A couple of months ago, I traveled to Ensenada, Baja California, on a press trip. While I was there, I was asked the same question over and over: “What’s your story going to be about?”
You’d think that would be an easy question to answer. Nearly 20 years of living a writer’s life, however, has taught me that you cannot go into an exploratory trip (or interviews, or background research, for that matter) with any preconceived notions about what the story will be. The story is what it is. My job is simply to find it… and tell it, to the best of my ability.
Here’s a perfect example. Not long after I moved with my family to Colorado, I pitched a story idea to one of my editors about the Mescalero Apache Reservation in southern New Mexico. We’d recently been backpacking in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness on a different assignment, and I’d learned that the famous Apache leader Geronimo was born there. I wanted to travel to the reservation to meet with tribal representatives and hopefully learn more about Geronimo’s early years and about any descendants still living there.
My husband, daughter and I traveled to Mescalero. I spent hours talking with tribal representatives. I learned that Geronimo was born somewhere along a tributary of the Gila River, which is now within wilderness-area boundaries, and I learned that the descendants of Geronimo, Cochise and Mangas Coloradas do still make their homes in the area… I even met some of them.
But I also learned that the real story of the Mescalero, Chiricahua and Lipan Apache peoples does not lie in the past. As one tribal member said to me, “We are still here.”And halfway through my interview with him, I realized I had to set everything aside and listen.
What’s the real story? It’s one that lies firmly in the present. It’s one of perseverance and resourcefulness, of how these bands of Apache returned to their homelands from detention in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, more than 100 years ago and carved out a new life — one that, today, draws tourists from around the Southwest and even from Mexico. So I didn’t write a story about Geronimo’s birthplace, or about family members who descend from the great 19th century Apache leaders. Instead, I wrote a story about a place that is a real treasure for visitors — a place rich in history and culture, yes, but also in natural beauty, adventure and family fun.
It was a valuable trip, and not only because it provided a powerful reminder that sometimes a journalist does need to tear up that list of questions and just listen. It also was a revelation. As I note in the article, there’s so much more to this 463,000-acre reservation that you expect. It rises “like a verdant fist from the surrounding New Mexico desert. Pocked with clear blue lakes and streams, cloaked in pine forests and capped with snow, this hidden gem might be one of the Southwest’s best-kept secrets.”