In December 2017, James Kemp’s parents informed him that they were moving to England. The move made sense; that’s where they were from and James himself had been born in Surrey before his family moved to the United States when he was three years old.
James would not be returning to the UK with them, which meant that after they left he would be on his own–out in the world and independent, free to make his own choices and his own mistakes. He was finishing up his last few months of service in the Marine Corps, which he had joined right after graduating high school in 2014, and he hadn’t made any plans for what to do or where to go once his service ended.
A less adventurous person might panic, but James decided to make the most of this opportunity. He knew he’d eventually have to find a job, but after four years living under the strict rules and schedules of the military, he craved a bit of freedom before he settled down. “The rules got tiresome, and I started to dream of what I really wanted to do when I got out,” he says. “The biggest thing I could think of was just being as free as humanly possible, to go and do what you want, when you want.”
He also knew that he wanted to meet new people, to experience different ideas and points of view rather than surround himself only with people who shared his background. His military experience had allowed him to see different parts of the world (he’d been stationed in Okinawa for a year), but he craved more. Luckily, he’d been saving up most of his money during his service and so didn’t have to worry about finding a job as soon as he was discharged. When his parents offered to give him their minivan after they moved, James made a decision: he was going on a road trip.
In May 2018 James and his family drove from their home in North Carolina to Oklahoma where James’s sister Clair was graduating from Army boot camp. After the ceremony, James drove his parents and his two youngest siblings, Scott and Sarah, to the airport where he bid them farewell on their flight to Old Blighty. When he returned to the minivan, reality set in. “I sat behind the wheel and realized that this was pretty much it,” he recalls. “I had to survive on my own.”
Although James had anticipated feeling a sense of liberation while being on the road with nowhere to go, the first night in the van proved rather claustrophobic. He parked in a Walmart parking lot and slept in the van’s trunk, resolving to make the vehicle more accommodating as soon as possible. The next day, he went into the Walmart and bought a mattress, a cheap bed frame, and a couple of plastic storage bins. He removed the back seats from the van and tossed them (with permission) in the dumpster of a nearby fast-food restaurant. As a finishing touch, he painted each of the rims on his tires a different color hoping it would attract positive attention from strangers he encountered along the way.
Once the renovation was complete, James was ready to begin his adventure. He decided to head toward Colorado. “I knew I wanted to go north,” he says, “because it was too hot in Oklahoma.”
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He ended up outside of Breckenridge, Colorado, a popular skiing and hiking town nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountains. One day, while hiking a ten-mile trail in the area, he met a group of four locals–two men and two women–who were about his age and invited him to join their group. The fivesome hit it off, and James’s new friends invited him back to their home in Denver. With no itinerary in mind and eager to explore a new city, James agreed. “They showed me around Denver–the things they would do, the places they would go out,” he says. “It was really cool, a good introduction to Denver, but after about a week, I got bored.”
Shortly after leaving Denver, James headed back south to New Mexico where he visited the immersive art installation/tourist attraction Meow Wolf and the world-famous Earthships–eclectically designed solar-powered homes made of natural and recycled materials. Once again, the heat quickly got to him, so after a few days, James headed back north.
This time he ended up in Leadville, Colorado. While enjoying some pints at a brewery, he met a few locals who recommended he hike nearby Mt. Elbert. Looking back, James thinks they were probably kidding, but at the time he took the recommendation at face value. He got up early the next morning to begin his hike, and it wasn’t until he was standing at the foot of the mountain that he realized Mt. Elbert is the tallest peak in the Rockies. As he reflected on his lack of advanced climbing experience, it occurred to him that he might be better off heading back to the van.
While contemplating his next move, James noticed a couple coming down the path. They were experienced hikers but encouraged James to join them as they scaled the mountain. “I like hanging out with new people so I ended up putting on my hiking shoes and going up,” he says. The trip up and down the mountain took about twelve hours, but the effort was worth it. “I actually summited Mount Elbert with these two people I had met. That was a pretty big accomplishment for me.”
Back in Leadville, James received a text from his friend Tiffany, whom he’d met in the military. Tiffany had landed a summer job in Teton Valley, Idaho, and invited James to tag along as she made the trip north. The two met up in Denver and drove to Teton Valley where the mosquitoes quickly forced James to retreat. “I looked like a Lego brick after one night there,” he says. “So I was like, ‘This is not the place for me.’”
He retreated to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a resort town frequented by the famous and well-heeled. In other words: not the sort of place that welcomes a 22-year-old man covered in mosquito bites and living in his van. “It was too bougie,” James says, so instead of sticking around, he headed south to Utah where he swam in the Homestead Crater, a 10,000-year-old hot spring enclosed by a 55-foot-tall limestone formation located outside Salt Lake City.
Throughout his trip, James had been documenting his adventures with short videos he recorded on his Fujifilm camera and uploaded to YouTube. (Check out the one he made to kick off the trip above.) After his dip in the crater, he headed to the library in Salt Lake City to edit the video he’d taken of the excursion. While there, he met another young couple who lived nearby. After a wide-ranging conversation about life, humanity, and our place in the universe, they invited James out to dinner and then took him on a quick tour of the city. They ended the evening at a lookout point overlooking Salt Lake. “It was this spot that they knew, and we ended up talking for a while,” James says. “They were super cool, genuine people. And those moments surprised me a lot because I didn’t realize how friendly people would actually be. Society generally tells you that humans are bad people. But when you actually get down and meet the individuals of the country, everyone seems to be pretty down to earth and nice.”
There was one person on the trip with whom James formed a special bond. During his earlier visit to Idaho, he had struck up a conversation with Molly, a waitress at a local brewery. Although they barely got to know each other before the mosquitoes chased James out of Idaho, the two stayed in touch via text while James continued exploring the western United States. After his trip to Salt Lake, he headed back to Idaho to visit Lava Hot Springs (“I’m really into hot springs,” he says). Although the springs are about 150 miles south of Driggs, where Molly lived, the two made plans to meet. After about a week in Lava Hot Springs, James drove to Driggs, and the two went on their first date. “We went to see a movie at their local drive in, The Spud. It was pretty interesting. I had never been to a drive in before, but it was a good experience.” James stayed in the valley that night and got breakfast with Molly the next morning before heading up to Montana on his own.
He continued talking to Molly while he was in Montana, but rather than spend his time in Big Sky Country hiking in the national parks or taking in the scenic views, James decided to explore something entirely different. “I had dabbled in programming a lot as a younger kid, but had never done any serious coding,” he says. “I decided I wanted to occupy my time with something productive, so I decided to create a mobile app.” James hunkered down in a local library and spent twelve hours a day teaching himself how to code. After about a week and a half, he decided to return to Teton Valley to hang out with Molly and get to know her more. He stayed in Idaho for about a month, going out with Molly, meeting her family, and exploring the area. In mid-July he drove back down to Denver, parked his car in a long-term lot, and flew to England to spend a month with his family before returning home to the States.
Despite the distance between them, James and Molly spoke every day while he was away. “I was surprised because I was still talking to this girl pretty consistently,” he says. “Every night I would call her. Every morning I would call her. She’d call me. It was just going pretty well. And that month ended, and I came back to the United States and got back in my van and realized I didn’t really want to do the van life anymore.”
James landed back in Denver the day before Molly’s birthday, so after he picked up his van, he drove twelve hours straight to Boise, where Molly was attending Boise State University, in order to make it to her in time to celebrate. Within a week, he found an apartment and a job in the tech support department at Gravity’s Boise office.
Although he didn’t imagine moving to Idaho when his trip began, he has not looked back. He and Molly are still dating and Boise has quickly grown on him. “I came to Boise because of Molly, but when I got here I actually really did fall in love with the city,” he says. “It’s such a cool place. It’s a smaller city with lots of unique spots to go to. And obviously the mountains are right here and you’re close enough to the Oregon coast. It’s just beautiful. I love it here. So I think I came for Molly and stayed because of Boise.”
Reflecting on the experience, James realizes that, while the trip was memorable, his quest for freedom didn’t turn out like he’d planned. “It gets really lonely, and kind of boring on the road,” he says. “You meet all these people, but you don’t hang out with them for very long. They come and go really fast so it didn’t feel like there was any genuine connection with anybody. I would wake up and feel pretty sad and then just distract myself with events like climbing a mountain or just doing ridiculous stuff to keep my mind off the idea that I didn’t actually have a consistent or solid home. That just wears on you after a while and you’re like, ‘I don’t really want to be lonely anymore.’ So you kind of just pick somewhere, and it was so amazing that Molly was here in Boise and I came to see her and really liked the place too. So I ended up making it my home.”
Written by Brooke Carey, Content Editor
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