Courtesy of Oliver Shahery

The pair made it from Los Angeles to New York City in 26 days.

Jess McHugh
September 06, 2017

Ari Gootnick, 23, may have just completed a 26-day cross-country road trip, but don't compare him to Jack Kerouac.

"The people that I look up to are like Elon Musk — totally in a different field,” Gootnick told Travel + Leisure.

“Those are the people that I tend to look up to because they’re being disruptive. They’re changing the world; they’re making people think.”

Inspired by a recent study claiming that with the rise of social media and online networking, everyone in the world was connected within four degrees of separation, Gootnick set out to test that theory.

After recruiting filmmaker friend Oliver Shahery, also 23, to come along for the ride, Ari set out to make it from Los Angeles to New York in 30 days, relying only on rides from people within four degrees of his network.

If On the Road was the epitome of the 1960s Beatnik travel narrative, "Project Four Degrees" may be the road trip anthem for the millennial generation.

Ari Gootnick is pictured in the Yuma Desert.
Courtesy of Oliver Shahery

Shahery and Gootnick met at the popular South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, where they bonded over their shared passion for DJ'ing.

After some convincing, Shahery — who was skeptical that they would actually make it to New York City — decided to come along to document their journey.

Compared to Gootnick’s starkly modern influences, Shahery’s are decidedly more vintage. He cites the raw, slice-of-life style of documentary filmmaking of D.A. Pennebaker, famous for his film on Bob Dylan entitled Don’t Look Back, as a seminal inspiration.

“Social media is super one-sided, because you have people who are trying to portray a certain image of themselves, a certain brand of themselves,” Shahery told T+L, adding, “I was trying to capture that full picture.”

As they worked their way across the country, hitching rides with old high school friends or a family headed out for vacation, both Gootnick as well as Shahery were surprised by the ability of relative strangers to connect on an intimate level. The rides may have been orchestrated via social media, but the experiences were much more organic.

Heading out of Kentucky, they caught a ride with two girls who were third or fourth degree connections, relative strangers to both travelers. Over the course of a five-hour drive through the southern United States they bonded quickly, celebrating one of the girl’s birthdays.

“The car is super cool, because you’re almost touching each other,” Gootnick said. “So you’re in the car with not only friends you’ve met in high school and summer camp, but you’re in cars with people you’ve never met in your life and all of a sudden in an hour you feel like you’ve known them for a while,” he said.

The notion that social networks can isolate people just as easily as they can connect far-flung strangers is an idea that has become familiar ground for social scientists and commentators who have observed the rise of websites and applications like Facebook, Instagram, and newcomers like Snapchat.

Users can stay in touch with friends and family members who used to be a long-distance phone call or a transatlantic flight away, but with that connectivity also comes feelings of jealousy, inadequacy, and loneliness.

Photographer Oliver Shahery steps in front of the camera.
Courtesy of Oliver Shahery

The intimacy of the car rides provided instant feedback on the real people behind usernames. As Gootnick and Shahery neared their destination in New York City, the pair attended a concert in a record-shop-vintage-clothing-store hybrid in Nashville.

“I literally felt like we walked into the 70s,” Shahery said.

Trading in his video equipment for a 35 mm camera, Shahery used almost an entire roll of film capturing concert-goers that night. He raved about spending the rest of the evening playing music with strangers in Nashville, talking about The Beatles, and eventually putting his camera down altogether.

Several days, and many hours in the car later, the pair finally arrived in New York City. They were four days ahead of schedule.

In the weeks after, as Shahery began to piece together a documentary from the hours of footage he shot, the filmmaker continued to marvel at the people he met, rather than any one destination or single car ride.

He spoke warmly of the differences in the travelers he'd driven with, and the struggle to make conversation when you’re in a five-hour car ride and have had to pee since the first five minutes. What stuck out most was the sense of connection that seemed to spring so easily between near-strangers in a car.

“I got a lot of comfort out of the fact that everyone was vulnerable in their own specific and beautiful way,” Shahery said. “No one was 100 percent perfect."

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