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Pondering the Cult Question: A US Trekker Says Goodbye

Are we a cult? Could the US Trek have been a brainwashing experiment thinly disguised as an eight-month history tour through America? Were we, the intrepid Trekkers, actually converted disciples of Odyssey Grand Wizard Jeff?

According to trekker Stephanie, our project actually matched several characteristics of a cult. She listed them off and I couldn't help but wonder...

'We're not worthy, Jeff!'
1) "First," she explained, "every cult has a charismatic leader." No one could argue with this one. After all, Jeff Golden, the founder and executive director of The Odyssey, has been much, much more than our boss. He's been our inspiration, guiding light and savior from an otherwise menial, conventional life. His vision of the US Trek -- and his determination to make it come to life -- is a testament to his great character and leadership. He kept us trekking through all the problems, frustrations and dead-ends. And he taught many of us to live without compromising our ideals. Charisma? Definitely! (Not that I worship the guy or anything...)

2) "The second feature of a cult is that you don't know what you're getting yourself into before you get started." Another given. When I accepted the position as a US Trekker, I knew I would be traveling around the country writing dispatches for the website. But that's like saying that a scuba diver swims. Or that an astronaut goes up into space. Of course they do -- but there's so much else involved! To get a dispatch written, we had to drive to a specific (pick one) town, swamp, fort, national park, river, mountain range, monument, cemetery, landmark or library and (pick all) research, interview, photograph, write, edit and post the story, usually in less than 48 hours. We also had to find a place to sleep, squeeze in a school visit once a week, map out the next assignments, perform periodic car maintenance, and eat. And we had to do all of this for under $15 a day.

We've become great friends and we share many jokes. Just ask Becky and Jen about my obsession with corn!
3) Stephanie continued, "Cults isolate you from your old support network -- your friends and family -- and become your new one." Well, I thought, that's not entirely the case. After all, I did get to see my parents quite a bit during the Trek. And I did use my friends' homes as crash pads whenever possible. But then I remembered the phone calls, the late-night-random-or-sometimes-while-we're-driving calls from the other Trekkers, sometimes to vent about an interview gone sour, at other times to share a funny story. And I thought of the emails we sent each other filled with stories, jokes, a photo attachment and a forwarded article. The lingo we used insulated our world and kept outsiders at bay -- road kill, Bertha, Sally, Turkey and the Warrior, "it's not moral but it's free," the WWF wrestlers. The inside jokes that permeated our conversation and the way one look between us conveyed a thousand words. It's true. The Trekkers -- my friends, soul mates, and companions -- were the only ones who really, truly understood what I was going through.

'Hey Neda, got any money? No, didn't think so...'
4) "You become dependent on the cult for your basic needs. It controls your money and food flow." Stephanie can't even finish this sentence before I laugh aloud. It's so true! At the start of the US Trek, we were given a car, cooler with some food, camping stove, books, a phone, and some money. For the next eight months, we tried to live as cheaply as we could, often spending hours explaining to hotel managers, park rangers, museum directors and even parking lot attendants why we shouldn't be made to pay! To be a Trekker, we had to agree to live simply and spend as little as possible. Otherwise, the project wouldn't last until the end.

The Trekkers finally catch up on sleep
5) "Oh yes, and let's not forget sleep deprivation!" This time I didn't just laugh; I nearly fell off my seat. Every Trekker has endured long drives, all-nighters and early rises. Sleep became an expendable luxury; it was the first thing we gave up when deadlines loomed and our next dispatch was a thousand miles away. When the clock wasn't ticking, other factors conspired to keep us from zonking out -- cats (and the allergies that resulted from them), uncomfortable couches, flying cockroaches, and cranked-up heaters. The list goes on. My solution? I gave in to caffeine. 6) "Finally," Steph declared triumphantly, "a cult preaches a common ideology that is shared by all." Right on. The ideology of the US Trek is the reason we all signed up in the first place. It's an outlet for social activism, idealism, and a different way of life. It's about giving voice to the voiceless, promoting awareness, presenting different perspectives and making a difference. Its concept is breathtaking in its brilliance -- travel around the United States, find the hidden stories, present them to students, show them that each one of us can be empowered through knowledge, celebrate diversity, right the wrongs, be aware, be positive, be passionate.

Trekkers hang out doing what they do best... smiling!
We're not really a cult, of course (despite the alarming similarities!) Unlike a cult, we set out to question and challenge the history we've been taught, the information we perceive as fact and the consequences we take for granted. The ideology that united us was grounded on the conviction that things can change, that we can do better. We trekked through America as outsiders, measuring success not in the amount of money we made, but in the number of stories we uncovered, smiles we shared, people we met and tears we shed. A good day was finding inspiration from a labor-rights leader in Pittsburgh, or feminists in New York, or a Native American chief in New Mexico. An even better day was all that plus the kind gestures of strangers -- a free car tune-up in Ohio, a warm bed in Georgia, an unexpected meal in Indiana.


Our Final Farewell

People were so generous in part because they thought what we were doing was so cool. Friends, acquaintances and even complete strangers confessed that they wished they could quit their jobs and set off trekking too. I don't blame them.

The Trek is over, but the spirit, energy and idealism that made it happen has grown stronger in each one of us. When we hit the road last year, we knew we weren't just going to be writing about history, we were going to be making history. What we lacked in money and structure, we made up for in abundant enthusiasm, boundless energy and a total commitment to the project and to each other. But in our quest to lift history from the textbooks and bring it to life for students, we ended up doing more. We came alive too.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Learning about life by living it - with gusto!
Irene - Baby, I was born to run (all over this country)
Jennifer - To America the beautiful and the friendly
Neda - So what exactly is a "trekker" anyway?
Nick - Taking the road less traveled
Stephanie - Make the Trek part of who you are
Stephen - Have a little faith and it will get you through