"It's like being in the Olympics," she says. "And I'm the final part of the torch relay. It's like I'm the person who gets to run up the last steps to light the big fire."
Bartko is one of the 300 to 400 people who volunteered, drove or offered shelter for the Running Fool Project. The mission was to get Vaughn, a 22-year-old University of Oregon math major, round-trip across North America during his winter break from school. And the challenge was to see if Vaughn could do it relying solely on the fans of an obscure video blogger named Ze Frank.
"Originally, I just wanted a way to get down to Southern California for Christmas," Vaughn told WW over the phone last week from Jamestown, N.D. "Then one person suggested, why stop there? Soon I'd gotten 20 to 30 people together and then Ze [pronounced ZAY] mentioned the trip on his show and I got 100 emails that day offering help." It was enough to persuade him to go.
On Dec. 8, Vaughn left for Ashland, still unsure if the whole thing would work. "I didn't have all the rides in place before I left," he said. But he did pack a new denim jacket, and 13 pairs of underwear, for the trip. The jacket was the one article of clothing Ze Frank instructed him to bring. "He wanted something that would allow people to put buttons on me."
People should know this about Vaughn: He's shy. During our interview, he spoke no more than necessary. "He's a really low-key guy, very sweet. Not overbearing," says Alice Bain, who drove Luke from Salt Lake City to Grand Junction, Colo. "He slept most of the way."
Bain is part of Luke's pit crew, a collection of people who put in extra time to make sure the project worked. They've done the grunt jobs, compiling spreadsheets of driver contact information, constructing a website to track the trip and even throwing a lifeline when Luke almost got stuck in upstate New York. Plus, all their time is donated. "It's a neat thing to do. When would I have the chance to do this?" says Bain.
And when would Vaughn ever had the opportunity to ride in a Subaru Outback tricked out to resemble the Ghostbusters hearse? "That was easily the coolest ride," said Vaughn. "Some guys transformed it complete with a satellite dish on top that spins, some amber flashing lights and some speakers up there to play a siren sound or the Ghostbusters theme song.... Da-na-nah-nah-na-na."
The trip cost Vaughn approximately $140. "Most that was spent on a Syracuse hotel room I stayed in for, like, two and a half hours before someone called to rescue me," he said. "People have provided me with all sorts of miniature miracles. Like this guy in Pennsylvania who drove three and a half-hours to pick me up when another ride fell through. He let me stay at his house and then drove me another 45 minutes the following day to the next scheduled meet up."
To understand why people are going out of their way for Vaughn, you need to understand Ze Frank and the community around his show. "The people who are attracted to Ze Frank have certain things in common," says Bain. "Like the willingness to suspend cynicism or take on projects that others would scoff at. Whimsical things. Like taking photos of yourself being attacked by office supplies. Certain people love this. People who are willing to dress up a vacuum cleaner."
Ze Frank's goal is to create meaningful online social spaces for collaboration. A past project asked members to create an Earth sandwich by challenging folks to align slices of bread on opposite sides of the globe at the same time. Frank refers to these projects as "low-threshold, peripheral activities that encourage social bonding."
Apply this to the Running Fool relay and you see it really isn't doing something just to prove it can be done, or even to show people that Internet forums aren't all dark scary places full of pedophiles, a message Vaughn seems to fall back upon when asked about a deeper meaning for the trip. It's really about using the Web as a tool to create lasting physical connections between people.
Bartko had never met Vaughn prior to last Sunday. "I only saw his posts on the website," she said. But like the 70-some drivers before her, she met up with him, pinned her ducky button to his jacket and gave him a seat in her car. And about two hours later, she had carried the fool home.
For more info check out zefrank.com/theshow and humanbaton.com.