In Itasca State Park some days ago, my book bag included Charles Kuralt’s “A Life on the Road,” published in 1990.
I loved Kuralt’s “On the Road” pieces for CBS, exquisitely crafted stories from across America, stories told with knowing, empathy and whimsy. He took those qualities to CBS’s “Sunday Morning” program, which he hosted from 1979 to 1994.
The “knowing” part of what Kuralt brought to his storytelling is what stayed with me when I came home last week. He applied two journalistic truths to his reporting: If you don’t know something, find the person who does, and get out of the office as often as you can.
“Knowledge consists of knowing where to look it up,” he wrote, quoting an old city editor. As example, he told about driving along a dirt road in Wyoming when he and his crew were overwhelmed by the beauty of wildflowers. He knew he needed help to make it a story. They diverted to the university in Laramie, looked up a professor of botany and showed him the pictures they had made. With the professor’s help, Kuralt was able to narrate a lovely piece that identified balsamroot and told how bighorn sheep eat it in the spring, and how blue flax – linum lewisii – was named for Meriwether Lewis, who found it on the Journey of Discovery and took a specimen back to Thomas Jefferson. Indians, Lewis reported to the fascinated president, used the stems to make fishing lines.
It’s still important for journalists to know where to find facts and explanations, and from whom. But getting out of the office – going to where the stories and the sources and the truths are – has changed.
This summer, I have been mentoring two journalism students from the University of Kansas, who are writing stories for member papers of the North Dakota Newspaper Association. Bright and resourceful, they have used phones and email to write about the impact of COVID-19 on North Dakota schools, churches and mental health resources and on many other state issues.
One is writing from her home in Kansas, the other from her home in Oklahoma – just as reporters at our state newspapers are reporting and writing remotely. Their bedrooms and kitchens have become their offices, and they are not getting out of the office much.
It is as it must be, until we wrangle this virus. But I yearn for the day reporters pack a bag and hit the road for stories that help us understand who we are and what’s keeping us from being who we want to be.
My newspaper hero was Ernie Pyle, who roamed the United States in the 1930s finding and telling those stories, then roamed the battle fronts of World War II to tell the stories of soldiers until he was shot and killed by a Japanese sniper on an island in the Pacific.
I admired the stories of John Steinbeck, too, because they had those same qualities: empathy, honesty, a hunger to understand and to help readers understand. Then, when I read his “Travels With Charley,” his 1961 account of roaming the country to listen to the people, I thought, “I want to do that!”
In 1988, bless them, my editors at the Star Tribune said, “Go ahead.” I left the office and flew to New York, drove to Sag Harbor to talk briefly with Elaine Steinbeck, the author’s widow, who let me see where Charley was buried. In the next nine weeks, over 11,842 miles through 36 states, I visited with a woman bear hunter in Maine, played bingo with the Mohawks in upstate New York, talked race with people in Chicago and abortion with people in Seattle. A young waitress in a café on the Navajo Indian reservation smiled and chirped, “Hey, my mom just made fry bread! Want some?” I took the fry bread to the Grand Canyon, where I talked with a young couple camping with a baby and listening to the soundtrack to “The Big Chill.”
I walked into fields in Texas and picked cotton, smelled the tufts moist from rain and recalled a favorite cotton cowboy shirt, just washed by my mom, maybe 35 years earlier. I danced with a woman named Helene at a Cajun bar near Abbeville, La., who told me she had left her first husband because he couldn’t dance and her second had died.
“From dancing?” I asked, winded.
A week later, I sat through a two-hour revival meeting at Victory Baptist Church in Maggie Valley, N.C., wondering if the hellfire preacher knew about Helene.
As I wrote in my final essay from the road, “People have been remarkably open and friendly. … I don’t know how to quantify it, but I felt more hope than despair.
“But there are deep and disturbing divisions among us. … The mood of the country is righteous indignation: Conservatives are feeling righteous, liberals indignant. People in both camps seem too cynical and resentful to move closer together anytime soon.”
I often brood over how I could have done it better, told the story of America better, and daydream about doing it again, using Steinbeck’s 1960 route and my 1988 journey as baselines to see what’s changed, what’s still the same.
But I wouldn’t think of trying to do it remotely.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.