'This place is home': Reporter who called Minnesota county 'worst place to live' writes book about how much he likes it
RED LAKE FALLS, Minn. — From the crowded hustle and bustle of the East Coast, across the flatlands of the Midwest and over the Rocky Mountains in the West, the United States is full of interesting lives and stories that make up the country we call home.
But what would prompt Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham to pack up and move himself and his family halfway across the country — especially to a place he himself referred to as "the absolute worst place to live in America? And why would he of all people write a book about that place?
It all comes back to the rat race.
"Gosh, my background is all over the place," Ingraham says. "My undergrad was comparative religion, but one of the first jobs I got out of college was as a technical writer."
From tech and marketing writing to the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center, Ingraham's work is in the data side of things, something that comes in handy in his current position as a reporter for the Washington Post.
"My background is very much based in practical writing and data," he says. "In many ways, I am much more comfortable dealing with numbers than I am with words."
So it seemed perfect when Ingraham came across a U.S. Department of Agriculture report that ranked and scored every county in America by its scenery and climate. Little did he know then that the rankings would soon change his life — and he'd soon be a proud resident of the worst performer in the rankings.
The worst place?
USDA's Amenities Index isn't a definitive ranking of everything a place has to offer. In fact, Ingraham says the report looks most closely at physical characteristics.
"Things like availability of water and hills and nice temperature," he says. "Basically all the things that make a place a nice place to live in a way you might normally think of it. It's a ranking of natural beauty, more or less."
After compiling his data, Ingraham found that the only landlocked county in the U.S. surrounded by only two other counties and no stoplights, Minnesota's Red Lake County, was, perhaps, the ugliest place to live.
"So I wrote the story up," he says. "And I put in a throwaway line about Red Lake County being the worst place to live in America."
Naturally, Minnesotans were not happy about the 2015 article — but in the nicest way possible, of course.
"For weeks, I was just relentlessly trolled by Minnesotans on social media, via email, via elected representatives and media outlets," Ingraham says. "People were outraged, but very politely so, that I could dare say their beautiful state could be home to the ugliest place in America."
After a visit to the North Star State, Ingraham says he spoke with his wife, ran some numbers and decided to move their growing family to Minnesota.
"I ended up loving the place and we were at a point in our lives where we just had twins," he says. "The economics of living in Washington, D.C., were becoming very challenging and we were ready for a change. So we thought, 'Why not move out to that delightful little town we visited last summer?'"
Four years later
Packing up and moving halfway across the country is a daunting idea for even the most experienced travelers, and the Ingrahams were no different.
"There was a lot of, 'What did we get ourselves into?'" Ingraham says. "I wrote the story in the summer, we decided in the fall to move and we moved in the spring. When we left the Baltimore/D.C. area, there were flowers blooming, and when we got to Minnesota, it was snowing. Like, welcome to Minnesota!"
Nowadays, the Ingrahams say they wouldn't change their decision for the world.
"We found that people here were just very welcoming," he says. "I thought there would be some weirdness — like people being like, 'Well, why is that D.C. reporter going to move out here and exploit us for stories?' or whatever — but there was none of that. At least not to my face.
"People were very welcoming and they made it very clear that they wanted us to feel like and be part of their community," Ingraham adds. "And that's really what's happened in the past three years — more than anywhere else we've lived in the country, and we've lived all over the country. We really feel like this place is home."
He says the economics of living in small-town Minnesota is a drastic change from living on the coast. With wages plateauing while the cost of living skyrockets, a breaking point will be reached soon, if it hasn't already. The idea that moving to a place like Red Lake Falls can allow residents to afford a house, yard and space of their own is attractive to most people.
While demographic data shows that over 80% of people live in metropolitan or city areas, Ingraham says if most had their way, over half of them would choose to live in a small town or rural area — unless they want anything beyond a burger and a beer when they go out to eat.
"You'd think by now I'd be smart enough to not make broad generalizations of Minnesota products or things they make," Ingraham says. "But I feel like I have lived here for going on four years now and I am in a place where I can confidently say that yes, Minnesota food culture is not that great. The food options up here in the rural northwest are limited and they tend toward bar food, which is great if you like bar food, but if you want Mexican or Chinese food, you're going to have some difficulties."
Still, at least locals are quick to offer suggestions on places to get non-bar food — it just might be an hour's drive to get to the restaurant.
Writing the book
After making the decision that turned all of his preconceived notions upside-down and literally living the story, Ingraham's experiences and the lessons he and his family have learned through living in Red Lake Falls — from the seasonal "leave-your-car-running-in-the-winter-so-it-will-start-after-work" ritual to the small-town gossip — have been collected. Now, he's ready to share his story with the world.
"We are absolutely happy, no regrets at all," Ingraham says. "The longer we stay out here, the harder it is to imagine going back to D.C., quite frankly. We are here, we are part of this community, our kids go to school here. We aren't going anywhere; this is absolutely home for us now. No regrets whatsoever, honestly."
Ingraham's book, "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home by Now: Why We Traded the Commuting Life for a Little House on the Prairie," will be released Tuesday, Sept. 10. It's available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.