Thursday, December 19, 2013

RAK Day 13: Dan's First Blog Post and Milking Goats.

I’m sure many of you are thinking: “Wow, this Meaghan girl is an inspired individual with a wonderful style of writing, and I just can’t get enough of her adventures across America… but what about this mystery chauffeur of hers she keeps mentioning?  Does he not know how to string words together to help tell their story? Does he even understand English? Is he just a figment of Meaghan’s imagination born out of too many hours in the car? Is he just a volleyball with a bloody handprint on it?”  All of these questions are very valid and have been asked around water coolers everywhere this blog is read.  So I, Dan Kenny, am writing now to dispel the myth and share for once my experience on this wonderful journey we’ve embarked on.

Meaghan and I have now been on the road for 44 days trying to experience this fine country as much as possible while making a positive impact on those we encounter along the way.  Hopefully by the time we’re back in the frigid North with our friends and direwolves we’ll have made some of the lives we’ve crossed just a little brighter, if only for a moment.  So I will start this post with a few common questions people ask us when we first explain the concept of our trip: 

1. What made you want to do this?
2. Are you with some organization, or is this all your idea?
3. What was your favorite “RAK” so far?
4. How many miles have you driven?
5. Who does the driving?
6. Are you sick of each other yet?
7. Where will you go next?
8. Is there room in your car for me?!

*I’ll stop at 8 because that’s my favorite number.

1. We began planning this trip when Meaghan’s despair of not having gotten out and done something that young and carefree people do settled in last March.  I have been fortunate enough to travel around several states and countries in the last few years and wanted to share an experience of that kind with my wonderful lady-friend. We were brainstorming on the best way to see the United States that would allow us to feel more of a connection to the places we visited beyond the typical photo ops and tourist traps.  I have performed driving marathons from Michigan to the West Coast before, which left me exhausted and feeling like I’d missed a lot of the country. So we wanted to have a lasting experience in each spot and Meaghan came up with the brilliant idea of doing nice things for people, which snowballed into the whole Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) theme; and before we knew it, we were planning our route, stuffing our piggy banks, and collecting donations and ideas for RAKs. 

2. We are always inspired by selfless acts that are shared on the internet or happen before our very eyes.  Growing up in a family of 5 kids, yes 5 kids, I’ve been on the receiving end of many kind acts performed by members of our community and often enough, total strangers.  Whether it be neighbors making meals for us when my mom was sick, or hand-me-downs being passed around, we were raised to appreciate and reciprocate in order to contribute to the sense of community that thrives in a place like Traverse City, MI.

3. I’m currently torn on having a favorite RAK because the reactions we get from all of them are usually of shocked appreciation that pulls at the heartstrings.  I must say though, seeing the reaction on the faces of children is priceless.  So if I had to narrow it down, it’d be the RAKs where kids are on the receiving end.

4.  We just broke the 9,000 mile mark, and yes we got the oil changed about halfway through and are nearly due for another.  I don’t know how much we’ve spent on gas, but we alternate paying to fill the tank.

5. We’ve calculated that Meaghan has probably driven a solid 15% of this trip.  She is not the most confident driver, but she’s come a long way (please excuse the pun).

6. When talking with people who have spent this much time locked in a car or stranded at sea with only one other individual, this question always creeps into the conversation.  We set out on this trip in part to have a large shared experience and get to know each other better, and I must say that has happened.  We’ve been good about bringing up problems as they arise and have spent very little time in the bitter barn.  So I conclude that we are not sick of each other and I at least am glad for the opportunity to be silly all the time and sing entire Beatles songs with just meows, or listen to Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” on repeat for two hours so we can learn all the words.

7. We’re currently working our way to New Port Richie, FL for Christmas and New Years with Meaghan’s parents and friends, then off to Miami and the Keys before we make our way up the East Coast, through Canada, and back to Michigan.  We expect we’ll make it home by mid-February.

8. There is very little room in the car for extra passengers.  The first time we had an extra seat available was when we drove Ms. Sulau to the airport in Seattle.  We have since re-Tetris-ed the contents of the car to make one back seat semi-vacant in order to fully recline the passenger seat.  So if you can easily fold in half you’re more than welcome to ride around with us.  Otherwise, you’ll have to pull the old pageant-mom move and live vicariously through us by means of this blog.

Now to catch you up on our most recent exploits. Upon leaving New Orleans, we received a message to the RAK Road Trip Facebook page informing us that we had mixed up the address for Jacob’s Parents and left the gift card at someone else’s home.  The accidental recipients had read up on our cause and were eager to do their part in delivering the RAK to its intended destination.  We passed along the correct address and soon thereafter got the following message from Jacob’s appreciative parents:
Sorry it is a bit blurry!
It’s incredibly reassuring when you mistakenly give a stranger a $120 gift card and they get excited about passing it along to the people who really needed a night out.  Faith in humanity is just constantly restored along this trip.

It turns out that many people in the South are incredibly hospitable, even to strangers, as was reinforced by our stay in Pensacola, FL.  Originally we had hoped to do another military-appreciation RAK, as there is a large Naval base in Pensacola, at which my brother, Tim had been stationed for a while.  Unfortunately a key factor fell through and that RAK will be saved for another day and another post.  Meaghan, fancy internet sleuth that she is, found us a great spot to do some good by means of a call for volunteers posted by the U-Turn Ranch on Craigslist.  One of our much appreciated donors, having grown up on a farm themselves, requested that we provide breakfast for a farmer, so we made sure to bring some muffins with us for our hosts (RAK #35 & #36: Volunteering on the farm for a day and breakfast for a farmer). 

A brief history of U-Turn Ranch:  Ms. Virginia and Mr. Tim bought a house on 5 acres in Pensacola, FL in 1998, to which they later added another 2 acres.  They had grand aspirations of working hard and becoming millionaires by the time they retired.  Tragedy gave little consideration for their plans when it hit them a couple years later in a series of familial and natural disasters.  While cleaning up after hurricane Ivan, they were forced to reevaluate their goals in life and set out to leave behind a worthwhile legacy.  With their faith and level heads as their guides, they began advocating for non-violent offenders sentenced to the female prison in the area.  Ms. Virginia would visit with the women and fight on their behalf at court dates and parole hearings.  One day she won.  The judge said something along the lines of, “if you think she doesn’t belong here, fine, she’s going home with you.” With a smack of the gavel, Ms. Virginia and her charge went home and had to explain to Mr. Tim why a parolee would be staying with them.  That parolee ended up living with them for 6 years, turned her life around, and helped establish both the farm and the program they now maintain.  Through labor and reflection they help women get on their feet by building confidence and self-worth while separating needs from wants.  

Ms. Virginia and Mr. Tim also use the farm as a teaching tool for young people in the area who need positive role models and work ethic.  Some of the kids have been out of school for as many as 3 years, while others lack moral guidance at home.  They allow the kids to play with the animals and enjoy the fruits of the farm, but only after contributing to it with hard work.  Ms. Virginia ensured us that if the kids are over, even the smallest can go around picking up sticks for the bonfire pile and help feed the pigs, donkey, goats, chickens, ducks, geese, and emus that they care for.  The farm is managed by Mr. Tim and Ms. Virginia and completely volunteer run.  Their hope is to one day make it self-sustaining, and bring on agricultural and environmental oriented interns. 

GIANT pile of sticks and brush for the bonfire.
While we were on our way to the farm late Sunday evening, Meaghan received a text from Ms. Virginia asking if we were ready to milk some goats, and Meaghan wasn’t lying when she responded “We were born to milk goats.”  As soon as we dropped our stuff in the chapel where we would sleep, we were off to the goat shed to learn the proper goat-milking technique.  We each milked a goat and filled a jar between the two, which would be given to a friend of Ms. Virginia’s whose son is allergic to cow’s milk.  We then spent an hour or two chatting with the stewards of the farm before getting to bed.  They apologized for the humble state of the farm, and explained that many things were built with reclaimed materials and engineered by a very colorful volunteer named Randy, who spends about 3 days a week improving the farm and antagonizing Ms. Virginia.  

We woke up bright and early… for us, this meant 9 AM.  Ms. Virginia and Mr. Tim, however, considered their 8 AM start to be sleeping in.  We followed Ms. Virginia as she fed all the animals then set out to weed the planting beds.  Things got real exciting when we were called over by Mr. Tim with a slight twinge of panic in his voice.  We sprinted around the house to find them moving cautiously towards a fence where they had cornered two piglets that had escaped their pen.  We formed a semi-circle and started closing in on them when they bolted.  Mr. Tim dove and caught one, but the other took advantage of her brother’s capture to escape through a hole in the fence into a thicket of bushes and thorns.  We spent a half hour trying to corner her again, but they gave up in the hopes she’d wander back to her mother later.  I however was unperturbed by the countless lashings of thorns and set out once more to wrangle myself a piglet.  I spotted her peaking her head out of the bushes looking like she might dash across the road and into the field across the street, where we’d never be able to corner her.  I snuck up the road and started throwing sticks on her left while approaching slowly to corral her along the fence, where she eventually snuck back into the pig pen, where Mr. Tim was finally able to snag her.

They were so small (you've also probably figured out that Meaghan is totally captioning all of these photos).
The excitement only escalated from there, as we were reassigned to the task of donkey poop relocation.  This is a highly technical process that they require all new farm hands to master.  It involves raking donkey poop-nuggets into a pile, shoveling them into a wheel barrow, and then depositing them into large beds where it will decompose into fertilizer.  We probably relocated 15 wheel barrows-full of donkey poop alone before I was promoted to emu-poop scooper and Meaghan was reassigned to stick throwing with the kids that had turned up.  Emus, if you are not aware, bear a striking resemblance to dinosaurs and eyeball intruders like they miss their predecessors’ razor-sharp teeth so they could devour you for stepping foot in their excrement-filled pen.  I had been warned that emus are capable of disemboweling a person with their sharp talons and to enter their pen you must remain calm and resist the urge to startle these terrifying birds.  Ms. Virginia and I were able to make their living space 6 wheelbarrows less covered in giant-bird excrement and escaped unscathed.  Meaghan, who stopped by to spectate, was bitten on the finger.  
Emu Poop Scoopin'
This is just a donkey. We scooped her poop, too.

After some final stick throwing and another round of goat-milking we headed to Mel and Randy’s beautiful home for a much needed shower before being taken to a wonderful Southern-style buffet by our generous hosts.  Talking with folks like Tim and Virginia really drives home for me how great of an experience this trip is.  They are people who give all of themselves to their community with the hope of improving the lives of those around them.  

Some final wisdom from the farm: don’t spend all of your time on social media or your phone.  Get out and interact with members of your community. Don’t let our society become egotistical and petty.  Raise your kids, and help raise your neighbors’ kids; we’re all in this together.

If you’d like to share your own RAKs, share them in the comments below. Here’s the link to donate and keep the RAKs flowing.

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