The PowerWagon Changed Me

The Beast

This is part of a series on life and careers that that started with this post, An Unconventional Journey – Life, Learning and Work.

It had been a rough semester at Harvard. Getting away from the city seemed like a really good idea. It was a short trip from Cambridge to Newton’s Silver Lake Dodge in the spring of 1970 to take delivery of a shiny Dodge PowerWagon.

I have described it as a beast and like other trucks of the day, it rode like a truck. It had a four speed manual transmission. Of course the shifter and the transfer case that allowed you to switch into four wheel low were both on the floor and far from silky smooth. For the day, the standard tires were pretty big. The big 3/4 ton truck had manual locking hubs, two gas tanks, and an eight thousand pound mechanical winch behind its extended front bumper. On a good day, it would get ten or eleven miles to the gallon. The plan that I hatched with one of my roommates was to drive to Alaska with it.

School at Harvard in that spring was cancelled because of all a few riots and lots of demonstrations. I headed home as soon as I got the truck. I had ordered a cover the same height as the cab for the back from a place just south of my home in Mount Airy, North Carolina. It would allow us to build a platform for our four inch foam mattresses and store our gear underneath it.

We outfitted it with my faithful Coleman Stove and lantern, my favorite camping cooler, and a large Igloo water cooler. In addition we had our sleeping bags, climbing ropes, my fishing gear, first aid gear, cooking equipment, a couple of big bumper jacks, medical supplies and a good selection of tools that might save the day.

There was also a five-shot Remington 30-06 semi-automatic and a 30-30 Winchester lever action plus a 44 magnum pistol. I had talked to a bush pilot in Anchorage. He told me that they would not fly us into the back country unless we were armed. The only gun I had to buy was the 44 magnum pistol. Neither rifle had ever been used for anything beyond target shooting. I had given up hunting four or five years earlier.

Around the third week of June, we packed up and headed off from Mt. Airy. The goal was to get to Alaska or at least the western US mountains as quickly as possible. Somewhere on a country road in the Midwest, we pulled down a short slope into the edge of a farmer’s field. We were going to catch a few hours sleep. It rained a little and we decided to move on but the top few inches of the field had turned to mud. We locked the hubs, engaged the four wheel drive, and nothing happened.

I ended up taking the locking hubs apart and adjusting them in order to get us out of the field. It would not be the last time I would be reminded that four wheel drive just lets you get stuck in worse places and that whenever something can break, it will break.

Somehow we managed to make our way out to Colorado where we started climbing. We had been doing some practice climbing in Maine and rappelling down anywhere we could find a place to tie off. I had even rappelled down from the fourth floor attic of our Mount Airy home.

The first few climbs went fine but one day about seventy-five feet up with my boot clinched to a ledge of rock barely an inch wide, I decided that I would rather fish than climb. I rappelled down and that was it for me and climbing. My roommate seemed fine with my decision, we figured that we could find someone for him to climb with when we got to the climbers’ camp in the Grand Tetons. I would fish by myself while he climbed.

After driving across some high passes where snow still partially covered the picnic tables in the highest campgrounds, we finally made it the Tetons. It didn’t take long before a climbing trip to the Grand Teton was arranged. I dropped my partner off and agreed to pick him up three days later.

Over the next few days, I tried a number of trout streams without any luck and enjoyed a few meals at Moran’s Chuck Wagon. When I went back to pick up my traveling partner, I was told that he was not there. He had slipped on an ice slop on the descent from the Grand Teton. He had been unable to stop his slide and ended up falling one hundred fifty feet to a ledge barely a foot or two wide.

After they got him off the ledge, he managed to walk out five miles with a broken collarbone. They had taken him to the Jackson hospital which is where I headed. After talking to the doctor, I called his parents and soon afterwards, I loaded him into the back of the truck and headed off to the larger hospital in Idaho Falls. They were fine with me handling his “care.”

I spent a week in the Idaho Falls KOA campground while my partner got well enough to travel. Of course he was in no shape to drive and would not be for a long time, but he was determined to make it to Alaska. After the hospital stay we headed up to Montana’s Hungry Horse Lake by way of Yellowstone Park. We finally got to a camping spot near the lake, I found a stream full of cutthroat trout. It was my first success fishing on the trip and I loved it. The fresh fish were great fried up on the Coleman stove.

The trip would get more exciting as we headed north through Alberta.

It Started With Nova Scotia

The view from the top of the hay field at the back of my new home in St. Croix Cove, NS

Thanksgiving during my junior year in college, three college friends and I decided to take an extra long break and go camping on Cape Breton Island. This was long before the days of the Internet and Google maps. We had little idea of what was ahead of us when we choose to drive up Route 1 through Maine and then into New Brunswick and finally Nova Scotia where we could finally cross the Canso Causeway to Cape Breton Island. Even today with more bypasses, Google maps says the drive is thirteen hours. It probably took us sixteen hours.

We went in my old 1966 Bronco which had a can of stop leak as an item in emergency equipment. Fortunately, we were young and driving that far and crossing an international border was not nearly as hard as it would be today. By the time we got to Cape Breton, it was sleeting and snowing. All the provincial campgrounds had shut down months earlier. We managed to pitch a tent in an abandoned field one night. We almost froze. Everything was soaked. By the time we got back to Halifax, I pulled out my emergency credit card and we booked a single room for the four of us in a Holiday Inn. Hot showers never felt so good.

We drove back down Nova Scotia’s south shore stopping only to grill a steak over a fire and eat a barely thawed bag of Nova Scotia shrimp. Our trip back was on the Bluenose Ferry which in those days traveled from Yarmouth to Bar Harbor, Maine. The seas were rough but there were few people on the ferry besides us. We stretched out and slept on the long bench seats. I have vague memory of a weighted ash tray sliding by me in the rough seas.

The trip has no moments that suggest that Nova Scotia is a place to visit again but as my wife has always said, “If you can tolerate a place during miserable weather, you are likely to live it when the sunshines. Somehow what I saw of Nova Scotia planted a seed. I started watching the Sunday Boston Globe for Nova Scotia properties for sale.

The spring after the trip to Nova Scotia, the anti-war protests hit Cambridge. In a classic case of taking to the woods after all the debates and marches, a roommate and I decided to take a road trip to Alaska in the Dodge Powerwagon that I convinced my parents that would keep me out of trouble for a summer. It was a beast, a 3/4 ton 4X4 with a mechanically driven (PTO) 8,000 pound winch on the front. It had two gas tanks since it barely got ten miles to the gallon with its 383 cubic inch V8 and four speed transmission. The Powerwagon would come back to school senior year, haul me to Nova Scotia and even have a place on the farm in New Brunswick.

Sleeping in the back of a truck while traveling thousands of miles seemed like a good idea. I was in love with wilderness. There were great adventures on the trip including my roommate almost getting killed while climbing. It was to be an epic trip and one that would give me a life long love of wild places. It would make Nova Scotia the place that I wanted to live.

An Unconventional Journey – Life, Learning and Work

My wife, Glenda, in Newfoundland, October 1973

I recently started reading Disrupted, My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons. Dan and I have crossed paths a few times. The first time was when he was in full Fake Steve persona. He offered me sanctuary when it appeared Apple might be coming after my Applepeels blog.

In Dan’s book which starts with losing his job at Newsweek and finding a new job as an editor at ReadWrite. The description of his first new job made me smile.

“Suddenly I am the editor-in-chief of a struggling technology news website called RedWrite a tiny blog with three full-time employees and a half-dozen, woefully underpaid freelancers”

Disrupted, My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble

I was one of those “woefully underpaid freelancers.” Dan was actually my first real editor. I had already written my first book, The Pomme Company, by then but the editor of that book had been my very patient but comma-obsessed wife with some help from two former colleagues.

I wrote for ReadWrite for a few months at end of the five years it took me to find my four or fifth career. After nearly twenty years at Apple that was a tall order. During the years after Apple, I worked at a couple of VP jobs in technology, including one at a startup which fortunately unlike Dan’s misadventure was actually generating revenue and went on to a successful acquisition. However, there were enough similarities in my experience to Dan’s to bring back some interesting memories.

Though writing is one of the things that I love to do, I have never thought of it as a possible career. I also love photography and fishing but I have never understood how to make a career out of any of my favorite things. I have supplemented our income through writing and photography. Perhaps having been “a woefully underpaid freelancer,” I learned how hard it is to make good money doing something you love. Good money is required to send three young adults off to college and help them get off on the right foot. I also figured out that what you do doesn’t matter nearly as much as doing it with someone you love at your side in a place that you both learn to love.

How you end up in your career is an interesting topic that Dan talks about in his book. My experience has some similarities but is very different. I hope to write about it through a number of blog posts here.

Only a couple people in my youth even mentioned a career to me. Things were very different in the fifties especially if you were the only child of a single mother and no one in your family had even gone to college.

Mother worked long hours as a beautician in the beauty shop that was attached to our house. We lived in the small community of Lewisville, just west of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. My elementary school and church were just a short walk from home. There were deep woods around our homes. As we were growing up, we thought more about building forts in the woods than we did about building careers. There is no question that I enjoyed my childhood in spite of its share of challenges.

A big turn in my life came in 1963 when I got sent off to a military school that was a six-hours drive from home. Being a boarding student in a dorm was not how I envisioned my teenage high school years. At some point after I got over the worst of being homesick, I decided to make the best of it. Getting good grades had never been a problem for me so I focused on that first. Next I figured out how to do well in the military, stick to the rules, shine your shoes, and do what you are told.

McCallie, where I went to military school did have an important impact on my future. It was assumed that every student would be headed to college. I was part of the pack there so college was clearly now part of my future as well.

While the years at McCallie rolled by, I did get to meet a number of adults with careers that were new to me. Whether they were at McCallie or in Mount Airy where I moved after my mom and dad decided to get back together, meeting new adults did give me an opportunity to think about my future. One of the most interesting people who came into my life was RJ Berrier, who was at the time was the editor of the Mount Airy Times, one of two small local newspapers. RJ was something of a local legend and he loved what he did which was getting the paper out the door onto people’s doorsteps in time for them to enjoy it with their morning coffee. The Times was still using lead type and bourbon to make deadlines. People looked forward to RJ’s Mount Airy After Midnight column as much as I look forward to the comics and the morning paper today.

Though I was already showing some talent for writing, RJ gave me no encouragement to go into the newspaper business. He often explained the pay was poor, the hours long, and job security non-existent. Getting a liberal arts degree at Harvard was not much of a push in that direction either especially since it was during the turmoil of the late sixties and early seventies. I did really hit my stride with writing at Harvard. I am not sure whether it was the expository writing class or all the long papers. However, something clicked and I could churn papers that got stellar marks even at Harvard. I also got paid to do some research work, but there were other things on my agenda that created a hard turn away from writing.

Perhaps, the best description of what was pulling at me was the necessity to get away from the cities that threatened to smother me. Like many others, getting my hands dirty seemed more important than a law degree.

In my case, Nova Scotia appeared to be the locus for a cure. My wife, Glenda, seen contemplating Newfoundland at the top of the post also became a big part of the equation. That we spent ten years building a herd of two hundred head of Angus before I went to Apple is just part of the magic that has touched our lives. I will get around to our lives in Atlantic Canada and how Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and New Brunswick became part of the magic.

A Life On The Edge

Tree Canopy, Rich Park, Mocksville, NC

The small town about twenty-five minutes from where we live today was in my young mind on the edge of a wilderness. The area was very different over six decades ago. When I was a small boy, the land there was very rural and not just a bedroom community for Winston-Salem.

The books I read in those days about Daniel Boone and eventually the television shows I saw about Davy Crockett only reinforced that view of wilderness at our doorstep. Daniel Boone was something of a local legend. His parents had a cabin about five minutes from where we live today. We also have a Boonville in the area.

My great grandfather ran Styers ferry that crossed the Yadkin River back in the early part of the last century. There was ground behind the homes along Styers Street and Shallowford Road where we lived. Mostly the vacant land grew up in broom straw since no one farmed it regularly. Once in a while a homeowner would carve out a garden for a few years. Farming in Forsyth County was on the decline even back then. It would remain strong just across the river in Yadkin and Davie Counties.

I guess those were my hunter-gatherer years because I was uninterested in gardening or farming, but I loved to wander the deep, dark woods with rock outcroppings and small brooks at the base of the hills. It was a paradise for little boys who had yet to be seduced by TV, video games or smartphones . In the summer we would stop by home only long enough to eat. The idea of staying inside on a beautiful day was as foreign as the idea that the Yankees might lose a World Series.

In the evenings, we did come out of the woods and often played capture the flag in the string of yards that we called our home turf. When we got older some of us started going to a Boy Scout Troop several miles away. Eventually, adults and a few of us with our recent scouting experience brought Troop 752 back to life. Being a Boy Scout was a great experience and camping out in the woods and cooking over an open fire made it even more special. In the summer going to Camp Raven Knob was like going to another world in what appeared to a real wilderness.

The last thing that I did with my old troop and by then I was senior patrol leader was to hike Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road. It was a little over twenty miles and it is still the most that I have ever hiked in a day. It made me appreciate how hard it was to be a pioneer.

After the hike I went away to military school. It was not Boy Scouts, and there was no camping in the woods. There was a lot of marching. As a boarding student I got an early introduction to dorm life. I was very happy to go off to college, but I promised myself that I would never let dorm life again take me away from the out of doors. I was pleased when our freshman Geology class went camping and loved that a roommate’s father had a cabin on some wild land near Plymouth, Massachusetts. Maine and its rocks and coast became a favorite refuge.

The pull of the outdoors was so strong, that four of us managed to wander off to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island during an extended Thanksgiving break. I felt like I had found home. The wildness of the place, the water and rocks seem to be just what a soul battered by college during the sixties in a big city needed. I had been trending towards wilderness for a while. An overland trip through Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana and eventually into the Canadian Rockies and up the Alcan Highway to Alaska had shown me real wilderness. I loved the taste and the challenge of being on the edge of civilization.

Sometime during my last months in college, a plan germinated. Nova Scotia became my goal. After a couple more trips to the Annapolis Valley, I bought an old farmhouse and 140 acres on the North Mountain along the Bay of Fundy coast of Nova Scotia. It was my first adventure as an adult living beyond just beyond civilization. It was not the last.

Some friends helped me partially renovate the two-hundred-year-old house framed with hand hewn beams. In the end as all but one drifted back to civilization, the house became my project and along the way I learned to do practically everything a good homesteader might need to know from butchering a steer and hogs to gardening, wiring, plumbing, welding and making hay. Two Labrador Retrievers, one named after an Alaskan town, Tok, and the other named Fundy, after the Bay of Fundy became my constant companions.

Eventually, I married a talented southern lady who was not afraid of gardening and canning, living on a farm, or driving a tractor. We moved to better cattle country in the hardwood hills north of Fredericton, New Brunswick. There we built a cattle herd and the barns to handle calving and our fast-growing yearlings.

Tay Cree, New Brunswick at the time was a wonderfully wild place. We had no fences at the back of the farm. There was no place for the cattle to go. We cleared old hay fields and eventually were baling close to 600 big round bales for our herd of 200 Red and Black Angus. Our three children was born while we were living on the farm and we buried our two Labs there in the apple orchard during our last years of farming.

After ten years of farming and the heavy hit of 20% interest rates, we dispersed our cattle and I took a city job. Eventually, when I went to work for Apple, we moved off the farm to Halifax, Nova Scotia and then to Columbia, Maryland, but those were the last cities to grasp at us and they only had us for five years,

In 1989, we moved to the side of a mountain overlooking Roanoke, Virginia. Lots of wild country was to the west of it. Our next Lab, Chester, and I cleared miles of trails on the mountains that gone back to wilderness after being farmed when my grandfather was running Styers Ferry. In 2006, we headed to the North Carolina coast and I know my son felt we lived beyond the edge of civilization there on the coast. There were places along the far stretches of the beach that felt as wild as any spot on our farm in New Brunswick. Maybe it was a different kind of wild but it was still wild.

In 2021, we came back to North Carolina’s Piedmont but we remain on the edge of civilization tucked away just down the road in farm country. There’s a huge field across the road from us and you don’t have to travel far to find cows and farms. I think this rural area is where I belong at this stage of life, but given the chance, I might head to wilderness once again if it gets too crowded here. We managed to get away from the coast just before they cut all the trees down turned much of it into a huge housing development. For that I am grateful.

We might travel a long way in life but usually we come back to what made us comfortable. Big trees and a touch of wildness will always make me happy.

Mowing Your Way Through Life

Our Backyard In Davie County, North Carolina, March 2022

How did people manage in the first half of the twentieth century before there were yards to connect them to the soil around their homes? I suspect that they were working in their gardens and fields. By the time I was growing up in the fifties in Lewisville, North Carolina, yards had become important. The condition of our grassy yard often stood between me and a trip to my uncle Henry’s fishing ponds. My mother who claimed the only yard she had as a child was packed dirt swept with broom straw wanted our yard neatly clipped. In driving by our old home, I am little disappointed the town did not put in sidewalks in front of our house during my youth. It would have eliminated the slope on the front yard. It was by far the hardest part of the yard to mow as a youngster.

Going away to military school (high school) and then college got me out of mowing yards for almost a decade. My first home after graduation was a two-hundred year old farm house located in a sheep pasture on the Fundy coast of Nova Scotia. No sheep came with the old farm house but long grass did not bother me as a young farmstead owner. When I first moved there in the summer of 1971, the yard was the least of my worries. Getting hot water plumbed in and running so we could stop taking showers at the local campground was close to the top of the list. The second summer I had a tractor with a nine-foot-wide bush hog which I used to mow around the house a couple of times a summer. That was all it needed in my days of being single. After all, I mowed plenty of mature grass or hay, starting with the twenty acre field behind the house which served as one of the few backyards in my life away from home.

Then came the summer of 1973, and I married Glenda, the love of my life from the world of well-manicure yards in North Carolina. Her mother often mowed their yard twice, the second time against the grain, just to catch any grass that might pop up after the first mowing. Sometime during the summer of 1974, Glenda and my neat-lawn-loving mother who was visiting us formed a conspiracy. They drove down the mountain to Bridgetown ten miles away and came home with a Toro push mower. I spent much of the next forty-forty years sharing the task of mowing whatever yard happened to be attached to our personal home.

For the ten years or so when we lived on our farm in Tay Creek, we had a nice riding lawn mower which was adequate for much of the yard. Even Glenda did some mowing. When we lived in Halifax, our yard was postage-stamp sized. By the time we arrived on the mountain in Roanoke, Virginia, I had come to somewhat enjoy mowing. There are those times in your life when something as simple as mowing a yard can be very satisfying because you can actually see what you have done.

One of the immutable laws of mowing is that the farther south you live, the more miserable the task of mowing can be. Sometimes, even the most careful home yard person can end mowing in the oppressive heat of the day like I did more times than I want to admit after we moved to the North Carolina coast. As I wrote then, there is a true brotherhood of Southerners (both men, women, and teenagers) who have mowed yards when they never should have.

Mowing is one of those circular things in life. In your early years, you are too young to push a mower, so it seems fitting that in the later years of life, it is also okay to be too old to push a mower. You come to a point when you are faced with either hiring someone to mow the yard or buying a riding mower. Since I spent many years straddling a John Deere farm tractor, we chose not to revisit those days after a back problem slowed me somewhat. For a couple of years, I shared the task with our mower of choice, choosing the spots that required a push mower for myself. However, it was an easy transition to giving it all up. When we made our 2021 move from the land of coastal centipede grass back to the fescue grasses of the Piedmont, we left our third Toro mower with the father and son team that was doing our mowing. I even gave them my gas-powered trimmer.

When our current mowing team shows up, I know the noise will be over with in a few minutes as opposed to the hours that it would have taken me with a push mower. I still enjoy our green space especially the backyard which is the nicest we have had since that twenty-acre field that came with our first home. 

No Frozen Millponds Today in NC

North Deep Creek at Site of Styers-Shore Mill

January 2022 with its snow and cold temperatures was a shock to Yadkin Valley residents. All the snow had most of us in the area looking for snow shovels or mittens. Depending on where you live it has been two, or three years since your last significant snow. In this throwback year, some have seen four snows in January 2022.

In spite of four January snows, I heard of no millponds freezing over. Our area in North Carolina’s Piedmont used to be dotted with grist mills which usually required a millpond to run. My ancestors, including my Uncle Joe Styers once ran a mill at the Yadkin Valley site pictured above.

All this cold weather feels unusual because winters are changing in North Carolina.  I was in elementary school in Lewisville just west of Winston-Salem during the locally famous March of 1960 cold snap. It snowed for three straight Wednesdays.  Since so many roads were dirt back then, we hardly went school that month. Even during what still is the coldest March on record, I don’t remember any ponds freezing over.  I was a dedicated fisherman even at the age of eleven, and I paid attention to the condition of ponds.

Frozen ponds are part of North Carolina’s history even here in foothills. My stories of iced-over waters came from my mother.  She was born in 1910 on a millpond in Yadkin County where her dad, Walter Styers, had a water-powered gristmill that ground grain between two big millstones.  His millpond was just a little over five miles further north from the site above on a tributary of North Deep Creek. Their homestead and pond were just off Union Cross Church Road. Mother’s vivid stories of men driving wagons onto the frozen mill pond and sawing out blocks of ice have stayed with me.  The blocks of ice she remembered were hauled back to the shore and stored in a sawdust filled underground ice house. According to mother they enjoyed iced lemonade and homemade ice cream  from their treasure trove of stored mill pond ice.

The recent cold got me wondering if I could look back at state climate records and find something to lend scientific  credibility to mother’s stories.  I checked the NC State Climate Records, and I found the winters when my mother was  young were much colder. All in that era were colder, but two winters, 1912-13 and 1913-14, when she was a toddler were strikingly colder.  The two winters had 107 and 106 days respectively when the low temperature was below freezing according to Winston-Salem records which are the closest ones that go back that far.  To put that in perspective, the same station only had 39 days with lows below freezing in 2019-20, and back in 2013-14 there were only 11 days with lows below freezing.

Another interesting piece of data is that in the winter of 2013-14, the first day with a low temperature below 32F was October 22.  The last day was an amazing May 5.

While the records are far from complete, logic indicates that there was a great drop in the number of days with lows below freezing by the time we get to the fifties when I was in grade school.  It looks like it is quite possible that my mother did see or at least was reminded by oral history that men did take teams on the ice and cut ice from her dad’s millpond.

If you are wondering about  the winter 1960 with all its March snows, it was a little old-fashioned with 90 days with lows below freezing.  It makes you wonder if our grandchildren will some day be talking about snow on the ground like we are talking about iced-over ponds.

How To Be A Sensible Streamer

Streaming Channel Portal on Amazon

Streaming your choice of video channels is what the future holds. I spend a good chunk of my day job looking at the prices of Internet services across the county.

I studied cable, DSL, and fiber services in dozens of counties and communities last year.  That along with my personal experience with prices and as an early streamer starting several years ago has helped our family to continue to save money after switching from cable and its expensive packages to fiber and streaming services.

However, it is easy to go overboard with streaming.  The grandchildren show up and their favorite shows are on Disney+, so you subscribe. An older child comes home and wants some Apple TV channels.  It only takes three or four spur of moment decisions added to your regular streaming services and you will be paying more than you would be for a cable package.

The way we handle our streaming services is to keep them on a budget.  We budget $40 monthly for streaming services.  We are Amazon Prime members so I am not sure we would allocate the full $8.99 (stand-alone cost) for Prime video but as you will see, even when we do that, we are still well under budget.

Our four current services for a fee are Prime Video at $8.99 monthly, Paramount+ $5.99 monthly, Britbox $6.99 monthly, and PBS Masterpiece $5.99 monthly for a total of $32.96 for all our streaming services.  We also subscribe to the free version of Peacock.  I recently canceled Netflix and Acorn  while adding Masterpiece and Britbox.

We stream so much that it is easy to run out of new, watchable programs in two to three months.  I manage all but one of our channels on Amazon prime so it is easy to see them and the costs  all in one place. You also have the advantage of being able to snare some Amazon specials like HBO Maxx or Starx for $1.99 a month for two months.  You just have to remember to cancel them.  The picture at the top of the post is what you see in Amazon’s Video channels management console.

My studies across the country along the current Hulu and YouTube pricing I see tell me that about $70 a month will get you full range of video services.  So if you are paying $70 or more for your streaming services, you are not saving money and it is time to go on  a streaming budget. 

Adding Fiber to Your Life

Fiber connectivity can make a huge difference in your life. When we started planning our move, my first requirement was that we find a home with fiber connectivity. It was not a snap decision. My work career in technology will hit four decades in 2022, and all of those years have revolved around a home office. Recent changes in what is expected from home office workers have reinforced the lessons learned from years of trying to stay connected enough to do my job.

Like many people who have been on a cable modem for decades, my experience has been a roller-coaster with some very frustrating experiences. Our most recent home before the move was in a new subdivision serviced by a national cable company. By the time we moved in February 2021, our speeds had increased to 488 Mbps down and 24 Mbps up. Because of bundling our phone service also was delivered by cable modem. The numbers looked impressive on the surface.

However, with a job that involves clients in over twenty states and a home office over seven hours driving away from our corporate office, experience had taught me that I could still expect problems with video conferencing which had become critical to meeting the needs of our clients since the pandemic.

Video conferencing with our cable modem, even with the best speeds that my cable modem company could deliver, involved using both the phone and my computer to establish a video conference link. Other collaborative tools like Slack were not consistently reliable when making phone calls or sharing screens. Even worse, sharing files was anything but instant since many of the proposals I prepared often reached sizes that were unimaginable just a few years ago. I depended on tools like Box for sharing files and an unreliable Internet connection is a nightmare when sharing files or screens in real time.

When we got to the point of making an offer on a new home, we had two homes with fiber connectivity and one with DSL. We quickly discarded the DSL home and bought one of the fiber homes. Having a symmetric 500 Mbps fiber connection provided by our local telephone company has taken connectivity worries out of my life and office. Now when I am joining a video conference whether through Zoom, Teams, or GoToMeeting, all I do is click a link for crystal clear voice and video. I no longer tie up our home phone line for audio in what can only be described as often frustrating video conferences where my participation was often flaky because of connectivity problems.

My biggest worry beyond office connectivity in making the switch to fiber was my wife and how she would take to streaming. What we could get through streaming turned out to be far more flexible and entertaining than I expected. While my wife cannot see all of her favorite shows live, she has not had to give up any shows and and she has found a far broader choice of shows. We get local live television through Paramount+. We rotate through a number of streaming services, cancelling them sometimes for several months until their content has been refreshed. My wife who is somewhat reluctant with technology changes has learned how to stream the shows that she wants without help from me. 

In our previous home, our cable service had the most basic TV service, the best Internet, and nationwide phone service. It took constant vigilance and regular arguments with the cable company to keep our bills under $180 per month. By the time we moved, our efforts to stay within the $180 meant we not longer had PBS, and saw only a very few sports events. Even the Weather Channel had disappeared from our service.

In addition to the monthly expense, an average of once a month, I went through an often frustrating reset of my cable modem due to loss of connectivity. I also had to switch out my cable modem every few years. At least twice during those switches, I lost connectivity for a day or more due to problems getting the new modems configured.

I do not miss my cable bills or the headaches. I love our fiber connection.

Our current costs with symmetric 500 Mbps (which not everyone needs- we have 29 connected devices in our home), nationwide/Canadian VOIP telephone service and a monthly budget of $40 in rotating streaming services is $140. Every service that we have now is better than what we had before. The almost $500 in annual savings is certainly a welcome bonus. We experimented with streaming while we were on cable, and there is no doubt in my mind that streaming is far better with the fiber than what we had in our previous house. We just don’t have buffering issues now. I have also found that a simple large battery backup allows me to run our fiber network during power outages. There have been NO connectivity battles and I have not even talked to our Internet service provider since I signed up for service ten months ago.

With all that and what fiber to the home can provide now and in the future, I do not see us ever buying another home without fiber.

David Sobotta is a VP and Senior Broadband Analyst with WideOpen Networks which is currently building fiber to the home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He and his wife live in a very rural subdivision in Davie County near Mocksville, NC.

The Company of Cats

Jester, Relaxing After First Post

I have invited Jessie, one our four marsh cats to be the guest writer for post number fifteen hundred. I think she has a talent for writing. She certainly campaigned hard for the opportunity during the last seven days. Each morning I have awakened to Jessie curled up on my chest and looking down on me.  As you can see from the picture above, Jessie is exhausted from all the typing. I did help her with the editing, but the thoughts are hers. This is Jessie’s first effort at writing, but I am sure it will not be her last. She is always first to the office and last to leave. Here are her words.

I am one of four kittens that were born under a shed by Raymond’s Gut on the North Carolina coast. My name is Jessie, but I am sometimes called Jester by our friend, David. I spend most days curled up near his desks which are covered in computers. That is how I learned how to type.

I have three siblings, my two sisters, Merlin and Maverick and one big brother, Goose. Our mother, Elsie, has lived by Raymond’s Gut since before Hurricane Florence. We were very lucky. Our mother brought us to David’s garage to eat. It was there that his wife, Glenda, saw us. We didn’t understand but one night our mom told us to stay in the garage after we finished eating.

When the big door went down, we were stuck inside the garage. The next thing we knew it was dark but we could smell something delicious. Merlin crawled out from behind the cabinet where we were hiding but she did not come back. Then Goose went looking for her and he did not come back. Next I went out and I found the food that smelled so good. Then before I knew what was happening a door shut behind me and I was trapped in a wire box.

It wasn’t long before the human that I now know as David came and carried the wire box inside. Next I was put in a bigger wire box with my brother and sister. It was really scary at first but there was a soft towel. We did a lot of hissing and spitting but none of it kept the humans away. We kept waiting for Maverick to show up, but it was seven days before she let herself get caught. She was really mad that she was caught. She tried biting and scratching, but David had these great big gloves that he would use to catch her. She was so mean that she got thrown into solitary confinement for a week.

Eventually we figured out that they were feeding us and making sure that we were okay. It was much better than living on the dirt under the shed or behind the cabinets in the garage. The first strange thing that happened was when they gave us a bath. We got all wet but then they dried us with a towel and cuddled us until we got warm. It wasn’t too bad after we had a chance to work on our fur ourselves.

It wasn’t long before we got to go live in our bedroom. It was much nicer than living in a cage. It had a big queen-sized bed. It was perfect for hiding under. For a long time we spent all of our time in our bedroom and the adjoining bathroom. David would come play with us. He taught us how to play a game he called kitten fishing. He took one of his fishing rods and tied a string to it and some feathers to the end of the string. We would chase it and jump on it. Sometimes the only way we could get it was to jump high in the air. For a long time Goose was the best at jumping, then he got so big it was hard for him to jump as high. Maverick, who is a little bit of a loner, eventually could jump better than any us. For a long time we played kitten fishing at least once a day.

Then came the big day when we got the run of most of the house. It was really exciting. There were so many things to smell and places to explore. We found out pretty quickly that there were places that we were not allowed to visit but it is so hard if something needs investigating. Our favorite place is David’s office. Not much is off limits there and he pretty well lets us do as we please. It is also the place that we started learning about the real world. Learning about the real world made us realize how lucky we are.

A few months ago things got really exciting at our house. Some people from California bought our home and we had to move. It was really scary and we spent a lot of time in our big cage as David, Glenda, and their son Michael got everything ready to be moved. We did not understand what moving meant at first, then we learned that we would no longer get to see our mom, Elsie outside the glass door of our play room. We were sad, but knew that we had become house kittens and should go with our humans.

The move was actually scary. We had to ride in our cage in the back of a car for four hours. Then we ended up in a hotel for two days. We were allowed out of our cage, but the second day somehow Maverick got inside one of the beds. It took a long time to find her, but finally we took another ride and ended up at our new house. After a really busy day, lots of the furniture from our old house ended up in our new home. The next day we finally got to explore the new house and found that it has a screened porch where we are allowed to go smell the fresh air.

We really love our new house. The new house has our favorite shreds cat food and from the upstairs we can no longer see water, but we can see woods and fields. Most important our humans are still with us. We have even met their grandchildren and we were so excited that Michael has come back to pet us. He doesn’t like us to get on counters but he is really nice to us. He even rescued Goose once when he fell through the ceiling of the attic onto the porch.

We hope everyone has as nice a Thanksgiving as we are going to have.  We have lots to be thankful for this year and we don’t have to go up to the office for a few days. Maybe we will get to play some games.

THE TRAILS OF OUR LIVES

My Nova Scotia Trail

By the time I found the first trail that really meant something to my life, I had graduated from college and was living in an old farm house on the shore of the Bay of Fundy. Behind the house was a large field which sloped upwards to a spruce forest. At the top of the field there was a trail that wound through the woods. As much as I loved the rocky shore that was part of the property, the trail at the head of the field seemed to be more personal.

My two Labrador Retrievers, Tok and Fundy, often accompanied me on my hikes. There was nothing spectacular about much of the trail but it finally opened into a clearing that actually was on my neighbor Joe’s property. The view from the clearing was spectacular. I was living in the Village of St. Croix Cove and you could see the actual St. Croix Cove. I loved the view so much that I eventually traded some land for it.

There were times that I thought that Nova Scotia was the greenest place that I had ever seen. We sometimes were able to find baskets of chanterelle mushrooms just off the trail. No mushrooms since then have ever tasted like those.

It being Nova Scotia, the trail had a winter look and often stayed that way for a month or two. While it was hard to walk up the hill, getting up it on cross country skis was even more challenging.

With each move, we managed to find new trails, some of them memorable. (Read More)