"America" changed my life - How a U-turn in Wyoming lead me to the Grand Canyon

One early morning - like 0430 - on June 25, 2004, I pulled into West Yellowstone and stopped at the EconoMart gas station to get a cup of coffee.  There was a tall, lanky young man working the midnight to 8 shift.  His name was Nick.  We started talking as I paid for my coffee and he asked me, "What are you doing up so early?"  I told him I woke up on the side of the road in my Bronco in Big Sky, MT at 0315 after a good night's sleep of 4 hours and was getting coffee at the first place I could find open.  I also mentioned that I was traveling around the country going to AA meetings in all 50 states.

Nick shared this statement, "Alcohol changed my life when I got caught doing 110 in a school zone in Scottsdale, AZ in a 450SL when I was 17".  He added, "No one was hurt, but it changed my life" and then we proceeded to talk about drinking and sobriety.  He said, "A famous movie star stopped in here a while back and talked to me about the same thing". (In honor of anonymity, I left out his name).

I paid for my coffee and walked out the door, climbed into my Bronco and drove off.  BUT, after only about 10 car lengths I had a sudden thought, did a U-turn and drove back to the station.  I pulled a map out of my console and walked back to talk to Nick.  I unfolded the laminated map of the United States and showed Nick.  I had outlined, in black Sharpie pen, each state that I had attended an AA meeting in, including Alaska and Hawaii, since February 2001 which was the month I got sober.

I told Nick, "I have only 9 states left to go".  And, pointing to the unmarked states, said, "Oklahoma through Georgia in the southern tier, and Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan". I then told Nick that if I stretched it out for 10 months I will have attended AA meetings in all 50 states in the first 50 months of my sobriety.

Nick said, "Hold on, wait here" and ran out to his old Vovlo station wagon with a canoe upsidedown on its roof.  He came back with a little white Beanie Baby bear.  It was white.  It was the white Beanie Baby with an American Flag sewn on it. 

Nick handed it to me and said, "My mother gave this to me to keep me safe in my travels.  I want you to take it with you as you travel to those next 9 states, to keep you safe in your travels". 

I took one look at the Beanie Baby and knew it's name: America.  I asked Nick, "Do you know this bear's name"? Nick said he didn't know it's name so I told him, this one is named America and that's why he has the flag on his chest.

Nick just said, "That's nice" and he then said he wanted it back when I got through with my quest.  He said that he didn't know where he will be living at the time I finish up, and inasmuch as he wanted the little bear returned to him, he wrote down his mother's name and mailing address on a little post-it note and handed it to me.  It read, "Ava R____" P.O.Box XXXX, Grand Canyon, Arizona 86023".

Wow!  Now I was in a dilema!  As I drove off I felt a little guilt for taking his "keep me safe in my travels" bear.  I had sorta planned the next nine states to last 10 months while I worked a little here and there and had a few hours of billabe consulting work I could do on my computer no matter where I was. 

Within a couple of miles I had made up my mind that I must travel to those nine states to finish my 50-sate quest and return America to Nick as soon as possible.  "America" changed my life.

I drove to Utah where I had a temporary home base in the tiny town of Spring Glen - actually renting a room in an old farm house that I had previously owned and restored.  A friend had bought it from me before I had uprooted and left to live in Virginia and West Virginia on the way to losing my money, my marriage, my jobs, my retirement savings.

I arranged for a flight from Salt Lake City to Oklahoma City where I rented a car to visit and attend AA meetings in 6 southern-tier states and fly from Atlanta back to Salt Lake City.  Those states were Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

As I embarked on this leg of my 50-state journey, I decided to take photos of "America" wherever I went in order to chronical America's journey for Nick.  After attending AA meetings and meeting new friends in Muskogee, OK; Fort Smith, Arkansas; Bossier City, LA; Meridian, MS; and Montgomery, AL, I called Nick at the EconoMart and said, "Hey, Nick, 'America' is in Montgomery".  It was now July 9th - just 14 days after that early morning in West Yellowstone. 

Nick said, "That's pretty cool.  Now, will you call my Mom at the Grand Canyon at tell her that 'America' is in Montgomery"?  - Whoa, I wondered if his mom knew that I had his "keep me safe in my travels bear".  Nick assured me that he had already told his mom about me, about our talk, about him loaning 'America' to me. So, I agreed, jotted down his mom's phone number and proceed to call her.

"Hello, this is Ava R, how may I help you?" said the pleasant voice on the other end of the phone. I introduced myself, "Hi, my name is John, and 'America' is in Montgomery'.  I told her that I thoroughly enjoyed meeting her son in West Yellowstone and that I had felt a little hesitant in taking the beanie baby bear with me when Nick offered it.  Ava told me it was just fine and that she enjoyed the story Nick told her.

I then told Mrs.R, that I had shortened my timeline for completion of my 50-state quest and that, after completing the southern tier states, I would travel to MN, WI and MI and be back in West Yellowstone on July 21st to deliver 'America' to her son, Nick.   There was a silence on the other end of the phone. Mrs R. then said, "Wow, I can't believe what I'm hearing.  It was less than an hour ago that I made airline reservations to fly to visit my son and I will be in West Yellowstone that same day!!"

I then told her that Nick and I had made a plan on the phone a few minutes before my call to her - that we'd meet at the "Three Bears Restaraunt" in West Yellowstone for dinner - and that I'd return 'America' to him over dinner.  She said, "Great, I'll be there and join you - three of us at the Three Bears".  She hadn't even had a chance to tell Nick that she'd be there that day.

I hung up the phone with that feeling of amazement that I'd been getting on a regular basis over the past several months as I randomly set out to various states to add to my excel spreadsheet list of cities and states where I had attended AA meetings.  I had met hundreds, if not thousands, of interesting folks along the way.  Several had nudged me one direction or another to take one road or another - to attend a certain AA meeting in a place familiar to them in the state I was heading - to change course.  This type of thing was getting to be a regular occurrance - so long as I stayed out of my own way and was willing to listen to others and to those quiet promptings.  Even choosing between Burmingham and Montgomery was taken out of my hands by a young lady on the AA Help Line early that morning.  She suggested Montgomery because her young husband would be there attending an AA regional meeting at the Governor's House Hotel in Montgomery.

After finishing up with meetings in Alabama and Georgia, I flew back to Utah, regrouped, and flew to Minneapolis/St. Paul. I drove to Duluth, attended a meeting across the bridge in Superior, WI that night for state #48.  Sunday morning, July 18, 2004, I hit a morning meeting in Duluth, MN (State #49) and crossed back over into Wisconsin and traveled to the Upper Penninsula of Michigan.

I ended my 50-state quest by attending an AA meeting at the Ontonongon Regional Medical Center, Ontonongon, MI.  That was July 18, 2004 - just 23 days after meeting Nick in West Yellowstone and about 9 months ahead of my 50-month goal.

After flying to Salt Lake City and driving through the night to Idaho Falls and a short sleep in my Bronco, I headed to West Yellowstone.  One July 20th, I met with Nick and Ava at the Three Bears Restaurant.

During our dinner I handed the little white bear with the American Flag on it's chest to Nick along with a little photo album I had put together in Idaho Falls that morning.  The album showed 'America' positioned in "Welcome to Cuba, Alabama"; "Welcome to Wisconsin" signs, for instance along with 'America' posing with the captain of American Airlines on one flight and, even one with 'America' being held by my granddaughter, Madison.

As we ate dinner and got more acquainted, I told them of the 13-year old girls in Marrietta, GA that I met who were transported by van from a treatment center to the AA meeting I attended. I told them that there I was, with cowboy boots, wrangler jeans, short beard, big, straw cowboy hat and I was holding a little beanie baby in the AA meeting.  Before the meeting started the questions flew and it turned out that 'America' was an ice-breaker. One of the young girls told me, "I just want to get out of alcohol treatment in time to watch my little brother take his first steps". 

With that story, Nick handed 'America' back across the table and gave it to me.  While looking at his mom, he said, "America' now belongs to you, John.  I will keep the photo album".  His mom nodded in agreement.

Over the next day, Ava R (Nick's mom) asked me, "What's your next quest".  I told her I'd like to find gainful employment in a pretty place.  She said, "I am the office manager in the human resources office at Grand Canyon National Park and, on any given day, there are 30 job openings".  She told me how to apply.  7 days later I was at the Grand Canyon looking for a job.  I worked there for 4 years.

So, a "Snap Judgement"/U-turn at 4:30 on that June morning in 2004 changed my life.