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Does anybody really like to move?
When people up and relocate to a new town or region of the country, it is usually for work or family reasons. Somebody gets a better job in another city, so the family goes along. Retirees decamp to where life has taken their children and grandchildren, so multiple generations are there to help one another out.
But reasons to relocate beyond the planned and practical usually have one of two motivations: desperation or privilege. Desperation can be seen around the globe, as populations flee war or lawlessness, to go to a place where life isn’t quite as impossible. The desperate aren’t lining up a job before they leave, or checking out housing costs and the options for joining a gym. They just wonder how far they’ll have to walk, or whom they’ll have to pay, to get there.
That leaves the privileged. In this country, privileged people who pack up and move don’t have to relocate to a new environment. They just want to. They have the financial stability to balance the here and the there, while the move is underway. They can insert themselves into a new community, confident that they’ll be accepted, or at least not rejected outright, because of who they are. They can imagine a personal reconstruction, and in fact, welcome it.
I know these things because I’m privileged, too.
I’ve undertaken the needless but exciting cross-country move more than once. I started life in Kansas City, and then in my early 30s became restless and not interested in spending the next 50 years or so in that same place, driving the same roads, knowing the same people. I downsized my life, to a small city in the least populated state in the Union. Laramie, Wyoming, was wonderful in many ways, but after 20 years, I began calculating the equity in my home and how much more it would buy me in a small town in the Midwest. Behold, a home badly in need of renovation in a town on the banks of the Mississippi River presented itself to me. The river town of 2,200 appealed more than a college town of 32,000. Whimsically, and because I could, I downsized again.
That sequence of events prompted me to research the broad patterns of life choices and try to understand if my compulsion to uproot was commonplace or pathological. (As I toy with the idea of yet another bug-out, the jury is out on that question.) I did what writers do, that is, I wrote about those choices, the places, and the people I found along they way.
My book research followed a path similar to that of Christopher Ingraham, a Washington Post data reporter and 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, just out from HarperCollins. The genesis for the book came when Ingraham came across a government dataset known as the Natural Amenities scale. It ranks locations in the lower 48 by a certain set of appealing qualities. As with all rankings, if there is a best, there must also be a worst. Ingraham did what many a journalist would do hoping to write a clickable story on a slow afternoon. He grabbed the low hanging fruit and called out the place that came in dead last on the scale. That was Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, population 1,427, which he called “the absolute worst place to live in America.”
Note to journalists: they have Twitter in northwest Minnesota, and they know how to use it. A tweetstorm ensued, setting the uppity elitist east coast journalist straight.
The story starts there, recounting the town’s gradual but inevitable pull on the Ingraham family. How locals invited the reporter to come out for a visit, if he thought the place was such a dump, to see for himself. How they laid out the charm offensive, and how the scales fell from his eyes as he later daydreamed about a life of warm boots, sturdy trucks, ice-fishing, caring neighbors, and starlit skies.
It worked. Compared to the hassles and hardship of the “elitist” existence, almost any place seemed a better choice. Within a matter of months, Ingraham and his wife Briana had shut down their life in Baltimore, packed up their twin 2-year-olds, and decamped to what coastal elites consider the middle of nowhere. Government data be damned.
My own relocation-pattern research had led me to that same Natural Amenities scale, where I found that my adopted Iowa home was located in what was judged to be a rather blah part of the country. That’s in spite of the rugged limestone bluffs rising above the rushing river, wildlife refuges and bird sanctuaries filling the horizon on the other side of the sand bar islands. Thanks to another government data scale, I also found that the downsides of cold winters, hot humid summers, and middling natural amenities could be abated. The FAR (Frontier and Remote) scale measures whether a place is merely remote or downright frontier. It measures varying degrees of remoteness based on how long it takes to drive from given Zip codes to population centers of varying sizes. Although the amenities scale puts my lovely river town at a -2 on the scale, the FAR index acknowledges that our location only 25 miles from a movie theater and a hospital makes this a not unthinkable place to settle.
In contrast to me, before his move to Minnesota Ingraham and his wife lived in a place neither remote nor lacking in amenities. But when their twins were born, the pressures of the high cost of living and the increasingly soul-killing commute became acute. Daily round trips from Baltimore to D.C. were not easy. The couple was open to a new direction, and the universe provided.
Throughout the book, Ingraham presents data and observation with the eyes of a journalist, filtered through the humanity of a father, husband and friend. What started as a planned one- or two-year project that would involve writing about the rural Midwest for the Washington Post as an embedded correspondent to Real America has turned into a long-term life choice.
Ingraham tells his story with relatable personal markers so that readers should be able to identify both with his dilemma, and with his choice to move to northwestern rural Minnesota. No matter where one falls on the urban—rural spectrum, who wouldn’t want a life where the adults are satisfied with professional and social opportunities, and children have good support in school, and families have room to spread out and yet still be close?
Sure, there were some periods of dark self-doubt. Ingraham recounts challenges with medical care for the children, and how his wife struggled finding her footing after leaving her social and professional network. He also narrates in a self-deprecating way how his big-city self learned about lawn maintenance and the manly outdoorsy way of life from new friends only too happy to initiate him. He connects his new life with his youth, the son of a veterinarian in upstate New York, where he at least had some experience of small- town self-reliance and long cold winters. He just hadn’t realized how cold cold could be.
Inevitably, Ingraham’s decision to move to a spot just shy of the Canadian border made him something of an oddity in Minnesota, and a celebrity in Red Lake Falls. He’s been an invited speaker at dozens of civic and professional events. He’s been interviewed by local news outlets, major TV networks, and NPR. He’s even had a crew from CBS’s “On the Road” program stop by to film his family in their natural habitat. Why? Because they moved from a big city to a small town.
I’ve got news for you, world. People do this all the time. That fact in no way discounts what the Ingraham family has done. They’ve made a major leap of faith and from all appearances have had the good grace to work at fitting in without treating the town as their personal performance space. If rural Minnesota is anything like rural Iowa, they live in a land where men sprawl together in converted detached garages, their man caves stocked with TV set and mini-bar, Harleys and ATVs tucked into corners. A land where women and children spend weekends together in the kitchen baking, or putting up garden produce for winter. Where doors aren’t locked because there’s little crime. Where there’s little crime because there is little disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest. Where people live there because that’s where they’ve always lived, for generations of their family. Where privilege isn’t pronounced enough to allow flights of fancy, such as pondering where one would live if one had the time and energy to start packing. And because they love it.
Within the next few decades as oceans rise, rivers reclaim their floodplains, and drought skews the production schedule for the great machinery of agriculture, people may be looking for their next toe-hold on the planet with more than a little urgency. The desperation motivator may join forces with privilege and start pushing people off the bubble in terms of where they live, whether they are in Maryland or Minnesota or Iowa or Wyoming or California. A place won’t appeal just because it’s scenic or has good hospitals, but because it’s above water and not on fire. The corridor of low-population states we romantically think of as the “heartland” might look like a pretty good location to set up shop. Someday, the idea that someone from the crowded coasts will move to a rural area won’t be exceptional or newsworthy or even privileged. It’ll just be practical.
Julianne Couch is the author of four books exploring rural life and times. Her current project, From Coal Mines to Cornfields: My Personal Climate Change, is incubating.