Kyle MacDonald had a red paper clip and a dream: Could he use the community power of the Internet to barter that paper clip for something better, and trade that thing for something else — and so on and so on until he had a house?
After a cross-continental trading trek involving a fish-shaped pen, a town named Yahk and the Web's astonishing ability to bestow celebrity, MacDonald is getting close. He's up to one year's free rent on a house in Phoenix.
Not a bad return on an investment of one red paper clip. Yet MacDonald, 26, vows to keep going until he crosses the threshold of his very own home, wherever that might be.
"It's totally overwhelming, I'm not going to lie," he said by phone from Montreal, where he and his girlfriend, Dominique Dupuis, live with two roommates. "But I'm still trading for that house. It's this obsessive thing."
The story begins last July.
MacDonald had spent years backpacking, delivering pizzas and working other part-time jobs, suiting his jack-of-all-trades, restless nature. He paid his $300 share of the rent by occasionally promoting products at trade shows.
But he yearned for one piece of settled-down adulthood: a house, which he knew he could not afford.
It's clear, however, that MacDonald has a knack for promotion. Asked what he had talked up at all those trade shows, MacDonald slipped right into his spiel for the employer, TableShox.com. "You ever sat at a wobbly table at a restaurant?" he said.
Beyond a gift for advertising table stabilizers, he's a geography buff, keeps a blog and writes short stories. Random interactions with strangers and the rich kitsch of North Americana provide his favorite material.
Put it all together, and you have the outline of MacDonald's quest.
He advertised it in the barter section of Craigslist.org, the Web site teeming with city-specific listings for everything from job openings to apartment rentals. At first, MacDonald said merely that he wanted something bigger or better for his red paper clip. No mention of a house — he feared seeming flaky.
While he was visiting his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia, two women gave him a fish-shaped pen for the paper clip.
Later that day, MacDonald headed to Seattle to catch a ballgame and a flight home. Before the airport, though, he stopped to see Annie Robbins, an artist who had just stumbled upon the Craigslist barter section. She admired its anti-consumerist vibe, she said, so she answered MacDonald's posting "on a lark."
MacDonald left her home the proud owner of a small ceramic doorknob with a smiley face, made by the son of an artist Robbins knows.
Next up was Shawn Sparks, who was packing up to move from Amherst, Mass., to Alexandria, Va. Sparks, 35, is a huge fan of Craigslist barters, having acquired his 1993 Chevy Blazer in a trade for a used laptop.
Sparks offered MacDonald a Coleman camping stove. Sparks had two, and didn't want to lug both on his move. And he needed a new knob for his espresso machine.
Done. The men celebrated with a barbecue at Sparks' house.
MacDonald gave the camping stove to a Marine sergeant at Camp Pendleton, Calif., getting a generator in return.
East again. MacDonald swapped the generator for an "instant party package" — an empty beer keg, a neon Budweiser sign and a promise to fill the keg — proffered by a young man in Queens, New York City.
Before the trade, MacDonald left the generator in storage in his hotel. When he went to claim it, he was told it had been confiscated by the fire department because it was leaking gas.
"If there was ever a movie based on all that, that would be the closest to losing it all," he said, recalling his anguish.
But more on movies later.
MacDonald reclaimed the generator by tracking it to a firehouse in lower Manhattan, where he got a Tootsie Pop from the crew and petted their Dalmatian.
The beer package went to a Montreal disc jockey, in exchange for a snowmobile.
Here's where the project's grassroots purity may have gotten compromised. MacDonald's blog was attracting attention, and MacDonald was invited onto Canadian television. Our wandering man was asked if there was anywhere he wouldn't go to trade the snowmobile.
An obscure place came to mind, so he spit it out: Yahk, a hamlet in the Canadian Rockies.
Some publicity-seeking ensued. A snowmobiling magazine offered an expense-paid trip to Yahk in exchange for the snowmobile. The trip went to Bruno Taillefer, Quebec manager for the supply company Cintas Corp. He got headquarters to let him give MacDonald a 1995 Cintas van that he had been planning to sell.
MacDonald gave the van — stripped of Cintas logos — to a musician seeking to haul gear. In turn, the musician, who works at a Toronto recording studio, arranged a recording contract, with studio time and a promise to pitch the finished product to music executives.
MacDonald handed the contract to Jody Gnant, a singer in Phoenix who owns a duplex.
And that is how Kyle MacDonald has turned a paper clip into a year of shelter in the desert.
Where it goes now, who knows. He says he has offers from Hollywood studios to turn his story into a film.
But he pledges not to accept gifts or overly lopsided trades that would undermine the peer-to-peer joy that he says has animated his journey. Asked what he has learned from all this, he responded:
"If you say you're going to do something and you start to do it, and people enjoy it or respect it or are entertained by it, people will step up and help you."