- Shallon Lester is a YouTuber who moved from New York to Paradise Valley, Montana, in June.
- She loves her bigger, cheaper home, the friends she’s made, and the activities the city offers.
- This is her story, as told to Perri Ormont Blumberg. (Editor’s note: Lester is a friend of the author.)
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
I’m a magazine editor turned YouTube creator and Instagram influencer (I hate that word, too.) who fled city life for Montana.
I grew up in California but spent the past 12 years in New York City — in neighborhoods like Murray Hill and Midtown East in Manhattan and Cobble Hill in Brooklyn — until last June when I moved to Paradise Valley, Montana, just outside of Bozeman.
During my tenure as an editor at Star magazine, I was the quintessential NYC girl-about-town, but it was getting old. Another event, another fashion week, rinse, repeat.
Once COVID-19 hit, the party was (literally) over, and all I was left with was the vexing drudgery of big-city life without the fun.
I spent part of lockdown in Newport Beach, California, with my family, and the distance gave me the room to realize that for the past few years in NYC, I was doing things because they looked cool, not because they felt fulfilling.
I think quarantine gave us all a lot of data about what we truly need. For me, it was land, space, and safety. Mid-lockdown, I had some security breaches at my place in NYC involving someone stalking me, and the FBI told me it probably wasn’t safe for me to live there anymore. Being a YouTuber can be very intense sometimes.
So, to reset, I made reservations at some dude ranches (also known as guest ranches, these are cattle ranches turned into vacation resorts) in Montana with a plan to spend a few weeks galloping around, then move to Hawaii in July.
I’d been to Montana only once, in 2015, but the beauty blew me away. I couldn’t believe it was even our planet let alone our country!
I’d even signed a lease, sight unseen, in Maui, but after three days in Bozeman, I was hooked. I canceled my ticket to Maui and got a house, a truck, and a dog (Cowboy!) within a week.
I called my family and friends, told them I was staying, and braced myself for an intervention. But to my absolute shock, everyone said the same thing: “Ya know, I thought you might.” Sometimes, trusting your gut saves you from yourself, and I traded the emotional roller coaster that was my city life for rolling vistas, sans drama. (OK, maybe a little drama. You can take a girl out of New York …)
I love everything about Montana life, from the horses and trucks to the warmth of the people and the libertarian attitude.
I’ve always been sort of a closet redneck, but it wasn’t super cool — or even possible — to indulge the country side of myself in Manhattan (except when I dragged my friends to the PBR rodeo at Madison Square Garden to flirt with bull riders backstage with press passes each year). Now I feel reborn, like I’m remeeting myself.
Out here, I’m softer, more balanced, and yet growing and learning more than I have in years. “Can he field-dress an elk?” is the new “Can he get us into the Boom Boom Room?”
Montana is very much open for business and many times feels like the land the rona forgot.
I really expected to have moments of, “What am I doing here, pretending to be a cowgirl?” and have this full-body longing for New York but — nope.
Sometimes I’ll wistfully miss getting dressed up for a gala or event but, ironically, living in Montana — where life is basically “before-times” normal save for a few mask mandates — gives me more opportunity to socialize than NYC would. The absence of FOMO, or fear of missing out, has made the transition so much easier.
There are only a million people in the entire state — we joke that Montanans have been distancing since 1864.
When I described the California COVID-19 rules and austere edicts in NYC, people marveled with a, “Well, shoot, that sounds crazy” detachment, like I was describing some nonsense fever dream.
The main drawback for me is the housing boom.
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Prices are through the roof, and we’re hoping that once life gets back to normal around America, people will stop moving to Montana.
I’ve found a great three-bedroom, 1,800-square-foot townhouse rental with a garage, fireplace, and mountain views for $2,000 a month — the same rent I paid for a studio apartment in Brooklyn.
It feels insane to me that paying a million dollars for a one-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg once seemed normal, when seven figures here will get you a craftsman home on 2 acres at the absolute least. It’s also insane that 18 months ago I was content with 800 square feet and no view, and now four bedrooms on 3 acres doesn’t seem like enough.
Also worth noting: Gas is a dollar cheaper than in California, and a double Jack and Coke will set you back about $5 — $7 if you’re at a fancy place. Once in NYC, I ordered a double vodka soda at Marquee. It was $38.
If you want to escape COVID-19, be prepared to escape industry and convenience, too.
I was also very used to the immediacy of NYC and how easily I could outsource something.
It was so hard to furnish my house because so few companies would deliver to Montana. Ubers are almost nonexistent, there’s not one Chase bank in the state, and Amazon Prime takes at least five days, if not more. I was accustomed to easy direct flights from JFK — now it takes me two days to get almost anywhere.
I did worry that my audience wouldn’t care about me if I wasn’t an NYC “it girl.” Like every New Yorker, so much of my identity was being a New Yorker, but, as I’ve learned, most people have a dream of running away to the country and becoming a cowgirl, too. So my followers have loved living vicariously through rodeo and fishing and dates with cowboys, and they say that I seem so much more relaxed and present.
I didn’t know one person in Montana when I moved and was prepared to be very lonely.
Maybe I’d befriend a bartender or neighbor? But no chance I’d replicate the kinds of friendships I’d had in New York. It seemed like too much to ask for, so I kept the bar low. (Side note: I kept the bar low for dating, too. Every guy on Tinder is holding a fish or something else he killed.)
But I was going to try. The No. 1 question I get on my YouTube channel is how to make friends as an adult, and it was time to be a guinea pig for my own advice, so I threw myself into a ton of activities: shooting class, barrel racing, volunteering, Pilates, etc.
I also put the word out on Facebook that I was moving to Montana and wanted to meet people. You’d be surprised who knows whom in “random” towns. A friend from high school connected me with some absolutely incredible women in Bozeman, and I can say without a doubt these ladies will be among my lifelong best friends.
I ingratiated myself by being bold: I invited them over, hosted little parties and dinners, and focused on being a good listener. In a new place, it’s easy to feel desperate to meet people, but reframe it and focus on what you offer them: fresh perspective, a clean slate, etc.
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As of now, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
When I was in New York, going home to California felt like rehab; it was so therapeutic and peaceful.
Now the density is unbearable. There are so many people and so few cows. I don’t know if I could ever tolerate a big city again, but a year ago I wouldn’t believe that I’d have a shotgun above my bed and a lasso in my truck bed, so never say never.
I realize Montana is probably an overcorrection from Manhattan, but that’s OK. I’m gathering data about what I truly need and what makes me happy.
The tough part is the winter. It’s no joke and can last from October to April, sometimes longer. This year we had about 10 straight days of minus-17-degree weather, and this was considered a mild winter without much snow.
I’m lucky enough to be able to work wherever I please so long as there’s internet, so I spent the past few weeks in Palm Springs, California, and I hope to buy a place out there for the winters.
There are so many ways to live one life — if you’re miserable, cowboy up and make some changes. My best friend says it best: leap and the net will appear.