WRUR 88.5 Different Radio

A Throwaway Line Led 'Washington Post' Reporter To Call Rural Midwest His New Home

18 hours ago
Originally published on September 11, 2019 11:37 am

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 nice" 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 of 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.

Six months later, he announced that he and his wife, Briana, 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.


Interview Highlights

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 we're 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 [do]. 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.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Washington Post writer Christopher Ingraham made a fateful comment in an article he wrote back in 2015. He called a certain Minnesota community, quote, "the absolute worst place to live in America." Now he lives there. The community is Red Lake County, Minn., which is in the northwest part of the state. And how he got there is the subject of his new book, titled, "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now."

CHRISTOPHER INGRAHAM: I stumbled across this really cool dataset made by the USDA called the Natural Amenities Index. And what it did is it essentially ranked all 3,000-some odd counties in the United States on their natural beauty. So I wrote it up, and one of the interesting things is that the county that ended up dead last in this ranking was this little place I'd never heard of called Red Lake County in northwest Minnesota. It seemed like one of those classic middle-of-nowhere places, miles from the nearest highway.

So I just kind of mentioned that they were last place in this article - threw in a snarky little line about the absolute worst place to live is Red Lake County, Minn. - and sent it out and called it a day. And I thought that would be the end of it. But it was not.

MARTIN: It was not. So the people in northern Minnesota were not so pleased with your story. What happened?

INGRAHAM: They were very upset. And it wasn't just northern Minnesota. It was all over Minnesota. And they were sending me pictures of the county. You know, 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.

MARTIN: But then someone finally convinces you. Someone actually issues an invitation. Like, if you're going to make this grandiose statement about our community, why don't you come visit? So you did.

INGRAHAM: That's exactly what happens. And it's - to my surprise, I ended up loving the place. It was just - you know, the people were so great, and it was so different. It was so different from what I was living with my family in D.C. that it just made this huge impression. At the time, I had 2-year-old twins. I was commuting three hours a day to get back and forth to work.

So we 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.

MARTIN: How do you go from, oh, this is this amazing community and wasn't that a cool experience to let's upend our entire life and move there?

INGRAHAM: (Laughter). Yeah. So after I got back from this trip, I'd start daydreaming, right? You're like, man. You know, I'm sitting on the train to D.C....

MARTIN: Slippery slope, the daydream.

INGRAHAM: I know (laughter). I'm like, man, you know, if I was just - I would love to be, you know, just out in the country right now, just driving down the country roads, not another car in sight. You start maybe looking up home prices...

MARTIN: Yes.

INGRAHAM: ...And looking up schools and 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.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

INGRAHAM: And we were like, this is the solution to all of our problems. The housing's 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 been missing from our lives.

MARTIN: So you get there. I would be nervous that it just didn't live up to my own internal expectations about the perfect life that I was going to walk into. What did you walk into? What were the first few months like?

INGRAHAM: The thing that really stood out to me was - like, I was worried that people would assume that there's just these D.C. carpetbaggers coming out here to exploit us for the sake of a story, or something like that, right? Like, I was worried about skepticism. And I'm sure there was, but people in northern Minnesota were nice enough, perhaps, to not, you know, show that skepticism to my face.

But they were very welcoming, you know, people coming to our house and dropping off, you know, vegetables from the garden and hot dish. And that kind of - for my wife, at least, that made her feel a lot better, that, OK, this is - you know, this is a place - we can make this work because they're compassionate people here, and we might be able to make this work.

MARTIN: And your wife got more connected to local politics, right?

INGRAHAM: She really - she did, yeah. I mean, and 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 (laughter) elected. So now she's - you know, we just - as a result, as an indirect...

MARTIN: You guys are in deep.

INGRAHAM: ...Result of a...

MARTIN: You guys are in deep.

INGRAHAM: Yeah. You know, as a throwaway line I wrote four years ago, she is now (laughter) making decisions that guide the future of this community. And, you know, just, I feel like that really captures how enmeshed we are here. This is home now. You know, 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 - right? - and they come back a day or a week later with this, you know, the secret knowledge of these long-lost rural tribes.

And I think that kind of reporting and storytelling, it really enhances these supposed divisions between small-town America and everywhere else. And I hope if this book does anything, it demystifies small towns and rural America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Christopher Ingraham - his new book is titled "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.