Last weekend, three long-distance backpackers were having trouble finding their way around downtown Easton. Cindy Ross, Todd Gladfelter, and I set off down the Karl Stirner Arts Trail in the early morning fog. The route wasn’t difficult, we just weren’t sure which direction we had come from and were having a little trouble getting back. We joked that our experience navigating the Appalachian Trial was no match for the city streets.
I have known about Cindy Ross for a few years. She is an Appalachian Trail Thru-hiker, like myself. I’ve read one of her books and several articles she’s written for Pennsylvania Magazine, Backpacker, and her own personal blog. I was intrigued by her somewhat unconventional lifestyle and how she makes it work. I often thought about contacting her but never had the courage. The assignment to shadow a reporter for news writing class was the perfect excuse. I sent her a message on Facebook and within a few hours she invited me to join her on an assignment she was covering in Easton.
She told me that when I contacted her she was clearing out her collection of magazines. She had thirty years of work in piles on her floor. Over 900 stories in all. At one point in her career as a freelance journalist she was publishing 50 articles a year. These days it is closer to 20. She has been busy working to promote her seventh book, “The World Is Our Classroom: How One Family Used Nature and Travel to Shape an Extraordinary Education.”
Her assignment in Easton was for a story in Pennsylvania Magazine. She is writing about things to do in the city in winter. She contacted Lehigh Valley tourism and they told her about a few “must-see” places. They comped her stay at the Grand Eastonian Hotel and her expenses for the weekend. She said she would never be able to do the job without comps because the pay is “lousy.” She told me that if I wanted to be a freelance writer, that money couldn’t matter because it’s not the work of rich people. She said you don’t get much for your words. Photos, she insisted, is where you can earn a more decent sum.
We spent the afternoon exploring some of the local shops. At the Book and Puppet Company, Cindy began arranging a book sale and signing. We went to the Sigal Museum and browsed the exhibits, taking photos and writing notes about the historical relics the museum had to offer. Then we went to the Nurture Nature Center where we sat down with one of the directors as she shared the Science on a Sphere exhibit. We were mesmerized by the 6-foot globe in front of us as it projected images taken by NASA satellites. Cindy and I asked questions and recorded notes. We gathered additional paper pamphlets and Cindy wrote down additional contact information in order to do further research for when she writes the story. We later talked about the importance of being curious and asking questions. She admitted that she is sometimes bad about writing notes, often neglecting to do it. She said it was a good idea to do, especially afterward to sit down and reflect.
As we walked through Easton, Cindy snapped tons of photos. She said she takes some that could potentially be published and some just to help herself remember. Photos with people are always more interesting than empty frames. Her husband Todd and I were her subjects when no one else was around. She also said that people wearing bright colors or people that have a unique look are what she aims for. She brings Todd along on assignments whenever she can. She said she likes to have his company and a second pair of eyes and ears.
Cindy and Todd have been married for almost 30 years. They met along the Appalachian Trail and have been attached ever since. They have spent countless hours backpacking together, with their two children, around the world. As I watched the two of them interact, I was able to get a sense of what they were like together on-trail. Cindy asking Todd to hold something or digging through his backpack as he shouldered it, patient yet somewhat disgruntled. It reminded me of my boyfriend Chris and I. We hiked the AT together and are pretty inseparable ourselves. Meeting Cindy and Todd gave me hope for the kind of life Chris and I are trying to create together. A life where career and family can be interlaced.
Cindy’s experiences with long-distance hiking and her love of writing led her to write her first three books. She said her work as a contributing editor for Backpacker began when she looked at the masthead of a copy and realized none of the writers were female or long-distance hikers. She knew she had something worthwhile to contribute to the publication. She expressed how important it is for a writer to be confident in themselves and their work. Assertiveness has gotten her work published.
She told me that if I continue to live a life rich in experience, that there will always be stories to tell. She said not to be afraid of trying new things and meeting new people. She said that anyone that truly loves to write and has something of value to share can become a successful writer and that there isn’t one direct route. As the writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau said it, “If a man advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will be met with a success unexpected in common hours.”
This assignment was invaluable. I will, without a doubt, remember this experience. The insight I gained from just a few hours, is something I will treasure and reflect upon as I continue my education and my life.