WHITEFISH – Four Flathead Valley residents are planning a road trip later this month – and they’re going all in on the idea.
All in, as in a 30,000-mile road trip. One that will take them from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world.
In other words, Jennifer Cobet, Aamon Jaeger and Kevin Trimm of Whitefish, and Jacob Ries of Columbia Falls, plan to pretty much drive from one end of the Western Hemisphere to the other – well, all but 60 miles of it.
There is no road through the rainforests of the Darien Gap, which connects Central America to South America. They’ll ship their vehicle off through the Panama Canal and collect it five days later in Colombia.
Despite the missing 60 miles, the Pan American Highway is considered the longest road on Earth – even though, through much of North America, there is no one official route. In fact, the United States designates its entire interstate highway system as part of the Pan American Highway network.
The Flathead Four plan to travel U.S. Highway 93 through much of the Western U.S. How you get from Alaska to Argentina in a vehicle isn’t as important as getting there is, and besides, that’s the route that will bring them back through the Flathead.
And, of course, to drive from Prudhoe Bay, you must first drive to Prudhoe Bay. That 2,800-mile jaunt is just part of an extra 20,000 miles Ries says they figure they’ll put on during their half-year-long journey through 17 countries.
Chief among their goals are two.
While others have made the drive and one, Livingston author Tim Cahill, wrote a book about it in 1992, the Flathead Four say they will be the first people to document the journey with video cameras. They hope to have something ready to submit to the Sundance Film Festival next summer.
The other: “We want to connect communities in the Rockies and the Andes,” Ries says. “Find out what help people need, and how we can create a better world. By opening up dialogues we can bridge some gaps, provide a voice, and give a positive spin on the world.”
In a world full of bad news, they see themselves as carriers of hope.
The 29-year-old Cobet, an accountant, first broached the idea a year ago, Ries says, but the timing wasn’t right. When Ries, 28, a volunteer and statue-caster at the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas in Arlee for four years, quit and moved to Columbia Falls three months ago, the discussion began again in earnest.
They’ve since been joined by Jaeger, 24, a tattoo artist, and Trimm, 21, who moved to the Flathead Valley from California two months ago.
“I want to show people you can break away from the everyday life that you live,” Trimm says in a video the four put up at Indiegogo’s website seeking funding help for the trip. “A lot of people I know and love dearly, they never get out of that 20-mile radius from their house. … You have to realize you’re not trapped in these boxes you’ve created.”
“You’re not confined to these boxes of a name, an occupation, where you went to college,” Ries adds in the video. “We are much more than that.”
Despite the Indiegogo site showing that just $91 of their $125,000 goal has been raised since the video went up on Sept. 22, Ries says they’ve gotten $10,000 in pledges from Flathead area businesses, and will be in Missoula on Monday seeking more funds.
The $125,000 is a “loose goal” that would enable them to buy the van they think would work best for the long haul and allow them to provide more help to people they encounter along the way.
“It’s a rough estimate of what it would take to do it right,” he says, “but we’re going regardless. We’ve all freed ourselves up financially to do the trip.”
The four are aiming for a departure date from the Flathead of Oct. 23 – the date of a new moon. They hope to be ready to backtrack out of Prudhoe Bay and begin the 30,000-mile drive to Ushuaia around Nov. 1.
Cobet is the only one with filmmaking experience, having worked for a California production company. “But the rest of us have grown up with the technology,” Ries says, “and Kevin’s really into it.”
Cahill partnered with a professional long-distance driver to make the trip in a record 23 days, 22 hours and 43 minutes before writing “Road Fever: A High-Speed Travelogue.” The Flathead Four are in no such rush.
If they come across people building a school in Ecuador, for instance, Ries says, they’ll stop and lend a hand.
In the Indiegogo video, Ries says that they’re “not fundraising to go party, to visit different hot spots. We want to show you the beauty of our species in different locations.”
“I don’t see us stopping wanting to travel and connect with people,” once this particular trip is over, Ries adds later in a telephone interview. “Where humanity is is where we wish to go. We want to be people actively engaged in making the world a better place. I think this will turn out to be our life’s work.”