PABLO – When Robin Maxkii, a student at Salish Kootenai College, learned she had been selected to appear on a reality TV series, she was instantly worried she would be quickly voted off an island, or out of a house.
But this reality show – “Roadtrip Nation” – airs on PBS, and nobody gets voted off anything.
In the case of “Roadtrip Nation,” the only thing you could be voted off, if they voted, would be a used 38-foot RV named “Thelma” that is painted so green you’d think St. Patrick himself was behind the wheel.
Maxkii and two other college students just spent a month living in the RV, driving it from Los Angeles to Boston, and chatting up some of technology’s biggest names along the way.
Since the original road trip in 2001 that launched the series, students have been dispatched in the green RVs for a month or more to seek the wisdom of people who have made it big in the careers the students are pursuing.
In Maxkii’s case, that would be computer science.
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Over the course of 29 days, she and her two fellow road-trippers traveled more than 5,000 miles and interviewed 23 people, ranging from one of the world’s most famous computer hackers to the CEO of Microsoft.
“Surreal,” says Maxkii, 29, who is pursuing a double major at SKC, in psychology and information technology. “I’m interviewing people I used to Google to learn their code.”
She’s also grateful nobody gets voted off the RV, which the students drive themselves.
She might have been ditched on the very first day, she figures. Maxkii had already spent a month fretting about having to steer the RV.
She had sold her car and had given up driving long before the “Roadtrip Nation” opportunity came along.
“Our first interview was in Los Angeles, on Sunset Boulevard,” she says. “There’s a term I’d never heard before, until the three of us took a five-hour driving class, called ‘tail swing.’ ”
RVs have big tails, and as Maxkii took the wheel after the interview and pulled out onto the street, Thelma’s rear swung over the sidewalk and took out a parking meter.
Between that and her attempts at parallel parking the RV on the streets of San Francisco, Maxkii figures the two filmmakers who travel with the students and document all that happens collected plenty of bloopers.
But it was the people she and her two cohorts – 20-year-old Natalie Melo of Malden, Massachusetts, and 26-year-old Zoed Mora of Long Beach, California – met on their journey that made the biggest impression.
“It was up to us to book everything, and the show encouraged us to reach out to anyone we’d like to talk to,” Maxkii says.
It felt awkward, she admits.
“Some you sent emails to, some you called, but you’re basically telling these people, ‘I’ll be driving by in a green RV and I want to interview you,’ ” Maxkii says.
In doing so, the three students got to sit down with the likes of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Matt Carroll, research scientist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.
Another subject was security researcher (i.e., successful computer hacker) Samy Kamkar, who created and released the fastest spreading computer virus of all time and invented SkyJack, a drone that can hijack other drones and take over their controls.
Maxkii, who grew up on the Stockbridge-Munsee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin, was especially interested in speaking with Maria Burns Ortiz, a co-founder of 7 Generation Games, games for young people that combine math, Native American history and adventure.
“She’s not Native, but it was neat to see native culture being respected in games for indigenous people,” Maxkii says. “I’m so used to turning it off once I leave the reservation, so it was special to get to talk to someone like her on the trip.”
How Maxkii ended up on “Roadtrip Nation,” and how she ended up at Salish Kootenai College, might have made a heck of a reality TV show in itself.
She ran away from home at the age of 15, wound up working on movie sets, usually as part of the crew but a couple of times as an extra, and only grudgingly pursued a higher education that has opened more doors for her than she could ever have imagined.
As a child, Maxkii says she was the sort of girl who took apart the family’s radio to see how it worked. But then she couldn’t put it back together, for which she felt “ashamed."
Her family didn’t have a home computer, so Maxkii had to use one at a public library that limited users to 15 minutes.
“I thought, I’ve got to get around this,” she says, “and I figured out how. That’s when I learned you can tell a computer what to do.”
She was in second grade at the time.
Maxkii discovered Angelfire, a place where she could build her own website, and made one she describes now, with a laugh, as “pretty – pink with sparkling text. But I was learning basic code, picking things up as I went along, doing things because I was bored.”
She also started a couple blogs – “Angst-y,” she says. “What it’s like to be 12.”
She was also, at the age of 11, sent by her father to live with her mother in Houston. It was a huge change from the small town and small reservation northwest of Green Bay where she had grown up.
“The school mascot at my new school was a Redskin,” Maxkii says. “I was teased constantly. I spent a lot of time by myself in the library.”
And, at 15, she ran away, climbing on a bus and heading for New York City.
“Not a good idea,” she says now. She moved into a youth hostel that charged $11 a night and found work waiting tables.
“I was stubborn,” Maxkii says. “I thought, ‘Who needs school, I’ve got my minimum-wage job.’ ”
An acquaintance helped her get her first job as a production assistant on a movie set, which took her to Shreveport, Louisiana, for the filming of “The Great Debaters” starring Denzel Washington.
“You think it’ll be really great, but P.A.’s are expendable,” Maxkii says. “You mostly pick up trash.”
She persevered. Offered similar duties on the remake of “War of the Worlds” in Los Angeles, she assured the filmmakers she could find a place to live for the two weeks her job would last.
“I was so young no one would rent me an apartment,” Maxkii says. “I wound up living in my car, and didn’t know it was against the law, so I got a Class C misdemeanor for camping in my car.”
She also made her major motion picture debut. When her two weeks were up, she asked if there was anything else she could do on the set, and they let her work as an extra, playing a survivor in the movie.
It was odd work. At one point, Maxkii’s job on a thriller called “The Whisperers” that never attained commercial release, was “stirring a swimming pool for hours.”
The first night of filming one scene, in a mansion with a swimming pool in its courtyard, a breeze had created a slight ripple on the pool. Even though it was an indoor scene, the pool was visible through the windows.
The next night, as the filming of the same scene continued, there was no breeze. No ripples.
“They told me they needed a ‘continuity of ripples,’ ” Maxkii says. “At one point they stopped everything and said I was stirring too much, and the ripples were too big.
“It was a really weird career.”
She continued to work in restaurants to pay the bills, and on the side wrote a blog that continued to gain followers.
“I didn’t know how to make friends – I guess I was nerdy – and I spent a lot of time online,” she says. Her blog garnered her an invitation to speak in Albuquerque on a topic she’d written about – reforming the blood quantum system that defines membership in Indian tribes – and another speaker there came up to her afterward.
“Where’d you get your undergrad degree?” he asked. When Maxkii told him she’d never been to college, he advised her, “You really need to go to school if you're serious about doing anything.”
The world of SAT and ACT scores and FAFSA applications was foreign to someone who had run away at the age of 15. But Maxkii took the advice to heart and enrolled at the Navajo Nation’s Dine College – the country’s first tribe-controlled college – in Arizona.
Her family wasn’t so sure about the move.
“What are you getting yourself into now?” they asked the young woman who stirred swimming pools for a living.
Maxkii became student body president, and the first non-Navajo student elected to consecutive terms on the board of regents, as she earned an associate’s degree in indigenous science. An internship in Washington, D.C., with a nonprofit called Quality Education for Minorities turned Maxkii’s life in yet another new direction.
When one of the people at QEM, Shirley McBay, needed help compiling data on social behavioral issues, the intern “created a quick aggregator” for her to do so.
“How’d you do that?” McBay asked Maxkii. “You might want to think about going into computer science.”
No, no, Maxkii said. “You need to stop arguing,” McBay shot back. “You need to pursue coding. You’re good at it.”
And so Maxkii looked for a tribal college that offered computer science, and discovered SKC.
She arrived in Montana on a bus, having given up driving, a year ago at 10 p.m., and settled into the Greyhound terminal in Missoula for a 15-hour layover to await the next public transportation headed toward Pablo.
An hour later, they told her the terminal was closing for the night. She spent the night outside the terminal, growing more sure by the hour that she’d made a terrible mistake enrolling at SKC.
Today, Maxkii loves where her latest detour has taken her. Her teachers are accessible and supportive, she says.
She has already had an internship with the National Science Foundation that took her to New Zealand, and it was on another, shorter layover – in San Francisco, on her way back to school – that she decided to fill out an application for “Roadtrip Nation.”
“Someone had emailed it to me and said they were looking for tech people,” she says. “I’d kept it in my inbox for a couple months. I got back from New Zealand the last day you could apply, and I filled it out while I was waiting at the airport.”
A month later, producers told Maxkii she’d made it to the second round. A second application, this one a video, would be required.
Again, Maxkii hemmed and hawed, and left for a conference in Las Vegas with five other students.
They drove, and along the way the others encouraged her to make the video and send it in. What harm could it do?
They got back from Vegas five hours before the deadline for submitting a video. Maxkii was dropped off near the library, about a mile from her dorm, and decided if she didn’t do it now, she wouldn’t.
So she dropped her luggage, pointed a camera toward the Mission Mountains, stepped in front of the lens and filmed what she describes as a “seven-minute rambling video.”
And that’s how Robin Maxkii came to drive a green RV across America interviewing CEOs and computer hackers.
Maxkii said PBS air times for the latest “Roadtrip Nation” – this one called “The Code Trip” – have not yet been announced.