Travelers of the Year: John Ellis and Laura Preston

Crowdsourcing the American road trip


There are some travel itches that only social media can scratch. That’s what John Ellis and Laura Preston decided over beers in New York City. Hammered by urbanity and afflicted by a desire to ditch work and hit the road, yet grounded by a puny budget, the young couple latched upon a novel notion: what if they mashed up their day jobs as Web developers with their nightly dreams of seeing new places—and fueled their wanderlust by crowdsourcing ideas from the online realm?

Following that eureka moment, the couple traded in their life savings for an old airstream trailer and hitched it to their truck, and the Democratic Travelers were born. “We didn’t have the money to spend a year abroad, and we really wanted to explore the country we’d grown up in,” says Ellis. “We created a mobile office, so that we can work and travel at the same time. And we figured, since the Internet simplifies interaction and collaboration, we’d allow others to tell us where to go.”

So far, the duo (along with dog Bulleit, recently adopted from a Dallas shelter) has traveled 215 days to 15 states while completing 101—and counting—travel suggestions. They’ve had more than a few relationship-challenging moments. “You’re stuck in an aluminum tube with no ventilation, and it could be 105 degrees in Las Vegas,” says Ellis. Both have become capable mechanics. While their airstream may look space-age, “I can’t imagine a spaceship would break down as often,” Ellis jokes.

They spend stretches of their journey at national park campsites, when their trailer turns into an office with a view. “Our goal is to inspire others to see as much of their world, country, state, or city as they possibly can.”

—By George W. Stone


National Geographic Traveler: How did you become the Democratic Travelers?

John Ellis and Laura Preston: We had grown tired of working unfulfilling jobs to make ends meet and the nonstop, career-oriented pace of New York City was wearing on us. We both had the itch to travel and wanted to explore our own country. We realized there was no "right time" and we had to do it while we were still young. We quickly realized that we didn't know the best places to visit, but everyone we told about the trip kept telling us "if you're going here, you must visit this place." So we decided that instead of blindly choosing our route, we'd build a website where the visitors can decide where we go. In allowing people to have a say in where we go, the trip becomes interactive and collaborative.

NGT: How did you get the courage to hit the road?

LP: We didn't want to wait around until we retired to explore the country; we wanted to travel now. So we spent eight months planning the trip and wouldn't allow ourselves to turn back. I realize this lifestyle isn't feasible for everyone, but it's very possible to drive a few hours on the weekend to someplace you've never been or visit a new city for a couple of days. I hope our story can help other people say "We can do that too!" and take the plunge.

JE: I would say the courage came from a determination to quit talking about how much I wanted to travel and to start actually doing it. Once we set a date of departure, we found that the pressure of the upcoming deadline for preparations overpowered the fear of what we were about to do. When the date came, we had done so much to prepare, it seemed silly to let fear stop us from following through.

NGT: What's your goal as the Democratic Travelers?

JE and LP: It's about broadening our perspectives. One of the best parts of crowdsourcing our itinerary on our website is that we hear about things we never would have thought of. We're making stops we probably wouldn't make if it were just up to us, and in so doing, we're meeting different people, seeing different lifestyles, landscapes, architecture, etc. As inspiring as a photo of Yosemite can be, nothing beats seeing it for yourself. We're hoping we can rack up 48 states' worth of perspective on this trip.

NGT: How do people respond to your idea?

JE: People think that we’re trust fund kids and don’t have to work. That’s not the case—we spent all our money on the truck and we’re working on the road. The Airstream is our mobile office for Web design. We’re not doing much different from the 1950s Airstream craze, but we can keep it going longer because we’re working from the road. The Internet makes it possible.

NGT: What have you learned by crowdsourcing?

JE: There's more to traveling than seeing the big tourist attractions. We've found that the suggestions that are lesser known and off the beaten path have been the most rewarding. I hope readers can use the suggestions as a tool for their own trip. By learning of places they might not have known about and reading about our experiences on the blog, visitors can pick and choose their own adventure.

NGT: Is it cool to work from a mobile office?

JE: Seeing sunset from a cliff or a new vantage point—every time we’re in a new place and think about our worries, we end up not worrying. The trailer always looks the same but it feels different because our view keeps changing.

LP: That’s because we are in a different place!

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NGT: What’s the worst part?

JE: People sometimes look at the decal on our window and think “Oh, the Traveling Democrats” instead of “Democratic Travelers.” That’s led to a few low points and confrontations. But the gas is the worst part. It’s $100 for every fill-up.

NGT: What’s your best travel advice?

JE: There's a quote out there that says, "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do." It applies to traveling, but it also works on day-to-day scenarios. If you see something on the road that makes you want to stop and take a picture, you have to do it—you won't get another chance. You really have to take opportunities as they arise.

NGT: What does it mean to travel with passion and purpose?

JE and LP: Travel with passion and purpose means making sacrifices in your daily routine and social life to subject yourself to dirt, danger, inconsistency, and insecurity. It also means being repeatedly rewarded for that sacrifice with the thrill of new experiences, each of which make your life—and sometimes the lives of others—that much richer.

>> Read the Next Traveler of the Year Interview

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