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By The Way
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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kevin Costner’s new app narrates your trip. We gave it a road test.

HearHere tracks your location to load audio stories about the stops along your route

From left, HearHere co-founders Woody Sears, Kevin Costner and Bill Werlin. (HearHere)
6 min

Kevin Costner says the best way to see America is on the back of a horse. But what if you’re not an Academy Award-winning actor and filmmaker who regularly saddles up to shoot westerns?

“You see it by car,” the “Yellowstone” star said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Despite his preference to travel like a cowboy, Costner reveres the humble road trip. That sentiment led him to partner with HearHere, an audio app designed to entertain drivers and their passengers with stories about the U.S. landscapes around them. Whether you’re driving down a freeway or backcountry road, the app promises to illuminate the trip with short bursts of information about the local history, culture, nature and mythology.

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HearHere uses geolocation technology to queue up 8,800 stories narrated by voice actors, including celebrities such as Costner, former Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, actor John Lithgow and Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell. The stories automatically start playing when travelers pass featured locations. If the app is closed, it sends you a notification when you have activated a story.

Throughout his life, Costner said, he has been compelled to pull over at landmarks to read about a place, no matter how interested his traveling companions were in an impromptu history lesson.

“There’s something terribly satisfying in the learning process when it’s not really shoved down your throat and to understand where you’re walking or you’re driving through,” Costner said. “Our intention is to go deeper and deeper into those stories.”

I told Costner about the short road trip I was taking with my dad near Sierra National Forest, a place not too far from the parts of California where the actor and I both grew up. He immediately regaled me with stories full of geological and cultural facts about the region full of geological and cultural facts.

I decided to try the app myself to see how storytelling could inform my own road trips. Here’s what I learned from the test drive.

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For the full experience, you’ll have to subscribe

You can listen to five stories with a free account, but the stories aren’t very long — usually just a couple of minutes. You could easily run through those freebies before your road trip has really started.

In California, I downloaded the app for my iPhone and paid $35.99 for a one-year membership. There are weekly subscriptions, too, for $29.99. If paying for a “road trip app” seems like too much of a niche purchase, note that you don’t have to be in a car to use it. You can fire it up on trains or buses, open it up at home to learn more about your neighborhood or listen to stories while you’re visiting a new place on foot.

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My dad and I hopped into the van to drive into the mountains, and the first story we listened to was about my hometown, Fresno. Apparently the city’s name is the Spanish word for ash tree because the county is full of them. Somehow, in 18 years of living there and 13 years of visits, I had never learned that. About nine short stories later, I felt much more in touch with my home state.

To get the best use of the app, download stories offline before you start driving, or at least while you have cell service. I didn’t, and I regretted it once my dad and I began twisting up mountain roads. Not only did I get carsick, we couldn’t listen to many stories for the rest of the trip.

The app is part entertainment, part icebreaker

Beyond providing educational entertainment, Costner sees the app as a conversation starter for families.

“I’m having a hard time with my own kids getting their nose out of their computers and I don’t think I’m the only one,” said Costner, a father of seven. “I know it’s biblical that your kids don’t listen to you, but I find that they’ll listen to this a little bit.”

“Sometimes when you hear a story together, it kind of bonds you,” he added.

On my trip, the app did inspire conversations beyond the usual small talk catching up on family news. After listening to a story about Fresno’s Forestiere Underground Gardens — a national treasure built by a Sicilian immigrant in the 1900s — we reminisced over our own family visit to the site when I was a kid, as well as the loose connection that my parents now love traveling to Sicily.

The app doesn’t shy away from America’s ugly history

Before he agreed to get involved, Costner had one stipulation: HearHere had to tell stories about Native Americans, “because there is no HearHere without who was here first,” he says. The app needed to offer a robust account of American history, including the negative parts.

“It’s horrible in so many ways, but I’m not embarrassed to learn about it,” Costner said. “It allows for more empathy to understand how people were shoved out of here. … The depth of displacing people is not something we will ever overcome but if we choose to forget it then we’re really in a lot of trouble.”

One story got me and my father talking about the incarceration of Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II. My dad told me that he worked in a building that was once part of a detention camp for Japanese Americans in the 1940s. During my dad’s career, a Japanese firm purchased the company. I never would have learned this without HearHere sparking the conversation.

I survived a Japanese American internment camp. We cannot forget that history.

Listening will make you want to plan a road trip

My main takeaway from testing the app was that I’m not taking enough road trips.

Instead of seeing long drives as a painful form of transportation, I should be seeing them as a way to slow down, learn more and connect with my travel partners. Plus, Kevin Costner loves them, and apparently I am easily influenced by Kevin Costner.

“We’re used to taking everything for granted. Everything is at our fingertips now; there’s not anywhere you can’t go,” Costner said. “But to go across the country, you have to make an effort. Make the effort. Get a part of doing something that isn’t easy, and you’ll never forget it.”

Once he started dispensing advice, Costner got on a roll: “Get in the car. Take your kids. Take your friends. Stop. Find a campground. Find a museum and ask how the name of the town came to be. … Just try it. You’ll never — almost never — regret it.”

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