How to Endanger Dubois While Feeling Just Great

Where did I get it, and where did I leave it?

I have no idea how I could have caught it, and worse yet, no idea where I left it behind. I won’t even know what “it” is until I can get the results of the nasal swab test I had just this morning.

What I do know is that after going to bed on May 15–the very day that the Governor’s newest order allowed people to gather inside restaurants, gyms, and churches again–I fell ill without warning.

I slept very badly. All my muscles ached horribly, even the ones in my fingers and toes, and no medicine helped for very long. For a while I had chills.

The next morning I had a fever of 102 degrees, and I almost couldn’t get out of bed. I slept through that day, and all through the following night.

I’m puzzled about how I got this, whatever it is. I have been wearing a mask in stores and the Post Office. I’ve used Kleenex to open doors in town, and rubbed my hands with sanitizers before driving home.

There are two possible outcomes to this personal story, neither of which is pleasant.

Either the test is positive, in which case I’m the lucky winner of the First-Confirmed-Pandemic-Case-in-Dubois Prize, and my husband and I are stuck at home for another 14 days. Or it’s negative, I’m still vulnerable, and somehow all my precautions didn’t even protect me from something less virulent than that nasty, extraordinarily infectious pandemic virus.

While I was coming down with this, ironically, I read The Risks: Know Them, Avoid Them by Erin Bromage PhD, an immunologist at the University of Massachusetts. I’m sure she meant to be comforting (in the “knowledge is power” sense), but the scientific reports in her article document how easily the virus can spread to the unsuspecting.

What probably troubles me most is wondering who I endangered over the past days, while I felt absolutely fine but must have been spreading my germs around (whatever they are).

This experience reminds me of bedbugs (alas), and also of true love and parenthood. Until you’ve experienced it for yourself, you can’t really understand the impact.

It looks like I got off easy. My temperature dropped quickly to 99 during the day after the bad night, and a day and a half later, I felt much better. But I’m confined to the bedroom now. I wear a mask every time I leave the room (unless I forget). I wash my own dishes in the bathroom sink.

My husband is sleeping in a guest room. For the moment, I have to work very hard to protect him. This gives me an insight into how easy it must be to share Coronavirus with your family members.

It’s quite a chore to be adequately careful. Inadvertently, I touch a doorknob without reaching for a Kleenex first, and have to circle back and clean it off. I sometimes forget the mask when I walk out to talk to my husband from across the room. (Mustn’t leave my germs in his airspace.)

I simply can’t make my own food or even my own coffee, because it requires too much touching this and that (although I do grab cans of seltzer from the pantry). Here’s a good one: Opening the front door with my gloves on, I realize that I had just worn them while readjusting the filter inside my mask — on the side my breath has been facing.  So I have to spray them as well as the outside doorknob with bleach solution, of course using a paper towel to hold the spray bottle.

For several weeks I’ve been dutifully keeping a paper record of my contacts on the off-chance I might have to give information to a contact tracer. Thinking idly about this as I lay in bed, I realized that I had overlooked several casual conversations that took place with my mask off, because I mistakenly assumed I was no threat.

But I had already read that people can pass the Coronavirus along before they experience symptoms. In fact, some infected people never fall ill at all but can still spread it around; I have a friend living elsewhere in Wyoming who falls into that category. Maybe someone I spoke with infected me. Maybe I have infected them. Who knows?

bluebirdAt least I can be glad that we are no longer living in that tiny garden apartment in the pandemic hell-hole of New York City. There, we couldn’t have escaped each other at all during quarantine (which makes me really sorry for any New Yorkers who are roommates and don’t like each other much).

Here, we have an open-plan main floor with high ceilings, several bedrooms and bathrooms, and a back porch leading to the vast outdoors and paths that go off into wilderness.

I get to step out the back door from our bedroom to enjoy the fresh air and enjoy sights I never would have seen if I weren’t confined. Today, I scared up a whitetail deer that stared at me from just beyond the porch railing before ambling slowly off. Yesterday, I watched a bluebird swooping down feed his mate inside the birdhouse, just as my husband drops off my own next meal.

I’m so fortunate that this is happening to me in Dubois, I think. But then …

I ponder what will happen, now that the doors have opened on our business establishments and there’s a steady stream of cars heading in the direction of Yellowstone. The restaurants and gyms can be as careful as possible, yet it will be very easy for the virus to spread nonetheless, if the rest of us are too easygoing–especially as tourists begin to arrive. In theory, any of them might pass it along to any of us. 

Perhaps because so far Dubois has had the distinction of having a case count of zero, relatively few of our residents are wearing masks in town. I know of at least one who has actually refused to do so. It’s tempting to view this in the light of personal liberty and cowboy courage in the face of danger, rather than in the tradition of community self-help that has always prevailed here in the Mountain West. Perhaps not enough people realize that masks are worn to protect the other guy, as a surgeon does.

If I am the one to destroy our town’s enviable zero-case record, I won’t be apologetic. I did try to protect myself and everyone else. But my experience shows how important–and how difficult–it is to be vigilant enough.

Our best defense is to take this risk seriously, and make effective use of all of the protections we know about: social distancing, masks, and sanitizers.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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The End of Dubois As We Know It?

Down the rabbit hole into a very sad parallel universe.

face masks

People ask: So how are things in Dubois?

Well, quiet and slow. The “snowbirds” are returning from either coast. But they are in 14-day quarantine, if they are following the Governor’s orders.

Some people, myself included, wear face masks in the post office and the supermarket. Others don’t. Is it my imagination, or do they avert their eyes when they see me wearing mine?

In the winter, it was easy to distance. Wearing gloves and staying home seemed logical. But the sight of this young angler on a recent warm spring day at Pete’s Pond made me wonder whether a sense of social isolation is becoming even more second nature to us than it always was.

young fisherman in parkWill our way of life return to the fond and familiar someday? When, if ever, will we come together for the rodeo, the square dance, Happy Hour, the buffalo barbecue?

Of course these questions are far more poignant to my friends back in New York City, where “hanging out” is a way of life. But we too used to enjoy congregating, and our tourist economy depends on it.

With no cases documented here, and almost no testing, we have no idea how many of us have been exposed to the virus and recovered or never got sick at all, and now have immunity. But out-of-state vehicles have begun to pass through. I always use sanitizer on my hands after pumping gas, now that I’m no longer wearing gloves all the time.

So here we are, like everyone else, waiting to exhale–an unfortunate metaphor, in this context.

Cover of book by Prince Maximilian von WiedMy husband and I continue to read to each other at home. One reads while the other cooks or wash dishes.

We have been working our way slowly through the three-volume account by Prince Maximilian von Wied of Germany of his journey to the American West in 1830s.

In the last passage we read, von Wied and his party were traveling north by boat along the Missouri River, in that place where today Nebraska faces across to Iowa.

It’s familiar territory to us, after so many trips back and forth to New York by car. I was startled to find that the passage suddenly brought me into familiar territory, in a completely different sense.

Prince Maximilian described an encounter with a chief of the Ponca tribe, which had recently been impelled to abandon their former villages and become migratory because of conflicts with other tribes. The Ponca “have suffered greatly from smallpox and from their enemies, but are said to have been brave warriors,” he added, in a poignant past tense. “Even now one sees many pockmarks among them.” 

In a companion book, the wonderful illustrations of Karl Bodmer who traveled with von Wied, we found his portraits of two Native chiefs, an Otoe (below, left) and a Ponca (right.) Together, his drawings and von Wied’s writings are among the most detailed accounts of early encounters between Europeans and Native Americans.Portraits of an Otoe and a Ponca chief

Those two pale-skinned men were hardly the first European to encounter Native Americans. By that time, the tribes had had contact with trappers and explorers for far more than a century.

The man at left, the Otoe chief, was part of a tribe already decimated by smallpox when he sat for his portrait. 

According to the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains published by the University of Nebraska, the combined Otoe-Missouria population had been reduced to fewer than 800 by the time they met Lewis and Clark in 1804, 30 years before Maximilian passed through.

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs estimated that more than 17,000 “Indians died of smallpox in 1837 and 1838 … ” Beyond the deadly impact of  smallpox, other factors such as the decline in the bison population and the reduction in their freedom of movement by relocation to reservations doomed many Native populations to what today we would call “economic decline.”

Of course you know all this as well as I do. But perhaps it didn’t resonate last year. In my case, anyway, a pleasant moment of evening companionship unexpectedly drove me down a rabbit hole into a very sad parallel universe.

Long ago, it was our forebears. Soon, it could be our contemporaries who bring with them a mystifying and threatening dilemma, simply because they want to travel in this direction and explore the surroundings that we enjoy.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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A New Love Late in My Life

A true story about small miracles

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

Here’s a nice true story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Dubois in Pandemic: Where’s the Nearest Human?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was so good to see them again!

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

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

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

And then there’s where I live.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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First Day of Spring 2020: Sheltered in Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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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

Thanks for reading! 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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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

Thanks for reading! 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.

Who’s writing? Check out About Me.