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BY MIKE MCKENNA
For the most part, there are two things that just about all writers can agree on: You never turn down a free drink, and the first lines are usually the hardest to write.
In fact, firsts in general can be the toughest part about being an outdoor writer. There’s nothing quite like the first time you see your work in a new publication, or the first time someone besides your mom tells you you’re good, or the first time an editor rips you one from Albuquerque to Bangor.
The first time at a writer’s conference can be quite a memorable experience, and quite nerve wracking, as well — especially the first time at a national event like the 84th Annual OWAA Conference, held July 9-11, in Utah’s spectacular Little Cottonwood Canyon.
So naturally, I was a bit nervous as I made my first trip to participate in OWAA’s annual affair. Sure, I’ve been involved with other professional writers’ clubs for years and have even spent my fair share of time in newspaper and magazine offices and staff-frequented bars (which are technically more like cults than writers’ clubs). I’m even on the board of the Outdoor Writers Association of California.
But as impressive as the other groups are, they’re regional. OWAA is made up of some of the best writers, editors and photographers from every nook and cranny of the country. So I was as apprehensive as an adolescent on prom night as I entered the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird on a bluebird Saturday morning, as the sun brilliantly sparkled on the remnants of Utah’s trademark “Greatest Snow on Earth” still clinging to the slopes. (Last season, Snowbird received an insane 783 inches of the Beehive State’s famous “champagne powder” and was open to skiing and boarding until July 4!)
But as soon as I put my nametag on, which in bold bright green declared that I was a “First Timer,” those nerves vanished faster than cupcakes at a four year-old’s birthday party — or better yet, like free drink coupons at a writers’ conference.
That’s because most OWAA members are about as unabashedly friendly and welcoming as little kids. I was instantly welcomed to the group and chatted up by folks from Maryland and Missouri, New Hampshire and New Mexico, Colorado and California, Virginia and Washington (state, as east coasters often like to clarify).
Besides being welcoming, the conference was extremely valuable as both an outdoor writer and editor — and I’m not just reporting this because my publisher paid for the trip.
The conference seminars, the roundtable small discussion groups at lunch and the hospitality suites (what I can remember of them) all fulfilled the goals I had when signing up. The OWAA conference not only supplied material I could use for stories and allowed me to meet writers and photographers who cover my region, it also allowed me to meet the editors of publications I’d like to write for, and taught me a few things about banding and the Web world. It also gave me a new goal for next year’s conference in Fairbanks, Alaska: have a far better showing at the annual push-up contest!
From the friendliness and accommodations to the food and the breathtaking views of Utah’s Wasatch Range, the first-timer experience at the OWAA conference couldn’t have been better. Heck, one of the local vendors even told me where I could sneak off to catch some cutthroats. It was, after all, an outdoor writers’ conference.
It seems like, overall, OWAA is comprised of people pretty much like me. Folks from all across the land who love to write, have a passion for the great outdoors and who would never turn down a free drink.♦
Mike McKenna is the managing editor of Sun Valley Magazine. When he isn’t wrestling with his two young boys, acting amorously towards his wife or chasing after trout like they owe him money, Mike is usually drinking beer and slaving away on his award-winning newspaper, magazine and humor writing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.