This artist weaves extreme weather data into art
Writer called county ‘worst place to live,’ then moved there
Megan Thompson: In 2015, Washington Post data reporter Christopher Ingraham wrote about an obscure U.S. Department of Agriculture list that ranked every county on natural amenities like scenery and climate. Dead last was Red Lake County in rural Midwestern Minnesota. Ingraham called it quote - "the absolute worst place to live in America" but then less than a year later, he decided to move his family there.
He details that story in his new book: "If you lived here you'd be home by now."
Megan Thompson: Chris, thank you so much for being here.
Chris Ingraham: Hey, thanks so much for having me.
Megan Thompson: So you write this post, you call Red Lake County "the worst place to live." What happened next?
Chris Ingraham: You know, what happened is I started hearing a lot from people in this particular corner of the state: Red Lake County. They started sending me pictures on social media, being like, 'look at this place. What are you talking about? There's rivers and hills and bluffs.' And it kind of snowballed. And I started to learn that Minnesota is kind of like the Texas of the north. You know, we all know that you don't mess with Texas. But I learned very quickly that you don't mess with Minnesota either because their media outlets picked up on it and then the politicians started to get in on it. I heard from the senators, Senator Amy Klobuchar. She spent half an afternoon just sending me pictures on Facebook, being like, look at this place. What is wrong with you? Why would you say these horrible things about our place? And this was really interesting to me because I'm a data reporter and I write about stuff like this all the time. And, like, every kind of ranking you do, somebody is always at the absolute bottom, right? But I had never heard kind of feedback like this. Right? You know, I've written a bunch of stories where you have, say, Mississippi or Alabama at the bottom of some ranking. Never a peep from folks in those states, interestingly enough, but Minnesotans apparently were not used to showing up at the bottom of the list and they let me know about it.
Megan Thompson: In the interest of full disclosure: I am from Minnesota originally.
Chris Ingraham: OK. Were you one of the ones I got a nasty email from?
Megan Thompson: I did not email you, no. But I do know that "Minnesota Nice," it's a thing, right? Even though I don't want to brag, we're not supposed to brag. You know, if you're from Minnesota, you don't brag. But you were they actually you were actually invited to visit Minnesota, right? I mean, is that what you found when you when you got there? Minnesota nice?
Chris Ingraham: Yeah. So eventually this local guy in Red Lake County. He's like, look, if you're going to say all this stuff about us, you should really come out here and take a look. And, you know, I kind of told my wife about this. I'm like, they want me to come out there. Do you think I should do it? And she was like, no, they're going to kill you. Do not go out there. But my editor was kind of like, yeah, go, let's go see what happens. And so I went and visited and I was expecting kind of, you know, we have these ideas about rural America, this kind of "Hillbilly Elegy" framework, where everybody is struggling, and everybody is poor, and everybody is on drugs, and things are really bad. And that's kind of what I was expecting going in there. But I show up in this town and it was more like Norman Rockwell. It was very, just, Americana. You know, I pulled up to the county courthouse to meet with this guy, Jason, who invited me. They had actually gathered the mayor, the county commissioners. They had a marching band there playing on the courthouse steps. It was just ridiculous. And it just kind of, that set the tone for the entire visit. I was just shocked by how much people just wanted to show me their community and the people they knew. Just the amount of civic pride in this place was unlike anything I've encountered anywhere else in my life.
Megan Thompson: So you went home to your family in Baltimore and then you ended up making a huge life decision?
Chris Ingraham: Yes. So this was happening a kind of a strange point in our lives. We were living in Baltimore County. So I was commuting down to the Washington, D.C. offices every day. So hour and a half, one way commute adds up to about 15 hours a week. I'm never seeing the kids. I'm never seeing my wife, Brianna. She's working for the government. Long hours. We're both burned out. The problem is the cost of living out there is so high we couldn't see a way out of it. And eventually of all people, it was my mother who was visiting us one day. And she was like, well, you know, you guys, ought to go move to that nice little Minnesota town you visited over the summer. And we were kind of like, ha, ha. That's funny, Mom. What a silly idea. But the thing is, like, once that seed got planted, like, it just started to grow. And we started crunching some numbers. And basically, we got to a point where we convinced ourselves that it would have been financially irresponsible of us to not move to rural Minnesota. So after getting approval from my editors at The Post to be able to work remotely, which of course is a huge part of this, that's what we ended up doing.
Megan Thompson: So you've been out there now for a little over three years. How's it been going? What have you been finding?
Chris Ingraham: It's been going great. You know, we moved out here primarily, we were thinking of doing it for the kids. And on that level, it's just completely exceeded our wildest expectations. So, the town we live in, Red Lake Falls, it's 14 hundred people. And, you know, I can we can send our kids out in the yard to play. And we know that people out there, they have their backs. And this is one of the harder things to articulate. But from a physical standpoint, from going to, going from the D.C. metro area, one of the densest populated places in the country, moving out to a rural area where the population density is something like 10 people per square mile, you feel the space out here, you feel the sky, you feel the air around you. At the end of the day, you know, I'm still plugged into D.C., I'm still writing for the Post. But at the end of the day, I shut down my laptop, I step outside, and I can just feel the stress just flow out of my body. You know, I'm a data guy. And one of the data points that I look at, is that since I've moved out here, my blood pressure has actually fallen by 30 points. So it's honestly in many ways has been everything we've hoped for and more.
Megan Thompson: Christopher Ingraham, author of "If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home By Now." Thank you so much for being with us.
Chris Ingraham: Hey, thank you so much for having me today.