‘Sometimes you gotta go / To the end of the earth / Just to turn yourself around,” sings Ellis Paul in his song about Homer, “Alice’s Champagne Palace.” In Mary Latham’s epic, three-year journey across America to find more good, she’s been turning herself around every mile of the way, seeking out and listening to stories of human kindness.
Latham, 37, made it to Homer on Sunday night, just in time to see “Radiate,” this year’s Burning Basket. Her arrival this month in Alaska ticks off the 48th state of the Long Island, New York, resident’s 50-state quest to see every state and collect stories from people in each one. Eventually Latham plans to write a book with the stories, publish it and have it available for people to read in hospital waiting rooms.
“It’s kinda like you’re a tourist of humanity,” Latham said in an interview Monday at Two Sisters Cafe.
On Oct. 29, 2016, Latham started her journey from her home in Orient Point, Long Island, New York, in her mother’s 2008 blue Subaru Outback station wagon. She’s driven almost 40,000 miles and stayed in nearly 150 homes. For the Alaska trip, because health issues made the long trek up the Alaska Highway difficult, Latham decided to fly up and rent a Subaru from Continental Motors in Anchorage.
There was just one problem: They didn’t have a blue Subaru. Latham wanted a blue Subaru like her mother’s, so car dealer Greg Luke loaned her his blue Outback, already Alaskanized with a cracked windshield.
“It’s human kindness on arrival,” Latham said.
Her journey started with an act of kindness in the midst of horrible tragedy. In 2012 Latham had been working in New York City at a law office and trying to start her career as a wedding photographer. On Dec. 19, the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a coworker came into the office excited, Latham said. While he was at a coffee shop, a man ahead of him buying gift cards bought a $100 gift card and told the barista to give out free coffee until the card ran out.
But then the murder of 27 children and teachers happened. Latham spoke to her mother, Patricia Latham, and told her about the coffee gifts. She also spoke of how the Sandy Hook shootings had horrified her.
“She said, ‘You have to focus on that coffee story,’” Latham said her mother told her. “‘There’s always going to be tragedy. There will always be more good out there. You have to go look for it.’”
Patricia Latham had breast cancer and later died. After her mother’s death and the grief that followed, Latham started a Facebook page looking for positive stories. That morphed into her current road trip journey.
“Instead of getting discovered, I decided I would go out there and get the stories myself,” Latham said.
That search for #moregood — her social media hashtag — has led to not only stories of human kindness, but acts of human kindness to help Latham find those stories. She has been fed and housed by strangers. Homer resident Debi Poore heard of Latham’s quest, reached out to her, and said, “When you get to Homer, you have a home here.” A water taxi guide also took her out to see Kachemak Bay.
In Seward, Latham went on a kayak trip last Saturday. Wherever she goes, she always wears a shirt with the words “More Good” on it. Her guide, Erin, asked her about the shirt, and Latham explained the project.
The guide said, “It’s crazy you’re doing this,” and told Latham that Sept. 14 was the 18th anniversary of her cancer diagnosis at age 8. She’s been in remission since age 10. Latham asked her about her experience, and the guide said, “It was really hard times, but the kindness was so much louder.”
Erin’s story is typical of the kind of stories Latham hears.
“It’s 98% tragedy,” she said. “Families losing a child. They start a scholarship.”
Latham has found people want to tell her stories.
“I just really love sitting with people and hearing their stories,” she said. “Sometimes it’s nice for them. That’s the thing I’ve learned on this trip. They want someone to listen.”
She mentioned the quote by Richard Rohr: “Pain that isn’t transferred is transmitted.”
Telling stories and listening to them transfers the pain into something positive, she said.
“You’re creating this army of like-minded people,” she said. “You pick yourself up, dust yourself off and help others go through it next.”
In Alaska, Latham will visit Talkeetna and Bethel. Her next state is Hawaii, and after that she returns home to New York, her 50th state.
“I figured I’d save it for last,” she said.
All along the way, Latham said she has felt the presence of her mother.
“She’s holding my hand, driving the wheel,” Latham said. “She’s definitely guiding the trip. It’s a miracle I’ve made it this far.”
When her journey ends, Latham will sit down with the next monumental task: writing her book. It’s been hard for her to focus on writing throughout her trip.
“I’m almost always with a stranger,” she said. “And then when you go home, you’re with a stranger. I have a lot of work to do.”
Someone asked Latham if she ever felt like giving up.
“No,” she said. “Could I take a 10-day nap? Sure. …It’s been extremely challenging but extremely rewarding. And now I have to write the whole thing.”
For more information on More Good, visit https://www.moregood.today