In 2015, Christopher Ingraham wrote a story for The Washington Post that changed his life.
As a data reporter for the paper, the story’s topic — the USDA’s “natural amenities index,” which measures U.S. counties based on things like climate and topography – came with the territory. But it’s what he calls a “throwaway line” he wrote that set him and his family on their new path — from daily East Coast grind to full-on “Minnesota niclosece” in the Midwest.
In that 2015 article, Ingraham mapped the USDA’s dataset of all U.S. counties, and called Red Lake County, Minn., “the absolute worst place to live in America.” This conclusion was based on the government’s data.
But Minnesotans’ – in Red Lake County and all over the state – made it (politely) personal.
“They were very upset,” Ingraham tells Morning Edition host Rachel Martin. “They were sending me pictures of the county. The state’s representatives and U.S. senators got in on the action, the media in the state. It was just crazy. It was a frenzy,”
A local extended an invitation to visit Red Lake, a rural county about 4,000 residents five hours north of Minneapolis. He liked it, seeing in Red Lake the antidote to quality of life issues he and his family faced in the city.
So six months later, he announced he, his wife and their two small children were moving from their Maryland home to Red Lake County. (He is still a data reporter for the Post.) Their move is the subject of his book If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now.
On his first visit to Red Lake
To my surprise I ended up loving the place. The people were so great, and it was just so different from what I was living with my family in D.C. At the time I had 2-year-old twins. I was commuting three hours a day to get back and forth to work, so were literally felt stretched to the breaking point. And during this time in our lives I ended up taking this trip to this, what ended up being a very bucolic little community in the middle of nowhere.
On deciding to move there
I did what I think a lot of people who get back from trips is you start daydreaming … Man, I’d love to be out in the country right now, just driving down the country roads, not another car in sight. You start maybe looking up home prices and looking up schools, looking up data, looking up numbers on the community. And finally we were just like, ‘You know what? It would be financially irresponsible of us to not move to Red Lake County, Minn. This is the solution to all of our problems. The housing is cheaper, I could work from home, eliminate the commute entirely, we can spend more time together. This is the exact thing that we need. This is what’s missing from our lives.’
On his wife’s involvement in local politics
That was one of the things she absolutely wanted to do. As it turns out, Red Lake Falls, they were in need of a city council person, and she ran and she ended up getting elected. As the result of a throwaway line I wrote four years ago, she is now making decisions that guide the future of this community. I really feel that captures how enmeshed we are here. This is home now.
I think a big problem with a lot of coverage of rural and small-town places is we often just send reporters in and they go on these kind of safari expeditions and they come back a day or a week later with this “secret knowledge” of these long-lost rural tribes, and I think that kind of reporting and storytelling really enhances these supposed divisions between small-town America and everywhere else. I hope if this book does anything it demystifies small-towns and rural America.
Bo Hamby and Eric McDaniel produced and edited the broadcast version of this story. Heidi Glenn adapted it for the Web.