In early 2014, Harvard freshmen Kunho Kim and Brad Riew threw a giant map of the United States down on the floor and started circling cities. The epic road trip they had been discussing since they met on a ramp outside their dorm before their freshman year started to take shape before their eyes. Initially, Kunho, a wheelchair user whose major is undecided, and Brad, a writing major, planned to hit all 50 states, stopping in major cities along the way to catalog accessible highlights and lowlights for a travel guide they would later publish.
They quickly realized that such a trip would take a wee bit longer than their college summer afforded them, while also requiring a budget well beyond the means of two college freshmen. Undeterred, they scaled their vision and route down, settling on a still-ambitious 19 states and 20 cities in 50 days. Even then, they knew they would need more hands on deck to gather the data they wanted for the book, so they enlisted two more friends — Cynthia Cheung, a UK-native with a passion for traveling, and You-Myeong Kim, a fellow freshman from New York — and got to fundraising.
Over the next few months the foursome hammered out the logistics, ran a crowdfunding campaign and sought out sponsors. Finally ready, they arrived in San Francisco in July to start their adventure, only to find the van they had rented had no hand controls. That was the first unexpected speed bump, but certainly not the last on a journey that would cover thousands of miles, more than a handful of access dilemmas and a number of hair styles, not to mention a once in a lifetime view of all the beauty America has to offer.
Discovering the Need
As a child growing up in South Korea and Vietnam, whenever Kunho Kim thought about America, his mind filled with images of empty roads. America was a vast unknown, a place to explore — a place Kunho, an avid traveler, yearned to discover. He finally got that chance when he spent a year in Montana as an exchange student during high school. But his perspective and his opportunity to explore were upended by a skiing accident that left him a paraplegic.
Kunho spent the next three years in Vietnam and South Korea, developing an appreciation for accessibility. “Many of the buildings did not have ramps or elevators,” he says. “When I spent a year in my home country, South Korea, it was a little bit better than Vietnam, but it was significantly challenging to move around. Many times, I could not find a bathroom that was accessible.”
From his time in America prior to his accident, Kunho remembered seeing more people in wheelchairs out and about and more accessible amenities like ramps and curb cuts. The prospect of going to college in a more wheelchair-friendly environment excited him. But upon arriving at Harvard, he was disappointed with how difficult it was to find up-to-date, reliable information about accessibility.
He decided to channel his disappointment into a travel guide that would have the information about restaurants, hotels and destinations he had sought unsuccessfully. In Brad, Kunho discovered the perfect trip mate and friend. Brad is an enthusiastic photographer who is on the board of the Harvard College Writers Workshop. More importantly the two shared a dream. “I told him that I want to do a road trip before I graduate and Brad said that was also his dream, too. That was how the snowball started rolling on and on,” says Kunho.
Over a number of long nights in the library, Kunho and Brad divided the trip into four sections and assigned each one to a member of their group. For that part of the trip, the chosen individual would be the “Supreme Master,” responsible for choosing what to see and do. They figured the trip would cost around $15,000. They launched a crowdfunding campaign with a compelling stop-motion video of Kunho sitting in front of the Harvard Square T stop while hundreds of people passed by him. That propelled their crowdfunding campaign to raise over $6,000. Coupled with a grant from the Christopher Reeve Foundation, that was enough to cover the rest of the bill. They also worked the phones and email to find sponsors, using an elaborate database to track who they called, who they had heard back from and what else needed to be done. All they could do was wait for July.
On the Road
First stop, San Francisco. Kunho and Cynthia arrived first on July 7 and Brad and You-Myeong three days later. Once assembled, the group spent two days soaking up the sun and testing its plan to divide and conquer accessible attractions. Fresh with enthusiasm and energy, the team pushed through and over San Francisco’s notorious hills to check out Chinatown, Golden Gate Bridge and Twin Peaks. Kunho had his first experience getting stuck in sand at the beach, and the group overcame the trip’s first obstacle: a rental van with no hand controls. “It turned out to work in our favor,” says Kunho, “as we got a better, bigger car.”
With one city down, Brad and You-Myeong devised the group’s first “Tetris-like” schematic to pack all of the gear into the van, and they hit the road. Los Angeles loomed as the next “official” city, but that didn’t stop the team from checking out the University of California’s Berkeley campus and camping out under the stars in Yosemite.
Fueled by fire-roasted chicken and s’mores, the team drove on to Los Angeles for one of the most-event packed stops of the trip. Even with visits to Hollywood, Universal Studios, the Getty Museum, the Griffith Observatory and the Santa Monica Pier, the group found time to discuss accessibility with Asians and Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California and UCLA’s Office for Students with Disabilities. The jam-packed schedules and how much the group chronicled would evolve over the course of the trip. “We originally had this idea that that we would include a lot more fancy restaurants and other things,” says Kunho. “That proved a little beyond our reach, and then we sort of reassessed what we were capable of doing on the rest of the trip and ended up saying ‘OK, you know what, we’re just going to limit ourselves to the sight-seeing attractions because that’s really important, and that’s what we have the manpower to do.’”
Brad added that going to the same sorts of venues day after day had a way of getting repetitive. “At some point, we had gone to like 20 different museums and for us, every painting and every sculpture in the museum looked the same.”
Las Vegas brought all the spectacle and flash it is known for, but will likely be remembered as the site of the first evolution of Kunho’s hair. “I had always wanted to try different colors and I was curious about what would happen if I bleached my hair,” he says. “It was a trip that I would have once in my lifetime, so I just wanted to do every single thing that I wanted to do.”
“We bought some bleach in Vegas that was supposed to turn his hair white, but when you put it in, it just turned red,” says Brad. Another bleaching later on gave Kunho a dirty orange look. Before he ever got the white hair he’d been shooting for, he decided to shave his head. “I’d always wanted to try having a bald head, but my Buddhist parents never allowed me,” says Kunho.
Heading east, the team soaked up some of the country’s natural beauty at the Grand Canyon and Canyonlands National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park. “One of my favorite memories is when we were trying to catch a sunset at the Grand Canyon,” says Brad. “We were driving as fast as the speed limit would allow along a two-lane highway as the light faded. We finally arrived at the viewing post just after the sun had set, when there was still a faint ribbon of light where the sun had passed the horizon. The canyon was long and blue and dark, and we sat and watched and thought and took photographs.”
In Denver the group swapped out its Yukon XL for a Ford Expedition and began cutting across America’s heartland, stopping in Kansas City and St. Louis before heading north to Chicago and Detroit. After dealing with multiple hotel rooms with disappointing accessibility problems, everyone was glad to spend two relaxing days in Brad’s hometown of St. Louis. The Arch wasn’t accessible, but a delicious float at Fitz’s and some downtime playing video games helped reenergize everyone.
Trying all the regional cuisines proved to be one of the highlights of the trip. Chinese and Japanese food in San Francisco, hot dogs in Chicago, BBQ in Kansas City and “death sauce” wings in Buffalo were but a few of the classics they found time for.
A quick check-in at Niagara Falls started a busy final two weeks wherein the team visited Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia before finally landing back home. By the time they got to Pittsburgh, Kunho was feeling the effects of the nonstop schedule. In addition to long days of sightseeing, Kunho and Cheung had been doing all the driving because Brad and You-Myeong weren’t old enough. Still, Kunho rebounded by the time they arrived in D.C. and took part in the group’s last frantic scramble to see all the sights and check out accessibility.
Exhausted but excited, the group finally wrapped up its adventure in Boston on Aug. 24, 46 days after Kunho first arrived in San Francisco. Considering that Brad and Cynthia had never met, and Brad and You-Myeong had only met once, it is somewhat remarkable that they survived so well for so long in such a small space. “I think we all came away with some really strong friendships, and I thought that was really something special,” says Brad.
Seeing the Possibilities
Over the course of the seven weeks, the group encountered its share of obstacles, including a ruined bumper, an eight-hour ordeal to find a lost set of keys and a number of hotels that didn’t come through with the accessible rooms they had guaranteed. They always persevered and learned the best way to book rooms and handle other access problems. “I had never really had experience to look at a building with an accessibility mindset and just go into a building and be like, let’s look for the elevator. It was very easy and it was something that I hadn’t ever really thought about it,” says Brad.
After growing accustomed to Boston’s cobblestone streets and colonial-era construction, Kunho found the West Coast and, pretty much everywhere other than Boston, to be far more accessible. “I was surprised at the level of accessibility,” he says, “but at the same time there was a lot of room for improvement.” In addition to the problems with hotel reservations, Kunho pointed out clear signage at museums and other public places as one of the areas most lacking.
As the group approaches the one-year anniversary of their adventure, they are hard at work on finishing up their sophomore year and the travel guide. Besides bringing all four travelers closer together, the trip also inspired Brad and Kunho to get more involved in access issues. “I’m personally thinking about raising awareness of accessibility at Harvard because apparently only two of the 12 houses that people live in are accessible,” says Kunho. “It’s an issue that needs to be addressed. Brad and I are brainstorming about talking to deans or people over here about trying to change the architecture of the facility so that it’s more inclusive for disabled people.”
The trip did more than change Brad and Kunho’s attitudes about access. “It really expanded my idea of what’s possible for me to do, what’s possible for people to do,” says Brad. “When we first had the idea of a cross country road trip, it was like a dream — but to see that become real and to see that actually happen, it was really special.”
Kunho and Brad saw their share of museums, tourist attractions and restaurants, and more than their share of good and bad examples of accessibility. Here are some of their favorites from the trip:
Best Museum: The Getty in Los Angeles
“They were really mindful of people in wheelchairs,” says Kunho. “All the tables were adjustable height and they told me they specifically thought about that and changed the structure of the tables.”
“There’s a balcony and a wall overlooking the city and there’s this one place that jutted out just a little bit from the wall with just a railing instead of a wall so that wheelchair users could also see the spectacular view,” adds Brad.
“I really liked the barbecue at Gates BBQ in Kansas City,” says Kunho.
“I would probably say the “death sauce” Buffalo wings we had at Duff’s Famous Wings in Buffalo,” says Brad.
Best Destination: The Grand Canyon
“Some of the greatest places the country has to offer are its natural beauty, and our personal favorite locations were probably the national parks,” says Brad.