It's still dark at 5 a.m., and the humming engine of the big blue bus is the only sound in the parking lot of the Billings Residence Inn. The clerk was bleary-eyed, and it's too early for continental breakfast, but we’re awake and ready to drive across half of Montana and all of North Dakota before dinner.
I've been writing about the Community Possible Relay since it was a wild "Could we pull this off?" idea hatched in conference calls and explained with a PowerPoint deck. I know the numbers: 25 states, 38 cities, 3 months, 12,000 miles. I know the reason: U.S. Bank is passionate about volunteering, and we wanted to bring our employees together – literally – around our mission of improving Work, Home, and Play in our communities. It’s a good story, and one that I’ve been sharing on social media from my cubicle in downtown Minneapolis.
But the question that brought me to Montana was one I had never seen answered in a corporate presentation or a press release: What's it like out there?
I first met Dixcy and Jibreel in San Diego 6 weeks ago, when they were preparing for the journey of a lifetime. It was immediately obvious why they were selected for this project, besides being at a transitory life juncture in which packing up and living on the road for 3 months is feasible. They’re smart, friendly, and they exude energy and charm. Next to them, I felt bland and old, until they made me feel like a friend – which didn’t take long at all.
In the pre-dawn parking lot, with 5,000 miles behind them, they're still charming. Jibreel has been up since 3 a.m.; his morning workout is a sacred routine, one of the few consistencies when every day is different from the last. Dixcy is all smiles, even though the hotel hasn't set out coffee yet, and she’s planning to go back to sleep once the bus gets moving.
Inside, the bus feels like an apartment. It sleeps up to 25 people, we've been told, but most of the time it's home to two travelers. Dixcy and Jibreel have their own sleeping spaces, nests of blankets and pillows reminiscent of a child's fort. The mini fridge is stocked with fruit, vegetables, cheese, and lots of water. Jibreel buys water in gallon jugs, helping him keep track of his consumption. Hydration is key, he says.
They buy groceries when they can, never knowing when their next opportunity will be. Without transportation (Big Blue usually settles into a parking space once they reach a new city) Dixcy and Jibreel rely on the hospitality of U.S. Bank employees who take them out for meals, sightseeing excursions, and the occasional WalMart.
Meeting a new group of people every day – and saying goodbye every night – can be exhausting. The relay captains miss their friends, families, and the predictable rhythm of home life. But the warmth and generosity of their hosts continues to impress the Community Possible Relay team.
Within U.S. Bank, the bus and its riders are well known. I've been emailing with a regional bank president from Bismarck about several bankers who are eager to see the bus, even if it's just watching it drive past on I-94. Our schedule won’t accommodate a Bismarck stop, but our driver John is planning to fuel up in Mandan.
I brew a pot of coffee (a trick at 70 mph) and nestle into a booth at the front of the bus with my laptop. The hours and the miles roll by in a blur of eastern Montana hills and North Dakota badlands. I've traveled this stretch of interstate many times, and I recognize the landmarks: The world's largest Holstein cow. Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The Bakken oil fields. Unlike my family vacations full of selfie stops and ice cream breaks, John’s driving is all business. Medora rolls by and I realize I've grossly overestimated how long it will take us to reach Mandan. I email the Bismarck team, and they say "No problem. We'll see you at noon."
I can see them as we pull in to the Flying J Travel Plaza, a group of smiling people wearing blazers and dress shoes near the fuel pumps of the truck stop. While long haul truckers fuel their rigs and head inside for showers, I talk to my new friends from Bismarck.
The Community Possible Relay works because of U.S. Bank's culture. What's our culture like? It's the foundational assumption that because we work together, we like each other. It's the good-natured adaptability that says "Sure, I'll drive to Mandan and meet you at a truck stop." It's a history of community involvement that makes a volunteer relay feel authentic and familiar, even though we've never tried anything quite like this before.
When Dixcy and Jibreel step off the bus and greet the bankers, enthusiasm and kindness abound. There are handshakes and hugs, a flurry of photos, and a tour of the bus.
A few hours later, a new entourage of cheerful employees greets us in Fargo. This time, we'll stay longer. Big Blue will spend the next two nights in front of U.S. Bank's downtown branch, and Dixcy and Jibreel will have an extra day to relax and catch up on laundry. You'll see us on the news: bankers building a house for a family in need, taking kids to a museum, connecting with the community at the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks baseball game.
But you won't see the truck stop moments, the pillow forts, or the contagious joy of two people who gave up all the comforts of home to connect others around a mission that they – and we – all believe is possible.
Monica Wiant is a member of U.S. Bank’s social media team.