Last August, in the middle of the summer news doldrums, I wrote a quick story on an obscure US Department of Agriculture dataset called the "natural amenities index," which ranked America's counties on a number of physical characteristics -- mild weather, ample sunshine, varied landscape -- that usually make a place desirable to live in.
The piece had a few hundred words, a map and some charts -- standard data journalism fare. Per usual, I called out the winners and the losers, according to the data. On that latter point, some far-flung place I'd never heard of called Red Lake County (pop. 4,057) in Minnesota scored dead last. I did a quick Google search, added a dash of snark about their claim to fame -- "the only landlocked county in the United States that is surrounded by just two neighboring counties" -- and called it a day.
That's when the trouble started.
You can read all about the intense and exceedingly polite backlash to the original story here: http://wapo.st/21jpV2D. At the suggestion of a local businessman, I took a trip out to Red Lake County to complement my spreadsheet smarts with some boots-on-the-ground knowledge. I met interesting people, petted friendly cows and experienced firsthand the stark beauty of the northwestern Minnesota landscape.
"Traveling to a place like Red Lake County, hours away from any major metro area, is a reminder that in much of the country, the rhythms of daily life are, still, markedly different than the coastal city grind of long commutes and high-octane jobs," I wrote at the time.
"For some of us, it takes a place as small as Red Lake County to drive home just how big this country really is."
Weeks went by, autumn's campaign season madness began in earnest, but I couldn't stop thinking about the places in Red Lake County I'd visited, or the people I met there.
People who'd shown kindnesses small and large -- from a friendly handshake at the bar to an entire cake baked and decorated with cartographic precision as a map of the county -- to a stranger who they only knew from a line of snark he'd tossed into a news story.
I kept dreaming about big skies. Broad rivers. Flat roads running to the horizon and towns that smelled of wood and grain and dry prairie air.
My wife Briana and I have twin sons who are now two years old. Being from small upstate New York towns ourselves, we began talking of raising them -- at least for a time, before they start school -- out in the country.
Somewhere with a little more space than our 900-square-foot Baltimore County, Mid-row house, which, while a lovely place for a couple to live, was starting to chafe against the energy and enthusiasm of a pair of raucous boys.
Life along the I-95 corridor was starting to lose its charm too. I commute in to Washington DC most days. A one-way trip, involving car, train, metro and a walk takes about 90 minutes on a good day.
I count myself among that woebegone 2.62 percent of workers who spend 15 hours or more each week stuck in traffic, shivering on subway platforms, and otherwise squandering a huge chunk of their waking hours on one of their most-hated activities.
For me, a 15-hour commute meant a lot of things. It meant going on blood pressure medication at the age of 34 because there's no time to exercise. It meant getting to see the kids for maybe 30 minutes on a good night, at the end of the day when we're all tired and ornery.
It meant missed opportunities to read, write and think, because it's hard to do justice of any of those things in the calm intervals of a commute involving four modes of transit.
And so, I decided, it was time to shake things up.
"What about moving to that nice place you visited over the summer?" my mom said to Briana and I during a visit last fall. We laughed at first. But the idea took hold -- and with startling ferocity.
We looked at houses online. The homes in northwest Minnesota often come with acreage. With a barn. With a suite of outbuildings whose functions remain mysterious to us. And all at a fraction of the cost of the tiny Baltimore rowhouse.
Still, there were questions and anxieties. If you live in a major metro area, you've probably had the experience of driving through the country on the way to the beach, or to visit relatives in other states, wondering, "what do these people do for a living out here?"
Were we capable of shipping off to Minnesota and becoming one of those families ourselves?
Many people I've discussed the move with tell me how it sounds like a lot of fun, but they can't imagine living without all the amenities of a city -- the culture, the restaurants, the general bustle and abundance of things to do.
But with a 15-hour commute, these things have generally been an abstraction to me -- activities other people did that I didn't have time for.
Then, the weather. It's cold up there in the winter, sure. But we're from upstate New York! We know from cold. I'm itching to experience a proper winter after years of living in the mid-Atlantic, where the season typically brings three months of 40-degree drizzle and an abundance of mud.
When I get to Red Lake County this spring, I'll still be doing what I do now -- writing on data -- just remotely. The most important tools of my trade, after all, are a phone line and a good Internet connection. You can download arcane government datasets -- like that natural amenities index -- just as well from Minnesota as from DC
That fact that I'm incredibly fortunate to be in this position isn't lost on me. Many of my fellow commuters on that train -- the doctors and construction workers and the retail managers -- don't have the luxury of doing their work from anywhere. For the time being, at least, they're forced to make an all-too familiar trade-off.
And I suspect and hope that a lot of the big issues we talk about at the national level -- jobs and the economy and politics -- look a little different when viewed from northwestern Minnesota than from within Beltway.
My boys, meanwhile, have learned how to say "Minnesota" with surprising fluency. For them it's just an abstract word that's not yet tethered to any particular reality. In a few months that will all change.