Unearthing the buried life

From left to right: Ben Nemtin, Duncan Penn, Jonnie Penn (a McGill History undergrad) and Dave lingwood of the Buried Life project hit the last note of O Canada in front of 20,000 screaming fans prior to an NBA exhibition game. The stunt enabled them to cross #35 off their Things To Do Before We Die list. / Photo: Kyle Jewell
From left to right: Ben Nemtin, Duncan Penn, Jonnie Penn (a McGill History undergrad) and Dave lingwood of the Buried Life project hit the last note of O Canada in front of 20,000 screaming fans prior to an NBA exhibition game. The stunt enabled them to cross #35 off their Things To Do Before We Die list. / Photo: Kyle Jewell

Undergrad and buddies take a magical mystery tour of carpe diem

By Neale McDevitt

Graduating from university is a major milestone, an achievement of the highest order and often the point from which a world-changing career is launched. When Jonnie Penn finally earns his BA in History at McGill later this year, it will also mean scratching No. 11 off The List.

The List is the cornerstone of the Buried Life, a project hatched in 2006 by Penn, his brother Duncan and friends Ben Nemtin and Dave Lingwood. Buried Life sprung from a series of what Penn calls “random conversations revolving around philosophical issues about our generation, life and death. Specifically, we were interested in what holds people back from doing what makes them happy.”

It started off as a two-week project for the end of the summer of 2006. The quartet drew up an inventory of 50 things they wanted to do before they died and they hit the road to see how many they could knock off during a two-week road trip through the British Columbia interior aboard a rickety old RV that lost no fewer than five wheels en route.

Sound a bit like the Bucket List (the 2007 film starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as terminally ill cancer patients determined to complete their list of dreams before they “kick the bucket”)?  Well, it is – with one essential difference. For every completed item on their list, the Buried Life guys had to help fulfill a total stranger’s dream.

By the time they got back home to Victoria, 14 days later, Penn and his compatriots had managed to accomplish more than half their list while helping more than 20 strangers along the way. Some of the highlights included leading a parade (#2), opening the six o’clock news (#1) for Global TV and planting a tree (#7). On the altruistic side, they helped a mother and her son see the Stanley Cup and brought some street kids to their first ever rock concert.

Paying forward

But of all the highlights of that inaugural voyage, none topped meeting Brent, a recovering drug addict in Kelowna, B.C. When faced with the Buried Lifers stock ice-breaking question “If you only had one day left to live, what would you do?” Brent talked about raising millions of dollars to build a ranch where street people could be safe. Barring that – the $5-million price tag was a little steep, after all – Brent said he had always wanted to buy food for people down at the local shelter and deliver it himself because, as a former street person, he remembered how special that kind of gesture made him feel.

“When we were talking to Brent, we found out that he was running a pair of businesses but both had gone into tailspins because his truck had conked out,” said Penn. “We decided right there to get him a truck.”

After making a number of calls to friends, family and local radio stations, the foursome walked into a used truck lot and explained their situation to the owner. The cheapest truck came with a $2,100 price tag but the Buried Lifers only had $480 to their collective name.

“Miraculously, he took the offer,” laughed Penn. “He told us a story of his daughter wanting to go to Thailand for a dream trip but how she couldn’t afford it until her friends chipped in to pay for it. He wanted to pay back that act of kindness – or pay it forward really.

“When we gave the truck to Brent, he was so excited we all got a bunch of pizzas and brought them to the shelter.”

Brent later posted a message on the Buried Life website (www.theburiedlife.com) thanking the guys for what they had done. “They have made my dream continue on a path, a path bound to help many people in many ways. … my truck is amazing, needs a little TLC but I promise you guys by the time you come back [it] will be purrin’ like a kitten…things have never been better, never been more happier in my life.”

Lives buried no more

Since that maiden voyage, the project, and its four cofounders, has grown by leaps and bounds. What was originally slated as a two-week adventure is now in its third year, the list has doubled to 100 items and the wobbly old RV has been replaced by a 1968 purple biodiesel city bus named Penelope, donated by the project’s official sponsor Levi Strauss. The group was also offered their own reality TV show by MTV but turned it  down in order to “do things the way we wanted to do them.”

Having logged some 11,000 kilometres through Canada and the U.S., Penn and his travel companions have sung the national anthem in front of 20,000 people at a sold-out NBA game (#35) (see page 1), slept in a haunted house (#45), learned to fly (#10) and snuck onto the red carpet of MTV’s Video Music Awards to ask celebrities “What do you want to do before you die?”

But before people harrumph that much of this sounds like glorified frat boy hijinx (#66, Camp at the Playboy Mansion, has yet to be fulfilled), remember that along the way they’ve also refurbished the apartment of a terminally ill man so that he could finally be comfortable in his own home; bought computers for a needy school in inner city Compton, CA; and fulfilled the wish of a mother of four in Idaho dying of ovarian cancer by taking sick kids on a shopping spree (#71) at Toys“R”Us “just so they could feel normal for a day.”

“We used to think that we shouldn’t go after our own list publicly,” said Penn. “Better just to help other people. But we’ve learned that it is important for people to recognize that helping yourself and helping others are not mutually exclusive propositions.

“We have lots of fun, but the process isn’t always easy [A case in point: Penn broke his thumb getting tossed from a mechanical bull in preparation for #8, Ride a Bull]. Just because you want something, doesn’t mean it will happen overnight. Sometimes you have to fight for it and fight for a long time.”

If anything, the seemingly always upbeat Penn has become even more of an optimist during the course of his adventures. “The one thing I’ve learned is that anything is possible,” he said. Going to space (#100) isn’t impossible for four young guys, just like becoming President isn’t impossible for a black man if he sets his mind to it.

“If we hold ourselves to a higher standard, we would see that democracy could be improved, human welfare could be improved – everything could be improved if we work together.

“The question becomes ‘what do we want to do as a civilization before we die?’ Our generation, our culture – what do we want to resolve or fix or commit to together?”