On the Road (tm) | Our Town | Chicago Reader

On the Road (tm) 

Youthful idealists seek enlightenment--from the captains of industry.

Michelle Merrifield and Abby Lopez, both 22 and wearing lime green baseball caps bearing the legend "Roadtrip Nation," are sitting on a red couch in front of a lime green RV parked on the University of Illinois lot on South Halsted. It's a perfect day for recruiting: Indian summer is in full swing, and students passing by are inclined to dawdle, talk, and peruse the promotional materials on display. Merrifield, an outgoing, slender blond with a broad Australian accent, hails a couple of guys on their way to class. "Want to go on a road trip this summer? All expenses paid for?" she asks them. Surprise: the boys stop to chat.

Merrifield, who comes from a town called Gold Coast, just south of Brisbane, came to Laguna Beach, California, this summer as an exchange student. But she put her plans to attend San Diego State on hold after learning about Roadtrip Nation from one of its charter members, 27-year-old Nathan Gebhard. Gebhard, whom she'd met through a mutual surfing acquaintance, gave her a copy of Roadtrip Nation: A Guide to Discovering Your Path in Life, the book he'd coauthored with Michael Marriner and Joanne Gordon, and after reading it Merrifield knew she wanted to get involved. "I said, 'Look, I'm your girl, I'm an example, I want to ditch school this semester! And better than go to one university, I'll go to 25 universities!'"

Three weeks ago, Merrifield and her four traveling companions (Lopez, a premed student named Matt Montee, and Roadtrip Nation cofounders Marriner and Brian McAllister) set out from Laguna Beach in the 36-foot RV on a ten-week, 15,000-mile tour to promote the various facets of Roadtrip Nation--the book, two documentary films, and the overarching concept, which is like a cross between On the Road and What Color Is Your Parachute?

Roadtrip Nation began in 1999 at Pepperdine University, where Gebhard, a business major, shared a dorm with his childhood friend, premed student Marriner. Both hated their majors, so in their junior year they decided to take a semester off and hit the road--not to look for America or follow a jam band, but to collect success stories. Their plan was to set out in a rented RV with a list of entrepreneurs and business leaders who'd done well for themselves in unconventional fields, interview them, sell the interviews to magazines to finance further travel, and eventually, they hoped, find out what they wanted to do with their lives. "We could see the next 30 years totally rolled out," says Marriner. "And for the first time we stopped and said, Is this what we really want to do? Or is it based on the noise of what society is telling us to do?"

Although they never actually sold any interviews, they did attract the mentorship of Jeff Taylor, CEO of the online job placement Web site Monster.com. Taylor was so taken with their project that he offered to underwrite their wanderings. In return he asked only that they display a Monster.com logo on the side of their vehicle. The two happily accepted.

"We don't really consider that first trip to have been a part of Roadtrip Nation," says Marriner. "It was only sort of a dress rehearsal, but since we didn't film anything it doesn't officially count. But when we got home our feet were definitely still itching, and that's when we started thinking about how to do it right."

Marriner and Gebhard returned to classes at Pepperdine and graduated in the spring of 2000. The following year, they decided to go back on the road. With the help of an executive they'd interviewed on their trip, they got a $70,000 grant from pharmaceutical giant Merck and bought a secondhand RV and three digital video cameras. Again they were setting out to interview successful mavericks, movers, and shakers, but this time their ultimate goal was to create a documentary that would help young people like themselves find fulfilling careers. And they asked two friends, McAllister and Amanda Gall, to join them.

Gall, who had graduated from UCLA in 2000, was teaching learning-disabled children at the time. "I thought about it for a couple of days and thought, Yeah, let's do it, let's go. And I've been here ever since," says Gall, who's now 26 and has done three national tours promoting Roadtrip Nation in the past three years.

McAllister graduated from Pepperdine in 1999 with a communications degree, though he says he "pretty much went to classes to sustain eligibility for water polo." He was working at his family's waste management company when Gebhard and Marriner persuaded him to join Roadtrip Nation. "I figured there was something else out there," says McAllister, who at 28 is the old man of the group. "I wasn't sure what it is and to this day I'm not sure."

Just before taking off, the four friends slapped a coat of lime green house paint onto their RV. "It was a 1985 Pace Arrow on its very last legs, a real piece of shit," says Marriner. "We wanted to make it stand out somewhat, and we picked the color because it was attention getting, plus it didn't have any specific brand associations or anything, so we felt we could make it our own."

Between September and December, the four friends traveled 15,000 miles, conducted 82 interviews in 43 states, shot 456 hours of video footage, spent all of the Merck money, and ran up shared credit card debts totaling $30,000. "I don't know about the others, but I already had a mountain of student loan debt," says Marriner. "I would have been really screwed if it hadn't been for the Forbes article."

Entitled "Mike and Nate's Excellent Adventure" and published in late December 2001, the article was a brief profile by journalist Joanne Gordon. Even though it was less than 300 words long, Gordon's account of the footloose college kids getting access to the likes of computer mogul Michael Dell, Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and software guru Linus Torvald triggered the interest of Random House, which offered Marriner and Gebhard a publishing contract for a book about their adventures, to be written with Gordon's help. Once that deal was sealed, they were inundated with offers of corporate underwriting for their documentary, including several that proposed trying to air it on PBS.

After considering their options, Gebhard and Marriner negotiated sponsorship packages with State Farm Insurance, Apple Computers, and Coca-Cola. Marriner feels that they kept to the high road in making their choices. "It's actually an awesome relationship, not really corporate or sold-out," he says. "They support the PBS broadcasts, so when the broadcasts come on it's 'made possible' by State Farm. And at the campus events there's no taste-testing booth and no credit card sign-up thing. We've been approached with those offers but we do not accept sponsor offers that basically sell out Roadtrip Nation. As far as our grassroots touch to the students, we won't compromise that."

While Marriner concentrated on the book project, Gebhard looked after the documentary, teaching himself video editing on a donated Mac. The book was published in April 2003; the video, entitled The Open Road, was completed in August and made its local debut on WTTW on October 9 while Roadtrip Nation was in town. "This tour right now is the launch of everything," says Marriner. "Our documentary that State Farm funded is on PBS affiliates around the country, our book is being toured--this is where we're at and we're psyched."

With their own student years receding behind them, the road trippers are working to package and perpetuate the Roadtrip Nation experience for the benefit of other uncommitted college kids. McAllister and Gall are in charge of the movement's campus outreach initiative, Behind the Wheel. "What we want to do is launch our story and have that be version one, generation one," says Marriner. "And every year you have new generations of students that we facilitate. We put them on the road, they do their own road trips, we film it."

"We have a blast doing it, so why stop?" adds McAllister. "I'm going to keep doing this until there's no more fuel in the tank."

Merrifield, Lopez, and Montee are Roadtrip Nation version three. Version two was a crew of three friends from New Jersey--Ryan Duffy, Mike Sussman, and Randy D'Amico--whose three-week quest for career guidance is the subject of the second Roadtrip Nation documentary, Destination Unknown.

The New Jersey trio was chosen from 15 teams of contenders that the founders of Roadtrip Nation met while touring campuses in April 2003. At the time the selection process was pretty informal, but now it's much more structured. Marriner explains the program's criteria as "the opposite of Road Rules," MTV's road trip reality show. "We look for good chemistry," he says. "Students have to apply in teams of three, and we look for people who've been friends for a while. The application process is pretty intense. You have to watch our original documentary and write an essay on it. We have them submit a list of people they'd want to interview. We have them go out, book an interview on their own, film it, and send us the raw film. We're not looking at the quality, we're just looking at how they conduct an interview."

Current road tripper Lopez graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in political science last spring. She was interning at Rock the Vote in LA when she heard about Roadtrip Nation. "I have about $25,000 in student loans and I didn't know what I wanted to do yet. After hearing the stories, surfing the Web site, I decided it's about being exposed to this knowledge. It's a movement, not just a trip."

A sleepy-eyed UIC student with dreadlocks approaches Lopez, who's standing next to an iMac display.

"What's going on?" he asks.

"We're actually sponsoring students to go on the road for three weeks during the summer," Lopez says. "We want friends only to go on the road and interview people that you find interesting. What are you interested in?"

"Music," the guy says. "I'm an architecture student so I love the arts."

"Well, see, if you love the arts you can't really go up to your architecture professor and go, 'Hey, how do I start my own record label?' We figured out the best way to do that is drive out to the office of someone who started a record label. Like, we interviewed the founder of Sub Pop Records and asked him where were you when you were our age..."

"Right."

"...and we just want to give you the resources to do that for yourself, and you and your friends line up all the interviews, you set up the route, and we send two guys to follow you guys and film it..."

"Right."

"...so we want you to share your experiences and share the whole thing."

"And it airs on PBS?" he asks.

"Well, eventually it does."

The guy with the dreads promises he'll check out the screening of Destination Unknown, scheduled for later that evening at Chicago Circle Center. Before he heads off to class, he picks up some Roadtrip Nation promo materials, including the "RTN Manifesto," which reads, "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. Shed it. Leave it for the conformists."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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