“Dammnit,” I whisper as I try to shove my towel into my already full backpack.
I’ll be the first to admit that backpack journalism is a more romantic notion in theory than in practice. I’ll also admit I haven’t done it yet ... but I will tomorrow.
I’m packing my backpack to fly solo to Flint, Michigan. I am terrified. I am thrilled.
When I first heard about the government poisoning its citizens in Flint, I couldn’t believe something like it could be happening in America. How does a system that involves so many organizations and has so many safeguards fail to protect those in its care?
I knew my story’s angle could only attempt to answer one facet of this question, but as a (student) journalist, I felt it was my duty to try. So I researched, I pitched, I called big people who represented even bigger ideas. You know, the people who were profiled by the New York Times. The players in a national scandal. I waited and I called again.
Four exams and two papers later, I have made it through midterms week and can finally think only about Flint. I fly out tomorrow (better late than never, or so I tell myself). I survived half the semester and I’m sitting at home afraid to fall asleep for fear that I’ll miss my 8:30 a.m. flight. The fear in my head is loud and screaming. It reminds me of dollars invested in me by my university, phone calls never returned, cities never visited and an adventure unlike any other.
I have never done this before - just dropping into a city to talk to whoever will look my way. Murphy’s Law rattles around my head: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Could I have tried harder to create a more structured trip for myself? Always. Can I go back in time? Never. So my fear and anxiety feeds off the uncontrollable – the person who I can’t force to speak with me, the city I can’t control with my gaze. I am horrified and honored that I’ve been trusted to do this on my own. I just don’t want to fail.
What is it that I’m feeling? Mortified? Pressured? Clueless? Proud?
All those feelings, swirling around, make me wonder why we do this to ourselves. Why do journalists pack their backpacks (one pair of jeans + two shirts = two outfits) and wander into the unknown? Why do we gravitate to where people are hurting and where they have been wronged? Why do we recklessly talk to complete strangers and ask pointed questions on our quest for the truth?
The emotions are subsiding now that I’ve written them out, and my mind rests on the story of Nellie Bly, a pioneering investigative journalist who admitted herself to a mental hospital in order to report on the horrifying mistreatment of patients by such institutions. Sometime before or after that she also found time to travel around the world in 72 days.
Bly’s work changed the way society understood journalism (and female journalists). She was strong and amazing. Her eyes were wise and unwavering.
I wonder if she was ever afraid to fail.
The reality is that she most likely was. We all are. But, fear aside, Bly still tried. She still ventured into the unknown, subjecting herself to discomfort and uncertainty to bring others back to comfort with her.
So, tomorrow, I’m venturing out. Here we go.