James McGary is in the midst of a great American odyssey.
The 20-year-old from Great Falls, Montana, is skateboarding (very indirectly) from Seattle to New York to raise money for the Cancer Research Institute.
Trailing behind him on a custom-made longboard is a pack containing his mother’s ashes, an expensive camera and very little else.
Four years ago James’ mum lost her battle with colon cancer and, at the end of this 5,000km-plus journey, he will inter some of her ashes into the Atlantic Ocean.
But James’ journey is as much about finding himself as fulfilling a family responsibility to fittingly scatter his mother’s remains.
Since her death James has battled depression, boredom and indecision about what to do with his life. He decided a dramatic change was needed so, he quit his job managing a Missoula restaurant, embraced the things which meant the most to him and set off on an epic adventure.
“It was horrible, I would go to work, hate my job, come home and go to sleep knowing I was just going to go to work and hate my job again,” he said of his pre-trip existence.
“I needed to get myself out of that rut – go and do something with my life. I kept coming across all those videos of people going out and adventuring and I figured; ‘there’s no difference between them and me, right?’”
James has been skateboarding since he was 13, but his other passion is photography. Early in his journey it became apparent he had to carry less gear and he was forced to choose between the simple necessity of a sleeping bag or a bulky, expensive and heavy luxury of a Canon 6D DSLR camera.
He chose the camera.
“To me my camera is a way to capture my life forever and, as I saw it, I would rather have beautiful images to look back on from this trip than memories of how well I slept,” he said.
He admits there have been a few times he has questioned that logic – usually at about 4am in the morning.
“Some nights I get by on two to four hours of uncomfortable sleep and I slept in the lobby of a bank one night to escape bad weather,” he said.
But James hasn’t been shivering in a roadside culvert for the whole three months or so he’s been on the move.
He’s used the website couchsurfing.com to find people along the route who will put him up – and that has been the catalyst for just as many unique experiences as the on-road adventure.
He watched one of his hosts in North Dakota dismember a chair with a chainsaw in his living room and awoke to find some very curious images on his camera after a night of heavy drinking in Minnesota.
James averages about 60 miles a day on the board and has stuck to secondary highways to try and avoid the worst of the traffic.
There have been a few close shaves with vehicles, especially coming through the high mountain passes in the North Cascades, but he said the trip has so far been without any major mishaps.
As far as a schedule – he says he just wants to get to New York before winter – and isn’t entirely sure what the future holds after this adventure is over.
“At first I’ll just celebrate, I guess. I’ll probably take two weeks off, relax, and hang out with my friend who lives there,” he said.
“Maybe go back to Montana and get back on track for becoming a responsible adult?”
But when you hear James talk about his passions it’s difficult to see him returning to any kind of mundane existence.
“Riding makes me feel free; I can make up my own rules and regimen. I didn’t choose to longboard, I feel like it chose me,” he said.
“This trip has opened a few doors, definitely. You just meet people everywhere so you see new opportunities for things to do (with your life).”