By Jordan Smith and Maya Shimizu Harris
Casper Star-Tribune 

A family's move highlights a different kind of migration in Wyoming

 

December 7, 2023

Casper Star-Tribune staff

(From left to right) Jasmin, Lilly, Allkiah and Jeff Pomeroy sit at their dining room table in their Worland home on Nov. 14. The Pomeroys moved from McMinnville, Oregon to Worland in 2021.

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER - Worland is a city of less than 5,000 souls. It's the seat of Washakie County, in central Wyoming. It has, among other things, a one-street downtown, a bowling alley, several gas stations, a golf course, an Asian mini-market, a health food store, a hospital, a gun shop, an archeological museum with a model mammoth out front and a karate studio.

Beyond the ends of town, the land opens to farm fields and red rock and, in the distance, the saw-toothed, snow-capped peaks of the Bighorn Mountains.

The Pomeroys first came to Worland in fall of 2021 on the occasion of their buying a house.

They had traveled two days by car from McMinnville, Oregon. Jeff, the father, had been born and raised in Oregon, and so had one of his daughters, Lilly. Jas, Jeff's wife, and their oldest daughter, Allkiah, came to the states from the Philippines in 2016.

The four of them had lived in a nice neighborhood in McMinnville - a lush, tree-laden college town of more than 34,000 that was about an hour away from the coast. But Jeff and Jas wanted to leave.

They had already spent three years looking for a new home by the time they bought their house in Wyoming. New drug legalization policies, a proliferation of homelessness and the social unrest that came in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic had transformed their community into a place that was becoming unrecognizable.

And for Trump-supporting conservatives like themselves, Oregon had started to become a less-than-desirable place to live.

In the years leading up to their move, Jeff said they would think twice before putting a Trump sign or American flag in the yard. Many of their friends, Jeff said, had already moved away from Oregon for similar reasons.

Jas and Jeff considered many states to live in. Wyoming was initially last on their list. They looked at Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Alabama, Florida, South Dakota and other places in Oregon.

But in the end, they settled on Wyoming - they liked the low population, the open spaces, the gun-friendly laws and the people. They were looking for a more "down-to-earth, conservative environment" where they could finish raising their daughters.

Migration urged by changing politics and policies has been reported across the country recently. These stories have emerged as the nation has clashed over COVID-19 policies, abortion, transgender rights, drug legalization, guns and other controversial issues.

It's difficult to get a precise picture of such migration in Wyoming - or anywhere, for that matter. Reasons for making a move across state lines are often intertwined, and rarely based solely on political considerations, political science professors who have studied the intersection of geography and politics told the Star-Tribune.

But, anecdotally, people in communities across Wyoming have said that they have seen an influx of people - many of them conservatives like the Pomeroys - moving here from out of state in recent years.

Many of the more than a dozen people whom the Star-Tribune interviewed on the topic and who had moved to the state sometime since 2020, called themselves "political refugees," though some said that term seems hyperbolic.

Those who have left more liberal states to make a new life in Wyoming said they see it as the last frontier of "freedom" - a place where their brand of conservatism has a home, at least for now.

The Pomeroys now live in a quiet Worland neighborhood on a wide street hemmed by modest houses. Their home is half-obscured by a tall cottonwood tree that's starting to lose its leaves. Two blue signs that say "TRUMP 2024" and "TRUMP WAS RIGHT" stand on either side of the concrete walkway to their front door.

Inside, there's an upright piano with a bust of Abraham Lincoln sitting on it (Jeff won it at a Washakie County GOP auction) and a picture frame with a collage of photos from an Air Supply concert - the last concert Jeff and Jas went to before the COVID-19 pandemic.

There's a bookshelf stuffed with titles about Christianity and former presidents Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan and Lincoln, and a painting of Jeff and Jas wearing medieval armor, Jas wielding a sword and a bespectacled Jeff holding a shield. Above the dining room table hangs a piece of art with their daughter Lilly's name written above the frame.

Behind the living room is the kitchen and dining area, and through a doorway further back is the office. Jeff and Jas work from home in the transportation industry. Lilly and Allkiah help with the business. There are multiple laptops and monitors ringing the office desks amid piles of paperwork.

On the wall above the monitors is a photo of former president Donald Trump with his reproduced gold signature, and another photo of the family, all of them wearing blue "USA" t-shirts.

That's the photo Jas and Jeff sent to the former owner of their home, along with a letter promising him that they would take good care of the house.

"We are relocating from Oregon to find a more wholesome [family-oriented] environment," the letter read. "If we are fortunate to call Worland Wyoming our home it'll be an honor to be part of the community."

Above the family photo was a verse from the Bible: "As for Me and My House, We Will Serve the Lord."

They had just returned to McMinnville from a trip to Wyoming, during which they had been looking for houses in communities including Gillette, Cody and Sundance. The housing market was tough, though, and they hadn't had any luck. But soon after they arrived back in McMinnville, a real estate agent called to tell them that a house was available in Worland, a city they hadn't yet considered. They made their offer, and to their surprise, the owner accepted. A day after, they were in the car again, driving back out to Wyoming.

It's very rare in general for people to move across state lines - or to move at all - for purely political reasons, experts told the Star-Tribune. Moving for a mix of lifestyle and opportunity-related factors is much more common, although there isn't much information yet about COVID-19's impact on migration in the U.S.

In the case of the people who spoke with the Star-Tribune about moving to Wyoming, it was indeed a melding of factors that led to their decision.

All cited economic reasons, which is no surprise - Wyoming has no individual income tax, and the state offers opportunities to buy land at more affordable prices compared to many other places in the country. One person who moved to Hulett told the Star-Tribune that he and his wife "couldn't afford the amount of land (they) wanted to have in Colorado."

Another from Tennessee said that a city council vote to significantly increase property taxes put a sense of urgency behind finding a new place to live. He and his wife considered moving back to Iowa where they grew up, but decided not to because "taxes are totally insane in Iowa."

Then there's lifestyle: People were drawn by Wyoming's wide open spaces and tight-knit communities.

And for those who had come from cities and suburbs, Wyoming held the romantic allure of a rugged, self-sufficient lifestyle.

But in all cases, a souring on the culture, politics and policies of the state they had been living in played a role as well and, in some instances, was the galvanizing factor that pushed people to leave sooner than they might have otherwise.

Many cited COVID-19 restrictions, mass protests spurred by police violence and shifts toward liberalism as reasons that - after considering a move for some time - finally pushed them to make the leap.

"Colorado was turning extremely blue," one person said. "We could see it was becoming a liberal cesspool," another person who moved from Washington emphasized.

"We decided the blue state of Illinois was no longer where we wanted to be," another mentioned. "We wanted to go somewhere that would be at least red until we're long gone."

Nearly all of the people interviewed who had moved from states in the West - particularly Oregon, California and Colorado - also cited new drug policies and the changes they wrought as a big factor in their decision to move.

Colorado legalized recreational cannabis in 2012, and last year, voters in the state approved the broadest psychedelic substance legalization in the U.S. (The new law is taking effect in stages over about two years.) California legalized recreational cannabis in 2016. In 2020, voters in Oregon decriminalized the possession of small amounts of nearly all drugs - a first in the U.S.

The shifting drug policy landscape in these states brought dramatic change to communities, people said.

One person who moved from Colorado mentioned that people began buying land near his residence to grow marijuana.

"We just knew that's not the atmosphere we wanted to live in," he said. "That's when we knew it was time to leave Colorado."

Changes also began appearing in McMinnville, where the Pomeroys formerly lived.

Marijuana dispensaries started popping up until it seemed like there were "more pot shops than there are Starbucks," Jeff said recently at the dining room table in his Worland home.

For the Pomeroys, one experience in particular encapsulates the changes they were seeing in their neighborhood.

One day, Jeff, Allkiah and Lilly recounted, their elderly neighbor in McMinnville found a tin box on the breezeway right behind their backyard fence. Inside were needles and what looked like drugs. Jeff called the McMinnville police, and a police officer came and removed the box wearing plastic gloves.

Influenced by the changes they had experienced in the places they had come from, many of the people who talked with the Star-Tribune said they became more politically active - or at least more politically aware - after their move. They kept up-to-date with news, read newsletters and emailed lawmakers. Some even got involved with their local school boards and county Republican parties. One ran for his local school board last year.

Another person told the Star-Tribune that friends convinced him and his wife to run for Republican precinct seats after they moved to Sundance from Colorado. They won.

"We are getting more politically active up here to try to keep this area from going like Colorado," he said.

The Pomeroys hadn't intended to become politically active in Wyoming. But shortly after they moved, they started volunteering for the campaign of Brent Bien, who was running for governor on a platform that espoused Second Amendment rights, opposing abortion, restricting crossover voting and reducing regulations that impede private industry growth, among other things.

The family also became close with Wyoming's Rep. Harriet Hageman and Secretary of State Chuck Gray, both of whom were endorsed in last year's elections by Trump.

Then this past March, Jeff was elected to be the state committeeman for the Washakie County GOP. In that role, he represents the county party in decisions made at the state level.

On a recent Tuesday evening, members of the Washakie County GOP gathered at the Worland Community Center for a meeting. In a room lit by fluorescent lights, people sat in rows of folding chairs facing a panel of leaders up front. Jeff was among them, taking notes on a legal pad that he keeps in a folder embossed in gold with "Wyoming" and a drawing of an elk.

Behind Jeff and the rest of the executive committee was a projected screen showing a resolution opposing the Rock Springs BLM resource management plan - a conservation-oriented proposal that has ruffled feathers among Republican circles in recent months. The group voted to pass the resolution.

Later on in the meeting, the county party's state committeewoman, Cathy Orchard, took the microphone to give an update. She told the group that she had met many young people at the last state GOP convention who are "very involved" at the college level. These young people, she said, are growing the ranks of conservative organizations like Students for Life and Turning Point USA. She said they introduced themselves as "God-fearing, two-gendered, salt-of-the-earth Wyoming people."

She touted a new law in Wyoming that bans crossover voting; efforts to resist environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing - a set of standards that investors use to choose socially-conscious investments and that some Republicans have attacked as pushing a liberal agenda; and the vote of no confidence against Gov. Mark Gordon that the state GOP recently passed after he said during a Harvard University discussion that Wyoming is committed to becoming carbon negative - an objective which he has previously espoused.

When it's his turn to give an update, Jeff introduces the idea of a member dressing up as Santa for Worland's annual Christmas parade. Who wants to volunteer? But there were two Santas in last year's parade, and the kids were confused. Unable to decide what kind of costume they wanted (a Grinch? Jack Frost?), the group settled on approving a chunk of money to get a costume and letting Jeff pick the actual character later.

"So, we're gonna find a costume, and we'll get back to you in January," Jeff said, and everyone laughed.

He asked for a motion to approve spending $100 for the Christmas parade. It passed.

Jeff was never involved in Oregon's Republican Party. But he decided to see what was going on with the Washakie County GOP because of things he saw in Wyoming that concerned him. He's worried about efforts to legalize marijuana and attempts to increase taxes. He's also concerned about "progressive things" in school districts, referring to curriculums that some have criticized as being influenced by Critical Race Theory - an academic framework for examining how racism is embedded in U.S. society (it's not currently taught in Wyoming schools) - and the ongoing debate about school library books that some call "pornographic."

Others argue that these books, many of which address LGBTQ subjects, are important resources for marginalized students.

Jeff and Jas ultimately decided to homeschool their kids for these reasons, though their daughters initially attended public school in Worland.

"It's on fire, but it's worth saving," Jeff said of Wyoming.

Some people felt that Jeff shouldn't be the state committeeman because he had been in Wyoming for not much more than a year. His was in a similar situation as the candidacy of Casper Republican Rep. Jeanette Ward, a transplant from Illinois who met her one-year residency requirement just before the 2022 general election (she hadn't lived here for a year by the time of the primary election when she beat out her Republican opponent, Natrona County School Board member Thomas Myler).

Ward is a member of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus - a faction of far-right Republicans within the Legislature's House of Representatives that's frequently at odds with more traditional Republican lawmakers. Like Jeff, who has said he agrees with the Wyoming Freedom Caucus on many issues, she has referred to herself numerous times as a "political refugee."

During his bid for the state committeeman post, Jeff said he told members of the Washakie County GOP that he and his family might be new to Wyoming, but that they were no different from the rest of them. All of their families came to Wyoming at some point for the same reasons - for "freedom, open space and better opportunity." His message seems to have resonated.

Most of the people who spoke with the Star-Tribune had moved to Wyoming without knowing anyone here. They rebuilt their lives from scratch - finding new faith communities, befriending neighbors, getting active in local organizations and politics.

While most of the people interviewed by the Star-Tribune were retirees with less to contend with in such a big move, a few, like the Pomeroys, had families with younger kids. They had the additional challenges of finding new schooling and helping their kids manage the transition.

Lilly and Allkiah, Jeff and Jas's daughters, have mixed feelings about Worland. They spoke fondly of going to the beach in Oregon, of visiting the Newport Aquarium and the Multnomah Falls and the sea lion caves. They used to hang out on Third Street in downtown McMinnville with their friends, a place in which, they recalled, you could always hear someone's voice.

Sometimes, the family would make the drive to Portland or Seattle.

Their life in Wyoming looks a bit different.

"It was just, like, so quiet," Allkiah said of moving to Wyoming. "Just like there's, like, a zombie apocalypse. ... It just took time to adjust for me."

"Definitely more quiet," Lilly added. "I guess maybe less diverse?" Her voice went up in a question at the end of the sentence.

The young women, as well as their mother, Jas, are Filipina in a county where Asians make up less than 1% of the population, and where people of mixed race make up less than 3% of the population, according to the last census.

Lilly and Allkiah said they missed being able to go to Filipino restaurants and grocery stores in Seattle. They try to recreate some of that experience in their new home – for her birthday recently, Allkiah requested Filipino dishes. They said they've also befriended a Laotian family that owns a local Asian restaurant and Asian mini-market.

In addition to the family that runs Asian Cuisine, they said they've met some people through their karate lessons, which they attend three times a week.

Lilly is willowy with big eyes. Allkiah, like her mother, is more petite with a vibrant smile. They both study from home. Lilly is in high school and will graduate from her homeschool program in 2025. Allkiah takes online classes at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma. She plans to transfer to campus after her second year.

Sitting on barstools at the kitchen island in their new Worland home, both young women speak in soft voices. Sometimes they finish each other's sentences. They each have a slightly bashful presence.

Aside from maybe keeping a residence in the state while they travel, neither seems to want to stay in Wyoming.

Even so, they also don't necessarily want to go back to Oregon either for many of the same reasons their parents decided to uproot the family - Lilly misses Oregon beaches but not the crime and drugs. Allkiah said she just wants to travel for a bit.

Jas also had reservations when she first saw Worland. But since moving, she seems to have taken to life in Wyoming.

"I embraced it," she said of her new life in the Cowboy State.

Her vision of Wyoming before visiting the state came from her youth, when she was a teenager growing up in the Philippines and would go with her friends to her neighbor's house to watch old Westerns. She liked ones with intense plotlines - films with John Wayne and plenty of gunfights.

"I like the drama. I like the action," she said, grinning.

Until recently, she was afraid of firearms. Now, she likes going to the Worland gun range and hopes to someday compete in target shooting.

For Christmas last year, she made a movie poster for Jeff with a photo of herself at the gun range in aviators and a zebra-striped shirt, holding a revolver. The fictional film is titled "THE BOSS" with a subhead that says "A MOM A WIFE AND A BOSS."

She used her design skills to make campaign materials for Bien, the former gubernatorial candidate.

Worland holds a certain nostalgia for Jeff too, though of a different sort. It reminds him of being a kid in the '70s when he would go with his parents to the bank and "people would just talk to you like a human being."

In the wintertime, he was shocked to see that people would leave their cars running with the doors unlocked outside the supermarket. Nobody would have done that in Oregon, Jeff said.

Sometimes their neighbors, with whom they are friends, shovel snow for the family, and they know many of the local business owners. People wave to them from across the street.

When the Pomeroys visited their house in Worland for the first time, they bumped into the former owner, who gave them a personalized tour and pointed out things the realtor hadn't. (Now, they're good friends.)

The next day, while out walking his dog, Jeff stopped an older man to ask him what he liked about Worland. The man threw up his hands and said, "Everything!" Then he continued walking.

Many of the people who spoke with the Star-Tribune said Wyoming holds a similar kind of sentimentality for them. People who grew up in rural places that were overcome with development over the years said, like Jeff, that Wyoming reminds them of their youth and simpler times.

"Colorado used to be, when we were kids growing up, just like Wyoming," one person said.

"The valley we used to live in is now crowded, and you can see that happening all over Colorado," she added.

Jas and Jeff took two reporters on a tour of Worland on a recent Tuesday evening, hurrying to ferry them to all their favorite spots before the GOP meeting scheduled later that night. They stopped at a health food store where they had recently requested an order of garlic and herb tofu. They drove by the karate studio where their daughters do martial arts and the law enforcement center where they got their weapons permits. They stopped at the bowling alley where they sometimes go for family outings and the Asian Cuisine restaurant where a row of cars was already parked out front a little before 5 p.m. They went past the airport and the golf course and into the country, where the sinking sun silhouetted telephone poles and cottonwood trees.

"For us, it was our Oregon Trail," Jeff told the Star-Tribune weeks earlier over the phone of his family's trek to Wyoming.

They just went in the reverse direction. At the local gun shop, Jeff tells the owner that the reporters have "come to see what Worland's all about."

"Not much, right?" the owner said, a wry smile on his face.

Jeff smiled back and laughed.

"That's what makes it so great," he said.

This story was published on December 5, 2023.

 
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