Happiness: An End to Begin From

We’ve just finished up week four on the road, and are headed from Connecticut to Boston. It’s been a weird roller coaster of highs and lows over the last week and a half or so. I’ve had moments that were just incredible, and moments where I was so down on myself, mostly because of my inability to fix the van, especially because this leads to us needing to skip some places here and there so that we can still make it to our set interviews on time.

Two weeks ago as we made our way out of New Orleans I was at an O’Reilly in Mississippi changing Gus’s fluids, and I started chatting with the guy working the counter. He asked where we were coming from and what we were doing, and how we ended up there in Mississippi. I told him about the documentary, and he said, “It’s simple really. Everyone gets depressed. Being happy is accepting what you have. That’s all there is to it.”

But when we delved deeper into what happiness is, and where depression might stem from, he started to get heated. He told me that what we’re doing is wrong, and that we shouldn’t be there. The way he saw it, it was fucked up for us to bring the idea of happiness to people who would never be able to get it. We were coming in and giving them an idea, bringing light to a question that they were aware of on some level, but were able to ignore by not thinking about it, and not offering any sort of solution.

We weren’t the first ones to come to Mississippi and try to fix something, and he said this is the problem with people like us. We don’t stay. We come and make waves, and then leave, and then people are left angry, thinking about something that they won’t ever have. The way he put it, he wouldn’t want a Ferrari if he had never heard of a Ferrari, but the concept had been introduced to him, and so he has this desire for a Ferrari, but will never have the means to get one.

The thing is that I wasn’t trying to offer a solution, I just wanted to ask the question and the idea was to make people think, and to learn, and asked if he thought that we could change the approach to happiness. And while yes, he did believe it could be changed, he asked how I would feel if someone told me that something I had been doing my whole life was wrong.

How would I feel if something I had been doing for a year straight was shown to me to be the wrong way of doing things?

For me personally, I’d be open to hearing them out, because I’m not set in the way I live. However, I do recognize that the way I structure my life, frankly with very little structure, is not the norm. So as one of the main things I’ve taken thus far from this journey is a lesson in perspective, I tried my best to consider his perspective.

Honestly, though, I can’t. And he’s right. While in my mind, if I had recognized something as being wrong in my culture/society, I wouldn’t want to settle for the fact that that’s just how things are. Even if it was too late for me, if I were a father (as he is), I’d think that I would have wanted to change things for the future, so that my children wouldn’t have to deal with the same hardships that I’m going through now, and that they could achieve this happiness that he views as unachievable for himself.

But I can’t imagine what his life has been like, and spending one day there talking with him can’t paint an accurate picture of what it’s like to be a black man in a poverty-stricken, historically racist area. While I want to say that there’s always hope, that there’s always something that can be done, in this case I don’t know that it’s true. And I’ve been really struggling with this idea, because it seems to me like there must be an answer, but I don’t know what it is.

This had me so down, because here I am thinking we’re doing this good thing that can help a lot of people, and I hadn’t even entertained the possibility that we could be doing harm as well. And as I continue to think about it, I think that we will be able to help people with the things we learn, but we can’t help everyone. And that’s okay. As we said when we started, if we can help a single person on this journey it’ll all be worth it, because while we may not be able to change the whole world, we can change the whole world for that person.

I woke up to a text from my best friend Timmy this morning, asking me if I’ve ever had a conversation with someone about life that totally shattered my structure of beliefs and put everything in perspective as to how irrelevant my priorities are, and I think that was an appropriate segway into writing this today. I feel like throughout my life I’ve been able to put myself into the shoes of others relatively well, but when I think about it most of the people I’ve had that with were people that were relatively similar to me, and here I was given an opportunity to put myself in the shoes of someone who lives in a world totally foreign to anything I’ve experienced. I lived a blessed life, and while there were parts of it that were very hard, difficulty and struggle is relative.

For me, struggle was battling my own demons. It was working to be in a place where I loved and accepted myself and could be genuinely comfortable and at peace with who I am. For him, struggle is making enough money to feed his children while working a job he hates because it’s his only option and he has mouths to feed. It’s accepting the fact that people hate him just because of the color of his skin and the neighborhood he grew up in. Accepting that he may never experience true happiness because of the circumstances of his inescapable surroundings, but being able to find joy in the moments he spends chilling with his friends. Accepting that the system is stacked against him, and that he’ll always be playing without a full deck, but going on living anyway, because there’s nothing else he can do.

We can’t stop what we’re doing, because we do have the power to help people. Honestly, I believe we would have been able to help our friend in Mississippi too, if we had the time to stay and try to understand what life for him is, because I do believe much of our current system is set up to have us fall into depression, but some maybe more than others, and there are aspects of this overhaul of society that I clearly hadn’t considered, so more time and attention is needed in certain areas than others.

 

After we left Mississippi we headed to Nashville, where Kayla and Paul spent some time walking around talking with people, and I spent most of our three days there working on Gus. I had a list of potential problems with him and why he might not be running, and as I went through replacing piece after piece I finally figured it out on the very last item on my list. However, while taking a Lyft to O’Reilly to get some parts exchanged that they had given me the wrong size for, I met Ric, a singer/songwriter/producer/jack-of-all-trades in the music industry, and Ric was an eclectic character. He met up with us after he finished up lunch, and brought his wife, Seemi, with him. Ric was raised Jewish in Philadelphia and Seemi was raised Muslim in Pakistan. They had met while filming the music video of “Can’t Own God”, a song by Ric’s band, Stone Unturned, which I highly recommend checking out because it carries a great message and has a very cool, funky style to it.

Seemi and Ric offered a very cool dynamic, because they would go back and forth between ideas, disagreeing and challenging one another on their beliefs, before (for the most part), coming to a consensus. They both had unique experiences that had led them to hold unique beliefs, and while their beliefs were pretty on par with one another (again, for the most part), they seemed to have very different justifications and processes that led them to arrive at these beliefs. One of the cool takeaways from this talk with Ric and Seemi was the perspective on God that a) we are all ultimately worshipping the same God, we just have a different manner of expressing that through various religious and spiritual practices, and that none of us own God. We can’t tell anyone else that their depiction of God is wrong, or that ours is right, because God is universal. There is no one true religion. And b) that we are all God. We are all a piece of this universal God. Each an individual wave in one giant ocean of God.

This was a thought I had come across in my studies of eastern philosophy, but not one I had really encountered through the lens of western thought or the Abrahamic religions, and that was a refreshing thing to experience firsthand here in the US.

 

As we finished up our talk with Ric and Seemi, we finally made our way out of Nashville, and onto Asheville, North Carolina, where we went to check out the Earthhaven Eco-village. Earthhaven was a dream for me, because I would love nothing more than to be able to live in an environmentally friendly, off-the-grid home where I could practice permaculture and grow my own food. Plus, the way that people live there allows them to be present in each moment, one thing that we’ve found is a key to tapping into individual happiness. By being in a place where they get to just be, without the stressors of living in a concrete jungle, they’ve been able to get back to what life is truly about at the root of it. Living, creating, growing, and simply being.

Not to mention the place is absolutely gorgeous. We got to sit down with a couple people there and share ideas, and it was so cool to talk with people who want to remove the divide that has developed in our modern communities, and return to true communal living where people share community gardens and food, and neighbors eat dinner together and get to talk on a regular basis, as opposed to the fences and walls we build that create isolation and separation. In my subdivision, we had something absurd, like 150 houses, and yet I can count on one hand the number of neighbors I actually knew. While some of that may stem from age difference and whatnot, I think that there’s absolutely something to be said about growing up in a setting where life is shared with more than just our immediate families.

The village was set up mostly so that each family/person has their own living space, but dining areas and living rooms were communal, so that they watched movies, cooked, and ate dinner together.

I think this can be so powerful, because it can create a broader sense of what the term “family” means, and also allows for a greater source of learning in children. For every extra person that carries a presence in a child’s life, it could allow for extra knowledge, experiences, and perspectives for that child to be subjected to and learn from.

 

As we made our way out of Asheville and towards Washington, D.C., we ended up stuck in a small town called Oxford, North Carolina, last Saturday. We had planned on driving through the night to make it out to DC, but around 3 am as Paul was driving Gus started acting up, so we decided to pull off and check it out. I ran through my list of usual suspects when Gus isn’t running quite right, and after everything checked out I decided to take over driving and see if I could figure out what was up. As I pulled out to the stoplight of the Walmart parking lot we had pulled into, Gus died at the intersection, so we pulled back in and decided to sleep it off and I’d give it a whirl in the morning.


I got up bright and early, and again went through, checking everything from the spark plugs to the fuel line to connections throughout the engine, to find that the bolt that supports the alternator had snapped off the night before and had left the alternator just hanging by one small support bolt and the belts that run over it.

So, I drove to AutoZone to see what I could do about removing it, as it was Saturday, and none of the mechanics in town would even give it a look until Monday, so I figured I could take a crack at it. How hard could it be? I thought. Oh, how wrong I was.

Typical protocol for removing a broken bolt is to drill a hole directly in the center of the bolt, and then put this larger, weird, backwards drill bit into the hole and essentially pull it out like a corkscrew. However, with the horrible angle I had to take going in to the engine, I missed the center of the bolt. Badly. That sucker was not moving one bit.

So, we waited, figuring we’d now have to wait for a mechanic to open up on Monday. However! In the meantime, as I was walking through town Saturday night, trying to cool off a bit because I was bumming about the way that day had turned out, I walked into a pool hall, thinking that’d be fun. After receiving a less than warm welcome by a few of the people who worked there, I met this woman named Sandra who was so cool! I didn’t expect to meet someone like-minded while in a small town in North Carolina, but she was so open and was such a pleasant person to come across. We talked for a while that evening, and she came back the next day to talk some more on camera, and as someone who had encountered a lot of difficult times in her life she had such a pleasant outlook and disposition toward life and the way that things are.

Monday morning we were going to have Gus towed down the street to the mechanic about a quarter-mile away, but after learning that we had 100 miles per tow for AAA, we figured we might as well get our money’s worth and had him towed exactly 100 miles out to Petersburg, Virginia, where we opted to bring him to a welder instead of a mechanic, as every mechanic I talked to basically gave me the same “Ugh, that’s terrible. I can’t do it, but try this other guy”, until the last guy I talked to gave me name of a welder, who said they’d be able to pull it out no problem. We pulled up on Monday afternoon, and I spent the rest of the day pulling apart Gus’s grill and front end so that they could get in to the engine to weld a nut onto this bolt and pull it out.

I came back first thing Tuesday morning, getting there around 7:45 or so, to see that they had already gotten the bolt out, no problem. First try, with ease, and only $35! A mechanic would’ve charged us $150. I was ecstatic! And went to work putting Gus back together. After I was most of the way through the re-assembly of the grill, I realized I hadn’t put the alternator back on. Stupid. That was the whole reason we were there. So, I pulled apart the rest of the grill, got the alternator back on, and went back to putting it back together.

In front of the radiator lies a part of the air conditioning system that basically looks like a smaller radiator, and has two really thick hoses that run into the rest of the A/C unit. These hoses, let me tell you, were one of the most frustrating things to deal with. When I went to pull them off the night before I tried and tried with no luck, and eventually had to cut them off, figuring I’d have enough slack to put em back on. I did not have enough slack, but tried to put them on only to realize I ran one of the hoses in the wrong place, and wasn’t going to be able to get the radiator back on with it there. So, I went back to trying to pull them off, and after about 30 minutes of pulling, was about to give up, when I gave it one last tug.

The hose didn’t come off, and the copper pipe it was sitting on cracked. So here we were, in Petersburg, Virginia, with a broken piece that no one in the area would be able to replace.

I was sitting on the ground, at a loss, when the guy who owned the welding shop came out and asked how I was doing.

“Well, to be honest, I’ve been better.”

He looked at the copper pipe, looked at me, and said, “Yeah, you really screwed this up.” But after looking for another moment, then added, “but it’s okay, we can fix this.”

He went inside to have it mended and I walked to go buy new hoses, and when I was back he had fixed it and I was able to get it back together and running, and we were off to Washington, DC.

 

As we were on the Northern border of DC/Maryland Gus was no longer running strong, so I hopped out and looked under the van and there was transmission fluid everywhere. A line that ran from the radiator to the transmission was loose and spraying fluid all over the place, so I tightened it up and checked the fluid level, which was almost empty.
I pulled into a Jiffy Lube about a mile away so they could fill up the fluid, but when they went to put some in, the engine started to smoke, and as they put more in to show me it was smoking (probably unnecessary, I could’ve taken their word for it), flames jumped up out of the engine, down by the transmission where the fluid was running in.

This was potentially devastating for the trip, because as we’ve been going we recognized we didn’t have enough money to finish the film as is. We’re a few thousand dollars short, and so we’ve been contacting philanthropy executives and business trying to get some sort of sponsorship, and while we had some interest we haven’t had any solid traction yet.

We only have about two weeks of money left, and five more weeks on the road, so having to replace Gus’s transmission would’ve been a possibly fatal blow to the trip.

Fortunately, the mechanic we took it to said that the tube that the transmission fluid dip stick sits in had come loose down where it enters the transmission, and as they put fluid in it had leaked out on to one of the exhaust pipes. Transmission fluid is one of the only really flammable liquids in an engine, so that combined with the extreme heat of the exhaust pipe (I’ve touched it while fixing things under the van after it’s been running, and trust me, it’s hot) was a recipe for ignition.

He put the pipe back in place, topped off our fluid levels, and we headed to New York City.

 

While in New York we met this incredible man named Donald on the Staten Island Ferry. Donald has been sober for 36 years, and is a long time HIV survivor. The most powerful thing he said, in my opinion, was that he was grateful for getting HIV. When I asked him why, he said because it taught him how to live now, and enjoy every moment.

When it comes down to it, Donald is able to find happiness every day because he lives each day to the fullest, like it’s his last one. When he was diagnosed his life was not expected to last much longer, so he started enjoying the hell out of every single day he was gifted with.

And here he is, 28 years later, carrying that same sense of enjoyment and happiness with him everywhere he goes.

People like Donald carry such a strong lesson. The people who have been given the most unfortunate circumstances, but instead of letting that become them, break them down, or destroy them, it elevates them. It teaches them and gives them life. Donald was such a light to come into our lives this week, and I think he can be an example for the rest of us.

No matter what happens, we have two options. We can either let the negative things be negative, or we can use them as a positive, in order to learn, grow, and blossom as humans.

As much as I was down from my discussion with that guy from Mississippi, He brought an important lesson to me. He showed me how important it is to keep humble and recognize that what works for me is not going to work for everyone else. I don’t believe that means that I won’t be able to help others, but just that I can’t approach every situation as if it were my own, because it’s not.

There were moments where the car troubles have really brought me down, but every single time we’ve run into an issue I’ve learned so much. It gave me an opportunity to learn about Gus and his engine, and I feel like I’d be able to fix most issues we have now. This is all such valuable knowledge, and even beyond that, I’ve met someone so cool each time we get delayed and have to spend more time in a place than we would have normally. Ric and Seemi in Nashville, Sandra in Oxford, the guys at Gale Welding in North Carolina, Arin from Jiffy Lube and Justin my Uber driver in Maryland. We wouldn’t have had any of the experiences we’ve had thus far on the road had it not been for the car troubles that set us just in the right places at the right time.

 

Last night we made our way into Connecticut and met with Lionel Ketchian, founder of an international organization called the Happiness Club, and more importantly, a man who has been happy for the last 26 years. Talking with Lionel was like talking with an old friend, and he had such brilliant thoughts on happiness.

For Lionel, happiness is everything. Happiness is the most important thing in the world. Happiness is love. Happiness is power. Happiness is focus. Happiness is the only way to truly have control in your life, and it comes by letting go of control. While there are so many things that could be said about our talk with Lionel, the one I’d like to share here is a sentiment regarding free will. We all have free will, and can choose the way we act in the world. To be happy is to exercise free will, because we make that decision to remove ourselves from the cause and effect chain that we are all raised in.
Through unhappiness, we find ourselves reacting to what happens around us. Something happens, we react. Cause, effect. By choosing to recognize that we have no control over the things that happen around and to us, we can break the chain. We no longer are stuck in this perpetual system of operating under the impression that the world and events around us must dictate our emotions. As Lionel put it, only when we choose to be happy to we actually have free will.

Before we make that decision to approach the world and come from a place of love, peace, and happiness, we are reacting. When we make this decision to live a life of gratitude and happiness, we separate ourselves from reaction, and get to see the world through a whole new light.

He brought up the Aristotelian perspective that everything is a means to an end, except happiness, which is an end in itself.

I loved this sentiment, and it just made me think that happiness is an end from which we must all begin. We have to come from this place of happiness within ourselves. It isn’t out there somewhere at some final destination where we’ll arrive at some point, and we have the ability to access it, we just need to have the tools to make it happen.

I think I really needed that reminder, because I was creating more problems for myself by letting some things get me down on this trip, and like Lionel said, when we let a problem make us unhappy, we now have two problems. We have the original problem, and we have the unhappiness, and both need to be dealt with. By remaining calm, cool, collected when a problem arises, I get to keep on being me, and I can solve my issue much more effectively.

What’s the point in letting things I can’t control take away my happiness? I shouldn’t let that bring me down or make me feel shitty about myself, because love is what I’ve got, and I need to make sure I continue to hold that for myself. 

-Max

On To State Seven

Today is now day 18 on our transcontinental trek, and it’s been quite the ride. Today we made it to New Orleans, after travelling through the night and having a minor carburetor problem shortly after crossing into Louisiana from Texas.

It’s all good for the time being, but these little moments make me realize why they stopped making cars like that. Old cars are cool and all, and I do love Gus, don’t get me wrong, but there are a few little things that would be nice if they were a touch more modern, like the engine, the sound system, and brakes. At least we have discs on the front brakes.

I believe we last left on our departure for Utah. We made our way up to Salt Lake City where we had our first scheduled interview with a life coach named Nanice Ellis, who has just finished a book about depression in America and how to escape this system of depression that we’re programmed into. Talking with Nanice was incredible, because I felt like she pulled together an array of thoughts I had strewn all over the place, as if she took a string and connected a bunch of Froot Loops scattered across the ground.

She talked about the basis of our system of operation in this country, starting from the time we begin school. We’re taught to be and act a certain way, and that if we don’t fit the academic mold we’re poured into that we aren’t good enough. Our schooling and grading system conditions us not to celebrate the good, but to focus on what we did wrong. We tell children that they need to be good at math and grammar, and if they’re not we don’t help them find the things they like and have a knack for. We tell them they’re dumb or they have a poor work ethic.

She calls it “the matrix of depression”, because it’s a system that we’re built into, but we have the power to bring ourselves out of it. The secret is to find who we really are. To find what we really love and what drives us. By finding that, and finding the joy within ourselves, we can break ourselves out of the groove we get trapped in.

In my opinion, it’s not so much a pursuit as it a break-down. In my journey to find who I really am, it wasn’t about me going out and chasing and arriving at my true self. It was more a process of un-becoming everything that I had tried to be and felt like I should be. It was a removal of layers on layers that had been built by what I thought I needed to be, until all that remained was me.

I had to re-learn a lot of things, and re-learn how to learn. Because the way I was taught to learn growing up didn’t really teach me a whole lot. It taught me to briefly retain a bit of information to regurgitate it on a test, before it left my mind forever. But by not getting caught up in the things I should have been, I was able to really learn. I learned to entertain and process ideas instead of just memorizing the ideas of others.

And this is where I found myself and the things I really love. I was able to explore new ideas that I hadn’t encountered on the track I had been set on, and luckily I had parents who supported me venturing out and finding what I really do love and want to do. It took a bit of adjustment before they accepted that the track I was on wasn’t what was best for me, and a bit of me convincing them that if I am making a mistake that it’s my mistake to make, and it’s something I’ll have to learn and grow from on my own.

While in Salt Lake City we were blessed to have been able to stay with a former neighbor of my father’s while he was growing up named Sharon. Sharon is an absolute gem of a person; making the most of an unfortunate situation she’s found herself in. While Sharon struggles sometimes with the difficulty of her job as a student psychologist at a school for autistic children, she recognizes the importance of her job, and loves when she can actually make a difference.

However, as someone who’s on the front lines of mental health every single day, she recognizes the system as broken. Children simply cannot get the help they need. Schools are not offering it, and when they do get some kind of help, it frequently doesn’t last. This contributes to the rise in numbers of adolescent depression, because it’s not being treated as it should be.

A theme I’ve seen recently that started with Sharon, is the acceptance of some things that you just can’t change, and to find the joy in those that are within your sphere of influence. Sharon has experienced a shift in the way she perceives happiness, to move towards finding the joy in the small things in her life.

Our next destination was Colorado. We stayed with a friend’s parents, Phil and Aimee, who are some of the best people I’ve ever met. Philip, her father, is a surgeon at Denver Health. He belongs to the group of doctors who didn’t lose sight of why they became doctors, and never fell victim to the substance abuse or burnout that many suffer from.

Phil’s life is centered on helping and healing others. He also sees our current healthcare system as flawed in some ways, because it doesn’t cater to the needs of patients but the bottom line of business. Patients are seen now as numbers, and doctors on average let their patients speak for a mere 12 seconds before interrupting them. But it’s not at the fault of the doctors, because they’re told they need to be cranking out these high numbers.

The change Phil believes in is more time spent with patients, learning about them and their situation, and after-care. The care of a patient does not end with their time in the office or under the knife. That’s why Phil gives every single patient he sees his cell phone number, and makes himself ever available to continue care.

While he could go into private practice and make obscene amounts of money, that is not and will never be what medicine is about for him. He’s in it to help people, and that’s why he works in a public hospital. He wants his services to be available to those in need, not just those with money, and that’s evidenced in Phil’s life every day. As a man named Two Feathers shared with us in Taos, New Mexico, it seems that the people who have the most share the least. This is not true in Phil’s case. He shares what he has. He spent his younger years traveling and making memories, and now he wants to help others do the same. Phil and Aimee sent us off with more than we came with, because they wanted us to be able to follow our dreams and make this movie happen.

People like Sharon, Aimee, and Phil, are a refreshing change of pace that help put things into perspective. While we’ve met some fascinating people while walking about the streets of the places we’ve visited, it seems as though we’ve approached many of them because they stand out in one way or another.  The people we’ve stayed with can represent a group that we might not have spoken with otherwise, and these three in particular have taught me so much. They share what they have, and just want the best for everyone else. Life for them is about the enrichment and the exchange, and they brought us in and treated us like we were members of their family, and in a way, we were.

After we left Colorado we made our way down to New Mexico, and I have to say Santa Fe was one of the coolest cities I’ve been to. Maybe that’s because I’m not a big city guy, but Santa Fe provided a beautiful cross between a large city and a small town. The town square, where we spent a good bit of time, had such a beautiful, eclectic group of people who were more than happy to share.

The first people we stopped and talked to was a retired couple from New Hampshire, who were on a cross-country road trip. The sentiment they shared with us was that as they got older, they saw the lives of a lot of their peers coming to a close, and with both of them having been in healthcare their whole lives, much of what they heard towards the end was “meant-to’s”.

Sentiments like “I always meant to…” and so they are living their lives without meant-to’s. The advice they sent us off with was to do everything we mean to. The things we meant to say, the moves we meant to make, and the things we meant to do, don’t leave them undone.

I really loved that, because I sometimes find myself not saying the things I want to say. But from now on, when things come to me that I mean to share with someone, I will. Because the worst that can happen from me sharing isn’t as bad as the chance left untaken.

On our way across Texas we stopped at Balcones Wildlife Preserve, where we took a much-needed detour to go swim and lay in the sun for a bit. The time to care for ourself is vital, because as Phil pointed out, no one can heal if they aren’t healed themselves. As enriching as this trip is, I find myself just absolutely exhausted every night. Some nights, depending on where we are, I don’t sleep well, and then we’re going all day every day.

As we pulled into New Orleans yesterday, we were planning on filming at night, but in addition to the filming and driving, we’re also in need of administrative work of sorts, like grant applications and sending emails, and I didn’t have it in me to expend the energy on filming. The brief periods we get to regenerate a bit are vital, and that’s not exclusive to this journey. No matter what we do in life, taking the time to step back, relax, and let your mind and body journey elsewhere is so important to mental health. Without it, we’re at risk of burnout, regardless of how much we love what we do. Self-care is so important, and we don’t give enough to it.

Today as I was writing an afore-mentioned grant application, I got a call from Paul telling me to go meet him ASAP—FREE CRAWFISH! Which, honestly, was the one thing I needed to have from Louisiana, but wasn’t sure it would happen because of our limited budget.

And at this crawfish boil, I met some of the best people. These people invited us in to eat and share with them, and I had some wonderful discussions with people, young and older alike, who all had thoughts to share on our journey, and what it means to be happy.

Everyone has his or her (we also need a non-gender-specific pronoun) own story to share; it’s a topic everyone can relate to. An interesting thing that I hadn’t expected before we left was how much this can pull people together. While this may seem paradoxical, I expected that it would bring people together, but on an individual basis. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but bear with me for a minute. In sharing my story, I had a lot of individual outreach, which is what I expected this to bring: people discussing their stories one on one, and creating individual connection.

But today I got to stand with a group of women and have a discussion about life, our travels, happiness, and depression, where we were all able to talk together. And that was awesome, because that’s one further aspect of breaking down the stigma. These things can be hard to talk about, and they’re even harder to do when you’re not just sharing with one other person. By speaking with bigger groups, we just get that much closer to having a more open culture.

-Max

The Beginning of Week Two

As we head towards Utah today, day eight, we have successfully completed our first week of filming.

I last left off with us sitting in a Shell station on the outskirts of Seligman (pronounced su-leeg-min), Arizona, which Paul later informed me is the town that the movie Cars was based on. We awoke the next morning next to a row of semis, and after waiting for the mechanic to get his shop, we started off down the road around 10 am. Just a heads up, parts of this are going to be semi-technical, but I’m pretty proud of myself for the work done on this vehicle, simple as it may be, so I’m going to talk about it. 

We had lost power steering and the engine was over heating. I knew that the belt that gives power to the steering had slipped off, and I wasn’t quite able to get it back on by hand. I figured that the coolant bubbling out of its’ reservoir had caused the belt to slip, and wasn’t sure what had caused the overheating. So we drove to the mechanic with no power steering, rather slowly, as not to overheat the engine on the 4.6 mile drive down a dirt road to the Seligman Truck & Auto Repair, which was essentially a warehouse-looking building with a couple of big garage doors on the front. 

We waited outside for him to open shop, and when he looked at the engine he informed me that the belt that had slipped off also controlled the fan and the water pump, and that’s why it was over-heating. The engine wasn’t being cooled. Simple fix, $20 for his diagnosis and to put the belt back on. We were going to need to replace the belt eventually though, as it was clearly very worn, and he informed us that belts that have slipped off once are prone to keep slipping. 

With Vegas as our next stop, we had 85 miles to get from Seligman to Kingman, the next city with an auto parts store, and we figured we might as well take Route 66. We were out there already, and it sounded like a fun drive. At first the sailing was smooth, and we stopped to take some cool shots of the van and check out the Grand Canyon Caverns, because why not. But as we kept moving, every few miles I’d lose power steering again and the thermometer would jump up, so I’d have to pull over and put the belt back on in order to keep going.

As we made our way through Valentine, AZ, a small town with a population of 36, we only made it about 100 yards before the belt came off again, so I figured I might as well walk to the next town 5 miles down the road in hopes of finding a gas station or a parts store or something. I pulled off the belt for comparison and started walking, thumb up, although doubtful with our current societal attitude towards hitchhiking that someone would pick up a dirty, ragged looking man walking down a semi-deserted highway in the middle of nowhere.

To my pleasant surprise, about 15 minutes into my walk I was picked up by a couple native to the area who had seen the van and rightfully figured that I was walking because I had broken down, and dropped me off at the lone gas station in Hackberry, where I was informed the next parts shop wouldn’t be for another 10 miles. So again, hitchhiker’s thumb poised, I began walking.

Maybe 10 yards down the road, a couple in a mid-90’s era white Chevy sedan pulled over and shouted towards me to get in. What a relief that was, not only because 10 miles would’ve taken me at least a few minutes to walk, but because as we passed the next town that shop was closed with it being the day before Easter, and they were headed through Kingman anyway. They were really nice, and we chatted the whole ride out. Before dropping me at O’Reilly, he told me that he’d drive me back too, but we’d have to work out some sort of barter. 

“This is what my mom warned me about,” I thought, “this is not going to end well for me,” but all he wanted was a little bit of weed, assuming that we would have some having come from Southern California, and he was rather disappointed to learn that was not in fact the case. 

O’Reilly looked up our make and model, pulled the belt, and sent me on my way. *Quick aside: I think that O’Reilly and AutoZone are the same company. They have all the same stuff, same packaging, except AutoZone has one label on it and O’Reilly has another. I think they even use the same computer system.*

I asked for a piece of cardboard and to borrow a sharpie to make this sign, thinking that when hitchhiking away from the city it might help if people knew there was an end-game, and that there was no ulterior motive. I had some supernatural forces working with me Saturday, because a couple in a pickup truck pulled over to pick me up after only 2 miles. They told me they could take me as far as Vallie View, which was about halfway there, and after about 10 minutes of driving the man pulled over and stepped out. I stood up in the bed, ready to hop out, and he told me I didn’t have to get out, he just wanted to make sure I was warm enough, then offered to take me all the way back to the car, because he had been there before too. 

What nice people there are in Western Arizona! 

I got back to the van with a few hours of daylight left, which should have been plenty of time to get the belt on and head out. I slipped the belt on, went to pop the pulley back in place, until POP! the main bolt holding that pulley in place came right out. And I couldn’t get back in for the life of me. I spent a couple hours trying, recruiting Paul to hold it while I tried, until we eventually gave up and called AAA. I was sure to specify how large the van is, because when it was towed in Orange, the dispatcher at the tow company thought I said “Trans-Am”, not “Transvan”, and the tow truck wasn’t big enough. 

Sure enough, the truck they sent, from 30 miles away in Kingman, was not large enough to tow Gus. He called his dispatch, who told him we’d need to upgrade to a AAA RV membership in order for them to send a bigger truck, or we’d be stuck out there. Unfortunately, service was insanely spotty, so after roughly two hours of frustration and 27 dropped calls to AAA in Missouri, the tow truck driver let us borrow his phone, which finally worked for us. We upgraded, they sent another truck big enough to tow us, and around 11 pm we were finally on our way to the Wal-Mart parking lot in Kingman. For those of you who don’t know, if you’re ever traveling cross-country and need somewhere to crash, Wal-Mart’s national policy is that overnight parking is allowed in all of their stores for travelers. 

This turned out to be a really great experience, because I chatted with the driver about anything and everything ranging from politics to religion to life philosophies and experiences the whole ride back and then about another hour when we got to the parking lot. He aligns himself on the conservative end of the spectrum, and while on the surface this may have seemed to be in conflict with many of my ideologies, as we dug a little deeper we learned we had a lot more in common than it may have appeared at first glance. 

I don’t know that either of us tremendously shifted position during this discussion, but we certainly gave each other a lot to think about, and I think it’s key to have our beliefs challenged and questioned every once in a while, to make sure we’re justified in holding them. I also find that when it comes to these topics, people tend to get heated rather quickly, so it was refreshing to be able to hold an intelligent conversation with someone who just wanted to talk and share thoughts and perspective without getting upset when we didn’t agree. 

We joked, we laughed, we shared, and at the end I had made a friend with a vastly different background that I would have never crossed paths with had O’Reilly not given me the wrong size belt. 

Easter Sunday came as I awoke refreshed after a much needed nights sleep, with the events recapped in this post thus far only spanning one day. Kayla headed off to a Church she had found about a mile down the road to attend an Easter service, and Paul and I got back to work on the van. I was determined. I was going to make that van run. There weren’t any mechanics open on Sunday, and I knew I could do it anyway. We tried for a bit, and with no luck, Paul and Kayla headed to a Starbucks to get some work done while I stayed with the van.

After trying a bit longer, finding it much harder without an extra set of hands, I wandered the parking lot a bit and introduced myself to a couple in a van a few spots down from us where they were changing the front breaks and bearings, and offered some help. Corbin, the man with the van, said he was almost done, but they seemed nice so I hung around a bit to chat. 

We shared stories for a little when a bearded man in his late forties with hair longer than mine walked up asking if Corbin needed help, as he was a mechanic. I won’t share his name, because I think he’d prefer it that way, but this guy was a character. I inquired as to whether I could ask his opinion on something, and he told me to be careful what I wished for. I consulted him on the status of Gus, and he gave me an idea that seemed obvious but hadn’t even occurred to me. This man was Gus’s savior, for after following his advice and grinding down a metal sleeve that seemed to be too long to fit back in place, I finally was able to get the new belt on, the pulley back in place, and Gus galloping again. 

We hung out and had dinner with Corbin, his girlfriend and travel partner Steph, and another van-dwelling friend we met in the parking lot named Quoigéma that night, where we spent the evening talking and having a real meal that wasn’t rice and beans or peanut butter and jelly in wonderful company. 

We talked about the things we had learned and seen in our travels, our lives, and why we were all on the road. They had all been on the road a good bit longer than us, and were excited to find some younger travelers at it seems many of the RV campers are in their senior years. We shared advice on where the best spots to stop would be, and I’m pleased to say that Corbin and Steph got to be the first two to paint on Gus, something we’d like to have many more people contribute to as we make our way through the country. 

It’s experiences like these with the people I met hitchhiking, the tow truck driver, and our Wal-Mart friends that make breaking down seem like such a positive experience. Without what seems at first to be a bit of a downer we wouldn’t have had these beautiful experiences. This trip is proving to ever be a lesson in perspective. I thought that would be the case before we left, and I liked to have considered myself an optimist, but as I share these wonderful experiences that blossom from a dark place, as our Gustavo Ubon Samsonite, the lotus, brings to us, we get to enjoy something great that starts in darkness.

While sitting in the Shell parking lot in Seligman, Kayla pointed out that Gus needs to be approached much like a person dealing with depression. We need to take the time to care for him, help him to get better, and be understanding of what’s happening. We can’t get frustrated with him and ask “Dammit why can’t you just work?!” but rather break down the issue and work towards a holistic healing. 

And just as depression has done for each of us, it started in a deep, dark place, and brought us somewhere beautiful. We continue to find ourselves in unfortunate positions, only to have something incredible come from it that wouldn’t have happened had it not been for those bumps in the road. 

As we begin day 8 we’re making our way into Utah, our third state, with a freshly working propane tank, a new fan belt, and some new homemade curtains on the way. Gus is turning into quite the beauty and starting to feel rather homey!

-Max

The Trek has Begun

Today marks day four of our travels. I wanted to be posting more frequently and will continue to work on that, but we’ve been busier in these first few days than I could’ve imagined, so brace yourselves for a long post to get caught up on our happenings. 

After a series of setbacks that postponed our departure, namely the mechanical troubles of our trusty steed Gustavo Ubon Samsonite (Gus, for short), we headed out on Tuesday morning.

As you may be wondering where in the world that name came from, it starts with Gustavo, the homie we bought the van from. Gus had to be towed twice in one day, right after we bought him. We couldn’t figure out what was wrong, so we called Gustavo, and while he could’ve blown us off, as we had already paid, the title had been transferred, and liability had been released, Gustavo paid for the necessary repairs to get our van back on the road. Without him our budget would’ve taken a blow that would’ve been tough to recover from.

Ubon is a Thai name meaning lotus, a way of life we appreciate and strive to mirror. The lotus grows up out of the mud and the muck, through the water, to blossom into a beautiful flower atop the pond. It needs to come from a dark place, in order to reach its true beauty, and when it gets there it sits peacefully with the water without being consumed by it. It’s important to remain in touch with where you came from and your own personal development. We must remember why we are who we are, for none of us would be the people we are without everything that’s happened in our lives. But while we have to keep that in mind, we don’t have to let the darkness of our past keep a hold over us. We can choose to be beautiful flowers who thrive because of where we came from. 

Samsonite, because of the Samsonite briefcase in Dumb and Dumber that led Lloyd and Harry on their cross-country journey. 

The first day of our travels was spent driving, after a long morning of packing up everything and making sure we were good to go. 

Day two was our first day of shooting, and was better than I could’ve hoped for. We walked about Tempe, AZ, and after a bit of an awkward start, not quite sure how to approach people, we first spoke with a man named Rob. When we told him we were making a film about happiness and depression, he replied, “Oh, this is right up my alley.”

Rob was a homeless combat veteran who hadn’t found happiness in life until nine months ago, the last nine months that he had spent homeless. 

He had been dealing with depression for most of his life. Rob struggled to cope with the things he had done and had been commanded to do in the military, and after being injured he got hooked on pain killers. When those were taken away, he became addicted to heroin. Rob was an addict who had moved from one medium to another. Drugs were a way of coping with his PTSD and depression, which just goes to show how little our current system does for our veterans and those dealing with mental health issues. 

After being kicked out of his apartment complex last year, and not receiving his promised aid from the VA, Rob found himself on the streets. He had lost everything. But in losing all of his belongings Rob was far from lost. He was given an opportunity to start anew. To remove the materialism and the aspects of life that had been preventing him from finding himself, his spirituality, and his happiness. 

Rob found that in his life he had been chasing happiness. He had been trying to find it somewhere out there, somewhere down the road. But by being stripped of everything except his backpack, he found his happiness right here. Rob found happiness within himself and God in every moment, instead of looking for it externally, as if it were a finish line he’d never been able to reach.

That night we cruised out to Sedona, a place I was stoked to visit, as I’ve heard wonderful things but hadn’t had the opportunity to experience it myself. 

We found a nice spot on the side of the road to post up and sleep, and awoke to one of the more beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen. 

As we made our way through Sedona we met some very cool people, had some wonderful talks, and I was presented with a new idea that hadn’t occurred to me before. 

Johnny, a man we met on the walk back to the van on our way out of the city, shared a thought about emotion. As a musician, Johnny sees life in waves. Just as music is transmitted through wavelengths that go on infinitely (or would, should they not be interfered with), time and emotion transmit in the same manor. 

Johnny experiences all emotions all the time, but whatever he happens to be feeling is the dominant wave. He gave us the imagery of the ocean as reference. If the waves moving in the ocean are all emotions, the one that we feel at any time is the biggest, most dominant wave. When you’re watching the ocean, your eye catches the biggest wave. We are drawn to the biggest one, but just as we feel the biggest emotion, it’s not the only one there. 

So the cool thing I see in this idea is it gives a new perspective to our control over emotion. I believe that to some extent, we have a bit of control over how we feel, and this gave a new way of seeing that control. Instead of just basing my control of how I feel on my optimism or perspective on certain scenarios, it can be viewed as me choosing to feed a certain a wave, and allow that to be dominant at that point in time. 

Over the last two days we’ve been experiencing a bit of engine troubles with Gus, and right now we’re currently stuck in Seligman, Arizona, halfway between Flagstaff and Las Vegas, with some problems we won’t be able to have looked at until the morning. At first, this was a bit discouraging. It’s a bummer that we’re getting delayed, while we have a schedule we’re trying to stay on. However, as I’m sitting here writing this recap I’m reminded of why it is that I’m here and why I’m doing this. 

It’s not about the land we cover. It’s not about the quantity of people we talk to. It’s not about keeping a tight schedule. 

It’s about learning. It’s about growth. It’s about being able to hear the stories of people who might not have had an outlet to share them otherwise. It’s about seeing the different ways that different people get to experience happiness and while they can all vary so much, they all share a common thread. 

These minor technical difficulties can’t bring me down, because what we’re doing has already changed my life. And whether we’re back on the road tomorrow or not, it’s cool, because this is too important of a project to fail. 

I love you all. 

-Max