Posted by: Waheeda Harris | February 3, 2015

The local girl: fish out of water

Colorado - riding with a cowboyWhen I started taking assignments as travel writer I was eager to challenge myself to anything – give me an opportunity, I was willing to take it. I wanted to prove I could handle anything.

But I soon began to realize that there were things I couldn’t do and that I needed to be honest with myself – some places just didn’t make sense for me.

I took an assignment to check out a dude ranch in Colorado – part of a summer escape story to the wilds of this western state. The first part of my trip was to spend a couple of days at a dude ranch and I figured out pretty quickly this was going to be difficult and uncomfortable.

The fellow guests were all couples who had regularly come to the ranch each year. It was their yearly dose of ranch life. They had nicknames used when on the ranch and adopted personas like an old cowboy movie. It was their home away from home every summer.

Their devotion to the ranch life was admirable but their curiosity about me was uncomfortable. One couple asked many questions, unsure of my role as a writer, wondering why I was there and what I would write about them.

I was treated like the stereotypical reporter, as if I was looking to dig up dirt and expose the ranch for its weaknesses and problems. Their treatment of me pushed me away from learning and set up barriers to my interviewing the ranch staff. I was an outsider, a city slicker who couldn’t possibly understand their world.

Yet, I had grown up in cattle ranching country in British Columbia, going to school with many ranch kids and got to know many of their families. I knew what the  ranch life was like and how this ranch, like so many, had to transform into a vacation spot to preserve the ranch.

I realized my ability to learn wasn’t just blocked by the fellow patrons but also by the staff. No one wanted me to be there or experience the ranch. I was relieved when I left and I knew that I had to learn quickly what would work for me – and even though I didn’t love the experience, I couldn’t write a negative story.

A fellow writer I met a few months later was kind enough to offer a lot of advice, including the need to specialize and to not cover everything. In those words, he made me realize that the places I could relate to – even if I had never been to – were the best places for me and my stories.

How to figure out what places those are? And how to say no when an assignment is offered? Now that’s the challenge.



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