My wife and I were married on December 16, 1995. Even though I’m still a pretty young guy – I turned 43 at the end of May – that seems like a long time ago. After a post-Christmas honeymoon, we settled in an apartment in the little town of Pequot Lakes, a city between where she was working as a journalist and I was working as an engineer.
The apartment was a short term home. We had planned to build a new house and, a few short months after getting married, bought the cheapest property we could find a little further south in the city of East Gull Lake. It was a five-acre lot on a gravel road deep in the deep woods of a city dominated by lake properties and resorts. We had the good fortune (dumb luck, really) of having a 45-hole premier golf course constructed on land around us the year after we built.
I tell people that I started with the placement of a Christmas tree and designed the house from there. It’s a cabin in the woods with high, wood ceilings, a large front porch and a very open design. I was very proud of it — it was way nicer than anything I deserved at the time and still is — and I still am amazed we pulled it off.
We planned to raise a family and grow old together there. Then life happened. The first hiccup came when I went to graduate school. We bought a townhouse north of Minneapolis and briefly flirted with selling the house in the woods before we wound up renting it out. That was a nightmare, but good fortune allowed us to hang on to the house and – again, dumb luck with the housing bubble – make a little cash off of the townhouse. When my wife was pregnant with our first daughter, we moved back to the woods for good. Or so we thought.
As the second daughter was just starting life, I was making the painful intellectual journey from cynical engineer/planner to Strong Towns advocate. It was not a straight path. For those of you that have seen the Curbside Chat, the first case study I always start with is my own road, a dead-end cul-de-sac of residential homes. The epiphany came while standing at my mail box looking at my tax statement: That’s absurd. It won’t even pay to plow the snow, let alone fix the street. WTF?
By the time the first daughter was ready for kindergarten, I was in the "reading Jim Kunstler and hoarding canned goods" phase of discovery. My wife – the calm and steady to my fast and slow – was on a different path, but we arrived at the same destination. With four of us, we couldn’t be so spread out on a day-to-day basis. One at school, one at an office a long way in one direction, another at an office a long way in another and the fourth – not yet ready for school – somewhere yet to be determined. Practicality, if nothing else, suggested that we needed to move closer to something.
So in June of 2008, the house in the woods went on the market and we started negotiating on the purchase of a house in an urban neighborhood in the city of St. Cloud. In the following six months the housing market crashed, banks failed, bailouts ensued and just two people – both realtors – asked to look at our house. We received no offers.
That November I wrote my first blog post.
As families do, we figured out how to make things work. We sacrificed – my wife more than anyone – and made due. Like good Americans, we took advantage of artificially suppressed interest rates and refinanced our home. The kids started at one school and then transferred to another. I moved office locations. My wife found a way to work from home a little more.
Now the kids are older – eleven and nine – and, for the last couple of years, we’ve found ourselves in the chauffeur phase of raising children. We live 25 minutes from the school and most activities are at least that far. That meant that one day last week, for example, I spent over three hours driving back and forth from home to the office then back home then back to the office and then back home and then to softball practice and then back home. Life’s too short.
So we’ve again cast our eye at a new home. I’ve traveled all over the country and was an advocate of looking far and wide for the best place but, ultimately, the best place for us wound up to be a nice house near a park in a quiet neighborhood in my hometown of Brainerd. We almost made a move last summer before a destructive storm hit our house. Now that things are cleaned up and repaired, we went looking. We move next week.
There are many people who think we are crazy. We have a beautiful home in the woods. It’s quiet and secluded. The golf course makes it extra desirable. The taxes are ridiculously low (thanks to high taxes on shoreline property owners – my neighbors – and Ponzi scheme economics). We have the kind of place that people typically upgrade to.
On paper, Brainerd is more than a mess. Crime is high. Unemployment is high. There was a shooting last year in the neighborhood we’re moving to. Taxes are high, debt is high and all indications are that things are going to get worse before they get better. As I’ve extensively documented here, the city government is a poster child for incompetence and cluelessness. Nobody who can do anything about it knows what to do except to continue doing the things that caused the problems. Some are even proud to keep shooting the foot over and over again.
That’s on paper. However, as I said way back in 2009, if Brainerd were a stock, I would buy. It’s dramatically undervalued. It has amazing potential. Despite the decline and neglect, there are still a lot of good things happening. I’ve said many times: it would not take much to nudge it in the right direction.
And, in fact, I see a lot of great things happening. I know quite a few people that have moved to the neighborhood we’re going to be living in. A brewery just opened in town. A private event center and local theater company opened last fall. One of my favorite restaurants – a relatively new place – is just a few blocks away and looks like it’s going to stay. While we still have the people wanting to skip over the bread and butter and go right to dessert (river walk, splash pad, amphitheater, etc…) there are a lot of people now talking about how nice it would be to simply be able to cross the street safely and walk to downtown. That’s progress.
Most importantly, however, is that we’re going to live in a neighborhood where my kids will have a chance at something they never had way out in the woods: spontaneous, free-range living. I’m so excited for them. Some of their best friends live mere blocks away. To our surprise, the girls have been counting the days until we move. Watch out, Brainerd. Two girls and two bikes are about to invade the 'hood.
I grew up on a farm in Baxter, the city next door to Brainerd. My wife grew up on a lake in Nisswa, the next city north. A house in the woods was a good compromise for two kids starting out. Even though something like this move can seem so logical, life is not always logical. I’ll miss the house we built together and am leaving behind a lot of great memories. This has been a tough move for us – I can’t help feeling sad – but I’m also really gratified.
Discovering that what you were looking for was right there in front of you can do that.