At 9:27 a.m. on a Monday morning in 2015, Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham posted a story declaring Red Lake County, Minnesota, “the absolute worst place to live in America.” It was data-driven, based on a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the late ’90s. It was also, Ingraham admits in his forthcoming book from HarperCollins, a little “snarky.”
By 9:32 the same day, Ingraham had received his first discontented response. A Minnesotan by the name of Matt Privratsky called the data cited in the story “garbage.” And just like that, the flood-gates opened. Armed with 280 characters and the vim and vigor of unbridled state pride, Minnesotans took to Twitter to rally behind the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Residents tweeted idyllic pictures of beautiful Red Lake County fields, hills, and streams. The hashtag #ShowMeYourUglyCounties was created. Heaps of distinctly Minnesotan abuse—passive aggressive, sarcastic but never hostile, angry but polite—came flying at Ingraham. The general consensus was: the audacity! the gall! Who does this East Coast urbanite think he is?!
“It was really just the kind of continued and sustained torrent that lasted for several days,” Ingraham says. “Like, these people just did not let this go and that was one of the things that really struck me. Yeah, they were polite and kind and being funny about it, but they also didn’t let it go.”
Then, a Red Lake County resident by the name of Jason Brumwell had the bright idea to invite their county’s denouncer to come visit. Ingraham, equal parts amused and baffled, took up his offer. He travelled from his home in Baltimore to Red Lake County, was greeted with excitement, treated with the utmost hospitality, and amazed by the kindness of the people. Brumwell took Ingraham on a whirlwind tour. He introduced him to some county luminaries, showed him the stark beauty of the area, and bid him adieu.
Not long after, Ingraham and his family moved there.
Ingraham’s If You Lived Here You’d Be Home by Now: Why We Traded the Commuting Life for a Little House on the Prairie (available September 10) tells of his family’s journey from urban life in Baltimore to a little rural Minnesota town, “in the middle of nowhere.”
The book captures both the pleasures and difficulties of crossing the rural-urban divide, with Ingraham’s data reporting thrown in. Touching stories—of his family, their past, their anxieties regarding the future—are punctuated with stats on one of any number of fascinating topics: why people move, the areas where most want to live, where the best place to grow up in America is. A data writer by trade, Ingraham seamlessly weaves numbers into his prose.
But the premise alone feels worthy of a book deal. Why move from a densely populated U.S. city to “the only landlocked county in the United States that is surrounded by just two neighboring counties”? Moreover, why move to the very county you just dubbed the ugliest in America?
Admittedly, it does have the ingredients of a wicked PR stunt.
But look closer, and you’ll see that If You Lived Here You’d Be Home by Now is grounded in some very pressing realities. At its core, the book deals with money, time, quality of life. Ingraham juxtaposes his grueling commute to D.C. with the convenience of working from a desk at home. He compares the cost of a house in the city versus the country. And he contrasts the laborious stir of urban life with the quietness of the rural.
Articulating his desire to leave Baltimore, he writes, “I wanted to take my family to a place where it didn’t feel like the trend lines of time and money were always converging, squeezing us into an ever-narrowing sphere of existence.”
The book mostly concerns the family’s first year in Red Lake Falls. Almost all of Ingraham’s anecdotes convey the novelty of his situation—hotdish, hunting, “Minnesota Nice,” the hellish winters. His “I’m-the-new-guy prudence” undergirds most of his interactions with residents.
It’s now been three years since Ingraham moved to Minnesota. He’s got a feel for “the rhythms of the place.” His wife, Briana, is a member of the city council.
The new culture is becoming the family’s. In Baltimore, they could “hunker down” and wait for winter to pass, but in Minnesota they’ve found that staying active is the best (and only) solution to the freezing temperatures. They’ve gone snowmobiling. They’ve gone ice fishing. Ingraham tells a charming story about creating a homemade igloo with his sons.
He admits, however, that he’s been resistant to other traditions. “I will never let my children say ‘Duck, Duck, Grey Duck.’ That is a forbidden term in this household. It’s ‘Duck, Duck, Goose,’ and that is the end of it.”
Behind the Numbers
The move has also provided a valuable new perspective for Ingraham and his work with the Washington Post. “When you are doing data reporting from D.C., you have a tendency to throw out terms like, ‘rural people,’ or ‘rural Americans,’ or ‘gun owners,’ or, you know, ‘Midwesterners,’ without ever really having to think too hard about what those terms mean,” he says.
Now, he thinks of how his neighbors would react before he generalizes a group of people. “So it has helped me be, I think, more precise and more thoughtful in my coverage of different types of people, of groups of people at large.”
It’s also forced him to reckon with the limitations of data. There are situations, he concedes, when the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Ingraham enjoys living in Red Lake County. It’s clear now he doesn’t still consider the area to be “the worst place to live in America,” despite what that infamous DOA dataset suggests.
Red Lake Falls has given his family a home that suits them, and a community that has welcomed them. His children love it there. They’ve adopted a few animals, some on purpose and some accidentally.
And in 2017, they welcomed their first Minnesotan child into the world, another boy.
“He is definitely an Upper Midwestern baby,” Ingraham says. “He does not care about the cold at all.”
If You Lived Here You’d Be Home by Now is available September 10.