DICKINSON, N.D. — Joshua Nielsen knew what he wanted for the rest of his life before he stepped foot in high school.
The 22-year-old from North Yarmouth, Maine, is on a journey that isn’t for the faint of heart. He’s traveled nearly 2,800 miles from his hometown and has been working the last two weeks in Dickinson, N.D.
“My family never told me this until I left, but when I was 13, they were talking about how they would wake up one morning and I was going to be gone,” Nielsen said. “It’s something that I’ve talked about forever.”
Nielsen’s final stop is going to be in Alaska, where he hopes to climb Mt. Denali. Since Nielsen has been on the road, he said he’s never been happier.
“I have a restless soul and I want to meet new people,” Nielsen said. “It’s the fear of the unknown that stops most people from doing what I’m doing.
“I hope that will stop once I get to Alaska, because I don’t know where I’m going to go after that,” he said with a laugh.
Nielson has four older siblings and four younger siblings.
“We’re all really close,” Nielsen said. “Everyone lives within an hour of the house, so it’s definitely difficult being away from everyone. I’ve lived away from home for like a year, but I’ve never been like states and states away.”
Nielsen’s family has done nothing but support him throughout this process.
“It’s exciting, because he’s talked about going to Alaska since he was really little,” said Jayne Nielsen, Joshua’s mom. “He’s that adventurous spirit. He loves to hike and climb. He loves the outdoors.
“As a parent, we are very excited for him, because we know he’s living his dream. On the other hand, it’s kind of difficult as a mom, because you worry.”
Joshua is living out of his 1991 Volvo as he journeys to Alaska. His original plan was to hitchhike. But after thinking about it, he decided against that idea.
“That probably wasn’t the best idea for a 13- to 14-year-old kid,” Joshua said with a laugh. “I’m glad that I waited until now.”
Joshua said the sibling that has been his “rock” and “go-to” person is his sister, Kristen.
“I’m a little nervous for him,” Kristen said. “I worry about him a lot. He wasn’t going to take a cellphone with him, he wasn’t going to take a GPS. He wanted to do it all on his own. For me, it was a little bit worrisome that he’s there by himself.
“I’m very happy that he was able to do this. He’s at a point in his life where he could get up and figure things out on his own. I think it’s great.”
When a majority of Americans go home, they watch TV or sit on the computer. Nielsen doesn’t have those amenities and it doesn’t bother him. He spends time reading the book “One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey” by Richard Proenneke. He has a CB radio and bought a B.B. King greatest hits CD a couple days ago that he said “never gets old.”
“I hope that I can teach my kids what my father taught me and my kids won’t get sucked into the mainstream way of thinking,” Joshua said. “People are so afraid of going against mainstream thinking, because of the fear of the unknown.”
Joshua tried to avoid staying the night in Walmart parking lots as much as possible, but during this journey, he’s stopped there on more than one occasion. He tries to stick to campgrounds.
“As long as you aren’t living there all day, I don’t think they care,” Joshua said of Walmart. “I don’t leave trash. I’m very conscious of my footprint. As much as I hate to admit it, I shop at Walmart. I feel like I’m obligated to shop there, because I do stay there.”
The starting fire
When Joshua was about 10 or 11, he watched a program on Maine Public Broadcasting about Proenneke.
Proenneke “was flown out and brought minimal supplies,” Joshua said. “He brought the head to his hatchet and the saw itself. He whittled up the handles. This guy was the ultimate outdoorsman. He’s a guy that immediately turned to be my idol.”
Proenneke built a log cabin a place called Twin Lakes, which is on the northeast corner of Lake and Peninsula Borough in Alaska.
“His cabin is now a national landmark,” Joshua said.
Joshua marveled at how Proenneke was self-sufficient. Proenneke didn’t hunt any animal out of season, he canned and picked his own food.
“He was milling his own two-by-sixes, two-by-fours and everything was done by hand,” Joshua said. “He had it all down to a science.”
Hiking and climbing
The reason for Joshua’s journey to Alaska is the amount of terrain that he will be able to explore. The book he has on the terrain of Alaska measures more than an inch-and-a-half thick.
“Everything in Alaska is extreme,” Joshua said. “There’s nothing half-hearted about it. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
“I’m glad that he’s got the guts to get up and do this,” Kristen added. “A lot of people talk about doing it, but will never actually do it. I’m very proud of him.”
The 1991 Volvo
The ’91 Volvo that Joshua is driving was a car he worked on for a long time — even when the car wasn’t in his name.
The Volvo, which also goes by the name “Betsy,” used to belong to a good friend that lives in San Francisco. The car has more than 300,000 miles on it and Joshua hopes to join the million-mile club.
The car had the back seats taken out, so it’s completely flat in the back, where he built a pantry for his food and a bureau for his clothing. There’s a storage compartment on top of the car and underneath the bed where he keeps tools and supplies. He also hollowed out the wheel wells to hold more tools.
“I basically made it so I can access every inch of the car,” Joshua said.
He sleeps on two mats and a deer blanket. The back of the car is surrounded by curtains that were sown together by one his best friend’s moms.
“It’s very comfortable,” Joshua said. “A lot of people think I’m crazy. When someone says they live in their car, you instantly think everything is piled in and it’s a big mess. I usually take my time and organize everything as much as I can.”
San Francisco seems like quite a detour from where Joshua wants to finally end up. However, he wants his friend to see the car at least one more time.
“The only reason why I’m going to California is so I can say that I’ve completely driven across the country,” he said. “I want her to see her car, because I feel like if it wasn’t for her selling me that car, I wouldn’t be on this journey.”
Joshua drove from his home to Manchester, N.H., then Rome, N.Y., and Niagara Falls, N.Y., onto Chicago, Minneapolis and Bismarck. When he leaves Dickinson, his next stop is Yellowstone National Park. Then he’s off to San Francisco.
Whether people look at his license plate or the orange hat — people are inclined to ask.
“Where are you from?”
His response is, “I’m from Maine,” and with those three simple words, Joshua instantly grabs their attention.
He’s not afraid to share his stories of the road and he will admit before being out on the road, he had a cynical view of world.
“It’s just the people that I’ve meet at campgrounds and at rest stops,” Joshua said. “I met a guy in Minnesota that gave me his Alaskan contacts. People are so receptive to what I’m doing. They either have done what I’m doing when they were my age or always wanted to. There’s a certain part of everyone that just wants to go.”
Since he’s been on this journey, those cynical thoughts have changed. He’s met people along the way that have offered him food, housing, a place to shower and other day-to-day amenities. Though he doesn’t always accept their gifts, he appreciates them nonetheless.
“I’m not starving by any means,” Joshua said. “This isn’t pity that drives these people to do this. It’s something else. There are still kind people out there.”
To bathe, he uses a solar shower. He sets the water heater, which is black, on the roof of the car or elsewhere in the sun and it quickly heats up.
“On a hot day, you want a cold shower, but sometimes it’s too warm,” he said. “I’ve also been showering at the rec center or at campgrounds.”
The other item Joshua started carrying once he left Maine was a journal. He spends time writing about his experiences and the people he’s met.
“My best friends’ mother gave me a journal,” Joshua said. “She said, ‘You might feel a little awkward writing things down now, but in 30 years, you’ll look back and be very glad you kept this.’ I’m trying to keep as much as I can.”
© 2012 the Dickinson Press
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