On Oct. 29, 2016, Mary Latham packed up her car, said goodbye to family, and was hosted for the night in the home of people she’d never met. It was the first stop on the New York native’s remarkable cross-country road trip collecting stories of kindness in every state, which she plans to turn into a book for hospital waiting rooms.
People have opened up to Latham, a 32-year-old wedding photographer, in homes, coffee shops, and classrooms. They’ve left her keys in their flowerpots and greeted her with gas cards and glasses of wine. She began her journey grieving the death of her mother, Patricia, who died of breast cancer in 2013. It is for her mom, who taught her there is far more good than tragedy in the world, that she founded More Good — which is what she has christened her 50-state tour to find the stories she’ll share in print as a reminder to readers that there is always more good than bad in the world. We caught up with Latham as she made her way through the Philadelphia region in late August.
Let’s start with numbers. How many months on the road? States visited? Miles on your Subaru?
It’s been two years and 11 months, which included five months of returning to New York to shoot weddings to keep my business and my wallet alive. We’re now at 47 states, 143 homes, and 39,356 miles.
How’s your car holding up?
I had one rather expensive repair ($500) that someone paid for before I even got back to pick up my car, which was amazing. In Pleasanton, Calif., a man from a Rotary club I spoke to did a total fix-up on my car. And in Indiana, I stayed at a house where one of the owners was a mechanic. He patched up one of my tires, changed the oil, and even gave me a gas card. People have been amazing.
This project was borne out of heartache of losing your mother to cancer. She taught you to always look for the good. What have you learned about finding the good, while still immersed in grief?
I’ve learned that sadness is always going to be a huge part of life. It can be crippling at times, but it is also what makes us see the happy moments even clearer. It makes us more grateful. While I’ve been hit so often with so many tragic, dark stories, I’ve also been exposed to an enormous amount of love. I’ve watched families who have buried children work tirelessly for causes to help other families. I’ve watched people pick up their broken pieces and turn them into something very, very beautiful. I’ve come to realize that the most important thing we can do is take care of each other. In the end, we are all we’ve got.
Do you ever feel lonely? Or, conversely, relieved by the solitary nature of your travels?
Oh, my gosh, yes, the latter! I look forward to alone time more than I ever have in my life, but only because it is so hard to digest a story sometimes when you only have a few minutes to do so before bouncing into a new home telling your story all over again for the 3,456th time. The time I’ve spent in the car has become the time I cherish most.
Does your dad fret about you?
I speak with him every night on the phone around dinnertime. We are very close and I know how stressful this mission is on him, too, so I make sure to check in every day.
This is going to be tough: Please tell me one unforgettable story.
I absolutely loved the story of two sisters in Chicago whose dad died of kidney failure. To honor him, they each donated a kidney to a stranger. I met them the week they did it; one donated Thursday and the other on Friday. That is one of the coolest parts of the trip and what makes it so special. I am not just collecting stories or chatting on the phone. I’m in the home, the hospital. I’m meeting their family. It’s so much more intimate.
Are Americans overly concerned about potential dangers for you? Are there people who say they can’t believe you’re traveling alone?
It’s normal for people to think this is crazy. Heck, if I had really sat down and thought about my idea, I would have never left home. But the scariest thing for me was losing my mom, and that already happened. I wanted to prove that there are a lot of good people out there by showing them myself. Things could go wrong anywhere at any time. It would be silly to let fear stop me.
How are you funding your trip and when will you be done?
I always welcome people wanting to support the gas tank. There’s an option on my website: moregoodtoday.com. New York will be the last state and I’m hoping to be done this fall, since it will be three years by then.
You’ve said that there is “an unfathomable amount of kindness in America.” In such polarizing times, how can you help the rest of us see what you are seeing?
Turn off the television and put your phone down. We all have the desire to connect but we are just too afraid to do it sometimes. We are so distracted with our computers and phones that we often miss opportunities around us. When we do connect, when we do take a moment to talk to each other, to help out, it leaves us feeling so happy.