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Communication

What Six Months of #VanLife Taught This Local Couple about America

Amid one of the most divisive political climates in recent history, Brett and Betsy Miller left 417-land for six months to better understand their fellow Americans.

By Adrienne Donica

Jan 07 2018 at 8:39 p.m.

Photo courtesy Brett MillerAlongside their border collie mix named Maybe, Betsy and Brett Miller traversed most of the U.S. during their six months on the road.

If 2017 had to be summarized in one word, tumultuous would be a top contender. The passion and energy from the 2016 presidential election spilled over into the new year as groups of people formerly on the fringe of mainstream society came into the national spotlight, resulting in clashes of opinion and, in some cases, violence. More than a few 417-landers probably found themselves questioning how we got here. Brett and Betsy Miller were no exception, but instead of probing the matter from the comfort of their home, they decided to hit the road.

"We decided to take the trip because we couldn't make sense of how to respond to the polarization and division we were seeing in the society around us," says Brett, a former professor at Southwest Baptist University. "Something is broken. We wanted to understand that better." In six months, the Millers traveled 18,750 miles to 43 states and the District of Columbia. They met more than 600 people and documented the trip on social media and their blog, SomethingGigantic.com.

At Think Summit on January 12, Brett shared highlights from their trip, what he and his wife learned about America and where we can all go from here. We caught up with Brett to ask him a few questions before he took the stage.

Biz 417: What surprised you most during the trip?
BM: "There were a couple of big surprises. First, virtually no one we met fit the caricature sketched by the media. People are far more interesting and complicated than we’ve been led to believe. Second, there is a deep interest out there in behaving differently and treating each other better but no clear sense of how to do it. People feel powerless. It’s like we’ve become addicted to meanness, even though we don’t really like it and we know it’s not good for us."

Biz 417: What did you miss most about 417-land while you were gone?
BM: "We missed our friends who are working hard to make Springfield the place they want to be, and we missed the great music community. And the Smoked Old-Fashioneds at The Order."

Biz 417: Do you get nervous speaking in front of people?
BM: "Yes, I get a little nervous. Most people do. I used to tell my public speaking students if they weren't at least a little anxious, they either weren't taking their message seriously enough, or they weren't normal."

Biz 417: What do you want the audience at Think Summit to learn from your presentation?
BM: "My hope is we can all learn to listen and talk to each other better, even when we don’t agree. Most of us can’t change the world, but we can change the way we move through it."