Over the last couple of years, the fear of catching a deadly disease has brought about a long-overdue shift to remote working for many jobs, and along with that has come a migration away from many big cities. If all you need to communicate with your colleagues is a decent internet signal, why pay for a pricey one-bedroom in the city when you could get a house in the sticks for less? Who knows how long this will last or what ripple effects it will have on population distribution.
I’m hardly the person to answer those questions, but they did make me more interested in a title I’ve had on my TBR for a while. If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now, about a Washington Post columnist who relocated his family from the D.C. suburbs to a speck of a town in Minnesota, caught my interest at the time with its promised meditation on how data and reality can conflict with each other, especially when that data is trying to explain something as slippery as community. Now, I was curious about what this pre-pandemic memoir would say about life in this much-changed world.
In 2015, Christopher Ingraham took a set of data from the USDA supposedly quantifying the best and worst places to live in the U.S., weighted heavily in terms of natural beauty and moderate weather. High on the rankings were coastal communities—every one of the ten highest-ranked counties was in California. Way down at the bottom, though, was Red Lake County, Minnesota, located in the far northwest corner of the state. The landlocked county is at the top of prairie country and so far north that Fargo, North Dakota, is a two-hour drive south. Winters are bitter cold with 16-hour nights, and snow is on the ground for eight months out of the year. Ingraham writes a somewhat snarky column, hits post, and doesn’t give it another thought—until the backlash starts.
Across social media and clogging up his email inbox are passionate defenses of Red Lake’s beauty and charm, and the shallow ignorance of big-city types to ignore the abundance it does have to offer because of the infrastructure and convenience and mild winters it lacks. Amid the virtual beating Ingraham takes comes an olive branch: an invitation for a guided tour around Red Lake County so Ingraham can understand what the fuss is about. Against the advice of his wife, Briana, Ingraham takes it, and is unexpectedly smitten by the small-town charm and slow pace of the area. Sure, his life in Virginia is close to a lot of important things, but the cost of living is high and the family’s twin toddler boys practically live at daycare between his and Briana’s lengthy commutes. Red Lake County sounds more and more inviting. Within the year, he has negotiated a remote work situation with his boss and uprooted his wife and kids to the so-called worst place to live.
What follows is bit like a cross between an episode of Lake Woebegone and a montage of the familiar “city slicker struggles with rural life” trope. The neighbors are friendly, except for, say, when you accidentally feed their cat (that seemed like a stray!) too often. The winters are terrible, but the Ingrahams learn to take it on the chin like locals. Amazon bridges the gap between the local supply and the family’s demand for goods. Ingraham goes hunting and learns to ice fish. Life slows down and, after a few early bumps, the family grows and thrives thrives. Throughout it all, Ingraham puzzles about the concept of home and community and happiness, with his musings characteristically compared or contrasted to data.
At a little under 300 pages, If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now isn’t a tome, but nor is it a slim volume one would expect to read in an afternoon. Yet Ingraham’s writing style is easy, almost breezy, and I finished it in a few days of casual reading. Although he can be a bit snarky at times (see: the column that kicked this whole mess up, his chapter on casseroles), Ingraham has a lot of love for Minnesota and the people who live there, and that radiates from virtually every page. He’s charitable, too, toward those in urban areas, so there are no enemies within this book. Even when his first year coincides with the divisive 2016 presidential election, he avoids polemics or judgement. The people who vote in Minnesota, he says, are just as complex a people as in Baltimore or California or anywhere else in the country.
His newfound humility is also evident throughout. One of his sons is diagnosed with autism, and Ingraham worries about the local elementary school’s ability to accommodate his son’s special needs—and the children and teachers’ abilities to treat him normally. But the school welcomes the challenge and quickly puts together an individual education plan that allows the kid to mostly learn in a regular classroom, and his kindergarten teacher turns out to be a former special ed teacher. A bus ride mishap results in the boy getting off at the wrong stop, but found and watched over by two older boys who keep him safe until Briana finds him—something Ingraham is sure wouldn’t have happened in a more urban area. When Briana has their third child premature, Ingraham writes that he is snobbishly ready to look down his nose on the doctors in the North Dakota hospital’s NICU. The family’s twins, after all, had been premature, too, and had spent their first touchy weeks in the NICU of John Hopkins. But the doctors are skilled and have read up on research more recent than Ingraham’s most recent experience in a NICU, and are warm toward the family to boot.
And his greatest humility comes in regards to the power and limitation of data. “As somebody whose job it is to write about ‘data’ writ large, I’m a big believer in its power—better living through quantification,” he writes. “But my relocation to Red Lake Falls has been a humbling reminder of the limitations of numbers. It has opened my eyes to all the things that get lost when you abstract people, places, and points in time down to a single number on a computer screen.” Yes, the country that makes up Red Lake County is flat and its winters are cold, but there are northern lights and sun dogs to light the way, he says. Yes, it’s far away from “civilization” and its local culinary specialties leave something to be desired, but there is also enough space to breathe and no need for a three-hour commute anywhere. Whether the family remains in Minnesota remains to be seen, but as of the book’s printing in 2019, they had no plans to move.
I haven’t been one to take advantage of the great migration away from city centers and to more rural climes, and neither has anyone in my immediate circle. But Ingraham’s account makes a convincing argument about how a life built around remote work in a remote area might look like. Though written in a day and time that now seem long ago and far away, the problems that prompt Ingraham to relocate—life in the city being too expensive, long commutes leading to health issues and less time with family, a poor sense of community—are perhaps even truer today than they were in 2015. The blueprint he lays out in If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now is a tantalizing, though not idealized, one that could forecast our population to come.