In September of 1993, just a few days after my twenty-second birthday, I drove from Syracuse, New York, to Durango, Colorado. Terrified by the great question of what to do with my life, I spent a five days studying Lakota rights of passage -- vision questing -- at the Animas Valley Institute, before setting out for four nights in Utah's high desert.
Not surprisingly, my vision quest did not unfold as I might have imagined. After two days of fasting, meditation, and prayer, no apparitions had appeared, no ancestors had materialized, and no ghosts visited my half sleep to say, "You are to become a great spiritual leader." Instead, I was tired, sore, and irritable. The only voice I heard was the one in my head berating me my masochism.
A small storm broke on the third afternoon, as I hiked down a scree slope to distill fresh water from a stream. My pulse quickened as I imagined myself swept away by a flash flood. The thunder soon passed, though. As I knelt by the stream, I noticed a few small cat tracks in the mud. And in a small pool by the bank, I noticed a cluster of tadpoles. I paused a moment, and repeated my mantra out loud.
"What is my path?"
And for the first time, I heard a new voice speak. It neither berated nor belittled me, but instead, softly but firmly said, "You are already on the path."
* * *
Christofer and I met on the 79th Street subway platform yesterday morning. Between the clatter of the train, and a gaggle of screaming high school kids, I was about as far from the bubbling tranquility of Utah as possible. We exited at 66th Street, walked to his parking garage, and loaded his truck with our gear: the Sony HDDV, twin light boxes, tripod, and AV bag. He began shooting as I drove us downtown to Linda Ellerbee's Soho offices. We circled 96 Morton Street three times before finding a parking place, unloaded, and stepped inside fifteen minutes early.
Linda's assistant, Holly, met us at the elevator, ushered us into Linda's office, then left us to our own devices.
Linda's office, a wide, sun-filled space dominated by two denim couches and a huge wooden desk, was littered with accumulation from an esteemed thirty-year career: a framed photo of her interviewing Fidel Castro, a print of her laughing uproariously with former Texas governor Ann Richards, a sign reading "Tradition is a thing of the past." On her desk, two computers (Mac and PC) rest amongst scattered newspapers, magazines, books, pens, and Post It notes. Next door, the conference room was stuffed to the gills with accolades: thirteen Emmy Awards, four Peabody Awards, and countless others. Chris set up the lights and mics, and set the shot. And then, reviewing our notes and prattling nervously amongst ourselves, we waited...
Soon enough, our ears became trained to the sound of the elevator doors. With each bell, our heads craned. Finally, we saw Linda striding down the hallway smiling broadly beneath hue, Jackie O sunglasses. I took a deep breath, and rose to shake her hand...
Ms. Ellerbee is a Texan. A sign on Linda's door read "Beware The Stinging Ellerbee." She is known for her intelligence, integrity, and wit. She was network news when network news still mattered, and has reams of awards lauding the concise, no-nonsense editorial, never condescending voice she cultivated there. And so, I did not expect her to suffer fools gladly. And while I don't consider myself a fool, I was resolved not to let lack of preparation or poise sideline our conversation. And while my trusty reporter's notebook (which I've used for every "Mister Rogers & Me" interview so far) was loaded with questions, I was hoping to have a conversation, not a Q&A.
Mission accomplished. Ms. Ellerbee was warm, witty, and right on target. She spoke in a hushed, almost reverent tone. She told us that Mister Rogers her hero, and that she frequently asked herself, "What would Mister Rogers do?" as she crafts her award winning "Nick News". She talked about depth and simplicity ("Simple, she said, "Is not the same as easy."), about the 24-hour news cycle, consumerism and technology with equal authority and expertise. She was emphatic, and passionate. And her eyes absolutely sparkled. I sat still in my seat across the desk, teetering between absolute inspiration and sheer terror, sneaking instantaneous peaks at my notes.
When asked how she seeks to still the din of our accelerated culture, Ms. Ellerbee told me that she goes for long hikes by herself, sometimes for a week at a time. After a few days in the mountains, or the desert, she said, all of the noise within and without fades, and she is left with the clarity and tranquility of her best inner voice. She began these solo sojourns, she said, while recovering from a bout with breast cancer.
When the interview was over, I asked her to pose for a photo, and sign my copy of "And So It Goes."
"Do you have my new book?" she asked, procuring a copy.
* * *
Back at my desk a few hours later, swept up in the chaos and frenzy of MTV News, I paused to crack the cover of "Take Big Bites: Adventures Around The World And Across The Table," and read her inscription.
"Benjamin," she wrote. "You're already on the path."