Jeff Keacher, a Minnesota Wild fan, was hiking with a friend through Denali National Park in Alaska in July when he encountered two bruins -- but not of the Boston variety. It was a mother bear and her cubs that Keacher saw while backpacking through the park.
"That was too close for comfort," said Keacher from his current stop in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday. "One of those situations, we came around this blind corner and we kind of surprised them. We were really, really close. We were just really lucky it turned out in a way that we can laugh about it.
"It's one of those things where it's great to see them up close, but I much prefer to see that from a distance."
It was another surreal moment for Keacher during his surreal quest: Attempting to play hockey in all 50 U.S. states and all 10 Canadian provinces during a six-month road trip.
The Minnesota native decided to learn to play hockey in 2004 after finishing graduate school because of what he calls his "birthright" as a citizen of the "State of Hockey."
In the spring of 2010, Keacher, 29, decided to embark on the road trip of all road trips with his car, a laptop, several cameras, backpacking gear, clothes and his smelly goalie equipment in a cargo box hitched to the back. It wasn't just a sightseeing expedition. His focus was hockey, and to travel around North America to experience the sport he loves in a unique way.
Six years later, Keacher began his initial planning phase, mapping out his course and, most importantly, beginning to save his money to fund the trip himself. A software engineer by trade, Keacher works on a contract basis and scheduled the trip around his final job that would give him the needed six months off to complete the journey. He walked away from a six-figure job to make his "Stopping in Every State / Pucks in Every Province" idea a reality.
But why now?
Well, for starters, Keacher is single, with no kids and no mortgage; that's why he wanted to complete the mission now, before the responsibilities of life tie him down and not allow him to get away for such a long period of time.
"If I don't make it happen, it won't happen," said Keacher.
Beginning from Fridley, Minn., in June, Keacher has already traveled about 18,000 miles in his 2011 Subaru Outback; visited 22 states and four provinces, and only racked up one speeding ticket. The trip will come full circle when he finishes up in Minnesota before the end of the year.
As he ventured on the trip, Keacher set three rules for himself: play as a goalie in every game, see one shot and make one save. Keacher plays strictly on ice and has found drop-in games at various hours of the night and morning. It doesn't matter if he has to be a substitute goalie or show up at a rink during open play hours and hope a team is need of a netminder, but being able to locate a game has been the hardest part.
"Finding pick-up games is tough," Keacher said. "Finding games that occur at the right times, in some of these remote locations, that may only have one or two rinks in the states has been quite the challenge to make the logistics work out."
At about the halfway mark of his trip, Keacher has settled into the rhythm of driving for a day and then finding a game the next day. That consistency has kept his mind fresh and despite the over 2,000 minutes of hockey played to date, his body hasn't been affected much.
As the 2011-12 NHL season begins next week, Keacher said he hasn't thought about how he'll be able to watch Wild games. To get his hockey fix, he plans to attend any minor league, junior or NHL games that might sync up with his schedule along his travels, but for now he'll settle with following things online.
There have been a few monkey wrenches along the way, of course. Like the time he hit a pothole in Northern British Columbia, damaging a tire and causing a bit of a delay as the repair shop tried to find the specific replacement. Or the worries over showing up at a rink and not being able to find a game to get into.
"As an engineer, I tend to see a problem and then figure out a way to solve it and execute on it," Keacher said.
"But on a trip like this you don't necessarily want everything to work out well. The stories on the trip become far more interesting when you've got something that went wrong, something that was unexpected and a challenge that presented itself out of the blue and you have to rise to the occasion and solve it. One of the unusual things about the trip is that I've kind of been trying to figure out a way to add more adventure to the trip; to make it less predictable in a way."
Keacher has been documenting his trip via his website with running stats on miles traveled, minutes of hockey played and what's become a staple of his travels, the number of cinnamon rolls he consumed (mostly on off-days, of course).
Keacher will move on to Ann Arbor, Mich., this week, while he still contemplates his biggest challenge of the trip: Finding a way to get to Hawaii.
"Initially, the plan was to play in every state, in every province, except for Hawaii," said Keacher. "Then someone pointed out 'You should really play in Hawaii, otherwise it's going to be every province and every state except Hawaii.' There was always going to be that asterisk there. I didn't want that. I thought, 'I'm doing this, why stop at 49? I might as well go to 50.'"
He hasn't mapped out his plan to get to Hawaii, but he's determined to find his way there at some point this fall.
Keacher expects his odyssey to end around December, and after that he doesn't know what he'll do next. There's the thought of going back to doing more software consulting; or, should he figure out a direction, he'd like to write a book detailing his experiences.
He's also using the trip to help make a personal decision. Each state and province he visits is what he considers an audition for his next place to live. Born and raised in Minnesota and having gotten his undergrad degree in Indiana and Masters at Stanford, Keacher is thinking about where he'll settle next.
After the year and a half of planning, and now entering the final stretch of the trip, Keacher has learned something about himself along the way.
"If I want to execute on something, I can and can do so without too many problems."