Luke Russert Finds Solace, Freedom in Writing Travel Memoir Look for Me There: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself

Luke with his mother Maureen Orth in Africa

Eight years into an NBC news career that won early accolades but not the sense of purpose he was craving, Luke Russert quit his job and set out on a journey of self-discovery. His trek lasted three-and-a-half years through six continents and almost 70 countries as he sought to come to terms with the death of his father, Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press, and chart a new path for himself.

Luke chronicles this internal and external journey in a travel memoir published this month by Harper Horizon books – Look for Me There. The title itself comes from the phrase Luke’s ever-cautious dad would repeat when pointing out a spot at an airport, sporting event or concert where the two would plan to meet if they ever became separated in a crowd.

As the son of not one but two renowned DC journalists – celebrated reporter Maureen Orth is his mother –  Luke grew up with big shoes to fill and high expectations of himself. Raised in a warm, loving family home, he attended St. Albans School and later Boston College, where he double-majored in Communications and History. His childhood was spent accompanying his father on-set at NBC or Meet the Press, where Luke met important political figures of the day, but also learning about his maternal and paternal families’ more humble roots in the San Francisco Bay area and in Buffalo, where his paternal grandfather, Big Russ, worked as a sanitation worker. 

Two months after his father’s sudden death at age 58, NBC hired Luke as a special correspondent covering youth issues for the 2008 presidential election, a decision that led to whispers of nepotism around DC and even among some of his colleagues. During his years at NBC, he became a respected congressional correspondent for the network - one who was unafraid to ask hard-hitting questions of those in power. Soon, he was on a first-name basis with the Speaker of the House John Boehner, and nominated for an Emmy for an hour-long show on Dateline about a murder case in New York that Luke is convinced was a wrongful conviction. But when Boehner called Luke aside to tell him to get out of DC before he became a ‘creature’ of Washington, like himself, the warning brought Luke up short, forcing him to ask himself what he was doing there. ‘Am I trying to live up to my father’s legacy?’ ‘Do I even like this job? Is this it?’

In July 2016, he left his job at NBC and took time off to travel - at times with his mother, but for the most part solo, hop-scotching across six continents by car, planes, boats and Japanese bullet trains (a childhood fascination), taking photos and keeping a journal wherever he went. 

His journey began in rural Maine, driving an old truck he had taken on several road trips with his father, with only the company of his eight-year-old dog, Chamberlain. There, Luke writes, he realized he had longed for this moment, this freedom. ‘This ability to be on my own and unknown.’ 

From Maine, Luke headed to Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay in the company of his adventurous mother, who spent two years in Medellin, Colombia, as a Peace Corps volunteer, where she helped to build a local school, and, continues involvement through the Marina Orth Foundation to improve educational opportunities there through building education programming and a curriculum focused on technology.

From Paraguay, Luke traveled solo to Bolivia, Easter Island, New Zealand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, then headed to Japan, where he fell in love with the country’s ‘respect and decorum.’ Later, he visited Turkey, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Rwanda, several dozen more countries, and finally Jerusalem.

Luke is happy to be living back in Washington again. He’s returned after spending time in the Bay Area, where he wrote the book. He debated remaining on the West Coast, he says, but ultimately was drawn back to DC, which he loves for its stunning natural beauty, its fascinating political scene, and the sense of community he experienced while growing up in Cleveland Park and later in Spring Valley, where his mother continues to live today.

Over lunch at Millie’s, Luke says that traveling by himself was key to introspection, forcing him out of his comfort zone and allowing him to learn about himself and the world around him. As an only child, he says he felt lucky to be comfortable in his own company - although he also freely admits to talking his friends’ ears off when he returned after two years on the road.

Throughout his travels, Luke says he made an effort to stay off his phone and meet people - something that was easier when he started traveling in 2016, he says, when social media was less pervasive. This became harder over time, he noticed, as people increasingly bury their heads in their smartphones. ‘These days’, Luke says, ‘if you aren’t careful ‘the phone can keep you hyper-connected to the world you curate, rather than the world around you.’

To avoid that tendency while traveling, Luke unplugged whenever possible, and made an effort to take tours and visit local watering holes for human interaction. From those experiences, Luke learned that most people are predisposed to want to help and get along with each other. Wherever he went, he found locals willing to assist him when needed, like the New Zealanders who stopped to help him fix a flat tire or the Nicaraguan who refused payment when Luke had car trouble. He was also lucky enough never to have a truly bad experience, he says, although finding himself in Zimbabwe during an attempted coup was terrifying.

Throughout Look for Me There, Luke never flinches from describing his moments of doubt, loneliness and difficulty in his relations with those he loves most - not least his formidable and fearless mother, who raised him with all the strictness of her father, and who pushed him to take risks, but also his patient, long term girlfriend, Mary. He also came to reexamine his connection to his own beloved father, who he reflected, “bottled up any self-doubt in his diligence, preparation and focus.”

“I never really thought about my place in the world until he died,” Luke says, but over the course of his travels, he came to realize that he could achieve something his beloved father never did: ‘a sense of comfort with uncertainty.’

Luke hopes that Look for Me There will help readers like him will feel a little less lost themselves. While most people aren’t comfortable with focusing on their vulnerability and self-doubt, Luke says, he believes there’s a certain peace that comes from sitting with those feelings and sharing them. 

For the sake of Look for Me There’s readers, we are glad he did.

Look For Me There: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself may be ordered at in hardcover, ebook, or as an audiobook.

*** (Please add this bio with Penny's photo) ***
Penny Bell, co-owner of Sugo Sauces premium pesto sauces, was born in Peru, raised in the United Kingdom, and has lived in our Stroll sister neighborhood, Chevy Chase Village, for more than 20 years. She is married with two adult children and is a contributing writer for our Stroll DC publications.