As a data reporter for the Washington Post, I thought I'd seen it all: numbers that explain everything from the economy to waffles to the zombie apocalypse. But here was something different—natural beauty, quantified. And with impeccable federal credentials.
Even better, the project ranked the counties according to where they fell on the scale. Which of America's more than three thousand counties are the "ugliest," according to the federal government? And which the most scenic? And where, reader, does your own county fall into the mix?
The story practically wrote itself, a perfect diversion for D.C.'s August recess doldrums. I mapped the numbers out, wrote a few hundred words to accompany them, slapped a headline on it all ("Every County in America, Ranked by Scenery and Climate"), and called it a day.
Like countless other pieces of data-driven ephemera I've written, I forgot about it almost as soon as my editor hit "publish" the following Monday.
Funny thing about ranking places—for every city or town or county that's at the top of some list, there has to be one all the way down at the bottom. As a country we're obsessed with superlatives—we want to raise our families in the best places, visit the most famous landmarks, climb the highest mountains, and swim the clearest, bluest seas.
But what about all those other places that don't make the cut?
This is a story about one of those forgotten places—an obscure corner of the heartland that, from the vantage point of an Excel sheet on a coastal desktop, appeared to have nothing going for it. No distinguishing features whatsoever, save a last-place finish in a county beauty pageant run by federal statisticians in the late 1990s.
Red Lake County (pop. 4,055) in northwestern Minnesota is a place so lacking in superlatives that proclaiming itself "the only landlocked county in the United States that is surrounded by just two neighboring counties" is the closest thing to a boast that you'll find on the county's website.
As it turns out, Red Lake County doesn't have any actual lakes. It doesn't have any hills. The summers are hot, and the winters are brutally cold. You crunch all those numbers together on a spreadsheet, and it may not be a surprise that the place came in dead last.
I tossed the county website's border trivia into the story along with a joke about Red Lake County being "the absolute worst place to live in America," and didn't think twice about it.
But now "the absolute worst place to live in America" is the place I and my family call home. This book is the story of how we got here, what we found when we arrived, and everything we've experienced since then. How our lives changed when we moved from one of the nation's wealthiest suburbs (median household income: $110,000) to a working-class farming community (median income: $50,000) hundreds of miles from anywhere.
It's a story about an education in the ways of small-town life. It's about the people whom I've come to call friends and neighbors, who've taught us how to fry walleye, make corn shocks, and press apple cider by hand—and who also have gently mocked our big-city "eccentricities" like goat cheese and eggplant parmesan.
But it's also bigger than that. It's a tale about two Americas—the coastal centers of power and money, like D.C., and the thousands of towns and villages in between them who feel like they've been left out of the national conversation. As the 2016 election came to a close it became clear that the gulf between those Americas is larger than it's ever been—but is it really?
It's about a journey to the other side of what social scientists call the urban-rural happiness gradient—surveys consistently show that city dwellers are the least satisfied members of society, while those who live in the countryside and small towns are the happiest.
This book is written specifically for people, like me, who are feeling increasingly stretched thin by the frenetic pace and ever-escalating cost of the big city and suburban lifestyle. People like me commuting fifteen hours a week and rarely seeing their kids because of the vast distance between where jobs are good and where housing is affordable.
People who have driven through long-forgotten rural areas on the way from one big city to another and wondered, "Who actually lives here?" People who have fantasized about throwing their big city jobs away, moving out to the middle of nowhere, and living a simpler life. People who've always wanted to raise their kids in a small town like the one they grew up in, but couldn't figure out a way to make it work.