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Working From The Wilderness

People say technology enables you to run a business anywhere. But is it really true? One writer tests the theory, using technology to run his business from a remote area in the mountains.

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It's 3:00 a.m., and a snapping sound electrifies the crisp mountain air. There's definitely something out there. There it is again--closer. The ranger warned me about bears, but there had been no signs, no recent sightings--so what's right outside my tent? Try not to breathe so heavily, stay calm, don't move. Wham! The beam of my flashlight hits the deer broadside, and now two souls in the night have racing hearts. Did I really volunteer for this?

Over time, I've found you should be careful what you wish for, as your dreams may come true. In my case, the dream was to work out of my home. When a hostile corporate takeover put my management team, and my corporate career, out on the street in 1994, I took a shot at the home-office experience, and have been working that way ever since. Those of you who share this lifestyle know the peace of your own quiet space without a commute, and that working in your gym shorts is wonderful. But when the scenery never changes, those walls do start to close in on you. Even the best panorama, no matter how glorious, can be taken for granted and subsequently ignored.

The home office can also constrict you outside of work hours. I love working on my business projects and find that as soon as I become bored with "relaxing" or other such nonsense, the work calls me softly through the office door. When you're pressured, you can work around the clock. Your big event of the day is the round trip to the refrigerator. I'm a lawyer and I desperately need a change of venue.

Taking Your Business To The Great Outdoors

July 15, 2:00 a.m.

Road trip. Putting the American Dream on wheels. That's exactly what I did for eight weeks during the summer of '99, leaving family and clients to carry on while I experimented with what I hope becomes the destiny for those who take time to become quintessentially wired. It was not my desire to embark on a life-threatening adventure; rather, the point was to prove that business can continue no matter where it's based, without an interruption of service or income-that entrepreneurs of the new millennium can work anywhere we please.

All you need is money. OK, that admittedly sounds like a significant barrier, but the outpost office experience is designed to make you money only if you can take your business tools with you, and that means, at the least, a laptop computer, printer, cell phone and a capacious set of wheels. Setting up your outpost office, like any other personal business endeavor, requires a plan.

You may have a boat, a farm or somewhere to stay, but my plan was to sleep in the most cost-efficient of accommodations: a tent. If you choose to stay in a hotel, you end up working a few hours a day just to pay for your bed. In fact, the costs associated with maintaining your outpost-office lifestyle should be itemized before your departure, so you know whether you can handle them. In my case, I needed a laptop, so I bought a used one at an Internet auction. I made sure I could change the terms of my cell phone contract after I returned, when I would be using it less. In short, the results of thorough planning kept me in the black, but the following field notes denote the other intangibles that can be garnered during the outpost-office adventure.

Hit The Road, Jack

"Go west, young man" resounds in my thoughts. My eyes are blurry, but the Suburban is almost packed. Recently, my time has not been my own, as clients have been badgering me to do their work before I go. I've been unable to convince them that this journey is not a vacation. The preparation for departure has been going on for two months, and now I hardly have time to sleep before I commence the first leg-15 hours to Durango, Colorado.

I had no idea how much preparation would be required. It's the little things that make you crazy. For example, just four days ago, I had to source a signature stamp so my partner could help with banking at the home office, and I've spent days loading important data to the laptop. I've learned how to seize control of my home computer via the telephone so I can access any data I need. Despite the exhaustion, my heart is pounding with anticipation. I feel very alive.

Five thousand miles of driving in eight weeks can open new vistas and, when you spend your time in the mountainous West, the scenery is glorious. For me, freedom is traveling west on the loneliest highway in the United States-Highway 55 across Nevada--or reviewing an otherwise lengthy and tedious lease in the shade of a pool umbrella. The everyday nature of my work now forms a baseline, a comfort factor that generates cash flow while my senses luxuriate in the newness of my environment. I look forward to working, just so I can sit still.

Off To A Rocky Start

August 5

One thing that's certain about taking the office on the road is you can't make any money grocery shopping, cutting firewood or traveling. It's funny how many conveniences we take for granted. This is tough. Time is losing all meaning and I'm starting to wonder if this is truly possible. My cell phone can't keep a charge long enough to sustain drawn-out telephone negotiations, which is what business attorneys tend to do. If I can't communicate freely, I'm out of business. You definitely need back-up cell-phone batteries if the outpost office is in your plans.

Today, I created a number of important documents I want to share with my clients, but I can't get the cellular modem to cooperate. Companies who sell computer and communication gadgets are constantly capturing our imagination with futuristic portrayals of beautiful, wired individuals lounging on a beach while effortlessly enjoying digital telephony. Well, here I am, guys, and I can't get this bloody gear to work. I've called customer service and the dealer, and I've clicked on "Help" in the software. Hours later, notwithstanding a dozen different attempts, I still can't fax or e-mail, so I have to go into town to find a phone line to tap into. It's too late now--all the stores are closed. Time to scrounge some firewood while my clients' patience is tested.

Appreciating The Little Things

August 15, 8:05 p.m.

The fast approaching twilight has cast a warm glow on my lakeside camp in the high country of Idaho. This is a good night. A warm shower provided by the state is only a few steps away. Melodic strains of Vivaldi drift from my CD player, mixing perfectly with my cocktail. This is truly heaven on earth, and my heart soars as all the trouble in getting here boils down to this moment. When your heart is pure and you take the opportunity to let time lick you in the face, creativity flows like honey. The fires in adjoining camps flicker through the Ponderosa pines. It's Sunday and I worked at moneymaking endeavors from sunrise until 2 o'clock. Life is in perfect balance.

We have ignition. When you're performing e-commerce in the forest, electricity is your most precious commodity, and I've finally been able to put together my own solar system for a little more than $250. I'm amazed at how bright a 7.5 watt bulb is in the black void that is night. I have to constantly remind myself that I'm not on vacation. This is particularly true in the mornings when I take a sunrise stroll with a steaming mug of hot French Roast down to the sandy shores of crystal clear Payette Lake. Of course, my clients also do a great job of reminding me that I'm still working. You never know when they'll call, so if you want to take a walk, it's a good idea to have a day pack full of active files. A good sitting rock along a path can make a great office, if you're prepared.

Animal Encounter

August 24

My office is now in a screenhouse designed to exclude all the critters that would choose me as a meal. However, I did have a visitor in my office today who did little to help my productivity. Naturally, I was conducting a conference call at the time with four lawyers who were unaware of my forest address. We were discussing some complex documents I needed to refer to while a squirrel that worked his way under my screenhouse wall refused to return the same way. Instead, being predisposed to look up for safety, my crazy friend decided to climb his way to freedom and began clinging to the mesh and running around the walls.

The netting apparently horrified this little gymnast, as he then shot for the slick roof and fell into my file box. Meanwhile, I grabbed the documents and tried to stay away from his repeated high dives. Having a squirrel in my shirt was going to be hard to explain to the negotiators, who were very serious in making their points heard. The screeching and scolding was almost drowning out the noise from the squirrel, but I feared the distinguished gentlemen would soon guess my predicament. Fortunately, the electricity generated by the situation did nothing for my cell-phone battery, which ran out of juice. Dropped call. At least everyone can understand that, but the loss of continuity is frustrating for all concerned.

Summing Up

September 1

When you're backpacking, every ounce counts and, as I stood next to my 56-pound pack with my cell phone in hand, a dilemma was born. Initially, my goal was to hike to a mountain summit at least once a day to prove that business can be accomplished nearly anywhere. I knew I had a maximum of two hours of talk time and then the phone might as well be a boat anchor. The concerns of my clients were covered, so I made a weighty business decision and locked the phone in the car. Not more than four paces away, it began to ring. Too late--my office is closed.

How many times have you dropped out of the monotony of your daily existence to gain an aerial view of your life? For me, the outpost office provided a glorious bond with the things I love. As technology continues to connect us, I believe society will morph. Working and living in a fresh environment clarifies the mind and creates the perfect opportunity to wonder what could be. So I spent my last day perched on a big rock nestled on the shores of an alpine lake while I dreamt and set my sights on an outpost adventure for the next century. Perhaps one day our paths will cross.

Tactical Tips

Here are a few tips to consider when planning your own outpost-office adventure.

  • Always be accessible during business hours--save those long drives in areas without cellular service for the evenings.
  • Create a portable post office with pre-addressed, stamped envelopes to your likely correspondents.
  • Keep a day pack full of current projects you can take with you on walks.
  • Take advantage of electrical connections whenever possible; get used to saying, "Hey, stranger, do you mind if I plug in my cell phone for a while?" Pack a spare battery for the computer and the phone.
  • Plan on treating yourself to strategically planned hotel stays when a good shower and meal are in order.
  • Your first outpost-office attempt should probably not last more than a month.
  • Create a portable desk and a portable kitchen in separate, sealable, watertight cases.
  • Don't change locations more than once a week.
  • Plan the places where you can send and receive mail; make sure you send this information to your pertinent business contacts.
  • Share your tales of adventure with your customers. It livens their day and creates an understanding of your struggles.
  • Don't forget the bug spray, a folding table and a chair with armrests.
  • Make sure someone at home will check your mail.
  • Install a remote-control software package such as PC Anywhere on your main computer system.
  • Be flexible and stay mentally prepared to work at any given moment.
  • Learn how to access and forward faxes from your PC.
  • Change your cell-phone plan so you have one rate for all long-distance calls, and increase the base amount of talk time. A thousand minutes a month served me pretty well.
  • Begin operating out of your outpost-office setup before you leave the house, so you can debug. Practice using all your communications gear--cellular, modem, etc.--before you leave.