'Roadtrip Nation' Explores Different Life Paths

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reconnects with the members of "Roadtrip Nation." The young explorers have taken the idea of doing a post-college road trip and turned it into a public television series. They ask successful people they meet on the road how they got where they are.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

When DAY TO DAY was just starting out two years ago, Karen Grigsby Bates interviewed a few guys for this program, guys who were just starting out, too. They were recent graduates. They'd piled into a van and crossed the country, seeking advice from grown-ups who had forged interesting career paths. They called their odyssey "Road Trip Nation." It's evolved from a personal passion into a public television series with its own manifesto.

(Soundbite of "Road Trip Nation")

Unidentified Man #1: So what do you want to do with your life? You should be a lawyer, a doctor, an accountant, a consultant, blah, blah, blah. Everywhere you turn, people try to tell you who to be and what to do with your life. We call that the noise. Block it. Shut it. Leave it for the conformists.

CHADWICK: Two of the three "Road Trip Nation" co-founders recently stopped back by here at NPR to talk with Karen for an update.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

When we last left Mike Mariner, Nate Gebhart and Brian McAllister, they were traveling around the country in a big old lime-green RV that sometimes started and often didn't.

(Soundbite of "Road Trip Nation"; engine)

Unidentified Man #2: Whoo!

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, that's always a success right there.

BATES: The three were sleeping in the bus-sized vehicle--they'd removed the bathroom to squeeze in another bunk--and maxing out their credit cards, all to discover how successful people translate their passion into a profession. Adults with well-established careers entered the RV, sat in the front passenger seat, and described how they got to where they are now. And before they left, they signed the van's walls or ceiling, leaving an impressive array of high-powered graffiti. Mike walked us through some of it in 2003.

(Soundbite of previous interview)

Mr. MIKE MARINER ("Road Trip Nation"): So up here you've got the guy who decoded the human genome. He actually put his scientific report from the journal of Science when he decoded the genome, like, up on the ceiling. And then up here we have the director of "Saturday Night Live." And this is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, and when he signed the ceiling, he actually wrote these notes up on the ceiling.

BATES: More than a hundred interviews later, they'd also talked to, among others, a Maine lobsterman named Manny; Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks; and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The young travelers thought they were going to find answers that might save them from a lifetime of lucrative but boring careers, like the one in an industry a young Dustin Hoffman was advised to consider in the 1967 movie "The Graduate."

(Soundbite of "The Graduate")

Mr. WALTER BROOKE: (As Mr. McGuire) I just want to say one word to you, just one word.

Mr. DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) Yes, sir.

Mr. BROOKE: (As Mr. McGuire) Are you listening?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) Yes, sir, I am.

Mr. BROOKE: (As Mr. McGuire) Plastics.

BATES: But a funny thing happened along the way. When Mike, Nate and Brian returned from their cross-country journey, it began to morph from home movies of a trip among friends into a movement. "Road Trip Nation" was born.

Mr. MARINER: And we started speaking in different college campuses to different students, showing them our films, you know. And we could tell that the footage and the experiences were inspiring, but we could really tell that the students really needed to have the experience for themselves. They really needed to hit the road firsthand, to get away from their own bubble of what they thought was the world and expand their scope. And so we started thinking, `Wow, what if "Road Trip Nation" was bigger than our first trip?'

BATES: To get others to share the road trip experience, the friends made cold calls to colleges they thought might want to expose their students to career alternatives rather than placing them on one fixed path immediately.

Mr. MARINER: And we started partnering with different colleges to start a program called Behind the Wheel where students apply for the chance to go on the road in green RVs and conduct their own interviews.

BATES: Then they thought bigger. If public television could be convinced to build a series around the videotaped road trip experience, even more young people might benefit. TV execs agreed it was an interesting idea. The guys found their own corporate sponsors. Their underwriters even sprang for three new RVs for the series, ones that could actually make it cross-country and back. Mike says they called on businesses they thought young people would feel connected to and that wouldn't demand that their logos be plastered NASCAR-style all over the RVs.

Mr. MARINER: So we were able to get sponsor support from State Farm Insurance and Microsoft and J. Crew, like you mentioned, and we started slowly putting students on the road and filming it and creating the series, and the rest is kind of history.

BATES: Not just history. "Road Trip Nation" has become a kind of industry. This, the third road trip summer, has three more student groups crossing the country in the new RVs. The original one's been relegated to short hauls only. Over 100 colleges, including some in the UK, have become associated with the project since the first road trip. And there's even a road trip independent study where students can apply for grants to do solo trips. The new road groups are going different routes and speaking to different people than the previous road trippers, but they all have one thing in common, says Mike Mariner: They're all exploring. He believes it's one of the most important things a young person can do, especially one just out of college.

Mr. MARINER: You only know 10 percent of the opportunity and the possibility in the world, and so you're only choosing from that 10 percent of what you know. So if I had kids that were trying to figure it out, I would say, `Don't choose something right now. You know, go explore the other 90 percent that you have no idea of what's even out there.'

BATES: Jim Koch agrees. He's the CEO of the Samuel Adams Brewery. Here on the television series, he recalls his own quandary when he was in his early 20s.

(Soundbite of "Road Trip Nation")

Mr. JIM KOCH (CEO, Samuel Adams Brewery): And it dawned on me that I was getting at a point where I was going to need to make career decisions soon, and I felt totally unprepared to that 'cause I'd never done anything but go to school my whole life. And I felt like I shouldn't make my career decisions until I've done some things.

BATES: The public television series really resonates with the young people who see it. People enthusiastically hail the new "Road Trip Nation" RVs in much the same way they did the first one. There are the same honks, grins and thumbs-up signs. Interviewed guests still leave their signatures on the RV ceiling. And some folks even drop off notes, like this one left on the windshield by a 23-year-old named Anna while the van was in Boston. Mike reads it.

Mr. MARINER: She says, `Hey, I caught your show on PBS the other day and really enjoyed it. It was amazingly reassuring to see tons of successful people voicing that they didn't have all the answers when they were in their 20s. I don't have to know what my career is right now and, knowing that, I'm able to enjoy what I'm doing now, or at least hate it a little less.'

BATES: `Hate it a little less.'

Mr. MARINER: Yeah. A big thing that keeps us doing this is knowing that we give encouragement to people out there who are following their passions.

BATES: Speaking of passion, I had to ask Mike whether the signature "Road Trip Nation" RV inspired passion of a non-vocational sort when they're on the road.

Is this a date magnet, or do you just leave it in the parking lot and sort of sidle into the restaurant and say, `Well, we'll see you later' at the end of dinner?

Mr. MARINER: It is definitely not a date magnet. We have had no luck in that department. I mean, when--as soon as the conversation goes, `And we're staying up the street in a green motor home,' they bolt.

BATES: Oh, well. Unless you're a record company executive, the path to long-term professional fulfillment probably isn't a party all the time anyway. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: The "Road Trip Nation" series airs currently on PBS stations around the country. You can check your local listings.

(Soundbite of "Ramblin' Man")

THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND: (Singing) Lord, I was born a ramblin' man, tryin' to make a livin' and doin' the best I can. Now when it's time for leavin', I hope you'll understand that I was born a ramblin' man. Well, my father was a gambler down in Georgia and he wound up on the wrong end of a gun. And I was born in the backseat of a...

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. We'll be back in a moment with more from DAY TO DAY.

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