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Smith's Island

During a hike in December 2017, Quad-City Times reporter Jack Cullen explores an underground stone structure on Smith's Island near Locks and Dam 14 in LeClaire.

During a lunch interview for this job, a former Quad-City Times editor asked whether I considered myself a reporter first and writer second, or vice versa.

As an aspiring journalist with two daily newspaper internships under my belt, I didn't know how to respond. So, I cited my passion for storytelling and connecting with people from all walks of life and hoped for the best.

The Times offered me an opportunity to pursue both ventures, and I ran with it for almost five years. This week marks the end of that chapter. 

But I'm not going far. After a week off, I'm starting my next job at the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce.

After numerous weepy exchanges with colleagues on Thursday, officially my last day in the newsroom, memories of formative reporting experiences hit me one-by-one, and then all at once. 

In July 2015, I convinced editors to let me take a break from covering the city of Bettendorf to pedal one leg of RAGBRAI, the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Equipped with essential mobile journalism gear — pens and notebooks, a smartphone, an iPad, a GoPro camera, a WiFi hotspot and a power bank — I rode, interviewed and tweeted my way from Hiawatha to Coralville. Sights and sounds along the 65-mile route, which featured nearly 3,000 feet of climb, provided plenty of fodder for a column from the perspective of a first-time RAGBRAI rider.

The adventure motivated me to pitch an Outdoors beat to highlight the wide range of recreational opportunities in the area. Since January 2016, our coverage has taken us on a variety of vessels and wheels to campsites, parks and trails in every corner of the region. Outdoors enthusiasts of all kinds — anglers, hunters, paddlers, ultrarunners, horseback riders, prairie restorers, river cleaner-uppers and several others — shared space on these pages.

About the same time we launched this weekly Outdoors section, I began producing a sense-of-place column called Notes @ Noon, which featured snapshots of life in our coverage area.

One day that sticks out more than others is Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. Squeezing in a lot for one afternoon, I managed to interview comedian Jerry Seinfeld by phone on the side of the road in rural Freeport, Illinois, before touring the state's medical marijuana grow house there.

An assignment last summer allowed me to venture even farther beyond the Quad-Cities. Photographers Kevin Schmidt and Andy Abeyta and I explored a 400-mile stretch of the Upper Mississippi River Valley, spanning the entire eastern border of Iowa and neighboring towns in southwest Wisconsin and northwest Illinois. We produced "The Great River: 400 miles of the Mississippi," a 152-page coffee-table book that documents our respective journeys.

We found riverboat captains, wildlife biologists, commercial fishermen and fisherwomen, artists, motorcyclists, campground hosts and dozens of others who have been drawn to the river. The experience produced several firsts for our trio, including an understanding and appreciation for the Mississippi and those who connected with it before us.

Looking back, I'm very grateful for everything I've learned and the connections I've made. Thank you, readers, for your feedback, loyalty and story tips during my brief, but action-packed, time here. 

Beginning Sept. 10, I will help manage the Chamber's community development initiative called Q2030. Tasked with creating both tangible and measurable impact, I'm eager to engage Quad-Citians in a different way. 

If there are any suggestions, I'm all ears.

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Jack Cullen covers health and the outdoors for the Quad-City Times.