Moving My Family to the “Worst” Place in America Was the Best Decision I Ever Made
It started out as something of a joke—almost a dare. We’ve been living here for four years now.
What was it that stopped the train that day? Signal problems? Wet leaves? A body on the tracks? Whatever it was, the train was running late again. Which meant I’d be an hour, maybe two, maybe three, late to work again. Which meant I’d be staying late and not getting home until long after the kids had gone to bed. Again.
I was well into my second year writing for the Washington Post, a dream job by any measure. Except for one tiny problem. The Post is based in Washington, D.C. My wife, Briana, and I, along with our two-year-old twins, Jack and Charles, lived just outside of Baltimore. Between our home and the Post newsroom lay about 80 miles of commute, 90 to 120 minutes by car, train, subway, and foot. On a good day.
That damp August morning in 2015? Not shaping up to be a good day.
But what choice did we have, given that the median home value in Washington, D.C., is somewhere north of half a million dollars, which was well out of the realm of affordability for Briana, who worked for the Social Security Administration, and me? We knew we had to do something about our situation. But no matter how far outside the box we started to think, we couldn’t make the numbers add up.
Then, later that summer, I wrote an article that would change my life. I had stumbled across an obscure project of the U.S. Department of Agriculture examining the physical characteristics that most people would agree make a place pleasant to live in—things like hills, valleys, bodies of water, nice weather. The project ranked America’s 3,000 counties from “ugliest” to the most scenic.
Maria Amador for Reader's DigestVentura County, California, came in at number one on the list—not surprising, given the shore, the hills, and the temperate climate. The county that came in last was a little place I’d never heard of called Red Lake County, in the northwest corner of Minnesota. It turns out Red Lake County doesn’t have any actual lakes. Or any hills. The summers are hot, and the winters are brutally cold. You crunch all those numbers together on a spreadsheet, and you wind up with “the worst place to live in America.”
My story went up on the Washington Post website at 9:27 on a Monday morning. By 9:32, the hate mail had started rolling in. By midmorning, people had started sending me photographs of golden wheat fields, meandering rivers, and deep blue prairie skies. “This is what the ‘worst place in America to live in’ looks like in late summer,” one of them said. The photographs eventually morphed into a hashtag campaign, #ShowMeYourUglyCounties.
In a lighthearted attempt at amends-making, I rounded up a bunch of the best responses and published them in a follow-up piece titled “Thick Coats, Thin Skins: Why Minnesotans Were Outraged by a Recent Washington Post Report.” Shortly after, I got an e-mail with the subject line “An invitation to come visit Red Lake County.” It was from a guy named Jason Brumwell. His family, he wrote, owned a river tubing business based in Red Lake Falls, the county seat with a population of 1,427. “I would like to cordially and officially invite you to come and check out our little county, which has now been dubbed ‘The Worst County in the United States,’ ” he said. “I would also like to reassure you that you would be given plenty of good-natured ‘ribbing’ but would be greeted with open arms and a lot of people showing you why they feel our county is far from the worst.”
A few days later, I was on a plane. The closest “major” airport (with just two gates) is in Grand Forks, North Dakota, 40 miles away. As I flew in, the view outside the airplane window was a rigid grid, straight roads stretching out to the horizon, interrupted only by other straight roads running perpendicularly. Everything was flat, square. It certainly looked as if it could be America’s worst place to live.
I had done some reading to find out what kind of place I’d be parachuting into. By most economic measures, the county seemed to be doing OK. The unemployment rate that July was 4.4 percent, well below the national average. The median household income was $48,000—less than half the typical income in the Washington suburbs where I lived. The median home value, on the other hand, was $89,000, or one-fifth the typical home price in our area.
The county was home to just a hair over 4,000 people, 95 percent of whom were white. The median age was 42. The big business was farming; just 1.6 percent of the land area was devoted to towns and residences. It was home to approximately twice as many cows as people. A picture was starting to emerge in my head of a place not unlike the hardscrabble farming communities that surrounded Oneonta, New York, where Briana and I had grown up.
Jason Brumwell had warned me to prepare for “a huge helping of Minnesota nice.” At his suggestion, I took the “back way” from Grand Forks to Red Lake Falls. What struck me wasn’t the flatness or the emptiness or the complete lack of people or cars; it was the sky.
Unencumbered by hills and valleys, the sky seemed impossibly vast to my East Coast eyes, a clear blue dome dotted by poofy clouds straight out of a children’s book. The horizon was truly infinite, the sense of scale and space and openness almost humbling.
A large wooden sign proclaimed “Welcome to Red Lake Falls,” and there weren’t just a handful of people waiting to meet me, as Jason had suggested—there were dozens, including four or five camera crews and a color guard from the high school.
Jason and his dad, Dick Brumwell, found me, and after a quick press conference, they loaded me and a gaggle of reporters and local luminaries onto a roofless red bus—one of the fleet they used to ferry tubers to the river launch—and took us to a dairy farm owned by brothers Carl and Joe Schindler. Carl asked whether I wanted to check out the inside of the barn, and, yes, of course I did. I had some experience with dairy farms growing up. My dad was a large-animal veterinarian, and in my childhood I would ride around to farms with him in lieu of day care or any other more structured and costly activity.
When we got to the farm, I bounded off the bus and made my way over to the calf pens. A newborn calf suckled my thumb as the Schindler brothers told me about life on the farm. A member of one of the camera crews tried to follow us into the barn but ended up retching, overcome by the smell.
“Smells great to me,” I said. “Smells like home.”
The next activity was a kayak ride down the Red Lake River. The river was tranquil, carving deep meanders through the landscape. Dusty cliffs rose up on one side and then the other, pocked with holes where swallows nested.
Afterward I stopped by my motel room to get a shower before dinner at T&J’s, the local bar and grill. The folks at T&J’s were outgoing and eager to talk about what made their community so special: Al Buse, for instance, who at 101 was the oldest resident of Red Lake Falls—and “like everyone’s grandpa,” Jason told me. Al was the grandson of one of the town’s original founders, and he was, it seemed, the living, breathing avatar of what made the town tick. Every morning when the weather was nice, he would load his tools in the back of his bright yellow golf cart and make his way through town, fixing things that needed fixing, watering plants, and generally doing whatever he could to keep the town tidy.
When I settled in for the night, I let Briana know I was safe, untarred and unfeathered. I had dozens of Facebook notifications, friend requests from Minnesotans I had met earlier in the day. Minnesota nice, indeed.
The next day, Jason showed up in a bus with a sign reading “America’s Worst Tour” displayed above the windshield. We visited a wheat farm in Brooks (population 139), where fourth-generation farmer Alex Yaggie let me drive his combine. We stopped at an asparagus farm and sampled from a jar of fiercely flavorful pickled asparagus. We stopped at the Plummer Area Sportsmen’s Club, where county commissioner Chuck Simpson—who’d said in response to my original story that I could kiss his butt—showed me around the shooting range.
Spend a little bit of time in Red Lake County and you’ll notice that people here are highly invested in their community. See that little park with the gazebo on Main Street? Dick Brumwell built it as a memorial to his late wife. See the garden on the hill across the street from the county courthouse? That’s a project of the local Lions Club. And that train-shaped light display on the old railroad trestle during the holidays? That’s the brainchild of Jim Benoit, who thought people should have something nice to look at when they drive into town.
People rarely lock their doors in Red Lake County, even when they’re not home. People trust each other so much that they often leave their cars running with the keys in the ignition when they run into Brent’s to pick up some groceries. Kids often run around unsupervised well into the evening hours—not a problem when you trust the folks in your neighborhood to keep an eye out for any trouble.
When I returned home, Briana noticed that I wouldn’t stop talking about how great the people were. Their warmth, their friendliness, their determination to make their community better. Jammed into a hot, overcrowded train, I thought of the guy who complained about how getting stuck behind a tractor could add five minutes to his 15-minute commute. When I’d told people in Red Lake Falls that sometimes I spent five hours a day commuting to and from work, their jaws had dropped.
They had their own trials and headaches, of course. Downtown wasn’t what it once had been. Affordable health care was a challenge. The sheriff’s office had the occasional speeder or shoplifter to deal with. But the people were rising up to meet their challenges. When the town pool needed work, they held a carnival and other events to pull together $70,000.
Once I was back at the grind in D.C., my days in Red Lake County took on a positively Norman Rockwellian cast. The pressures of modern life seemed manageable there. I wanted to take my family to a place with wide-open spaces of possibility, with room to breathe. I wanted what the people in Red Lake County seemed to have.
One weekend, my mom and stepdad flew in from Tampa to visit. The boys were in bed, and the four adults were unwinding in our tiny living room. Briana and I were talking through all these issues—the boys, the house, the jobs, the commutes, and how we couldn’t find a way out of any of it.
My mom said, “Well, what if you moved to that nice little Minnesota town Chris visited over the summer?”
We all laughed.
“No, really,” she said.
The room went quiet.
For me, in that moment, suddenly all the pieces fell into place. One of us would work from home. The other would take a break from working to be with the kids, which we could afford given the low cost of living.
Over the next few days, a plan gradually came into focus. Once my bosses approved my request to work remotely, it was official. We sat down with the boys, then two and a half, and said, “We’re going to live in Minnesota.”
“Minsota,” they said. They had no idea what it meant, but the word soon became a universal totem of anticipation in the house, encompassing all our hopes, dreams, anxieties, our struggle for a better life. Minnesota.
The following May we moved to Red Lake Falls. Our family—me; Briana; Jack; Charles; Tiber, our 70-pound beagle-basset mix; and Ivy, our 12-year-old cat—arrived on a Sunday. The closing on the house was scheduled for the following day, but the previous owners, the Kleins, told us they’d leave the door open and the keys on the kitchen counter. We hadn’t even gotten the kids out of their car seats before we were enthusiastically greeted by our new neighbor, who wanted to know whether we played any instruments because there was a great little community band and they were always looking for new players.
The Brumwells and the Kleins came over to help us get all our stuff out of the moving van. A few neighbors wandered over to pitch in as well, and with their help, we wrapped up the job in just a couple of hours.
It was an auspicious beginning, and our family quickly acclimated to small-town life. Briana volunteered for the Civic and Commerce Committee and was persuaded to run for city council, an election she handily won. The boys soon thrived under the personal attention at J. A. Hughes Elementary—even Charlie, who was diagnosed with autism and might’ve gotten lost in the crowd in a larger public school, like the one we had left in Maryland.
Most of the things we missed, including curry paste, sparkling wine, and books the tiny library doesn’t offer, we were able to order online or ask local proprietors to stock for us. We found plenty of culture and diversity, although we had to actively seek it out rather than experiencing the world simply by walking down the street, the way you can in a big city. The twins, now six, have spent more birthdays in Minnesota than they did in Maryland. And we have another son, William, who is three. I can honestly say that there would have been no William had we not moved to Red Lake Falls.
It is my job to write about data. I’m a big believer in its power. But our relocation 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 number on a computer screen.
Yes, the government’s natural-amenities index accurately captures the flatness of midwestern farm country. The summer heat. The bitter winter cold. But it misses so much about that landscape: the sound of the breeze rustling the grain or the way the wheat catches the light; the dry-sweet smell of a field of sunflowers. It doesn’t tell you how a family can keep itself warm through the coldest of winters by building igloos and sledding down the town hill. Or how the vast winter night sky shines with the light of thousands of stars that people who live in cities will never know. It doesn’t tell you about the heat put off by a big roaring fire in a park at the darkest time of the year, how the glow dances on the faces of those gathered around.
The people of Red Lake Falls bring light to the darkness and warmth to the cold. Glancing around the bonfire at last winter’s train-lighting ceremony, when everyone clapped and cheered, I felt certain: We were home.
Next, learn about the nicest places in America.