Testing Kevin Costner’s HearHere app during a historic road trip

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

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

Throughout his life, Costner said, he was forced to stop at landmarks to read about a place, no matter how interested his fellow travelers were in an impromptu history lesson.

“There’s something awfully satisfying about the learning process when it’s not really shoved down your throat and figuring out where you’re walking or driving,” Costner said. “Our intention is to dig deeper and deeper into these stories.”

I told Costner about the short road trip I was taking with my dad near the Sierra National Forest, a place not too far from the parts of California where the actor and I 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 the storytelling could inform my own travels. Here’s what I learned from the test drive.

For the full experience you will need to subscribe

You can listen to five stories with a free account, but the stories aren’t very long – usually a few minutes. You could easily review these freebies before your road trip really begins.

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

My dad and I hopped in the van to head into the mountains, and the first story we heard was about my hometown of Fresno. Apparently the town’s name is the Spanish word for ash, as the county is full of them. Somehow, in 18 years of living there and 13 years of visiting, I had never learned that. About nine stories later, I felt much more in touch with my home country.

To get the most out of the app, download offline stories before you start driving, or at least while you have cell service. I didn’t and regretted it once my dad and I started taking mountain roads. Not only did I have car sickness, but we didn’t get to hear many stories for the rest of the trip.

The app is both entertainment and an icebreaker

In addition to providing educational entertainment, Costner sees the app as a conversation starter for families.

“I struggle with my own kids sticking their noses out from their computers and I don’t think I’m the only one,” Costner, a father of seven, said. “I know it’s biblical that your kids won’t listen to you, but I think they’ll kinda listen to that.”

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

During my trip, the app inspired conversations beyond the usual small talk to catch up on family news. After listening to a story about the Forestiere de Fresno underground gardens – a national treasure built by a Sicilian immigrant in the 1900s – we recalled our own family visit to the site as a child, as well as the loose connection that my parents now like to travel to Sicily.

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

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

“It’s awful in so many ways, but I’m not embarrassed to hear that,” Costner said. “It allows for more empathy to understand how people were driven from here. … The depth of displacement of people is not something we will ever overcome, but if we choose to forget it, we will really have a lot of problems.

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

Listening will make you want to plan a road trip

What I learned from testing the app is that I don’t do enough car trips.

Instead of seeing long drives as a painful form of transportation, I should see them as a way to slow down, learn more, and connect with my travel partners. Plus, Kevin Costner likes them, and apparently I’m easily swayed by Kevin Costner.

“We are used to taking everything for granted. Everything is at your fingertips now; there’s nowhere you can’t go,” Costner said. “But to cross the country, you have to make an effort. Make the effort. Participate in something that is not easy and you will never forget it.

Once he started giving advice, Costner said, “Get in the car. Bring your children. Bring your friends. Stop. Find a campground. Find a museum and ask how the town’s name came about. …Try it. You will never regret it – almost never.

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