Darrick McKinney remembers the hardest part of physical rehabilitation: walking up one little step, then another, and then down one little step, and another.

McKinney, who had been hit head on in a crash, would try to hold himself up with his arms on the railing.

"That was the hardest thing in the world to do," he said.

The wreck took place in 2010, and McKinney, of Alabama, spent the year that followed living at his brother's place after spending three months in a medically induced coma.

"I got really depressed after the accident," McKinney said.

He started drinking too much and he did drugs. One night, after partying for three or four days straight, he blacked out.

"I felt like I almost died. I remember when it happened," he said.

On his brother's couch, a flash of insight struck him, and he decided it was time for change.

"I can't keep living like this because I'm going to keep killing myself," McKinney said.

He packed some clothing into a Walmart tote bag. He checked his bank account and saw that about $20,000 of delayed Social Security and disability payments had accumulated. And that afternoon, he asked his brother — and partner in partying — to drive him to the bus station.

He bought a Greyhound ticket to Atlanta and didn't look back for a good long while.

"I actually traveled to every state inside the U.S.," McKinney said. "I was just trying to find myself, you know. I wanted to find another place to start over."

Three years ago, he landed in Missoula. And to make a long story short, at least for now, McKinney graduates this week with an associate degree from Missoula College. In June, he'll turn 41, and in the fall, he heads to the University of Montana School of Business Administration to pursue a bachelor's in accounting finance.

"I'm the first one in my family to graduate from college. My mom is so happy," he said.

***

McKinney grew up in a small town, Brundidge, Alabama, where he helped his grandfather raise corn, soybeans and peanuts on the family farm. After high school, he tried going to Troy University, and he did well, but he didn't stay long because he was earning $380 a week.

At the time, he thought it was big money, even though he was still living with his Mom. So he dropped out to get his own apartment and his own paycheck, and he worked in warehouses in shipping and receiving.

One day, on his way home after a shift at the Hyundai plant in Montgomery, he saw a car coming toward him, and a couple fighting in the front. He thought they'd turn the corner, but they plowed into him instead.

"The last thing I remember is gripping the steering wheel and closing my eyes," McKinney said.

He woke up trying to scream in the hospital, but his throat was full of tubes. His legs weren't working, and he thought he was paralyzed, but really, his muscles had atrophied.

"I've had maybe six surgeries since to get me back on my feet," he said.

While he was in recovery, his wife left him, unable to cope with her mother's sudden death, her father's suicide soon after, and then a husband nearly dead in the hospital.

McKinney wasn't sure how he could move on, either. He was done with drugs, and he couldn't work an assembly line anymore. What else was there?

"First of all, I need to find myself."

The bus trip around the country saved his life.

***

In Washington, D.C., McKinney visited the Smithsonian Museum, and he watched the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. 

He visited a cousin in Las Vegas, but he didn't stay there long.

"They call it Sin City for a reason."

He ate authentic tamales in Albuquerque and met Mennonites in the Midwest. He dropped in on Portland, Oregon.

"There's a lot of hippies over there living in tiny houses. They get those little sheds and turn them into tiny homes. Hippies, they're fun to be around."

But Portland wasn't his place, and he kept moving.

The first time he crossed the country, he avoided the Big Sky State.

"There's nothing in Montana," he figured.

The second time, he got lucky.

Maybe, he got a shot of divine intervention.

***

On the stretch from Chicago to Washington state, a woman, 65, maybe older, boarded the bus and sat next to him.

"You look like you troubled," she told him.

"No, ma'am. I'm good."

"No, baby. I think there's something wrong with you."

The stranger on the bus proceeded to reassure him, and she told him to be humble and told him not to think of his life as being over. The words she offered changed him.

"God has a way of helping people find themselves," she said.

That conversation was the last one McKinney had before the bus stopped and his life took a turn. He didn't know where he was, but he knew he needed a break from bus riding, and he figured he'd stop for a day or so and clean up.

He ended up stopping for a little longer, though.

McKinney had landed in Missoula, Montana, and he saw the mountains, and he felt at home. He walked downtown and ate at the Iron Horse, he climbed the M, he hiked the L, and he wandered around Blue Mountain.

Once, people drove by him honking and waving, and their friendliness reminded him of home, and he smiled and waved back until another driver on Sixth Avenue set him straight.

"You're going the wrong way, a--hole."

So he learned the streets were wonky too, and he liked it just the same. He stayed two weeks, only tearing himself away to race to Alabama to collect his belongings, buy a $1,300 car, and drive straight back to Montana.

McKinney had found home, and he'd found the University of Montana and Missoula College.

***

McKinney's stepfather was an accountant, and he'd seen the possibility of earning a living by managing other people's money. His stepfather had inspired him, too.

"I've never seen him punch a time clock, but he always had money," McKinney said.

Plus, he loves numbers. 

At first, he figured he'd get a two-year degree, but an adviser at the college told him he was still young enough to do more, and earn an extra $30,000 more a year to boot. He liked the advice.

To his own surprise, McKinney has done well in school even after all these years away from academia. Saturday, he graduates with one degree and is on his way to another. He hopes to work as a peer adviser this summer and plans to head to UM in the fall.

"If I could pat myself on the back, I would. I know where I started and I know where I am now," he said.

He can't pat himself on the back because his arms don't bend and fold like they used to.

***

But others are more than happy to praise McKinney.

Faculty member Greg Peters said McKinney is "a gift," a person committed to academic success, but also one who brings life lessons to the job and doesn't get too wound up.

"He's a reminder to me to do the work and then relax. I think that's a really great attitude," Peters said.

When Peters asked McKinney to work as a teaching assistant in his biology lab, McKinney agreed, and Peters was pleased to have help from the successful student. He can count on McKinney to both do the work and bring the right demeanor.

"Professionally, he's already shown that he has this capacity for a very human approach to dealing with something like accounting that can seem very impersonal," Peters said. "So whoever his clients are (they) are going to be lucky people, that's for sure." 

***

As it turns out, McKinney believes in second chances. He has three smart children, a sweet girlfriend who cracks the whip when he needs it, and a milestone to celebrate in his degree.

He's seen a bear in the Rattlesnake Wilderness and the falls above Holland Lake. 

His brother, the one who used to party with him, is clean and sober, too.

McKinney still suffers from depression, and he doesn't have feeling in some of his fingers and toes, but he believes life is a blessing, and he thinks back to the stranger on the bus who guided him.

"At one point, I didn't even believe that God was real. But after that conversation, I thought, huh, that probably was my angel talking to me," he said.

Over the years, McKinney has done plenty of bad. Now, he wants to do some good, wants to leave a positive legacy. Every day he wakes up in the morning, he's thankful to be alive, and his ethic for living is pretty simple.

"If you can lend someone a friendly hand or help someone out, then you should take the opportunity to do that," McKinney said. 

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