Road trip helps shape life's direction

East Lyme - In 2003, three friends in college dreamed of taking off to explore the country in a Volkswagen bus they had recently repaired.

Their 40-day summer trip encompassed a vehicle breakdown in Iowa, hospitality from strangers and meals cooked over fire pits - and they captured it all on film.

Now a decade later Todd Whitaker, Kevin Goulding and Dan Nazzaro of East Lyme are sharing the film again, most recently showing it this summer at Cafe Sol, to inspire others to take their own trips.

"As an educator and someone working with kids, I see all the time how kids need trips like this," said Whitaker, 29. "They're seeking direction and looking for trips that are going to give them growth and help them figure out who they are."

Whitaker, Goulding and Nazzaro were University of Connecticut freshmen who had met as students in East Lyme, when they planned their road trip to Wyoming, California and eventually Canada. They had traveled together before with another friend and imagined seeing the country on a bigger trip, said Whitaker.

One weekend, they stumbled across the van that would take them across country on the border between East Lyme and Old Lyme. They persuaded the owner, the resident's son who lived in New York City, to let them buy it.

"I told him we want to make a movie that inspires people to travel," he said.

The trio then worked on repairing the engine over the weekends for the next six months before setting off in the summertime on a road trip.

Boiling down their expenses to gas and the cost of cooking meals, the three friends were traveling in North Liberty, Iowa on their way to a Tom Petty concert when their van broke down. The combination of leaking engine oil from a valve cover that didn't seal properly and a hot day starved the engine, said Whitaker.

Seeking help through the AIRS (Aircooled Interstate Rescue Squad) list - a global directory to help travelers in VW bugs - they found Mike and Janna Noble, who took them in. They spent 15 days camping in their yard and doing yardwork and babysitting in appreciation for the hospitality. Rex Newman, also on the list, helped them rebuild the engine's crank for free.

That hospitality continued on every step of the way, said Whitaker, as they visited Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Washington State's Olympic National Park and Banff National Park in Canada. They ultimately cut out the Wyoming to California leg of the trip.

The trio stuck together for the whole trip and figured out which moments to film. Whitaker said it was a learning experience that taught him more about himself.

After returning to Connecticut, they edited their footage "24/7" over winter break to produce a 90-minute film that they showed twice at UConn.

Now 29 years old, the friends living in different areas convened at Cafe Sol this summer for a screening. Goulding works at Facebook, Nazzaro teaches physics at East Lyme High School, and Whitaker serves as the information technology director for an international school in Guatemala.

Whitaker said the friends wanted to produce the film to encourage others to experience their own road trips and realize the world is open to them.

As youths face pressures to "be cool" and succeed, he said, a road trip offers a healthy outlet for them to get outside and experience nature. Road trips also allow youths to reflect on their own life goals and learn to deal with failure.

"It helps us find our own direction in life," he said about travel.

He hopes the film will add to a movement for a "gap year" option between high school and college.

"One of the messages is to cut loose, do something," he added. "Do something that is going to push you off balance."

The trip's lesson to pursue one's dreams and "things will open up" - even through the dark moments - still holds true, said Whitaker.

During the trip, they found a hard-to-find vehicle part they needed on top of a pile in a junk yard and encountered a man walking across the world who encouraged them to continue their journey.

"There was always somebody - or something would break - and we would get what we needed," he said.

Whitaker showed a 20-minute version of the film in Guatemala and is working on an eBook to share the story.

To view the movie and for more information on the trip, visit http://www.northofliberty.com.

K.DRELICH@THEDAY.COM

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