Last week, I sat in a dunk tank at the American Legion in Red Lake Falls, Minn., as part of a fundraiser for the town pool. Being in a dunk tank is one of the few occasions a grown-up can shout mean things at elementary-school kids in public without fear of censure, and I took full advantage as kids stepped up and lobbed softballs in my direction.
I did not realize it in the chaos of the moment, but there was an element of poetic justice to the whole affair: That evening marked one year, to the day, since I had penned an article offhandedly naming Red Lake County America's "worst place to live." With that story, I unwittingly put into motion a chain of events that would lead to my visiting the place, moving my family there and finally, that day at 6:30 p.m. under a big blue Midwestern sky, getting dropped into a tub of lukewarm water over and over by some of the finest arms at J.A. Hughes Elementary School.
Red Lake County had earned its "worst place" moniker by coming in dead last among America's more than 3,000 counties in a federal "natural amenities" index. The index, like countless other oddball government data sets I've written about over the years, assigns a score to counties based on physical characteristics — hills, valleys, bodies of water — that most people would agree make a place pleasant to live in.
As it turned out, Red Lake County doesn't have any actual lakes. (There are no falls in Red Lake Falls, either.) It's mostly flat, summers are hot, and winters are brutally cold. You crunch all those numbers together on a spreadsheet, and it may not be a surprise that the county came in dead last.
As somebody whose job is to write about "data" writ large, I'm a big believer in its power — better living through quantification. But my relocation to Red Lake Falls has been a humbling reminder of the limitations of numbers. It has opened my eyes to all of the things that get lost when you abstract people, places and points in time down to a single number on a computer screen.
The government's natural-amenities index captures the flatness of Midwestern farm country quite well, for instance. But it misses out on so much about that landscape: the sound of the breeze rustling the grain or the way the wheat catches the light at different times of day, the dry-sweet smell of a field full of sunflowers.
The data are blind to the ever-changing tapestry of colors and textures as crops grow, flourish and wane toward harvest. You can practically set your calendar by whatever's happening on a section of farmland on a given day. Green shoots usher in the start of June. Those shoots turn gold to mark mid-summer's prime, and now, in late August, a chill creeps into the evening air as the combines go out to reduce the fields to stubble.
The federal data set does reflect northwest Minnesota's bitter cold. The average January low temperature of minus-4 degrees is baked into the data, but it doesn't tell you about how our new neighbors pulled together when it got so cold in February that the water main on our street froze solid and did not thaw out until April, leaving several houses without water for weeks. They hooked up hoses from the homes with water to those without, and the town made things easy by splitting up everyone's water bills as best as they could. By the end of the ordeal, nobody seemed to be worse for the wear.
Nor, as far as I can tell, have we come up with a good way to quantify nostalgia. Red Lake Falls feels like the kind of town your grandparents would live in, and I mean that in the best possible way. The town's 1,400 residents keep tidy homes on tidy lawns with sprawling vegetable gardens out back. To an adult living here for the first time, it feels like the kind of place you remember visiting during summers in childhood, where memories are built on indolent afternoons spent in broad sunny lawns while the adults relaxed on a screened-in porch with cocktails in their hands.
The data also do not tell you about the relentless industriousness of the people here. Everybody seems to have three or four jobs. One of our neighbors runs a beef cattle operation during the day, drives a bulk mail truck between Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D., at night, and picks up odd trucking jobs here and there on the side. He and his wife built a lovely stone patio behind their house earlier this summer, which I've seen them use twice.
The spirit of industry is shared by the younger generations, too. Shortly after we arrived, our friends who run a tubing business in town offered to see whether any of their high school-age summer staff would be interested in babysitting for us on the side. "A lot of the kids are looking for a second job," they explained. Throughout the summer, kids have stopped by periodically to ask whether there's any yardwork that needs doing, to make a few bucks for the county fair.
Even though everyone seems to be holding down multiple jobs, opportunities for additional work abound. Around here, you see "help wanted" signs everywhere — at gas stations and restaurants, even hanging on the window at the Red Lake Falls Gazette, the local newspaper serving the town, which publishes once a week.
Statisticians also have not figured out a great way to capture neighborliness, either. Since we moved here three months ago, folks have gone out of their way to help us feel at home. Friends have stopped by to share their abundance of fresh-caught walleye and pickles from their gardens, or to give us tips on how to make chokecherry jam from the tree in our yard. People who grew up on the property we live on now stop by to share stories of playing sandlot baseball in the yard as children, or of climbing the massive oak tree that still sits at the edge of our driveway.
My wife and I have lived together all over the country, including in New York, California, Vermont and Maryland. But we've never gotten anything approaching the warm reception we've had here.
Most importantly, the data do not capture how moving to a place like this can be a life-altering experience for kids — in our case, our 3-year old twins. It's been amazing watching them transform, in a few short weeks, from toddlers to little boys under the expansive Minnesota sky.
Here, there is space to let them play and grow. Space I haven't previously known in my own life, which has been spent mostly tucked in various hills and valleys on the coasts.
In that respect, at least, the Midwest has quite literally broadened our horizons.
One of the big dangers of our glorious, new quantified world is the emergence of a type of numeric stereotyping — of insights hardened into dogma by the weight of a thousand data sets.
We "know," for instance, that Mississippi is poor, that New York City is expensive, that Chicago is violent and that Red Lake County is ugly. These things are, of course, true in the aggregate sense, or in comparison with other places.
But each of these numbers and rankings masks infinite nuance behind their finite limits. They overlook the thriving communities in Mississippi, the inspiring stories of tenacity and triumph in Manhattan, and the people quietly working to make Chicago's streets safer.
And they can't, of course, capture the quiet peace of an evening spent by the bluffs of the Clearwater River, watching your sons giggle as they toss sticks in the current while dragonflies dance overhead.
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