The Town That the Internet (Almost) Forgot

What happens when the Web comes to a remote town?

Pat Goff didn't set out to bring the Internet to the town of McDermitt, Nevada. It just worked out that way. Goff, a 33-year-old high-school business and computer teacher, wanted his students to learn enough about the Web to prepare them for life after graduation, whether that was technical school, junior college, four-year college, or a job. He saw that outside of rural Nevada, computers and the Internet were becoming as commonplace as the telephone. Point, click, connect with the world. It was that easy.

But it wasn't that easy at McDermitt Combined School. Goff and his students live three hours northeast of Reno, alone in the desert, where this blink of a town straddles the Nevada-Oregon border like a lone cowboy on a fence rail. How could kids from McDermitt compete, Goff wondered, if they'd never built a Web site? Never used a search engine? Never even sent an email message?

In class, he tried logging on to the network provided by the state, but it was a perpetual bottleneck -- too many schools and too few modems. He resorted to using an Internet provider in Idaho, but the long-distance charges added up, limiting the time online. What he needed was an affordable, reliable, and fast connection. But the community didn't have local Internet access -- and for good reason. McDermitt (population: 756) isn't just out of the way, it's positively secluded: 74 miles from Winnemucca, the Humboldt County seat and the nearest town of any size (population: 9,238). McDermitt's few hundred households weren't enough to attract a provider to the area.

With the help of school principal John Moddrell, Goff found a solution. McDermitt Combined could get high-speed service by connecting via satellite through Intellicom, a provider based in Livermore, California. The catch: It would cost $1,900 a month, far exceeding Goff's budget. But if the school sold residents access to its Internet connection, Goff could afford the service. And that's exactly what he and his students did. They formed McDermitt-Humboldt Internet Provider (M-HIP) and rounded up enough customers to cover expenses. Because M-HIP was a local call, unlimited Internet access was available to anyone in the northwestern corner of Nevada -- or at least to anyone with a phone and a computer.

That was almost three years ago. So what has happened since McDermitt got wired to the world? High hopes. Big fears. Small changes. And maybe -- just maybe -- a road to a better way of life.

In some ways, McDermitt is more up-to-date than it's ever been: Students are researching homework assignments and college scholarships online; parents are taking college courses online; farmers and ranchers are on the verge of selling hay and cattle online; and residents are sending email far and wide, reestablishing old connections and making new ones. But in reality, the Internet hasn't transformed the town. Not yet anyway. McDermitt looks much the same as it has for years -- like a former mining community that's seen better days. Rather than generating a tidal wave of changes, the Internet is making ripples -- subtle changes in people's lives. The technology and its potential are spreading, but they're doing so gradually. Not everyone sees the possibilities and wants to change. After all, McDermitt got by without the Net for more than 100 years.

There are, it seems clear now, practical limits to what the online world can do. Internet evangelists have talked for years about how physical location has become irrelevant: People in rural Nevada and, say, Silicon Valley can have equal access to information and tools. For McDermitt, though, location matters very much. The community is one of the toughest places in Nevada to earn a decent living. And the Net hasn't done much about that. Unemployment here is three times higher than it is for the entire state. Many residents work as waitresses, store clerks, and ranch hands and get by on minimum wage or little more. The median household income is about $18,000, compared with $45,000 statewide. Homes are considerably cheaper -- the median value is about $25,000 -- but they tend to be older. And a quarter of households still don't have a phone.

Even when the Net does have a real impact, there are questions about just what kind. It has the potential to unify residents as well as to divide them -- those who go online versus those who don't. It has played a part in attracting new people to the area, but it is also responsible for encouraging young people to leave town to seek better opportunities elsewhere. It's too early to say definitively whether the impact of the Net on McDermitt is good or bad, consequential or inconsequential. The answers are still emerging, person by person, case by case. And many of those answers playing out in this tiny, isolated town shed light on the Net's impact on the rest of us.

"We Have Nothing to Offer Our Young People"

If anyone could appreciate what Internet access can do for McDermitt, it would be Frank Reeves. With his broad shoulders and thick forearms, he looks as though he could lift the town with his bare hands, even at age 72. In a way, he has. After World War II, he and his new bride, Jo, reopened the service station that his father had been forced to close during the lean war years. The couple went on to operate a motel, a hamburger stand, and a trailer park (where their home stands today). Over the years, Frank has also played a significant role in other town projects: He helped to bring water-and-sewer service to the community, to develop a 5,900-foot-long paved airplane runway, and to open the Say When Casino. He says that what he likes best about his hometown is that it has four seasons and that "people don't bother me. I can do what I want. I don't have any place I like better."

He and Jo, 73, were among the first subscribers to M-HIP. But it wasn't Frank's idea. As it turns out, he is not a big fan of the Internet. "Oh, I've enjoyed it, but it really hasn't helped me that much," he says. "I consider it one hell of a time waster." Primarily, he uses it to check the weather and to follow the Idaho Steelheads, the minor-league hockey team in Boise. Since he can't pick up the road games on the radio, he listens to them online.

It's Jo, a small, energetic grandmother, who embraced the Net from the start. She wanted to communicate with more than two dozen relatives living in Europe. Like many McDermitt residents, Jo traces her family to the Basque region of Spain, where her ancestors learned to shepherd before coming to work on sheep farms in Nevada. She's not much of a letter writer, and the international phone rates make a decent conversation expensive. "I don't know how to talk for just one minute," Jo says. Now she emails her relatives regularly, and "they answer right back," she says. "I love that."

Jo knows that she's barely tapped the Web's capabilities, but in the right hands, she believes that the technology could help McDermitt's economy. When two local mines were operating back in the 1950s, the hotel restaurants were packed every Sunday night. Families enjoyed dinner, neighbors visited, and children played. McDermitt was small but lively. Not anymore. "My husband doesn't like when I say this, but I think it's a modern-day ghost town," she says. "It's a nice, nice place to live, but we have nothing to offer our young people. I hope someday they can sit at a computer in McDermitt and do work for offices in New York, that type of thing."

It's not inconceivable. Recently, Jo, the town's unofficial director of tourism, got a call from someone who had read about McDermitt on a Web site devoted to Nevada cowboy country. Usually when someone calls the number listed for McDermitt -- the Reeves's home number -- Jo takes down a name and address and drops a short history of the town in the mail. But this call was different. It was from a California businessman who was more interested in McDermitt's future than in its past. "He said he was coming out to look at Lovelock, Winnemucca, and McDermitt," Jo recalls, "because he had an idea for something. He kind of wanted to tell me, but he didn't. We talked for about 40 minutes. We had a real nice conversation."

But the man hasn't called back. And as far as Jo knows, he hasn't been to town. Not many outsiders have. McDermitt is by no means the typical American small town. It's a lot smaller. You name it, and McDermitt doesn't have it. No town square or barbershop. No mayor or sheriff. Not one doctor, banker, or lawyer. Unlike Winnemucca, home to the Buckeroo Hall of Fame and the site of a bank robbery by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, McDermitt doesn't have a colorful claim to fame. "McDermitt is a love-hate community," says Principal Moddrell, who has lived here for 22 years. "You either love it and stay your whole life, or you leave right away."

McDermitt may not have a radio station or a newspaper, but it does have one of the most wired schools in the country, with 125 computers equipped to go online. Above the entrance to McDermitt Combined School is a sign that, missing letters and all, seems to capture the spirit of the school as well as the community:

B IN CHALL NGED IN
LIFE IS I EVITABLE
BEING DEFEATED
IS OPTIONAL

McDermitt has certainly endured its share of challenges. In the mid-1800s, it was known as the Dugout, a pit stop where miners making the journey between Sacramento, California, and Silver City, Idaho with an ox team would stop for whiskey, poker, and supplies. The Dugout also catered to 500 or so soldiers stationed at a camp outside town, later known as Fort McDermitt. President Lincoln put the camp in place in 1865 to quell Indian uprisings against settlers in nearby Paradise Valley, and by 1890, the mission was accomplished and the fort abandoned. It was too remote to maintain.

In the early 1890s, a series of brutal winters decimated the cattle industry. In the mid-1920s, the collapse of the wool market drove sheep farmers out of business. During the Depression, the local bank failed. The town nearly suffered the same fate, before mining took off. The Cordero Mine, located a few miles outside of town, became one of the country's chief sources of mercury for decades. But the government built up a surplus of mercury, the demand dropped, and in 1990, McDermitt's last remaining mine closed.

Having lost its chief industry, McDermitt has since become a 21st-century version of the Dugout. It is midway between Reno and Boise, a rest stop on U.S. 95. Truckers and tourists park their rigs and RVs outside the Say When Casino, a hulking gray building promising "25¢ Slots . . . 24 Hours . . . Family Restaurant . . . Cocktails . . . Blackjack."

The last time a new business opened was three years ago. That new business was M-HIP.

"You can do that?"

There are now more than 7,100 Internet-service providers in North America, according to some estimates. At one end of the spectrum is America Online, which has more than 27 million customers. At the other end is M-HIP, which has about 260, most of whom Goff and his students know by name. Creating an ISP in a town largely unfamiliar with the Internet was no small feat. Goff, who studied earth science and business in college, spent his summers attending technical school in Idaho and learning about operating systems. In the months before M-HIP launched, there were meetings and research that took up more late nights and weekends than he can count.

Despite the fact that there were about 2,000 people within the local calling area, it took two months to sign up the 74 subscribers needed to start the service. "My parents raised me to believe I can do something no matter what anybody says," says Goff, whose casual demeanor belies a stubborn streak. "People told me, 'You can't get Internet service in a place like McDermitt,' and we did."

Providing access to the Internet doesn't guarantee that people will use it, though. Unlike satellite TV, the Web wasn't widely embraced in the McDermitt area. "When the Internet first got here, everybody thought it was stupid," says Ron Conner, manager of the Desert Inn Casino. Conner couldn't wait to try it. Many others, however, greeted its arrival with a shrug at best; they didn't know what it was or what it could do, so they didn't think they needed it. Ron Mullanix, vice principal of McDermitt Combined and an M-HIP board member, remembers attending a meeting during which a prominent rancher expressed skepticism about the practicality of the Internet.

"What if I told you I could go on there and show you the latest cattle prices and reports on the genetics of cattle you're interested in?" Mullanix asked.

The rancher was incredulous. "You can do that?" he asked. Another customer for M-HIP.

Businesses in McDermitt are more concerned with targeting the 3,800 drivers who pass through town daily on U.S. 95 than they are with finding them on the information superhighway. In fact, other than M-HIP, the only business in McDermitt with its own Web site is the Desert Inn Casino. Conner, 56, who carries his laptop around with him at all times (even while he's riding on his Harley-Davidson), created the site a couple of years ago. When it comes to design, it's not likely to win any awards: It simply features a few photos, along with the following service policy: "We go all out to please so you will come back."

Mostly, he set the site up for fun, but he figured it might just boost business over the long term. "Anybody who came into the casino and mentioned the site got their first drink free," he says. The Desert Inn, the smaller of McDermitt's two casinos, has 15 penny, nickel, and quarter slot machines, a pool table, 2 TVs, and 2 pairs of antlers mounted on the wall. Truth be told, the 100 or so responses to the site were, well, confusing. People thought they were contacting the world-renowned Desert Inn Resort in Las Vegas, which, prior to its recent renovation, featured 715 rooms, 4 restaurants, a pool, a spa, a championship golf course, and a slot machine that paid out a record jackpot of almost $35 million last year. That Desert Inn.

"As Remote As You Are, I Know Repairs Are Difficult"

It's mid-afternoon when the new economy pays an unannounced visit to the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Indian Reservation. It arrives in the form of Mark Vanoni, territory manager at Grainger Industrial Supply, a large distributor of tools and other maintenance supplies. Vanoni, 36, sports spiky blond hair, black reflective sunglasses dangling from a cord around his neck, and a black shirt with "grainger.com" printed on the front. With roughly 2,000 accounts in northern rural Nevada, Vanoni strolls into the tribe's administrative offices expecting to make a routine sales call: introduce himself and drop off a business card, the new product catalog, and some promotional magnets. He doesn't anticipate finding Internet access. That changes everything. He sees an opportunity to pitch grainger.com.

This is a first for Cheryl Barney, 43, the reservation's housing coordinator. Although she surfs the Web daily, connecting to M-HIP on the computer in her office, she considers herself a novice. Nearly everything she knows so far about the Internet she learned on her own, through trial and error.

Vanoni holds up a Grainger catalog as thick as a Los Angeles phone book. "Our Web site has at least two and a half times more items than this catalog does," he says.

Neither Barney nor Maxine Smart, the reservation's interim financial director, says anything, so Vanoni keeps talking, outlining the range of supplies that they can search for online. The women look up "WD-40" and download a photo of a large blue-and-yellow can. They nod approvingly the instant they see the price: $13.72.

"One gallon for that price?" Smart says. She's impressed.

"And remember," Vanoni adds, "when you buy online, you get free freight."

He moves on to another topic: replacement parts. "As remote as you are, I know repairs are difficult."

"If we can't find the part, the tool goes in the dump," Barney says. "Or we drive to Winnemucca to find it."

A little while later, after an upbeat Vanoni leaves, Barney sits alone in her small office, fiddling with a red grainger.com magnet that he left behind. Although she's not a big talker, her frustration is evident. Purchasing online would save the tribe money, but she doubts that she'll be doing it anytime soon. Her hands are tied. She doesn't have the approval of the eight-member tribal council to spend funds or apply for resources online. She has requested authorization, but the issue remains in limbo, stalled by the tribe's byzantine politics.

If there's one area of the community that could benefit from the Internet, it's Fort McDermitt. Nestled alongside the winding Quinn River and framed by rolling mountains, the reservation features some of the richest scenery in the valley, along with some of the poorest families. There are more than 700 residents and only about 100 homes, many in need of repairs. While some people live comfortably with satellite dishes outside their well-kept, modest homes, others are barely getting by in aging trailers or squat, ramshackle houses. Residents raise livestock, work at the casinos, work at the gold mine near Winnemucca, or don't work at all.

The conditions sadden Barney. This is her home. She grew up here and married, moved away, then came back. "It's my life," she says. When she moved away, she missed her family, missed the open space, missed hearing Paiute -- "our language," she says. Other reservations are losing their culture, and she doesn't want that to happen to Fort McDermitt. She boasts that her 5-year-old nephew, Burnell, can count to 10 in Paiute, which even some adults can't do. Barney fears that Burnell's generation might not stay if they can't get better housing. A solution might be found on the Web, where she has unearthed various housing grants and loans, but so far nothing has changed.

Many residents can't afford a home computer or, if they can, they have no desire to buy one. In a place where some people say they can see the outline of an Indian warrior, wife, and child in the mountain ridge overlooking the reservation, most of the residents still can't see the value of the Internet. Barney is no digital evangelist. That's not her style. If people want to use the computer in her office, she'll gladly let them. If they ask how to look up news, weather, music, or information on social security, she'll help. Most days, about 10 regulars drop by -- adults in the morning, kids in the afternoon.

She doesn't understand the disinterest, and she doesn't worry about it. Her attitude is similar to the way that she feels about her 20-year-old son, Mickey, attending college someday. "I tell him that he will do it when he's ready," Barney says. When the rest of the tribe is ready to explore the Internet, she says, they will.

"He Had a Kind Heart. You Could Tell"

Barbara Pope never intended to stay in McDermitt for more than a year. Fourteen years later, she's a fixture at the school, a doting first-grade teacher. She moved to town when she was 24, thinking she'd get her foot in the door in the Humboldt County school system and then move back to Winnemucca. But by the end of the year, she couldn't leave the children -- more than half of whom are Native American and 70% of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. Typically, classes have no more than a dozen students, so teachers get to know them well.

The community, however, took some getting used to. A devout Episcopalian, Pope eventually accepted not having a local church, the same way she accepted not having options about where to shop or eat out. On one level, life in McDermitt is simpler and more laidback, but the geography makes it more complicated. "You learn not to dwell on the compromises," she says. Over time, she embraced McDermitt's strong sense of community and made some close friends at the school.

Even so, McDermitt is a lonely place to be single. Pope, now 38, assumed that she would never marry. The only new faces in town were those of truckers hunched over coffee, beer, and slots at the casinos, which she avoided. Her serious relationships involved men in Winnemucca whom she'd already known. Then along came the Internet. After hearing about friends who responded to online personal ads, she decided to give it a try.

Pope sorted the listings using the following criteria: central- or northern-Nevada resident, Christian, and nonsmoker. One match read, "single man, brown hair, brown eyes, three kids, looking for a long-term relationship." It was succinct but straightforward. She liked that. So she emailed him, and he wrote back. His name was Robert Pope, he lived in Gillman Springs (a community about 200 miles south of McDermitt), and he worked as a heavy-equipment operator at a gold mine. "He had a kind heart. You could tell," Barbara says. "He seemed interested in what I had to say. We started emailing constantly. Then I downloaded MSN Messenger for real-time talk, and we'd talk every day for, gosh, three to five hours -- from the time I got home from school until 11 at night."

Six months later, Robert and Barbara married. Two months after that, he moved to McDermitt. (Their first child was due in late March.) It's everything that Barbara never thought she'd have, and the Internet helped make it happen. Despite her good fortune, though, Barbara may ultimately wind up leaving the area. "Robert was working in the mines before, and he agreed to give it a one-year trial here," she says. "But McDermitt doesn't have those same opportunities. Right now, he's installing a septic system in central Nevada. He's been going back and forth since August."

"We Were Our Own Little Self-Contained World "

If McDermitt is a miniscule dot on the map, Jackson Mountain School, about 75 miles outside of town, is a speck. With just five students, it is the smallest of six schools in rural northwestern Nevada with Internet access through M-HIP. "We were our own little self-contained world before the Internet arrived," says Carolyn Dufurrena, 47, a former geologist and the only full-time teacher at Jackson Mountain.

The community consists primarily of ranchers and their children, who have even less interaction with the outside world than people in McDermitt do. By incorporating the Web into schoolwork, Dufurrena brings faraway people and places a little closer to the one-room cinder-block schoolhouse. In one of their most thrilling assignments, her students corresponded by email with poets in the Australian outback. Each morning, the kids would run into the schoolhouse in anticipation of a reply. Dufurrena considers the Internet the biggest technological advance in rural communities since mechanized farming, but it has yet to solve a basic geography problem: There are no rural high schools. Once children complete the eighth grade, either their parents send them away to boarding school, or one or both parents move within reach of a high school. "It's hard on families around here," says Dufurrena, who herself moved to Winnemucca so her son, Sam, could finish school. Her husband, Tim, stayed behind to manage the ranch.

Even as the Internet is beginning to expose these children to the outside world, it's unclear whether they will explore that world. Principal Moddrell says that around 40% of McDermitt Combined students go on to vocational school, community college, or a four-year college, usually in Nevada, Idaho, or Oregon. About a quarter of high-school graduates receive a higher degree of some kind. As for the rest, many lack resources or ambition. Those who stay become bartenders, waiters and waitresses, ranch hands, or unemployed -- the main options in McDermitt. "It's discouraging," says junior-high-school teacher Michelle Hartley, "because the kids in our community have so much potential, so much talent, and so many of them don't use it. They could go out and become teachers and doctors, but they give in to the peer pressure to stay here and conform."

This is the environment that motivated Pat Goff to lasso the Internet. Although he had never heard the phrase "digital divide," he recognized that the technology could create more -- and better -- opportunities for his students. Growing M-HIP's business by leaps and bounds is not the goal. Providing affordable Internet access (initially $30 a month, now $25) and giving teenagers a taste of running a small business is. M-HIP is the only ISP that Goff knows of that is run by high-school students. It was their idea to become a nonprofit and apply leftover revenue toward $500 to $1,000 college scholarships for M-HIP staffers. When the AOL Foundation awarded the group $10,000, the staff used the money to outfit the public library with four computers and a wireless connection to the school. That way, everyone in the community has access to free high-speed service. "The experience these kids are getting is something I couldn't teach them out of a book," Goff says.

In the principal's office at McDermitt Combined is a photo collage of former students who went on to become teachers. Maybe one day, Goff will have a collage of his own, featuring Web designers, software developers, and Internet entrepreneurs. Two of M-HIP's four founding graduates are leaning in that direction -- one toward telecommunications, the other toward engineering. In the meantime, Goff has more-modest goals for his students. "I want them to leave being able to get a job and support themselves," he says.

Just having access to the Internet is helping 17-year-old Lowell Egan explore his future -- a future that lies elsewhere, his parents remind him. His father, Richard, is a groundskeeper; his mother, Lori, is a teacher's aide. Both parents are also school-bus drivers in McDermitt. Lowell, a straight-A junior and a starting guard on the basketball team, wants to become an athletic trainer for a professional sports team. Almost every night, he parks himself in front of the computer in his parents' bedroom in a trailer behind the school. He does more than email friends and check out basketball sites. He researches colleges and sports medicine. Last summer, his work paid off. Instead of going back to being a busboy at the Say When Casino for the third straight year, Lowell, who is half Indian, attended a program in North Dakota that prepares Native American students for careers in medicine.

At bedtime, Richard and Lori Egan often find their son in their room, completely absorbed in the Internet. They let him continue surfing and -- they hope -- expanding his horizons. "I fall asleep while he's clicking away," his father says. "I'm used to it now."

Chuck Salter (csalter@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. Contact Pat Goff by email (pgoff@m-hip.com), or learn more about M-HIP on the Web (www.m-hip.com).

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1 Comments

  • James Nicklas

    Good for Pat Goff, that's not an easy accomplishment. Unfortunately there aren't many like him that are able to bring high speed internet to rural areas.

    <h4>Rural Internet</h4>