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Hittin' the road to define the dream

Two local high school grads travel across the country, interviewing hundreds, to redefine the American dream

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - On day five of their trip, Robert Brewer (right) and Justin Benfit (left) sit on top of Bell Rock in Sedona, Ariz.

What is the American dream?

Financial stability? A house with a white picket fence and a dog? Health and happiness?

Learning how others define the American dream is the mission for two local 23-year-olds. The pair have spent nearly a month road tripping across the United States posing that question to people in rural communities and big cities. What began as a brainstorming session last January over how to promote a friend’s clothing line turned into an idea to travel the country, meet 10,000 people and record their perception of the American dream.

Justin Benfit, a 2009 Barlow High School graduate, and Robert Brewer, a 2009 Gresham High School graduate, left Gresham in Benfit’s 1997 Toyota Camry on June 16. The duo has been staying with friends, couch surfing with strangers and sleeping in Walmart parking lots along the way. Benfit and Brewer budgeted $3,000 for the journey, but thanks to good old fashioned hospitality, they said they will finish the trip spending under $2,000.

Now, with 6,000 miles of open road behind them, they have climbed Bell Rock in Phoenix, consumed a beignet in The Big Easy and survived the humidity of Pensacola Beach, Fla., and are making their way up the East Coast. 

Childhood friends, who met playing soccer, Benfit and Brewer both approached the project motivated by simple curiosity.

“We were tired of hearing the stereotypical definition of the American dream,” Benfit said in an email. “We feel like the term has just become a cliché and has lost its meaning.”

Brewer’s inspiration came from writing his senior capstone paper at Warner Pacific College, discussing the American dream and how it has influenced and helped shape society. “Many of the articles I read argued that the American dream is now a myth,” he said. “For me, I didn’t know if I should really believe that.” 

Using an audio recorder, camera and interview contact log, the pair has recorded more than 200 interviews and met more than 300 people, as of early July.

“They’re basically like snapshots,” Benfit said. “People say a lot of really personal things.”

One aspiring NBA basketball player told them, “People are going to hate. You must eat the hate. If someone says you suck, eat that and keep on moving.”

“We have heard stories from street artists, Germans, Division 1 football players and business owners of the oldest family business in Huntington Beach, Calif.,” they said.

Benfit, a vocal jazz major at Portland State University, said the experience has strengthened his confidence in making a living off of his music. 

One San Antonio keyboardist said to him the American dream is “making a melody for the whole world to dance to.”

“It is interesting and inspiring to see how they make it work,” Benfit said of the many street performers he’s crossed paths with.

Along with the uplifting stories, the pair has heard ones filled with hardship.

“I think the saddest thing about the trip is we’ve met homeless people who believe in the American dream but not for themselves anymore,” Brewer said.

“They are still firm believers in the American dream, but the train has left the station for them,” Benfit said. 

Although the trip is not over, the two said they have learned a few key things. 

“Most people don't want to be rich,” said Brewer. “They just want to be comfortable, happy and contributing in their community.”

While they are waiting until the end of the trip to define the American dream, both Benfit and Brewer have a few ideas of what it means. 

“I think part of the American dream is being free to take responsibility for your life,” Benfit said.

“My short answer, as of now, is that the American dream is a concept of hope and opportunity,” said Brewer.

Once they return home, they plan to compile their findings that represent a colorful array of American voices in attempts to “form this prolific definition of the American dream,” Benfit said. 

“We’re going to publish a book about our journey,” said Brewer. 

And while they set off to learn about how other people view the world, the journey has really been their own. 

“It’s really hard to describe how it’s changed me,” Brewer said. “But the more you understand other people, the more you understand yourself.” 

“There’s just so many ways to see the world.” 

Benfit agreed. “We’re dreamers,” he said. “And we want to know what others are dreaming about.”

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