“On the road again,” Willie Nelson sang from the speakers of their Chevy Impala rental. “Like a band of gypsies, we go down the highway.”
For the next line, Reps. Beto O’Rourke (D) and Will Hurd (R) joined in, belting, “We’re the best of friends.”
But just hours earlier, the men weren’t much more than colleagues, brought together on this day, in this car, because they shared a common predicament and destination. A blizzard in the northeast had canceled Hurd’s flight back to Washington and delayed O’Rourke’s. They were due in the House for floor votes by 6 p.m. Wednesday.
So O’Rourke, who had spent Monday in San Antonio talking to veterans with Hurd, proposed a radical idea: a cross-country road trip, broadcast live via Periscope and Facebook for all of America.
Hurd, at first reluctant because of their differing styles of travel and politics, eventually agreed.
They decided to call it a town hall meeting on wheels, their “road to work” adventure, an impromptu experiment in democracy free of the aides and entourages of Washington.
At 5 a.m., they rented the Impala and crawled inside, O’Rourke behind the wheel and Hurd riding shotgun. Their only passengers were their cellphones, which, affixed to the dashboard, welcomed thousands of viewers to tune in for the ride.
They welcomed questions from their audience, personal and political in nature, and solicited playlist suggestions, must-see attractions and food pit stops to hit along the way.
At first, the men seemed stiff, exchanging pleasantries and biographies.
But by nightfall, they felt like old friends, the kind that belt Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” off tune, criticize each other’s driving, mock Whataburger drive-through orders and indulge on doughnuts at midnight in Memphis.
All day, they pondered tough questions — who would play them in the movie version of their trip, cake vs. pie, salsa verde or salsa roja — but they also fielded inquiries about the serious political issues facing Americans, including the Republican health-care bill, the border wall, criminal justice reform, foreign policy and Kellyanne Conway’s theory that microwaves can spy on you.
Inevitably, they faced occasionally hostile questions about President Trump.
One viewer offered a simple suggestion to fix the political divide: force all members of Congress to drive around in a car on Facebook Live until they resolve their differences.
“This gives me faith for our country,” one woman commented on Facebook.
“This is America,” wrote another. “United we stand!”
The adventure engaged other elected officials from the across the country, who phoned the congressmen to weigh in on policy issues and offer the weary travelers support.
Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) was among them, and later tweeted at Hurd and O’Rourke: “any chance you could swing through an ongoing blizzard in MA to pick a friend up?”
At a gas station somewhere between Little Rock and the Tennessee state line, Hurd — at this point comfortable enough with O’Rourke to have nicknamed him “B” — thought his new friend had been kidnapped.
“Where the hell is Beto?” Hurd asked the live stream.
“I hope he didn’t get taken,” he continued, referencing the thriller movie starring Liam Neeson. “I have a certain set of skills, America.”
Although their original intent was to make the trip in a straight, 24-hour shot, it was not to be. Traffic delays, loquaciousness and a detour to Elvis’s Graceland slowed them down. At just after 3 a.m. Eastern time, with “Carry on Wayward Son” blaring, they finally reached their hotel in Nashville, where they planned to crash for a few hours before finishing the final 10-hours of their cross-country trip — ideally in time for their floor vote Wednesday night.
But before they turned in for the night, the congressmen made time for one last stop en route to Nashville.
From the road they could see the fluorescent sign for Gibson’s Donuts, a treasured pastry shop on the edge of Memphis whose loyal customers, including a woman named Molly, had been courting the approaching congressmen for hours on the live feed.
They pulled the Impala into the parking lot and ventured inside, where they found a long line of patrons waiting on doughnuts and Molly calling out to them from a corner booth.
“Molly,” Hurd said. “You da best.”
“Welcome to Memphis!” she said.
They shook hands with a self-proclaimed “yellow-dog Democrat” who recommended the apple-filled doughnuts and told O’Rourke he was the one who looked like a Republican. The staff at Gibson’s gave the congressmen a kitchen tour and complimentary T-shirts.
O’Rourke listened to a woman worried that she may never be able to pay off her student loans, and Hurd told those gathered in the shop that he and his district neighbor don’t always see eye to eye on policy, but that their road trip was about being able to “disagree without being disagreeable.”
“You’re buddies?” an older man asked the congressmen, to which O’Rourke responded: “We’re becoming buddies.”
And after a brief Facebook Live of their Facebook Live by a local reporter (“meta,” O’Rourke commented), the congressmen walked out of Gibson’s with a box full of warm, fresh cake doughnuts.
Back in the car, they showed their viewers the loot.
O’Rourke reached for a doughnut doused in chocolate; Hurd’s was frosting-free. Then the Republican turned to the Democrat and the two tapped their treats together.