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"You Can Love Wyoming And Not See A Future There"

Mackenzie Muirhead and Sarah Mock
L-R: Mackenzie Muirhead and Sarah Mock

Sarah Mock and Mackenzie Muirhead both loved growing up in Cheyenne. Now, as they build lives and careers in Washington, D.C., they both dream about giving back to the communities that raised them. For Wyoming Public Radio's "Belonging" series, Sarah and Mackenzie talked about their changing relationship to Wyoming, and how a lack of jobs in their chosen fields - journalism and foreign affairs, respectively - prevents them from moving back.

Mackenzie Muirhead: I used to think that I would want to go back to Wyoming and raise my kids in Wyoming, and then I think I started looking at the job market and that kind of took the notion away from me that I would ever go back to raise my family. I can definitely imagine in 10 years or so, if I have kids, sending them to grandma and grandpa's house for the summer or trying to get them to go to [the University of Wyoming]. It would be very surprising to me if I was able to go back and find a job. If there were a way to create more jobs in the international realm, then it would induce a lot more people that want to get out, they want to experience other things, but they still have this sense of home and this sense of wanting to give back to home, but not quite being in a position where they know how to do that because the jobs aren't there for them.

Sarah Mock: Totally. I empathize with that idea really, really deeply in the sense of feeling like I gained so much growing up in Wyoming. I mean, we both were able to take advantage of like, paid trips to national conventions and getting to travel a lot through school, getting to travel a lot in our families. And that definitely is why I felt comfortable coming to Georgetown [University] for college, and building a career that took me to California and back to D.C. and kind of all over the country. And feeling like you want to give back, but the way to give back seems like moving back, but how do you do that when it doesn't actually feel like that's a real option?

MM: Yeah. So what made you leave Wyoming in the first place for D.C.?

SM: I was very interested in international affairs, since like 10th grade. I had a very similar like, I love traveling and I love adventure and I want my life to be very adventurous. But I also love this county and I love Wyoming and I somehow want to tie those things together. And things like the State Department or foreign service felt like the best way to do that. So that's why I left Wyoming and went to Georgetown in the first place. It was kind of nuts, but in all the ways I thought I would shed agriculture and farming and all of the really rural identity things that came with growing up in Wyoming, I feel like Georgetown just like magnified all of those things because being from Wyoming became the most unique thing about me. So I went to Georgetown thinking I was going to work for the State Department and actually ended up basically studying agriculture. And now I'm in D.C. reporting on agriculture. In a lot of ways, closer to my Wyoming roots than I ever was.

MM: How did you feel about the culture in Wyoming? Did that impact your decision to leave at all?

SM: Definitely not at the time. That's changed since I've been away. I've been exposed to just a lot of different kinds of people and a lot of different ideas in a way that makes going back to Wyoming sometimes really hard. Not only because of how I've changed, but also because of how people assume I've changed. I don't know if you experience this but I almost feel unwelcome sometimes.

MM: I think there are traces of that, where there are friends who think like, oh Kenzie's such a big shot because she left but she still wants to come back for [Cheyenne Frontier Days] and she still wants to come back for the UW football games, and she she still says she loves Wyoming but how much do you really love it if you left? That's kind of hard to confront because it's just so off-base in so many different ways. I think you can love something and not see a future there and leave it and still love it. But I think there will always be something special about Wyoming to people that grew up in Wyoming. It's just whether or not that person wants to stay and whether or not they have found their niche and whether or not there is a job in that niche. In addition to, do I like Wyoming? Do I like the culture here? Do I like how remote it is? Because a lot of people, especially our age, just aren't interested in driving 40 miles for groceries and 100 miles for the closest airport.

SM: Totally. And I feel like, to that point, people have opted into wanting that. There are certainly not other states that offer what Wyoming offers which is yeah, being really remote, being really outdoors focused, being really rural. Even our biggest city -- because we grew up in the biggest city in Wyoming and both consider ourselves to have grown up in a rural place. That's crazy! And if Wyoming just became like a carbon copy of Colorado, there would just be two Colorados. And then all the people in Wyoming who currently love it would have nowhere to go.

MM: And I think we are in a little bit of danger for that happening, because as Denver expands, people that don't like the size of Denver move to Fort Collins. And as Fort Collins expands, people move to Cheyenne. And people in Cheyenne who don't love how fast Cheyenne is expanding, where do they go? Do they go to Torrington? Do they go to Pine Bluffs? Do they go further up to Casper?

SM: Yeah. In that way we've created an additional problem, because the real solving is that actually the brain drain is what we all want. It's the best thing for Wyoming. And also it's about to end because everyone's going to move in. Because it's already a suburb of Denver basically. And then Laramie's gonna go --

MM: Laramie is such a gem that should be preserved at all costs. Because it is the perfect city right now. It's so fun.

SM: But it's also only an hour from Fort Collins, which means Fort Collins is coming for it.

MM: Yeah, but it's an hour out of Fort Collins on 287 which is so dangerous. It's such a terrible road.

SM: So true. Will it stop people from Colorado? Unclear.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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