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April 8, 2005

Get a Life - 4/8/05

Candace, Diana, and I stood nervously at the hotel reception desk, fidgeting with our clothes that had the smells and looks of summer. We waited for a guest to hand over his room key and sign his bill before approaching the counter. Did we look presentable? They definitely wouldn't give us a room if we did.

Deep breath. "Hi. We have an interesting question for you. We are traveling across the country with a group called Roadtrip Nation (RTN), interviewing people who have taken interesting paths in their lives. We are filming a documentary series for PBS, and we are traveling in that blue-and-green RV parked outside. The problem is, the RV doesn't have running water, and we haven't showered in five days."

We are somewhere on the southeast coast of the United States; north of Savannah, south of Washington, D.C. We had been on the road for about 25 days, and our last "showers" were beachside on A1A in Fort Lauderdale. While shaving our legs in full view of tanned tourists was not on the top of our wish list, the trip had taught us (among other things) that hygiene trumps pride.

The woman behind the reception desk, our new hero, slipped us the key to a room. Apparently we looked dirty enough to win mini bottles of shampoo, clean towels, and her pity. I had never pictured myself as the type of girl to rent a room by the hour, but I guess I had never pictured myself as the type of girl to interview Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion or drive an RV the size of a Greyhound bus through New York's Chinatown during rush hour either.

My two friends and I stumbled across the project through an e-mail from CAPS while hunting for that perfect summer internship like all ambitious U of C third- years. The premise of the trip was to travel the country meeting with people to gain perspective on what it means to be happy and successful in life on your own terms. Watching past interviews of legendary chef Charlie Trotter and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, we were inspired to put together our five-minute application video to apply for five weeks on the road. After all, what's the worst that could happen?

In our application, we talked about the pressures to pursue certain careers, even at a liberal university like the University of Chicago. We talked about the money signs we saw in the eyes of so many future I-bankers. Then, after pouring out our souls to a Fire Escape video camera, we donned blonde Barbie wigs. Barbie has had the opportunity to try so many different things in her life, we explained. She has been a cowgirl, a president, a fairy princess. We hoped that hitting the road with Roadtrip Nation for the summer would allow us to experience a small sampling of these careers, especially fairy princess.

When we received the call from the RTN founders Brian, Nate, and Mike last April to tell us our team had been chosen, Diana was jumping up and down so vigorously that I had to hurry out of the room to continue the conversation. We had our work cut out for us. In addition to spring quarter classes and other extracurriculars, we had to plan an itinerary and book our 35 interviews before hitting the road from Southern California.

Days after the Fourth of July, we struck out to gain freedom from the pressure of society, our parents, and our peers. We confided in our interviewees our fears and concerns. Time and time again, we were urged to take chances and define ourselves. After all, as youth marketing guru Sharon Lee asked us on Hollywood Boulevard, what's the worst that could happen?

We traveled to Los Angeles, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Austin, New Orleans, Nashville, Atlanta, Miami, Key West, Savannah, Charleston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City, but it felt like we traveled a lot further than that. At the risk of sounding cliché, I was amazed with how much I changed in less than 40 days. Josh Hartnett had nothing on me.

During so many interviews, I wished I could call a Zack Morris-style timeout. I wanted to share the hotel director of a Carnival cruise ship with my brother Rob, and I knew my friend Jeff would relate to Neal Stewart, the Senior Brand Manager of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Finally, I get the opportunity to share my experiences. The blue-and-green RV pulls up to campus this weekend, and I can't wait to climb aboard (sans greasy hair and Key West sand). On Monday, Candace, Diana, and I will present clips from the first three episodes of the television series at Doc. I cannot wait to tell you about dirtiest thing I've ever done.

Roadtrip Nation

Intrigued? The RV and Roadtrip Nation team will be on campus Monday, April 11 to answer any questions you may have about the program. So Get a Life and hit the road.

roadtripnation.com