RED LAKE FALLS, Minn. -- Since moving his young family from the East Coast to Red Lake Falls, Minn., three years ago, Christopher Ingraham has learned quite a bit about country living and the Upper Midwest -- aspects of which he used to generalize as a reporter for The Washington Post.
Inghaham said he is hoping his new book will help readers -- especially urban-dwellers -- better understand rural areas and the people who inhabit them and possibly inspire some to make a similar move.
“If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now: Why We Traded the Commuting Life for a Little House on the Prairie” is an insightful, sometimes humorous, account of his family’s experience making the adjustment from a cramped, 850-square-feet, four-story home in suburban Baltimore, Md., to a much larger house, nestled on a tree-lined yard on a quiet street in Red Lake Falls, which has a population of about 1,400.
“I hope to demystify a little bit this supposed rural versus big-city divide we hear a lot about from the national media,” Ingraham said.
He and his wife, Briana, are raising twin boys, Jack and Charlie, 6, first-graders at the local elementary school, and William, 2.
The family is living in Red Lake Falls as the result of Ingraham identifying Red Lake County as “the absolute worst place to live in America” in an article he wrote in 2015 as a reporter for The Washington Post.
He was immediately flooded with reactions from angry but polite Minnesotans who objected to the characterization.
“I was completely surprised” by the response, Ingraham said.
He had done a lot of reporting on rankings of various regions of the country.
“Mississippi and Alabama are always on the bottom because they’re doing a terrible job on all sorts of things,” he said. “But I never heard a peep from people in Mississippi or Alabama.”
Residents of Red Lake County invited him to come and see for himself, which he did. And a year later, he and his family decided to make their home in Red Lake Falls. Even though he and his wife had full-time jobs, they had struggled financially and were tired of the “brutal” commute for work, 90 minutes each way.
“It was awful," he said.
Because housing “is so insanely expensive” in the Baltimore and D.C. metro areas, people are forced to move “further and further out,” he said.
In 2016, when they informed others of their decision to move to Red Lake Falls, Ingraham said he was stunned by “a whole other round of emails and social media messages from all over the country, and all over the world, from a lot of people who lived in the city and who had been trying to get out of the city for a long time and could never make it work,” he said. “And I heard from people who had successfully moved to the country, and they love it and they can’t imagine going back.
“So the sheer volume of responses I got struck home that this is still a powerful and forceful idea for a lot of people.”
Cost of living
Housing, in particular, is “so, so, so much more affordable here than in the Baltimore and D.C. suburbs -- and that really was the big thing and is essentially what drove us here,” he said. “In crunching the numbers, we got to the point where we convinced ourselves it would be financially irresponsible not to move to Red Lake County. That cost-of-living stuff is a huge part of this whole story, honestly.”
Before moving here, the couple had moved a lot, he said: “Ten places in 11 years.”
This is the largest and most affordable home they’ve lived in, he said: “We’re paying half the mortgage for four times as much space.”
It accommodates the family, as well as a dog, a lizard, three cats, a rabbit and two poison dart frogs, he said: “It’s like a zoo here.”
Ingraham works full-time from home for The Washington Post, taking only occasional trips for his job, he said.
“Ninety-nine percent of my work is phone and Internet," he said.
“I had never been to Minnesota,” Briana Ingraham said. “I knew it was cold. And when I found out it was next to Canada, I knew it was really cold. I needed some persuading.”
Since moving to Red Lake Falls, she’s found that “everybody’s been pretty welcoming,” she said. “I don’t like to be idle. I’ve been told about things I could get involved in.”
And she has.
She’s been elected to the Red Lake Falls City Council and has joined the Northwest Minnesota Arts Council, a women’s club based in Thief River Falls, Minn., and a community band sponsored by the University of Minnesota Crookston.
“It’s very nice to be back playing oboe, after a very long break,” she said. “Five of us carpool to Crookston (for rehearsals)."
Ingraham and his family have embraced a rural culture that the national media tends to portray in one of two ways: either idyllic and pastoral, or desperate and hard-scrabble, he said.
“My experience here is in the middle of that,” Ingraham said. “It’s just a normal community in America.”
When he moved here, “I was expecting to come in and find this culture shock moment. But the friends and neighbors I have here are really not terribly different from my friends and neighbors back in the Baltimore-D.C. metro area.”
People in rural areas “listen to the same news stories, pay attention to the same political topics and consume the same entertainment,” he said. “The national press has overstated the extent to which small town/rural and big cities are different from each other.
“There are also superficial differences, and I think, unfortunately, a lot of national coverage takes those differences and turns them into major cultural divides," he said.
National media outlets often depict rural “as a species apart, and I don’t think that’s true. I think a lot of the coverage along those lines is actually harmful to helping people understand each other,” he said.
Research data show “more than 80% of people live in metropolitan areas, but more than half of them, if they’re given their druthers, would prefer to live in small-town or rural areas,” Ingraham said.
He’s not surprised.
His work takes him back to the D.C. and Baltimore areas from time to time, but he’s relieved to get home.
“You come out here and you feel like you can breathe," he said.
In writing about people and issues in this area, he’s mindful about not using “broad, sweeping generalizations,” he said.
“I’m much more careful how I characterize people, because if I’m writing about Republicans or gun owners, I think about my neighbor who is a Republican and owns guns. Is that going to seem accurate to him?”
People in rural areas are “less red and blue, and there’s much more of a mix of ideas and attitudes than we often get credit for,” he said.
He’s found that people in this part of the country also face difficulties, but their attitudes set them apart, he said.
“They have challenges but they can meet them; they’re not overwhelmed by them.”
They’re also concerned about their communities.
“In the Upper Midwest, there’s a real sense of social cohesion,” he said. “People want to volunteer their time to make the community a better place. They’re thinking outward; they’re not just watching out for themselves. They’re watching out for their community and they’re trying to make life better for everyone. That’s not a big bombastic story that the national media like to tell, but that’s a very important aspect of why the quality of life here is so good.”
“In large metro areas, where there are so many people, ironically, there’s less accountability. You don’t have to pick up your end of the stick because you know somebody else probably will,” he said. “Whereas out here, no one else is necessarily going to do it.
“You feel that need for community involvement here in a way you don’t on the East Coast.”
Room to grow
As young parents, the Ingrahams also represent a segment of the population that may restrict the size of their families.
“The difference between the amount of children people say they want to have and the amount they have is growing. That gap is growing bigger and bigger every single year because, in a lot of places, the cost of living is so expensive that people can’t have the kind of families they want,” said Ingraham. “And that’s going to cause real tension for families in the long run.”
The quality of their children’s lives was one of the drivers in the decision to move to northwest Minnesota; they wanted to find a place “where one of us could take a couple years off and be with the twins, and get them ready for school,” he said.
In Red Lake Falls, Briana no longer has to work full-time, he said.
And the couple has added to their family.
“It’s weird to think about, you know, had we stayed in Maryland, this new member of our family -- who’s such a huge part of our lives now -- he wouldn’t have existed. William just wouldn’t be here. And I just can’t fathom that, just because of how integral he is to our lives.
“Once we had a little space to breathe, and we had a yard, we found that we had room in our lives to bring another life into our lives,” he said.
“You can’t capture that in a spreadsheet.”
WHAT: Reading and book-signing events for ‘If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now’
WHO: Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post reporter and author, Red Lake Falls, Minn.
Wednesday, Sept. 25 -- 6 p.m., Crookston Public Library
Thursday, Sept. 26 -- 6 p.m., Red Lake Falls Public Library