By Ben Horan:
I’d never heard of Kyle MacDonald when a few weeks ago a friend suggested I use his approach to solve my van problem. I’d been looking for a vehicle, a van or a camper, to drive to Tierre del Fuego in the most recent iteration of my escape fantasy. It’s a plan that comes to me as I drive the length of Missoula’s Brooks Avenue twice every weekday (fourteen stoplights, but who’s counting?). It’s fantastic but just tangible enough to ache. It’s a dream trip, one of those one-in-a-lifetime voyages that really is pretty much as simple as hopping in the car and heading south; it’s ambitious and committing, if not altogether original. A Pan-American drive.
It goes like this: I’ll start next summer. I have a cousin who’s getting married in California in July. I’ll pile in this van a couple of weeks early and head down the coast, skiing the Pacific Northwest volcanoes along the way. I’ll have the dog for company, maybe a girl, and we’ll make our way to the Bay.
After the nuptials and instead of returning to the desk, we’ll keep the van pointed south. We’ll roll along the western edge of Mexico and run on the trails of the Sierra Madre and drink beer on lonely Oaxacan beaches. It’s beautiful there and we’ll want to stay, but the unknown beckons and we’ll tear ourselves away to move south into Guatemala where I have friends and know a bar where we can work for a while. We’ll be a long time on the road by then and we’re sure to get homesick from time to time, thinking about the friends and passions left behind, of our loved ones’ budding families and deepening roots. But we’ll shake loose these doubts and before long we’ll be called by climbing in the Andes and seafood in Chile, and then to the Lakes District in Argentina. In February, El Bolsòn hosts the Fiesta del Lùpolo, Argentina’s hops and craft beer festival. We won’t want to miss that. We’ll work our way more south through Patagonia, trekking in awe of Cerro Torre and meeting German and Italian alpinists and eating lamb and struggling with those strange and rural dialects that you swear aren’t even Spanish anymore or maybe never really were. The dream is on the road.
Which is not to give the impression that I don’t love where I live. I do. I’ve been in this mountain oasis for ten years, and when we’re held in a place by choice more than by circumstance the attraction is ever greater. Friendships are forged by common interests and shared adventure, and an unspoken understanding comes to transcend differences in politics and lifestyle. Some of us leave and return; I’ve done it before and always come back. But I still can’t shake this idea that we’re somehow stifled from growth in daily bliss and quality of life. Thoughts like this Pan-American daydream make my heart race in the same way that slipping into a steep couloir on skis or carving a mountain bike in the alpine does. It’s part of a lust for life. A need to explore as much of the human experience as I can. So on my morning commute I withdraw from this place I love and dream of one I don’t know.
We’ll finally make it to Ushuaia, and at the end of the earth the momentum will fade. A honeymoon can’t last forever, even in a dream. We must eventually grow tired of the road and of the stained and the mildewed van. We’ll pine for consistency, for a family. We’ll settle finally, never having drawn the ire or tired of the other, in Ushuaia where we’ll live out our years hosting a bed and breakfast for wayward expatriates and Antarctic scientists. This is the dream, and how could it fail? With the plan firmly in place all that’s left to want is the van. Having no great stockpile of disposable wealth my recourse was one of two: brave the certain failure of a half-cocked daydream and sell everything to invest in a roadworthy vehicle and gas money enough to allow the thought of triumph, or keep the defeated notion on the iron lung with a $500 conversion van from the late 1970s and never truly embrace the task. Both tangents were grim. And so it was amidst this dilemma that Kyle MacDonald came to my attention. He achieved brief notoriety in 2005 when, through a series of trades, he managed to exchange a single red paperclip for a house. First he bartered for a plastic fish pen, then for a doorknob, and so on until he had objects of real value. He had a snowmobile for a while, and then a moving van. An afternoon with Alice Cooper. Onward and upward, he traded until he had a two story farmhouse in Saskatchewan. Why couldn’t I do that for a van? I’ve got a shitload of paperclips. With a little bit of tenacity I was pretty sure that I could barter my way into my Pan-American tour bus.
This was legitimately my train of thought when I woke up one day last winter. I had convinced myself to trade a paperclip for a van and drive it to Argentina. It was a cold February Saturday, and still well before dawn when I set out to meet the partners for the day. It wasn’t until an ashen gray tempered the cold, clear eastern sky that I had loaded the skis and the steam from the coffee curled and blurred the dashboard clock. I drove slowly across town, the streets barren save for other rare enthusiasts out to embrace those few and precious winter daylight hours.
Our party coalesced and moved together, south into the Bitterroot Range while any shadows were still long and the air was placid. The sun was edging higher by the time our skintrack climbed from the wooded dimness and hoar left by the starry night glistened and shone in its rays. No one but our party had visited these hills this year and our communal solitude bound us in silence. We skied all day, and when the sun hung above the horizon and threatened darkness we dropped from the summit for the last time and found the car and beer by headlamp. We were dog tired, half drunk and wedged between friends and skis in the back of a rusted Subaru. I hugged my knees and fought a cramp as our car slid down the icy ruts towards the lights below. I gazed out at the passing darkness and revisited the great dilemma of that morning.
I hadn’t thought about a van or the Sierra Madre or Ushuaia since we left. Those places began to gently tug again and I tried to think about what I might have that I could barter for escape, what I could give to get back on the road. I thought of the trades that Kyle MacDonald made to get his house, and I thought about the montane spoils of the day. I thought of the lactic ache and the soft reward and the shared laughs and saw finally that these choices I’ve made, these choices that led me to this car with these friends on this day, these choices themselves have been a kind of trade already. These choices which finally brought me to this place and allowed me to cheat the tedium and char that so easily consume the complacent. And so I moved past this distraction and closed my eyes and thought about where we’d ski tomorrow.