From guest author Lois Wingerson
This is a story of loss, and the signs of renewal.
In the late 1980s, the last sawmill in Dubois, Wyoming, closed, plunging the town into economic crisis. (In this image, 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.
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.
Dubois 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 of these assessments 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.
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 video conference. At my last job, 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. Eventually, when the time was right for us, Dubois called us back.
As 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.
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.
The 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 almost 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.
© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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