I still remember when I got the call to do my first magazine assignment.
It was in the spring of 2005. I’d just sold my first big feature to Outpost, about an expedition by camel into the sandy wastes of the Taklamakan Desert.
As fate would have it, that desert piece was rejected the first time around. But Outpost changed editors about a year later, and someone found my story in the slush pile and published it. So much comes down to timing in this industry, and the subjective taste of editors. (The Taklamakan piece was also nominated for a National Magazine Award, but that’s another story and we don’t have time for it now.)
Anyway, the desert story wasn’t even on the newsstand yet when I got a call from the senior editor asking if I’d like to go to South Dakota. I would have to come up with a story angle asap, and be ready to travel the following week.
Of course I accepted. It was my first big break, and I was always up for a trip.
But when I hung up the phone I began to realize what I’d just gotten myself into. I had visions of dude ranches, family fun parks and Old West kitsch. And I couldn’t sleep at night for worrying about how the hell I could make THAT sound cool…
No matter how badly the trip turned out, I was on the hook for 10 to 12 pages, and I had to produce.
Thankfully the Road Gods were with me. South Dakota was an incredible place, and I had misjudged it.
I went with photographer Jason George, who I would work with on several assignments over the years. And the South Dakota Tourism rep connected us with a hiking guide called Caleb Gilkerson who loved being out in the Badlands as much as we did. By the end of the first day, we felt like comrades in arms.
We spent the entire trip camping, exploring one of the strangest landscapes I’ve ever seen, and running away from buffalo when Jason kept telling me to “get a little closer….”
I’ve wanted to go back there ever since.
I still remember landing in Rapid City and picking up our rental car. I felt like some sort of con artist, and a small part of me though I’d be turned away. But the counter agent upgraded us to something nicer instead.
“So I can just drive away, right now, without paying anything…?” I said. “And all I have to do is tell you a story…?”
I’d been poor in the years leading up to this break, and despite having confidence in my abilities as a writer, it still felt strange to be given rental cars and beautiful hotel rooms and our very own hiking guide. I even came close to getting a helicopter to fly us out of the Badlands — in hindsight, it’s a good thing they changed their minds on that one, because I would have expected air support on every assignment.
All joking aside, we did work very hard on that trip. Jason was up before the sun each day to shoot photos, and he never stopped until nearly midnight. Sometimes he even left a camera out all night to capture star trails above the wide open spaces and Badlands spires.
My job on the ground was a little easier than his. I simply had to remain open to experience, to watch for those strange shimmers at the periphery of vision that hint at a story, and then follow them until something interesting happened to us. Over the years I’ve learned to just sit back and wait for it, and to trust that something will always show up. So far it always has.
Sure, I interviewed some folks — the curator of a museum in an old nuclear missile launch site, the widow of Crazy Horse monument sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, and others. And I sat up each night writing random pieces of description, observations, and quotes from Caleb our guide. But most of my work would be done when I got home.
I think the feature turned out pretty well. It ran in Outpost’s 10th Anniversary issue back in 2006.