Sometimes the best way to get to know a senator is to skip over the angry politics of the day, particularly on a spontaneous 10-hour road trip through the Northeast.
That’s what four strangers discovered Thursday when, after being stranded at Reagan National Airport, they decided to rent a car to drive overnight to Maine.
Then they saw a familiar face. “Hey senator, want to drive to Maine with us?” Tim Schneider asked.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) paused for a few seconds, realizing his backup flight was already delayed until after midnight. “Great, let’s go,” King told the group.
He had met Schneider only a couple of times, not having seen the former state official in several years. The rest were Mainers he knew nothing about.
For King it was more than just a ride home, but also a chance to learn about his constituents. “My life in Maine is very different than here. Yesterday I was at Lowe’s, my life is a rolling focus group,” King said in a Monday evening interview. “Approachable is a positive quality for a politician, that’s how you learn stuff.”
Before the takeoff, which had been scheduled for 5 p.m., other passengers were delighted to see King appear, happy to know that U.S. senators also had to endure the “gate of doom,” as Schneider dubbed the airport’s infamous Gate 35X.
After a few selfies, King and everyone piled onto the shuttle to go across the tarmac, only to spend an hour on the plane before they were back in the airport after their flight was canceled.
As a group huddled around the customer service desk, Matt Dusoe, a Microsoft engineer, informed a few people he could rent a minivan if people were willing to take turns driving.
After adding King to their coalition, the five new friends packed into a minivan and set off after Washington’s rush hour. They hit a rest stop just past dusk in northern Maryland to load up on candy bars and chips, raced through Connecticut after midnight with nothing else but 18-wheelers on I-95, finishing in the early dawn Friday morning as they rolled into Maine.
Along the way they discussed their lives — one was missing a child’s birthday, another racing home for a relative’s lacrosse game, two discovered they were missing the same concert in Portland that night — and their backgrounds.
There was a software engineer, a cybersecurity engineer, a nuclear nonproliferation expert, an energy consultant and a 75-year-old senator making what he believed was his first overnight road trip in 50 years.
Rebecca Davis Gibbons, the nuclear expert who is a fellow at Harvard University, likened the experience to “The Breakfast Club,” the 1985 film in which five very different students from the same high school get sentenced to Saturday detention and eventually learn how much they have in common.
Some of King’s aides learned about the adventure from his Instagram account, which chronicled the journey, as he regularly does, with long, thoughtful and prosaic posts.
The closest the group came to a fight was over music selections when they shoved off from National Airport. Then, King said. “The music got turned way down because it was all conversation.”
Schneider, who went to Harvard University at the same time as South Bend, Ind., Mayor Peter Buttigieg, got a few questions about the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. Otherwise, they just skipped politics, and no one seems to recall whether President Trump’s name was ever mentioned.
“I couldn’t tell you reliably how anyone in that car voted,” Schneider said in an interview Monday night.
He was once a registered independent who was appointed the state’s public advocate for utility customers by Paul LePage, the deeply conservative GOP governor. Schneider had a falling out with LePage, who left office in January, and is now a registered Democrat.
The senator, a member of the Intelligence Committee, talked to Gibbons about her pending book on nuclear nonproliferation. He peppered Dusoe with questions about how he went from the Marine Corps to computer engineer.
“Self-taught,” Dusoe replied.
King grew fascinated by Ramon Krikken’s life in Windham, Maine, where he works remotely as a technology security expert. The senator wants to promote Maine as a destination for digital nomads but first needs Congress to fund more rural broadband.
Farther up I-95, as dusk turned to deep into the night, conversations grew more personal. Two of them traded stories about the deaths of a parent. One explained to another how his family adopted a child.
Gibbons, 38, who volunteered as a teenager on King’s gubernatorial campaigns in the 1990s, learned that her children go to the same schools as his grandchildren.
After a 2 a.m. Dunkin visit, King felt ready to take the last shift, feeling like he wanted to be at the wheel as he led his new friends across the state line. Just north of Boston, about 3 a.m. Friday, King took over.
“I thought, am I going to be too tired? But I was fine, I was wide-awake,” he said.
They crossed into Maine at 4 a.m., arriving at Portland International Airport about 5 a.m., to drop three of them off where they had cars waiting.
Two of them pushed on in the minivan, and by 6 a.m., King was home in Brunswick, falling fast asleep an hour later.
By Tuesday afternoon, more than 3,200 people liked King’s Instagram post, drawing 200 comments, his most popular social media experiment ever.
“They liked that their senator was doing stuff that isn’t senatorial. That was what people seemed to enjoy, that I was willing to be spontaneous and not have an entourage,” King said.
Gibbons said her mother said the same thing, reflecting about today’s politics.
“People just have a hankering for feel-good stories,” she told her daughter.