Either Taylor Sheridan’s epic Yellowstone franchise is enticing folks to leave California for Montana in droves, or people are simply done with the political antics of the Golden State. Either way, Californians are abandoning the mess of a state – a mess of their own making – and heading to Big Sky Country, and the natives aren’t happy about it.
Hitting the Zoom Trail
Unlike the arduous journey of the Oregon Trail, the Zoom Trail – a clever name for the new route opened by remote work and COVID-induced restlessness – just requires a plane ticket, bus ticket, or a vehicle, and enough cash or credit to relocate. That’s the path to prosperity, at least for Kevin Frazier, a recent graduate of US Berkely School of Law. For Frazier, the decision came down to accepting a lucrative position in San Francisco and living in a gift box-sized $4,000 a month rental, or heading to Montana for a great job, better economy, and room to grow. It was an easy decision for Frazier and his fiancé.
As Kevin wrote in an opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle:
“The Zoom Trail, like the Oregon Trail before it, promises something at the heart of the American Dream: a belief that a better future exists for you, your family, and your community. For many, big cities have lost their luster because the problems they face and the solutions they propose land somewhere on the spectrum between foolish and futile.”
But Frazier isn’t the first to see the light and navigate the Zoom Trail of remote work. Unfortunately for both California and Montana, he won’t be the last, either.
Saddle Up and Head North
California had struggled to keep people happy for a while, and by the time COVID-19 appeared and prompted the state to impose harsh restrictions on travel and commerce, the last vestiges of a middle class began to pack up and head out. By the end of September 2021, exits from the state were up 12% compared to March 2020. And by the third quarter of 2021, moving into the state was down 17% overall, according to California Policy Lab. In 2021, “Montana had the highest net inflow per capita, with 73% of moves inbound and just 23% outbound,” according to a national real estate blog.
The departure from the Golden State has given rise to several handy tools. ExitCalifornia.org is one such business model that offers a positive view of every state with a better quality of life. Sign up, and a real estate agent will guide you on the next journey to Nirvana. On the Montana page, they tout wide open spaces, far cheaper housing, and hints of when to begin the process: Don’t move in winter, have a place to live, and be prepared for lack of diversity in local restaurants. There may only be one Vietnamese joint in the whole state, so choose wisely.
Montana Is Full
Montanans, however, aren’t enjoying the exodus quite so much. Housing prices have skyrocketed along with property tax, forcing some native residents to move to Wyoming, Idaho, and – gasp – even the Midwest. In fact, loaded with items of deterrence, the Lincoln County board of supervisors issued an updated “code of the west” for seekers. For those city folks unfamiliar with the original code, it is a real thing. Zane Grey, the famous writer of western life, first put such a notion in print to describe what’s expected. The supervisors have updated the code of conduct first experienced during the great expansion west and have modified the rules to fit today’s societal expectations:
“The values of integrity and self-reliance guided their decisions, actions, and interactions. In keeping with that spirit, we offer this information to help citizens of Lincoln County who wish to follow in the footsteps of those rugged individualists by living outside city and town limits. It is important for you to know that life in the country is different from life in town. County governments are not able to provide the same level of service that city governments provide.”
In other words, don’t expect anyone to plow your road after a heavy snowfall or care if you did not stock the liquor cabinet after watching the Weather Channel and knowing the state would get hammered. And the angst over new people goes further than simple irritation. Two former mayors of Bozeman, Steve Kirchhoff and Jeff Krauss, are calling for a building moratorium to stop the insurgence, which is creating issues for wildlife and causing housing prices to force residents out. In an op-ed piece for a local daily, they asked: “Let’s say we could wake up tomorrow to 1,000 new units of all kinds of housing. Do you think the average housing price would decrease?”
It was hypothetical, and the answer was succinct:
“[T]hey would be snatched up by the same people who are snatching them up today: 20 percent would go to wealthy people from Bozeman who can afford to move up or invest; fifty percent would go to wealthy newcomers; and the remaining thirty percent would go to out-of-state investors.”
Life in Montana is heavenly for those who wish to escape living on top of one another and who love the four seasons and the great outdoors. Independent thinking is prized in Big Sky Country: Californians – the urban ones, at least – tend to have more of a herd mentality, and that will not fly with the locals. And for anyone relocating from the Golden State to any other US state, bringing your city ways and liberal politics will give Montana and everyone else a rash. And, please, remember the “code” applies to those on the Zoom Trail as well.
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