Scott Henderson’s Journey of Discovery via Project Tumbleweed
The career arc of Scott Henderson includes raising charitable donations for universities, running a capital campaign consultancy, creating digital strategies for brands and nonprofits, leading social and entrepreneurial movements, and cultivating stronger innovation ecosystems in metro Atlanta and central Indiana.
You might recognize him from his leadership of the UN’s 7 Billion Actions campaign, Committee to Protect Journalist’s Speak Justice Now campaign, TLC/Discovery Channel’s Sarah Palin’s Alaska digital team, Hypepotamus.com, TechSquareATL.com, or as VP and Chief Entrepreneurial Officer of the Purdue Research Foundation.
He’s an interdenominational barbecue enthusiast, sourdough baker, kombucha brewer, and amateur poet.
From June 20 through July 24, Henderson embarked on Project Tumbleweed, a real-time documentary focused on life in America during a pandemic. This 7,000-mile solo road trip through a handful of western states has now ended, but the lessons he learned live on via YouTube and Instagram.
For readers unfamiliar with your most recent journey, what exactly is Project Tumbleweed?
It’s a look at how people are living through massive disruption. COVID-19 has intensified things that have existed throughout humankind’s history: loss, loneliness, stress, happiness, and growth. What if someone traveled across the country talking with people of all stripes? What stories and personalities would emerge along the way? How have things changed for people and what do they think the future holds for them? That’s what Project Tumbleweed is all about. You can learn from 36 interviews conducted in 15 states over five weeks all packaged in just six 10+ minute video episodes.
Was there a specific event that inspired this trip? Or had you been thinking about doing this road trip for a while?
Like almost everyone else, my plans for 2020 didn’t pan out. I was all set to live as a digital nomad. For the first time in my life, I was planning to attend every day of SXSW 2020 then head up to Banff, Alberta for a month before spending a month house sitting at my folk’s place in Omaha so I could enjoy the College World Series. While I did make it to Austin for an abbreviated stay right when the pandemic was declared, I returned to Indiana and spent 30 days going inward with meditation, yoga, and spiritual readings.
Through this inward journey, I realized I had an opportunity to help document this unique moment in our history. Inspired partly by Alexis de Tocqueville and partly by the Work Progress Administration recording folk music in the 1930s, I decided to shoot a documentary about the outward journey. I understand my strengths and knew I could leverage a high-caliber network of people who I’ve collaborated with in the past to pull off this rather ambitious idea.
Since I had to travel out to Oregon anyway to pick up items my son left in his dorm room in Eugene, I decided to reach out to my friends and family to see who would want to live vicariously through me for a few weeks. I knew that if people invested a few dollars, they’d be more apt to help promote the documentary and even help me find interesting people to interview along the way. When 118 people said yes by donating $25-$250 each, I knew this would work.
How / why did you choose the specific route that you chose for the trip?
I’m a history nerd and having grown up in Nebraska I have long enjoyed exploring the concept of the American frontier. This trip had three anchoring points: where I was moving from (Indiana), my son’s possessions sitting in his college dorm room (Oregon), and where my son lives now (Georgia). From that base, I built the rest.
The route connected those dots so that I could experience historical frontier trails firsthand, including the Transcontinental Railroad, Oregon Trail, California Trail, Mormon Trail, and the Lewis & Clark Expedition. But instead of glorifying Manifest Destiny, I wanted to use these historical routes to remind us we’re not the first to face trouble while also acknowledging how the complexities of our nation’s past still live on today.
It originally included a southern leg down the Mississippi River valley, but because of the spike in COVID cases, I decided to complete the documentary where Lewis & Clark ended their expedition: St. Louis. Maybe the southern leg is something I can do in 2021 once we get the virus contained.
What was the highlight or your favorite memory from the trip?
Spending time with my family members and friends who lived along the route. I had the chance to be a crazy uncle over the Independence Day weekend, dine with close friends (outside of course), reconnect with folks I hadn’t seen in 20 years, and hang out with my parents twice in one month.
What was the lowlight or your worst memory from the trip?
I think there were four nights when I had to drive late into the night to get to my hotel then get up early the next morning. Being a one-person crew is rough especially when you’re driving 7,000 miles solo. A silver lining to this was getting to see the Milky Way and a blanket of stars in between Casper and Laramie, Wyoming thanks to the lack of light pollution. I had fun with my iPhone 11 Pro’s night time exposure settings that night.
What was the best place that you visited that you weren’t expecting to be particularly great?
Laramie, WY, Boise, ID, and Missoula, MT were gems. All three are college towns and had a Rocky Mountain vibe going on. But I was expecting that.
The town that really surprised me was Pasco, Washington. My brother lives in the Tri-Cities area but I hadn’t crossed the river from Kennewick to there before this trip. Because I needed to take a pause to process some footage, I booked a guest suite through AirBNB in downtown Pasco for a week. I discovered it has a vibrant downtown Hispanic business community with amazing bakeries, taquerias, and weekly Farmers Market. You can see it for yourself at the start of Episode 5.
Who was the person who you connected with along the trip who you found most inspiring?
Making me choose just one? That’s just not fair. Here’s three, since we’re using arbitrary numbers:
Liyah Babayan in Twin Falls. She is in Episode 3 and shared how her family’s experience fleeing war and genocide helped her in this pandemic. She has a lot of wisdom to share.
Mayor Ella Jones in Ferguson, Missouri was only 37 days into her term when we met up at City Hall. She helped weave all these complex issues together into a practical message for how we can move forward. She decided to run for her first elected office in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and her election happened two weeks after the George Floyd murder.
Many years ago, I did a lot of driving between Austin and the West Coast. I often found that I got some of my best ideas while driving (and eventually would keep a spiral notebook in the passenger to write down these ideas). Did you have the same experience when you were driving?
Growing up in Nebraska, we spent most of our vacations driving long distances. Ever since I got my driver’s license, I have loved taking long road trips. They put me in a meditative state of contemplation, generating new ideas and revisiting old memories. I think the combination of novelty and discovery is why road trips have such sway over me. I love meeting new people and chatting with those I meet along the way.
Would you classify this as a life-changing trip / event / journey?
Yes. Learning how people live their lives and what makes their communities unique fascinates me. This trip certainly shaped me as much as I shaped it. Like a massive glacier melt lake bursting and shaping, I think it will serve as the bedrock of my life for years to come.
Did the trip leave you optimistic (or less so) about the future of this country?
I came out of this road trip more optimistic about life in America. Ancient wounds have come to the surface and people don’t want to go back to their lives pre-pandemic. The people I interviewed all have hope for their future and their local communities. More importantly, they have a hope for America as a country. If each of us carry that hope forward and take local actions, we can collectively grow and prosper again.
What advice do you have for others who are seeking to embark on a similar journey?
Aside from the obvious advice to take extra precautions against the virus, I would give them the same advice my friend and one of the 118 producers, David Seeney, gave me:
“Honor the other person’s views without judging them, no matter how crazy or odd they might sound to you. Because in the end, that is the reality in which that person lives.”
This requires you to show empathy and compassion for what they believe to be the bedrock truth. Given how divided we seem to be as a country, I think we need more of that in America so that we can heal the wounds that are holding us back.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world. Browse here for the full list of these interviews.