Julia O'Malley: Flint Grove was here

Julia O'Malley
Marc Lester

Flint Grove followed me on Twitter a couple weeks ago and so I clicked on his profile page. His tweets were little slogans written in the third person.

"Flint Grove lived an unsettled life."

"Flint Grove didn't believe in cream & sugar."

"Flint Grove was grounded in the here & now."

There were links to pictures of these slogans printed on bumper stickers, the bumper stickers were stuck on walls and cars and trash-can lids, some of them in places I recognized. I followed my curiosity to Flint Grove's Facebook page, where the profile picture is a ghostly logo, a faceless head with bushy hair and a long beard. Under the "about" section I discovered a story that was one part Alexander Supertramp, one part Sam McGee.

"I hosted Flint during his last days on Earth. He surfed in Clam Gulch before attempting to cross Kachemak Bay to smuggle goods into Halibut Cove. During that journey, on that early spring evening, he caught a Chinook wind that fatally capsized his kayak," it read.

"Soon thereafter, I discovered what he had left behind in the treehouse during his stay with me. Next to his bunk there sat three items--his coffee mug, a cigarette, and his journal that contained his contemplative reflections on life. This is an attempt not so much to tell his story but his take on existence."

And there were the pictures of the bumper stickers again. They were stuck in places all around Alaska and the world. Arizona. Clam Gulch. Chicago. Guatemala. Ukraine. Girdwood.

"Given the realities of every day life, if you're not careful, your dreams will simply slip away.--Flint Grove"

"'Youth is king! So let it be your place of mind.'--Flint Grove"

"'I want to make road trips with you.' -- Flint Grove."

The more quotes I read, the more Flint Grove seemed familiar. He was a type of person I'd met a dozen times. A 20-something from Texas or New York or Ohio, up here looking for adventure and following a desire to escape the conventional. He was that friend of a friend, just passing through, who you might meet because he showed up to your barbecue empty-handed with his dog. Later, he'd ask if it was cool to pitch his tent in your back yard. And maybe you'd let him, because in a way you admired his ability to hustle through life with so little weighing him down.

I did a quick search of newspaper archives for kayak accidents and Flint Grove. Nothing came up. I wrote a couple journalists in Homer to see if I was missing something. I wasn't. Nobody had heard of him. Flint Grove, I suspected, did not exist. But I sent a message to his Facebook inbox anyway.

The next day, I received a reply from a person named Austin Schwartz. Schwartz said he'd like to tell me more about Flint Grove. We set a time for an interview.

When we talked Thursday Schwartz told me he was a 35-year-old school psychologist. He moved here a year and a half ago from Chicago. On the side, he liked to write fiction. Flint Grove was the hero of a 20-page story he'd written about a man who left the expectations of his family behind and went on an epic road trip north.

Flint Grove's personality was loosely based on some of the people Schwartz met being a host for travellers who found places to stay using the site www.couchsurfing.org, he said. He chose the name using a familiar meme, combining his middle name with the name of the street he grew up on. He decided to experiment with telling Flint Grove's story in an unconventional way, using mostly bumper stickers.

"I've just always loved bumper stickers," he said. His car, a Subaru Forester, is covered with them.

Schwartz printed a couple hundred stickers and started to leave them around town. He put them in comment boxes and left them at restaurants with his tip. He slid them into books at the bookstore and put them under windshield wipers. He mailed them to friends anonymously. He wanted to spread creativity. To inspire people's imaginations and make them curious. The initial results were mixed.

'Some people get it and some people don't," he said.

Those who got it stuck their stickers on bathroom walls and water bottles and took them on the road. They searched out Flint Grove's Facebook page and his Twitter. They took pictures of their stickers and emailed them to Schwartz. Schwartz posted them on Facebook.

He told me about going for beers with a friend of a friend. He'd sent the woman a sticker, but she didn't know it was from him. They went to Darwin's Theory. She told him about getting the sticker, which said "Wherever you are, you end up steeped in this moment--Flint Grove," in the mail.

"She actually pulled one of the stickers out," he said. "And then she, like, peels it and puts it on a dumpster."

He hadn't expected that to happen. It was surreal and thrilling. (He eventually told her the sticker came from him.)

Some time after that, he realized the project was taking on a life of its own. His Facebook page began getting visitors from places he'd never been. Strangers sent pictures from their road trips. People seemed to relate to Flint Grove, Schwartz said.

"It's wide open for people's interpretation, to really look at him and kind of self-identify with pieces of him."

Schwartz wanted Flint Grove to be rugged, a thinker who appreciated the moment, someone who wasn't afraid to travel and experience things. He wanted him to represent that romantic, unconventional quality that draws people to Alaska and then makes them want to stay here. Schwartz has a habit of talking about Flint Grove like he's a real person.

"He's somebody who is altruistic and is trying to lead a positive life and make a positive impression on the people he interacts with," Schwartz said.

I asked him if he shared some traits with the character he'd created. Schwartz has some free-spirited qualities, he said, but he is no Flint Grove. He has a job and bills to pay. Sometimes he wishes he could be more like the bearded vagabond in his imagination, a little more adventurous, a little more free. I told him I understood. Really don't we all?

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at adn.com/jomalley, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/adn_jomalley.

An earlier version of this column gave the wrong web address for couchsurfing.org. (It is not couchsurfers.org.)


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