There's a whole new world under that rock.
Guest Host: Matt McCleskey
The Washington area is one of the most expensive regions to live in the U.S. At times, it feels like D.C. is overrun with workaholics and politicos. What would it be like to move to somewhere more affordable with a shorter (or nonexistent) commute? To be outside of the busy city grind and the competitive school lotteries? What would it be like to relocate to “the worst place to live in America”: Red Lake County, Minnesota?
Washington Post data reporter Christopher Ingraham writes about just that in his new memoir, “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now: Why We Traded The Commuting Life For A Little House On The Prairie.” He joins us to talk about adjusting to and thriving in northwestern Minnesota through negative 40 degree weather and the 2016 elections.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
- Christopher Ingraham Author, "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now"; Data reporter, The Washington Post; @_cingraham
MATT MCCLESKEYThis is The Kojo Nnamdi Show, on WAMU 88.5. I'm Matt McCleskey, sitting in today for Kojo. Four years ago, Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham wrote an article ranking every county in America based on its scenery and climate. And in it, he included this sentence: "The absolute worst place to live in America is, " -- drum roll, please -- "Red Lake County, Minnesota." Months later, Chris and his wife Brianna made a decision they were going to trade in the coastal city grind of long commutes and high-octane jobs for remote work, affordable housing and small-town life. And where did they move? Red Lake County, Minnesota.
MATT MCCLESKEYChrist tells this story in his new memoir, "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now: Why We Traded the Commuting Life For a Little House on the Prairie." And he joins us now from Paul Bunyan Broadcasting in Bemidji, Minnesota. Chris Ingraham, thanks so much for joining us.
CHRISTOPHER INGRAHAMHey, thanks so much for having me.
MCCLESKEYAppreciate your being on. Well, first, how did you initially determine that Red Lake County was the worst place to live in America?
INGRAHAMSo, my beat is data, writ large, and I stumbled across this really cool dataset from the USDA, of all places. And what they had done is they had ranked every single county in America, all 3,000 some-odd of them, on physical characteristics. And these are things like temperature, humidity, topography, bodies of water and shoreline. And they kind of mashed all these factors up in a statistical blender, and it spit out this ranking of basically natural beauty of everyplace in America.
INGRAHAMAnd so, as a data reporter, I do these kind of stories a lot where you hear all these rankings, like, you know, the best place in America for X or the worst place in America for Y. And so, you know, there's kind of a template for this. And so you call out, like, you know, the top places on the list, as well as the bottom places on the list. And so the top place on this particular list, as determined by the USDA, was Ventura County, California. Right? Not a terrible surprise.
INGRAHAMYeah. They've got a lovely Mediterranean climate. They've got mountains, and they've got the ocean right there. The place on the bottom, on the other hand, was a place I'd never heard of called Red Lake County, Minnesota. Never even set foot in Minnesota in my life. I'm from the Northeast. And so I wanted to call them out, right, because that would be the obvious next question that readers would ask. It'd be like, well, what's the worst place in America?
MCCLESKEYExactly. What's best, well, what's worst?
INGRAHAMYeah. So, you know, I start Googling, and I'm trying to find out stuff about this place. But, like, this place, Red Lake County, it has like no online footprint to speak of. I finally stumble across a county government website. And they've got, like, you know, an events calendar that's like two years old and, like, not much else going on. So, I'm, like, okay, this is one of these kind of dopey, Midwestern towns, right. Like, they're not going to read this. You know, they don't got much going for them, so I'm just going to toss in this line and call it a day. And so that's how the story kind of came together.
MCCLESKEYAnd there was quite a bit of response, and I want to get to that in just a second. But, first, for listeners here in the Washington region, where did Washington rank on this list?
INGRAHAMYou know, Washington, like much of the Mid-Atlantic, it was just kind of in the middle, you know, a little wishy-washy, nothing too special, either way. You know, it's a little bit hilly there. The winters aren't too bad, so you get lots of points for that. I think in this particular index, you guys get dinged for the humidity in the summers and just the awful, sweltering heat in August.
MCCLESKEYThat's fair enough.
INGRAHAMBut other than that, you know, very, like, classic, like, middle-of-the line in Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas.
MCCLESKEYWell then, how did people respond -- particularly people from Red Lake County -- when they saw it?
INGRAHAMYeah. Well, so, you know, like I said, I was, like, okay, they're never going to read this. So, we published the story at like 9:27 a.m. on a Monday, and by 9:32 a.m., the hate mail starts rolling in. And I want to say the first thing I noticed is that this was very polite hate mail. (laugh) As somebody in the media -- and I'm sure you know this, too -- like, you are used to getting very strongly worded responses when people don't like a story.
INGRAHAMBut I started getting mail from all over the state of Minnesota -- not just Red Lake County, but from everywhere -- people who just could not possibly believe that some corner of their beautiful, wonderful, great state of Minnesota could somehow rank last in this, you know, federal beauty pageant. And so, you know, people all over the state started weighing in. Then we started hearing from the media, right, the Star Tribune, the local newspapers. And then politicians start weighing in, so I start hearing from Al Franken. And, like, Amy Klobuchar spent half an afternoon on Facebook, sending me pictures of Minnesota, being, like, what are you talking about? You must be out of your mind.
MCCLESKEYSo, it became a thing.
INGRAHAMIt became a thing. It was a real thing. And, you know, this is August in D.C., so it was a perfect in August-in-D.C. story when, like, nothing else was going on. It's like, fine, let's have fun, you know, kicking the hornets’ nest of Minnesota people and kind of see what happens.
MCCLESKEYAnd probably a pretty hot and humid August in D.C., as well.
MCCLESKEYNow, one resident of Red Lake County, Jason Brumwell, invited you to come and visit, and you said yes. What assumptions did you have going there, and about the county and the people who lived there?
INGRAHAMYeah, well, I mean, I want to say I said yes with some consternation, right. Like, I had to Google this guy to make sure he wasn't some kind of ax murderer or something. And I had to, like, run it by my wife, who was terrified. They're going to kill you if you go out there. (laugh) Like, don't go out there. What are you, nuts?
MCCLESKEYIn a very polite way kill you, I would imagine.
INGRAHAMYes, very polite (laugh) kind of murder, the way they do up here. But, you know, I kind of pitched it to my editors. I'm, like, they actually want me to come out there and see for myself. What do you think? They're like, oh yeah, go for it, you know. Because I'm sure they were thinking, like, D.C. reporter gets murdered by polite Midwestern (laugh) mob would be a great August story.
INGRAHAMSo, I go out, and I don't really know what to expect, right, because so I'm from Upstate New York. There's a lot of small towns up there. And that was kind of my frame of reference for what I'd be getting into. In the towns where I grew up, it has a very Rust Belt feel. You know, you get the sense that a lot of the manufacturing, a lot of the opportunities have left the area long ago, and people are really struggling. There's, you know, a lot of desperation, you know, drug use, this classic kind of hillbilly elegy, rural narrative that we so often hear about.
INGRAHAMSo, that's what I was expecting when I went to Red Lake County. But, you know, I get out there. I called Jason up. He's like, okay, yeah, you know, we're at the county courthouse. Come meet us. We got a couple people who want to meet you, and then we'll show you around the county, whatever. And I'm, like, okay, cool.
INGRAHAMSo, I drive up. You know, I pull up my rental car at the courthouse. I get out. The first thing I notice is that they've got a marching band on the steps of the county courthouse, and they strike up this...
MCCLESKEY(overlapping) A couple of people.
INGRAHAMA couple of people, yes, and then you've got the mayor, you've got the county commissioners, just dozens of other people just kind of milling around, just wanting to see the spectacle. And it was just like this huge throwback. Like, I was expecting hillbilly elegy, and what I got was Norman Rockwell. Like, it was this very, like, classic, Americana small-town situation. And that really ended up setting the tone for the entire rest of the visit.
INGRAHAMI was just kind of blown away. You know, these small towns appear in Red Lake County and other places in Northwest Minnesota. They obviously have their challenges, too, but there's a sense out here that people are able to rise up, and they're meeting those challenges. And they're not being overwhelmed by them in the same way that we might hear about in a lot of other rural counties in America. And that was kind of the biggest impression I got coming back from there.
MCCLESKEYAnd fast forward, the point of the book is that you wound up moving there. I want to hear what led to that decision, and particularly, what was your life like here in the Washington region? How did that inform that decision?
INGRAHAMYeah. And so this is all happening at kind of a weird time in our lives. My wife and I, we had just had twins. Our twins were two. We were living in Baltimore County. We were living in about an 800-square-foot row house. And those square feet were spread across four stories. So, lots of stairs. We are basically living in a toddler deathtrap, and we had to move.
INGRAHAMThe problem was, you know, we were 90 minutes away from D.C. So, I was commuting three hours a day, to and from work, 15 hours a week. I was never seeing the kids. I was never seeing Brianna. She was working a high-powered government job, so she was doing long hours. And the problem was we needed something bigger. We needed the longer commutes and more space, but the money, the numbers just didn't work out. If we moved closer to D.C., the mortgages and rents would've just been sky high, too much for us. If we moved farther away, we'd be commuting even longer. We were stuck. Something had to change.
INGRAHAMAnd we were just kind of wracking our brains, trying to figure it out. And eventually, we started thinking way outside the box, like, okay, maybe we can try telecommuting. Maybe we can try this and that. And, eventually, it ended up being my mother, of all people, who, one day, was, like, well, you know what? You're having these crazy problems. Why don't you just go move to that nice, little Midwest community that you love so much over the summer and see what happens?
INGRAHAMAnd, like, we kind of laughed at that. We're, like, ha-ha mom. That's a real funny idea. But then, like...
MCCLESKEY(overlapping) Hey, listen to your mom, right?
INGRAHAMYeah, listen to your mom. Yeah. And so, like, after a while, the idea starts to take seed, and then you start thinking about it. And then you start doing all the things like, you know, you're looking up house prices on realtor.com. You're looking up schools and doing all that daydreaming stuff. And, eventually, we got to a place -- you know, we ran the numbers, we got to a place where we convinced ourselves that it would've been financially irresponsible of us to not move to Red Lake County.
INGRAHAMAnd just beyond that, I'll say, you know, just from the standpoint of a life experiment, as a data reporter, for me the idea of kind of turning our heads or turning our lives upside down on the basis of a single data point put together by the USDA 15 years ago was kind of intriguing to me. And, eventually, I got to the point we're like, yeah, let's try this out. Let's see what happens.
MCCLESKEYWe're going to take a quick break, and then come back. We'll keep talking with Chris Ingraham. He's the author of "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now: Why We Traded the Commuting Life for a Little House on the Prairie." We'll be right back.
MCCLESKEYYou're listening to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. I'm Matt McCleskey, sitting in today for Kojo. We're speaking with Chris Ingraham. He's the author of "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now." We've been talking about his move, his family's move from the D.C. area to Red Lake County, Minnesota. Chris Ingraham, one of the things you write about in the book, you say when you lived in the Washington area, you were experiencing some depression and also high blood pressure. I'm interested in hearing how that changed, if it did, once you made the move to a rural part of the country.
INGRAHAMYeah. So, one of the things that I've noticed now that we've been out here for a while -- and this, actually, I noticed even just, you know, from our first setting foot here -- you know, there's so much space out here. There's so much fewer people. You know, with my day-to-day job, I still write for the Post. I'm still very plugged into what's going on in D.C. But, at the end of the day, I can shut my laptop and step outside, and I just feel like I can take, like, a deep breath and just let it all out.
INGRAHAMBecause just the space and the size of the sky and, you know, the vastness of the landscape out here, it just makes a huge difference, I feel, in my wellbeing. I can happily say that I drink less now that I'm out here. I'm drinking less of my pain. My blood pressure has actually gone down by 30 points, which my doctors are pretty psyched about.
INGRAHAMYou know, I still deal with -- you know, I'm on antidepressants. I'm on SSRIs, and I wondered if moving out here would kind of change that, but it hasn't. You know, I've toyed with kind of changing that a little bit. But, you know, I've come to realize, you know, these issues with brain chemistry that people with depression and anxiety deal with, that's not necessarily something you can fix just by moving to a different place. So, those things are still there. So, it's kind of a mixed bag.
INGRAHAMOverall, I feel like I have a lot more space to be able to deal with these issues and to cope with these issues, and in a proactive manner, rather than just trying to, like, drink them away (laugh) on the train or whatever I was doing in D.C.
MCCLESKEYWell, how has the move been for your family, particularly for your kids?
INGRAHAMThe kids have loved it so far. It's been just incredible watching them grow up, like, watching their little brains expand to feel the space that they have available. You know, back in our old place in D.C., you know, like so many people, we were, you know, sharing walls. And we didn't have much of a lawn or outside space to speak of. And out here, you know, we can just send them outside to let them run around all day. And we know that people in the neighborhood are going to be watching out for them.
INGRAHAMThe kids out here -- one of the things I was shocked by is that the older kids out here are just stunningly, like, friendly and open and welcoming to little kids. And that certainly wasn't the way it was for me (laugh) when I was growing up. Because I was always, you know, a jerk to any little kid that came up to me and wanted to play, or whatever. But out here, kids are very accepting, you know. And they go to a small school.
INGRAHAMOne of the great things about being out here -- one of the challenges, I'll say, of living in D.C. is that, you know, everybody is worried about education. And, you know, there can be this kind of arms race to, like, get your kid into the right preschool so they can go to the right elementary school, so they can go to the right high school or whatever. Out here, there is literally one school. So, like, everybody goes there, and we just don't have to think about that. And it's a real blessing to not have to deal with, you know, these momentous choices. Out here, there's no choice. You just go to school, and it's kind of very refreshing to just be able to do that.
MCCLESKEYWe've got a couple of Tweets in the past few minutes. One says, one of my coworkers raves about not having anyone around her where she lives, but her commute is at least four hours, roundtrip. Quality of life, I think not. Another writes, others have no choice. The cost of housing in the inner Beltway or just outside is unreal. I bought in the hood, and not really close to Metro, but close enough, and cannot imagine living farther out. Now, one of the things you write was key to your being able to do this is that you were able to keep your job and still work for the Post with telecommute. Would you have considered moving to a rural area if you had needed to find work locally, there?
INGRAHAMProbably not, and certainly not a place like this, where we had no particular roots. You know, the telework, that was a key thing. Like, that was the lynchpin of the whole thing. I had to pitch my editors on the idea of me being out here. And, fortunately, you know, media, in general, and my beat, in particular, it's very suited to just doing it from anywhere. Because 99 percent of my job is phone or internet.
INGRAHAMMany jobs are not like that, and many jobs are tied to specific places. So, I'm trying to be careful. I don't want to be too prescriptive here at being, like, well, this is something that everybody should do. But when you look at survey data and when you ask people where they would like to live, if they had their druthers, over half of them say they would prefer to live in a small town or rural area. But many people, they live in cities or in big metro areas, because they essentially don't have much of a choice, because that's where the jobs are.
INGRAHAMAnd so there's this kind of big disconnect before, where people feel like they have to be with their jobs, and where they would like to be. And I'm hoping that going forward, telework can, you know, could help kind of bridge some of that gap. There are many, many jobs out there, many white-collar office jobs where, let's face it, you do not need to be in the office every single day.
INGRAHAMSo, you know, I've heard from a lot of people, you know, since deciding to move and since writing the book, who have either said, man, you know I've always wanted to do that, but I, you know, I just can't get away from the city with my kids. And there's just nothing for me out in the country. But I've also heard from a lot of people who say, you know, I did something similar to what you did. I was able to take my job with me, or I was able to take my skills with me and apply them to a new job in a new area, and I haven't looked back.
MCCLESKEYWe got a Tweet from Media Maven, who says, get the big city money and move to a lower-cost-of-living area. That's the life. Let's take a caller now. Larry Ellen, calling from Centerville, Virginia. You're on the air. Go ahead.
LARRY ELLENMy big question is, is there when -- I see a lot of people that move out. And what I've heard from a lot of people is that, well, you know, it's not really crowded. So, a lot of different people moved in. So, my question is, what is the racial diversity? Because one of my kids moved to Asheville, one of my kids moved to Austin, and they grew up here. And they had a lot of racial diversity, and now it's not as much. So what is it like in little house on the prairie? (laugh)
MCCLESKEYWell, Chris Ingraham, you write about that in the book.
INGRAHAMYeah, absolutely. And, you know, that was one of the drawbacks. So, basically, you know, Red Lake County, it's something like 96 percent white. So, there is not a lot of diversity. And so that was something that my wife and I, we've talked about a lot. And it's something that we've had to be very deliberate about in terms of exposing our kids, you know, just to the world, to making sure that they understand, you know, that Red Lake County's a very special corner of the world, but the world is a very big place, and there's lots to it.
INGRAHAMSo, we have to be very deliberate about exposing them to things. We try to take them down to Minneapolis a lot, which is just kind of this, you know, a typical large, cosmopolitan city. You know, we try to expose them to different shows and different books. And, in many ways, you know, the need to be deliberate about diversity has helped us kind of, you know, make it a bigger part of their lives. But you're absolutely right, that it's certainly not a situation like in a typical major city or metro area, when diversity is just everywhere. It's the air you breathe. Out here, you have to make a real effort to go find it, but it is something that you can do if it's something you see as important and something that you want to make a part of your life.
MCCLESKEYAnd you mentioned the demographics there, about 96 percent white in the county. You also write that you might not have felt as welcomed there if you were black. Can you break that down a little more?
INGRAHAMYeah, well, that's, you know, just something that I've always wondered about. Because I've been very conscious of the fact that they're, like, okay, yeah, it's easy for me as a white guy to come out to this place where everyone's white and to find out that we all like each other and everything's awesome. And, you know, so I've always thought through the counterfactual, like, what if I was, you know, a black reporter coming out here? Or what if, you know, the worst place ended up being, you know, someplace in Alabama, in a majority black county? How would that have played out?
INGRAHAMAnd, you know, honestly, with race being what it is in America, I have no idea. I do not have an answer for those counterfactuals. What I can say is that I can compare this place to where I grew up in Upstate New York. And in my region of Upstate New York, there was actually a surprising amount of just over-blatant racism. And, as a white person, you go there, and you can run into other white people and they will look at you and assume that because, you know, we have the same skin color, that you can talk to us in a certain way. And just the most absolutely unbelievable (laugh) stuff will start coming out of people's mouths.
INGRAHAMOut here, I haven't seen any of that. That doesn't mean that Northwest Minnesota has solved racism, by any means. But to the extent that it is out here, it does not appear to be such a motivating, driving factor that it might be in a lot of other places in America.
MCCLESKEYI don't mean to get into a political discussion, particularly, but the politics are different in Northwest Minnesota than they are in the D.C. area. You moved pretty much from a very solidly blue area to a solidly red area of the country. Did that play into your decision at all? And then what has it been like since making that move?
INGRAHAMYeah. You know, we kind of knew what we were getting into, politics-wise, heading out here. You know, the interesting thing -- one of the things that we really like about politics out here is that, at least in the town where we are, it is not a huge part of people's identity. You know, it's something that people talk about. It's something people are aware of. There's kind of this caricature in D.C. that, like, oh, you know, people in real America, they don't care about these, you know, stupid D.C. controversies, or whatever.
INGRAHAMI find that not to be the case. People out here are very well-informed, very up-to-date on the issues. But it's just, like, it's a part of who they are. It's something that happens in the background, but they otherwise go about their lives. And I find that very refreshing, that it's not as, you know, life-or-death out here. And, of course, I have to say that, like, part of that is just a function of privilege, where, when you have so much homogeneity up here, you know, you have the privilege of setting that kind of stuff aside, if you want to.
INGRAHAMWhereas for a lot of folks in this country -- you know, I'm thinking down on the border and in other places where people are being affected by administration policies -- you know, these literally are life-or-death issues. But up in Northern Minnesota, that's removed enough that people kind of can step away from it and keep it aside. And to the extent that we're able to do that, it's nice. It's nice to not have to have politics just kind of ringing in your ears 24/7.
MCCLESKEYI'm imagining with your job working for the Post, but doing it from there, you're kind of still in both worlds. You're plugged into D.C., in a way, but also, as you said, at the end of the day, you get to unplug. Do you find that other folks there who are not perhaps working remotely elsewhere around the country have a similar experience, or different?
INGRAHAMYeah, you know, I find that people are really well-informed. You know, the thing that I often say is that, you know, there's this really big narrative of this urban world divide in this country. And after living out here for going on four years, I think that's extremely, extremely overstated. The folks are here. They watch the same TV shows. They watch the same news. They consume the same media. I find that the similarities are much greater than the differences.
INGRAHAMAnd, you know, the other thing I'll also say is that we tend to -- and especially when we're talking about rural America, middle of the country, we kind of, you know, treat it as a monolith. But, you know, I was surprised that even though this is a very Republican area of the country, there are still many Democratic voters out here, many very progressive, like, Medicare-for-all kind of voters who do not fit the mold you'd expect.
INGRAHAMYou know, we have these farmers who are, you know, very fired up about healthcare. And, you know, there's a real rural progressive movement in America that gets very short shrift, I think, in a lot of national media. We hear a lot about Trump guys in country diners, but we don't hear so much about Democratic voters in country diners. And they are there, and they're a real voting bloc, and they're looking to Washington for solutions, just like everybody else.
MCCLESKEYWe just have a couple minutes left. I want to read a couple of additional Tweets we got. Ruth tweeted, I've dreamed of living in rural areas all my life. The thing is, for non-white folks, living in less urban areas usually means being the only one. Also, she says, I wouldn't have access to Chinese groceries.
MCCLESKEYAnd Lirpa tweets, I did the opposite of Chris and moved from Minnesota to the D.C. area three years ago. I read his book and miss Minnesota terribly. She says my husband and I are looking into possibly moving back to Northwestern Minnesota. It's just too busy here. And she says the commute is brutal. Well, that is certainly true in the Washington region.
MCCLESKEYOne thing, though, that you mentioned towards the end of the book as being, you know, relatively brutal in Minnesota is the winter. I've got to ask, how's that transition been for you?
INGRAHAMSo, that's how I kind of mark my time here, when people ask me how long I've been here. I say I am going into my fourth winter, (laugh) just because the winters are so all-consuming here. Last winter, we had several days where it got down to negative 40. And, actually, at our house, it got below that. We just don't know how far below, because it cracked our thermometer once it hit negative 40. So, this is...
MCCLESKEY(laugh) You broke the thermometer?
INGRAHAMYeah, broke the thermometer. Very strange things happen when the temperature gets that low, and I kind of wrote about it for the Post. But there's something that's kind of exciting about that. Like, it's very -- it's almost like an adventure when it gets that cold. You feel like you're on an Antarctic expedition, but you are just actually in the living of your house, trying to survive.
INGRAHAMBut, you know, the key, like anywhere else, is to stay busy, and there's a lot of stuff to do in the winter up here. A lot of people do ice fishing, snowmobiling. Hockey, of course, is huge up here. You know, cross-country skiing. The thing is, like, the snow starts falling in December, and it doesn't go away until May. (laugh) So, you've got a long time to do fun, outdoor activities...
MCCLESKEY...to get used to it.
INGRAHAM...that you'd only be able to do for a couple weeks in the Mid-Atlantic.
MCCLESKEYAnd, Chris Ingraham, we've got to end there. He's the author of "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now: Why We Traded the Commuting Life for a Little House on the Prairie." Thanks so much for joining us. I'm Matt McCleskey, in today for Kojo.
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