Speed Dating America
After traveling the world, Ashlea Halpern was ready to put down roots. But before committing, she examined her options — all 229 of them.
Illustrations by Ryan Johnson
THE SKEPTIC IN ME kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. What dark secret was Minneapolis hiding? Sure, the mercury can hover around 6 degrees in winter, with the occasional dip below −30. The molten center of the city’s Jucy Lucy hamburger can give you second-degree cheese burns. Wisconsin is half an hour away.
Still, as we drove past prim little cottages and stylish bungalows in handsome residential neighborhoods, we could so easily picture ourselves living here, planting flowers in the front yard, taking pottery classes at a local studio, and spending summer weekends on pontoon boats with our Minnesota Nice friends. Was this, maybe, home?
In the fall of 2014, I quit my job at Bon Appétit magazine to spend a year hopping around Asia and Australia with my partner, Andrew. I’d been tethered to a desk for more than a decade; I wanted to see the world and live out my dream of becoming a full-fledged travel writer. We knocked out 17 countries in our first year abroad and spent an additional eight months living in Bangkok. It was exhilarating and exhausting. When it was time to come home, our initial idea was to pull our belongings out of storage on the East Coast and head to Los Angeles. But the terrifying finality of such a long-distance move, coupled with an intimidating local rental market, inspired a different plan: to road trip around the U.S. until we found a place that checked all the right boxes (culturally rich, ethnically diverse, politically progressive, full of friendly locals, and affordable). In two separate legs totaling 16 months, we’d crisscross America multiple times by car, visiting some 40 states and 229 cities and towns, ticking off a lifetime’s worth of bucket-list diversions along the way (Badlands National Park! Cadillac Ranch! Graceland!). We joked to friends that we were “speed dating America.” Everywhere we went, we asked ourselves: Could we see living here … like, forever?
Andrew and I had met in journalism school in February 2002; I was the features editor at the student newspaper, and he was my pop music critic. Despite his love of nü-metal, we started dating. Like our taste in music, our upbringings were fairly opposite. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Andrew had lived most of his life in one house. Before we met, he had flown on a plane exactly once. When we visited his family for Christmas, I slept in his childhood bed. My family, by contrast, traveled often and moved dozens of times, mostly throughout the South. My dad ran his own consulting firm, and my mom, an artist, always thought the next place would be better. Evangelism dominated my public schools in Georgia and North Carolina. The Ten Commandments were painted on the cafeteria wall, and prayers — sometimes called “a moment of silence,” like that fooled anybody — were said before football games and over the intercom during morning announcements. As a weirdo only child with Jewish-Wiccan parents, I was a fish out of water. The day after my college graduation, I peeled off to Philadelphia, and later New York, and never looked back. Until now.
EVER A SPREADSHEET FANATIC (I’d run the Strategist section at New York magazine), I started a “USA Rankings” doc that organized each place we visited into one of three categories: the YES List (our top ten), Stranger Things Could Happen (numbers 11 to 30, including surprise entrants like Chattanooga, Tennessee; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Livingston, Montana), and a definitive NOPE pile (everywhere else, with insufferably richie-rich Aspen coming in dead last). Reshuffling the rankings became a daily obsession. Like single dudes forever swiping left, we were fueled by the thrill of the hunt and the fantasy of what might be lurking just around the corner. Besides, when we found the one, we’d know it deep in our bones. That’s how love stories go, right?
Our speed dates lasted as little as one hour (#sorrynotsorry, Dublin, Ohio) and as long as six weeks (Seattle, Atlanta, Minneapolis). Anytime we booked more than three days in a place, we fast-tracked the getting-to-know-you process by plunging ourselves into the daily scrum. We shopped for Bibb lettuce at the local farmers’ market, combed the event listings in the alt weekly, and made ourselves “regulars” at the coffee shops nearest our rentals.
Every stop gave us an opportunity to slip into a brand-new identity. Did we want to spend Saturday nights down at the rodeo, decked out in cowboy boots and bolo ties in Wimberley, Texas? Or maybe Cajun two-stepping with silver foxes at the local dance hall in Lafayette, Louisiana? In the mountain town of Ridgway, Colorado, we ambled through the woods and dreamed of buying an A-frame cabin flanked by towering evergreens. Perhaps we’d forget journalism altogether and launch a mobile dog-grooming business! Or take up gardening and canning and live off the land?
Some suitors — like Asheville, North Carolina; Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Sedona, Arizona — didn’t make it past the first date; they lacked some essential quality we demanded in a long-term partner. Other times we hit it off with a city early on, but the more we hung around, the more our differences punched through the surface. Austin was a place we knew and loved. But after spending six weeks there, the rose-colored glasses shattered and we saw what the tech boom had actually wrought: an inflated housing market, huge income disparities, and unbearable traffic. The city’s groaning infrastructure couldn’t keep up with its growth. Despite having friends there, despite the blue-dot politics and cheerful locals and legendary barbecue, the pluses didn’t outweigh the minuses. We still like Austin, but we’re better off as friends.
MEETING THE ONE didn’t happen the way it does in the movies. It wasn’t like we rounded a bend on the highway and there she was — Minneapolis! — glowing in Technicolor while the rest of the world turned to gray. It was a slower burn, but no less infatuating — the kind where every day we found ourselves remarking out loud, and somewhat incredulously, on our good fortune. “How is it possible that one city has so many things we care about?” we asked. “How come more people aren’t moving here?” we wanted to know. “Is this what it feels like to fall in love?” we wondered, even though we already knew the answer.
The first thing that sold us on Minneapolis and its sister city of St. Paul was the diversity. One of my favorite things about living in New York was riding the subway and hearing conversations in 20 different languages. As travel writers finally looking to “settle down,” living somewhere that celebrates diversity was of utmost importance. Beyond its deep Nordic roots, Minnesota is home to the second-largest Hmong diaspora in the United States, plus sizable immigrant populations from Somalia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Mexico, Russia, India, China, and Korea. The locals’ welcoming of outsiders was in step with their liberal political agenda — another plus for us ex–Blue Staters.
There was no shortage of things to eat, see, and do, either. We slurped khao piak sen, a lemongrassy chicken soup, at the sprawling Hmong Village market; watched weirdo cult flicks at Trylon Microcinema’s monthly Trash Film Debauchery night; and spent hours wandering the Minneapolis Institute of Art, a.k.a. the Met of the Midwest. Importantly, the best bands, comedians, and authors also stopped in the Twin Cities when touring — another thumbs up for the Bold North.
The only thing any of our friends back East brought up when we mentioned Minnesota was subzero temperatures and mountains of snow. (Mind you, it’s not like New York is a picnic in winter. Type “snow struggles in New York City” into YouTube to see what I mean.) Among the many things that astonished us about Minneapolis and St. Paul was the abundant greenery. Enormous old trees, winsome rose gardens, lushly manicured parks, sparkling blue lakes, bike lanes everywhere — it’s absolutely gorgeous seven months out of the year. What sold us on the other five was how much the locals embrace winter: snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, fat biking, snowmobiling, ice fishing, building hygge bonfires, and turning out in force to see wacky art installations pitched in the middle of a frozen lake.
And practically, we needed a good airport. Minneapolis–St. Paul International is great. It’s a Delta hub, and the convenient location — smack in the middle of America — means it’s as easy to get to Asia as Europe. And hey, if the travel writing thing doesn’t work out, we can always look for cubicle jobs at one of the 17 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the Twin Cities — or better yet, start our own business. Compared with other metropolises, the cost of living here is affordable enough that you can actually risk being an entrepreneur.
All the deal breakers I’d lined up in my head before our arrival fell away like brittle leaves. In the end, we didn’t need to date every state in the union to find the one. We never made it to San Francisco, Miami, or even Chicago, but it didn’t matter. We’d found someplace special, and that was enough. In February 2018, we signed a yearlong lease on a cute little house in South Minneapolis, a 12-minute drive from the airport. I planted Asiatic lilies in the front yard and signed up for an intro-to-wheel-throwing class at Northern Clay Center. It took us 38,533 miles to get here, but now we’re finally home.
OUR FAVORITE HOST
WHEN WE MET Pam, she was wearing a camouflage T-shirt emblazoned with four words: LOTTO. GUNS. AMMO. BEER. My eyebrows shot through my hairline as we pulled up to her farm in Fredonia, Arizona, a plume of dirt engulfing our little red hatchback.
Pam was the cohost of the Airbnb we’d rented in a conservative town (population: 1,314) on the northern edge of the state. The barn exterior was hung with cow skulls, rusty spurs, and animal hides. A sign with two crossed guns read WE DON’T DIAL 911. In our living room, quotes were chiseled into the walls: JESUS LIVES, read one; THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH; THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS AROUND ME, read another. We were seven months and 13 days into our trip. We’d taken a lot of wrong turns, but this one seemed comically irredeemable. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
During our stay, Pam took us around the property to meet Jimbob the horse, Turkey the turkey, plus myriad goats, horses, chickens, cats, and dogs. She brought us crookneck squash, fresh from her garden, and Flintstonian-size pork chops, hot out of the pan. She left little gifts for us inside our screened-in porch, including a lovely chunk of petrified wood. She was funny, kind, and, above all, surprising — much like the trip itself. The day we left, the three of us took silly selfies together, and then we were on our way, Pam shrinking in our rearview, titanic Texas belt buckle glinting in the sun.
Ashlea’s Final YES List
- Minneapolis, Minnesota
2. San Antonio, Texas
3. Denver, Colorado
4. Richmond, Virginia
5. Portland, Oregon
6. Louisville, Kentucky
7. Birmingham, Alabama
8. Indianapolis, Indiana
9. Tulsa, Oklahoma
10. Columbus, Ohio
About the author: Ashlea Halpern is the co-founder of Cartogramme and editor-at-large for AFAR Media. She edited New York Magazine’s pop-up travel blog, The Urbanist, and writes regularly for Airbnbmag, Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, and Wired. After spending almost four years traveling Asia, Australia, the Arctic, and North America, she recently settled in Minneapolis, MN — the most underrated city in the lower 48, bar none. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern and @cartogramme.