It all started, as these things do, with the purchase of a new vehicle. Well, not exactly new, and not just any vehicle.

In this case, then-graduating Ohio University senior Nate Murray availed himself of a “gnarly van,” specifically a 1983 GMC Vandura. Soon enough and some miles away at Ohio State University, Cody Pfister, a long-time friend from high school days, jumped right in at Murray’s suggestion: a cross-country video-enhanced road trip to as many states as possible. And with an eye on focusing on climate change.

Captain Greg Lisi (left) and deckhand Andrew White (right) work together to pull a lobster trap from the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Murray and Pfister filmed a story about how these lobstermen are dealing with climate change. Watch it below. (Photo: Courtesy of Cody Pfister)

“I’m so down” with the notion, Pfister recalls thinking on first hearing of the idea, particularly appealing given the two adventurists’ scores of experiences making videos while in high school. (See first of their road-trip videos below.)

(It took some of their family members’ and work-a-day colleagues a bit longer to come around to the idea, but they indeed did.)

So started a road trip spanning nearly two-and-a-half years, with a 13-month down time in between to recharge themselves and their checking accounts and replace the now-scrapped Vandura with a 2017 Ford Transit, which Nate paid for out of savings. Back to working at pizza shops to save up for the next leg of their trip (for which they’re thankful also for support from an Athens, Ohio., band of friends, CAAMP and from sales of “Local Motives” T-shirts, and from some crowd-funding). 

The replacement van soon reconfigured to serve as their home-away-from home, they set out again in July 2020, this time covering 19,500 miles over 96 days and producing 24 video stories on climate change and environment in 18 states. Those totals come on top of their initial June 2018-May 2019 adventure of 24,000 miles over 27 states and the District of Columbia, which led to 45 video stories. 

Local Motives travel routes. The blue line indicates the travel completed in their 1983 GMC Vandura from June 2018 – May 2019, when they covered 24,000 miles across 27 states and captured roughly 45 video stories. The purple line reflects their travel from July 2020 – November 2020 in their 2017 Ford Transit, when they covered 19,500 miles across 18 states and filmed roughly 24 stories. (Graphic: Courtesy of Cody Pfister)

Pfister and Murray initially did not plan to focus so much on climate change, but rather on a variety of environmental and pollution issues. They found their interviewees and themselves soon fixating on the impacts of the changing climate, without, they now explain, “having to force anyone’s hand.” They strove throughout their travels not to “put words in anyone’s mouth” and to simply come across as “just two naïve goofballs living out of a van.” Rarely did the words “climate change” or “global warming” pass their lips, even as interviewees’ comments often pointed in that direction. “Our subjects were hopeful, and proud of their work,” Pfister said in a recent interview describing their experiences. “We were struck by their positivity.”

Murray says interviewees’ comments and reactions “had a very strong influence on my creative skills” in making the videos, for instance by changing pace to better allow their strong messages to resonate.

Captain Greg Lisi prepares to pull lobster traps early one October morning off the coast of Narragansett, Rhode Island. (Photo: Courtesy of Cody Pfister)

“Don’t confine yourself to preconceived expectations,” Pfister offered as advice for others wanting to undertake such a trip. “Play naïve, have a real sincere and personal conversation. Approach everyone as a learning opportunity,” and “Don’t leave your curiosity unattended.”

Pfister points to “Science Guy” Bill Nye’s suggestion as a motivator: “Everyone you ever meet knows something that you don’t.”

Starting with this first post, Yale Climate Connections, in cooperation with Pfister and Murray and their LocalMotives activities, will routinely share their videos. We start with their July 2019 video on changes facing Maine’s iconic lobster fishing industry. Watch it below:

Editor’s note: This piece was lightly edited on June 22,2021.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is Editor of Yale Climate Connections. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as Assistant Director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission on Air Quality,...