open and sniff at when I got wistful.

I guess that was the start of the dream that we might live in Wyoming someday, although back when I first hung that poster after a vacation, the possibility didn’t even occur to me. It evolved slowly, from a wistful longing to the beginnings of a plan.

I telecommuted (responsibly and productively) from Brooklyn for several years before we bought a second home in Dubois. Luckily, the division head was willing to consider allowing me to work from Wyoming because I was doing well from Brooklyn. (Why did they care where I was, actually?)

But my boss’s rules were still strict, conveyed by phone from his new home in California: Arrive early for teleconferences. Sit in a quiet room where nobody on the line will hear house noises. And for heaven’s sake keep it a secret! Otherwise everyone will want to work from home. He had really gone out on a limb for me.

At first we lived part time in both locations, and took the four-day commute back and forth twice a year. I used vacation time for travel, but slowly I began to witness in person the mind-bending growth of broadband.

RidgelineRearEndI’ll never forget completing an assignment for my graduate course on digital media management, as we were traveling on the Interstate toward Wyoming. I was reading on my laptop, via wireless Internet, an online reference in my coursework which predicted that soon you’d be able to work online while riding in a car. The future was happening, even as I read about it!

Eventually I was able to continue working all the way across the country, while my husband drove. By that time my situation was common knowledge, so I could tell folks back in Connecticut that I was about to enter a dead zone and that I’d get back to them in about an hour.

Visiting the head office from time to time, I noticed that the place was ever quieter, and ever more of the cubicles were empty. Coworkers were being allowed to work from home for all sorts of reasons, at least part of the time. It seemed that many of them didn’t feel the need to say exactly when they’d be back in the office. To someone who used to work in a newsroom full of typewriters, this was rather eerie. That’s only one of many reasons why I preferred my office at home.

Finally we saw no need to continue to tolerate the crowding and noise of New York City and that extraordinarily long commute. The Internet out here is far more reliable, the cost of living is far lower, and the views are indescribable. I get to go hiking on my lunch break. I can be as productive as I want to be, right out here next to wilderness.

cid_836We’ve entered a new era since I became a digital pioneer. These days, social media is packed with content for and by telecommuters: advice about remote work, products to make home-based workers more productive, link after link to articles talking about the “workplace of the future,” which (of course) is already here.

There’s one thing that still puzzles me. Why do so many people still assume that remote workers have to live in cities? (Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?)

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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.

Alone and Connected, At Home on the Mountain

A coder and an attorney find peace and quiet.

Riverwalk_Snow2I met “Jack” in the park on Saturday evening because our dogs wanted to play together. Otherwise I’m sure he would have left me alone.

Jack is clearly into privacy. That’s fine in Dubois. We understand that some people prefer solitude and a certain degree of anonymity. We’re good with you whoever you are, as long as you have a decent character.

I can’t give him a cowboy name like Dustin or Cody. He’s clearly not a cowboy type. He’s young, but he doesn’t walk with a swagger and a smile. He and “Lynn” weren’t on their way to the Dubois Outfitters’ annual benefit pig roast and auction in the nearby Headwaters Center, as I was. That wouldn’t be their kind of scene.

At first I thought Jack and Lynn were visitors, because I’ve never seen them before. But they’ve been here for three years, hanging out in a house up in the hills near town.

They’d stopped in the park to give “Rusty” a romp after waiting in the car while they bought groceries. Normally they just hike in the public land right outside their door, but it’s been really muddy there after the recent snowmelt, so (like me) they’ve been using the paved Riverwalk in the park lately.

Both dogs were on the leash, but jumping around and eager to play. So we walked over the bridge to the large empty patch of sage and sand, at the back side of the Riverwalk, where they could be free.

“What brought you to Dubois?” I asked.

“We wanted a house in Wyoming,” Jack said simply.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

They’re from Los Angeles, but wanted to get away from the noise and the density. First they moved to Laramie, but they found Laramie also too crowded and noisy. Somehow, they discovered Dubois. (I didn’t ask how.)

Modem“It’s really nice in Dubois,” Lynn volunteered.

Even in tax-free, low-cost Wyoming, I figure, the only way that two people that young could afford to live for three years in a house in the woods would be on a trust fund, or telecommuting.

“So what do you do?” I persisted.

(I cringed; that’s a New York City question, but enthusiasm got the best of me. I’d like to think I’m not naturally nosy, just a bit too friendly with strangers in Dubois. In any case, Jack seemed willing to be tolerant as long as I behaved myself, so I think he will fit in well here.)

Jack told me he makes his income doing computer coding. Lynn is an attorney, still working for clients back in LA.

She also volunteered shyly that she’s expecting her first child in a few months. I couldn’t have guessed. Her shirt was loose. I asked if she had family nearby. “Chicago,” she said. We had a little polite girl-talk about babies, and then I asked them how it was going, this Internet life in the backwoods.

“Fine,” Jack said. He told me that DTE installed high-speed Internet service at 10 megabytes per second (Mbps) almost immediately after they moved into their new mountainside home, and he praised their customer service.

Mike Kenney at DTE has told me that they can provide 10 Mbps service to anyone who wants is, and if it isn’t easy, they’ll find a way.

BrandlHouseViewThere are several dozen people working remotely around Dubois, according to DTE, but of course DTE won’t share their identities. I already knew about a few; now I’ve stumbled on two more.

If you just want to be alone while you’re connected, we’re good with that too.

The dog and I hope I we run into Jack and Lynn again, but we’ll leave them to themselves.

(Lynn: I’m sure you know how to take care of yourself. But if you need something as that baby comes closer, please send an email. We’re here for you.)

© Lois Wingerson, 2017

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.

Telecommuter Appreciation Town: Dubois WY

Tools down, but back up leaving time for a hike.

ModemWho knew that I had chosen to down tools and leave town during Telecommuter Appreciation Week, which is set for the first week in March? Instead, I’m celebrating TelecommutING Appreciation Week.

I returned to find that my best tool, the Internet, was also surprisingly down. I recycled the modem several times, but that little light never flashed. My husband settled down to watch ordinary cable.

“Customer service won’t answer in the evening,” he said, but he was wrong. A nice fellow speaking from somewhere else walked me through the usual user-error tests, declared me correct, and gave me a work-order number.

“They should call you by early afternoon,” he said.

“Early afternoon? Forget that!” I replied. “I’ll just call DTE myself at 8 AM.”

But I never did. A nice rep from the local DTE office reached me instead, at 8:10. “I hear your Internet isn’t working?”

I laughed, and told her the last thing I’d said to the man from customer service.

SheridanSlush“Yeah, we upgraded your broadband, and your old modem won’t work any more,” she said. “Can you drop by to pick up the new one? Just give me a name and a password and we’ll set it up for you.”

I know I’m not the only lucky person who benefits from this kind of service. There are dozens or scores of others clacking away in these hills. DTE knows who they are, but won’t tell, of course. And we “digitanomads” aren’t much for socializing with each other.

Back to the routine: Early workout, then hit the desk. Work through until about 3:30 and then get out for a hike while it’s still light out.

There was a melt while we were away. The back road is packed by snowmobile tracks, but still really slushy. A much better workout than the elliptical, as usual.

As I trudged along, I heard the exuberant roar of snowmobiles up in the hills.

The dog zoomed around too, joyous in his untethered freedom. After a while, I caught up and found him enjoying a very large treat.

(Benny appreciates telecommuting too.)

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© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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.