The holler — that elusive country singers' Camelot — is oh so real. I've traveled there...in four-inch heels.
The land I once thought a mere myth perpetuated by backcountry progeny, turned out to be my destination on my third day at The Winchester Sun.
Of course, I didn't know this until an hour before my trek (hence the heels, which I only brought out of obscurity to make a good impression during my first week).
I didn't yet realize what a mistake this was, when our exceptionally dedicated cops reporter, Fred, decided he wanted to camp out at the scene of a fire that killed a man the night before.
I would shoot video, while he took photos and talked to detectives.
Simple enough, I thought.
But, to say we "arrived" at the scene 20 minutes later would be misleading. We did arrive near the scene, though, on a road so small Fred's sedan more molested than hugged its cranky curves.
"We'll have to walk from here," Fred shrugged in his always-optimistic way.
"Right, I can do that," I desperately tried to convince myself.
Teeter might be a more accurate verb for what I actually did down the half-mile gravel pathway frequently interrupted by rogue roots. But bet your bottom dollar, it was the most determined teeter you've ever seen. I refused to let the mass of mostly male detectives and firefighters see me act like a wimpy girl, or worse yet, an inexperienced intern.
When we stopped at last, I saw the hollowed out hill hidden under a thick tangle of trees where a tin roof was all that remained of a make-shift house still smoldering from day-old flames.
"You know how you hear about 'the holler'," Fred said with a half-smile.
"This is it."
The revelation made me want to ditch the camera and high tail it out of there even more, especially when the dog at the end of a chain leash, who belonged to no one in particular, began to growl.
Fred was decidedly unfazed, though, so I resolved to follow his lead.
He addressed each official on the scene with professional ease and polite patience, respecting the fact they'd been standing next to a fire in 87-degree heat all night and day.
They repeatedly sent us back up and down that grave pathway, while they finished up this piece of police business of that, and Fred smiled all the while, asking the detectives assigned to stay with us about their hometown roots and families.
After waiting three hours, creating approximately 58 sweat stains and developing a 42-percent chance of getting poison ivy, Fred and I were finally allowed to capture the scene.
"It's a lot of waiting," he said. "But you've got to have it."
More than how to talk to detectives, more than how to shoot a fire scene, more than how to navigate a true "holler," that's what I learned that day—how and why Fred stayed motivated.
He knew without question, without second thought, that his job was to inform his community. Even if it meant waiting for 10 hours or hiking 15 miles, Fred would have to cover that fire.
That's the heart of community journalism—unyielding dedication to readers. That's what the news staff at the Winchester Sun has taught me.
The most important thing I've discovered is not how to write about complex coal-burning technologies, cover circuit court or layer video audio, although I've done those things too.
It's simply this: communities, especially ones like Winchester, deserve reporters who will fight to get their stories out, even in four-inch heels.