Fifty-Two Friends

For Josh Sullivan, 2009 isn't just the end of a decade, it's the end of a year-long adventure called Fifty-Two Friends. The Saginaw, MI native (and one of my dear friends) moved to St. Pete about 10 years ago, but hasn't done much traveling since. Last year Josh decided he "needed to get out and do something for a change," so he took an idea - to see the country and inspire himself into doing more of his art - on the road. With the help of friends and social networking sites, he planned to stay in a new town with a new or old (or a soon-to-be) friend for each week of the year. Here's some of his art, and a Q&A we did recently via email (edited for space/time).

Q: What was it like to carry your life around in a back pack for a year?

A: I left with about five bags that were filled with three weeks worth of clothes, tons of art supplies, paper for ‘zines, and a bunch of other random things. Along the way, I’ve sent a batch of packages back to St. Pete to keep my backpacks as light as possible.

It isn’t the worst thing to be living out of a couple bags for the majority of the trip but I can’t wait until I can start wearing some different clothes. My shoes fell apart at one point and I had to glue them back together.

Q: What was the hardest thing about traveling?

A: I had two trips that were 1,400 miles each, which translated into roughly 34-hour bus rides. For 27 of the weeks, I rode to the next city by bus and was probably on around 60 different buses. I arrived by train for two of the weeks and then the rest of the trip I was able to get to the next city because of gracious friends of mine who were willing to help out.

It wasn’t so bad going by bus, though, because I was getting to see some of the most random spots in the country. I always looked at everything, no matter how cumbersome or nerve-racking, as part of the adventure. This really helped me gain some incredible patience. For certain other places, I didn’t want to leave because I was enjoying my stay so much or I wanted to spend more time with my friends and a week just wasn’t enough.

I honestly thought traveling would be a lot harder than it was. If I could pull off half of the trip without any money, then I can just imagine how far I’d be able to go if I saved up for a while.

Q: What was it like not to have a "real job" for a year? Has your art benefited or suffered?

A: It was absolutely incredible. One of my big goals with the trip was to a break away from having a real job but now it’s something I long for extremely at this point. I’m looking forward to finally having a regular paycheck and benefits again. I loved it because many of the days I was able to sleep in, which didn’t happen too often back home, and I was able to go at my own pace.

On the other side of things, I’ve worked harder than I ever have before (even at a real job) because of “Fifty-Two Friends.” There was so much involved with getting the weeks booked and I didn’t have the trip completely booked until just before Week #40. I was going crazy trying to keep up on everything and it really was more than a full-time job. From the inception of me planning to do this, to working on getting the weeks straightened out, to actually doing the trip, and then all of the forthcoming work I have on ‘zines and editing video and possibly working on a book, I will have probably spent around three or four years on this.

Q: What are some of the weird places you've been to on your trip? Most obscure? Your new favorites?

A: Durand, WI was the smallest place I stayed in population-wise at about 1,900 people. My friend I stayed with [in Uvalde, TX] kept saying that he didn’t think I’d like it there since it was a smaller town and I ended up loving it. It was about an hour southwest of San Antonio and about an hour from the border with Mexico. I felt like I was in a whole different place and it was a nice week where I got to relax and get a lot of work done, too.

I really wanted to go see Marquette, MI, which is the largest city in the Upper Peninsula, but still only has about 20,000 people. I grew up in MI but barely scratched the surface of experience anything that was in the U.P. Presque Isle, ME was pretty great because I had wanted to go to Maine and then I had an offer, which happened to be almost at the very top of the state, only ten miles from the Canadian border. I made sure to spend my last day there riding a bike to the border and back just so I could say that I did it.

Almost all of the cities I stayed in were new to me so that provided a clean slate when it came to not really having a clear idea of where I would go when I got there. I’ve ended up at a goat farm in Jim Falls, WI, a bourbon distillery in Versailles, KY, the tops of two mountains at sunset, and a bunch of other locations over this past year. I couldn’t believe so many of my friends were so spread out in the country and that I got to see most of them. I love that I called it “Fifty-Two Friends” because friendship was definitely the main theme of the trip, with seeing old friends and making a lot of new ones, too.

Q: Was there any place you wanted to go to but couldn't make happen?

A: I was trying to get something lined up in Philadelphia, Baltimore, upstate New York, and Montana or Wyoming. I can probably make a list of 52 people who I wasn’t able to stay with but had said I could at some point. A lot of things came up over the year, with people moving or losing their jobs and things weren’t conducive for me coming to stay.

The good thing is that even though I didn’t get to stay in some of the places I wanted to, I got to see most of them so I now have a better idea of what to expect from there when I do end up getting the chance to experience more of it. I didn’t get to see nine states on this trip so I’m thinking of doing a trip at some point where I go and explore those ones. I’d like to see the Grand Canyon or Las Vegas or Mt. Rushmore but I’m glad that I didn’t on this trip because I still have so much more exploring to do in the U.S.

Q: What do you miss about home?

A: I miss my mom, my friends, and my cats. It took traveling all over the country to make me realize that I need to spend more time with everyone back home. I’ve got some of my best friends all within a very small area of each other of St. Pete and it would seem like I’d never go and see them because I thought I always had so much work to do. Besides surprising my mom when I get back, I’m probably going to grab my cats and squeeze the hell out of them. They’re my companions and have been there for me at some of my lowest points. I think about them constantly and I can’t wait to see them.

Now that I’ve been back in Florida for a couple weeks, I realized that I actually have missed the warm, gross weather. I missed palm trees and those crazy lizards who love to lay out on the sidewalks. St. Pete is my favorite city in the state and I can’t wait to get back there. I’m looking forward to watching my DVD’s and listening to my record collection, too.

Q: Any towns you'd be eager to trade in for St Pete?

A: I can honestly say that almost every place that I ended up staying at on the trip, I could see myself living there. I almost didn’t leave New York City and it was my most favorite place on the trip. I had never been there before and I fell in love with it immediately. I loved all of the people and the commotion and everything was new and exciting at every turn. I was only going to be there for two weeks but I was lucky enough to turn that into four weeks after scoring another stay in Brooklyn and also getting an apartment sitting gig in Manhattan. I want to go back there and meet more people and do art that feeds off of the life of the city.

I can say the same for Chicago and I’ve always been super enamored with it because of the music scene and the art scene. Most of my favorite bands and a lot of my favorite comic artists are from Chicago. I was happy that I got to spend a day riding a bike around and seeing a lot of the places that I had always heard about. Some of my other favorites include: Burlington, VT; Asheville, NC; Lexington, KY; Marquette, MI; and Portland, OR.

Q: Did you succeed in your goal of getting 52 friends/places?

A: I only had to get a hotel once on the whole trip and that was because I wanted to go to Roslyn, WA, where they filmed my favorite show “Northern Exposure”. The closest place the Greyhound stopped to Roslyn was in Ellensburg, about 30 miles east. I got off the bus and didn’t know what to do so I walked across the street to a hotel, which was still two miles outside of town. I did end up meeting some great people there and a new friend ended up taking me to see Roslyn after 14 years of wanting to see it.

I also stayed with some people for more than one week because of particular stays falling through and I had offers from some friends saying they wouldn’t mind having me for longer. With everyone’s roommates and significant others, I ended up staying with around 100 different people. There were a few months at a time where I ended up buying bus tickets for places and not having the stays confirmed. When that happened, sometimes I would get a place lined up only a night or two before I arrived in town and I got to have a great week with a new friend I met on that way, too.

Q: Anything else you want to add?

A: I ran out of money around the halfway point and I thought I would have had to throw in the towel, which I was ok with. I initially thought that I’d only make it two weeks before having to go back to St. Pete. But, people would buy little pieces of art here and there and other people would donate money just so I could continue on with my adventure. I heard from people I hadn’t talked to in years and they would say things such as they just wanted to do whatever they could to help. If anyone ever visits me in St. Pete, it will be a lot of fun showing them around my own backyard. I hope I’ll get to see some of the people who let me stay with them during “Fifty-Two Friends”

I put off doing the ‘zines that were supposed to accompany each week of the trip so I get to spend 2010 working on those and eventually there will be 52 issues chronicling my adventure. I’m really looking forward to doing some new comics in those books and starting to work more autobiographical strips into my repertoire. I’m hoping to continue this adventure on a trip around the world at some point. I have this crazy idea of seeing every country and meeting as many people as possible. I want to hear their stories and experience a part of their lives.

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