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Washington Post reporter called NW Minn. county the worst — then it saved him

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The only large hill in Red Lake County is just outside of Red Lake Falls.
Chris Ingraham surveys the landscape from the only large hill in Red Lake County, Minn., just outside of Red Lake Falls, overlooking the Red Lake River.
John Enger | MPR News

Let's take a moment to remember how Chris Ingraham ended up in the tiny northern Minnesota town of Red Lake Falls.

He wrote a story for the Washington Post in 2015, ranking every county in America by scenery and climate. He used data from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Hills were good. Lakes were good. Frigid winters were bad.

Based on these measures, Red Lake County — which has no lakes, precious few hills and winters that reach 40-below — was rated the worst place to live in America. This was the USDA’s conclusion, backed by science. Ingraham just wrote about it, very sparingly.

“I’m a data reporter,” Ingraham said. “My ideal story is like one or two charts and maybe one sentence that says, ‘Check this out. This is cool.’”

That didn’t stop Minnesotans from taking the story personally.

There was a Twitter outcry. Politicians got involved. The townsfolk of Red Lake Falls invited Ingraham for a visit, to show him just how wrong he’d been. Ingraham went, and liked it so well he uprooted his family and moved there.

That’s the short version. Ingraham goes into depth in his newly released book, “If You Lived Here, You’d be Home By Now.” He’ll speak Thursday at Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis.

Chris Ingraham feeds his pet lizard roaches.
Chris Ingraham hangs out in his Red Lake Falls, Minn., home earlier this summer, feeding his pet lizard roaches. He still works for the Washington Post, so his living room is also his office.
John Enger | MPR News

I met Ingraham at his house in Red Lake Falls earlier this summer. His wife and three kids were at T-ball practice, so the house was quiet. He padded around in stocking feet and fed roaches to his pet lizard.

“Have you ever smelled a cricket bin?” he said. “Roaches are cleaner. I understand that I’m going to come off like a crazy person, but trust me.”

Ingraham has lived in Red Lake Falls for three years. The book focuses on his first year in town. It was hard to write, he said. As a data reporter, he’s used to more straight-ahead assignments.

The first few chapters were simple enough. Ingraham was at the end of his rope in Baltimore. The D.C. commute was terrible. His house was small. He saw a drastic move to Red Lake Falls as his only way out.

But after the move, Ingraham said he found it difficult to nail down a compelling narrative arc.

People have been nice to him. That’s great on a personal level, but bad for writing. If Red Lake Falls really was the worst place in America, he said, the book would have written itself.

Ingraham isn’t just writing about neighbors. He’s writing about his friends.

“I was really worried about the reaction of the people in town,” he said. “Were they going to think that we just came out here to exploit them for a story?”

He’s passed out dozens of early copies around town. So far, everyone likes the book pretty well. But Ingraham was right to worry.

A lot of people really did think he was just exploiting rural Minnesotans for a story. In the spirit of full disclosure, I was one of those people.

When it came out that an East Coast data reporter was moving to Red Lake Falls — just 80 miles from my home in Bemidji — my friends and I laid bets on how long he’d last.

My bet: one year, or as long as it took him to write a hilarious book mocking the whole region.

When I arrived at his house this summer, I expected to see a moving truck parked out front. But that’s not Ingraham.

“This is home now,” he said. “It’s the only place my kids remember. My wife is on the city council, for goodness’ sake.”

The book, as you might expect, makes good use of data.

Ingraham’s hours on the train back in Baltimore — his rising blood pressure before the move to Red Lake Falls is graphed with startling precision. He quotes studies on the relative happiness of rural and urban Americans.

But the strength of Ingraham’s writing is his generosity. The book is almost universally kind to its characters. The people of Red Lake falls might look a bit scruffy, but Ingraham describes them as highly educated and compassionate.

Chris Ingraham’s son Charlie has grown up in Red Lake Falls.
Chris Ingraham’s son Charlie has grown up in Red Lake Falls, Minn. It’s not a Podunk Minnesota town to him. It’s just home.
John Enger | MPR News

He writes lovingly about how well his young son Charlie was treated by the school system after an autism diagnosis.

There are, however, a few lines in “If You Lived Here” that might get Ingraham in another round of trouble with Minnesotans. He does not like the food.

Even classic Minnesota dishes failed to win Ingraham over. Lefse, he said, is “an OK flatbread,” which has risen to popularity only because it is not lutefisk. Walleye, he said, is “a perfectly adequate fish.”

In Minnesota, those are fighting words — although it might be OK at this point given that he seems to be one of us.

“I’m going to get tarred and feathered for this, I know,” he said. “But I had to speak my truth.”

Correction (Sept. 11, 2019): An earlier version of this story misstated the book’s title.