Humans of the World – meet Trek Thunder Kelly

I first met Trek Thunder Kelly when my friend Jack and I were arriving at St. Joseph’s Home, our favorite guest house in Haiti, just as Trek was leaving. We said hello and goodbye in the same sentence.

A few hours later Trek Thunder Kelly was back, his mission to help distribute medication to cholera victims in a remote part of Haiti was aborted when the cops confiscated the medication. They were holding it hostage and demanding a ransom.

The next day Trek assured us that the medication had been freed from police captivity. The plan was back on and we were invited to join in the mission. The “plan” – drive to some remote area of Haiti where even medical professionals feared to go, distribute medication to cholera victims, camp somewhere, return sometime. Oh, and there was also a hurricane heading toward Haiti. Jack and I jumped at the chance to do something random and meaningful, and slightly insane.

This was my introduction to the world according to Trek where everything is possible.

Trek Thunder Kelly

That medical mission also canceled so we all spent the next few days together in Port au Prince, visiting a small artist village, attending a fundraiser at a local restaurant, and experiencing a voodoo ceremony. I last saw Trek as I was leaving a voodoo ceremony at 5 am. Jack and I left but Trek stayed.

Trek was in Haiti as part of his yearlong round-the-world journey, arranged by a stranger and funded mysteriously, something he chose to talk very little about. Following that epic journey, Trek spent the next year living alone in the New Mexico desert. The final chapter of this 3-year experiment in living was Trek’s “The Good in America” tour. He and his van (named “Chief Joseph”) drove through every state in the USA, meeting real people while exploring the country.

Catching up with Trek Thunder Kelly… 

I last saw you at a Haitian voodoo ceremony. How was the rest of your round-the-world adventure? 

It was great. I was actually on the road for over 3 and a half years. When we met, I was at the end of my first year. I had a stranger choose 12 countries, then I sold everything I owned and spent a month in each country the stranger chose. The order I visited: Bhutan, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Cambodia, Namibia, Mauritania, Germany, Finland, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Haiti.

Trek Thunder Kelly
Making tea in Mauritania.
Trek Thunder Kelly
Mauritania selfie.
Trek Thunder Kelly
Namibian desert.

What prompted you to spend a year living alone in the desert? What did that experience teach you?

I lived for around 5 months in a traditional mud Navajo hogan and tended a flock of sheep near Monument Valley. I then sough more isolation, bought enough canned food to last the rest of the year, deposited it and then hiked into a spot about 40 miles due south of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. There, I built my own shelter against a boulder out of mud and grass (adobe), and then, with no fire, no flashlight, nothing to read or write with, no tent, and no sleeping bag, I stared at the skies and prowled around in the moonlight.

I was curious about extreme solitude, and what insights might be derived from a direct, unfiltered relationship with existence and I learned that we’re not alone, even when we’re alone. I also learned to greatly respect the power of the imagination. The experience taught me patience, and to have a different relationship with time. I learned not to be afraid of death.

Trek Thunder Kelly
Trek’s homemade home in the desert.

The final chapter of this “Trek Trifecta” was your “Good in America Tour”. Did you find something good?

I engaged in a year traveling the world seeking knowledge, then I spent a year in the desert for contemplation. The third year, I wished to find and celebrate the good in my own country…and I did, meeting amazing, kind, sharing people everywhere, visiting museums, lighthouses, forests, canyons, burger-joints, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, oceans. I spent a week in each state and saw as much as I could each day, realizing, I might never be back.

 The result: I felt more at home on a National level, because I knew more about my home. I now feel a visceral connection based on experience and memories, rather than a vague connection because I hadn’t been to a place. And I learned, not only in the U.S. but worldwide, a large majority of people are actually intrinsically good.

Trek Thunder Kelly
Trek and “Chief Joseph”. (Photo credit Mike Zwahlen)

I’m sure you met a lot of amazing people on your journey. Who was the most interesting or inspiring person you met on the road?

I met inspiring people in Haiti who took me into their tiny tent and shared their meager food with me during a hurricane. In Namibia,  I met a bedridden woman who had spent her life caring for orphans with aids. Another old man I met ensured my safety walking across 250km of the Sahara. I met a father and son, total strangers, who drove hundreds of miles out of their way to help me in Oregon. EVERYWHERE I met people who were kind and giving and truly went out of their way to help others. I realized it is often those who have the least who share the most. I returned from traveling greatly humbled.

This humility enabled me to deal with sleeping on the dirt for a year and living in my car ever since. I don’t think my ego and self-esteem could’ve handled it otherwise.

 What are you up to these days?

 Well, I’m nearing the completion of a 5-year micro-living project…I’ve lived in my car for nearly half a decade, I’ve had a very low carbon footprint. It’s certainly taught me to prioritize. Next will be a period of necessary wealth creation. In the meantime, I’ll also be painting murals and writing books.

I noticed a recent Facebook comment that you broke your only bowl. Bummer. Living simply, what’s your most prized possession?

My most prized possession living in my van? My membership at a gym for restroom and shower and wifi. I bought a new bowl at goodwill for a coupla bucks. 

Anything else you sometimes miss?

Yeah….a sink with running water and hot water too!

Trek has chosen an unusual lifestyle, living in his van “Chief Joseph” near Venice Beach for nearly 5 years, but he doesn’t consider himself homeless. He’s “homefree” and has become connected to the homeless people in his neighborhood. On Christmas Day he treated them to donuts and bonded with them as neighbors and human beings.

The LA Times recently did a series of stories on homelessness in the Los Angeles area and featured Trek in “The Art of Homelessness”.  This video shows a glimpse of the real Trek – curious, passionate, compassionate, unique, fearless, always hungry for personal growth.

Trek, do you have any advice for others who dream of living more adventurously but do very little to achieve it?

 Memories are the texture of a full life. Make them on purpose. Be curious and explore. Be good to others. 
Steve Jobs told the Stanford graduating class of 2005:
   “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” 
Trek Thunder Kelly seems to embrace the wisdom of Mr. Jobs.
Are you living hungry? Or just being foolish? 
Trek Thunder Kelly
(Photo Credit: Trek Thunder Kelly. Except the first one, that was me.) 

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2 Replies to “Humans of the World – meet Trek Thunder Kelly”

  1. Wow, what a fascinating life! Thanks for sharing his story- these are the sort of people I want to read about, those who choose to live wildly and do good! Now I kind of feel like attempting my own desert-living adventure…

    1. He’s definitely an interesting character. Someone really needs to make a movie about his life! Maybe Bradley Cooper could play him? Good luck in your desert adventure…please keep in touch!

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