This is Part II in a series on the Wyoming expatriate experience. For Part I, read What would it take for Wyoming expatriates to move home? — Ed

Every weekday during the school year Paul Primrose stands at the head of a classroom and teaches English to students at Lander High School. But he wasn’t always a teacher.

Primrose is a Wyoming native who grew up in Casper. From 1997-2003 he worked as a distribution and customer service manager at Amazon.com in Seattle. It was a fast-paced job at a company undergoing explosive growth. After five years he found himself competing for promotions with military veterans who had 20 years of logistics experience.

He wanted to get out, and considered going to law school. Ultimately he moved back to Wyoming where he could get in-state tuition at the university while earning his teaching credentials. Now that he’s married and living in Lander — and the father of twin boys — he doesn’t miss working for Amazon, and he doesn’t plan on leaving.

“We absolutely plan to stay,” Primrose said. “Lander’s a great community for our kids and our outdoorsy interests, and the boys have grandparents in Big Horn and Casper to boot.”

“I’ll also say this: time away from Wyoming gave me invaluable insight, and moving back was one of the best decisions of my life.”

It’s a long-standing trend in Wyoming for young people to leave the small towns where they grew up once they reach early adulthood. State data shows that six out of 10 young Wyoming workers leave the state in the 10 years after they turn 18.

Yet, there are natives like Primrose who make their way back after experiencing what the wider world outside Wyoming has to offer.  “Small towns are great places to grow up, but great places to leave around age 20,” Primrose said. “Then they return to being great places to raise a family.”

Wyoming’s population of people age 30-34 has grown in the last decade, but mostly in counties with larger populations.

Even so, in every Wyoming town you can find people who have left the state for other experiences, then chose to return. Some come back to be near family, or for financial reasons. Others return because they miss the mountains, or they prefer living in a sparsely populated state and visiting cities on occasion.

In some cases, they return for job opportunities they couldn’t find elsewhere, or to start businesses in places with high quality of life. Many of those who return have the benefit of an education, work experience, and perspective that helps them contribute to the advancement of Wyoming communities.

Many Wyoming families would love for their expatriates to move back, as do the state’s leaders and many businesses. WyoFile spoke with former Wyoming expats to learn about why they came back, what opportunities they’ve found here, and if they plan to stay, or leave again like the departing hero in the classic Western movie Shane.

Melissa Harrington

  • AGE: 30
  • HOMETOWN: Wheatland
  • ALSO LIVED IN: Daejeon, South Korea
  • PREVIOUS JOB: Teaching English as a foreign language
  • CURRENT CITY: Burlington
  • CAREER/JOB: Owner, The Burlington Place, pizzeria and bar

Why did you come back to Wyoming?

We love our state. We took a Wyoming flag out of the country with us, and when we didn’t want to claim being American we just said we were from Wyoming.

Initially we returned to Laramie because that’s what we knew. We were working as paraprofessionals in the Laramie school district prior to South Korea and we were able to get back into that system on returning.

Do you plan to stay?

Yes. After we returned to Laramie we heard about a small bar for sale in Burlington, Wyoming which is a town of 300. We had no desire to own a bar, and we were feeling antsy and thinking of not living in Laramie and going overseas but we decided to check out this bar. It is in a historic bank building. It just felt completely charming and it was definitely more affordable than trying to do something in Laramie, even.

We had traveled and lived in huge cities … so coming back to Wyoming we just knew this is the landscape we want to wake up to and this is the amount of people we want to be surrounded by. It is the like-mindedness. I live in a great state and am happy to share it with a few other people, but not too many, especially those who already know how great it is as a state.

Any other thoughts?

I do think there are surprising nooks and crannies in Wyoming that are just ripe for fresh young people to come back and revamp what’s happening. We have had just crazy amounts of success with off-the-wall pizzas in a town that most people in Wyoming would view as “hickish.” I think that is really exciting. People might feel there is no room for ideas in the state, but I think there is room for innovation, and being from Wyoming helps push that forward and in these small places.

Paul Primrose

  • AGE: 43
  • HOMETOWN: Casper
  • ALSO LIVED IN: Champaign, Seattle, Lexington, Phoenix, St. Louis
  • PREVIOUS JOB: Staff writer for The Onion, manager at Amazon.com
  • CURRENT CITY: Lander
  • CAREER/JOB: High school English teacher

Why did you leave?

After two years at Casper College, I wasn’t sure where my life was headed and I wanted to see a bit more of the world. I wound up at the University of Illinois in Champaign, which was this great change of pace — it’s a huge school, so there was diversity, creative types, and live music everywhere. Socially, I finally felt like I fit in.

What opportunities did you find?

Getting on at The Onion in Champaign was simply a matter of badgering the editors until they hired me just to shut me up. I still have my first rejection slip from them. Then in late 1997 I was living on a friend’s couch in Seattle, and one day I answered an ad for a temp agency working with this little online bookseller. Of the 100 or so temps in my group, I was one of four or five that Amazon hired on permanently.

Why did you leave Amazon?

That was a tough — and fascinating — place to work. It was a pure meritocracy. This was the late ‘90s, and Amazon’s explosive growth created a vacuum of cool leadership jobs. I seized that opportunity and basically topped out at low-level management, having worked in customer service centers and some distribution stuff. After five years, though, I was over it and needed something more fulfilling and more aligned with my personal interests.

Why did you come back to Wyoming? Do you plan to stay?

As soon as I realized I wanted to teach, I also realized I missed mountains and snow. No matter where I went, I’d need the teaching certification, so I was looking at schools in the West. The clincher was that UW offered in-state tuition for any Wyoming high school graduate for life. I hope that policy’s still in place, because it’s a brilliant way to bring people back.

David Schillinger

  • AGE: 32
  • HOMETOWN: Gillette
  • ALSO LIVED IN: Alexandria, Northern Virginia; Florida, came back to Gillette, finished degree in Springfield, Missouri
  • PREVIOUS JOB: Washington Post Newspaper plant, Arlington wastewater treatment plant
  • CURRENT CITY: Laramie
  • CAREER/JOB: Water treatment plant operator

Why did you leave?

Well, I met my wife Jessica in college and we stayed in contact and we were dating and she had a job in D.C. so I moved out there. I am a sucker for adventure, and I went and saw what it was like to live in DC.

How did you like it?

It was fun for a bit. We got to do a lot of stuff that the city offers: shows, baseball games. It was all right there. But it is such a busy place, so many people, and it just wore on me after a while, and we wanted to get back to family, a more relaxed way to live, and it’s cheaper. The cost of living is insane out there. …  We wanted to move somewhere where where we could think about having children and it would be a better environment.

Why did you come back to Wyoming?

We moved back because my wife got a job at the university. … Jessica started looking for jobs because she was getting tired of the D.C. rat race, so I was like, “Let’s do it.” … I work at the wastewater treatment plant. I moved without a job just so we could get back to Wyoming.

I think the major thing was it’s closer to family. … This is familiar. We’re close enough to Denver so if we want to do city stuff it’s not that far away.

Do you plan to stay?

That’s the plan. We like it here. We have a lot of family here, it is just a good place to be. We get the outdoor stuff to do.

Jason Kintzler

  • AGE: 37
  • HOMETOWN: Born in Lander, grew up in Riverton
  • ALSO LIVED IN: Butte, Billings
  • PREVIOUS JOB: News anchor for Montana CBS affiliates
  • CURRENT CITY: Lander
  • CAREER/JOB: Founder/CEO, PitchEngine

Why did you leave Wyoming?

I went to college at MSU Billings. I was up there until about 2003. Six or seven years.

Why did you come back to Wyoming?

I had seen everyone gather their wealth somewhere else and move back here to retire, and I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to work to stay, instead of working to leave? The lifestyle was for me, and it was definitely on my mind.

Wyoming has this aura of independence. … People are spread out and there is a lot of blue-collar jobs, and a lot of entrepreneurs trying to do their own things, whether it is a rancher or a roustabout oil field service. This is a place that cultivates those things. Even though people can criticise the job opportunities here, the people that are successful are entrepreneurs creating their businesses.

What are you working in now?

PitchEngine was created in 2008. It is marketing software and is used by companies all over the globe. We have 50,000 brands, everyone from Walmart to British Airways and Geico use it for their online marketing. We have now started to move into local media and we think we have a model for connecting communities in new ways. We started County 10 three years ago and we have expanded that to six communities and will expand that to all of Wyoming soon.

The key for Wyoming is to tell our story so people can understand that these types of businesses exist in Wyoming, and I can name one in almost every town where people can have these jobs. …  The idea that we are all about oil and gas is a misconception. Yes we benefit from that, but it also provides the opportunity for all these other businesses.

Angela Schukei

  • AGE: 36
  • HOMETOWN: Cheyenne
  • ALSO LIVED IN: New Mexico, Arizona, Florida
  • PREVIOUS JOBS: Food service/full time student
  • CURRENT CITY: Torrington
  • CAREER/JOB: Lumberyard worker

Why did you come back to Wyoming?

It really had to do with financial reasons. It wasn’t that I wanted to move back and pursue a career here. Financially I couldn’t afford to live in Florida due to student loans and rent, and debt was getting overwhelming. My parents are in Torrington and that’s why I went there over anywhere else in Wyoming. … Financially I am back on my feet and able to save money.

Do you plan to stay?

No. I found through the different places I lived that I enjoy bigger city-type atmospheres, because I can’t go out and have a nice glass of wine or go to a nice place and have dinner. I have to go outside of Torrington to pursue those interests. It would be nice just having some recreational options other than maybe go golfing or a take walk.

Part of the reason [I thought] moving back wouldn’t be a bad idea is growing up you have those romanticized feeling of that hometown feel was and how much fun it is. When you’ve grown up to a certain kind of lifestyle, you realize what you remembered fondly might not be the same today as you remembered. If I was more into an agriculture type occupation this would probably be the perfect place for me.

Jeremy Hugus

  • AGE: 32
  • HOMETOWN: Riverton
  • ALSO LIVED IN: Idaho, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Denver, Chicago, Geneva, Switzerland; Guatemala
  • PREVIOUS JOB: Law school, graduate studies
  • CURRENT CITY: Casper
  • CAREER/JOB: Managing attorney, Platte River Law

Why did you leave Wyoming?

Education. I didn’t think I would come back and it wasn’t anything against Wyoming, but I just liked living in the city.

What other opportunities did you find?

I was looking for work in Colorado. I wanted to move back to Denver from Chicago, and that was in spring in 2008, and I just had a really hard time finding work down there. The market was flooded with attorneys. … I did a lot of informational interviews, but from the start they told me they weren’t going to hire me.

Why did you move back?

… I thought, “I am going to take the Wyoming bar anyway because I have family there, so I I’ll take the bar.” I expected to find a softer market, and I did.

I got my first law job in Casper in 2010, and the plan was to stay a year and then go back to Denver, and I said, “This is a really unhealthy way to be here to use it just for experience.” It was a hindrance to plugging into the community and investing, and it is hard to do that if your eye is on what’s next. So I decided to plug in and treat this like home.

… Not living in the city has grown on me quite a bit. Every time I visit one I think, “Boy these are beautiful places — to visit.” We are really content not living in a city right now.

Do you plan to stay?

There is undoubtedly a certain quality of life and a degree of friendliness and a good work-hard spirit that makes Wyoming a special place. … I would say to people who have left to consider giving it a try. You approach different places differently at different times of your life. Wyoming isn’t just the same as it was. For me leaving made me realize and appreciate some of the things I hadn’t appreciated when I left.

Laramie Maxwell

  • AGE: 25
  • HOMETOWN: Jackson
  • ALSO LIVED IN: Maine, Washington, and Boulder, Colorado
  • PREVIOUS JOBS: Competitive equestrian, intern with Nature Conservancy/Climate Reality Project, farm worker, clerk at Washington State Senate
  • CURRENT CITY: R Lazy S Ranch, Teton Village
  • CURRENT JOB: Wrangler

Why did you leave?

Anywhere you grew up is a bubble, and Jackson is that way too. I wanted to get out and have exposure to different parts of the world and the country.

Why did you come back to Wyoming? Do you plan to stay?

I do plan to stay. There might be some more time where I leave before I decide to settle down here. I love the lack of people here. I go to other states and I am totally inundated with humans. I very much love coming back here and having huge landscapes and way fewer people.

I love the people here, and the work ethic of people, and the way they treat each other. Community is a big reason I came back to Wyoming, whenever I am broken down on the road, Wyomingites are always there to help. …

I don’t know whether I ‘ll get involved in policy here, but I am very interested in it. My degree is in environmental policy and I’m interested in large landscape conservation and endangered species. Being in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem is a draw for me, as far as working on human-wildlife conflict, and working on that eventually is a draw.

Any other thoughts?

I think Wyoming can be a difficult place to live, for the weather. It can be a harsh place, but that’s a big draw, and a reason why I want to be here, and a reason friends of mine want to be here. It is very different and has a very distinct character.

It’s a personality thing. Either you are very invested in the way Wyoming is, or you aren’t. The state has such a draw that if you want to be back here, you are going to end up back here because there aren’t any other places like it in the states. Wyoming is a way of life, and you either want to engage in that, or you don’t.

— Are you an Wyoming expatriate or a former expatriate? WyoFile would like to hear from you, too. Let us know if we can add a pin with your name to our map. You can submit a comment below, or send us your comment via email (editor@wyofile.com) or chat with us on Facebook.

Gregory Nickerson

Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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5 Comments

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  1. I like these stories. Part of what makes them engaging is that they weave together all 3 parts of WyoFile’s motto: People, Places and Policy.

    I think WyoFile’s best stories keep all three aspects in balance.

    Ben Tonak

  2. Two very fine stories. Thank you.
    If you pull focus and look at what was going on in the state economy as a whole over those 35 years, you see the graph of people under 30 coming and going in Wyoming roughly mirrors the graph of the price of oil.
    You might even see that some people left energy-poor counties and moved to energy-rich ones when the oil price rose. The governor’s attention to this issue comes at a time oil prices have fallen and are just coming back.
    Perhaps that’s the question one might ask next: How would the ability of the state to hold onto its young people change if the state were to put great effort into diversifying its economy — especially its energy industry?

    Ron Feemster

  3. I enjoyed this pair of articles on Wyoming expats. I found high school reunions interesting as classmates “came home” and shared their experiences outside of Wyoming. There are so many reasons why people leave, and so many miss the lifestyle Wyoming has for raising families. For my generation, the economy in Wyoming tanked while we were in college (during the mid-1980’s), so there were no jobs for many of my classmates. When I came back to Wyoming to teach in Casper in 1988, Casper was a ghost town in comparison of what it was 6-7 years before. Job opportunities come first, and our economy still is not very diversified, which has been an issue since territorial days.

    John Trohkimoinen

  4. Gregory, I am enjoying and appreciating the articles and interviews. Some of them help me to look with a bit of a fresh eye at the natural beauty of Wyoming. My husband was raised here, but I was raised in Colorado, and to be frank, have a bit of a jaded eye for the political/social environment after 45+ years. My husband and I are about to “pull up stakes” and follow our children out of state. We have retired, and they live in Portland, OR. I am excited about the diversity, the urban energy, . . . and the potential grandchildren. So, it’s a bit of a flip side of the coin. . . . So, enjoying the thought that this thread is producing.

    Anne S Wagner

  5. I too came back to Big Wonderful (from Arizona). I am soon glad to be back! I missed the freedom of the wide open spaces, the hunting & fishing, the quiet and serenity so easy to find in Wyoming. I missed Wyoming every minute I was gone.

    The only negative about being back is Wyoming politics. I think most Wyoming citizens appreciate and value Wyoming’s diverse and abundant wildlife, our public lands, and our outdoor adventures. And yet, those same Wyoming citizens continually elect politicians (on both a national and state levels) that continually try to destroy those important values. I don’t get it…

    RON SMITH