Rambling America: Discovery on the Back Roads

Augustus McGiver does not look like an adventurer. His fair skin, curly brown hair and classic good looks fool everyone. Perhaps the only hint of the exploits of Gus McGiver, besides his name, is in his rustic plaid flannel shirt and worn jeans.

Despite his looks, the 20-year-old college freshman spent 10 months of his life traveling more than 35,000 miles across America on a journey of discovery and reflection.

The Schoharie, N.Y. native left his tiny town in September 2009 after graduating high school in the middle of his 65-person class. He traded his town for hundreds of others and the chance of a lifetime. He decided to see America, but not in the way most people get to see it. Instead of following a set schedule or even having a plan, McGiver simply started driving and let his gut decide where to take him.

His urge to ramble the back roads and sleepy towns of America came from a realization made while in high school. McGiver knew he eventually wanted to go off to college, but decided he just didn’t have the drive or the maturity necessary at the time. So his trip became as much about growing up as it was about seeing America.

Going off on an adventure to explore the world is a tradition in the McGiver family. McGiver’s father backpacked through Europe in his younger years. Perhaps most inspiring were his two uncles who years ago rode bicycles from New York to California.

"It put the spark in my head," McGiver said. "I always had it in my mind that I would do it eventually."

The catalyst for McGiver came his senior year of high school in the form of his English teacher, Mr. Clayton. The teacher was what McGiver calls an "armchair explorer." He challenged his students to find the best in themselves.

"He was probably the single biggest influence," McGiver said. "He really pushed it on me and was totally supportive."

With the idea in his mind, he had to make it a reality. He saved about $5,000 for the trip working various jobs. The last hurdle was to convince his parents. His father thought it was a great idea and encouraged him to take a year off before going to school. McGiver expected getting his mother on board for his trip would be a long shot. However, she was okay with the idea. She saw how much her son wanted to go on the trip. It also helped that he was her fifth son to go off on such an adventure.

On the road, McGiver had to quickly learn to adapt to his new lifestyle. His old Chevrolet S-10 pickup never broke down during his trip, but traveling on a shoestring budget meant the truck had to be part transportation, part home away from home. He welded together a bed frame for sleeping and shelves to hold his belongings. Most of his money for the trip was spent on gas and he was frugal with everything else he needed.

"I was getting food out of dollar stores, that’s where I got all my groceries," McGiver said.

Sleeping in the back of his truck and eating cheap food took a toll on the traveler. He said he would not have gotten as far as he did if not for an important discovery. McGiver noticed truckers entering a side door at each rest stop and wondered what it was. Inside, he found comfy chairs, laundry facilities and TVs. The oasis was one of many such areas set up by trucking companies for their employees. The rest areas also offered up a plethora of different people to strike up conversations with.

Although he gave a friend a short ride and visited a few relatives, McGiver became more isolated as his journey went on. He did not write home to his parents much and usually only called once a week for a few minutes to let them know he was safe.

Traveling alone gave him time to think and ponder life. Discovering America, he said, was also a spiritual trip for him. McGiver’s self-imposed solitude had the side effect of forcing him to adapt to find other human beings interact with.

"It kind of forces you to be mature and be social and look for people to talk to… you can’t travel across the country for 10 months alone," McGiver said.

After driving thousands of miles, driving became second nature. Music helped pass the time, but even that got old. McGiver had all his music on his Blackberry and quickly cycled through every song. By the end of the trip, McGiver estimated he had listened to every song at least twice and some more than 50 times.

With his music failing him, McGiver turned to the radio. He soon discovered, however, that most of the stations turned to country or gospel music when he got to the Midwest. That in turn led him to start listening to talk radio for want of something different. Eventually, McGiver got so fed up with his limited options for distraction on the road that he bought old cassettes to listen to because his truck did not have a CD player.

A two-month stint living and working in L.A. gave McGiver a much-needed break- the stop marked roughly the halfway point in his trip, but also showed how far away from home he really was. Reminiscent of Forrest Gump, McGiver just decided one day to go home. The last few hundred miles up the East Coast proved to difficult when McGiver finally ran out of money and had to borrow money for gas to get home.

Now, over a year after his great adventure, McGiver is a freshman majoring in psychology at Oswego State. He lives in an all-freshmen building on campus and is older than most of his friends. He has a quiet way about him that hints at the wisdom behind his eyes. His maturity shows through and his calm demeanor make him seem older than he is.

He isn’t sure what he wants to do next, but for now he has contented himself to be a normal college student who goes to class and hangs out with friends at parties. However, there is more to Gus McGiver than meets the eye. While he isn’t sure what his next move will be, maybe his initial reason for wanting to discover America tells more than he realizes. McGiver said he didn’t properly know America so he didn’t have the right to travel anywhere else…yet.