News & Politics

Andrea McCarren’s Road Trip

Getting laid off as a TV reporter shook up Andrea McCarren's identity. Meeting other Americans around the country gave her hope.

Andrea McCarren’s post-layoff trip across the country pointed her in a new direction. Photograph by Eli Meir Kaplan.

In my daughter Olivia’s third-grade class, a boy unfurled a poster for his current-events presentation. ANDREA MCCARREN LAID OFF, it screamed. He’d cut photos of me from the Washington Post and Internet along with articles about my sudden departure from WJLA-TV, where I was a reporter. At recess, Olivia tracked down the boy and slugged him. (A teacher witnessed the punch, and she was sternly reprimanded.)

My teenage son, Blake, offered reassurance about my January 2009 layoff: “Just because you’re not reporting for Channel 7 doesn’t mean you’re not a reporter anymore.” He was right. What message would I send my three kids if I let my first job loss define me? “You’ve always wanted to travel the country with us,” Blake said. “Let’s go.”

Within three months, we’d sold our house and rented an RV. We would hit the road as a family of reporters documenting how Americans were dealing with economic hardship. We had a file of leads and relied on social media for the rest. We packed a laptop, maps, video and camera gear, and an abundance of faith.

Through 21 states and 6,400 miles, we met people like John Holcomb of Manistee, Michigan. Holcomb was manager of an auto-parts plant that had collapsed—he welled up when he recalled having to lay off all of his employees. But he transformed the plant, adding the manufacture of small wind turbines, then hired back and retrained much of his staff.

Greensburg, Kansas, impressed us with its ability not just to survive but to thrive. The residents had lost everything when a tornado wiped out the town in 2007. Instead of leaving, they rebuilt Greensburg using green technologies. Now it’s a model of sustainability.

In Minneola, Kansas, we stood in a field with brothers Luke and Matthew Jaeger. Threatened with losing the family farm, they cooked up a plan that included making a batch of biodiesel in their kitchen. They ended up with a solution to the high cost of gas by collecting used oil and chicken fat from restaurants. Now their company is the second-largest biodiesel manufacturer in Kansas.

We drove across South Dakota to the tiny town of Lead, where the economy had forced the closure of its largest employer, a gold mine. The residents transformed the mine into the nation’s first underground science laboratory, attracting worldwide attention.

Pam Daley is a waitress we met in Nashville. At 48, she hadn’t given up on becoming a country singer/songwriter, and she kept a well-worn envelope labeled “music money.” When my family met her, Daley had saved enough to buy studio time and record some songs. This year, she released her first CD.

Our RV rolled past miles of swaying sunflowers. In southwestern Minnesota, we saw hundreds of wind turbines against a Maxfield Parrish sunset—a field of white pinwheels, each punctuated by a red light at its center. We slept in Walmart parking lots, chatting with employees on the overnight shift.

A manager at Washington’s Channel 9 had been following us on Facebook. When we returned, he asked if I was available for freelance work. That led to my current full-time job as a multimedia journalist. I now shoot and edit some of my own stories. People are often surprised when I show up alone, a veteran journalist schlepping a tripod and camera gear.

On the back roads of our country, my family found hope. If other Americans could face tough times, reinvent themselves, and emerge with resilience and gratitude, so could I.

This article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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