From One Long-Distance Cab Rider to Another

Three college friends are driving around the world in a London Black Cab they've named Hannah. But it's not the first time someone's taken a cab a surprisingly non-cab-like distance.

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Three college friends are driving around the world in a London Black Cab they've named Hannah. Paul Archer, Leigh Purnell, and Johno Ellison have journeyed from the UK to Finland to China to Iraq to Australia to Texas. Boats have been involved for parts of the journey. The other day, they were in New York's own Times Square, writes Angus Loten in the Wall Street Journal. When trying to pull a U-turn on Flatbush Ave. in Brooklyn, they were asked by a cop, "Where are you guys going?" to which they responded "Around the world." Cop quipped back, "Well, you keep on going!"

It's an epic journey to be sure, and one that captures the imagination -- the meter has been running the whole time and as of Monday was at $109,954. But it's not the first time someone's taken a cab for a surprisingly non-cab-like distance. In fact, the previous record for such a trek involved a 21,691-mile cab ride from London to Cape Town, South Africa, and back. Three guys did that in 1994, and it took them four months. Archer, Purnell, and Ellison have surpassed that record; they've been traveling 13 months, and have gone more than 32,000 miles. More recently, however, there was a cab trip from La Guardia Airport to Los Angeles -- and back to New York. John Belitsky and his friend Dan Wuebben convinced cab driver Mohammad Alam to take them on the 2,800-mile journey to L.A. for $5,000. Adventures and media attention ensued, and then promptly faded. We those guys have any advice for the newbies to the long-distance cab trip fold? And what's happened to them since? We spoke to John Belitsky, who orchestrated the trip back in April of last year, to find out.

How did you hear about the around-the-world cab trip? 
Everyone sent me the link, and I thought, that's awesome. I had a really good time on our trip. I thought, You guys are doing what I'd like to be doing right now. But there are some serious differences. They have sponsors; our trip was funded by money out of my pocket. Their story starts out a little bit like ours -- they thought of it in a pub, and decided to take a cab, but that's where it takes a detour, pun intended. We didn't buy a cab, we didn't get sponsors, and it was totally spontaneous without any real objective. I said I could get a cabbie to take me to L.A. from New York; my dad said I couldn't, and I said, I'm definitely doing it.

The other thing is, they're not using it as a cab, at this point -- there's no cab driver. In our case we had the cabbie and the thing that was great was that you're only supposed to go a finite distance, and we made it absurd, carrying it out beyond where it should go. You get to Iowa and you're in a gas station and people are taking pictures of you, saying, "I've never seen a cab."

Do you think the sponsorship angle ruins the joy or spontaneity of it?
These guys were buddies and it seems like they put some resources together. This is a well-funded operation. I hope that they can still enjoy the freedom of it without the restriction that comes with capital. Figuring out how to do what you want to do with the resources you have is part of the fun. I hope they can do the spontaneous stupid stuff Dan and I got to do.

Like what?
I love the movie No Country for Old Men, and we were driving down the road and Dan found that the motel from the movie was 20 minutes away from us, so we checked in. The inn keeper was whacked out on meth and kept telling me he was Iranian, then screamed 9-11 at me (recorded on film) before offering to tour me through the actual room used for the film. The town this motel is in was totally bizarre. I'd tell these guys: Use the road, use the freedom. Be completely wanton about it. If they're not doing that, I'm sad for them.

The most remarkable thing that happened was we stopped at the begining of Route 66, and Dan got out and bought this little cannon attached to a pencil sharpener (pictured at right) -- he knows I write a lot and is always pushing me to write more. He gets it, puts it on the top of the cab, and we drive off on Route 66. After 20 minutes, he's like, "Shit! I left that on the roof of the cab!" We were going 60 miles an hour...All of a sudden I hear a thump -- the pencil sharpener slid off the roof and lodged on the back windshield wiper. It was this miraculous act of God.

Does reminiscing make you wish you were still on the road?
I would do it again in a heartbeat. After the trip to L.A., Dan and I were in London and met this cab driver Paul, we tried to convince him to take us to South Africa. We almost had him.

Has anything come out of the trip in terms of things you've gotten, or crazy things you've gotten to do? 
Delta called and said, We think what you did is cool, we'd love to fly you to L.A. first class. Also, when we got back, Alam, his community gave him a heroes welcome. They organized this very complicated dinner at this place in Jackson Heights. They gave him a plaque, and me and Dan a plaque, and local politicians came out. I think that was more a story than the trip!

Any book or movie deals? Seems ripe for it...
We had a handful of meetings in L.A. We did the George Lopez Show, and that was fun. We met with some people in Hollywood, talking about trying to do something. It all seemed kind of cheesy. We still don't know what the hell we did or what to do with it. Maybe there could be a show based on it -- they were talking about some kind of No Reservations-type thing. But it was difficult to imagine. I have a life and career. Part of me is like, maybe I should do something with it. But the ride itself got so much attention, it made a lot of peple really happy. Maybe that's enough.

Why do you think this sort of thing resonates so much with people?
Life is really boring. We live cookie cutter lives and do the same nonsense over and over again. Sometimes you just want to feel free. People used to go out and discover things, discover the new world. Now it's like, I can go online right now and see Johannesburg. You sit in your living room, that's your life. The idea of being able to explore, and do it with a buddy -- I think that resonates.

You've reached out to Archer and his friends on Twitter about possibly meeting up; did they get back to you?
They haven't responded, that's bullshit. There's ethics to this shit! When the OG Cab Cat reaches out to you on Twitter, you're supposed to respond.

The OG Cab Cat! You weren't the first person to do this, were you? 
People had done similar things, but I think everyone before us did it for a reason. Some people took a cab from the Upper East Side to Arizona, but they did that because they had to take their cat there. I don't know any stories of people who just wanted to get a cabbie to take them as far as they could get with no objective.

I remember talking to you about this last year -- it wasn't all fun and games when we spoke, when you were about halfway to L.A...
It got really dicey on the road with Alam at certain points, he was so tired, and we were like, Dude, you can't go back by yourself. We'd been planning to fly back once we got to L.A. but we said, we started this, we'll finish it. We're happy we did it. We got caught in a snowstorm in the Rockies coming back. Alam had never driven in those conditions. We had our publicist reach out to Ford (we were driving a Ford Escape), and they brought us in to tour the factory in Detroit -- but we made it a condition that they'd fly us back to New York and trailer the car back, and they did.

Photos courtesy John Belitsky.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.