Ken, Kell & Coop

The Craigslist post contained a picture of a Mini Cooper Coupe and read:

“Moved to Seattle for work. Left my car in [metro] Detroit and need it driven here ASAP.”

Three weeks later, I left Detroit behind the wheel of a stranger’s car accompanied by my housemate, Kelly, to begin the 2,350 mile trek to Seattle.

I said ‘yes’ to that trip a week after being laid off from a full-time job with less that $2,000 in my bank account. In retrospect, I was also on the verge of living my third year (out of four) in poverty since graduating from college as I set out to prove I could be entrepreneurial and make it on my own. By no rational means should I have gone on that trip, but I did. In that cliche kind of way, I was stuck and needed something to dislodge me, to set me free. That’s why I went.

Our collective journey began in Detroit on December 24th as we headed in different directions to our childhood homes for Christmas. Kelly took her own car and traveled east to Buffalo. I picked up the Mini Cooper, Coop, and went west towards Chicago. We went different places, but we met the same questions from our respective families…

“You’re doing what?”

“You’re going where?”

“You aren’t being paid?”

“Why are you doing this?”

Yes, we were taking some stranger’s car across the country; No, we weren’t being paid; Isn’t that last one self-explanatory? We both felt that we were given an incomparable opportunity to see the country, gain unforgettable experiences, and learn how to drive stick shift. We didn’t think we could put a price on that kind of opportunity, so, we didn’t. Apparently that was difficult for them to understand.

For me, that Christmas was different. In the previous year, both of my grandfathers, both of my families’ patriarchs, had passed away. Their chairs at the head of the dinner table were vacant for the first time that Christmas. They weren’t there to firmly shake my hand, slip me a $20 bill, intently ask me about my life and, regardless of how they felt or how much they comprehended, they weren’t there to offer me a reassuring smile and nod of approval.

My grandmothers were now alone, and with them went the last healthy marriages in our families. The family guard had seemingly passed through our parents — with their countless marriages, divorces and dependencies — onto my cousins and me. We realized that, if we didn’t show up, Christmas would be reduced to arguing and dysfunction. We all showed up and salvaged whatever semblance of a holiday that we could.

The day after Christmas, Kelly drove eight straight hours from Buffalo to meet me around 2 a.m. on a Saturday night at my high school friends’ apartment on Chicago’s far northwest side. A group of about 15 of us were celebrating our 10th annual Sloppy Santa party. The night marked a decade of keeping in touch, reveling in old memories, creating new ones and humiliating each other with embarrassing, inappropriate gifts. When Kelly arrived, I met her with an elated, drunken embrace and introduced her as this person who I had only known for about four months that was about to share Coop’s cockpit with me for a week. After I sobered up and she took a nap, we left for Minneapolis the next morning.

Chicago & Buffalo are for family questioning and friends supporting every decision you make.

I was lucky enough to go to one of those small, quirky colleges that breeds community. A community that, once you belong to it, you will always be a part of it. With a majority of our alumni either being raised or settling down along the stretch of I-90/94 from Chicago to Minneapolis that route is the backbone of our community. The first leg of our trip together took us from Chicago to Minneapolis along that exact stretch of highway with the plan to crash on the couch of a college friend in Minneapolis at the end of the day.

We set out early…ish on a Sunday morning beginning our unknown journey on an all-too-familiar path with our first stop planned in Beloit, Wisconsin, the home of my small college, that afternoon. To anyone who knows me, I have a certain affinity for bringing hodge podge groups of people together for the sake of bringing them together — and that’s what I did when we passed through Beloit. A couple of college football teammates that never talked, one of their nihilist best friends and Kelly all made for some fascinating cafe conversation.

After lunch, we set out for my grandparents’ home in the Wisconsin Dells. It was the first time I had visited since a whirlwind 24-hour road trip there the previous May. That road trip — which began when I left work midday on a Wednesday — was an attempt to drive nine straight hours to make it to my grandpa’s hospital bedside in Madison before he unexpectedly passed away. Despite my best efforts, I arrived two hours after he lost consciousness and four hours before his chest rose-and-fell one final time. The morning following his passing, I drove on to the Dells to console my resilient grandmother with whatever sentiment I could gather before sitting back in the front seat of my car by noon heading back to Detroit on my ten hour return trip.

My grandparents had owned property in the Wisconsin Dells,the long-standing vacation destination and waterpark capital of the Midwest, over the course of my entire life. It was where they went for their honeymoon in the 50s, so it was only right that they had settled down there. From the picture of me at eight months celebrating my first Easter at their timeshare to pictures of me going through all of my awkward adolescent phases in the community where they built a house and retired, it was my second home growing up.

For a few years of my childhood, my single mother and I had lived with them outside of Chicago, but, when she decided to remarry, they realized the opportunity to retire and moved up north. Whenever my mom couldn’t meet my needs and my father-figures were absent, my grandparents were there for me. My grandmother had always provided me with a maternal comfort and gentle guidance whenever my mom had to focus on providing for us. My grandfather provided me an unwavering consistency that I can only dream of embodying one day. This might have been the most important stop on my entire trip because it brought me back to the foundations that developed me into the person I am today.

The Vikings were winning 32–10 in the third quarter when we walked into The Green Mill on a cold, blustery Sunday night in Minneapolis. Parker was waiting for us in the back of the bar with his gang of diehard Minneapolis sports fans. Kelly and I arrived weary from our first day of travel, but open and willing to do whatever Parker had in store for us. Parker and I had played some pickup ultimate frisbee and cracked a few beers open together in college, but to say that our friendship extended much beyond that prior to that night would have been a stretch. Regardless, he opened his home and hometown to us when I reached out to him in a Facebook message.

After a couple beers in junk time at the bar and a couple more over a card game at his home, our group made our way over to Bryant Lake Bowl for some midnight bowling to have a few more and embarrass ourselves beneath the glow of neon lights and beats of early 2000s hip-hop.

Around 2 a.m. we stumbled and slid our way back to his home on icy sidewalks in single degree weather. The alcohol warmed our blood, the newfound friendships and lighthearted conversation guided us along the way. When we returned, we binged Brule’s Rules until our sides hurt from laughter and our eyes told us that it was time for bed. That night I nestled in between Parker’s cats on his living room couch while Kelly found comfort cuddling in the arms of one of Parker’s housemates. We closed our eyes and fell asleep content with the decision we had made to embark upon this journey together.

Minneapolis is for midnight bowling & cuddle buddies.

We set out the next morning destined for places that neither of us had journeyed before. I had visited the Twin Cities in college, while Kelly had only made it to Chicago prior to our trip. We both entered uncharted territory that morning as we followed the sun west. Our destination for the day was Bismarck, but I made us swing through Fargo alone the way. I was curious about a place being coined as the Silicon Valley of the Great Plains; a place where some of the top immigrant and domestic talent in tech was deciding to settle and raise families despite frigid temps and geographic isolation.

We came, we saw, we ate lunch and we went along our way, but from my brief insight into the town, I think I figured it out — the size of the world is relative and if a group of like-minded people sought to forge their own community, Fargo wasn’t a bad place to start.

We arrived in Bismarck as the sun was setting across the barren plains of North Dakota and promptly went to the Laughing Sun Brewing Co. at the recommendation of our AirBnB hosts, Kendra and Adam. On a night where temperatures flirted with the negatives, we welcomed the warmth of the brewery as we entered, took a seat at the bar, ordered flights and set up a game of Battleship that was sitting nearby.

While Kelly and I clashed over control of the plastic pinhole seas, a sound technician casually set up an A/V system on modest stage in the back of the bar. Little did we know, but we had visited on a Monday night open mic that would draw participants from all over the state. The final act of the night, a gaunt, pale white rapper from Minot, spun lyrical webs of verse and rhyme that left the audience entranced. He forever changed my impression of North Dakota.

With enough alcohol to insulate our blood, Kelly and I decided to leave after his set was done to finally make our way the quiet, residential AirBnB that we called home for the night. Kendra and Adam were a married couple in their late twenties with an infant child. Both native North Dakotans, Kendra was studying to be a doctor while Adam flew a prop plane for his dad’s crop- dusting business. When we arrived they welcomed us as family with a warm plate of food, cold beers and friendly conversation.

It was late on a weeknight, but they went as far as to invite over another couple and then the six of us stayed up late into the night discussing our lives, hopes, dreams and the challenges the world faced. Kendra hoped that her medical career could bring their young family to the Pacific Northwest. Adam shared the ethical and economic conflicts he faced in his family business — he routinely sprayed Agent Orange (only one-fifth of the lethal dose) on edible plant fields because it was the only way that field rotation and the resulting crop production could keep up with demand and ensure a liveable profit margin for farmers. Kelly and I offered tales of our spontaneity and our work in a recovering Detroit in exchange. We ended that night as passing friends, which I think is the best that anyone could hope for from AirBnB hosts.

In hindsight, I wonder what context our interactions and relationship would have taken if our meeting had occurred just a year later, a month after the presidential election. A young working-class family in the heart of a deep red state hosting two radical progressives coming from a deep blue city. Would we have been civil? Would we have empathized with one another? Would Trump’s demagoguery have united or divided us? A hypothetical that will remain a hypothetical until I make a return trip to Bismarck.

Bismarck is for Battle[ship] Rappers & Different Perspectives.

Somewhere in between Bismarck and Bozeman, when the “No Service This Exit “ signs become more frequent and cell phones lose reception, we passed through a snow-covered Teddy Roosevelt National Park and had the urge to stop. The exit we chose was unplowed, but that didn’t deter our spontaneous spirits. Kelly was driving at the time and, as we approached the ramp, she let off of the accelerator to coast at about 30 mph. When we reached the ramp, Kelly gently applied the brakes…and that’s when we started to hydroplane (and continued to hydroplane) until we reached the entrance ramp and merged back onto the highway to continue our journey. Dumbfounded by what had just happened, we gave a perplexed waive to Teddy’s namesake and continued on our way. Looking back, that turned out to be the defining ‘just go with it’ moment of our trip. Despite our best efforts, everything quickly fell out of our control in an instant forcing us to adapt and accept our circumstances. A spontaneous moment that we expected to be awe-inspiring quickly became so insignificant that all we could do was laugh and move on. As I’ve gone on to explore, have adventures, get lost and lose control in all kinds of different places, that memory has really stuck with me to influence my thoughts on having and lacking control ever since.

I grew up in the Midwest. Aside from a couple trips to Florida and one to Texas, my entire childhood was spent in states adjacent to the Mississippi River, namely Illinois and Wisconsin. As a result, the closest thing I had ever experienced to a mountain were the drumlins and moraines in southern Wisconsin. After graduating from college, I spent a couple years in Boston and experienced my first mountains, the northern Appalachians, during weekend trips and Maine camp jobs. But nothing, nothing, prepared me for the Rocky Mountains.

I don’t think anyone ever forgets the first time they gaze upon the Rocky Mountains. For me it was on a plane to Denver in early 2015, but even that experience didn’t hint to the sight of the snow-capped behemoths rising on the horizon as we sped through central Montana. I was driving at the time and I distinctly remember my jaw dropping, eyes widening and neck careening as I did all that I could to take in before they engulfed us with a topographical beauty unlike anything I had ever seen before. Kelly was understandably concerned that I wasn’t paying attention to the road.

As was becoming the norm for our trip, we rolled into Bozeman after nightfall. Our accommodation for the night was a former basement dance studio on Bozeman’s Main Street that had been transformed into a hostel. It was founded and owned by a 24 year old whose grandparents had lent her the money to get her business up-and-running after college. Yes, it was an extremely privileged upstart, but it was just another reminder that if you want to make your own little paradise, you can and you should.

We spent that night hopping from bar-to-bar and the next morning doing the same between antique and thrift shops. In one multi-vendor shop, Kelly found a $15 pair of sublimated jogger sweatpants that had Michael Jordan’s mirror image simultaneously dunking a basketball on the wearer’s crotch and buttcrack — those pants have been traveling with me ever since.

Bozeman is for Hilltops & Basement Hostels

You know when you reach that limbo of any trip that exists between “I can’t believe how far we’ve traveled” and “when will this end”? That was the leg of our journey between Bozeman and Spokane. Kelly had finally grown weary of my music and distracted driving while I had finally reached that point of social burnout with another human being. We were spent, but somehow still tolerating (and even enjoying) each other’s company. That day included stops in Butte, Montana and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

In Butte, we had to poop.

No, really, both of us were in desperate need of a toilet to rest our — you see where this is heading — butts on. That panicked mindset explained how when we exited the highway and had no idea where to poop, we ended up stuck in a snowbank on an unplowed residential street. Kelly was driving when it happened. Because I have this selfish/self-righteous way about me sometimes, I left her to dig us out while I tried to steer and reverse us out of the rut. After about a half hour of Kelly laboring and me lecturing, we managed to dislodge ourselves and head to a nearby Starbucks to handle our business. With vente mochas in hand, we let Coop’s tires hit the asphalt again.

As a brief note on our stop there, if Coeur d’Alene is the only impression Idaho ever leaves on me, I will die believing that place is paradise undiscovered. Go see for yourself.

This story wouldn’t be complete without a near-death experience. Luckily, for your sake, the last stop of our journey before Seattle brought us to the steep, unsalted terrain of Spokane. With shades of Kelly’s mishaps in mind, we were a block away from our AirBnB when Kelly told me “you should probably hit the brakes” as we slowly descended down an icy decline towards a two-way stop sign in a residential neighborhood. Upon her recommendation, that’s exactly what I did, immediately and repeatedly, but the brakes continued to lock and slide, lock and slide until we ended up in the middle of the intersection with another car bearing down on my driver’s side door at full speed. We closed our eyes, it honked its horn and swerved, we were all safe, but the incident left us more than ready to be done driving for the day.

That night, we were truly burnt out but still managed to walk down the street to a hip neighborhood’s handmade pizza place and local brewpub. The pizza joint is where Kelly first learned that Washington had legalized marijuana when our server gave her a free eighth to prove it. The pub is where I gave into my kleptomaniac ways and stole what might by my umpteenth branded pint glass. That night we slept butt-to-butt passing gas on each other in a queen size AirBnB bed solidifying what will be a lifelong friendship.

Spokane is for Slippery Slopes & Pizza Shop Bud

On New Year’s Eve, we drove alongside the windmill-lined Columbia River and through the Snoqualmie Pass to come upon the heavenly beauty of Seattle in an afternoon glow. Our first stop was a place I had been introduced to by a Seattle Planning & Development official through my economic development work in Detroit, Gas Works Park. It offered unrivaled views of downtown Seattle and stood as one of the boldest urban redevelopment projects in the country. It was where Kelly and I decided to take the culminating photo of our journey.

From there we headed to the apartment of one of our former Detroit housemates who had moved to Seattle three days prior. It was the perfect conclusion to our trip. Outside his apartment, we met with Coop’s owner who gave us a $140 check as a symbolic gesture of his gratitude and, with that, our mission was done.

That evening, a stone’s throw from their apartment, I had Ethiopian food for the first time around a shared platter, a shared experience with new friends. We walked back to Adam’s place, popped a bottle of champagne and shared stories as the bubbles kissed our lips and danced along our tongues. Shortly before the clock struck midnight, we went outside on the small back porch, took that free weed, and shared a joint underneath the stars as 2015 ended and 2016 began.

That was the week, the weekend, the moment that I realized so much of our reality is built on the illusion of unattainability.

On our last night in Seattle, Kelly and I printed out a screenshot of a Google Map, walked into a tattoo shop and had matching road trip routes tattooed on our arms. To the casual observer, they look like a constellation of stars. To me they sometimes resemble a vein pulsing oxygen-rich blood from my shoulder down my biceps — a sign of life. In reality the tattoo is just a reminder.

It’s a permanent, visible reminder that I can take risks, feel uncomfortable, face hardship, experience change and grow. I don’t have to hold myself back or be concerned with the unknown. I’ve never had much in regards to personal or financial stability, but that hasn’t stopped me from living a life of unrivaled experience. As long as I remember to take risks, to say ‘yes’, and to embrace change, I won’t stop anytime soon.