Martin Rather never expected that his road trip with his grandfather, journalist Dan Rather, would become news. This past July, the two set out on a 1,400-mile trip through the Midwest. After he posted a blurry car selfie of he and his grandfather on the outset of their trip, Martin, a Lovett College junior, found himself inundated with Facebook friend requests from strangers. Now he is a Facebook- verified advocate for millennial political perspectives.
HITTING THE ROAD
The first stop of their road trip was Oklahoma City, on a night with a “meat-red sunset under a buttermilk sky,” as Martin described it in a Facebook post. From there, they traveled up through Nebraska and South Dakota to their ultimate destination: Mount Rushmore.
Leaving Grand Island, NE. Heading for Mount Rushmore by nightfall. Cloudless sky, smell of black land farms..driving toward the far horizon.— Dan Rather (@DanRather) July 16, 2017
“To have the opportunity to talk about life with somebody, just intergenerationally — he’s 65 and a half years older than I am — to have the opportunity to talk with somebody from a totally different generation about everything that they see was really worthwhile,” he said.
Part of the purpose of the trip was to travel through areas of the country with different political perspectives.
“We can all agree it’s a polarizing time in the United States and I think that there’s a tendency no matter where you are to drown out or dismiss the people on the other side, or who are not from the same place that you’re from,” Martin said. “So this, at least for me as a Rice student, was an opportunity to hear from perspectives in a part of the country that we just don’t really talk about all that much.”
The Rathers drove about six hours each day, starting in Dallas on July 14 and reaching South Dakota three days later.
“We began our day in the Lone Star State in part due to the symbolism of traversing the very spine of the country from south to north, but also given our deep roots here,” Martin wrote on Facebook on July 14. Dan grew up in Houston, and although Martin was born in New York, he considers himself a sixth-generation Texan.
Every morning of the trip, Dan would wake up and play three songs at full volume: “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” by Willie Nelson, “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin and “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa. Then they’d hit the road.
“One of the underrated parts about traveling with someone is that you learn many of their tendencies, their quirks and their habits,” Martin said.
Most of the trip went smoothly, but there were still a few mishaps along the way.
At one point, Dan Rather tweeted that he and Martin had forgotten that Sonic drive-throughs don’t have bathrooms for customer use.
“You learn all kinds of things driving through mid-America. Like: Sonic doesn’t have bathrooms. Also you forget how flat Kansas is,” the tweet read.
The Rathers faced a flurry of outraged tweets from people who were following the progress of the trip. Residents of Kansas replied to the tweet with pictures of hills and valleys in their state, and other Twitter users disagreed with the Rathers’ assessment of Sonic’s bathrooms — or lack thereof.
“Some people thought we didn’t actually stop at the Sonic, as if we were shorting the stock or something,” Martin said.
Just crossing from Oklahoma into Kansas. Big wind farm with windmills coming into view as a rainstorm pours down.— Dan Rather (@DanRather) July 15, 2017
The Rathers also discovered that very few restaurants are open on a Sunday night in Nebraska. They drove for over a hundred miles — several hours — before reaching a McDonald’s in Alliance, Nebraska. Martin pointed out the irony of their futile search for an open restaurant when he probably would have had an incredible meal if he had been able to stop at any of the houses along the way.
“If I lived in Alliance, Nebraska, whether the McDonald’s is open or closed doesn’t really matter because I probably have 50 steer and I make my own bacon,” he said.
DOCUMENTING THE TRIP
Martin snaps his fingers together when he tries to remember the small town where they filmed one of their first videos.
“They’re terrible production quality, I’ll tell you right now,” he said.
Every night, Martin and his grandfather set up a camera and recorded a reflection on their day. Soon a pattern emerged: They’d make a comment or a joke in one of the videos about one of the towns they had just visited, and the next day there would be a story in that town’s local newspaper. For example, after stopping in Lindsborg, Kansas — also known as Little Sweden — Martin mentioned the “old-time” video store he saw there and joked that they must not have modern streaming services yet.
“This is some great journalism: The reporter from that town had called the video store to see if we’d actually gone inside, which we hadn’t,” Martin said. “They put in a little snark comment that of course, we do have Netflix and Hulu in Little Sweden, Kansas.”
The attention they received for their trip from local newspapers was matched by interest on Facebook. After making his first post about the trip, Martin received so many friend requests that he had to make a public Facebook page in addition to his personal account. At first he posted primarily about the road trip and had an outpouring of response from fans of his grandfather’s journalism who wanted to follow along on the trip’s progress.
“If you look through the comments, you can see people saying, oh, I took a trip like this with my uncle, with my grandmother,” Martin said.
A casual scroll through the comments reveals people — all strangers to Martin — talking about memories of their grandparents or offering to give Martin and Dan tours if they swing by their small towns: Red Wing, Minnesota; Olathe, Kansas; Chamberlain, South Dakota.
“I’ve driven across country in some direction from some point many times,” Jason Gaskill wrote in a comment. “The trip was always the destination. The destination the place to circle back home. Enjoy the trip. It’s the best part. Just like life.”
Even though the road trip is over, the page has lived on. Now Martin writes posts two or three times a week, mostly about politics and current events. They are often the result of conversations he has with roommates, friends or people in his O-Week group.
“I don’t know that Rice is the most politically active campus — I would not say that — but I think you do still hear really interesting things,” Martin said.
Martin takes those interesting things and turns them into posts that get thousands of likes on his Facebook page. He plans to expand his newfound media presence over the coming year, before he graduates in May. His goal is to be a voice that highlights current events in the context of a young person’s experiences. He said there aren’t enough young voices on CNN, MSNBC or NPR.
“It has occurred to me that part of the struggle of being a young adult in America today is having access to a wealth of information about all the problems of our country that badly need fixing while simultaneously feeling helpless to make a change,” he said.
In his road trip, Martin saw firsthand the role that a popular monument like Mount Rushmore has in American culture; a few days later, he started a conversation on Facebook about the role of the Charlottesville, Virginia statue of Robert E. Lee where a white nationalist rally erupted in violence on Aug. 12.
“I think national institutions have been eroded and my hope is that we can get to the point where we can all come around and find things that we can all agree to admire and respect,” Martin said.